Sunday, December 18, 2011

Are you really cut out to be a writer? Some common symptoms

Ever encountered a would-be writer that was plainly not cut out to be a writer? There are the ones who've seen a report on TV about the advances paid to a top best-selling author and decide writing is easy money since you do it sitting down, and so they sit down at the keyboard and bang out something for those fools with nothing better to do with their time but read books.

There are also those who don't have the unrealistic money motive, but who think being an author would raise their status, or make them cool, or whatever. Some of these even read books, if only Harlequin romances. But what they write tends to sound like a rehash of their latest fight with their boyfriend or boss. Or else it's something that sounds like pre-teen fan fiction all about getting Harry Potter or Captain Kirk to notice a character who is suspiciously like the author.

Sometimes I think Nanowrimo brings these hopeless non-writers out of the woodwork. The premise of Nano is that anyone can write a novel. The truth is that while most people can bat out enough words or attempted words to meet the word count goal, the result may not be recognizable as a novel. And even if it turns out to be recognizably novel-ish, it may not be anything that another human being would ever care to read.

This brings out some real fears in those of us who dream of being real writers--- even those who've met with some success. It's not that these attempted writers are clogging up the publishers' slush piles or flooding the self-publishing market. It's the fear 'What if I'm one of them? What if I am in denial about the quality of my writing? What if everyone who's said something nice about my work just pities me?'

How can you tell if you are a writer-with-potential rather than a hopeless non-writer? Here are a list of symptoms that can help distinguish the real-writer from the writing-attempting non-writer:

Symptom 1: Lifelong history of making up stories One of my childhood memories involves watching a favorite television program in the afternoon--- Star Trek, Dark Shadows, Batman, Hogan's Heroes--- and then going out of the house, taking a walk, and making up stories based on the television show I'd just watched. I made up stories in my head all the time. Sometimes my real-life environment showed up in the stories, sometimes it didn't. Sometimes I did mash-ups--- a number of Star Trek characters were thrown back into time to visit Stalag 13, the prisoner-of-war camp in Hogan's Heroes. This mental fiction didn't always follow the rules for story-telling--- I'd jump around from interesting bit to interesting bit, go backwards in the story, or replay the best bits endlessly. And it was heavy on non-original characters from television or books. But it was a seed for the more original stories I make up as an adult. (My current head-story involves fighting zombies in Mexico.)

Symptom 2: Compulsive reading If you have nothing else handy to read in the morning, do you read breakfast cereal boxes? Bookcase assembly instructions from an already assembled bookcase? A 2006 goat artificial insemination catalog? The fact is, people with the potential to be writers read, all the time. They read more than one category of book, and when nothing better is available they read whatever is to hand. If you have a history of compulsive reading dating back to childhood, if you read a great deal to this day, that's a sign of writing potential.

Sympton 3: Language awareness You don't have to have had top marks in English grammar class to be a writer. But writers do have or develop language awareness--- an interest in words, their meanings and spelling, their use in comprehensible English sentences.... When you were in grade school, did you ever read the dictionary for fun? Did you ever learn to spell interesting words that weren't going to be on any test? And today, what happens when you encounter an unfamiliar word in your reading? Are you able to cope, or do you put the book down. Not all writers are the kind of people who win spelling bees and know how to diagram sentences with confidence. But the writer's tool kit is full of words and grammar and spelling patterns. If you don't know the tools, aren't interested in them, and aren't willing to learn about them, you won't be able to function as a writer.

Symptom 4: Detachment If you were popular in high school and part of the social whirl, you probably didn't observe things very well. You were too much a part of things to be objective about them. Someone who wasn't so popular, who was often an observer rather than a participant, could probably tell you a lot of things about that part of your life that you were too busy to notice. Observation is an essential skill for a writer, and accurate observation requires you to be a bit detached from the subject. This doesn't mean you have to be a lifelong social outcast (though it helps). You just have to be able to not always be at the center of things, the focus of everyone's attention.

So--- how many symptoms do YOU have? Are there any symptoms that ought to have made the list but didn't?


Matthew Celestis said...

I don't think I'm a proper writer. I just like writing fan fiction for fun. I do find it very enjoyable though.

PaperSmyth said...

Your list of probable characteristics for writers is very thorough, but in my opinion it is missing one.

"Passion" or what some people call "courage" is important and is not mentioned. If you are not determined, you may find yourself unable stand up for what you write and write about what you stand up for. Your odds of turning out something anyone wishes to read and interact with are rather slim.

This is not to be confused with pride in what you write. Pride is not a good substitute for passion.

Again, this is a very good list and I wish I had more of number 3's mentioned "spelling skills". They would make expressing what I want a lot easier.

nissa_loves_cats said...

Good point, PaperSmyth.

Krysti said...

It's possible to have a compulsion to write without writing anything worth publishing, but the writers who become published do seem to have a compulsion to write.

They also have the discipline to edit what they write, and the teachability to listen when others who critique their work tell them where it needs improvement.

Good post, Lina! I really enjoyed it. But I was the despair of my English or Language teachers all through school, although I did get high marks all around on my college entrance exams, so the fact that I totally begrudged having to write for them probably wasn't indicative of a lack of skill...

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