On Being a Writer
by David Edward Wagner
The Reality of Being a Writer
The aim of this blog entry is to give a bit of friendly advice and insight into the mindset and processes of the professional (or honestly, even the non-professional or the trying-to be-professional) writer.
The simple question, what is a writer is simply answered, “A writer is one who writes.” The similar question, what does a writer do, is similarly answered, “A writer writes.” But, alas, as we all know, things are seldom if ever so simple.
So, with this in mind, I will answer the question as thoroughly and straightforward as I can.
In reality, the simple question, what is a writer, is properly answered, “A writer is one who plans and creates through the methods of thought and writing.” And the question, what does a writer do, is accurately answered, “A writer plans, writes and edits.” It is this second question that I will focus on (as the first question is embedded within it).
A Writer needs time
While simply writing is surely the foundation and prime aspect of a writer’s life and career, it is not the only thing he or she must do and it is, in the end, only of shared importance with the tasks of planning and editing one’s work.
In my own life, I have struggled, sacrificed and fought to keep ahold of the one thing most important to the writing process: Time. That is your most valuable asset and tool as a writer.
All of the imagination, all of the great ideas, all of the valuable connections or amazing insights you have do not mean a thing if you cannot carve out and maintain the long hours necessary to bring your thoughts from intangible mind to the actuality of words and paper (or sure, digital document).
This is a simple truth: a writer needs time.
Perhaps the most important question then becomes: how do I use this time I have? Maybe even better, you could ask how do I use this time wisely and efficiently? This is the best question because writers in general (and I am a great example) are known to be some of the world’s most triumphant wasters of time, pissing away the hours with flights of fancy or organizing their bookshelves or cleaning their fingernails or… doing anything but writing.
So, do not despair, this is another thing I have at last learned and become comfortable with. A writer, if truly a writer, never truly wastes a second. They are merely fulfilling one of the three aspects of their writerly labor. Perhaps it is best if I just dive into those three aspects and explain each one as fully as I can.
To begin, let’s talk about planning, as it is the most vague and easily misunderstood.
A Writer Plans At All Times
While writing and editing are rather straightforward in their explanations, the various types and levels of planning a writer needs to do in order to be successful are a bit more complicated.
To begin, writers need to plan their time properly. Loose but self-regulated weekly schedules are used to keep projects properly juggled and moving forward, with flexible (unless otherwise noted) long-term deadlines for the completion of individual works spread out over the coming months.
Even more, basic daily schedules are necessary for carving out the space to give each current project its due and proper focus at specific times.
If you want to support yourself with your writing, the odds are great that you will be working on and needing to finish more than one project at any time until it is necessary to focus on completing one, and you need to remind your artistic self that generally, when people want to support themselves or their family, they have to get a job. It’s the modern world still, and you can’t pay the landlord or bank with good intentions.
That means you have to get comfortable with the fact that your art is a job and you have to treat it with the same mindset you have when working for wages at the great time-sucking company of your choice. You are a business, your mind and your personal effort, and you have to show up at your job regularly and do your work efficiently and with inspiration.
My own example that has truly changed my life and my relationship with my own creative process is as follows: I plan my week day by day, working on one project in the morning until lunch, (sometimes at noon, sometimes at 2pm, sometimes at four pm, depending on my outside responsibilities and level of inspiration). I eat and then switch gears, working on another project for a few hours, always less than the earlier project. Then, I will generally be burned out after four to eight hours of writing, writing, writing. I take a break and spend the final hour or so of my workday on non-creative projects I call ‘busy work:’ updating websites, formatting completed manuscripts, researching online, submitting completed work to magazines, contests, publishers and agents. Then I go to my job or cook dinner for my wife and me, depending on the day.
I want to turn my passion into a suitable career and so I treat it like a full time job, giving 30-50 hours a week towards directly working on my ‘product.’ Part time opportunities are also available.
But beyond that, you have to plan the work itself. Trace story arcs, plot points, major events. You have to develop compelling characters and keep timelines straight and make sure everything is coherent and cohesive.
This takes pages of notes, sometimes charts, as well as research in books and on the Internet.
And between the time to work and the work itself, you have to plan the projects in general, keep a running list of the story and time worthy ideas you come up with at random times, crossing them out with each precious ‘The End.’ The more ideas the merrier and as the movie says, “If you build it they will come.” Keep adding to your work, everything you can, different mediums and styles, different genres and formats, just keep writing and stretch your limits and virtuosity.
For you non-writers reading this blog entry, or even to you writers reading it, in your defense, I can honestly say that a writer is always planning, always working mentally on that one part, that one character flaw or upcoming cool moment when you can’t quite get your story from here to there in a logical way and you know you can if you can just think of that one missing piece, that one crucial decision…
The most intangible parts of planning for a writer are those seemingly blank and lazy times when you are sitting doing nothing to the outside observer, when you feel scattered and lost in your own house or neighborhood while your brain works through some idea. To the outside world it looks like you are idle, spacing out and being weird again, but do not fear, you are working. You are wracking your brain and doing real, honest, roll-up-your-sleeves creative work. Simply because it is abstract does not mean that it is intangible; concrete results come only from such mental endeavors.
Planning is an important part of writing and the writer’s life, and it should be remembered and taken seriously.
Writers write as much as they possibly can
As I mentioned, the idea that writers write and edit their work is a pretty straightforward and logical notion. With this in mind, I will keep the rest of this blog entry mercifully short.
Here I will just say that you have to write, write, write. Just get it out, don’t loose your momentum on a project just because that transition from act one into act two doesn’t quite work and doesn’t really make sense. Just power through, keep moving, make a few notes where it feels choppy or poorly paced and just get to the end. Write it all out and type ‘the end.’ Get it completed in any fashion you can. This is the first draft, it’s not supposed to be perfect, just finished.
This first draft is simply carving the rough shape from the blank white marble of page and mind. You’ll never know where you’re going if you don’t arrive there in some shape. Don’t forget, you have time and you have your third necessary responsibility in your life as a writer: editing.
Writers edit like their lives depend on it.
The title of this section pretty well sums up the truth of editing. You edit like you life depends on it because it does. If you want to support yourself by writing, you have to be willing to tear your work apart, killing your favorite line or paragraph for the sake of the whole, change and retool everything and anything that suddenly makes you realize you are reading something and not experiencing something.
You have to condition yourself to step outside of your own creative ego and wear the separate hat of an objective, non-partial editor. And then when that first draft is more presentable, you need to send it to at least one second pair of eyes, get their feedback and typo findings, and decide what insights you will apply to your further drafts.
Do this at each stage until the final draft, but be aware that everybody you are sending drafts to also have lives and time issues, and may not want to or be able to read four drafts of the same novel. So widen your pool of friendly and interested eyes for your own sake.
I generally begin each daily session by re-reading the previous few pages and editing and note-taking as I go, sliding gently into the flow of the days work as I near the end of what I wrote yesterday. Then it is only forward towards the ever-shortening distance between here and the end.
Editing is vital and the true work of successful writers. It is also the most nerve-wracking and difficult part. But do it. Love it. Know that it is the difference between great writing and plain old everyday schlock. Do it with pride and patience.
Get to work. And have a good day.