Conversations with Writers on Writing
edited: Monday, November 15, 2010
By Jerry D Simmons
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Monday, November 15, 2010
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What bestselling authors have to say about their craft.
What Writing Is All About
Writing may be the single most difficult endeavor I have ever encountered. My first book took eighteen months to complete. Sitting down at a computer with the goal of providing the reader important information, and still creating something that can be learned from, and enjoy, is extremely difficult. Having struggled through reports, essays and other small writing requirements in college, I always had great respect for people with the seemingly natural ability to write. And after attempting it on a much grander scale myself, that respect and admiration has soared.
After spending over twenty years working for two of the largest publishers in the US, and having the opportunity to spend countless hours with many writers and authors, which I’ve come to believe over the years that there is a difference between being the two, I tried to always ask the question that interested me most: How do you write? Sometimes the answers surprised me, other times they amazed me, but always the information was unique to the writer. It seemed that each had found a way to write based on how it fit their schedule and how it worked best for them. While there were no universal rules, there was one characteristic that ran through all writers, and that was the belief that writers learn to write by writing.
Writers are an amazing group of people, and during all my time spent with them, I was always fascinated to find out how they got started, how they worked, how they wrote, and where they drew their inspiration. In many ways, I found each writer different, yet similar. The one thing that became very clear was that when they started writing, few had the innate ability to write well. They certainly had skills, but those skills had to be developed and fine tuned, and the only real way to accomplish that was to write.
Some attended a variety of seminars to learn how to improve their writing. Others took classes in colleges and universities, while others were English or Literature majors. Many did not intend to make writing a career. What was a hobby that turned into a sideline eventually became an obsession. Most had a talent for words and stories and loved putting both down on paper. Writers learned to write by finding the way that worked for them. Hours of the day did not matter, lack of sleep meant nothing, and demands of being a spouse, brother, sister or parent were secondary to the one thing they loved the most. Writing.
What follows are the highlights of conversations I’ve had over the years with many authors. I’ve made some broad generalizations with the intent of portraying what I believe to be common habits and practices of writers and authors across genres. This article is solely based on my opinion after working with authors over my twenty five years working for big New York publishers, in a variety of genres.
Writers vs. Authors
There are big differences between writers and authors. As I’ve described in my book, writers love to write, and they write because they love it. Any writer that has been published is considered an author. And while some authors remain writers, I believe others have forgotten that it was the writing that helped them get published in the first place. The allure of being published has taken them out of the realm of being a writer and into the glitz of being an author.
In my experience from an executive management perspective in the publishing industry, I have seen authors abandon their craft to focus on being a published author. The celebrity status of being a published author became more important to them than being a writer who just happened to get published. And some have gone so far as to concentrate on producing, not writing, another book. Some authors now only draw outlines of their story while the actual words and sentences are written by less well known writers, their so called co-author, or better known in the industry as ghost writers.
The next time you’re in a bookstore, pay attention to the front or back jacket of the books to see who shares authorship. You may be surprised. While this is not uncommon in works of nonfiction, some of your big-money writers of novels also share credit with co-authors. This is what I mean about authors abandoning writing to focus on being a celebrity and on producing yet another book. Ever notice how many of your big name authors produce five and even six novels a year? Who do you really think are writing those books?
In my opinion, the famous writers who are sometimes criticized for taking so long to write the next novel are the true writers. These are the folks who have not forsaken their writing just to fit into their publisher’s schedules. It can be difficult when you work for a publisher and a big name author’s next book, which is scheduled and pre-sold, has to be cancelled because the manuscript is not on time. Book retailers hate this, the sales and marketing groups hate it, but for the author, the focus is on the book and getting it right. You have to admire writers that are not all consumed by the next paycheck.
If you are a writer whose goal is to be published, never forsake your gift of being a writer. You have a responsibility to provide readers with the very best book you can write. Many small independent bookstore owners have told me at industry meetings that readers often complain when they pay close to $30 for the newest hardcover of a bestselling author and discover the plot is the same, only the setting and names of characters have changed. Don’t get caught up in the formula of one published work and try to duplicate it in another. That won’t work for long. Stay true to writing and you will be successful.
How Writers Got Started
As young children we all had ideas of what we wanted to be when we grew up. I have yet to find a writer whose fantasy as a child was to be a writer. Instead, they all sort of gravitated toward writing in a number of ways. Many were exposed to books and reading at a very young age. Either their parents read to them incessantly, or they watched their siblings, friends and family reading. Some were bored with life and became readers out of necessity. So whether through the influence of others, or out of their own bored existence, they became readers.
These readers became writers because they developed a desire to tell stories. There was the housewife who wrote after her children were tucked in bed because she had the desire to write romantic novels. A traveling salesman who spent nights in his hotel room writing the words to his story that eventually became a major motion picture. Their writing developed from the fact that they were readers first and through this developed the desire to tell stories.
But even though they were readers, many did not become writers until later on in their lives. They began to write because they had an interest in writing. Not one writer/author ever told me they were interested in writing because they wanted to be a famous writer. No, most were writers because they wanted to write. Being published was usually the farthest thing in their minds when they started. Writing was simply a hobby that eventually turned into more than just something to do in their spare time. The desire to take their writing to the next level and work towards improving their skills was typically born out of encouragement from someone. Whether it was a parent, spouse, friend or teacher, somewhere, someone read their writing and offered a positive word. And many told me that allowing someone to read something they had written was a terrifying ordeal, only because they weren’t sure if they were ready for the criticism.
When it became evident that their writing had promise and warranted additional training, they made a decision to find a way to improve their skills. Whether it was writing classes in college, seminars around the country, tutors or mentors, whatever they found that seemed relevant to what they wanted to do; they did as a way of improving their ability to write. And their key to improving as a writer was to write.
In the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter whether you were a reader early in life, or even exposed to books as a child. What matters now is your desire to write. So regardless of whether you fit the typical profile, if you have the desire to tell stories, then write!
If you have reached a point in your life where you have thought about writing but just never took the time to try it, let me encourage you. GIVE IT A TRY! You will either love it or hate it, but no matter what, you have to try. I truly believe there are really good writers out there who have just never given the idea a chance. Create something on paper! Sit down and write! Then tear it up and try again! The best way to get started writing is to sit down and write.
How Writers Work
Scott Turow is a famous attorney and author who had some success at writing prior to his first big book, “Presumed Innocent.” However, even though his job is an attorney at law, his passion is writing. He continues to write because he has a passion for telling stories. He wrote “Presumed Innocent“ while riding on a commuter train to and from his office in Chicago. And it took him several years.
Even though he could have retired after the success of that one book, he is a writer in the true sense of the word. He continues to practice law, because that is his job and he enjoys it, but he continues to write bestsellers because that is his passion. He is an example of a writer who has his priorities in order. He is not a celebrity and does not write for the sake of the publisher. He writes to tell stories. He writes in his own voice for his readers, who love to read legal thrillers.
Many authors that I have had the pleasure of accompanying on tours write according to a schedule, much as they would if they were getting up and going to an office each day. They have a time they want to be at their desk, and they write accordingly, every day. They write until their time is up, and even if they never use a word that was written that day, they stick to their commitment of making time to write.
And what I’ve heard over and over again is that it’s important to maintain some sort of schedule so that you become conditioned to write at the same time each day. Some even work until they have a set number of words on the page, paying no attention to time. They force themselves to sit down and write until they reach their limit. Again, they may never use what they are putting on paper, but at least they’re writing.
The early morning hours before the sun rises, and the wee hours after everyone has gone to bed also seem to be two of the most creative times for writers. While everyone has their own way of writing, and they all write when they have the urge, for many, the creative process works best when they’re alone in a quiet place with nothing but themselves and the blank page.
When I first started in the publishing business there was a wonderful writer of romance novels by the name of Patricia Matthews. She described to me that writing was much the same as carrying a fetus. It is important to eat the right foods, take vitamins, and get the rest you need. Writing is like carrying that baby; you have to nurture it every single day.
And since most people don’t have the luxury of traveling to a remote island and cranking out 70,000 words in a couple of weeks, writing is something that has to be worked into your schedule. The bottom line is that everyone is different and works best in their own unique way. The key is that you write when you can and try your best to maintain some consistency in your schedule.
How Writers Write
It’s hard to imagine, but there are writers who work best when they write in longhand on paper. The computer is just not their chosen method of writing. For those who have grown up with or are simply accustomed to the clickety clack of the keyboard, it seems inconceivable to attempt something as time consuming as writing without it. However, the pen and paper is still an important part of many writers’ creative process.
Some of the writers I have worked with use outlines for their stories, although many do not. Best selling author Michael Connelly doesn’t and begins his books without knowing where his characters will take him. For him that is one of the enjoyments of writing. He follows his characters to the end of his story.
For some the outline is an important first step before the actual writing because the outline provides direction. It is helpful to them in making sure the story flows and pieces fit together. If they just start pounding out sentences they feel their story can go astray and get lost. Trying to recapture the focus of the story without an outline is difficult if not impossible for some.
Note taking, jotting down things that catch your attention, is all part of the puzzle. Writers are great observers of people, things, places, and use note taking as a way of remembering what it was that caught their eye. I have encountered writers who wake from a dead sleep with a pen and paper at their bedside who will quickly record the details of their dream.
There are writers who dictate into a recording device and then have their words transcribed so they can be read at a later time. They will record their thoughts, ideas, even dialogue, and then after reading the transcription, decide what to change and how. One up and coming young author told me she likes to use a recorder for thoughts when she is driving or when the ideas come so fast that she wants to get them down when she can’t write fast enough to catch them all. Many writers prefer this method and a few do so when they reach an advanced age or inflicted with some terrible disease that has restricted the use of their hands for the purpose of writing.
We once had a book from an imprint that was written by a boy who did not have the use of his hands. He wrote by using a stick in his mouth. It took him several years to actually write the book, pounding away at the keys of his computer day after day with that stick. He had such a creative mind, along with a real gift for writing, that his desire far exceeded his physical limitations.
Writers write in many different ways, at different times, on different schedules, and they all do it in a way that works for them. Whether you prefer a pen and paper or a computer, write in a way that fits your particular creative process. The idea is to write, to be a writer, and work the way that fits you best.
Where Writers Draw Inspiration
The best writers seem to write about what they know. This would be a universally accepted statement of fact by most writers/authors. The stories are written about people, places and things they have experienced or observed in their lifetime. Typically they have visited or even lived in the places they write about. Others write about places they have read about at length, but never actually visited. Either way, they have some sort of strong reference point for their chosen setting.
Many characters in their stories are individuals whom they have encountered during their lifetime. Some have been admired and others despised. Rarely have I found a writer draw a character from something else they have read. Some authors take parts of characters and combine them into someone completely new. For the sake of literary integrity, which, may I add, is a very important component of all writers/authors constitution, characters are created from the minds or experiences of the writer and are never so clearly identified that they can be easily recognized as any real person.
A number of writers find inspiration through significant events in their lives. It could be derived from a loved one, someone they were very close to at a young age, but usually it is someone that has had a strong influence, either of a positive or negative nature. You may immediately think of a tragic event, or even death as a prime motivator, but that may not always be the case. What causes a person to be so enamored with the questions of life, enough to want to turn to writing as a result; is really anyone’s guess. As readers, we are lucky to be able to share in the creative energy that forced the hand of an author to create such a work that just had to be shared with the world. It’s like chasing a ghost to try to figure out what was the pivotal event in a writer’s life that made them decide to write. What a humdrum world it would be without them coloring it.
Whatever the inspiration, whatever the turning point, writers often write to fill a need they are unable to describe. Writing and the creation of stories is a way of examining their own psyche, of releasing the experiences they have a desire to share in their writing. And don’t think you have to experience tragedy, or be exposed to something sinister to start writing. There are many successful novels and works of non-fiction that are not about crime and violence and discovery of the dark side of humanity.
If you can take anything away from my humble observations of the writing process and the individuals who endeavor to write, it should be this: write when you can, where you want, how you want, about what you want, drawing inspiration from your life experiences which are unique to you. Writers learn to write by writing, so please be true to your writing and never forget that it should always be about the writers and the books.
Jerry is a 33-year veteran of publishing, 25 in New York with Random House and the former Time Warner Book Group as Vice President, Director Field Sales. His sales division generated hundreds of millions of dollars in book sales across the United States and Canada.
Over the years he has worked on thousands of New York Times bestselling titles and hundreds of New York Times bestselling authors including:
• James Patterson
• David Baldacci
• Sandra Brown • Nicholas Sparks
• Nelson DeMille
• Michael Connelly
He is the founder of www.WritersReaders.com which has become the source for information about publishing. His eNewsletter TIPS for WRITERS from the PUBLISHING INSIDER is read by writers around the world.
His book, WHAT WRITERS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PUBLISHING is described by the #1 New York Times Bestselling author Sandra Brown as “The good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of book publishing, told in a straight-from-the hip manner. New writers take note.” New York Times bestselling author Allison Brennan said “The information was absolutely incredible! I would recommend your book to all aspiring and new authors.”
Jerry speaks around the country and his articles have appeared in Writers Digest and across the Internet. He spends his time writing, teaching, and speaking with writers about the importance of understanding the marketplace and educating them about the business of publishing while sharing the secrets of the largest booksellers and publishers in the world.