Can you be a writer?

by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Beginning writers hear so many stories about how hard it is to "break into print" that I'm often asked the question, "Do I have what it takes?"

There are two main things you need to do to answer that question. A) Inventory yourself -- B) Figure out what a professional writer is.

Of the two, B) is the hardest. Most of those who would even ask the question have enough personal introspection to inventory their own abilities.

You have to discover your own proclivities. Inventory the way you spend your time when there are no external demands on you. Do you imbibe fiction? Do you create your own fiction? Do you tell yourself stories while you're sailing down the highway at 60MPH? Do you sing songs along with the radio and make up stories about the songs? What do you do at 3AM when you can't sleep? Do you fret about life or do you cuddle down under the covers and tell yourself a story? Do you watch TV shows and go to sleep making up an alternate ending? Or editing the episode plot to fix continuity flaws? If so, you've got the makings of a writer. If not, forget the whole idea. On the other hand, an obsessive behavior pattern like this does NOT make you a professional caliber writer. Talent is cheap. MOST human beings tell themselves stories, MOST teens fill notebooks with pastiche from TV shows, MOST people daydream. Not all, but most.

As a professional writer, it is your job to tap into that core behavior of MOST people and help them accomplish their goals. To do that, you must share that goal -- i.e. to help people dream their own dreams, you must be a daydreamer. But that's not enough -- you must also be enamored of the tools of the writing craftsman. First of all that's LANGUAGE.

As a child, were you more interested in learning the proper usage of words in your spelling list for the week than in spelling those words? Did you know that usage and pronunciation better than your teacher did? Did you keep using non-spelling list words that stumped or embarrassed your teacher? All because you were reading all the books in the library you could get your hands on -- way beyond your grade-level?

That's important - as a child, were you one who'd rather read than go bicycling with your friends? Would you rather read or watch TV than go swimming, hiking, camping? Would you skip lunch during the week to save up movie money for the weekends? Do you imbibe fiction incessantly? And nonfiction too? Are you so intensely and insanely curious you read anything and everything? Do you see a news item on TV and research it on the net or at the library? Do you own two encyclopedias just because you can't stand NOT KNOWING????

And perhaps most important of all -- do you write? Whenever the pressure lets up -- or even more, when the pressure of life is at its worst -- are you found staying up late writing a story? These days it's usually for online outlets such as Newsgroups and Listservs, or your own website -- or someone else's.

If you write -- even if you've never shown a soul a word of it -- you've got another of the essential elements to "make it" as a professional fiction writer. If you only would LIKE to write, some day -- if you could ever find an idea or get 'good enough' -- then you'll never make it as a professional. You might sell a book or two, or a story or three here and there. You might even win some awards for them. But you won't make a steady living to let you quit your day job because you just can't produce enough words fast enough to establish a profit margin in this business. The professional fiction writer doesn't search for ideas -- she has to beat them off with a stick. (that's an old saying in this business)

To hold a day job and write professionally you need one other trait in its most exaggerated form -- self-starting. Most people call it self-discipline, but what they mean by it and what a person who has it means by it are very different things.

What most people mean by Self-Discipline is the dour personality that forces the self to do unpleasant things. What the person who has it means by it is the visionary personality who can assign themselves a task and keep plugging at it because they can SEE what it will be like once the task is successfully accomplished.

The writer needs the quirk of personality that allows for the spark of a story idea to take root and explode into the ambition to get that story written down in a way that others can share it with them. The impulse that fuels the fiction writer is the impulse to share -- the personality quirk which manifests in childhood as a grand desire to drag your toys over to another person's house and share the fun you've found in them.

A story you've written is just another toy -- which you made because you wanted to share it. Here's the kicker: the desire to share isn't enough without the right motive. If you desire to make something to share it so that others will praise and idolize you -- you'll never make it through a professional writer's training even if you have the most talent of anyone in the world. If you desire to make something in order to give others JOY -- you will have the grit to get through the training. Rejection letters won't depress you and make you stop writing -- won't even make you question your ability. And so you'll keep going until you succeed.

This brings me to the last trait that is a harbinger of success as a professional fiction writer. Ambition. Do you dream of writing 'full time' ??? Or have you established a full time career as a writer for your life's goal? Dreamers mostly don't make it because they don't have the strength or grit and guts to persevere when the going gets tough. Those who have made a career commitment to writing -- who ALSO have the traits discussed above usually don't fail.

Now a dose of realism - as the world stands now, there are fewer and fewer full-time writers making a living in fiction -- day by day. The industry is shifting and changing, and right now no sane person would advise you to expect to make a full time living from writing -- so if you're in school, be SURE you acquire a good, solid, saleable skill with which to make a living, one which fits into your personality in such a way that it does not impair your ability to churn out wordage. (some writers work nights at jobs that let them sit and read or write most of the time -- such as night watchmen, or ISP managers.)

But the condition of the fiction industry is another topic. In your professional lifetime, the world will shift again, and once again there will be opportunities for full time fictioneers to prosper. Then B) is the real key to success, and far and away the hardest thing to determine. What is a writer? What is it that writers do that causes success to happen to them?

Today (May 15, 2000) over breakfast I accidentally (I was cuing up a videotape) saw an interview on the Today Show of the authors of a new book titled, I think, FUNKY BUSINESS. Two shaven-headed guys who stood and postured and flung their arms around as they spoke in trained stage tones. I watched those two do their act, and I listened to part of the interview carefully -- not all, just part because I had a tape of the Sci-Fi channel's show GOOD VS. EVIL I'd rather have been watching.

In a peanut shell, the thesis the authors were selling is that "Funky" means "outside the rules" and they were doing a very animated hard-sell aimed at current Business Management people (MBA's from the 60's to 80's who did not grow up in the web-based economy) that they must break the rules they were taught in school and which have made immense profits for their companies. Today those Old Economy companies are seeing profits dwindle if they don't embrace the New Economy's almost formless rules. With the advent of the Internet, business (e.g. book distributing - what I term "the fiction delivery system") must change the way it does things on a very fundamental level. In other words, these Year 2000 showmen were hard-selling a sugar-coated version of Alvin Toffler's 1970's bestseller FUTURE SHOCK. Ho-hum. I'd rather be watching a story. (FUTURE SHOCK is a great book -- predicted almost everything that's happening now -- if you want to write fiction for a living, you MUST read and understand that book.)

I watched half of Good VS. Evil -- the episode about one of the Corps team being turned into a sort of demon. The plot: in the 1400's a magic book or talisman had been the property of the Corps, but it had been lost. Now the Morlocks have found it and are going to use it to turn Corps people into demons that will do away with the Corps forever. The plot revolved around recovering this object and then playing football with it -- as one team stole it from the other.

All of a sudden, I sat bolt upright in my kitchen chair and started scribbling notes for this article which I'd been asked to write by this newsletter's editor.

The Good vs. Evil episode was an exact copy, almost scene for scene, of the formulaic TV series Relic Hunter (which I adore). See my reviews and mentions of Relic Hunter in my review column (to find that, go to http:/ and in the search slot in the upper right of your screen, type in "Relic Hunter" and hit search).

Relic Hunter plays to a bigger audience than the sci-fi channel. When the show first came on , I had researched Relic Hunter on the web and discovered there is a whole hobby-group that actually does stuff like that, and this show was simply playing into their fantasies by romanticizing their hobby. Now, this is what the writer's mind DOES for a living: Having just seen the Today Show making a big deal over these two writers of FUNKY BUSINESS, and having analyzed that -- and analyzed Good Vs. Evil -- synthesis happened in a flash and this article was created.

In that flash, I arrived at a conclusion I had arrived at several times already by very different paths: What a writer does for a living is CHEERLEADING.

That's what those two shaven-headed guys were doing with their showmanship -- in fact the gestures and facial expressions were very much like those of football cheerleaders! (I've seen the like in corporate meetings, especially sales conferences. )

The cheerleaders don't go to the game and tell the players what game to play -- "Hey guys, we're in the mood for checkers today! Don't play football." (which is what most beginning writers are told to do with their first attempts at fiction -- "write what you know, what you like" ) Cheerleaders root for the success of the players at the goals that the players have set for themselves.

"Players" in the game of fiction are the readers. Publishers are the spectators -- if you can't get the spectators to come and pay admission, you don't have a ball club very long. The writers' job is to choose to write the story (the story is the ball) the readers want to read (or play with) -- not the story the writer wants to write. (keep reading if you disagree with that -- it's not cynical and I'm not talking about prostituting your talents.)

You don't get big in this business, you don't get the big bucks or the big publicity by saying new things. You don't get big in this business by speaking your own mind, or displaying your own brilliance, or by being original -- or even by being good at writing.

The press flocks around and promotes with real serious muscle those who simply cheer people on to do what they are already doing -- those who have the showmanship to speak FOR the general public that hasn't the verbal skills to express themselves.

If you look up "Stephen King" on the site search engine on you should find some of my analysis of what he does -- he handles the general public's commonest nightmares by simply expressing them (as Lovecraft did in his day) in a way the general public can't for lack of skill.

Stories that garner great TV ratings, get movies made from them, generate immense publicity, and lots of money for their authors are stories that SPEAK FOR the huge "lowest-common-denominator" in our society. (yes, I've said that before too, in the Bantam paperback Star Trek Lives! ) The really big, successful, full time professional writers have put their skills at storycraft at the service of the general public. This is not prostitution. It is a high spiritual calling -- Service. Artistic talent is a Gift, and the its only real use is to give it away -- very esoteric principle of the universe.

Now comes the trick -- the real trick. If you attempt to give such a gift for the purpose of personal gain, you fail. Every time. How do you do something for the express purpose of making a living, of making money to live on -- without doing it for personal gain?

What student writer does NOT experience a warm thrill at the idea that this piece, this story or novel, will be bought, published and admired by thousands? We all work for that limelight -- it's what keeps us going through the worst of the process.

How do you put your Gift at the service of people you do NOT admire, without thought of personal gain or glory?

Remember A) and B) above?

This is how it's done. Compare A) and B) -- Inventory yourself, what you are about -- look at what it takes to be a writer -- find within yourself that which also exists within the 'general public' -- find what they are yearning to say, to express, to bring up to consciousness and deal with rationally -- find what they are DOING -- and then find your personal version of that within yourself.

Your key to success as a professional writer will be that theme, that psychological game, that inarticulate nightmare, that great Divine Comedy, that heart-wrenching drama which you can see inside yourself AND inside your audience. Thus when you place your Artistic Gift at the service of your own personal self-expression -- you are also bespeaking the issues uppermost in the minds and hearts of others. This is not prostituting your Gift -- it is Service of the highest order.

Now if the "general public" doesn't have (or you can't find) something going on that is also inside yourself, then you aren't writing for the general public. You may have a smaller readership. It may be too small to support you with a decent income. But you would still be a professional writer -- just part-time.

Armed with the inventories from A) and B) and the comparison of them, you can determine how much of your income you can potentially expect to make from your writing -- and thus what sort of day job you can afford to spend time on because you'll know how much money you need from your day job.

Live Long and Prosper, Jacqueline Lichtenberg Sime~Gen Inc.