Writeritis: by Patricia Finney.
I thought I'd start with a rant. Three questions writers are always asked - so I know it's not just me:
1. How long does it take to write a book? Dunno. How long is a piece of string?
2. Are you famous? What do you think?
3. Where do you get your ideas?
Like the man said about jazz, if you have to ask you will never know. There's a wonderful paragraph about ideas in Terry Pratchett's 'Wyrd Sisters.' Most writers have to dodge ideas whistling past their ears, not look for them. Occasionally entire books land in your head and insist noisily on being written. This doesn't half disrupt your life. I'm in the middle of writing the third in my accidental trilogy of Elizabethan spy thrillers: it's currently called Gloriana's Torch, it's about the Spanish Armada of 1588, and it's huge. One day soon I will finish it and be a much happier woman, believe me - until the next bloody book arrives.
As part of a continuing series on frequently asked questions - today's question is "I want to be a writer, what should I do?" Well obviously, don't. If you can find any other kind of gainful employment, do that instead. If you can find any other outlet for your creativity, use it - make pots, carve wood, paint faces, design clothes, invent computer viruses, anything. Just don't write. There's a vast oversupply of writers out there and frankly, I think too many of them are rather good. I don't need the competition, thank you. Please do not become a writer.
Continuing the series on How to Become A Writer: "Gosh, revered Author, I don't seem to be able to do anything else and I just have to write every day or I feel cranky and miserable and when I lend my stories to other people, they refuse to give them back until they've finished them." Right. Well, I'm afraid that it looks as if the only possible diagnosis is that you are indeed a writer. Unfortunately there is very little hope that you will ever recover. A nice English Literature degree at a prestigious university might help remove your mad urge to write, or one of those creative-writing correspondence courses which charge you vast amounts of money for computer-generated comments on your work which are about as helpful as a tabloid horoscope. Either of these two treatments might cure your writeritis. If nothing clears up the condition, the next step... (to be continued).
More for people suffering from writeritis:... is to learn how to write. This you have to learn by doing it. Ideas are cheap, in fact a constant threat. When writers get together they often have a good laugh about the idiots who come up to them in pubs with really great concepts for novels, the idea being that the concept-merchant gives the writer the concept, the writer does all the work of writing the novel from it and then the concept-merchant generously gives 25% of the royalties to the writer. Most concept-merchants are genuinely surprised and offended to be turned down. To repeat: it doesn't matter how great your concepts are, as long as they're in your head they're just hot air. To be a writer, you have to actually write things. Anything. Whatever comes to mind, really. A proper creative writing course might help and if you happen to be related to a friendly writer, you might be able to persuade them to read and comment on your work. Don't bother approaching writers you know slightly or have just read about for this sort of help, by the way: most of us have been thoroughly frightened away from doing it by plagiarism lawsuits in the States. If you don't know what to write, write a diary until you can make up your mind. Two excellent books to give you a kickstart are: The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. If you're serious about it, follow the instructions in these books to the letter and see what happens. Of course, that's only half of the writing game...(to be continued)
For sufferers from writeritis: ...the other half of the writing game is getting people to read what you've written. Willingly. Now I have to say that until you've actually been published, this can be very difficult indeed because people are terrified that they won't like what you've written or, worse still, will find it too boring to read. And that's because you know and I know that writers do NOT welcome honest criticism, what they welcome is honest adulation, praise and fat royalty cheques. You think I'm any better? Nah... I've just honed my hypocrisy better. If you do manage to convince (bully) somebody into reading your story, make it easy for them. Put it like this: when you give them the manuscript tell them, "Don't correct the spelling mistakes or typos. If you haven't time to read it - that's fine - I'll just collect it after two weeks, no problem. What I want to know is, which bits did you like and which bits didn't make sense to you. That'd be really helpful. Thanks, I owe you one." Now you have to try and forget all about the thing for two weeks... (to be continued)
More on writeritis: ...and after two weeks, you give them a ring and say, have you had time to read the MS yet?
Response (a) is: oh yes, I have, finished it in a night, couldn't put it down, boy, it was scary/exciting/romantic/made me cry...
Response (b) is: sorry, I haven't got round to it yet, very sorry, you know what it's been like at work...
Response (c) is: well, I did start it but then I had to do XXXX (fill in as appropriate)
and I haven't got round to finishing it. Obviously response (a) is what you're hoping for. If you get it, say thanks very much, which bits did you like best, which bits didn't make sense to you... Buy them a drink. Be nice to them. Ask if they can suggest anyone else who'd like to read it. If you get response (b) say: well, I was hoping to show it to someone else - shall I come and get it in three days' time? Then make sure you do come and get it in three days' time. If they were actually ever going to read it, they'll have read it by then and if they weren't you might as well get it back and give it to somebody else more appreciative/less busy. If you get response (c) go and get it at once and ask them which page they'd got to before they stopped. Look at that page carefully: is it boring? Does it make sense? This is the most valuable response of all (honest).
Sufferers from Writeritis: ...must do it again and again. If you find that people are running away from you and mysteriously not taking your calls, then you have to consider whether your writing is as good as you think it is. The cruel fact is that not everybody who thinks they can write, can actually write. This is fine if you're just writing for you own satisfaction which is really the best reason to do it anyway. But if you want the other half of the writing-deal to take place, in other words if you want people actually to read and enjoy what you write, then you have to learn how to do it. And this is why you have to learn to take feedback because it's the only way to learn how to hold a reader. You may even find that your creative abilities lie in other directions. I do believe that everyone is creative; I used to believe that anyone could write well if they were willing to learn how. I'm afraid I no longer do. It's like my total inability to catch, throw or hit a ball. Some people don't have 'it' for language. Now if this is what you suspect, have a think about things you may do without ever imagining you're good at them or valuing them very much. Perhaps you're musical: you play instruments, you sing but for some reason you want to write a novel, not a symphony or a musical. Why?
On Writeritis: There are other ways to be creative than writing the Great British/American Novel. Do I want more competition? Well, actually, no. Am I confident that truly excellent work will eventually be published by a proper publisher and become a bestseller. Confident? No. I think it's as much a lottery as becoming a big Hollywood star. And books are not the only place for written creativity... There are vast fields to conquer on the net, in computer games, in new artforms that haven't even been invented yet. Why not invent one?
On Writeritis: ...But then maybe you don't really suffer from writeritis. Maybe you're just a bookaholic instead: do you always have a book hidden away just in case, do you read cereal packets if deprived of books, do you secretly read your children's books on the bog... Do your children patiently repeat everything they say to you because they know that you'll have your nose too deep in a book to hear them the first time? Do bookshops have a seductive lure that drags you away from your groceries and do you come to after a binge to find you have bought the latest Stephen Hawking, as well as the latest Terry Pratchett, Stephen King and half a dozen others, even though you haven't finished the Brief History of Time thingy yet? Well, sorry. You're obviously a bookaholic and I love you.
Last word on Writeritis: Or perhaps you're really a potential publisher. They have to come from somewhere and all of them are doing it because they genuinely love books. So if you feel you could be one of the great buccaneering publishers of the 21st century - how do you get started? Well, speaking as a writer, not a publisher, I'd go and get a job in a bookshop. Any bookshop. Doing anything. Because that will bring you into direct contact with the people who pay publishers' wages (and, after much trickling down and siphoning off, mine). The book-buying public, bless their cotton socks, who made Harry Potter into a vast bestseller in the teeth of all the publishers' predictions and with no hype whatsover. The ones who really know about books because they read, not for work, but for fun. Good luck.