Someone wrote and asked, “How did you go about the business of becoming a writer?” Since it’s a holiday and the start of new year, I thought this would be a good time to re-tell that story.
For years I tried writing in dribs and drabs, trying to get an actual “writing career” going. I had started working in publishing as a copyeditor at a magazine, and had done quite a bit of magazine writing, plus some newspaper writing and lots of chapter editing, but I could never get over the hump and get my own book done. So I edited, and wrote some, and worked for magazines and newspapers and journals, sometimes running the publications for organizations. Then two articles I stumbled across in the course of my reading changed my writing life.
The first was an interview with Thomas Wolfe in Esquire magazine. Wolfe, the author of such books as The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Man in Full, was shown resplendent in a white suit, hat, and spats. The caption read, “Thomas Wolfe on his way to the office,” or some such thing. Notably, his office was in his home. Wolfe would get up, get dressed, and go into a spare bedroom to write — just as though he were heading off to an important publishing luncheon in a downtown New York restaurant. In the article, Wolfe explained that, to him, writing was a business. So he treated it as a business. He would begin writing at nine every morning, and would write until noon. Then he’d take ninety minutes off for lunch. Wolfe noted that he didn’t wait for inspiration to strike him – instead, he would sit down, read the last few pages of what he’d written the day before, and begin to type. By simply approaching writing as a business, he got much more done. After lunch, he returned to his office to answer his mail (this being in that long-ago era before e-mail), return phone calls, and take care of any pressing business matters. When he was done, he would begin writing again. An alarm went off at 4:30, when he ended his day “attending to the business of writing.”
That article was a revelation to me. The thought of approaching writing as a business had never occurred to me. I immediately changed my entire approach to writing. Though working full-time at a university, I began getting up early and writing from six to eight every morning before going into my day job. In short order, I had my first book written. I soon figured out that, for me, the best plan was to have a place to write, a time to write, and a project to write on. Rather than waiting for my mood to be right and my muse to appear, I simply sat down each morning and started writing. That was the most important change in my entire publishing career.
The second article that changed me was a short biography of British novelist P.G. Wodehouse, creator of the character Jeeves the Butler, and his bumbling master, Bertie Wooster. Wodehouse was an unsuccessful salesman in the 1920’s, when he decided to begin writing entertaining short stories to help make ends meet. As a young man, he set a goal: each day he would write 1100 salable words. He admitted to the interviewer that sometimes he would be done by one in the afternoon, and would immediately stop writing and go play golf. Other days he wouldn’t be done until one the next morning. But he kept at it, since 1100 words would allow him to make a living at writing. Over the course of a long career, Wodehouse published more than 90 novels, hundreds of short stories, hundreds more articles, and several stage plays. His simple goal of writing 1100 salable words per day made him one of the most published novelists of the 20th Century.
When I left academia to write full-time, I followed Wodehouse’s method. I got up each morning, got dressed, ate breakfast, and went to my “office” (a spare bedroom in the house my wife and I were renting). There I would read the last few pages of my previous day’s work, then begin typing. My goal was to create a half chapter per day – later that became a chapter per day, which is one of the reasons I was able to produce more than fifty books and study guides before my 50th birthday. I should add that my days in magazines and newspapers helped me to write fast and clean (a newspaper is a monster that has to be fed — you must give it fresh words every day, at the same time, or it dies). So I used the talents I had developed, made a couple important changes to my thinking, and that’s how I got going.
I should add something else… A longtime collaborative writer, Steve Halliday, came to me while I was trying to make a living. I was doing some writing, hosting a talk-radio show, and teaching a couple classes to make ends meet. Steve introduced me to an idea he’d done successfully — going to a company that needed study guides on a regular basis, and offering to write them. In other words, create a paying part-time writing gig that didn’t require all my creative abilities. Instead, I turned someone else’s work into print. If it hadn’t been for Steve sharing such an obvious concept, I don’t know that I would have made it through that season and actually made a living at it. He made the introductions I needed, but more importantly he gave me a money-making idea for writing that worked, so I wasn’t stuck just trying to write and sell books (which, for a beginner, is a tough way to make a living). I never want to leave this part out of my story. I owe Steve Halliday a huge debt. The success I had doing study guides for some organizations launched me into a bunch of other publishing ventures — collaborating on business books, writing for Promise Keepers, creating books for organizations, and doing significant freelance editing.
I no longer write full-time, having decided to spend more time helping other writers as an agent, but I continue to write on special projects. And when I do, I still treat it the same way – I pick a time (generally first thing in the morning), a place (still a room in my house, quiet and without many interruptions), and a project. I organize my thoughts and my notes first, then I sit down and write.
There are three writing tricks that I learned while making my living writing books, and I’d like to share them with readers because they were some of the lessons I learned through experience. All three of these have helped me immeasurably in my writing career. The first trick is to read your work out loud. I’ve never published anything that I haven’t read to myself, out loud, in my writing room. That has helped me figure out when something I’ve written doesn’t work. When I read it out loud, my ear will tell me if I need to re-write it.
The second is that a beginning writer should learn the importance of writing a book or article all the way through. Whether you’re creating a novel or a nonfiction book, get all the way through one draft before going back to sharpen and polish. The first draft will be awful, but there’s value in going through the process of creating an entire book that you can’t get by just doing pieces of a book. It’s always easier to revise and improve something than it is to create it from scratch. So if you’re writing, write the WHOLE THING. Get it all down, then go back and revise. Sure, the work may be crap. So what? That’s not going to be your story — it’s going to be the framework you build your story from as you go back and revise and rewrite and improve.
The third trick is that a writer need not suffer writer’s block if he or she will simply stop writing and talk through it. Whenever I got stuck in one place, I read out loud what I’d just written, push away from my computer screen, and started talking out loud about my topic. I acted as though I was teaching a class, and since I generally know what I want to say, if I start talking out loud it will all come out. The book is there — I just need to know what to say next. In talking out loud about it, I’d quickly figure out what I wanted to say next, and soon I was back at my screen, banging out words.
There you go — my story, and the lessons I learned. That’s how I got going in the business. Would love to have you leave a comment sharing how you got into the business.