When I was a fledgling writer (and I do mean fledgling), I heard the adage that good writers read–a lot. And being a literary know-it-all with my six weeks of experience backing me up, I scoffed. “Read? Who has time to read? It’s all I can do to write a paragraph without being interrupted by three teenagers or dinner preparations or any one of many other distractions that each and every writer in the world faces.” Poor me. Little did I know back then that I’d condemned myself to Newbieland for as long as it took me to truly understand what writing is all about.
Writing is not romantic, easy, nor is it a profession for the faint-hearted. No one writes alone in a vine-covered garret or the tower of a crystal palace with servants to take care of the mundane things of life–like earning a living if your writing career doesn’t bring in several thousand dollars the first month or so. (That was sarcasm.) Instead, writers spend precious stolen moments honing their craft until life settles down. Maybe that’s when your spouse comes home to watch the kids, or the pizza delivery guy shows up and everyone’s too busy eating their deep-crust pepperoni with extra cheese pizza to pester you, or when the kids go to bed. Maybe it’s early morning or late evening, noon hours, coffee breaks, weekends, and may be, just maybe, it’s not until your retirement years.
My point is that just because I was trying my hand at writing didn’t mean the world would kindly step aside for me to work my genius and crank out bestseller after bestseller. That idea was quashed fairly quickly there in Newbieland where I resided until I’d learned a few hard lessons, including:
1.) The writing field is jam-packed with talented, ambitious people who more often than not–no, make that always–knew a heck of a lot more than I did. Being a newbie was on one hand thrilling; on the other, terrifying, and I admit I often had the Newbie Blues.
2.) Nobody has enough time to write. Nobody. Even the successful writers (and you know who you are, Successful Writers, although I imagine you’re not reading this) who consistently hit the bestseller lists probably have trouble with life getting in the way of their craft. Writing is no different than anything else we want to do in life. We need to make time and space for it.
3.) It doesn’t come easy. Being a new writer means you know enough to know you don’t know enough about being a writer. (Please read that again until it makes sense.) A good share of the time I spent living in Newbieland was spent learning everything I could about writing, and yes, that included …
4.) Reading! Yes, lots and lots of reading. In a moment I’ll list some of the books that have helped me tremendously, but first I want to tell you that reading anything helps to make you better at writing. It finally dawned on me that I wasn’t going to go anywhere with my raw talent. Just as if I had a great serve in tennis, I wasn’t going to hit Wimbledon right off the bat (or racket, as the case may be), I had to get rid of my bad habits and groom the good ones that others had learned before me. And to do that I had to read their advice in books on that topic or simply read the fiction books they’d written. Speaking for myself, I’ve learned more from reading the books of successful and great fiction writers than I could figured out for myself if I’d worked at it until the day I dropped dead. And by then it would be too late, and I wouldn’t give a rip, anyway. There’s just so much to know and to assimilate into your writing until it’s a habit, that not taking the advice of good authors is just plain silly.
Of course there are many other ways to learn. Critique partners, writing groups, conferences, and classes are just some of them. I concentrated on the reading aspect simply because it’s something you can do for little or no cost, and it’s a pleasant experience. No longer do I think it’s outrageous to think writers need to read everything they can get their hands on. I’ve moved out of Newbieland and I’m looking for a niche in Mightjustmakeitland. It’s still a long shot, but I’ll never get there if I don’t try. I hope I see you along the way.
Before I forget … trying reading Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott), Writing for the Soul (Jerry B. Jenkins), or On Writing (Stephen King). There are thousands of other books out there, most of which are no doubt very good, but I’ve read these three over and over. I also read the novels by Jerry and Stephen and Anne’s other non-fiction books. I learn something from each author and each of their books whether they’re trying to teach me or not. They’re that good.
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