Want to Be a Writer? Here’s My Advice

September 20, 2013

I’ve been making a living as a writer for so long I’ve almost forgotten my life before. What was it like not to sit down every day and face a blank screen? (Before screens, of course, I was sitting down facing a blank spiral notebook. But the question’s the same.) Not to have to come up with ideas and worry about sentence structure and meaning? Not to worry about deadlines and if my talent is slipping away and what’s for lunch? Sounds pretty sweet.

I began my professional life as an actor. I did my first national tour at thirteen, which might have been the highlight of my stage career. From then on, it was off-Broadway and summer stock and pilot productions that went nowhere. Then one summer, while performing in the musical “Plain and Fancy” in Pittsburgh, I came up with the idea for a musical of my own.

I’ll skip the grisly details, except to say that I wrote the book, music and lyrics and shouldn’t have. But the play did get a producer and an off-Broadway run. And that’s what got me started.

From that point, it was mostly chance. One of the backers of my musical, the backer who was still speaking to me, asked if I had any ideas for an interactive project that could work on Laserdisc, one of the first interactive technologies. I thought for a minute and said, “What about an interactive mystery?” That was over thirty years ago and I’m still writing mysteries, with probably the same plots.

Looking back, I see I was always destined to write. I’m good at plotting. I care about language. And I’m wonderfully antisocial, although it’s hard to figure out if that trait came before or after my decision to spend a lifetime alone at a desk.

Would I recommend writing as a career? You might ask the same question of a ditch digger. Like me, he’s probably unskilled and can’t do anything else. I have a writer friend who’s much more famous than I. I once spoke to him about retirement and he laughed. “Writers don’t retire. Most of us have no other interests except to do something that we can later turn into a book or a movie.”

This is why writers drink, by the way. It’s also one of the reasons cited for Hemmingway’s suicide. According to my sources, Hemmingway was haunted by the idea that his talent was slipping away. And he couldn’t just stop and not try anymore. That would be failure. Besides, no one believes you’re retiring. Writing is what non-writers do when they stop doing real work. Who would ever retire from writing?

Okay, enough of this happy talk. Would I recommend writing as a career? Yes. There you have it. I’ve had a great time and enough success to please me. And I have a real reason for to get up every morning. My characters need me.

As for giving advice to those just entering the vineyard, I have a few gems, although I have to warn you. You’ve probably heard them all before.

KNOW YOUR SKILLS. Are you good at plotting?  Do you shine at description? How is your dialogue? Is humor your strong suit? Are you a conversational writer or one who likes to pare down your prose and polish every word? If you know what your skills are and focus on them, it will be easier to find your voice. Elmore Leonard, for example, has little interest in description and he’s developed a style that fits him perfectly.

READ. I don’t know how Moses did it. but most authors spend their free time reading other authors. It gives you lessons – do’s and don’t’s – and makes you think about other people’s processes. I have a friend who’s a TV writer but doesn’t own a TV. What can I say? I don’t trust his commitment.

WRITE EVERY DAY, BUT NOT TOO MUCH. This may not hold true for everyone, but when I churn out more than 2,000 words at a sitting, I don’t trust myself. It usually means I have to spend the entire next day cleaning it up.

DON’T OVER-OUTLINE. Again, this is a personal thing. But a good story is always so rich with detail and character that it seems impossible, to me at least, to plan it all out ahead of time. Quick example: I created a small character in a book. He was there for just five pages, to set up exposition. Before I knew it he’d become a major player, a charming, devilish guy I could envision coming back in future novels. Then, halfway through the writing process, I realized I had to tie up a lot of loose ends very quickly. And the best, cleanest way to do it was to kill him off. That night we held a little wake, just me and the laptop.

CARRY A NOTEPAD. Good ideas can come at any time and disappear just as quickly. Like this tip. I wouldn’t have remembered it, except I was carrying a notepad and wrote it down.

KEEP DOING IT. As someone once said, if you live long enough and work hard enough and have just a little luck, you can succeed.