A recent poll reported that 81% of Americans believe they will write a book in their lifetime. When I shared this with my bookish pals on Twitter, there was a wailing and gnashing of teeth among the agents I e-consort with. These hard-working folks often get upwards of 200 queries a week. Now a query isn’t a manuscript, or even several chapters of someone’s work. It’s a request to get an agent to read your stuff, and very often it’s a rant, with promises like, “You know John Grisham? I’ve got a dozen books better than him.” (I kid you not.)
Over the years, scores of people have asked me if I knew how to get an agent or how they could get published. They rarely ask how to get started, how it actually gets done. Most of them haven’t started at all. “There is no other way,” I say, “than to just sit down and do it.” Now one seems to really like this answer much. It is rarely what anybody wants to hear: that writing is really hard work.
Last night I was having a belated birthday dinner with two old friends, and one, who had been reading Eudora Welty, said, “I’d like to try writing short stories.” Our companion rolled his eyes, and was admonished. “You have to just start,” says me, as usual. He didn’t look very happy. But he’s a smart guy, and has that Southern gift of gab. If he wants to try, I’m with him all the way.
So I’m going to send my friend these tips to get started:
* Set yourself up in a nice spot. Maybe a pretty view, good light, a comfortable chair. Writing is torturous enough – you shouldn’t be physically uncomfortable on top of it.
* Have a regimen. Start writing with just 20-30 minutes a day. Put aside the same time daily, if you can, when you’re most relaxed and your brain isn’t fuzzy.
* The next day, begin with going back over what you read the day before. This will help with continuity and get you jump-started.
* Sit and stare at the page. Eventually you’ll write something. Maybe not today, but soon.
* No chores. Before you start, get a cup of coffee, a snack, or whatever else you need to make you stay put. No making the phone call you forgot, no getting up to get the mail. Pee before you sit down. William Faulkner said the hardest part was sitting in the chair, and he was right.
* If you really want to do this, then keep doing it. It’s really hard, it takes a long, long time, and it is rarely financially successful.
* If you don’t find writing rewarding, then stop. You were meant to do something else.
* You may never enjoy the sales John Grisham does, or move someone the way Eudora Welty does. Neither will I, very likely. But if writing and seeing your work in print is important to you, self-publishing is always an option, and what is available to the world electronically is changing every minute.
* Oh, and remember, anything can happen. It did to me.
Many years ago, Pat Conroy wrote in my copy of The Prince of Tides, “For the love of words we write.” That should be your motto.