“For the love of words we write.” – Day 22

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.

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23 Responses to “For the love of words we write.” – Day 22

  1. Tom says:

    Great advice, Erin, thanks! I am a sales rep for a major publishing house as well as a writer, so I each of my jobs informs the other. Once when at a reading by Anna Quindlen when asked a question about writing, said, “the key to good writing is getting your ass in the chair”. I have found that to be a good approach. And on another occassion I heard Salman Rushie describe writing as a relationship, and that ” if one ignored the art, the art rebuked the artist, but on the other hand, if one treated the art with care and attention, that the art would return in kind,” but he said it much better than that. I hope I get the point across? Good luck with your book, Erin, and congratulations! Tom

  2. Dolores says:

    Thank you for this post. I’m one of those who plans to (or dreams of) writing a book someday. But I have a real love/hate relationship with writing. I expect it to be perfect, the first time. And I don’t put in the time to just do it.

    I think we all think we can write, because we can read and we have good imaginations. I’m a teacher, and everyone thinks they can do that, too. They don’t realize how much skill is involved in being a good teacher.

  3. Robert D says:

    I always wanted to try writing. This post inspires me. Your upbeat post makes me fell I too have something to talk about.

  4. I covered an art fair a few months ago. I took my camera and very obviously, took a picture of the two mature women at the ticket counter. They looked at each other askance. I said, “you were both just too good-looking to pass up!” I thought they’d faint!

    If they weren’t good-looking before I snapped them, they were definitely dazzling after. Made MY day!

    Thanks for the project and the post.

  5. Peg Brantley says:

    What a wonderful list. Not a negative thing on it.

    I’ve just signed up to get new posts.

    Thanks to Colleen Lindsay, via Twitter.

  6. P2 says:

    I love this post. I agree that it seems, in general, people don’t want to hear it is hard work to write. These are extremely solid tips for aspirational peeps. Love it!

  7. sharla says:

    Awesome list! I agree with the above note on unplugging. The internet sucks up time and your brain cells. I write longhand in a notebook first, so I can get all scribbly and messy and don’t feel the need to edit and can’t check my email!

    And I can’t have a view or I end up looking at it! LOL. I have to be somewhere boring. Like my living room.

    And I try to end each session with an incomplete sentence, so that I’m forced to start the next session with activity. And coffee.


  8. Joanie says:

    Erin, I love your project and I especially love this post. Why is it so hard to get started? I took a creative writing class from a wonderful poet last year–one of our assignments was to get in the habit of free-writing–just writing whatever pops into your head for 30 minutes straight at the same time, in the same comfortable place, each day. I even set an alarm. Write nonsense if that’s all your hand produces during that half hour. Thanks to you I will resurrect that habit starting now. And, as Lala instructs, I’ll compliment someone at least once a day. This morning I encountered a worried-looking woman as I was doing my morning walk near a fetching little wilderness in our neighborhood. I just blurted out, “You look like an angel with the sun backlighting you that way…” She gushed, “Oh! Thank you! Made my day!” I might have to do this five times a day….

  9. Reena Jacobs says:

    For those authors reading this post. I think it’s quite an accomplishment to think of the 81% of Americans who plan to write a book in their lifetime, you’ve actually sat down and accomplished the deed.

  10. Lala says:

    You’re a good girl, Erin McHugh. I tell the Catholic kids that I teach to compliment someone every day. They usually don’t but when they do they are so surprised by the happiness of their generous words. “I told my mom I really liked her new hairdo and she was like, practically, like, crying she was so happy.” A smile is the most generous gift.

    Keep on giving Erin.

    Best of luck with your fabulous adventure,

  11. Lisa says:

    Thank you for writing and POSTING this.

  12. debbie says:

    Excellent list, no surprise. One I’d add: If you’re writing on your computer, open only the word processing program you use to write. No internet, no email. Or else you’ll wind up doing exactly what I’m doing now: procrastinating without leaving the chair.

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