I get this question almost daily. So many people want to write a book, and wonder how to get there.
Being in the trenches of book editing, I also often hear its converse—“I’ve written a book, but I’m not a writer.” As if being a writer is some ethereal profession that requires gaining some sort of advanced degree.
Which, in actuality, it does. But not in the way it may seem.
Creativity takes its own long and winding path, and while a litany of those exist, there is not one tried-and-true, can’t-miss way to tame this beast.
There is only your way.
And the key is to find out what that is.
Do you need to take classes on how to write a book?
If you want to. If that will spur you on to write more, then by all means—do it. Many people work better with structure, with homework to keep them honestly performing the task at hand. If that’s you, a class is great.
But it’ll only give you the basics. You still have to write the dang thing.
What about MFA programs?
We hear of the new wonder kid coming out of those every year, no? And yes, they’re high-pedigreed, hoity-toity degrees that give many people a sense that they now know what they’re doing. And confidence is a great thing in writing. If that’s how you find yours, by all means, sign up!
Will doing so make you a great writer? No. It’ll instill the basics in you. And, the connections you make there can help the road to becoming published easier.
What about a writer’s workshop?
Those are great too. Especially the read/critique ones, as you get to a), hear yourself reading aloud (which helps on about ten levels), b), get critiqued by other writers (take this with a grain of salt—much of it will be self-serving from the person critiquing, some will be downright bad. But usually there’s a grain of truth somewhere you can use), and c), listen to a lot of other writers reading and being critiqued, which you can learn from as well.
What about a degree in English or Journalism?
While book editing, I also have writers ask me about this a lot. Most often, in the form of: “I didn’t do well in English.” Although I also hear, “I’m a journalist,” Or, “I’ve had a friend who’s an English teacher go over this.”
I answer the first one: “Not a problem. That’s why god made editors.”
And the second: “We’ll need to take that pyramid you learned and turn it on its head.” This is a process, and can be frustrating when a journalist takes to book writing, but it’s one I know well, as my original training was in journalism. On the flip side, the person has written a lot already.
To the third one, well, I pretty much cringe. While English teachers are fabulous, and can attend to grammar and spelling and punctuation, the deeper elements of a book get lost.
One of my editorial clients has a Ph.D. in literature, and teaches at Berkeley. Great lady, and I so enjoyed working with her. I’ll never forget when she called me, stunned, after receiving her edit and critique.
Gasping, she said, “I had no idea about all of the deeper elements of writing. And I teach university literature!”
I’m a big believer in higher education. It teaches you to think in a different way. But such doesn’t usually carry over into creative endeavors.
In the end, though, she dug down and learned writing from the “other” side of the desk, and went on to publish well, and become a Publishers Weekly “Spring Pick to Watch!”
Of course, any or all of these can be helpful. Everything in a person’s world is helpful in making her a better writer. Simply everything.
I’ve always been fond of that Hemingway answer as well, when asked what’s the best early training for a writer:
“An unhappy childhood.” –Ernest Hemingway on Writing.
Now, I’m not recommending that either! But the essence of it is the life school of hard knocks.
In other words, the more you’ve been through in your life, the more you have to write about. And the deeper your emotions come through.
So, what is the best background for becoming a writer? What is that failsafe method?
It’s simple, actually. And I bet you know what it is:
Writing. Just writing. And as I always say: Read, read, read. Write, write, and write. Read, read, and read.
There simply are no shortcuts. You become a great writer by writing. And continuing to do so, no matter the perils, the heartaches, the nay-sayers.
So, you don’t have a fancy background or degree to show you’re a writer?
Not a problem!
Now, go write that masterpiece.