YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER?
[Tips. Tricks. Thoughts.]
by Ruby Bayan
* Day One - Why I'm Doing This
* Rule Number One - Master the Language
* Anyone Can Be a Writer? - No.
* Double-check Your Work. Twice.
* Be Strong. Let Go of Your Babies.
* Query, Pitch, Submit!
* Some Rejections Maim; None of Them Kill
* Ready for Feast or Famine?
* Be an Expert at Something... Anything.
* Perceive, Process, Produce
* Develop a Style
* A Process of Evolution
* Widen Your Horizon
* Q&A: Coping With Editors
* Which To Write About First: The Chicken or the Egg?
* The Four M's of Writing
* Freelancing From Overseas
Day One [3/15/01] - I wasn't really surprised when my son came up to me and said he wanted to shift courses. "I've had it with computer engineering," he muttered. "I want to shift to Comparative Literature."
My visions of retiring in a quaint villa with a fountain lake in front of a mansion that my techie-yuppie-next-Bill-Gates son would buy for me suddenly went pffft. Well, I consoled myself, I would've been lonely and desolate surrounded by decadence and luxury in my old age (gulp), so ye, I gave him my wholehearted blessing... "Go for it, Son... find your happiness."
He breezed through college with flying colors and immediately joined the faculty of the Department of English and Comparative Literature of the University of the Philippines. But today, he wants to try what Mom is doing.
"How does one become a writer, Mom?" He never ceases to flatter me, bless his soul. So, I told him, "Hmm. Good question. I'm still working (uhm, scrambling) my way to fortune and fame, but this is the phase (the scrambling phase!) in one's career when the most lessons are learned. I would gladly share these lessons with you in my Web site, where you can visit whenever you have the need to learn something new. And maybe we can have other aspiring writers 'sit-in' and learn the ropes with us." Sounded like a plan.
So, to my son, Dante, and all you aspiring writers of the world, welcome. This is where I hope to share valuable tips, tricks of the trade, and inspired thoughts about being a writer. Classes start today.
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Rule Number One [3/17/01] - Writing is a craft. It requires skill. It requires mastery of the skill. So, to me, Rule Number One is "Master the language."
Whether it's your native tongue, or your second, third, or fourth language, know how to use it properly because that's the only way you can be effective as a writer. Writing is expressing thoughts in words. You have to master the language you write with, otherwise you will fail in your expression, and you will fail in your career.
Use the dictionary, the thesaurus, and the styleguides. Study the idiomatic expressions. Converse. Read. Be alert. And practice, practice, practice. Before you even think about becoming a writer, strive to be fluent and comfortable with expressing yourself in your language of choice.
And to illustrate how mastering a language (here the English language) is not exactly a walk in the park, here's something I received from a mass e-mailer. It has no byline, so, once again, thank you, Author Unknown.
Let's face it: English is a crazy language.
There is no egg in the eggplant, no ham in the hamburger and neither pine nor apple in the pineapple. English muffins were not invented in England;
French fries were not invented in France. We sometimes take English for granted. But if we examine its paradoxes we find that Quicksand takes you down slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
If writers write, how come fingers don't fing. If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn't the plural of phone booth be phone beeth?
If the teacher taught, why didn't the preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what the heck does a humanitarian eat!!!? Why do people recite at a play, yet play at a recital? Park on driveways and drive on parkways?
You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language where a house can burn up as it burns down and in which you fill in a form by filling it out.
And a bell is only heard once it goes!
English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which of course isn't a race at all). That is why when the stars are out they are visible, but when the lights are out they are invisible.
Do infants enjoy infancy as much as adults enjoy adultery? If Love is blind, why is lingerie so popular?
Why is the man who invests all your money called a broker? Why is a person who plays the piano called a pianist, but a person who drives a race car not called a racist?
Why are wise men and wise guys opposites? Why do overlook and oversee mean opposite things?
If horrific means to make horrible, does terrific mean to make terrible?
Why isn't 11 pronounced onety one?
If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn't it follow that electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, models deposed, tree surgeons debarked and dry cleaners depressed?
Why is it that if someone tells you that there are 1 billion stars in the universe you will believe them, but if they tell you a wall has wet paint you will have to touch it to be sure?
If you take an Oriental person and spin him around several times, does he become disoriented?
If people from Poland are called "Poles," why aren't people from Holland called "Holes?"
And why it is that when I wind up my watch it starts but when I wind up this story ends?
[Note (08-01-01): A kind visitor called my attention, and expressed that the "author unknown" of the above material (not complete nor in order) is Richard Lederer, author of the book, "Crazy English." Thank you for the feedback, Mr. Visitor.]
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Anyone Can Be a Writer? [5/02/01] - No, not anyone can be a writer. Whoever thinks this also thinks freelance writing is not a *real* job.
In any profession, or hobby for that matter, to be considered "good at it," one must devote hours, days, years of learning and an equal, maybe even more time practicing and perfecting. One must have the interest, determination, perseverence, and passion to excel.
Same with a career in writing -- it just looks easy because writers are sitting down, hunched over, and generally quiet while they attempt to do their jobs and "be good at it." The creativity, commitment, and anguish that flow in the process separate the writer from the rest of the population.
Anyone can write, but not anyone can be a writer. Not anyone can be a tightrope walker, either.
"True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance."
- Alexander Pope
"There is a minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class."
- George Orwell
"Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."
- Gene Fowler
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Double-check Your Work. Twice. [6/02/01] - At least twice; more if you have the time. Look at it this way, writing is your business, your career -- just like designing structures is to architects, and typing up code is to programmers.
If you don't check, double-check, triple-check your work, and a typo or grammatical error jumps out and punches your editor in the face, your building will collapse, your program will abend, so to speak.
For some occupations, failure to scrutinize little details with a fine-toothed comb can mean life or death. In your case, a wrong spelling, misplaced apostrophe, or dangling modifier can mean the "dreaded rejection" -- a near-fatal phenomenon to most writers.
You are a writer; words and sentences are your life. Don't let a slip slip away.
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Be Strong. Let Go of Your Babies. [7/01/01] - To many writers, transcribing feelings, ideas, and memories into physical, readable form is a metamorphic process -- the creation no less than the birth of a legacy, a work of art, a "baby."
Imagine turning over your "offspring" to an editor who will have no qualms about cropping and mutating it into something you would hardly recognize -- it's like slashing your own wrists. Heaven forbid you let a fellow mortal even breathe on your Mona Lisa's smile!
Unfortunately, editors come with the territory. In fact, editors are essential in the publishing world. They have a knack, call it a gift, for fixing twisted Mona Lisa smiles -- or at least those that look twisted in their publications' eyes.
If you want your work to appear in a publication you don't personally edit and distribute, be ready to deal with a ruthless editor. Just remember that it's the editor's job to correct typos, grammatical errors, and non-compliance with the publication's style, format, and goals.
So, be strong. Let go of your little babies, and thank your editors for doing their jobs. Then pick up a clue or two on how to better draw the Mona Lisa smiles they prefer. Or take your smiles somewhere else.
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Query, Pitch, Submit! [8/01/01] - Until you're clinking glasses and rubbing dust jackets with Stephen King and Dave Barry, you will need to do a lot of legwork (aka marketing and sales) to see your words in print. Editors and publishers are not going to line up to read your material, at least not while you're new in the circle. Instead, you line up to get your material read.
The good news is, while editors may not hold their collective breath for your next work of art, they can't totally ignore you because they are always on the lookout for knock-your-socks-off material. In other words, granting that your piece is exceptional, all you have to do is entice the editors to read it.
So, don't just write that masterpiece... submit it! Push that idea, sell that manuscript! Your words won't get published if they remain hidden in your hard drive, or worse, in your brain.
Remember that not everyone you approach will buy, no matter how brilliant your product is, but trust that there are buyers out there who are praying for exactly what you have created. Query, pitch, submit, and sell, sell, sell! That's how writers like King and Barry started.
Don't be scared, be patient, persevere -- pretty soon the publishers will seek you out (and you'll have to hide from them)! For now, just get your words out there. Sell, sell, sell!
How to Write Attention Grabbing Query & Cover Letters
The Successful Writer's Guide to Publishing Magazine Articles
Recommended Web pages:
How to Write a Successful Query
Publish or Piss Off: Query Letters
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Some Rejections Maim; None of Them Kill [9/01/01] - Rejections come with the territory. We've heard the adage a million different ways: "You can't please all the people all the time;" "Not everyone has your sense of humor;" "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder;" "Water seeks its own level." Something to that effect -- you get the idea.
Successful writers accept the inevitable. The more successful ones use rejections to improve their material and their craft. The most successful writers accept the inevitable, improve their work, and submit rejected pieces to other publications like crazy.
A rejection, even if it came with an explanation (not the norm), translates many different messages. The material may be poor (hone your skills), the topic may have been handled already (read previous issues), the slant may not fit the publication (read previous issues), the editor may be in a bad mood (tough luck), or your approach may be inappropriate (read the writer's guidelines again, check the spelling of the editor's name, and brush up on your people skills). A rejection could "say" one or all of the above.
Remember: even your best work can get rejected. The severe blow to your ego will maim you somehow, even make you question your purpose for being. Take a deep breath. Pick up a lesson or two and move on. It's not the end of the world.
P.S. Writing is selling -- you sell your ideas, concepts, and unique arrangement of words. Selling is a game of numbers -- you get one 'yes' with every 20 'no's. Ergo, as an average freelance writer, you get one acceptance with every 20 rejections. But each rejection takes you one step closer to an acceptance. That's the math.
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Ready for Feast or Famine? [10/03/01] - Whether you're writing full time or on the side, if you intend to make money from publishing your work, be ready for a roller coaster ride.
Sharing the creativity gene with other artists, writers are severely affected by the presence or absence of inspiration, by obsession as well as distraction, and by mood swings, full moons, bad weather, and terrorist attacks.
What's funny is, editors and publishers are also artists (and businessmen after dark). Throwing all of this creativity into the mix, the writer's life becomes one of the most unpredictable experiences on earth.
Are you ready to see your name in the glossies? How about seeing your SASE stuffed with a rejection letter? Looking forward to a hefty check in the mail? What if no checks are due for months at a time? Praises and accolades, yes? Criticisms and "we're sorry" e-mails… maybe?
Feast or famine -- that's the name of the creative writer's game. Of course, sometimes it's the other way around: famine or feast. Either way, it's a high rolling adventure. Are you up to it?
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Be an Expert at Something... Anything. [11/02/01] - Specializing in a specific area of interest puts you in a "first in mind" position with editors and publishers. Even if they don't remember you right away, when they punch up an online search or ask around for someone who can write about, say spores, molds, and fungus, your name would be among the first to jump out. You would certainly be on the list of first-in-mind "experts" who can discuss anthrax spores.
However, writing about only one scope of interest would pre-empt your exposure in venues that publish material about the other areas you're well versed in, like time travel, boll weevils, and cloning. So, some writers prefer to cast a broader net and call themselves "generalists." In effect, they are saying they're great writers, no matter what they write about.
But in the real world, even if you are a great writer, and can spin the best of any topic of interest ever conceived by the human mind, you will most likely be remembered not as "a great writer," but as "a great writer of…" say spores, molds, and fungus.
Here's a tip: find time to experiment on various forms of writing - fiction, non-fiction, romance, technical, tutorial, opinion, etc. Discover what for you is the genre or the topic you can easily make yourself an expert in. And when you've carved your name in that niche, and publishers already have you first in mind, you can boldly suggest, "Oh, by the way, I also do time travel, boll weevils, and cloning."
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Perceive, Process, Produce [12/02/01] - Writers are artists. Artists are translators. They translate whatever they perceive with their senses into creative output called works of art. Musicians catch sounds from the environment and harmonize them into music. Painters capture snapshots of space and time and recreate them into palettes of colors. Writers grasp slices of life and translate them into words that conjure mental images.
As artists, writers need to have a keen sense of perception. They must have a penchant for catching fleeting moments, breaking them apart and churning them about, then putting them back together in various creative ways, and finally spitting them out in a masterful manuscript. Without the ability to catch sounds, capture snapshots, and feel different textures, writers will have nothing to translate and weave into insightful mental images.
If you want to be an effective writer, keep your senses sharp. Look, listen, touch, taste, smell, and most of all, feel. Learn new things. Explore. Get involved. Get a life. Then write like there's no tomorrow.
Further reading: Want to Write Non-Fiction? Get a Life!
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