The following was a speech I gave to a new writers' club several years ago. Recently, I had reason to look it up, and I think the information is still valuable.
There are three secrets to becoming a writer. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are. Seriously, I'm going to give you seven rules that I try to follow. There are probably more but if you're just beginning a writing career, these will help.
Rule No. 1. Read a lot. Every fiction writer I know was an avid reader early in life. We loved stories. From there we progressed--sometimes early, sometimes late--to wanting to tell our own stories. Successful non-fiction writers have always had an urge to share information, or just tell somebody else what to do. Read anything and everything, but especially read the kind of stuff you want to write. You’ll learn from it too.
My first stories were written when I was still in grade school, along with some really bad poetry and thirteen chapters of a novel about a girl whose parents were wealthier than the Rockefellers (Well, Bill Gates wasn't born yet.). We were poor, so I guess that was wishful thinking.
I was published in my high school paper and yearbook. I also sent my short stories to national magazines and, although none of those were published, I got a few promising letters from editors.
Rule No. 2. A writer writes. Even if it doesn't get published you'll learn something from it. Have you heard the expression, “practice makes perfect”? I've got news for you: it's true. And, if not perfect, at least it gets better. Plus, it's out there. You can't be published if you don't put the seat of the pants on the seat of the chair, use your pencil, your pen, your typewriter or your computer. A famous writer said, “It's easy. Just sit in front of the paper and open up a vein.”
As for me, a few years after I married my husband, I acquired an IBM Selectric typewriter and went back to writing. I enrolled in a class taught by a local woman. She had us write down the premise to a short story. You know what a premise is. That's a sentence which describes the plot. For instance, the premise for Gone With the Wind might be: “Southern woman, in love with the wrong man, survives the Civil War, and loses the right man just as she realizes she really loves him.”
My premise was about a married woman with three small children, who has an accident which leaves her unable to care for her family, so she tells her husband to divorce her and marry someone else. The writing teacher said that was unbelievable. No woman would do that. I said, "That really happened. My aunt told me about it." And she said, "Yeah, but you know truth is stranger than fiction." And then she said the magic words, "Let it be a challenge to you, make it believable." So I wrote the story and I must have made it believable because it sold the first time out.
That thrilled me, and I thought my career was launched. But I didn't sell another thing for ten years. However, I kept writing, attended classes, workshops and conferences, subscribed to writers magazines and read books on writing.
Rule No. 3. Learn your craft. It constantly amazes me how many people want to write who have never subscribed to a writing magazine, never read a book on writing, never attended a class, or workshop or conference.
I'm at a party and someone asks “What do you do?” and I say, “I'm a writer.” And they say, “I'm going to write a book some day.” Really? If I had answered, “I'm an architect,” would they have said, “I'm going to design a building some day”?
The reason they do that is because we all learned how to write in school. We wrote themes and book reports and even theses in college. Okay, maybe if you got a good grade on your college thesis you might some day write a non-fiction article or book. But fiction is a different skill. You have to learn how to do it.
In 1980 I joined a workshop and discovered everyone was writing romance novels. I had never read one, so I borrowed a few and read them and said, "I can do that." Of course, it's not as easy as it looks, but, because I actually read those books and saw how they were constructed, I finally won a contest in 1985 and my first romance novel was published in 1986, the same year as my non-fiction book Wall Street on $20 a Month, "How to profit from an investment club," was published by John Wiley & Sons.
Another nine years went by. By then I was selling articles and stories to magazines, and was asked to ghost-write three books. So I made enough money to support my habit. Not enough to live on, but it bought paper and stamps. I wrote two 30-minute radio plays which were produced by American Radio Theatre, and I wrote both a stage play and a screen play, both of which, so far, nobody wants. However, my one-act plays and short skits were performed by an acting troupe. So I was practicing.
Rule No. 4. Learn the language. Be sure you know correct English grammar, punctuation and spelling. If you're not sure how to spell a word, look it up in the dictionary. As for grammar, however, do not - repeat do not - trust your computer grammar software. Those things are not written by experts. Your desk should contain a minimum of four books: a good dictionary, a thesaurus, and books on grammar and punctuation. If you write poetry, a rhyming dictionary helps. And if you write non-rhyming free verse, God help you. I can't.
I was an RWA Golden Heart Finalist and I sold romance novels in 1986, 1995, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2006, and every year since. In 2001 I sold my mainstream novel, Choices, and North by Northeast, my romantic suspense novel, won the San Diego Book Award.
Rule No. 5. Write what you know. You've heard that before and it's true. Those of you who are writing, or want to write, memoirs, are obviously writing about what you know. Those who are writing fiction can also profit from what they've done and seen.
My novel, Choices is based on the seventeen years I sold my husband's paintings at art shows. North by Northeast takes place on a train tour which we actually took. Another book takes place in Hawaii which I've visited often because we owned two condos on Maui for twenty years. Another takes place on a 52-foot yacht in the Bahamas, and I've been there and done that. Some other books I've published recently take place in Italy, France and Great Britain, all of which I visited. I'm sure you’ve been places and done things that you can write about.
I've always loved mysteries and even my romance novels have elements of intrigue in them. (How else do you keep the lovers apart for 200 pages?) But I've never stolen anything or killed anyone, so how can I write about crime? In that case, it's perfectly acceptable to draw upon what you've read in other novels or in the newspaper or seen on television. It's called research. You can get books which tell you about weapons and poison, police procedures or private investigator techniques. Do your homework. Nowadays editors don't tell you why they rejected your book, so you may never know it was because you made a major “boo boo” and got your facts wrong.
I also write woman-in-jeopardy mysteries like Mary Higgins Clark, and "cozy" mysteries like Agatha Christie. They haven't sold yet but they're out there. In fact, I have eight novels out right now at various publishing houses.
All non-fiction writers will do a lot of research and I recommend you keep track of your sources. Save the article from which you pulled a fact, make a note on a 3 x 5 card of what book you got information from. This can be a life-saver if some editor or reader questions what you've written.
Rule No. 6. Become observant. This is especially true of fiction writing, but even non-fiction writers need to learn how to “show” a scene. Readers don't have a picture to look at, as they do with films or television, so you must paint one for them.
Keep a journal in which you jot down your impression of things you see, or bits of dialogue, or even character names you may want to use, or future book titles.
Rule No. 7. Be persistent. Most writers get rejected before they begin to sell, even afterward. Pearl buck's novel, The Good Earth, was rejected 31 times before it sold and then it won the Nobel Prize. Lust for Life was rejected 17 times. Auntie Mame was rejected 16 times. My novel Southern Star was rejected 19 times, was published by Avalon Books and is now an Amazon Montlake Romance. Even after you've published something, you can still get rejected. Every book must stand on its own. Only Stephen King, Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts can sell anything they write. Don't take rejection personally. It might have come from a female editor whose husband just dumped her or a male editor whose ex-wife had the same name as your heroine. Or they had a cold that day or the sun was shining. Just keep going. Do what I do and send a lot of work to editors. When one of my manuscripts is rejected, I can say, “Oh well, there are still seven others.”
Summary. I hope my rules haven't discouraged you, but I must admit there are two bad things about being a writer. As you see, you have to have a thick skin. If you can't handle rejection, forget it. The other bad thing is that you may never make a living at it. A few authors are millionaires, but most writers (and I mean those who actually sell something now and then) make less than you’ll get in Social Security.
Writing can be a lot of work and take up 25 hours a day, but there are three good things about being a writer. (1) You don't need a college degree. (2) It takes your mind off your problems. (Someone said that nothing in life is too terrible for a writer because he can always use it in a book.) and (3) No one needs to know you're over 50 and write in your pajamas.
Personally I intend to write until the day they find me, stone cold, slumped over my computer keyboard. If you want to write--if it's your obsession--then try my seven rules and do it.