"Writing is the only art where a ‘prodigy’ can be anyone under 40."
I'm 43 years old and I'm in the process of getting my first novel published. As it turns out, most people take a while to get their first book done, for a lot of reasons. At the Whatever blog
, John Scalzi took this question:
Whenever I hear about a “new” novelist, they turn out to be in their 30s. Why is that? It seems like you hear about new musicians and actors and other creative people in when they are in their 20s.
His answer was in depth and worth reading, but in essence he says this: because it takes time to perfect your skill to the point of being worth publication, because it takes a while to find a publisher, because the process of publication takes a while (years in some cases), and because it takes time to write a novel. To that I would add that it takes time to be ready to even begin writing. You can have all the skill in the world but no story to tell, and young people are full of energy and creativity, but rarely are they full of life experience and the travails of existence that drive wisdom and the ability to tell a good story.
Of the last ten Campbell "Best New Novelist" awards, 8 were within 3 years of being 37, and there's a lot of good reasons for that. It just takes time to get to where you can even write, let alone be published. The only way to become good at writing is to write, even the finest, most talented genius in the world takes time to get skilled at their craft. You have to read
a lot too, read many different things, different genres, different writers, from different ages. That input tends to stay in your memory even if you don't consciously dredge it up: the way words are used, how phrases are crafted, what techniques are used to craft a scene, how to build drama, how to write different characters, and many more intangibles.
Another thing to consider is that, while I wrote my book (around 80,000 words) in about a month, it took me over a year of just pondering ideas and letting them sit in the back of my mind, gathering scenes to put into place, and letting the log gather barnacles, as C. S. Forrester put it. He likened the process to a log being dropped to the bottom of a lake, the log being his ideas. He'd think of some things, then let them lay in his mind a while, dredging it up later to look it over and see how it had grown and enhanced over time. So while the actual writing (and re-writing) process isn't necessarily a lengthy exercise, writing in a real sense takes a long time to develop.
Here are a few authors and their age at first publication courtesy commenters at Whatever:
Steve Erickson was 35 when Days Between Stations was published.
Lucius Shepard’s first novel, Green Eyes, was published when he was 37.
William S. Burroughs was 39 when Junky was first published.
James M. Cain was 42 when The Postman Always Rings Twice was published.
L. Frank Baum was 44 when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published.
Raymond Chandler was 51 when The Big Sleep was published.
And Charles Bukowski was 51 when his first novel, Post Office, was published.
I write several thousand words a day on this blog, in comment sections around the internet and in my personal work. By doing so I'm practicing not just typing but spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and presenting ideas. Much of what I write is more essay-form, such as on this blog, but it still helps me be a better writer. And I have many, many miles and years to go before I can consider myself a good writer. I'm good enough to put out a little print-on-demand adventure tale, I'll probably never be good enough to write something like Treason's Harbor
(by Patrick O'Brian).
The trick is to understand the difference between being not the finest writer on earth and being no writer at all. It is possible that you can go through all the steps, work very hard at your craft, hone your skills and write a book that is just awful because you aren't a writer. That is no indication of some special weakness in yourself, each of us has some talents and some weaknesses; it takes wisdom and courage to recognize where they lay and admit where they do not.
At the same time, You don't have to be the best writer on earth. You just have to be the best writer you can be. I'll never measure up to giants like C.S. Lewis and Patrick O'Brian, or even greats like Raymond Chandler. That doesn't mean I'm a lousy writer, it means I'm not the absolute best. You don't have to be the best, you just have to be good enough to be published, and good enough to look at yourself in the mirror and be proud of your work. It's good to be humble enough to recognize you aren't the next Steinbeck. Just don't let it grind you down
Some folks seem to be talented at nearly anything they try, others are much more narrowly focused, but I suspect the latter seems that way only because we tend to see some areas as talents and others as merely common achievements. Arts and athletic gifts tend to be overemphasized and held in higher esteem than being a hard, consistent, good worker, or having superior health, or being able to reach out and communicate to almost anyone. Just plain hospitality is a gift often overlooked. Or the ability to inspire others, even the ability to suffer in a manner that others learn and grow from watching and being with you.
I struggle with grammar still. I never have had much formal training in grammar despite graduating with a B average in school (putting in a minimal effort) and having a few years of college. The education system I was churned through simply didn't bother much with grammar because its hard to teach, boring, and often frustrating for students. As a result I wasn't challenged as much as I should have and you can tell by reading my work: often I garble and mangle sentences and misuse punctuation. On this blog I rarely edit my own work, so sometimes what I thought and typed is nearly incomprehensible. Sometimes I'll edit a line without carefully considering context or completely changing the tone and tense of what is being said, so it becomes confusing. So I have a long road to travel in that, as well.
If you want to write a book, the time to start is now. Start writing, and write every day. Set aside time and take that time to write, and it doesn't even matter what you write. Get something down each day, and fill that time with writing. Here is my advice on how to do it well:
- Keep to a schedule. Start and end at roughly the same time, or have a set goal of how much to write each day. Stay with that. I write from around 7-12 AM (PST) each day, or until I get at least 3 articles and a quote up on my blog. Then I write other things as I have time and need.
- Keep distractions to a minimum. Do not have the radio on, the TV on, the cell phone on. Do not have people around who'll talk or interrupt you. Do not do something else while you are writing. Focus on what you're doing and why. This will help you complete thoughts and maintain the flow of concentration and maximize output.
- Write on a computer. I know, this is cold and difficult for some, and if you don't have a laptop it can be uncomfortable or awkward. I wrote my novel in bed on a laptop, but it was on a computer. The fact is, you're going to have to put it on a computer eventually, so unless you really like transcribing your own material of over 60,000 words (that's the minimum length most publishers will consider for a novel, according to Mr Scalzi), best to just write it on the computer to begin with.
- Take at most one day off a week, barring emergency or illness. Write every day if possible. I write on this blog 5 days a week, but on my own nearly every day in some capacity. Take one day off, though. Take a day off from your official, hard work because you need the break. Even if you have a lot of momentum and are in the middle of an idea, jot some notes down and take a day off once a week. You can write other things, like emails and comments or notes, but don't do your work every single day or you'll burn out.
- Be willing to be criticized. This is incredibly difficult for me, and I suspect most others. Even if the criticism is stupid or wrong or confused, take it gracefully and gratefully. They wouldn't criticize or offer suggestions if they didn't care about you or were not interested in your work. Its a compliment, unless they're just being cruel and mean. Take editing advice from people who read your work, listen and think about what they said. This is so hard because what you wrote was what you thought should be written, and sometimes (perhaps often) the people who advise you are wrong. Yet sometimes (perhaps often) they will be right, they will see something or know something you did not. Listen to them and consider it, if only briefly.
- And finally, I'd suggest that you finish something. This can be the bane of would-be writers. I know, I have two dozen started stories and one finished. Finish a story, no matter what quality it is or how much others like it. Finish it because the process is so much different than just writing. Bring a story through its various arcs and portions to a completed and satisfying conclusion teaches things you cannot learn any other way. Finish at least one story before you can consider yourself a novelist.
And remember: you're a writer if you write. Being published means you're a professional writer, but you are a writer even if you never are published.
The one big question I've never found the answer to is this: how do you find a reputable agent if you haven't been published yet? Related is this: how do you get publishers to listen to you without an agent? I went for an online publisher that prints on demand, they have editors, publicists, cover designers, and so on; it is a real publisher, but its print on demand, which means it isn't a real real publisher, because I'll never get into any major book store chain through these guys. Book stores don't care for print-on-demand because they can't get a deep enough discount to carry the books.
So how on earth do you break through that first barrier? I simply do not know.
John Scalzi thinks self publication and print on demand is stupid, wrong, damaging to writers, horrible, and a scam. He particularly despises the publisher I'm working with:PublishAmerica. Yet for someone like me, it's the only real option. He doesn't suggest anything to answer my questions above. So its PA for now, despite his concerns which honestly strike me as incredibly overblown and dubious.
*UPDATE: added a new bit of advice, probably the most important. Don't worry if you are't the best in the world.