I thought I’d start today’s post with a story about someone – not me – who attended a course on writing childrens’ books.
The average age of the audience was about 60. Most, it seemed, had retired and decided to ‘become’ childrens’ writers, mostly by picking up a pen for the first time and writing. After all, childrens’ books don’t have many words. They’d written letters, diaries, corporate reports and so forth. How hard could it be? So they were asking questions about whether to have the publisher contract read by a solicitor, and how much advance to negotiate.
‘No no’, the facilitator said. ‘Before you can sell anything, you have to learn how to write.’
Fact is that writing is a learned skill like any other. It takes as much time to become fully competent as to become a concert pianist, or a surgeon, or engineer. By this I mean, ‘make it part of your soul’ – unconscious competence. Doing the mechanics of it without thinking – allowing you to focus on the quality. The typical estimate to get there for any skill is about 10,000 hours. Writing is no exception. It includes time spent receiving formal instruction, even if you pick up self-learning after that (most writers do). Most of it is time spent on your own, writing.
Typically, a writer will push out about a million words to get unconsciously competent. Often these are exercises. Usually the process is completed as they swing into their publishing career - two or three books in, even.
I did that. I wore out two typewriters along the way. But wait, I can hear you saying. What about passion? The satisfaction of writing – the pleasure? Sure, absolutely. Passion is essential. And you have to find it satisfying, too. The feel-good factor. That’s certainly why I write.
I think passion translates to a drive to get that competence. To do the hard yards. To be prepared to take lessons. To write. And then throw away what you’ve just written. And write some more.
What’s more, today’s market demands more than just competence as a writer. It’s a crowded world and authors need a whole toolbox of skills. That applies whether you’re self-publishing or going the traditional route. It includes – but is not limited to:
1. Learned and practised writing skills including style, structure, content and ability to write to a specified length.
2. An expertise in the topic they’re writing on (be it fiction or non-fiction).
3. An understanding of the market – how crowded is it, what will work, what won’t, the likely audience. And how to sell the book into it.
4. An understanding of proofing processes, systems and publishing mechanisms.
5. A professional approach – meaning the written material isn’t used to define your sense of self-worth.
It sounds daunting. But it isn’t. Not when fuelled by passion.
I’m going to cover the items above as we go along.
Passion and learning. And that begs a question. Are writers born or made? I think it’s ‘both’. People are born with the aptitude – they want to write; they have to write. But they still have to learn, if they want to succeed. And that learning never stops.
What do you figure?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Coming up this week: Summer inspirations, more on kindness, and sixty-second writing tips.