Tools of the trade

 There are a number of tools that can help writers as they perform their task of putting words on paper. 

The first tool to find is simply lots of stuff to read. If you want to find out how to be an author, look at how other folks have done it and do likewise.  You can take courses in creative writing, and you can take courses in English grammar.  Both of those things are important and can help immensely.  But if you’re not spending time every day reading the sorts of things that you’d like to write, you’re not going to know what you’re doing.

            I have been reading science fiction since I was in third grade.  The first science fiction novel I ever read was by Robert A. Heinlein.  Ironically, the book I pulled from the shelves of my school library in Westerville, Ohio also happened to be Heinlein’s first published novel: Rocket Ship Galileo

            From that exposure to the genre, I went on to consume everything that he had ever written, and I sought out books by other authors ranging from Donald A. Wolheim and A.E. Van Vogt, to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark.  There are dozens, if not hundreds of science fiction authors that I have read and enjoyed.  And I continue reading in that genre.  One other important aspect of reading the sort of material you want to write is that you’ll learn what’s been done before, and what’s been done to death—and what are clichéd and hackneyed or just downright stupid ideas that you need to avoid.

            Another tool that the good writer needs is a wastebasket.  Jerry Pournelle, who with his writing partner Larry Niven, has produced some of the classics of science fiction, explained that the individual who wishes to be an author must be prepared to write and throw away about a million words before getting anything published.  His statement is not hyperbole.  Writers write—a lot.  And writers have to practice.   Think about all the years that stand between a young child when she first picks up her violin and when she finally sits down on stage with the philharmonic.  Becoming a writer is no different.

            A million words sounds like a lot.  It is.  But you don’t write those words all in one sitting. I can write the first draft of a novel in about three months.  How do I do that?  The same way you’ve eaten a cow or two in your life: one hamburger at a time.  I work five days a week, and each day I write ten pages.  So, that works out to fifty pages a week, two hundred pages a month, and six hundred pages by the end of three months: a grand total of about 150,000 words.  In order to get your first million words under your belt, you’ll have to do that about seven times.

            Thankfully, I started young and cranked out my first million words by the time I graduated college.  But you can see that at ten pages a day it wouldn’t really take you all that long to have a million words to fill your trash can with.

            Pournelle’s figure is not a hard and fast law, of course.  His point—and mine in quoting him—is to warn the prospective writer that a lot of what you write at first is not going to be very good—and that’s okay.  Just be prepared.  Actually, a lot of the stuff you write, even after thirty years of doing it, will probably not be so hot, either.  Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, once commented that ninety percent of everything is junk.

            Another valuable and necessary tool is a first reader: someone to read your stuff before you try to send it to an editor.  This needs to be someone who will give you genuine feedback, not someone who will pat you on the head and tell you that you’re a genius.  Who you want is someone who is a close enough friend that his or her honesty will not make you think that they hate you when they point out the flaws in your masterpiece.  It needs to be a friend from whom you’re willing to accept complete honesty.  If you’re fortunate, you’ll have at least one person in your life who can fulfill this role for you.

            Writer’s groups can be very valuable tools.  Most communities will have such a gathering that assembles at least once a month. A writer’s group will usually give you an opportunity to share what you’ve written, and will be happy to give you feedback and encouragement.

As with most things in life, landing a contract with a publisher is partially a consequence of who you know.  Therefore, if you can at all afford it, attending a writer’s conference is a good idea: you’ll have the opportunity to meet editors, agents and published authors—people who you can talk to face to face and pitch your ideas to.  The vast majority of authors get published through such personal contacts, not from just sending material cold to a publishing house picked out of Writer’s Market.  Still, it is a good idea to have a copy of the current Writer’s Market in your house.  Most public libraries will have one, too.  It’s updated annually, so always use the current edition.  Editors and the interests at publishing houses change frequently.

            Finally, the two most valuable and necessary tools that a writer needs are a thick skin, for all the rejection from publishers that you’ll inevitably collect, and for all the indifference or discouragement that well-meaning family members and friends will dump on you.  And with that thick skin, you also need the perseverance—or outright stubbornness—to keep going when anyone else would have given up years ago. 

Writing is lonely, hard work. But it is also wonderful—so wonderful, that if you are a writer, you’ll find you really can’t do anything else.