What Should I Tell Them?

What if one of my children—or later, one of my grandchildren—was to ask if she should be a writer? What should I tell her?

ChildrenIt would be easy to recall all the downsides and advise her to grow up to be something—anything—else. Why subject my own flesh and blood to the long hours alone, the frenzied and awful first drafts, the agony of editing, the anxiety of submission, the torture of rejection, and the years of solitary obscurity?

Why not spare her all that, since I know about it and she can benefit from my wisdom?

But then…

There is that giddy enthusiasm as a good story idea takes hold in your mind, the godlike power of creating a world and peopling it, the fun of coming up with a clever line, the thrill of getting your first (and all subsequent) acceptances, and the ecstasy of seeing your name in print. There’s all that.

Looking back on what I wish I’d known, should I tell her that stuff too? Should I tell her:

  • she shouldn’t expect instant success? It may happen, of course, and I’d be very proud if it did, but chances are low.
  • to, therefore, get and keep a day job, (or marry into wealth)?
  • to consider certain genres and shun others? Romance and horror sell well, but others are so-so.
  • to be unafraid of submitting (like I was for a long time)? Even if I told her, would it make any difference?
  • that rejections are no cause for distress? A rejection is not the end; it’s the beginning of new opportunities for that story and that market.

When it comes down to it, I guess all she really needs to know is whether she has an inner drive to tell a story through written words. Does she have a fire inside that will burn despite any setback, any hardship? Is her little mind filled to bursting with an idea that must get out somehow?

That’s something I don’t know, and can’t impart.

If the passion isn’t there, nothing I can say will make her a writer.

Conversely, if the passion is there, nothing I say will stop her from writing.

If you’re a writer, leave me a comment about what I should tell a child or grandchild who’s curious about becoming a writer. What did you tell your child? Because if there’s one author who’s aching to know such things, it’s—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Leave Yourself Wanting More

You’ve heard the show business adage, “Always leave them wanting more,” meaning an entertainer should exit the stage before the audience gets bored.   Helen DunmoreBy the same principle, novelist and poet Helen Dunmore said you should “finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.”


Why is that?  There seems to be some important facet of human nature at work here.  To cite another example of this phenomenon, I used to read to my children when they were quite young, but I tried to observe them as I read to look for the early signs of boredom.  In time I found I could stop reading, even in the middle of a book, and tell them that was it for the night.  They’d beg me to go on, but I wouldn’t, because I knew I’d timed it right.

The human brain seems unusually good at pattern recognition and associating things together.  If your brain associates a given entertainer with a feeling of boredom, you’ll be less likely to pay for a ticket next time.  Similarly, if a child associates books with a feeling of interest and yearning for more, the child will likely develop a love of reading.

Let’s say it’s late at night and you’ve been writing for a while.  You are at the point when you usually go to bed.  You know you should call it quits, but you’re so near the end of a section, or chapter, or the whole book.  Moreover, you’re in the flow, and the words are coming out well, better than usual.  If you can just push it a little longer, you’ll achieve the satisfaction of completing something good.

This is the moment of decision, and you’re tempted to push on.  If you do, and your fatigue causes you to get stuck for words, your brain can start associating writing with being stuck and tired.  That leads to writer’s block.

However, if you save your work and turn off the computer now, your brain will associate writing with being in the flow, with feelings of interest and enthusiasm.  Moreover, you’ll get the sleep you need.

It’s a funny thing, but you needn’t worry about forgetting overnight what you were going to write next.  When you come back to your manuscript the next day all the memories flood back in, along with the confidence and fervor of the previous night, and pretty soon you’re in the zone again.

If you wish, before you finish for the night (even in the middle of a sentence!) you could jot down some quick notes of where the prose was headed.  By some mysterious mental mechanism, your brain will be thinking subconsciously during your non-writing interval, working out better phrasing, solving plot problems, etc.  The next day when you resume, you may find you have better ideas than you ended up with the night before.

Has this been your experience?  Do you agree with Helen Dunmore and me, or do you adhere to a different school of thought?  Leave a comment and let me know.  There’s much more I want to say, but I’ll stop here, so you’ll associate feelings of fascination with—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

You Might Be a Writer If…

Jeff FoxworthyDo you have what it takes to be a writer?  If you did, would you know you did?  Sometimes it’s difficult to tell.  To make it easy for you, I’ve developed a handy test along the lines of Jeff Foxworthy’s ‘Redneck Test.’  See how many of these apply to you.

You might be a writer if:

  1. You’ve ever jotted down a plot idea by interrupting a shower.
  2. You celebrate the birthdays of William Strunk and E.B. White.
  3. You’ve day-dreamed an entire talk-show interview about your best-selling novel.
  4. You have a favorite intransitive verb.
  5. You’ve cried over the loss of your favorite pen.
  6. You’ve ever invoked Hemingway to defend a drunken binge.
  7. Your muse is as real to you as your spouse, and that seems to bother your spouse.
  8. You have checked the Thesaurus…for mistakes.
  9. You’ve ever sneaked in extra writing time while at your day job, in the bathroom.
  10. Your computer keyboard cringes when you come in the room.
  11. You’ve ever said, “Honest, Officer, I was doing research.”
  12. Your few remaining friends groan when they hear you say, “Want to hear about my latest story?”
  13. You’ve called a company to rant about grammatical mistakes in their advertisements.
  14. You read the dictionary for pleasure, and then re-read it.
  15. The last three months of your wall calendar read October, Nanowrimo, December.
  16. Your study is wallpapered with rejection letters.
  17. Microsoft Word software development engineers call you for ideas.
  18. Your three children have told you they hate their names.  All three of them, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Dostoevsky.

Lastly, you might be a writer if:

19. Your spouse has asked when you’re coming to bed, and you’ve replied “as soon as I finish writing this intimate bedroom scene.”  An hour later, your characters collapse in satisfied weariness, but your spouse is no longer in the mood.

For those of you out there who are already authors, feel free to comment and add any other items to my test.  If you weren’t sure if you’re a writer, let me know if you found the test useful, or at least interesting.  As always I strive to be of help to beginning, struggling writers.  It’s all part of the free service provided by—

                                                             Poseidon’s Scribe


January 13, 2013Permalink

The Iron-Clad Discipline of Writing

Many years ago, I attended one of our nation’s service academies.  When, during a meal, one of the upperclassmen heard some unnecessary talking at the table by an underclassman, he would ask, “Mr. —–, how’s the discipline at that end of the table?”  The only correct answer was to bang your fist on the table and shout, “Iron-clad, sir!”  Discipline is a vital attribute of military service; is it also important in writing?

This excellent blog post by Jocelyn K. Glei explores the whole idea of discipline, including a fascinating psychological test for it, the Marshmallow Test.  Researchers took four-year-old kids and showed them a marshmallow and said they could eat it now, or wait fifteen minutes and they’d be given two.  All the kids wanted to wait, but not all could.   Years later when they were in high school, the children who’d waited for two marshmallows at age four still demonstrated more disciplined behavior.

The website also provides a simple twelve-question quiz you can take to measure your own discipline.  The article calls the quality ‘grit,’ but they mean that same tenacity and perseverance I’m talking about.  It produces results ranging from 1.0 (undisciplined) to 5.0 (very disciplined).

Obviously a certain amount of discipline is necessary to be a writer.  Something has to keep you in that chair, churning out words for hours on end.  There will come times when you’d prefer to be doing something else.  Authors joke about it often, that realization that a library book needs returning, or the floor under the bed needs cleaning, or the lawn needs mowing.  Anything other than writing.

I believe a lack of discipline may be the thing that discourages people from writing, more so than any other reason.  People will say things such as, “I could never write a novel.  I don’t know where writers get their ideas.”  But just about everyone has a story to tell.  Ideas aren’t the problem, in my view.  It’s the thought of devoting long hours alone to the task of generating the words, the paragraphs, the scenes.  The duration of the effort seems daunting.

That’s why, as the saying goes, writing a novel is a one-day event.  As in, “one day, I’m going to write a novel.”

So I do think a certain amount of doggedness is necessary, if only to get you through those tough times when the words won’t flow.  There must be some recognition of the value of delayed gratification; otherwise it would be too easy to just stop writing.

When I set out to blog about this topic, I assumed a writer couldn’t get too much discipline, that it was an attribute a writer needed in full measure.  Then I got to thinking about people with extreme discipline–people who never, ever give up.  They will pursue a project to completion with single-minded devotion, not letting anything get in their way.  Again, the way I’ve described it still may sound like a desirable trait, but consider there may be a certain lack of adaptability in extremely disciplined people.  They might not be so willing to abandon a course of action even if the situation changes.

For you as a writer, a story might not be working at all.  Try as you might, it’s not coming together.  Or perhaps the story you were writing would have been based on some real-life situation remaining unchanged, but it changed.  For example, your story might have been based on the continued existence of some famous person who then died while you were writing the story.

In such cases, a certain degree of flexibility might be more important than a 5.0 rating of discipline.  I’m not saying disciplined people always lack adaptability; the words aren’t antonyms.  I’m just saying both attributes are important to writers.

You might disagree with me.  That’s what the ‘leave a comment’ thing below is for.  For those of you dying of curiosity, my grit rating on the quiz was 3.92.  You might also be asking, “Mr. Poseidon’s Scribe, how’s discipline at that end of the internet?”  Bang!  Iron-clad, sir!”  At least, that’s the response from–

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

Alone With Your Writing

Most writers write alone.  Some collaborate, but for the majority it’s a solitary thing.

Do you like being alone?  Those who tend toward introversion prefer solitude to recharge after the drain of being around other people.  However, even the most introverted person is still a bit of a social animal; we all need company now and then.

Extroverted writers face a more complex dilemma.  Their need to write compels them to work alone to complete it, but solitude exhausts them emotionally until they can recharge by being around others.  There certainly are some extroverted writers, but it must be a struggle.

Being alone, of course, does not necessarily mean being lonely.  Aloneness is a condition, but loneliness is an emotion under your control.  If you enjoy what you’re doing while alone–writing, in this case–then you won’t be lonely.

Most writers would argue they’re not completely alone when they write.  They’re surrounded by groups of “virtual” people.  First are their story’s characters.  For a writer who is “in the zone,” the characters can seem very real and almost present.  Rather than feeling alone, then, a writer is actually transported to a different world, the world of his story, which might be very crowded indeed.

To some extent, writers also feel the presence of their readers.  The writer shares the reader’s eventual emotional reaction to the story as if the reader is looking over his shoulder.

Lastly, while alone, the writer can also be “accompanied” by an editor or critique group member.  Each time he types an adverb or mixes a metaphor or creates an awkward point of view jump, he’ll hear the disapproving voice of that person in his ear.

If you are considering becoming a writer, my advice is not to let the prospect of spending all that time alone deter you.  If you have a story to tell and something inside is driving you to write it down and share it with the world–if the passion is that intense, you’ll welcome the solitude rather than fear it.

One note of caution:  not only is writing a solitary endeavor, it is also a sedentary one.  It’s pretty much the opposite of physical exercise.  It requires hours and hours of sitting.  Here’s my advice on dealing with that:

  • Make yourself as comfortable as possible while writing, so you’re not straining any particular muscles.
  • Take pacing or stretch breaks when you can so you’re not in one position for too long.
  • Don’t eat while you write.  Once you begin mentally associating writing with snacking, that will become your normal mode and undesired weight gain can result.
  • Find time to exercise.  It’s true that both writing and exercising consume time, which is precious for us all.  But think of it this way–your eventual readers will want you healthy enough to keep cranking out more books!  Besides, you might be able to take a small digital voice recorder with you as you exercise (particularly jogging or walking) so you don’t lose the ideas that occur while your mind is otherwise unoccupied.

In summary, sitting alone is what writers do.  If writing is what you love, then you’ll be able to cope with the sitting and the solitude.  On this and in all other matters, you know you can trust…

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

December 18, 2011Permalink