Thursday, August 04, 2011

How to Know if You've Got What It Takes to Be a Writer

"Maybe I'm not cut out to be a writer. How do I know if I've got what it takes?"

That, my friend, is a loaded question with one simple answer...

I've been having a spirited e-mail discussion lately with a talented writer whose work I've taken far too long to finish Beta reading.

My writing is imperfect! Therefore, I am worthless.
Photo by andi.
I've made comments on her manuscript such as: "I don't like this character very much right now," "He's annoying me with his passivity," and "I want to smack him!" These are not intended to make her tear up her manuscript and flush it and her writing dreams down the toilet. They are intended to help give her a window into one reader's thoughts on her book and make changes she sees fit that might improve the reader's experience.

This writer is very thin skinned. She tends to equate "This doesn't work for me" with "You are a worthless, talentless hack." She is not alone.

What do you mean REWRITE?!
Photo by Rupert Jefferies
I work with writers all the time who say they want honest criticism. And they do. To a point. But what they want more is validation.

I don't mean they need handled with kid gloves. But there comes a point during the litany of "here's where this goes astray" and "this whole section needs reworking" where their eyes glaze over and all they want to hear is, "This has merit. Keep going."

Without exception, my answer is: The project has merit as long as you can remain passionate about it. Because, I hate to tell ya, sweetheart, you're gonna re-write it a bazillion times before it's finished.

If you think that's a Bad Thing -- if the thought of rewriting your precious prose makes you want to crawl in a hole and lament the end of your creative dreams  --  then perhaps it is time to rethink the whole Writer-as-Career-Choice decision.

I'll stay here. And my book will stay on my hard drive.
Photo by Scott Liddell
But if the thought of revisiting your characters and their world, spending more time with them and seeing how they can be made even better invigorates and excites you, then you've got what it takes!

'Cause, frankly, that's ALL it takes.

No one is born knowing how to put words together. No one instinctively understands plotting, or dialogue, or subtext, or character arcs. No one pops out of the womb with an innate grasp of imagery. Or poetry. Or knowing when to use "whose" and when to use "who's." Everyone who wants to write has to learn all that stuff -- and more.

Writing is a craft. It's a learned skill. Any time you find yourself thinking "I don't have the chops for this," what you really mean is "I need to expand my skill set."

No, dammit! Every word must stay!
Photo by Scott Liddell.
I had a lovely discussion yesterday with a producer who wants to work with me developing a script of mine that he likes. He has a proven track record. He has loads of experience and connections. He thinks my script needs some work.

This I see as a *good* thing. Because, in all honesty, the story is as good as I can make it on my own. The script has done well in contests. I've polished it to make it as shiny as I know how. But that doesn't mean it's perfect.

He gingerly approached the subject of reworking several aspects of the story. At one point, I cut to the chase and said, "You don't have to worry about hurting my feelings. If you have suggestions for improving the script, I'm all ears. Give me notes and let's talk."

He literally sighed with relief. Evidently, he was afraid I was going to be one of "those" writers who approaches rewrites with all the excited anticipation of a colonoscopy.

Want to know if you've got what it takes to be a writer? Put yourself in the editor's / producer's / publisher's shoes. Imagine going to you with suggestions for improving your piece. Now imagine your reaction. Then ask: "Could I work with me?"

If the answer is "yes," there you have it. You've got what it takes.

Now get out there! Show your work to people. Invite criticism from people whose opinions you trust. Weed through the comments for the recurring themes. Then roll up your sleeves and get to work!

All photos from


Malin said...

Maybe the writer in question didn't seek validation at all.

I have an old friend (non-writer but avid reader) who always assumes I want compliments when I'm asking for how-to help.

Sometimes the hardest thing about writing isn't that you know you need to rewrite, but figuring out HOW. And that is something critters/beta readers can't always help with. At least not if the writer is serious about learning the craft and wants to write the story in their own voice.

Katharine said...

This is exactly what I needed to hear right now. I need to know that I'm not the only one who fights discouragement. My sweet and thorough critique partner has hacked my MS to bits and I've taken it harder than I thought I would. I needed your wisdom today just so I can avoid thinking I'm a failure because I have a little trouble with verb tense. ( I still have a great story, excellent dialogue and dynamic characterization.) You wrote this for me. Thank you.

Ami Hendrickson said...

Point taken. Still, validation & compliments aren't necessarily one and the same. I think one of the things I need to work on when I Beta read stuff is to focus as much on highlighting when the writer does something that REALLY WORKS as I do on pointing out what doesn't. I fall into the editor's trap of: "If I don't change it, I think it's great." Which too often goes unsaid at the beta-read stage, I fear.

Believe me when I tell you that You Are Not Alone! Reading critique notes is difficult (for me, at least), because I know how long it took me to write the manuscript. I fool myself into thinking I'm near The End of the journey. Then, in the teeny little amount of time it takes me to read the notes, I realize that I've only just begun and should really stop for gas and a potty break 'cause I'm in for a long ride. :D

Here's to everyone that's on the same road! Keep on keeping on.

Ava Jae said...

Ok, so I think this post is fantastic.

I've learned to like getting critiques. They're hard to take, but I look at them as a challenge. It satisfies my competitive nature and makes the whole process easier to handle. :)

Giving critiques is a little more difficult. Especially if you've never critiqued the person before, I know I get nervous about how to word things since I don't know how sensitive the writer is.

Regardless, there's a lot you can learn from both giving and receiving critiques. It's a fundamental part of the writing process that can't be overlooked.

Jeannie Moon said...

This is an excellent post and a timely one as I sit here with my printed WIP ready to attack the first round of revisions.

It's a process.

Thanks for the reminder.

Ami Hendrickson said...

Ava Jae,
I like your tactic of looking at critiques as a challenge. "In this corner, the Critiqued Manuscript! And in THIS corner, the Audacious Author! Get ready to RRRrrrummmmblle!" :D

Good luck on your attack!

Keep on keeping on.