First, there is more than one. But there are few. So this should be a rather short post.
The primary secret to writing is to write. A lot. Many many words. Often. I think we have all known bright, interesting people who are convinced that the Great American Novel hides somewhere in their minds. But unless the GAN actually makes the trip from inside the mind to on the page, it really doesn’t exist. Writing is like any kind of performance, it requires talent, opportunity and rehearsal. We may be intrigued by the possibility of competing on Dancing With the Stars or The Voice, taking a bow for an Oscar-winning role, appearing onstage at the Met or Carnegie Hall, receiving a standing ovation for a rendition of Mendelssohn‘s First Violin Concerto (or, for that matter, for a soulful solo of “At Last”). (Or maybe that’s just me.) But, let’s face it, without a combination of chance, ability and practice, the only thing any of us would be able to do if we found ourselves onstage at Carnegie Hall is to blush and sidle off stage right.
Native talent is something that we can do little about–it either exists in us or not. (Although I believe we each of us have more talent, more talents, than we have ever explored or will ever have time to explore. And there is something to be said for the notion that talent may be another word for desire, for love of the thing. So it’s not something to worry about.)
Opportunity can be iffy. If you want to be an astronaut, apart from the training and the scientific and physical abilities you must demonstrate, you have to realize how few slots open up each year. That’s simply a given.
But rehearsal? Now, that’s something we all can do, each in our various areas of desire. All the time. Every day, in some way. Keep a journal, start a blog, Write poetry, songs, short stories, novels, words on a screen, as many as you can. To be a writer, write.
The second secret to writing is to read. In my friend’s blog, Sharon Sings and Writes, she tells us the many ways in which she organizes her life to make it possible for her to read what she wants and needs to read to help her enhance her writing. I do many of the same things, skimming through articles, discarding those that aren’t ‘speaking’ to me, choosing books and magazines carefully. But I read almost to the point of addiction (oh, well, actually, far past that point) every day. I read when I’m eating (alone), when I’m watching TV (except for Downton Abbey and The Good Wife), when I’m taking a bath (I wish they’d create waterproof books–far too many of mine have wavy edges after an unexpected dip in the tub), when I’m doing chores, and sometimes while I’m writing (this is not easy). I read the newspaper, magazines, articles on the web, books (books for research, books for enjoyment, books for knowledge, and novels, novels, novels). I hope you love to read. Very few writers who love to write hate to read. And, by the way, if you are writing without loving it, there is very little point.
The third secret to writing is to learn how. Writing practice and reading as much as you can are key here, but there is also formal learning. Learn the structure of our language, learn how to write a sentence, a paragraph, an essay. Read books on writing, such as “Bird by Bird” and “On Writing”. Learn syntax and grammar, punctuation (a fun way to do this is to read “Eats Shoots and Leaves“), and spelling. Yes, even in a Spellcheck world, you need to know how to spell. Spellcheck does not pick up everything. Take classes in composition as well as in creative writing. Constructing a non-fiction article requires using detail and evidence rather differently than you do in fiction, essays or poetry. Learn how to touch type. Unless you are Anthony Trollope, you will probably do your writing on a computer. While Hildy Johnson in “My Gal Friday” managed quite well using two fingers, touch typing is a lot faster. And you don’t want the mechanics of getting the words out to interfere with the flow inside your mind. Learn formats. In other words, learn the rules of your trade. You may then break those rules at your pleasure, but you can’t break rules unless you know what they are. Remember, Picasso knew how to draw.
The fourth secret to writing is to figure out what you want to write, why you want to write, and how. Not everybody wants to write for publication. If you wish to write for your own enjoyment, have at it! And find a writing group specifically designed for expression. But if you do want to write for publication, first, learn to cope with criticism. Hopefully you will receive the kind known as ‘constructive criticism,’ that only hurts when you breathe. But you will have to deal with criticism in one way or the other even if the only person who ever reads your work is your mother. Second, find out what markets there are for what you want to write. Writer’s Digest can help you here; it is an invaluable resource for the writer for publication. This magazine will help you learn how to find the market, how to present your work, and how to handle the business end of being a writer. It will also help you improve your writing with prompts, contests, and articles about specific writing issues. I can recommend it wholeheartedly. And if you want to write screenplays, realize that nobody, NOBODY, will read your work if it isn’t in proper format. This is as the laws of the Medes and the Persians. Even if you’re the brother of the producer’s nephew’s girlfriend’s nanny, which is as close as most of get to nepotism in a most nepotistic Industry, you won’t get it read unless it looks like a screenplay, reads like a screenplay, is as long as a screenplay should be, and uses camera directions properly.
The fifth secret to writing I may have mentioned. Write.
And, finally, note I did not entitle this blog post “The Secret to Publishing.” My list of published writings is so slim that if you blink while reading them, you’ll miss them. And none of them would you find on Amazon.com. Ahem. So that’s a secret I’ve yet to crack. Anybody out there who’s figured that one out, please do not hesitate to let us all know. Happy writing.