For most of the last 30 years, I’ve made a living as a professional Word Monkey for Hire.
I figure that means two things. 1) I am old, darn old and 2) I’m pretty sure I know more than a little bit about earning some folding green by writing. 2a) I like making lists, but I’m not sure that’s pertinent here.
For this column, I thought I’d focus mostly on point 2, seeing as how no one wants to read about the shooting pain in my knee when I do this. (Doctor’s reply: “Well, don’t do that.”)
Here, then, is the main thesis I’d like to get across. You don’t have to suffer the big, overwhelming feels just to become a paid writer.
Here I’ll pause to let a possible minority of you click out of your web browser in disgust, furious that some old fart (see 1) dares to disparage your big, deep feels that make it necessary for you to tear your story from the depths of your tortured soul.
I wish you’d stay, though, because you’re the ones I want to talk to. Seriously, folks, you don’t have to make yourself miserable just to write.
For one thing (more lists!), it’s been done. And done again. And again. And again. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseum. A breakup with a girl/boy does not automatically make for amazing literature just because it happened to you.
If it does, and you feel you must write about it? My main advice then is to go back through and lose 90 percent of the adjectives. (Sturgeon’s Law, from noted science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, states, in essence, that 90 percent of science fiction is crap. Of course, 90 percent of everything is crap. [especially adjectives]) And if the word dark is in there? Just go ahead and delete it.
Angst isn’t necessary for success. Oh, sure, you should definitely put your characters through Biblical levels of pain and agony and difficult Jobian levels of difficulties, but, please remember, just because it made you sad when it happened to you, that doesn’t make it automatically of interest to others or even all that dramatic.
Now, you might feel I’m picking on you, but I’m not. Well, I am, but not just you. I was as guilty of that as anyone else. It’s a difficult thing, learning to separate yourself from your words, from your work.
(Fortunately for me, I worked as a newspaper reporter for a while. Getting your sanity, mental proficiency and eyesight questioned on an hourly basis in appallingly inventive ways will definitely encourage the production of a thick enough skin to get you through most long, dark winters of the soul.)
Here’s the big point of all this blather, though. Writing doesn’t have to be a coping mechanism, a way for you to get the horribly heavy feels out of your system, to tell a tragic story. It can be a job. You can write because you enjoy it. You can write just because.
And if you want to avoid the crap end of Sturgeon’s Law, you’re going to have to treat it as a job. Write each and every day. Study what you’ve written and look for ways to make it better.
Read the masters and learn from them. When you read a book you like, try and understand why you like it. Does it have a snappy plot? Are the characters lifelike? Does the writer describe a place so vividly you actually see it? Does the author transition from scene to scene in a novel manner? Is the dialogue peppy? Does it seem like words a real live someone might actually utter in RL?
Then you take those lessons learned from published authors and apply it to your own writing. And therein lies one of the hardest lessons for the wannabe professional writer to learn.
If you’re story is not accepted for publication, it’s not because traditional publication houses are part of the vast conspiracy to keep your groundbreaking vision smothered to protect the hidebound authors they’re already publishing. Seriously.
And it’s not necessarily something wrong with your story. It could just be that, in reality, it doesn’t fit the kinds of things this company or magazine publishes. Or they just purchased a story about carnivorous unicorns.
If you want to be a paid writer, a professional word monkey, you need to treat the people with whom you interact as professionally as you would want to be treated. That is, accept rejection gracefully. Once rejected, send it out again to somewhere else and again and again. If it doesn’t sell, take it out of the rotation, look it over and see if there’s anything you might need to do to improve it.
Then do it.
In my opinion, a professional writer is never actually finished with a story. They just run out of time. There’s always something I want to change in my work, always some little thing that could be improved, but there’s also always a deadline looming as well.
So, to sum up: 1) I’m old, so feel free to disregard the above as the rant of an enfeebled mind. 2) You’d be wrong to do 1). 3) I still like making lists. 4) Writing doesn’t have to hurt. 5) If you want to be paid as a professional writer, you need to act like a professional writer. 6) No prose is perfect. It can always be improved. 7) It’s not a conspiracy if you don’t get published. 8) Sturgeon’s Law applies to everyone. 9) Angst isn’t a job requirement of the professional word monkey.
There you go. Thirty (or so) years of experience summed up in one measly paragraph. I guess working for USA Today did have its advantages after all.
About Richard Jones
Richard Jones is an award-winning writer, who quit newspapers when he wanted to make up stories and not get fired for it. A teacher and former stay-at-home dad, Jones is author of A Dude’s Guide to Babies: The New Dad’s Playbook, a hilarious how-to book for the rookie father. In addition to his work for Web Words, Jones also blogs daily at A Dude’s Guide to . . . Everything! and has self-published a number of stories.
A Writer's Tale
Scarlett Van Dijk
Writer of young adult, fantasy series, the Sky Stone series, poetry and short stories.
Subscribe to my blog to receive email updates of my latest posts.