Why Do You Want to be a Writer?

by James Scott Bell

Shakespear in Love

Why do you want to be a writer?

It’s a question worth pondering deeply, because your answer may be the key to your chances for success.
If you do find yourself to be a writer there are plenty of companies that offer a variety of tradesman insurance

Back in the old days, before 2007(!), if someone would have told me that they wanted to write fiction to make a lot of money, I would have advised them to become an electrician instead. Because when I started in this business in the early 1990s, I knew the chance to make a living wage from fiction was really low. You know, sort of like the Jim Carrey line in Dumb and Dumber. “So you’re telling me there is a chance!”

I think the statistic was that the median income from fiction writing was about $5,000 a year. Sure, there were the blockbusters––John Grisham, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Danielle Steel. But they were as rare as a sober wedding crasher.

Which is why I smiled at the advice Lawrence Block used to give. He’d say if you want to write a novel, take two aspirin and lie down and wait for the feeling to pass. Only if it persisted should you think about writing a novel.

In those days would-be writers huddled in the Dark Forest looking out with awe and fear at the impregnable walls of the Forbidden City. It was inside those walls that the New York publishing industry went about its business. There was also a massive, secured gate and a slew of gatekeepers guarding the place. These gatekeepers were called agents. To get invited inside the walls you first had to get one of those gatekeepers to take an interest in you. Writers would slink out of the Dark Forest and hand a gatekeeper some pages, then run back in and wait for a message of hope to arrive via carrier pigeon.

Which it rarely did.

But even if you got inside and became one of the favored few to be hired to push the grindstone of published fiction, there were no guarantees of long term monetary success. Many a writer whose product failed in the market was cast back over the walls, like that cow in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Then, in November of 2007, over in a distant part of the Dark Forest, a fire started. Fittingly, it was called the Kindle –– an e-reader for looking at books in digital form!

Monty Python cow

Behind the walls of the Forbidden City, with its printing presses churning, there was skepticism. Digital reading had been tried before, most notably by Sony, and had failed to catch on. People obviously preferred physical books, and always would!

What they didn’t realize was that this fire was spreading, and scores of writers in the Dark Forest were being warmed and fed. The digital self-publishing revolution had begun.

And proceeds apace, leaving open the question: Why do you want to be a writer?

Let me say this up front: there is nothing wrong with writing to try to make dough. That’s what many of the old-time writers did, especially during the pulp era. They saw a market and they wrote for that market, and if they were good they could eke out a living. See my recent post here.

But the ones who made it big, or lasted a long time in the game, were those who provided something more in their stories than just plot and character.

That more, I’ve been thinking of late, is love.

Now, before you put me down as a soft-soap, touchy-feely, pop-psych, flowered-shirt-wearing, encounter-session guru, let me explain.

I knew I had to try to become a writer one day back in 1988. I’d spent my first five years out of college trying to make it big as an actor. And I was good! You know how I know? I’ll tell you. I was in a small theater production of Hamlet in Hollywood. I played Rosencrantz (a little footnote: Laertes was played by an intense young actor named Ed Harris). So when the reviews came out in Drama-Logue, only one supporting player was singled out. The reviewer wrote, “James Scott Bell is nicely oily as Rosencrantz.”

Nicely oily! How did the major studios not pick up on that?

My acting did get me some commercials. I got paid. And then I got married. To a beautiful actress. And I decided we needed one steady income in the family. Since I was already nicely oily, I decided to become a lawyer.

Cut to that day in 1988 when my wife and I slipped out for an afternoon double feature. The movie I wanted to see was Wall Street. The other movie on the bill I knew very little about. Only that it starred Cher and was supposed to be pretty good.

That movie was Moonstruck. And it knocked me out. I wrote a bit about that in this post. The movie snuck up on me, pulled me in, made me laugh, but most important of all, it made me love the characters.

And I knew walking out of that theater that I wanted to make other people feel the way I was feeling. I wanted to be able to do that through writing.

So I went after it with everything I had. Because I knew now that I was in love with writing. As my training went on I also discovered that the best things I wrote had me feeling something akin to love, or longing, or deep connection.

In fact, I can’t consider anything I write to be truly finished unless, as I type (or edit) the very last lines, I feel a resonant satisfaction that whispers, This is it. This is just so right.

The way I felt the night I met the future Mrs. Bell at a friend’s party. This is it. This is just so right.

This is my counsel, for any of you seeking to make a go of writing as a career or at least a part-time vocation: Don’t commit to any project unless you can identify why you love it. Don’t go through the motions. Feel something intensely. Because the readers will pick that up. They’ll know. And that makes all the difference.

So now I ask you––why do you want to be a writer?


NOTE: I’ve got a couple of exciting, writing-related announcements coming up. If you’d like to know when they happen, be sure to sign up for my email updates by going here. I’ll also put your name in a drawing for a free book. Carpe Typem!

49 thoughts on “Why Do You Want to be a Writer?

  1. I fully agree. I write because I simply can’t stop myself. I want to share my talents, and share the knowledge I have aquired. Holding on to it would be like trying to hold on to karma. If you don’t spread it in a positive mindset, the whole thing stops, and the wheels stop turning.
    Inspiring others is so much more important than money. That is my motivating factor

    • Good on you for he desire to inspire, Henrik.We need to give readers an emotional experience in our fiction, and if we’re successful in that, then knowledge can be shared, a “message” delivered.

  2. During a lull while beta readers were evaluating my current project, I actually took time off from “real” writing — I kept up with my blog, did critiques for my partners, but work on the WIP came to a halt.
    As this manuscript was #3 in a year, I thought I’d enjoy the down time. At least do some office and closet organizing. After two days, I was miserable. Writers need to write.

    • Right, Terry. A day not writing is like being a thoroughbred in a little stall, looking out the track. I take one day off a week, and sometimes have to fight myself to keep from dashing to the keyboard. Just one scene! (Makes me feel like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend).

  3. You know how I got into writing–I was inspired by some guy at my first writers’ conference who illustrated his points with movie clips (It’s your fault!). Now that I’ve been doing it for more than a decade, I have dry spells, but when I’m nearing the end of the novel I’m writing, I’m anxious to get back to it and see if the characters will behave the way I’ve planned. That’s when I’m in love with what I’m doing.
    Thanks for the post.

    • I seem to recall that guy … and the decade has rocketed by, hasn’t it? You’ve made the most of it, Doc. Couldn’t have done that if you didn’t love it!

  4. When I was a child, I read a book titled “The Incredible Journey”. It was made into a Disney movie (poor quality compared to the book) and later redone with Michael J. Fox, Don Ameche, and Sally Field as the voices of the animals. However, when I first read the book, I felt as if I was on the journey with the animals. Through the pages, I was able to journey through the Canadian wilderness without leaving my home. It was largely due to that book that I knew I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to take readers along for the journey.

    Great post, as usual, James.

    • I saw that movie as a kid, Joan. I liked it! I remember the dog getting stuck by a porcupine.

      I wager most writers can think back to a book they read as a child that provided motivation to write. Tarzan did it for me. Hardy Boys, too.

  5. I can’t imagine spending the massive amount of time required to ‘go through the motions’ of writing a book that doesn’t grab you as the author. There has to be a compelling reason for me to write what I write. I always have certain themes or threads moving through my mind and without them, writing would just be another form of torture.

  6. I began writing in high school, became really excited about “becoming an author”, I told my English teacher. She told me to choose another vocation, because my grammar and spelling sucked (not her word).

    Did I listen? No.

    That was in 1972. I continued to write because I loved it. I worked on the spelling and grammar–it still is bad, but better. Turned down by those damned “gate keepers”, I self published when I turned 50 because I loved my characters and my story enough. I had a book signing at a local Borders. I later had a publisher (small), who later went out of the business. I got another publisher who is doing great with all of my books.

    I’m 62 now, and I can’t stop writing. I may take time off, but I can’t stop writing. It’s just in me and I need to put it out there and so happy that I now can.

    • Did I listen? No.

      I’m sorry, but that is not a complete sentence.

      Ha! Of course it is good writing, and that’s the point. How dreadful of high school teachers to discourage students, as if they can’t learn what they need to. Bah, humbug. That’s not a complete sentence either, but it works.

      I do believe that good grammar helps the writing in most cases. But sometimes it gets in the way. How can you figure out the difference? By loving your story!

      • Ha-ha (since we’re doing this incomplete sentence thing).

        I am a rule breaker, and I rarely listen to such advice. I’m definitely in love with my work/novels/WIP. I’ve worked on the mechanics for as long as I have been writing. Even writing out whole paragraphs from novels (back a long time ago), when I wanted to learn what I was doing wrong. I’ve learned a lot through people like you, James. Glad you are out there!

  7. Excellent question! Sure, I’d love to make money as a writer, enough so that I could go full-time (which writer doesn’t have that dream). But I write because I love immersing myself in story and rooting for the characters, feeling what they feel, having to turn the page to find out what happens next, and I want to create my own novels that do that.

    I write because I love being able to play pretend on the page.

    • Some of the best writers who ever lived wrote novels only part time. I guess Anthony Trollope was the greatest example. He was a full-time civil servant, but with a morning quota he stuck to religiously. It worked, because he loved writing.

  8. Two Monty Python cow-ta-pult allusions in one month…love it! (“Fetchez la vache!”)

    I honestly don’t know why I write. I don’t seem to have that heart-deep need some of you have, and I sort of envy your impulse. I do know writing seems to be the only thing I seem to do well in life, and that has been true since I was old enough to be aware. I have always liked to tell stories.

    Maybe it’s a baser thing: I really really really love words. I love the intricacies of language, its origins, its subtly, its foreign differences. And how each of us can take the same thousands of pieces and arrange them in ways that are so unique that we each end up singing only our own songs. That’s really beautiful, I think.

    As I think about this more, I am realizing that yes, I get a certain satisfaction from putting something coherent, maybe even poetic, on the page. But I think what truly moves me to do this is knowing I have touched someone else with it. Not in an egotistical way, meaning if no one applauds, why bother? It’s more that knowing you have reached someone else with something you created only from the ether of your brain and soul. Which tells me that if I didn’t have access to an audience, I might not do this. Why create in a vacuum? Perhaps that is why keeping a journal never interested me.

    • I will play your head doctor, Kris. It’s obvious from your comment as you moved along that your love for writing is manifest. Wanting to make the reader feel something, the way I felt walking out of Moonstruck. You do love it and it shows in your work. Now pay me $350.

  9. *For me… I discovered the author Irving Wallace to help me pass the time on those long LONG bus rides in five different minor leagues (baseball). He was the Nelson Demille of the 70s, only spicier.

    In the off-season, while a college student, I took one of Wallace’s books to my creative writing professor, who had just made an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, for his book, “The Dictionary of Misinformation,” for which I contributed an entry (about “Olympic swimming pools,” commonly mislabeled because on 50-meter, 8-lane pools are actually “Olympic” pools.) He’d never heard of Irving Wallace, which is like a professor today saying they’ve never heard of James Patterson. Or James Scott Bell.

    Okay, too much information. But my love of those books, and the naive presumption that I could do it, too (which took nearly three decades from that point to realize, at least on the “getting published” aspect), was why I became a writer. That, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Still can’t.

  10. I write for 2 reasons. One, because I can’t not. Two, because I want to be published, which I am. Finally. The ideas floating around in my head have no place to go unless I put them into words on paper. I’d go crazy if I couldn’t write.

  11. Someone once said, “Don’t try to make a living as a writer unless you can’t help it.” So here I am. Some days I’m in love, and some days I roll my eyes heavenward and whine, “Oy vey!”

  12. I have a dog currently on forced “cage rest.” When I don’t write, I feel about like she does.

    Oh, and thanks for the darned earworms!

  13. I know it’s late in the TKZ day, but I wanted to add my comment to the list of dreams above. I have my own dreams. About being a writer.

    But one reason on my list is, every word I write, every acceptance, every positive comment from an editor or a publisher, is a shove in the face of the freshman English instructor–not EVEN a professor–who once said to me in class with every other student listening, “Well, Mr. Porter, you do have a gift of gab, but you’ll never be a writer. You just don’t have what it takes.” (I STILL think that she said it because, at the time, I lived in a highly-racist state, and I was the only tan-skin in the class.)

    So when I’m putting the words to paper, or, unh, you know, I am redeeming myself.

    That instructor is likely long dead. I’m not. The revenge is sort of like, in the words of Giuseppe. “I spit on your shoes.”

    • Jim, there have been many writers over the years who have persisted in order to show a dim-witted teacher they had the right stuff. You’re not alone.

    • “Henslowe! Do you know what happens to a man who doesn’t pay his debts? His boots catch fire!” ?

    • Shakespeare in Love, I believe was the movie.

      Great post. Sorry I didn’t comment yesterday. I was traveling, but enjoyed reading the post and comments late last night. No one answered your question about the photo, so I had to comment.

  14. Love this post! I wrote before I published my first book just because it was something I loved and it made going to my day job bearable. I would literally sit in my car and tell myself “you just have to make it til lunch and then you have 35 minutes to put your headphones in, eat pretzels and write.” then I’d spend the afternoon going “you just have to make it til the end of the day, then you can go home, eat, put the kids to bed and then write. Just make it til the end of the day and you can absolutely write a scene where you kill your boss. Just end of the day. End.Of.The.Day.” Writing has gotten me through bad relationships, bad jobs, and even now that I’m doing it full time (not for the $$ more for the fact that I have a lifestyle where I can as a SAHM) it gets me through bad days and even bad PTO meetings. I can honestly say that writing might just be my heroin.

    • Writing certainly does help in those tough times, esp. when we experience “flow.” Makes it, as you indicate, something to look forward to. Nice.

  15. When I was a teen I loved the Gothic fiction. Most of it was Gothic Romance, but I liked the spooky, supernatural part of it the best. I have never cared too much for romance. Then I discovered Agatha Christie. I used to love Nancy Drew as a kid, but it was Ms. Christie that made me want to write mysteries. I would challenge myself trying to guess the murderer, and she always had a twist that I didn’t see coming. I left every book feeling great. I loved her characters and her plots were clever. I wanted to feel that way. I wanted someone to want to come back and read every book because they were entertained and to feel like they were there. I want to write because I want to do something no one else can. Sure, there are many writers, many plots, but none that have my experiences, particular emotions, and way of telling the story that I created. It would be unique to me. If others enjoyed it, that would be validation to me that I have brought that same joy to someone else. That is true creativity, and that means more to me than money. I won’t lie, I would love to make some money too, but that really is not my major motivation. Thanks for another great post! I love visiting here daily to learn from everyone.

    • You are quite right about Agatha, Rebecca. Do you have that book that contains her notebooks? A real inside look at how she constructed her plots. I love seeing how some of the popular authors of the past did their work. I have a copy of a book done years ago about Earl Stanley Gardner’s methods.

  16. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…7/25/16 – Where Worlds Collide

Comments are closed.