What Does it (Still) Take to be a Writer?

by James Scott Bell

John Jakes was a journeyman pulp writer for 20 years before bursting onto the New York Times bestseller list with The Bastard (1974). This was the first book in what would become the Kent Family Chronicles, eight historical novels written to ride the wave of the American Bicentennial. It worked. Jakes was the first writer to have three novels on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time. More than 55 million copies of his Kent Family Chronicles are currently in print, along with 10 million copies of The North and South Trilogy. Six of his novels have been filmed as television mini-series. He currently resides in Florida with Rachel, his wife of 71 years.

Nice life. Nice career.

I recently re-read an article he wrote back in 1988 for the annual market report put out by The Writer magazine. The title: “What Does it Take to be a Writer?” As I looked at his advice I wondered if it still applied, or if some modification is called for. Here’s a bit of it, with my comments.

  1. Be sure

“Do you really want to pay the price? It isn’t small. Are you willing to isolate yourself day after day, session after session, year after year, in order to learn your craft the only way you can–by writing?”

Do young writers—heck, young people in general—think this way anymore? We live in the age of instant gratification, where if you’re not a TikTok influencer by age 16 life simply cannot be endured. The thought of spending years of hard work before getting a payoff is anathema.

I determined to become a writer at age 34. To do whatever it took to get there. I knew the odds. I knew it would take a long time to make it, if I ever did. Not a day went by in those early years when I wasn’t writing and studying the craft. It took me seven years before my first novel was published.

Today, with everything moving at the speed of digital light, is this advice quaint? Does the concept of hard work and persistence resonate anymore?

  1. Be determined

“With determination and practice, you can probably become at least a part-time professional. To do it, however, you must write and keep on writing, trying to improve all the time.”

This is an obvious corollary to #1, above. What Jakes adds is that virtually anyone can get to a place where they’re making some dough in this game. I think that’s truer now than ever. Being a determined student and practitioner of writing makes income almost inevitable—so long as you recognize it’s not always going to be big bucks. Mega deals from the Forbidden City still happen, though not as frequently as in years past. More likely is a modest advance and a “wait and see” attitude by the publisher.

Of course, we now have the indie route. Determined writers are making money here. Even if the revenue stream is small, it’s worth it as long as you are enjoying the process of making up stories.

  1. Be open

“I mean being willing and eager to have all the flaws in your work exposed, so that you can fix them… you must want to find the weak places for yourself, before the editor sees them. It is this rather cold-blooded attitude that sets most money-earning writers apart from dabblers and those who would rather talk about being a writer then do what it takes to be one.”

This still holds true. You can’t have a chip on your shoulder, especially early in your career. I don’t mean you shouldn’t have confidence. Maybe even a little attitude. But if you never take any criticism and refuse to consider that you might not yet be God’s gift to the literary world, you’ll remain a dabbler.

  1. Be curious

“Read everything you can read. Read widely, not merely in your chosen field of writing. Spend as much time as you can with your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open…Watch people. Watch the sky. Watch a baby’s repertoire of expressions. Watch the way sun puts shadow on a wrinkled garment. Nothing should escape your notice. Everything eventually contributes to what you write, even though the way it contributes is totally unknown to anyone, including you.”

This is obviously sound advice for a writer. “You can observe a lot just by watching,” Yogi Berra said. But with people walking along on a sunny day with their eyes glued to their phones, you have to wonder how much observing is being done anymore.

  1. Be serious

“Give unstintingly of yourself when you write. The kind of effort NFL players casually refer to as ‘110 percent’ There’s something to it… Give your work the best you have to offer at the moment you do it. Give it a clear head, and a body that’s fit and rested.”

This requires focus, a rare commodity these days. We are all under the curse of the multi-task. Or attention spans are fractured. We have lost the concept of “deep work.”

Jakes says that anyone following these requirements will find eventual success. “Not enormous wealth, mind you. Not a best seller every year. Not immortality—just the solid satisfaction of being a writer. It’s a proud and ancient profession, and it’s a great feeling to achieve even a little success in the business of entertaining and enlightening millions with your own words. It’s a calling very much worth the price.”

Do you agree? How would you modify or add to Jakes’s advice?


38 thoughts on “What Does it (Still) Take to be a Writer?

  1. Thanks, Jim. I agree with Mr. Jakes, particularly on #4 and #5. He walks the walk on all of them. I knew Jakes’ work when he was writing science fiction, fantasy, and westerns. He was all over the place on the magazine stands and revolving paperback displays, where books generally had a three-week life. It was quite a shock when he was suddenly writing about the Kent Family and doing very well at it. Good on him.

    Hope you’re having a great weekend, Jim!

    • Jakes certainly paid his dues and learned his craft. I have a hardback Book Club edition of the Chronicles, and started re-reading it…above all, the guy knows how to tell a story, and doesn’t let the historical research (which is considerable) get in the way!

  2. I agree all the way. If it’s the money you’re after, you’re probably in the wrong profession. Like many other fields, 10% of the people make 90% of the money.

    • Yes, and there’s nothing as destructive to your writing joy as comparison. That’s why the daily, immersive dive into your words is so important. Getting caught up in the story (“flow”) is the antidote.

  3. I ❤️ this.
    This is going in my craft notebook.
    I’ve been on vacation this week from my corporate job and giving the time to my writing. This is where I belong.

  4. The one piece of advice I tend to ignore is read widely. Not that I have a vociferous argument against it, but time is always at a premium, so spending time reading stuff I don’t want to read just doesn’t make sense & is not a good use of my time. I have 2-3 genres I like and I stick with them. I occasionally do read something outside my usual, but it’s going to be the exception, not the norm.

    Under be serious, he mentions “Give it a clear head, and a body that’s fit and rested.” That “…a body that’s fit and rested” part is one we all tend to ignore in this day and age with the fast pace we’re living in. Being fit and rested is the critical point all these other points rest on. I tend to be a pacer—when I’m writing or researching, after I while I get up and pace for several minutes through my home.

    The other change I’m trying to make is purposely looking out the windows etc to take my eyes off the computer screen. Between day job & personal life, I spend almost all my hours in front of a computer screen. Not ideal. So I’m still trying to find a way to balance that.

    But writing is definitely a satisfying journey, with or without commercial success.

    • That’s a good reminder about our health, BK. We’ve got to take care of our instrument to write at our peak. Also good is remembering to get up every half hour or so and walk around. “Sitting is the new smoking,” they say. So move!

  5. Great post, Jim. Wonderful advice from John Jakes. I agree with all of them.

    #4 and #5 probably come naturally to most of us who have decided to make the sacrifice of picking up the pen and leaving all else behind.

    #3 can be tricky to find someone or a group we trust to give us honest feedback, before we can afford or justify an expensive edit.

    #1 and #2 are probably at the top of the list for a reason. Those of us who have “retired” from previous occupations to write “fulltime” must realize that our life is now different. We probably found academic and business success at a time in our lives when we could focus on our goals without too much to distract us. (Or at least had a spouse to help us.) Now, encumbrances are very likely. And we must organize our responsibilities so that they don’t grasp for our time and attention, since we “don’t have a job” anymore.

    Just sayin’

    • Right, Steve. The ability to “self regulate” is essential. Just pure, unadulterated discipline. Good to know that time management is a skill that can be learned, just like the craft of writing.

    • Steve, you are so right about “encumbrances,” now that we are retired from our previous careers. Another writing friend, who retired the year before me, warned me that I would need to guard my writing time. He was write, but we also need to organize our responsibilities, to family, to friends (we have a dear friend who was widowed last year and we make sure and see him weekly), and to ourselves. Eating right, exercising, and improving ourselves by learning and reading all take time.

  6. Hi Jim. This is excellent advice from a very skilled and dedicated writer. I agree completely. It’s timeless wisdom, as relevant in this 21st century age of digital distraction as when it was when he wrote it back in the 1980s.

    I’m currently reading Seth Godin’s insightful and inspiring book, “The Practice.” I would add his concept of “the Generosity of Art” to Jakes’s list of what it takes:

    Be Generous. It’s not enough to please yourself, you must be aware of your audience. Do your work (writing) for a group of people (readers), who care about the gift for them that you’ve created. Publishing (what Godin calls “Shipping”) is vital, because this is an act of sharing, of putting your work out there, without attachment to the outcome, but being committed to the process of writing and publishing. Continuing to grow and learn as a creator, and continue to be committed to your process of creation.

    Thanks for another inspiring post packed with wisdom. Have a wonderful first Sunday of Summer!

  7. I agree 100%. When I sit at the keyboard, I pour all of myself into my work. If the story affects me, it should affect the reader, and that’s my main goal. Only after the novel is complete do I think about the other stuff. I write to entertain, to touch lives. Everything else is gravy. I do have to eat (wink, wink), but that’s not what drives me to keyboard every morning. Quantity over quality was never advice I followed.

    • That’s what so awe inspiring to me re: the pulp writers (of which Jakes was one). The ability to be prolific as well as just plain good. Which all comes down to telling the STORY. Get that right and, as you say, the rest is “gravy.”

  8. Married for 71 years??? That’s a testament to determination and persistence.

    Re: #4. Like BK, I don’t have time to read as much as I should or would like to. But watching with boundless curiosity comes easily and is endlessly surprising and fascinating. Jakes’s examples of sunlight making shadows on wrinkled fabric or a baby’s expressions are the small but significant details that bring fiction to vivid life.

    I worry about generations growing up now behind masks that hide a lot of facial expressions. With eyes glued to devices, they live in a two-dimensional world where the 3rd dimension is virtual and imaginary.

    Jim, thanks for revisiting Jakes’s wisdom. Still applies.

    • I know, 71 years, right? That is so amazing…and inspiring.

      Eyes glued to devices. So sad. Mrs. B does Nana’s Summer Reading club for the grandboys…rewards for reading a certain number of books. We did it for our kids, who are both dedicated readers. That’s a legacy.

  9. 2. Be determined
    In 2000 my fledgling mystery writer career was interrupted by the idea for a massive mainstream trilogy I’m still writing (Book 2 finished, about to come out), a product of the chronic illness that stole my life.

    Every speck of energy I could muster and make salute is in those pages, and my most fervent wish is that I not shuffle off until the third volume is safely published. It has been an amazing ride on the back of a snail (for speed).

    Writers come in all stamps. [Just took a writerly sidetrip to check my memory of the verb ‘stamp’: “reveal or mark out (someone) as having a particular quality or ability.” I love the way the mind does this.] Mine is a small cohort: mainstream, indie, chronically ill (Of Human Bondage comes to mind for some reason) – and stubborn and immovable as granite. Will prevail. Eventually. Just write the next words, and strive to keep ‘real life’ from taking over completely. Never imagined when I started that the books would be 167K, 180K, and TBD, but looked up my MM paperback version of GWTW, and it is 1468 pages. Seems about right.

    And it has definitely been worth it.

  10. #4 above, advice to “be curious” has me wondering about many young writers I see on social media. When I read posts on Twitter, I can’t help but wonder where some of these jackasses are coming from?

    If an author were truly curious, then they should appear empathetic. That also means portraying empathy through personality. I believe all writers need to be curious about everything, including issues they have a personal bias towards.

    However, most authors on social media are too worried about politics or self-inflated surveys. I wouldn’t read a one-sided author, and that’s the first impression many project.

    Also makes me think I should probe my followers more and asking questions. I should be talk with more interesting people on Twitter.

    • You’re right, Ben, about the lack of empathy these days. This is truly one of the attributes of a great writer. Otherwise, you’re writing 1D characters just to make a point. Boring!

    • Fiction – allowing the reader to LIVE a different life – is second only to being ill yourself in developing empathy toward a disabled or chronically ill character. But it is critical for fiction with a message to be MORE entertaining, more compelling than fiction which aims to entertain – because readers don’t like being preached to.

      • That is very interesting. However, my view is that if you portray yourself as a biased personality on social media – I don’t want take a chance buying that person’s book. I’d rather take the family for ice cream than risk wasting my money on a poor reading experience.

  11. Great post, as usual.

    I’d like to point out all these still apply if you go the self-published route. Just because no one is there to stop us from clicking “publish,” it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hone our craft. Also, we still need plenty of patience. Despite what many internet marketing gurus say, it’s a slow and steady process to build an audience.

    • Right, Philip. I think about that all the time. So much advice about “marketing” as if that’s the key. No, the key is one doggone good book after another!

  12. I agree with all this advice, Jim. Don and I are in the process of moving, and I was unable to write for ten days. I missed it, the way I miss talking to a good friend. Now that I’m back at the keyboard, I’m much happier. When I first started writing at the newspaper, “Be Open,” was hard for me. I was lucky to have a mentor who convinced me that every word I wrote was not gold. He would sit patiently with me and edit my work word by word. I am forever grateful for his help.

    • That was a real gift, Elaine, someone to tell you it’s not all gold. I also had an editor early on who took me to higher places.

      And that’s so true about being away from the keyboard for too long. Like a thoroughbred stuck in a stable, itching to get back out on the track!

  13. I do think writing requires Deep Work, and I also think it’s a rare commodity these days. But with planning (turning off the phone and TV, clearing the desk, stuff like that), it’s achievable.

    • You’re right, Priscilla. Planning is more important than ever. Just taking regular rest from the phone is a necessity these days. We all get “nervous” when it isn’t within grabbing distance, don’t we?

  14. Thanks for this great post, Jim. I agree with all of it. Maybe it should be entitled “What Does it Take to be a Good Writer.” Even though Jakes wrote his article before the proliferation of self-publishing and the availability of millions of books, all of it is still valid.

    I especially liked one of the closing quotes: “It’s a proud and ancient profession, and it’s a great feeling to achieve even a little success in the business of entertaining and enlightening millions with your own words. It’s a calling very much worth the price.”

    For me, success has more to do with “entertaining and enlightening” than with money. It is definitely worth the price.

  15. Great post, Jim…a deep-dive, especially for us beginners. I especially like this:

    “Read everything you can read. Read widely, not merely in your chosen field of writing. Spend as much time as you can with your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open…Watch people. Watch the sky. Watch a baby’s repertoire of expressions. Watch the way sun puts shadow on a wrinkled garment. Nothing should escape your notice. Everything eventually contributes to what you write, even though the way it contributes is totally unknown to anyone, including you.”

    It’s amazing how I experience more and more of those “Squirrel!” moments since I became an author. When they happen, I have to stop, watch, and listen.

    Hope you have a restful Sunday.

  16. I have been a fan of John Jakes for many years. I read the Kent Family Chronicles years ago. The North and South trilogy was also excellent. I recently found another series of his on Amazon that I haven’t read. I got them on the used book section. It is a two-book series, Homeland and American Dreams. Has anyone read this? I know it will be great. I usually only get e-books these days due to eyesight, but I couldn’t pass up this series, especially at such a great price. Hopefully, I will be able to get the cataract surgery soon so I can finally read them.

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