Why Do You Want to be a Writer?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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?

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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!

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When Writing is Like An Arranged Marriage

 

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It seems to me there’s been a lot of talk recently about writing for love. Over at Writer Unboxed, for example, Bruonia Barry recounts a harrowing journey toward her third novel. She missed her deadline—by two years! She went through “publishing hell” and some life challenges, but the real issue was the book itself.

I couldn’t go forward with what [the publisher] wanted me to write, and I couldn’t go back. I began to hate writing. It had become about product not process. It was no longer a passion, it was a job. I felt chained to my desk. My family’s livelihood depended on it. I was resentful. And growing to hate the career I’d longed for all my life. I told myself, I’d finish the book, but it would be my last.

A new agent and a talented freelance editor came into Barry’s life and helped her see the story was “better than I thought.” And she found a way for the book to take on “a life of its own” again.

The book is arguably the best I’ve written so far. It sold in two days to a better publisher who offered (ironically, I think) an even better deal. I am now a hundred pages into my fourth book, and I’m once again loving the process. But I will never again elevate the deal over the work. Or pitch a story I’m not yet sure of just for the sake of fulfilling a contract or receiving an advance. Lesson learned. For me to write anything I’m proud of, it can only be for love.

Good for her and her writing.

Though I sometimes wonder what the great pulp writers of old would have thought of this notion of writing for love. I’ve read a number of biographies of writers like Hammett, Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, Robert E. Howard––and they never thought in those terms. What they thought about was their next meal. They wrote for money. They wrote during the Depression. They wrote for markets, like Amazing Stories and Dime Detective and Black Mask. At a penny a word, they didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the muse to tickle their fancy. They had to type and type fast.

Back then, it seems to me, most writers who made a go of it thought of writing as a job, which required certain skills, just like bricklaying or carpentry. They got good at what they did and when they finished a solid story they felt satisfaction, for a job well done.

They felt even better when they got the check.

These days the debate seems to come down to an either/or exchange.

You should only write for love. That’s what makes your writing great.

No, you should write for money. That’s how you get to make a living at this.

I touched on this issue last month in my post “The Writer and the Market Should Be Friends.”

Today I want offer an analogy that hit me after I watched a bit of Fiddler on the Roof the other day.

My favorite song from that show is the little duet in the middle. Tevye and Golde have been married twenty-five years. It was an arranged marriage. Tevye now asks Golde, “Do you love me?”

She sloughs it off at first. Why is he asking now? Maybe it’s just indigestion. But Tevye persists. “Do you love me?”

Golde: Do I love him?
For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him,
Fought with him, starved with him.
For twenty-five years, my bed is his.
If that’s not love, what is?

Tevye: Then you love me?

Golde: I suppose I do.

Tevye: And I suppose I love you, too.

Tevye and Golde: It doesn’t change a thing, but even so,
After twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.

A writer who is writing for a market is getting into an arranged marriage. He studies what’s being done, gets ideas, shapes them to fit. Eventually he gets married to one and sets off to write the book. He brings his skill set to it, does the best he can.

There are challenges along the way. Every book has them. It’s never all lollipops and roses. There may even be knockdown, drag-out fights.

But in that struggle the professional writer begins to feel something a little like love. For the characters, for the plot, for that next scene. And certainly he’s going to keep on to the end, and fix things when he gets there.

If that’s not love, what is?

It doesn’t change a thing, but even so, after twenty-five chapters, it’s nice to know.

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Love, Loss and Emotion in Our Writing

James Scott Bell

Her name was Susan and we were in the third grade. I saw her for the first time on the playground. She had blonde hair that was almost white, and eyes as blue as a slice of sky laid atop God’s light table.

She looked at me and I felt actual heat in my chest.

Remember that scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone, hiding out in Sicily, sees Appolonia for the first time? His two friends notice the look on his face and tell him, “I think you got hit by the thunder bolt!”

When it happens to us at eight years old, we don’t exactly have a metaphor for it, but that’s what it was––the thunder bolt. Love at first sight!

I remember the ache I felt the rest of the day. My life had changed, divided into two periods (admittedly of not too lengthy duration)—before Susan and after Susan.

Now what? Having no experience with love, I wondered what the next step was supposed to be. How did love work itself out when your mom was packing your lunches and your allowance was twenty-five cents a week?

I’d seen The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. He climbed up the vines to Maid Marian’s balcony. Was that a plan? Not in Woodland Hills, California, a suburb of mostly one-story, ranch-style homes. Clearly, the balcony strategy was out.

I had also seen the 1938 version of Tom Sawyer(I was getting most of my life lessons from movies and Classics Illustrated comic books) and was enamored of his love for Becky Thatcher. And what had Tom done to impress Becky? Why, he showed off, of course.

There was my answer. I would show off in front of Susan.

What was I good at? Kickball. Athletic prowess would be my ticket into Susan’s heart. So out on the playground I made my voice loud and clear when I came up for my kicks. Susan was usually nearby playing foursquare.

And every now and then we’d make eye contact. That’s when I’d kick that stupid ball all the way to the fence.

Yet I was shy, afraid to talk to her directly. I mean, what was I going to say? Want to see my baseball cards, baby? How about joining me for a Jell-O at lunch? Hey, that nurse’s office is really something, isn’t it?

Flummoxed, I thought of Susan for weeks without ever exchanging a word with her.  She had no problem with that, it seemed. But she knew I liked her. The rumor mill at school was a fast and efficient communication system. Which only made me more embarrassed.

I considered running away and joining the circus, but my parents were against it.

Then one day circumstances coalesced and the stars aligned.

School was out and kids were heading for the gates to walk home or get picked up. I usually went out the front gate. Susan went out the back, and this day I fell in with that company and quickened my pace to get next to her. Heart pounding, I said something suave like, “Hi.” I don’t recall that she said anything, but at once I found we were side by side, walking down the street.

I started talking about our teacher, Mr. McMahon, who was tall and imposing and a strict disciplinarian (thus, in hallways and safely out on the playground, we referred to him, in whispered tones, as “Mr. McMonster.”)

Susan said nothing. I started to get more confident. Maybe, just maybe, she was interested in what I had to say. And maybe, just maybe, oh hope of all hopes, she actually liked me back.

All of that showing off was about to pay dividends!

And then came one of those moments you never forget, that scorch your memory banks and leave a permanent burn mark. Susan turned to me and spoke for the first time. And this is what she said:

“Just because I’m walking with you doesn’t mean you’re my boyfriend.”

It was the way she said boyfriend that did it. It dripped with derision and perhaps a bit of mockery. If I could have found a gopher hole I would have dived in, hoping for a giant subterranean rodent to eat me up and end my shame.

This all happened fifty years ago, yet I can still see it, hear it and feel it as if it were last week.

Is that not why some of us are writers? To create scenes that burn like that, with vividness and emotion, rendering life’s moments in such a way as to let others experience them?

Even if it’s “only entertainment,” the emotional connection that takes us out of ourselves is something we need. “In a world of so much pain and fear and cruelty,” writes Dean Koontz in How to Write Best Selling Fiction, “it is noble to provide a few hours of escape.” And the way into that escapism is to create emotional moments that are real and vibrant and sometimes even life-altering.

The best way to do that is to tap into our own emotional past andtranslate moments for fictional purposes. Like an actor who uses emotion memory to become a character, we can take the feelings we’ve felt and put them into the characters we create on the page.

Thus, Susan was part of my becoming who I am and how I write.

So Susan, my first love, wherever you are, thank you. Maybe I wasn’t your boyfriend, but you taught me what it’s like to love and lose. I can use that. All of life is material!

I hope you’re well. I hope you’ve found true and lasting love, like I have. I want you to know I hold you no ill will.

But always remember this: I’m still the best kickball player you ever saw.

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Write What You Love

And it don’t take money, don’t take fame. Don’t need no credit card to ride this train…That’s the power of love.
       – Huey Lewis and the News

I have a lot of writer friends in various career stages, and therefore considering various career moves. The nice thing these days is that there are moves, more options than ever before. This requires that writers not only know and understand the choices (in terms of possibilities and pitfalls). It also requires that writers know themselves.
One friend who has been writing steadily for many years for traditional publishers is a case in point. After receiving news that her publisher was dropping the last book in a contract, she took a break from writing and looked inside. She wrote about what she saw, and gave me permission to share it:
After taking a much-needed break when I learned in May that my third book with ____ wouldn’t be published (which was, perversely, good news for me, as I hated the story, the characters, and the obligation to write it—with 20k words and one month to deadline at the time), I finally got to the point at which I would literally get the shakes at night because I needed to be doing something creative (i.e., WRITING), but every time I pulled out a notebook or sat at the computer, I would feel even worse staring at that blank page because the only thing I could think of when trying to start something new was all of the pressure and pain (emotional and physical) of being under deadline to churn out two or three (usually three) books a year for the past four years.
But the urge to create something still existed and was driving me slightly batty. One day, when at my acupuncture appointment, I needed something to focus my mind on—something other than work, which I’d just left and had to go back to, since this was my lunch break. I decided that since I still love watching all the cooking shows on TV, I’d focus my mind on my chef character from my second contemporary. What would it be like if he were to go on Chopped or Top Chef? What if his restaurant (which he was in the process of opening at the end of his book) were featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show? So I closed my eyes to allow my mind to “play” for a while.
Then something shocking happened. That character’s sister-in-law, one of the main secondary characters in that series, stepped forward and reminded me that she, too, is a chef and restaurant owner, and has been for longer than her brother-in-law. Besides, he’s already had his story. It’s time for her to have hers. And she’s right—I’ve had readers asking me for her story for years. By the time I got back to the office, I had the entire first scene fully formed in my head.
At a conference last week, I had a chance to talk to both my agent and former editor about the story and my ideas for things I can do with the uniqueness of the ebook format, and I realized, after walking away from my meeting, that for the first time in years, I was not only interested in a story idea but actually excited about writing it.
I’m taking it slowly—I’ve finished the first chapter and figured out how I’m going to incorporate the “viewpoints” of the four potential romantic interests for the heroine, without actually making any of them a main POV character. The most fun part, however, has been revisiting the first three books to gather all of the information about this character and to update the stories of all three of the couples from those books to “where they are now” six or seven years later. 
It’s also been a great joy to return to the fictional city I “founded” and started building in 1992. As a writer who got completely burned out from having to write based on the need for money and not a passion for writing the stories I’d come up with, it’s been so wonderful to return to this setting, to these characters I’ve known for years and years. It’s a lot like going home after a long estrangement and being welcomed back with open arms and a fatted calf.
And the best part about this turn of events is that her writing will be the best it’s ever been. She’s a pro, she knows what she’s doing—but now she’s also recaptured the love.
We have to have that in our writing if we’re going to keep doing this for the long term. You’ve only got so much time. Give that time to the stories

you’re burning to tell. Do that first, and the money will follow. How much, no one can say. But joy tips the balance in your favor. For example, in addition to my novels and novellas, I’m writing short stories about a boxer in 1950s Los Angeles. I make some scratch every month on these. But more than that, I love writing them. It’s a different voice and genre than I normally write in, which has the added benefit of keeping my writing chops sharp. 

If you love what you do you’ll do more of it, and  you’ll do it better, and that will increase the odds of making a decent buck at this—either through self-publishing or finding a traditional publisher who believes in your voice and vision. Or some combination of the two. 

So my question for you today is, do you love what you’re writing? If not, why not?
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