Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What It Takes

“If I had the will and the talent to go with the eye and the ear, I could grow up to be a writer.” –Richard Price, Foreword to Hubert Selby’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM

I think a lot. If I’m not actively doing something else, I’m thinking. Sometimes I’m being philosophical, looking for rhyme and reason in morals and ethics. Sometimes I’m imagining people and their lives and loves and their very different worlds. One of the things I think about a lot is what it takes to be a writer. So when I stumbled across the Richard Price quote, it felt right. Yes, I thought, that is exactly what it takes.


If you’re here- on my very writing-focused but featuring the occasional detour blog, then you probably have the will to be a writer. The will to write is the easiest part. Every now and then, an article surfaces reminding us that 1 in 15, 10, 5, people in America or wherever else wants to write a book someday.

The will to keep writing is a bit harder. It requires ignoring the Am I Crazies, turning a blind eye to the fact that your friends and family are going further/getting more out of life, wading through the swamp of mush on the days (or weeks or months) when your brain refuses to cooperate. It requires picking yourself off the floor when a brutal (intentionally or not) critiques slays you. But it’s like Carlisle Cullen always says, if you really want it you must “find the will.” (Yes, I just quoted a sparkle-pire. Problems?)


Talent is a toughie. You’re born with it or not. That can be discouraging if the writing doesn’t flow out of your fingers in perfectly woven threads, but there’s a couple of silver linings you can look at.

Firstly, talent is natural, but skills are practised. A person may have a talent for dance, but without lessons and practice, they’ll never be a prima ballerina. In the same way, a writers first attempts can (and probably will) way below the level of the polished products they see on the shelves. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you don’t have talent. Talent is a raw material. In the same way that most people don’t just drink 2 eggs for breakfast, but will add some seasonings and heat to make omelette or scrambled eggs, you need to apply a little time and effort to your natural talent to get to where you want to be.

Secondly, writing is subjective. We hear that thrown around a lot, and it sounds like a cop-out, but if you can think of a bestseller or classic that you don’t like, then you know it’s true. I help one of my best friends sometimes with his school work. He writes in a very precise style, and all his work feels overly academic for me, no matter the topic. I wouldn’t purposely pick up a book like that, but there are books out there praised for using precise language.
There are readers who like hearing words liks sahara, cyan, and maple instead of the word brown. There are readers who like their fiction to read like a law brief. There are readers who like description at a minimum. Others like fast-paced action. Emotion. Plot twists. Settings. There is a reader for every style of writing.


A visual artist uses his eyes to take in what’s around in. Then he passes the picture through the filters of his brain and his style, and uses his medium to represent what he saw. A writer does exactly the same thing, but his medium is the word.

The most obvious thing writers need to be observant about (to me) is setting, mainly because this is the most obvious and often extensive description in a book. You need to see exactly how that particular plant moves in a storm wind, or how the floor plan is for the cubicles in a massive IT firm. But it’s also important for a writer to see actions. Being observant about the way a person reacts when they’re surprised, angry, in love, noticing little moments, seeing things in the background, all of these can be transferred into your writing.


As the eye is to setting, so is the ear to dialogue. A surprising (to me, anyway) number of writers struggle with writing dialogue. Some write in a way that people would never speak. Some write exactly as they do, which seems like a good thing at first, but do you realize how many times a day we say words like’ um’,’ yeah,’ ‘like’, etc? Some dialogue feels like it’s been inserted for the sake of having dialogue or to disclose backstory in a thoroughly unnatural and unlikely way.

The aim of dialogue in novels is not to represent the world exactly as it is, although that is a choice you can make. Instead, dialogue is meant as a break from the narrative/description, an opportunity to have characters interact, and a summary of important things that are said, among other things. Use your ears to hear how people really interact, and then use your filters (brain and style) to give that back to us a la novel version.

To a lesser extent, the ear is also useful in bringing description to the page. Every setting sounds different. Rush hour New York sounds like blaring cab horns, 6 am in countryside Barbados sounds like roosters and the neighbours shouting at their kids that if they have to tell them to get out of bed one more time…


I really like this equation for what it takes to be a writer, because many people include desire/motivation and talent, but I think that an ability to see, hear, and think about the world in depth and differently is important where any writer of fiction is concerned.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Employ all the senses!
I must have the will, or I would've never done it.

Sidrah said...

I want to write the book but it's too hard. I lose interest in the middle of a story and of I try to write a short story, it gets too long =/ =p

Well, one day, maybe... Hopefully.

Great post =)

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