So You Want To Be A Writer

“Fill your page with the breathings of your heart.” –William Wordworth

I decided to be a writer when I was nine years old.  I was in the fourth grade and had discovered that books were magic. What better profession than to be the magician who put the words on the page.  I have started and stopped being a writer off and on for the last 30 plus years.  It is hard to shake your calling, but being a writer is dang hard.  Usually a non-profit activity, writing is often lonely and demoralizing. As Dorothy Parker quipped, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Much of the time I think to myself, “Shouldn’t I be doing something better with my time?”, but for some reason I keep getting drawn back to the allure of the flashing curser on an empty screen.  I guess it is the quest for the perfect sentence or poem or opening paragraph, or at least one better than the one I wrote before.  May Satron believes “…we write toward what we will become from where we are.”  Perhaps all writers are doing is searching for themselves.

“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” –Joseph Heller

Over the years, I have often turned to other authors for writing inspiration and advice.  Hands down the best writing teacher around is Natalie Goldberg.  Author of the books Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind among others, Goldberg believes that first and foremost you have to set aside the critical editor mind and get the words down on paper.  She calls it finding “beginner’s mind” and her technique is simple.  You pick a topic such as “elbows” or “junior high”, set a timer for 10 to 20 minutes, touch your pen to the paper, and GO!  Don’t stop writing or even pause to reread what you have written until the timer sounds.  Just keep writing as fast as you can even if you have to repeat the phrase “I don’t know what to write” over and over.  Believe me, this technique will work.  I have used it myself, and have taught “free writing” to third graders up to reluctant high school seniors.  You will find that in spite of yourself, there is always something there.  If you want to write but find you just can’t seem to get started, pick up one of Goldberg’s books, follow her instructions, and I guarantee you will be on your way.  (Also, don’t miss Goldberg’s memoir Long Quiet Highway. Although it is not a writing book, it is a beautiful retelling of her creative journey.)

“Talent is nothing but long patience.” –Gustave Flaubert

Most people have heard of Anne Lamott’s wonderful writing book Bird by Bird. Lamott incorporates some of Goldberg’s free writing techniques, but she also addresses issues of procrastination, the inner critic, and jealousy which she calls the “jungle drums” beating in her head.  Wise, witty, and painfully honest, Lamott acknowledges the trials of the writing life and encourages readers to push on to write that one last perfect draft.  (Lamott has also written a number of other books.  Operating Instructions, her collection of journal entries about the first year of her only son’s life, is wonderfully hilarious and terribly truthful.  She has written a number of essays about her spirituality collected in the books Traveling Mercies, Grace (Eventually), and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. Her novel Blue Shoe is a lovely quiet book that did not receive the attention it should have.)

“I don’t wait for moods.  You accomplish nothing if you do that.  Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.” –Pearl Buck

It is easy to image that one of the bestselling authors of all time was born naturally gifted and that his work was immediately recognized as brilliant and publishable, but as Stephen King writes in his excellent memoir On Writing about writing and his writing life, this is not the case.  King, the undisputed master of the horror genre, struggled for years, tenaciously putting pen to paper between shifts at a commercial laundry where he worked to support his young family.  Even now that he is famous and a guaranteed bestseller, King works every single day, writing ten pages or about 2000 words.  His philosophy is that you sit down and do it.  You sit down and write.  And when you are not writing, you read, a lot, to learn how to write better.

The above writing booking are quite popular and come in and out of East Side Books quickly.  If you are interested in one of these titles, ask for directions to the Writing Section, put your name and the title you are requesting on our Wants Lists, or if you are in a hurry, we can place a special order.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” –Anton Chekhov

Now that you have spent the time at your desk putting thoughts on paper, it is time to reread your ramblings and give them some shape.  For some, present company included, this is the trickiest aspect of writing: how to take your ideas and images and turn them into something that is readable.  Fortunately, at East Side Books, we have a shelfful of writing manuals that teach techniques for working in different writing forms.  The Poet’s Handbook by Judson Jermone is a a resource that I turn to again and again.  Jermone covers the mechanics of poetry writing, the use of techniques such as alliteration and line division, and gives explanations of various fixed forms of poetry such as sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas.  If short stories are your thing, be sure to pick up the Handbook of Short Story Writing Volumes I and II published by The Writer’s Digest.  As a matter of fact, you can’t go wrong purchasing anything put out by The Writer’s Digest.  They are the best when it comes to dispensing sensible, clear, and usable writing advice.

“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.” –Lawrence Kasdan

Once you have revised your draft, it is important to edit your work carefully.  East Side Books has a number of handy grammar books that will make editing a breeze.  A popular grammar manual is Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner.  Clever and fun (yes, I said “fun”!), this book explains much more clearly than Mrs. Grant, my 6th grade English teacher, the difference between a colon and a semicolon, the proper usage of “who’s” and “whose”, and just how to place those pesky apostrophes.  Whether you buy O’Conner’s book or another, no good writer should be without a solid grammar guide and a dictionary.  Eastside Books is well stocked in both.

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” –Richard Bach

Let’s face it, writing for writing’s sake is well and good, but most people have this hidden (or not so hidden) desire to be published.  It is human nature.  You create something you feel is beautiful and powerful or witty and delightful, and you want to share it with the world.  But the only thing you hear these days about getting published is that it is almost impossible.  And it is true, publishing houses receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts each month.  On the other hand, if you eliminated all the books from Eastside Books that initially were rejected for publication, our shelves would be half empty.  Stephen King had a spike full of rejection letters nailed above his desk.  A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L’Engle was rejected by 26 editors before it was finally accepted and went on to win a Newbery Award.  The powerful novel Lord of the Flies, which is now taught in most high schools, was rejected 21 times.  John le Carre was told he had no future in writing. Tony Hillerman, who writes a bestselling mystery series set on reservations was told to “get rid of all the Indian stuff”.  Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone was rejected by a dozen publishers and the only reason Bloomsbury bought the book was because the CEO’s eight-year-old daughter who read the manuscript begged her father to print it.

You get the picture.  Manuscript submission is not for the faint of heart. It helps to have a tenacious, resilient spirit as well as a quality manuscript.  It also helps to know a bit about the ins and outs of manuscript submission.  East Side Books Writing Section is teeming with resources to help you find the best publishers for your work.  Again, any resource published by Writer’s Digest will get you on the right track.  I suggest that you pick up a Writer’s Market as a starting place.  A Writer’s Market gives you a categorized list of all the available publishers.  You do not even have to have the most current Writer’s Market–anything within the last five years or so will work.  Submission information changes so fast that even with the most current Writer’s Market, you still have to do an Internet search to double check the submission’s editor name or new changes in submission policies. It is even better if you can pick up a Writer’s Market specific to your area such as children’s writing or magazine writing.  The Way to Publish a Cookbook by Doris McFerran Townsend is a helpful guide to anyone interested in mixing their writing ability with cooking skills, and Writing for Children and Teenagers by Lee Wyndham is a great resource for learning to hone writing to a specific market.

It is of some debate whether or not writers have a better chance of being published if represented by a literary agents.  Agents can often leapfrog their client’s manuscripts over the gigantic slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts.  How to Be Your Own Literary Agent by Richard Curtis is one book that might help you get your own work looked at a little quicker than the rest.  East Side Books has a number of books about how to find a literary agent in our Writing Section.

“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.” –Richard Wright

If you have always wanted to be a writer, we, at East Side Books, encourage you to pick up a pen and let loose some words.  As Anais Nin said, “The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.”  If you are needing a little encouragement or guidance, visit our shelves today.  As always, our staff is happy to assist you find just the right book to fit your needs.  Who knows, someday we might be shelving a book written by you.

Additional Note:  There are two organized yearly writing challenges beginning November 1, 2010: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and November PAD Chapbook Challenge.  National Novel Writing Month is exactly what it says–the goal is to write a 175 page (50,000 word) novel during the month of November.  The challenged is geared toward helping writers–experienced or otherwise–get that rough draft on paper.  Over 165,000 writers participated last year.  For more information go to . The November PAD Chapbook Challenge is put on by Writer’s Digest.  The idea of this contest is to write a poem each day during the month of November.  Participants will have the month of December to revise and organize their November poems into a 10 to 20 page manuscript.  Manuscripts need to be submitted by January 5 and a winner will be selected.  Poets can post their poems along the way.  For more information go to Click on November 2010 PAD Challenge.  You can also check out for a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly cash prizes for poetry.

One thought on “So You Want To Be A Writer

  1. The rest of us at East Side Books love Melissa’s writing, from the tiny book recommendation tags on the shelves to these informative and fun blog posts. We can’t wait to read, and then shelve, her coming books!

    And for all of you authors out there, we would love to see your “practice” in the form of comments right here. We want to hear from you, about the store, your book notes, other conversations…. There are some benefits to electronic communications, and blogs are one of them, so let’s take advantage!

    Thanks to all of the silent readers also, you can still come in and visit for your conversation if you prefer!

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