Let me paint you a picture, one of those bizarre scenarios, frisky tableaus, that slowly segues into the topic and theme of the title. Imagine a big, bawdy bar, with a barkeep of barreled brawn, brined brains, and bedeviled behavior. A sprawling dome sanctified by the Gods, christened by Baco and sponsored by the good folks at Guinness… in other words, a pub. A proper (we only serve booze) pub. Now, take that majestic construct and catapult it 100 years into the future, and since we are already breaking the space-time-continuum let’s shatter this flimsy facade called logic - and cement its pillars on one of the heaven’s marshmallow clouds. “The Cloud Nine” pub in the sky. There’s a marquee on the brick side by the petunias: “Jesus once came here for a pint.” Inside our celestial haberdashery, patrons dance, dames frolic, and inebriates fight and fess-up. In one corner, Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron are playing footsies under the table. By the jar of pickled eggs, Hemingway is displaying his legendary attitude towards liquor. By the door, giving a rousing and confusing speech on wordplay, Shakespeare. Tolstoy and Marx dip their wet fingers on a pile of salt, trying desperately to hoover the last crumbs of peanuts. Throughout all this madcap, watermark fandango of insanity, a conga line has formed: Maya Angelou, Charlotte Bronte, and Virginia Woolf do the cha-cha-cha while Austen and Christie follow with a brilliant rendition of the chicken dance. The lit cream of yesteryear rubbing shoulders and other naughty parts. The night carries on, sooner or later Karaoke comes into play and bonds are forged mid-way through “Bohemian Rhapsody”; even Poe manages a smile. Then Twain, that rascal that he is, poses a question:
“When is a writer no longer an amateur, but a professional?”
Noggins and cookies start boiling. Fitzgerald drools on the virtues of speaking from experience. Lovecraft gives a fairly decent argument towards making pacts with Old Ones. Hemingway zig-zags into a yarn about fishing, while Woody Allen tries to hit on the waitress. On and on they ping-pong the question around the room. Some manage to hit the ball, others evade it, preferring to occupy their minds with the physics of lager. Up and down, hours and hours, the philosophical item is examined; no real answer reached, no consensus patted down. Then, just before the rooster is about to call it a night, a voice is heard among the revelry:
“Oh, that’s without a doubt the easiest question out there.”
Everybody turns, eyes adjusting in the gloom and rum haze. Sitting on a stool, right next to a Pac-Man machine and flicking through a jukebox’s selection of Golden Oldies, the man himself… Mister Stephen King.
“Like I said, you turnip heads, there’s a simple answer.” He takes a sip of his coke. “A writer is truly a professional writer, the minute, nay, the second he gets PAID. A check for something you’ve written instantly grants you pro-writer status. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.”
Mouths catching flies, everybody stares at the horror master, knowing full well that that Gordian Knot of a riddle had been sliced in two and packaged away with alacrity.
“OK,” goes Twain “Let me re-frame the question: when do you pass from being a mediocre writer a proper writer?”
Stephen King gets up, understanding that the wordsmith has him by the furry bits The man, having just read “50 Shades of Grey”, his belief in the power of humankind and the essence of his craft shaken to the very foundation, simply walks off.
So, the conundrum still stands: when is a writer a proper writer? As a published author, I’m going to toss my two-cents into that fountain and hope they don’t get lost among the treasured detritus of others. In my opinion, a writer becomes what he is meant to be the second he stops measuring himself up to others of his profession. The second you manage to tie down your voice, tone and make it your own, without trying to copy someone else’s beats, that’s the minute you are a professional. That’s the minute you become something truly unique and irreplaceable.
“But,” you ask “How do I get to that point?”
It’s not easy, so here are a few tips:
Commit to your new job.
Writing, penning out articles, manuscripts, stories, poems, scripts, and all other wordy fragments of wisdom or sheer entertainment is a full-time, 24/7 task. There’s a lot of talk going around town about the power of visualization; I’m here to tell you that’s just nothing short of Hocus Pocus. In reality, you can visualize all you like. Buy the hipster hat, the flowing scarf and talk like a lofty SOB at your next family get together. Do the whole fandango and tango… You’re still not a writer. Imagine as many unicorns and pie-in-the-sky ideas as your greedy little brain will allow, at the end of the day you’ll still find yourself at the stable wondering why your horse can’t fly or who stole his magical horn. The only way to become a writer is to sit down and put in the work. Plant your rear on a seat, or couch, snatch your tools and scribble ‘til you hit gold or have something worth publishing.
“What about the muse?”
Poppycock! My advice is to grab those Grecian mistresses and take them out back; two shots to the back of the skull for each. Neil Gaiman and Larry Correia will help you hide the bodies while Hemingway mops up the blood. The truth of the matter is that some days you’ll get up in the morning, slug your way to your laptop and discover that fiend writer’s block sitting on the ledge of your table. The specter is pointing out your worthlessness and handing out wanted ads; circled in crimson: “full-time accountant, great pay.” Before you log on and give Facebook a chance, open up your word-processor and freaking write. Maybe, after four hours of clacking away, you’ll have a sentence or two worth a lick.
A professional writer writes until his ass is raw and his fingers bleed. An amateur writer dabbles with his computer as long as there is nothing good on the television.
A structured existence.
Let’s build a bridge between the island up above and this grassy archipelago. It’s time to set down rules, to set down goals and lay the foundations that will eventually make you a professional writer. Hacking away at your diary isn’t, unless you’re Anne Frank, professional writing. Every great or at least successful writer has a process. Stephen King reads four hours a day and writes for another four. Dan Brown wakes up at the crack of dawn, stretches and then works until noon. Janet Evanovich finger-dances across the keyboard in the morning and edits at night. Carl Hiassen faces his desk against a blank wall and snaps on shooting-range earmuffs against his head. Hemingway strolled to the nearest bar, sat down and jotted down 500 words, celebrating each victory at the end with a stiff drink. Every single one of them, like Rowling at a coffee shop in Edinburg staring at a cemetery, had their magic recipe. And, unlike any thaumaturgical hootenanny, their “IT” wasn’t based on a virgin’s blood and a Saint’s holy tears; it was grounded on a businesslike attitude, by the numbers, by appreciation of their skill set. It’s all about discipline, especially when you don’t have a boss riding your ass. Establish a passable set of rules to live by; that’s the Golden Ratio. This is a nine-to-five job; you clock in, you clock out. You need a space for yourself, especially if you are working at home. Otherwise your novel will be slowly devoured and digested by those rugrats you call offsprings. You need to mark down daily goals and, even if you have to go over time, fulfill them.
A pro will edge at least 500 words a day. She’ll dip her arm into a fiery pit, 500 times, just to get those words out. She’ll wake up every day, forget her family exists, juggle divorce like a pro and become a statue in her office ‘til she hits the mark. An amateur will wake up whenever she feels like it, take her time with her coffee, play with her kids, talk to her partner and, finally, scratch out twenty words and say the day was productive.
Sharpen your tools.
I’m going to step into a Stargate and zoom our narrative into another whimsical dimension. Did you know that Eric Clapton became Eric “Oh dear lord Layla is the bomb” Clapton after hearing and jamming with Jimi Hendrix? Did you know the Bob “I just won a Nobel Prize” Dylan purposely bought a house close to Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison? There’s a reason why there was The Police, before Sting. Why Don Henley needed that adrenaline shot known as the Eagles. Why Lennon needed Paul, George, and Ringo. There’s a time in every artist’s life when the chords, the beat, the rhythm, the skills are all learned and mastered; you can either stagnate or take it to the next level. If you’re not a music lover, then let’s flip that analogy onto another field… snatch your boxing gloves and go beat up someone better than you. One of the keys to being a legendary artist is to know you are part of a community. You have to purge that misconception that art is a lone wolf’s hunt. Nope, DiCaprio became an Oscar winner thanks to Scorsese. Hemingway earned his legendary status on account of Gertrude Stein. Frankenstein was penned thanks to an oddball weekend with Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and John Polidori in Switzerland.
Talent is partly like an STD. It’s more contagious than syphilis, and some of your peers are so infected with it that you’re liable to catch it by mere osmosis. Surround yourself with people in your neck of the woods. People that appreciate your craft and actually dabble in it. Think about the mid 20s and roaring 30s, or the Beatnik movement, or SoHo London; flash back to those rocking times. Everybody was doodling everybody. Post-coital carnal caper chats ensued on the craft recipe of the day. Pores sweaty, salty and open, your soul as bare and naked as the rest of you. Your mind lathered and frothed by livid libations and popping endorphins. A sultry poetista whispering Keats into your ears; the primordial soup in which creativity is stewed and prepared.
Or, if you’re a bit square, the following Open Sesame phrase will win over any writer: “let me buy you a beer!” If you toss in some Wild Turkey, we will allow you to pump us for as much info as you want.
A pro will, after getting up at the crack of dawn, crawl his way into an avant-garde play at midnight. He will wallow past the existential dingus, toast with his artsy friends at 3 AM, decline a snort of Peruvian moon dust at 5 AM, get an UBER at 6 and start the day on Red Bull just to start writing again. He’ll do that and more just to bathe and float in creative juices. An Amateur will call it a day at 4 and switch on the ballgame.
Know your genre.
Every platform has guidelines. You can break them, you can go all Gonzo on Journalism, but first, you have to conquer them. Once you have them down to a science, once you can build your rifle with your tongue while blindfolded and barking like a loon, only then can you defenestrate those pesky commandments and dash them against the rocks. Genres have tropes, they have verified axioms that somehow still manage - in many cases - to seem original. For example, in mythology - and most Marvel and DC movies - the age-old Hero’s Journey is the archetype; Campbell’s 17 stages, the playbook Batman was built on. In hard-edge journalism, the “Five W’s” are the linchpin of any piece. Analyze your sandbox. Take it apart and put each grain of dust under the microscope. Want to Tolkien your way to the top of the fantasy aisle? Then you better have your world-building criteria down on paper. There’s a reason why publishers search for word counts for each genre. Why Westerns shouldn’t be more than 65k words; why Horror has to be at least 100k; why Game of Thrones is considered a hostile mallet in certain New York City boroughs.
Here’s another example with the same sentence done and tweaked for different schools of thoughts.
“It was twilight, five minutes past 6 in New Jersey when…”
“In the Kingdom the sun had dipped below the marbled turrets, bronzing the golden crest when…”
“A crisp and sharp wind bit into John’s cheek. Night was fast approaching, his instincts coming full force with it…”
“The sun decided to call it a day. Happy Hour was starting up just to the west, and that flaming ball of gas needed some Sake, Geisha Hanky-Panky and, oddly enough, a dose of Sumo…”
“A funeral shroud clawed its way pass the horizon, digging its long bloody talons into the last rays of light that clung to the day. A Halloween orange snapped just past the emerald mountains, scatting for a second the landscape in a multicolored afterglow. Then, in a flash and with the same feral ferocity, bewildering intensity, and vivid violence it disappeared into the ether. With it, all sense of safety was snuffed out. A Stygian wave rolled over the street; pulling in all sights and sounds into its ravenous event horizon…”
A Pro will hit her head against the head, for an hour, just to catch that word - that perfect word - that’s dangling at the tip of her tongue. She’ll study and read every great book published in her genre before daring to approach that theme. She’ll take months penning that perfect book or article. An Amateur will hook from the pond whatever word comes swimming by and stitch it onto his pieces just to be done with it. She’ll ask herself: “Why not just say the clown is scary and be done with it” when discussing IT with her friends.
Tips from this side of the table.
Here are some Golden Rules that truly construct pieces worth printing.
Rethink every adverb you place in your text. Anything that ends with “ly.” The trick to good storytelling is to show and let your audience infer. How was he “calmly” walking to the gallows?
Be mindful of alliterations. They work great in comedy, but might sound funky in other genres.
Grammar, in fiction - especially in horror - is flexible. This is paramount when placing your commas, periods and semicolons. Every paragraph has a beat and rhythm; you’re the artist, you build.
Then Edit some more. Dean Koontz, for example, will edit each page to death before starting to write another one. It helps to get everything into perspective and, if you’re playing with a novel, it slices the task into digestible sections.
Get a thesaurus and learn some odd words. Each genre has a formula, a dictionary to it, get cracking and know your theater’s vocabulary. H.P. Lovecraft used to trudge around, constantly searching for bizarre and arcane words to fill his manuscripts with.
Read like a madman. And, when you are not reading, get some audio books.
Before shipping and closing the chapter on anything, read it out loud. There’s a reason why storytellers were so adored back in olden days before the printing press. Your phrases or sentences have to hit the ear just right.
Critics are right monstrous Unfortunately, they are also your best friends. Before you publish anything, pass it around.
Start by copying some of your favorite author’s tone and pattern, learn from them. Slowly start molding them to your frame of mind. You have to mature and nurture your unique voice, but before that happens that fertile egg has to be inseminated… so pick a proper genetic input.
And finally, and most importantly, get someone to bankroll you. If you’re getting paid for it, then you’re a writer. Money in the bank, despite what the critics say, is the bar you have to measure yourself against.