I've been asked to cover Paula's blog this week, and talk about the skills required of a modern writer.
I've been specifically asked by Cat not to cuss too much, because this is an emotive issue, and should be close to the hearts of anyone writing in today's market.
So what are the skills of a modern writer? Or more exactly, what are the qualities and attributes a writer must profess, before one even begins to think of the necessary skills beyond.
Well, a high command of written English, first and foremost. That is, I should hope, patently obvious. You'd be horrified, I'm sure, by the number of times I've had to write “punctuation is not optional!” in feedback.
But I digress.
Second, a sense of storytelling as a vocation, beyond the chosen medium. That's another way of saying that one wants to tell stories, and the measure of fascination with telling them well. Which is all another way of saying that “talent” is a necessary attribute; the desire to actually be a writer.
From these two arise the third, which again is no quality rather than a skill unless one considers it something that can itself be honed by practice: Dedication. It takes a hell of a lot of work to write a novel, and anyone who's put in the work to do it even once can attest: It's not an easy thing to do by any measure.
Which gives us our fourth virtue required of a writer: Realism. This applies across the board. Not only in being realistic about what you've undertaken in even starting a novel, but also in the need to maintain your day to day environment so that you can actually write a novel. We all gotta pay the rent, in other words.
Considered in the “Hierachy of Needs”, writing a novel sits at the very top of the pyramid, the need for self-actualisation, which can only be approached when ALL other needs in the Hierarchy are at least minimally satisfied. Paying the rent is right at the bottom, the foundational level of food and shelter, securing one's physical survival. What makes writing so exceptionally hard (and indeed what so many young writers just starting out have trouble grasping) is that servicing one's day to day life while preserving the time and space to write (both physical and mental) is a very tricky balance indeed.
Therefore, the fourth skill or quality of a modern writer is Realism. Because if you're not Realistic, then you'll instinctively flee into total Denial of the actual skillset beyond these foundational abilities.
It's these four that allow us to even write a novel in the first place. So you've done that; you've got your complete draft and you're working it over, polishing and tightening for all you're worth. This is number five on our list, but the first actual “skill” of a writer: Editing. It takes a nigh masochistic level of focus, and a quixotically equal level of not giving a damn. In other words, the “skill” in editing is the ability to summon the power at will: To be unflinchingly critical of your work, or totally chilled about it, as appropriate and at your sole command. To turn off the “inner editor” or summon him or her back at your beck and call. The better you are at this, the better you'll command your ability to simply write freely, and then edit effectively; it's very difficult to write while the inner-editor is whinging over your shoulder.
N.B: If your level of Realism is not sufficient, then controlling your Editing skills is extremely hard. Counter-intuitively, a lack of Realism is just as apt to make one underestimate oneself and one's abilities, as it is to delude us in neglecting essentials in favour of “creative” tantrums at life's inevitable pressures.
Sixth necessary skill is Confidence. And yes, Confidence most definitely is a learned skill. If you think you lack an abundance of Confidence, then you're self-evidently unqualified to judge how one attains it. Take it from one who has tons of Confidence; it is an acquired skill, it is something you learn, it is another power that you must command and conjure at will.
The key to Confidence is understanding that it's a performance. It's something you do or do not, to paraphrase Yoda, not something that you are or are not. The practice of Confidence is rooted in Realism, in that you build it through taking on challenges that you can Realistically achieve.
Without Confidence, you'll forever struggle at essential skill number seven, which is Self-Publicity.
Yup, this is where we reach the major stumbling block of the modern writer. All preceding skills have been common to all writers in all eras.
Only now, for the first time, are we required to be our own Self-Publicists. Back to Realism: Most, if not all of us, entered writing with a naively hopeful impression that one simply writes a book, sends it to an agent, who sends it to a publisher, who sends you a nice fat advance cheque to write the sequel. If one is rebuffed at any stage once or any number of times, then one simply hammers the book again until it's even better, and presents it again for inspection.
Sadly, this has not been an even vaguely Realistic view of publishing in at least fifty years, and grows progressively more unrealistic the closer one comes to the actual state of publishing today.
The days when Ray Bradbury could get on a bus with a folder full of short stories about Martians, rock into a publisher's office without an appointment and get a meeting, be told “Sorry, we don't do anthologies, haven't you got a novel?”, come back an hour later having written a thousand words on the fly in the park and say “Yup, here ya go,” and get on the bus home with a big fat cheque, are long gone.
The truth is, it doesn't matter how good your book is, masterpiece or pieceacrap, if you can't learn to tout your book and yourself loudly amid the multitude of writers, wannabes and maybe-once-weres all contending in the blighted wasteland that used to be known as the Mid-List.
The eighth essential skill therefore, is History. Specifically, the recent history of modern publishing. You see, once upon a time in Literary Land, the majority of writers made their living in the Mid-List, by doing all the things that we still try to do to make a living, but they actually got paid for it.
Between the big monetary crash of a few years gone by, which continues to wreak havoc in all industries and markets, and the advent of Ebooks on the scene, publishing as Ray Bradbury knew it no longer exists. A very few mega-publishers dominate the mainstream market, and in the face of established systems failing and new system being entirely untried, they have opted for a policy of “hedging their bets”. This they've done primarily by focussing their publicity budgets into the top bestsellers; essentially guaranteeing a handful of sure-hit mega-hits who are “too big to fail”.
The upshot of which is the defunding of the mid-list to support the very tip-top acme of the bestsellers list. People like Rowling and Meyer spring to mind. This means that writers who developed all the skills and attributes listed so far, who could once have made at least as good a living in the Mid-List as they might at any other career, are left in the proverbial Wilderness. Harlan Ellison described it as the “amateurisation” of writing: The Mid-List was once an attainable niche for the majority of committed writers. Today we contend in the mosh-pit of amateurs online (which is not to inherently denigrate anyone who writes solely for the love of it).
The Ninth skill then, is Chutzpah. That's a wonderful Yiddish word for the quality of cheek, wit, bloody-mindedness and sheer brass to really dare shoot for your ambitions. Fear of success is the biggest killer of dreams. We encounter this phantasmal monster of the mind at every stage of every one of the skills we've discussed. The truth is that the dream of success “one day” can become such a cherished panacea to the daily grind, that actualising it in reality poses the terrible danger of losing the escapism that working towards it affords.
A writer, in order to realise the fullness of their storytelling vocation, must dare to be a diva, put their money where their mouth is, and not only come up with the goods, but demand the respect and remuneration that mastery of the written word commands.
I have been Samuel Z Jones, your guest blogger, and I approve this message.
I hope you've enjoyed my ramblings here enough to have butcher's at my work; you can find the full Fantasy epic to date here, and join me on Booksie here in the coming weeks for a serialised preview of my upcoming novel, The Baron Moruna.
You can even find me in interview here, and in person at the Akurite Empire FB page.