I’m going to break the fourth wall for a little bit and go behind the scenes into what makes a writer tick. I know, I know; this may seem a little self-serving or indicate that I’ve run out of things to write about, but that’s not true. Why, just yesterday my wife and I went out to get coffee, and ended up at a store that sells nothing but knitting supplies. That should provide enough fuel for at least nine hundred words of literary hysteria, but I digress.
A short while ago, I started putting “author” in the occupation box on any forms that I had to fill out. I did this because I was no longer doing what I had done for thirty years, and somehow “sleeps past 5:30 am now” didn’t seem like an actual profession. Plus, I had a book published and essays picked up in newspapers both major and minor, and people who weren’t blood relatives actually bought the book and read the essays, so the move made some degree of sense. The first time I made this career proclamation, I felt a little goofy for doing so. Somehow it seemed more factual to put “juggler of flaming chainsaws” in the box, but once I broke that ice, I stuck with it.
When people see this declaration, they always ask detailed questions that they probably wouldn’t ask of an electrician or an accountant. Questions such as:
- Wow, are you famous?
- What do you write?
- Would I have read anything you wrote?
- Do you get paid for that?
- In dollars?
- How do you come up with ideas?
- Are you an alcoholic chain smoker?
Based on the number of books, magazines and seminars geared towards struggling writers; there are a lot of people who want to be authors. After all, it seems as if it might be a lot of fun, and since J. K. Rowling wrote the outline for the first Harry Potter book on a series of napkins, there’s hope for everyone that they too can be a billionaire who lives in a castle in Edinburgh. I have to say that writing can be a lot of fun. I’ve had the good fortune to meet some nice people at book signings, I gave some public readings, and I even did a live TV interview without barfing on the air, but nothing beats getting up and going to work while wearing pajamas.
Writing is easy compared to a lot of the nasty jobs I’ve done, but there are still some basic rules that one must follow. The first rule is to use the word “one” instead of “you,” such as I did in the previous sentence. It’s more accurate and much more technical plus it sounds smarter than “you” and a lot smarter than “youse.” After that, writing is a piece of cake, but only if that cake has a lot of layers and ingredients. Hopefully it’s chocolate cake.
According to the Global Language Monitor, there are 1,025,109,000 words in the English language, and all of these are made out of only twenty-six letters. That’s as of January 1, 2014, so I’m not sure if this includes words such as twerk (to dance in a sexually provocative manner), charticle (a combination of text, images and graphics that takes the place of a full article) or blook (a book written by a blogger). All a writer has to do is take twenty-six letters out of alphabetical order and make words. It’s nothing more than a Wheel of Fortune puzzle, minus the half-car wedge and the swanky vowel buying.
The writer then has put a fraction of those words into a bunch of sentences that explain either a recipe or how to lose weight and boom—there’s a New York Times bestseller. If you want to write short stories for a living, you either have to be David Sedaris, a celebrity with a top rated sitcom or willing to starve. If one wants to be a novelist, that’s easy. Write a trilogy about the sexual exploits of gorgeous people with lots of money, teenagers who live in a dysfunctional future, or moody characters that include some sort of mythical beings with chiseled abs and fabulous hair.
A writer also needs to know how to use punctuation, which consists of things such as periods, commas, do-si-do’s, Oxford commas, community college commas, the Boy George comma, comma, comma, comma, comma chameleon and roughly eight million other arcane symbols, some of which have names such as tildan and interrobang. Sadly, the proper use of punctuation seems to be a dying skill since the advent of texting and modern teenagers, as most young people only know how to use a tiny handful of punctuation marks. These would include:
- The hashtag.
- The @ sign.
- A dozen exclamation points per sentence.
- Frowny face emojis.
It is also helpful to understand some of the basic rules of grammar such as verbs and nouns and predicates and all that stuff they talked about in school while ninety-nine percent of us boys were doodling pictures of robots fighting dinosaurs. Here’s a rule of thumb about understanding the rules of English: there is more money to be earned from being good at math, but you’ll bore fewer people if you’re able to conjugate verbs in a fancy manner. If you can actually juggle flaming chainsaws, you will be the absolute life of every party.
I was never very good at math, but I always knew how to tell a story, and as the years have gone by, I’ve learned how to make better use of commas and colons (both semi and regular), and utilize the rhythmic cadence of certain words. Sometimes I’ll stare out the window for hours searching for the perfect word and sometimes the words flow out of brain and spill out all over the carpet. When this happens, the dog picks them up and woofs until I throw them, and then he brings them back, so if certain words look a little ragged, that’s why.
I know how to use slightly more than one percent of the features in my word processing program, but most of the icons on that top bar are a complete mystery to me. I’m afraid to touch them. I still type with four fingers, if you count thumbs as fingers, and each story still starts with the germ of an idea before it fleshes its way to a reasonably coherent ending. Endings are the hardest part, followed by the middle and the beginning.
It takes anywhere from a few hours to a few days for me write the basic essay and about twice that to edit everything into the pearls of literature that are presented here. It takes less than a second to highlight the whole thing and hit delete, which I do often.
If I had to guess, I’d say that each essay takes no less than twelve hours from start to finish. As for any technical English skills I may have, if I were pressed into explaining the parts of a sentence or the structural elements of a story, I would fail miserably. Sorry, Sister Constantina, but someone had to save the planet from marauding dinosaurs.
So that’s how it’s done, or at least how it’s done in my office.
I was asked a question in the TV interview about any advice I would have for other writers. My brain said, “learn how to fix cars” but what came out of my mouth was vastly different. I said, “Just write.” I said this because writing is a skill that needs to be honed. In hindsight, that wasn’t bad advice but if I had to annex that, I’d say to read a variety of books. Stephen King, who is a clever and very prolific writer, is also a voracious reader. I often wonder where he finds the time, since each of his books weighs about forty-five pounds and he seems to churn them out on a regular basis. In addition to all that writing and reading, he still makes time to rake his money into a leaf-like pile so that he and his family can jump in and out of it. I’d love to ask him about that.
Well, that’s it, so now I’ll set start working on that knitting story. As is my custom, I took notes while wandering around the store, and if things go according to plan, I’ll have a story. That’s the goal anyway, unless the dog takes off and doesn’t come back with my words. Time and coffee will tell.