Wednesday, December 03, 2008


I’ve never entered a writing contest. I was twice nominated for awards by my publisher, which I didn’t win.

Neither have I ever attended a writers’ conference or seminar unless I was teaching. After high school, my formal literary training amounted to 20 minutes in a community college class I dropped because the instructor wasn’t a writer. The library is my alma mater.

There’s nothing wrong with writing contests, but the only writer I have ever tried to surpass is myself. Nor is there anything wrong with trying to learn from others; I’ve learned lots of things -- in private -- from writers I personally consider to be exceptional. In fact, I’m still learning from them.

Once a week, at least, I hear from someone who wants to learn the “insider secrets” I’ve picked up through the years. I always disappoint them, because I don’t know any secret except to keep writing. And hear this, if you wait on the muse you’ll be waiting a long time.

Sometimes, people mail manuscripts to me, asking for an opinion on the quality of their writing. I send them back unread with a note that I am not an editor and the only person whose opinion counts is the publisher or editor to whom they send their work.

There are very few writers in America who make a living writing books and I am not one of them. I have made a little money through the years, but not enough to live on. I wrote a long time before anyone ever paid me to do it and I would still be writing if nobody ever paid me again.

A lot of journalists earn a living, of course, but reporting is a specialized field and expertise as a reporter doesn’t necessarily translate to the kind of writing that goes into books -- though it can. There’s a reason why it doesn’t happen more often than it does.

Every profession, including journalism, has a distinct way of writing. Cops, lawyers and reporters tend to write they way they have learned on the job and most can’t break the habit after they’ve done it for a long time.

Take note that everyone a reporter writes about has a title: Jeffrey Dahmer, the Wisconsin cannibal and serial killer, was a “former candy factory worker;” Rodney King was a “motorist;” and anyone who has ever been under psychiatric care becomes a permanent “former mental patient.”

A report written by a cop is filled with “suspects,” “subjects” or “defendants” and terms like, “the suspect had the odor of an alcoholic beverage about his person.” Lawyers use phrases such as: “For good and valuable consideration;” “Whereas, the parties;” and “Be it known.”

Joseph Wambaugh made the transition from cop reports to writer; John Grisham evolved from lawyer lingo to novels; and Edna Buchanan broke out of being a reporter to write books. For every success there are probably thousands who can’t make the change.

It’s my personal opinion that real writers are obsessive-compulsive about what they do because for the vast majority, there’s no other explanation. Stephen King was once asked if he wrote every day. He replied, “Every day except Christmas and my birthday.” Later, he admitted that he also wrote on those two days.

I think it was Faith Baldwin who wrote that after the first million published words, a writer begins to get the hang of writing. She may have been right.

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