What Does it Take to be a Writer?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately on how and why I started writing.  Believe me–some days that thought is in more of a desperate tone.  When it’s three in the morning and I’m thirty pages into revisions on my second run through a manuscript, I have one of those movie moments where I think “Why the Hells did I ever start doing this?“.  Sometimes it’s not so desperate, such as after I finish a passage or scene that I just know is the literary equivalent to a punch in the kidneys.  So–how and why did I start doing this?

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I’ve always been into storytelling one way or the other.  It all started in third grade–though it took me awhile to remember this.  Some of my old friends may be angry with me for drudging up these embarrassing tales, but oh well.  My first foray into writing happened then, when I drew a comic book in collaboration with a few friends of mine called “Killow”.  It was just a stick-figure comic book about a group of friends (those of us who were writing it) who were ninjas and basically got into random karate fights for absolutely no reason at all.  We didn’t care that the title was a mutated form of “Willow”, or that the storyline was copied from “Ninja Turtles”.  We still got into huge “karate fights” on the playground, and it was good fun.

Fast forward a few years and you’ll find a fifth-grade version of yours truly hard at work on a story assignment for school.  We basically had to write a book and bind it with laminated paper.  Mine was a harrowing tale of a space captain who rescues some damsel from…something, I can’t remember.  I was not going to half-ass it, though.  My story was illustrated on every page with comic-esque drawings in colored marker.  I can’t remember what it was called, though my teacher was really impressed with me.  I got a good grade on that one, and it was all downhill from there.  After that, you’d find me tucked away in the corner of my house, scribbling away with markers.

It was around that time that I started concentrating hard on drawing and learning to play guitar.  I would spend hours drawing pictures with my cousin, and playing the guitar until my fingers sometimes bled.  No joke.  There was a period in my life where my fingers were in a constant state of peeling and healing–for years, I mean.  When the guitar became too painful or boring to play, I would be drawing comic books.

When I was fifteen or so I started drawing another comic with a separate group of friends called “VHIII”.  This one had everything a young teenage boy could love–vampires, epic battles, lots of blood and gore, and of course, scantily-clad women.  What can I say?  I was a kid.  By this time our artwork was passable, and over the years I’ve been a little impressed with some of it after I dug it out of boxes to ride down nostalgia lane.  At this point, the story was just a backdrop for the artwork, so I still knew nothing about plot lines or anything like that.  But hey–in those years, the only thing I could think about was girls, which is a struggle all teenage boys know well.

Between those years and my first years in college, I concentrated mostly on songwriting.  I was in several different bands over those years, but one in particular that I played with for a very long time–well into my army years, actually.  Some of you may not know this, but I’m a beast on the guitar.  All those years of bleeding fingers paid off in dividends.  I went to music school, learned about song structure and key signatures and all the musical terms you could want.  I was second in my class at music school, and I loved every minute of it.

Then the war happened.

I actually started writing my first book as a joke.  I wanted to write a funny story that featured friends of mine; something they could read and laugh about.  I started in fits and spurts, never getting past the sixth chapter.  The story slowly changed into something serious during all those rewrites, though.  It went from a funny tale to the story of a guy who finds his wife in bed with his friend, and kills them both.  I have no idea why the story turned so dark, but perhaps it was a symptom of my world doing so.  I still couldn’t get past the sixth chapter, and it was during this time that I left college and marched off to war.

The book stayed on the proverbial shelf for a couple of years.  I went to Iraq, came home, traveled around Europe a bit.  I met people, partied, and saw some history for myself.  I guess you could say I spent a few years just absorbing the world around me.  I didn’t start writing again until my second deployment to Iraq, and that was when The Sentient Fire was born.

So what does it take?  In my case, something of an obsessive personality.  I’m one of those people that will hammer away at something until I’m either satisfied, or too tired to continue.  I couldn’t just write a story–I had to create an entire world, write a history for it, specify the mechanics down to the number of days each season officially takes to pass.  I read my stuff over and over, obsessing over the placement of this comma or that word.  It gets crazy sometimes.

Also–and this is going to sound horrible–I think you need to have some pain in your life.  You need to get out and experience things.  Get your heart broken, lose someone, see something awful happen.  You need to experience the swell of victory in your chest, and know the pride that comes with achieving something you never thought you could.  You need to experience utter defeat.  How will you ever write about heartache unless you know how it feels?  If you decide to write about war, will you understand what it feels like to be there?

You also need to understand people on a basic level.  You need to know what drives them, what motivates them.  You need to have a good idea of what a particular character might do when faced with an impossible situation.  The only way to gain a rudimentary understanding of that is to observe the people around you.  You need to become a student of humanity.

You also need to read.  Read absolutely everything you can get your hands on, even if you don’t think it would interest you.  A good place to start is history.  The saying “truth is stranger than fiction” holds a lot of water, and if you delve into the sordid tales of the Romans, or the conquests of the Mongols, you’ll find a lot of grist for your writing.  Fiction is also good for growth, no matter what anyone says.  Believe it or not, you do absorb things unconsciously.  If all you’re reading is internet gossip, your writing will start to take on that style.  Don’t fall into that trap.  Your brain is a muscle and it needs more exercise than your body ever will.

I think it goes without saying that you need a basic understand of the English language.  If you can’t form a correct sentence, then there are countless things you need to learn before tackling a book.  Everyone makes mistakes, but you do need a foundation to build upon.

I think that’s enough for this week.  Don’t forget to JOIN THE CONCLAVE and follow me on Facebook.  Tweet me if you want, and feel free to follow this blog, too.  Also, look out for The City Under the Mountain on August 15th!

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