So, You Want to be a Writer?

By Babs Halton

It was a winter’s evening. I lay sprawled on the sheepskin rug in front of a log fire.

“I want to be a writer,” I said.

My husband sat in his leather armchair, pen poised over a crossword. “Do you know another word for ‘spiny anteater’?”

Our youngest piped up. “I know, Daddy. It’s Echinacea,” she replied, her eyes never leaving the television. Her sister looked up from the book she was reading and laughed.

“That’s an herb—it’s not an anteater.”

“Well, I know it’s something like that and I know it’s not enchilada ‘cos that’s a real hot food,” she said smugly.

“It’s an echidna,” I replied. “Native to Oz; belongs to the porcupine family.”

“Wow! How did you know that?” Eyes still glued to the television.

“Because I did last week’s crossword and I looked it up.”

My voice raised an octave. “Anyway, to get back to what I was saying, I want to be a writer.”

“Oh! That’s interesting,” he said.

“Don’t humor me,” I snapped. “You don’t think I’m serious, do you?”

Now I had his attention. “Why, of course, I know you’re serious, but . . . ”

“But what?”

“Well, it’s not like writing a letter, you know. It takes determination, stamina, and a thick skin because you’ll have enough rejections to paper a very large room.”

“So you’re saying my work will be rejected.” My voice sounded like cracked ice.

“Of course, bound to be—it happens to all writers.” He warmed to the subject. “Do you know how many books Louis L’Amour had rejected before he had an acceptance?”

“I don’t want to write cowboy stories,” I said miserably.

“Okay! So, you don’t want to write Westerns. I was just making a point.”

I never realized how much wanting to be a writer was about to change my life.

I threw myself into learning like a dervish. I devoured books—classics and trash at an alarming rate—hoping the more books I read the more words would emerge. I’m sure I became the fastest reader in the South Pacific but unfortunately when I began writing, both my stories and style left a lot to be desired (oops—cliché). I also used too many exclamation marks to emphasize a point (sometimes up to three—I was so carried away). I read that one famous author mentioned that if he felt like putting an exclamation mark after a word he would lie down until it passed.

And so, days, weeks, and months passed and I diligently attended workshops, courses, seminars, and lectures by professional writers, teachers, and rip-off merchants. I used masses of exercise books to report what each one suggested. Something I did learn was that with all the time (valuable) and money spent (ouch!), every one of the “experts” seemed to be at loggerheads.

“Forget the adjectives,” said one, a teacher of English literature at a university.

“In my opinion,” said another (this time an author with 100 short stories and seven novels published), “it’s foolish to forget adjectives—if you pare it down too much you’ll have nothing left.”

And yet another: “You can only break the rules of writing when you know them well enough to know which rules can be broken successfully.” (Huh?)

“Write only what you know—write from experience,” said a very successful fantasy and science fiction writer. (Alrighty!)

Confused, weary, and a teeny weeny bit irritated, I pondered. Did Agatha Christie really commit all those murders? Did H.G. Wells really step into a time machine? Was Ian Fleming really James Bond and did he really make love to all those women? Wow! Is there something here that I am missing?

I heard, “I like your story very much, dear. Your style is emerging beautifully.” Beautifully? I blinked and smiled agreeably (no one can say I lack a sense of humor). “But, do take out the fat man. I don’t like him, no, not at all. Ruined it, darling. He spoils the entire story.” The fat man was a “walk on” and uttered two sentences. A budding Hemmingway loved my fat man and if I threw him in the wastepaper basket, one of my most colorful characters would be lost to the world forever.

Tottering to bed at night my ears rang with “flesh out the characters, use body language, create tension, show-don’t tell, talking heads are a no-no” and my very favorite: “Don’t dangle those participles.”

I showed my teeth—but I wasn’t smiling.

Researching is supposed to be very interesting and the sense of achievement that one gets from it can be almost therapeutic (they say). So, away I went to research. You name it, I researched it. I became bogged down in history, religion, murder, love, and comedy. Thousands of pieces of paper surrounded me and to relieve tension I sometimes laughed out loud which sounded oddly like a demented parrot. My eyes crossed and swiveled alarmingly (Oops, sorry. It’s not politically correct to make fun of eyes– even if they are your own). My back ached from hours slouched in front of my computer. My neck stiffened and I needed my neck in good working order because it supported my head that housed masterpieces (which still hadn’t emerged).

And while all this was going on my husband was commissioned to write a manual on airport security and sailed through it as if he was out yachting on the Hauraki Gulf. My smile felt glued to my face (no one can say I lack a sense of humor).

If this is what happened when you wanted to write—Stuff it, I thought. I’ve had enough. I’m not playing anymore!

I stayed away from writing for about a month, seeking new interests. I tried to bring out hidden talents (there had to be some). I would be a great artist—have an exhibition of my paintings. Unfortunately my painting of a thrush looked like a cross between an eagle and Quasimodo. Eventually, I surrendered to the truth. I could only draw stick-men. My flower arrangements looked as if they had been tossed into a vase. Plants withered the minute I touched them. The last straw was my attempt to create tiny rosebuds for an iced cake. I really think my husband went too far suggesting I used concrete mix. Enthusiasm died. So, sulking or glancing longingly at the hideous metal monster which stared back at me (you’ve guessed it), I crept back.

This time I did things at a more leisurely pace. I wrote, enjoying it more and more. Everything became easier and I realized that I must have absorbed a lot of the teaching, retaining what was useful and discarding the useless. I relaxed, became less tense about my writing. Sensitivity was a thing of the past. I had acquired skin like a rhinoceros.

I enjoy the camaraderie that writers give to each other. Why, only the other day I listened attentively while another writer went on about how her characters had a life of their own and did what they wanted to do.

“I can’t do anything with them, my deah,” she gushed. “They refuse to listen to me. Do you get the same problem with yours?”

I thought about the years of learning, of trying to understand everything that had been thrown at me. The struggle, trying to remember everything. Writer’s block. Tears.

Critiques that stung like a sharp slap. Critiques that winded me.

And then I thought about the help, kindness, support, and best of all—praise.

“No—I get very little trouble with my characters. They do exactly what I want them to do.”

I smiled. (No one can say I lack a sense of humor.)

Babs Halton is the author of two children’s books and has published a book of poetry. One of her stories has appeared the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly and she has won awards for local competition entries. Now writing a novel (thriller), she hopes to have it completed by early 2006.