Friday, September 9

Harlan Coben: Three steps to becoming a great writer


The title of Coben's article was even more catchy: Want to Be a Great Writer? Follow These Three Steps. Of course I had to read more! Just three (hopefully easy!) steps and I, too, could join the ranks of Hemingway, Joyce and Vonnegut.

Coben writes:
There are three things that make up a writer. The first two are fairly obvious – the third, the key one, not so much so.

The first is inspiration – that is, you have to be inspired to write. See what I mean by obvious?

The second is perspiration. You have to sit your butt in the chair and write. You have to do that every day. That doesn’t mean you lie on your couch and play with your navel. That doesn’t mean you go shopping when the words don’t flow the way you think they should. That never works. It means you sit your butt in the chair and get to work. No excuses. And just so we’re clear: Outlining is not writing. Coming up with ideas is not writing. Researching is not writing. Creating characters is not writing. Only writing is writing (yes, that’s deep). So cut it out with the writer’s block and the waiting for the muse to arrive and the artistic pretenses. That’s all nonsense.

Again this is pretty obvious — and yet I’m shocked at how many people who want to write don’t get this.

But the third and most surprising thing you need to be a writer is desperation – pure, naked panic-inducing desperation. If I didn’t write, what would I do with myself? How would I make a living and feed my family? Am I any good? Was I good before and now I’ve lost it? My last book was so much better than the one I’m working on now — no, wait, the last book reeked and so no one will give this wonderful work a chance. I hate this sentence. I love this paragraph.

The panic was even pronounced this time around because suddenly I was writing for a whole new “YA” audience. I’ve written 20 some-odd novels for adults. Now with “Shelter,” I was taking on teens for the first time. Would I be able to sound like one of them, or would they roll their eyes at my every utterance the way my own children do? Would I be, uh, totally cool or ultra lame? Would I be able to handle that balance of writing FOR teens and not DOWN to them?

On and on.

Most writers are motivated by this heady and suffocating blend of fear, insecurity and self-loathing. If I don’t write, I hate myself. Simple as that. My life is out of balance. The muse is not an angelic voice that sits on your shoulder and sings sweetly. The muse is the most annoying whine. The muse isn’t hard to find, just hard to like — she follows you everywhere, tapping you on the shoulder, demanding that you stop doing whatever else you might be doing and pay attention to her.

This voice – this fear – reminds us in a surprisingly healthy way that we have no choice, can make no excuse. What else would a writer do if he doesn’t write? What would I, for example, a forgetful, disorganized man with no real-world marketable skills, do if suddenly I couldn’t do the one job that I truly love?
So there we have it, the secret:
1) Inspiration
2) Perspiration
3) Desperation.
Sounds about right to me.

Okay, I'm taking my tongue out of my cheek now. I agree 100% with Coben's three steps if he is talking about becoming a professional writer, someone who gets paid for what they write. I also agree with Stephen King when he says that there is a big difference between being a good writer and being a great one. Hemingway was great, his prose beat with a heart of its own; I think great writers have figured out how to break off a piece of their soul and weave it into their stories.

Personally I would be happy, extremely happy, with being a good writer; one who is able to pay rent, clothe themselves and defer starvation for at least a month.

Heh. I think I've got point three down. ;)

I would encourage folks to read Harlan Coben's entire article: Want to Be a Great Writer? Follow These Three Steps.

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