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(Doug Nicholson/Not to be printed, transmitted or broadcast without the permission of the photographer, his representatives or the representativ)
(Doug Nicholson/Not to be printed, transmitted or broadcast without the permission of the photographer, his representatives or the representativ)

The Tuesday Essay

How to be a writer Add to ...

You might think I'm bold to write an essay offering up advice on becoming a writer when my one an only novel has yet to hit the shelves. But I figure I've only got a tiny window before that book of mine is out there in the wide world, and someone makes a disparaging comment, and I start to wonder if I really am a writer after all.

So...

First and foremost, if you want to be a writer, don't learn to spell. Otherwise you'll never have upwards of 20 per cent deducted for spelling mistakes on every high school English exam you ever write. You'll never decide you prefer calculus to the written word, and it's just the conclusion you must come to in order to set yourself on the writing path.

Next, head off to a well-regarded university, your first-year courses selected using only the criteria that you don't have to write (i.e. spell) a thing. Hang on to your penchant for calculus, but notice that you don't quite fit in, with that volume of Tolstoy you drag around, those poets and Newfoundlanders you inevitably end up with at the bar. Ask around. Find out that, at the end of first year, you've got the prerequisites for a B.Sc. in almost anything, that you can get a degree in chemistry, biology too, without having to write a single word.





Talk to your parents, two of the most practical people you've ever met. Let them instill in you an expectation that there should be a little bacon frying up in the pan after four years of hard work. It'll help you notice that biotechnology seems to be the thing, that the pharmaceutical industry is hot. Sail though four years of biochemistry, thinking how cool it is that you understand exactly how the ham sandwich you swallow becomes the carbon dioxide you exhale and the adenosine triphosphate that lets your muscles contract. But spend some time in the lab, enough to let you see that cooking up enzymatic reactions isn't quite as much fun as getting lost in a book.

Write the GMAT. Heck, by now you've mastered multiple choice. And you can use a calculator the way the liberal arts or even economics grads only wish they could. Do an MBA. Why not? Everyone else is and the alternative is the lab. Get your highest mark writing a speech championing free trade, an exam you approach with fear and trepidation, the only numberless one you'll write in years. Dismiss the mark as a fluke, nothing to do with persuasiveness of your writing, even though you secretly fear that globalization tastes like Wonder Bread.





Give in. Take a creative writing course...




Get a job at IBM. Surrounded by engineers and math types in a world where the customers expect the proposals to make sense, it will hit you like a ton of bricks: You can write pretty well, at least better than the engineers. You'll become the person who gathers the half-sentences, who innately knows every clause has a subject and a verb, who can transform scribbles on a whiteboard into paragraphs the customer understands. But with your tendency to spend your weekends reading, rather than building stuff from bits of metal and plastic bought at The Source, you still don't quite fit in.

Decide to get closer to the written word. Talk to book publishers, not about writing, but about how they might employ you to help them sell books. Let them assure you few of their staff make the pay you do at IBM, that you'd start on the bottom rung. Take a look at magazine publishing, accept a job at Rogers Media helping Procter & Gamble, Unilever and the like sell their products to the world. Find out you can write copy, not only better than the engineers at IBM, but as well as the real writers can.

Give in. Take a creative writing course, then another and another, until you wish writing wasn't something you stuffed into the tiny gap between scrubbing children clean and falling into bed. Find out the conversation that runs in the back of your head, all those mini-dramas you've imagined for so long, the ones your partner says for sure mean you're nuts, make a story when you set them on the page.

Find someone able to support you, willing to as well. Have three kids so your corporate job becomes a major logistical problem, so when you suggest a lesser job, a pay cut of, say, 100 per cent, your partner thinks it's a stroke of genius and only says, "How soon?"

Get up every day. Make yourself sit at a desk and write. Send your stories to fiction magazines. Keep your rejection letters hidden away, the ones with the kindest comments at the top of the stack just in case you peek. Get a handful of stories published, just about dying that first time you see your name in print.

Take the plunge. Put the bones of a novel onto the page. Let your teachers and peers tell you some of it is very good. Rewrite the parts that are not. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Once you can't bear to change another word, stick the manuscript into an envelope and send it faraway to an agent who will tell you you've got exactly half a book and then hold your hand though making it whole and know just how to sell it to the publishers once it is.

Rewrite some more, this time with the professional editors who will help you polish that novel until it gleams like you never thought it could. Then sit back and wait and wait and wait. Write some more and wait.

 

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