Writers: Give The Gift of “Getting Off The Dime”

Also known as getting one’s ass in gear.

With my son in college I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering career choices.   Not mine (too late there)… his.  About how to launch one’s naïve and hopeful self in the general vicinity of making a worthy and enduring dream come true.

First you find such a dream.  Some never do. 

Then you need a gameplan.  Some never do that, either.

Some just talk about intentions, or the dream that got away.

And then there’s writing. 

Where none of the principles of career management and dream-mongering apply. And yet, if you take things at face value, it is a dream held by many.

It isn’t remotely hard to grasp why so few people plan on becoming a writer.  It’s more like the universe leads you there after kicking around the want ads for a while.

It seems, from the writer’s point of view, that more people want to be writers than don’t.  Even if they can’t write a grocery list.  This article is about calling them out, and perhaps helping them get started.

Imagine a cocktail party in which you confess to a group of strangers that you build stadiums and bridges for a living (something I hope catches my son’s fancy, by the way).  And very quickly, almost as a knee-jerk reaction, somebody says, “oh yeah, I’ve always wanted to do that, I’ve got this cool idea for a ballpark stuck in my head… I dunno, maybe I’ll get around to starting on that someday.”

Impressive.  The guy wants to build a baseball stadium.  When he gets around to it.

You, the stadium builder, may be inclined to club the guy with your diploma and stuff the documents from your student loan down his throat.  Or you might just smile, take a calming sip and try to somehow avoid shaking your head at the insensitive, minimalizing cluelessness of that comment, which was offered in all seriousness, if not with that very intention.

But you’re a writer and the comment was about writing a book someday, which means you probably took it as a compliment.

And maybe it was. 

Who knows… unless you dig a little deeper.

Yes, this writing thing we do is a strange and mysterious avocation indeed.  It is a dream held by many, a pursuit dabbled in by some, a dream seriously pursued by a courageous few, and a destination that demands a strong constitution and a clear and strategic head.

It’s so damn easy to say that you intend to write a book.  And yet – because you, the real writer, know – the orator has no idea what they are saying, and how self-serving it can come off.  As if they are choosing between this and running for the Senate in their spare time.

It’s inane and confounding… unless you dig for the gold in this moment.

What you know, and what this cocktail bantering neophyte doesn’t, is that writing a book is something you can dabble at, or it is something you can go after with a ferocious passion.  There is little middle ground between those two adopted mindsets, and only one of them has a shot at working out.

If you’ve been a writer for long, you’ve discovered that this is what people will tell you – that they’d like to write a book.  Become an author.  That they’re sitting on a literary gold.  You’ll hear it all the time, in fact: yeah, I’ve got this story in my head… maybe I’ll get around to it one day.

Just like that stadium.

You may take it as a compliment, and they may mean it as one, but this conversation is a snake pit disguised as a can of worms.  You get to decide if you call them out on it.  Or not.

Unless it isn’t a lie.  Which defines the opportunity at hand.

If you haven’t heard this before, then nobody in your little universe knows you are a writer.  Because it is inevitable, it comes with the territory.

I offer you a genuine, thoughtful response for when it happens to you. 

It will either shut them up through some combination of embarrassment, the sudden realization of their own naïveté, the exposure of their complete and utter self-puffing lie … or it might very well point them where they need to go.

Either way, it’s good (and good fun) to call them out and see what happens.

In which case, if it isn’t a lie, the calling out becomes a magnificent gift.  Maybe somebody told you how to move from intention to action, maybe not, but this is your chance to bestow it.

What you say might get them off the dime and allow them to truly, seriously, determine if writing a book is something they should, or would want to, pursue.

First question: why?

Ask them to explain why they are considering writing a book someday.  Listen closely for the right answer, which doesn’t come near the words “rich” and “famous” or “fun.”

Rewarding, very possibly.  But “fun” is relative, as is building stadiums.

What you’re looking for in this moment is a story worth telling, in some combination with an experience (the writing itself) that they believe might benefit or reward them in some meaningful way.  To get something off their chest.  To explore that which they do not understand.  To grow.  To make people happy.

To live the dream.  There’s always the chance that they’re simply trying to get some skin with you.  Roll with it, see what happens.

It is not your place to judge their story in this moment.  Just listen.  Judge only the intentions behind it.  If you deem them worthy – because you know how freaking hard it is to sit down and turn the intention to write a book into the outcome of having written one – press forward with this conversation.  And lead them to salvation.

Trust me, if they weren’t serious they’ll ditch you quicker than an empty glass.  But if they are, there’s no separating them from you in this moment.

And in that moment, you are living into your destiny as a writer.  Because you have the opportunity to change a life.

Now ask, why not?                 

Once they’ve aired the backstory of their intentions, then ask why they haven’t started this journey in earnest.

You can write the script for the forthcoming response.  Don’t have time.  Don’t know how.  Don’t think I’d be up for it, not smart enough.  I don’t read that many books so I don’t think I could write one.

Fear.

Insecurity.

Uncertainty.

Fear.

Welcome to being human.  Welcome to writing.

There is only one thing you can say in that moment that will help. 

If you tell them they are stepping off a ledge with no parachute, that writing a book is an intoxicating hot mess of confusion and contradiction and that, at the end of the day, you have to figure it out for yourself and good luck with that because nobody in my writing group can do it – even though that may be true – that’s like telling a kid with a bat and a dream that the odds of getting drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers are greater than dying in an air disaster.  Both of which are miniscule and dark.

Don’t go there.  Writing is a journey, not a destination.  Writing is a promise of experience, not of outcome.  Be clear on that.  And convey it as you respond.

Life is nothing if not experience.  Outcome is rarely within our total control.

Instead, tell them there is an accessible literary methodology available, a model to be seized and harnessed.  Not less reliable than the physics of flying.  Physics that can be learned.  That there are examples everywhere that prove the model viable, and that if they are serious about this writing thing, it is something they can discover and embrace, and then through practice and a dash of inspiration and a shit-load of hard work… they can get there.

They can write a story

Or not.  There are never guarantees when it comes to our writing.

And that if they do this, and do it with passion and courage, it will be the sweetest, most rewarding and hopeful personal journey of their entire life.  That they will be alive in a way that people who don’t write are not, and that they might never be otherwise.

Because they are listening to the lyrics.  Looking for meaning and poetry and God in everything, every moment and every frame, in every drop of rain, every tear and every silent thought.

Tell them that.

Tell them that writing will bring them back to life.

If they turn away in search of more vodka, you never stood a chance anyhow.  The dream was a lie designed for one of two things: to impress you, or to minimize you.

But if this response elicits more questions, delivered with eyes the size of martini olives… well, that warm glow you’re feeling is the rush of lighting a fuse in someone who just might listen.  Of giving wings to a dream that you already understand.

Writers like to say – and I’ve said this here myself – that at the end of the day we’re very much alone with our stories, that this is a lonely pursuit that requires one’s enjoyment of one’s own company.

Alone with our stories, maybe.  Alone with the experience of writing… we share that with everyone who tries to engage with it. 

Maybe writing is a passion that, when shared, breaks down the walls between us.  Certainly that is the goal of all that we write, of every solitary moment we spend writing it.  And if we get to share it, along with our pursuit of the craft, with humble enthusiasm and hope, you may just find someone who will listen.

Published or unpublished, we can all speak for the experience of being a writer, and for the rewards it offers.

Even when it hurts.  Nobody said life was easy.

Share the love.  There will never be enough good stories out there, and you may be a part of one simply by opening a door.

My new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing” (coming out from Writers Digest Books at the end of February), is my love letter to the craft of writing, and a fresh new model for anyone looking for a way to access what it means and what it takes to bring a story to viable life. 

As is this website, which I hope has opened a few doors for you, as well. 

21 Comments

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21 Responses to Writers: Give The Gift of “Getting Off The Dime”

  1. You did this for me.

    Maybe not face to face, but I was aimlessly writing, wondering what the hell I was missing and seriously ready to pack it in.

    Then I found your site, picked up a couple of your books and as far as I’m concerned, now I *am* a writer. I need to convince a few people in the publishing world, but that’s just a matter of time.

    Thanks, Larry.

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  3. The motivation for writing – fiction or non-fiction – can be tricky. However, we must actually identify it in ourselves so we know our own personal _Why_. This will give each individual his own goal or target which will carry him through the “dark times.”

    Mine started out as, “I can write a better story than that,” and ended up as, “Tell a reader a story which he can identify with, gain some insight on our human condition, and help him create a profound emotional experience within himself.”

    When I started fiction writing, I didn’t even know Craft such as the Six Core Competencies even existed. I was well over half-way through the last of 4 novels when I discovered it. What had kept me going for over 3 years and almost a million words was that last goal.

    My discovery that there _was_ a Craft and methodology to fiction writing changed a lot in my life. I’ve been studying Craft/Creativity for quite a while now and will be doing complete re-writes or revisions (take your choice of which to call it) of all four novels.

    Helping someone identify the Why they want to write will help him immensely. Then the Why Not(s) can be confronted and handled. Especially with Larry’s _Story Engineering_ coming out next month (March 1 -3 according to Amazon), both the aspiring writer as well as us “experienced” writers have a sound, proven way of actually doing it.

    Keep your ear open for the “I’d like to write… someday.” Ask the Why and Why Not, indicate there is a methodology of enabling that person to be able actually to _do_ it. Trot out your business card (you do have an Author business card, right?), write “http://storyfix.com” on it, give it to him and say, “This might be able to help you do that.”

    You might never hear from him again. Or, a couple weeks later you might get an email cursing you for dumping him into the fascinating pit of a fiction writer. He might ask some questions. You now find yourself becoming a mentor. What better way for you to learn yourself than to become a mentor? You might even find you forcing yourself to practice (as in _do_) what you preach.

    Now, go write something that will make your reader laugh and cry. You’re not required to make him do that in the same paragraph, either.

  4. I love this! I’ve heard “I’ve always wanted to write a story” at more functions than I care to remember. After a while, I did ask “so why don’t you?” with the zeal of a cult recruiter. 🙂 That usually does the trick: either they back away slowly, or I wind up having a great shop talk.

    The only thing I really hate: when people say, “well, I’ve got a great IDEA for a story. Why don’t you write it, and we’ll split the royalties?”

  5. @Cathy — amen sister, I hear you. I get that one, too, and it drives me nuts, frankly. I try not to be sarcastic (“thanks, but I have enough cool ideas of my own…”), but it’s not easy. And sometimes those ideas… well, they’re not writers afterall. Thanks for contributing! L.

  6. Diana

    I met a NYT best selling author at a party. I wasn’t going to be the 10000001 person to relate dreams of writing. My husband, however, told her I wanted to write. I will forever bless her heart because she didn’t give a superior smile, tell me that was nice, and turn away. Instead, she asked how much I’d written. She seemed to like my answer and then asked if I’d spent any time studying the craft. She seemed to like that answer too, because she fully encouraged me to keep working. She said if she could do it, I could. It was a major turning point, because I began to believe I really had a chance, that NYT best selling authors aren’t higher form of beings who happened to be born when the stars aligned. Thanks to her, I finally began to believe I have a genuine
    chance.

  7. Kristen

    Larry, I stumbled across your website while looking for intelligent advice on how to spit out the story in my head in a format that’s intelligible to someone other than me.
    In the above article, the sentence “It’s more like the universe leads you there after kicking around the want ads for a while,” had me blinking away tears. Maybe you thought it a clever, yet innocuous comment? Not for me!I’ve been a classical musician (sorda still am), a personal trainer, a music teacher, a financial planner, and a stay-at-home mom… writing compulsively through it all. The only person who has ever read any of my stuff is my sister, who says I give her “chills” (she might be easily entertained). I’ve never attempted a novel. Until now, because of your encouragement, Larry.
    I’ve just arrived at my First Plot Point (your Story Structure Series was superb), and I’m not stopping ’til this thing’s finished…
    Just had to say thank you!

  8. @Diana — a wonderful story, thanks for sharing. I hope all A-list authors are as kind as the one who inspired you.

    @Kristen — to be honest, that line was full of agenda at the outset… thanks for getting it. And thanks for the feedback, you’ve totally made my day/week/month. This is why I do this. Hope I can continue to help. L.

  9. I was going to comment, but I read Kristen’s comment and said, “Can’t say it any better than that,” so I won’t. 🙂
    Thanks, Larry.

  10. How many great conversations have I missed? I’ve had the friends who volunteered that they had a book they wanted to write, but I didn’t pursue the train of thought any futher.

    I love that following up with simple probing questions really could open the door for someone with a story gestating in their head. Watching that process is of the seed starting to sprout is thoroughly enjoyable, when I get to see it.

    Thanks for the guidelines to help the would-be writers onto the next step! I’ve had countless people do that sort of thing for me, and I owe them a lot.

  11. Illoura

    You’ll never know just how much I appreciated this insightful and TIMELY piece. My heart was faltering in the desire to spur on my own college age son, who is a talented and witty writer, who has floundered over the past several years -to everyone’s dismay. I don’t know how to explain what a relief it is to share this piece of insight, to “find out that I’m a normal writer wrestling with what is normal, and things to expect in the becoming a writer processes”… you know, those things that make us stop writing, that you mentioned! I’m happy to report that I’m sharing this post with my son, along with just sly of coercive advice to read everything else you have to say…

  12. I love this post. Thanks for writing it. I often don’t want to talk about my writing endeavors because I feel incredibly silly. . . “As if they are choosing between this and running for the Senate in their spare time.” This is exactly how I fear coming across. Maybe I could throw in modeling and acting while I’m at it.

    The bottom line is that my compulsion to write is a part of me I can’t ignore. I know I am to do this. And, though I feel all of the things you described (fear, insecurity, uncertainty, fear. fear, fear), I know there is nothing to be done but to roll up my sleeves and do the hard work. I look forward to reading your book, and I always love your posts 🙂

  13. Thought provoking post. I’m really looking forward to reading Story Engineering. It appears it is available as a Kindle ebook already. Is that right?

  14. Tommy

    This and the post prior to it were really enjoyable. It’s nice to read you at length on subjects of personal insight, as I am sure many of your subscribers will agree.

  15. Patrick Sullivan

    Rob: I just looked and amazon has the whole “tell the publisher I want this available on Kindle” so I doubt the ebook is out yet.

    Personally I’m probably getting the paper version just to have one of his writing books in paper (already have Whispers in trade back, but figure I’d like one of his writing books that way too ;))

  16. Here’s the link I found. It’s kind of messed up, as the title is all numbers and letters. But it let me download a sample of the book.

    http://tinyurl.com/4tohnat

    I’m anxious, but I don’t want to pay for an ill-formatted or premature release. I’m also thinking about getting a paper copy myself, since that makes for easier flipping back and forth through pages–something I do a lot of with reference books.

  17. Thanks, Larry. You give the best pep talks. I started my writing career later in life (53), and now that I’ve finished a reasonably coherent ms, I feel like I’ve got at least one great story inside me to tell before I die. I’m not sure this first effort is it (probably not), but at least now I know that I can get 100,000 or so words on paper and whittle it down to an entertaining, perhaps insightful, perhaps inspiring story.

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  19. Michael J Lawrence

    Why?

    I’m almost certain it has something to do with a mental problem.

    Ever since I was about 14, I started looking for answers to questions in the world. And none were forthcoming. So then some thing (like Cloverfield – two words) started talking in my head and telling me answers that, if not entirely correct, made sense.

    It’s this red-eyed monster that comes up with all these themes that I *know* have been written about a thousand times by a thousand authors with an ocean of talent that I can’t possibly hope to find. And it grabs me, shoves these themes down my throat, and tops them off with story ideas cleverly designed to seem “clever” and then snarls, “Write this!”

    It’s not a calling, it’s an ultimatum.

    Why not?

    Simple. Fear of rejection. Done.

    But I do have one rejection letter for a short story from 1991. It’s a start.

  20. gina

    Larry, I just like you. Thank you for that.

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