What It Takes to Write for a Living, or Who Needs to Eat Anyway?
by Marcus Nannini
If it had been easy, my parents would not have discouraged the hell out of me. They termed my pursuit of any manner of writing career to be a “dead-end profession.” Despite the discouragement, I truly desired to major in journalism and write for a career. There was only one person in my family who encouraged me: my grandfather. I have dedicated my second book, to be published later this year by Casemate Publishers out of Oxford, UK, to him.
Bowing to parental pressure, I majored in political science instead, though I did accumulate 21 hours of journalism courses, garnering a perfect 4.0 in said courses. I worked as a research assistant to journalism professor Richard Stocks Carlson, Ph.D., over a period of three semesters, which was a major learning experience for me. He was instrumental in guiding me to fully develop my writing style, a style first acknowledged by my eighth grade English teacher.
I paid my way through my senior year by writing for the university newspaper and a local daily. In the process, I became adept at conducting interviews, which would prove to be a critical skill.
I could have pursued a writing career, but the lure of free room and board at home while I worked toward my MBA was too good to turn down. In a way, it was the path of least resistance. The MBA came in handy, but I have always believed I should have pursued a career in journalism and regretted my career path diversion from the start.
As the years passed, I kept my hand in writing, but never considered it more than a fun hobby. For a couple of years, I wrote a series articles for a hockey publication, but those efforts were gratis. Then, over Thanksgiving dinner 2009, I had an idea for a movie.
The idea came from out of the blue, just popping into my head. I researched the movie concept over a four-month period, bought the appropriate software, and wrote a screenplay, which garnered a number of requests. However, in the midst of the Great Recession, it didn’t appear to be going anywhere. At least not quickly enough to cover any bills. Life was interfering I needed to earn money. Eventually I realized I could turn the screenplay into a compelling novel and began to write, part time.
Before I go further, I should acknowledge the spur to dedicate myself to writing did not occur overnight. The complete switch in careers evolved over a seven-year period, during which time I went from writing whenever I could make the time to writing every day.
My new career is not yet covering the monthly overhead, but it is happening. For example, my UK publisher has asked me to write a second book. I sometimes wonder what would have evolved had I ignored my parents and, instead, listened to my grandfather and Professor Carlson. Better late than never? Yes!
I was fortunate to have a great deal of formal education in the art of writing, but I don’t consider education to be a mandatory criterion, per se. I consider the prerequisite to be a personal matter.
Writing is personal. Writing is emotional. Writing is painting with words. When I view a great work of art, I want it to reach out to my emotions, while simultaneously establishing a visual stage. Writing should do the same.
I was taught by more than one professor to always determine my beginning and my ending before I write the first word. They all said what goes in between would take care of itself. If I didn’t know where I wanted to begin and end, I should take a step back until I knew where I was heading.
Their advice applies to all manner of writing, whether it’s a news article, novel, poem, essay, screenplay; it doesn’t matter. Above all, they stressed, I must know where I want to start and end. It was drilled into me, and I have found the advice to be true.
When I know my opening scene and my closing scene, all else falls into place. Writers’ block is a term I have heard of, but thanks to my collegiate instructors, I have not been its victim.
Formal education in creative writing and journalism is very helpful, but hardly a prerequisite. Anyone fairly new to writing would do themselves justice by researching the composition elements for a good novel. Pacing, character development, stumbling blocks, and proper use of an inciting incident are among the requisites for a successful or, at least, readable novel. If you never took formal courses covering the foregoing, a little bit of online research will fill probably the void.
I know I have said this before, but never be hesitant to throw away entire paragraphs if you can’t make the words sing. There are times I look at a paragraph, even long after I originally drafted and re-drafted the same, and wonder if I could do better.
Use the read aloud test: Read your passages aloud. Do the words flow? Are there duplications of words, or is the information too much, too little, or maybe redundant?
Script writers read their scripts aloud, often in front of, or in conjunction with, a small audience. If you find the dialogue is forced or the narrative awkward, it is easier to fix it by reading it out loud to yourself. Play with the words until they flow from your lips. Writing takes time. There are no shortcuts to a good novel, book, or screenplay.
So you say you are not good at grammar or spelling. So what? Microsoft Word is the standard for publishers and literary agents. It has both spelling and grammar checking. All you need to do is run the programs. The industry leading screenwriting program has similar checks. They are not the end-all, but they are helpful. The built-in thesaurus in Word is a godsend. Use it!
Grammar check does not necessarily identify run-on sentences. When you realize you have drafted a three line sentence, you must find it and break it up yourself. Nor does the program identify repeated use of the same word or phrase within a paragraph or page. I tend to read the paragraphs backwards when I sense I have overused a word or phrase. Or I run the “find and replace” feature.
The other night I woke up and remembered I wrote the term “flight jacket” somewhere within my current book. I realized the correct term was “battle jacket.” How did I find the wrong term in 10 seconds? I used the find and replace feature and breathed a sigh of relief as I was able to confirm I had used the wrong term only once. The features are there to make writing easier.
I began writing in the days when everything I wrote was on paper. Later in high school, I bought a partial electric typewriter and learned to type, formally. Since then, I only wrote long-hand if I had no access to my typewriter.
As a rule of thumb, do not write long-hand. You are only creating more work for yourself and creating unnecessary delay. Delay is the enemy of every author. Use Word or Pages or another word processing program.
It’s never too late to start, but you must take the first step. When you do, remember the following:
And, above all:
Marcus Nannini began his journalistic career when he published his own newspaper in the sixth grade, charging 25 cents for the privilege of reading the only printed copy of each edition. During his undergraduate years, Nannini was a paid reporter and worked three semesters as the research assistant for journalism professor and published author Richard Stocks Carlson, Ph.D. Nannini is a life-long history buff with a particular interest in World War II and the Pearl Harbor attack. His continuing curiosity over several Japanese aerial photographs and the turtling of the U.S.S. Oklahoma lead him to write Chameleons, first as a screenplay and now as a full-length novel.