Want to be a writer? Just do it

Playwright Diane Samuels reveals the secrets of finding success as an author


February 25, 2010
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"How do you become a writer?" I am often asked by people who feel they have a book, play, collection of poetry in them, but have no idea how to get it out. Accompanying this question is often an underlying feeling of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, of having to prove that they can deliver the goods. Comparisons with successful published works crowd the mind and dwarf the would-be writer into utter insignificance.

Author and poet Miriam Halahmi, who will be running a workshop on writing fiction from memoirs at this year's Jewish Book Week, is no stranger to the challenge.

"In order to progress along the marathon of writing a novel, the end of which may be months or even years away, with no sure promise of reward, the writer has to be able to sit alone and motivate herself to write and write and write… to maintain their pace and their word count, alone, hour after hour, after week, after month, after year. It is little wonder that so many fall by the wayside?"

There are many courses, workshops and groups to which writers take their work in development with the determined aim of getting published. They are often taught the tools and methods: how to build character, structure, narrative, how to edit, re-write, begin, end, pitch, sell and get the work out there. All this is very helpful, certainly worth learning, but it crucially needs to be accompanied by some kind of writing practice too."

I have been a professional playwright for nearly 20 years and have written for theatre, radio, children, adults, and screen. There have been, of course, many false starts and terminated projects. While some of my plays are produced all over the world, there are those that still sit in the filing cabinet waiting for their moment.

I also have boxes of notebooks filled with scrawlings made day upon day in cafes, on trains, on beaches, in woods, on buses, on boats, in airports, at the kitchen table, in bed. These are for no one to read, let alone perform. The writing within has no regard for character, structure, narrative, coherence, sense. This is the raw stuff that makes all those plays possible.

And the habit of writing like this is what keeps me going through all the ups and downs and uncertainty. A director once asked me: "Do you want a writing career or a writing life?" The former is just a symptom of the second.

But how do you achieve success as a writer? Are there any magic formulae, quick fixes, helpful tips? A guitar teacher told me that it is more useful to practise for 10 minutes a day than for an hour once a week.

The key is regularity, and writing is no different. Once you have decided that you are going to write every day, try to do the following:

● Get a blank notebook (or use a computer if you prefer) and a few pens or pencils in case any run out or go missing.

● Allow yourself to write rubbish. Who cares? No one is going to read it but you.

● Remember that writing can be a medium for exploration - find how and what works and what doesn't. Try stuff out, on paper. Mistakes are essential to the writing process. Learn from them.

● Practise freewriting regularly. This is the method by which you use an "anchor phrase", a few words that set up the area you want to investigate. Start with this phrase and write without stopping. If you cannot think what to write, either write what you are thinking or write the anchor phrase. The aim is to keep writing.

● Enjoy yourself. And even if you don't enjoy it, still do it.

● Get into the habit of writing down thoughts whenever, wherever they occur to you.

● As you go about your daily business, write down whatever you see, hear, read that sparks a real interest, even momentarily.

Tania Hershman, whose most recent published collection is The White Road and Other Stories, is a proponent of "flash fiction". This model draws on random prompts, phrases from other people's writing (all writers are magpies) that are used to trigger writing undertaken in intense 20 minute to half-hour bouts to create a complete, short piece of work.

It is important to remember that you can always get help with your writing. This is where workshops can be invaluable, offering the opportunity to take first steps or expand your range. "When you hear a writer speak, it can be inspiring," says Claire Berliner who runs the Arvon Foundations's writing centre in Devon.

"A workshop gives you the opportunity to get on with it."

Diane Samuels’s plays include ‘Kindertransport’. She is running a workshop at Jewish Book Week on March 4. Details at www.jewishbookweek.com. Book Week special, pages 30-31

    Last updated: 3:39pm, February 25 2010