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Column: Write for the passion, not the paycheck

How many people do you know who are writing a novel? And have been for 10 years (yes, they’re only 21, so this masterwork has been in the works since they were 11)?

I know a lot. 10 would be on the low end.

There’s the 13-year-old I met on a week-long camping trip who was almost done with her first novel and had plans to start her second (since when did 13-year-olds start writing novels instead of watching cartoons? Have they always done that? Did I just do being 13 wrong?).

There’s the geology or biology or psychology major whose degree is only a temporary plan until he gets his novel published and becomes rich and famous. I’m sure you know one, there’s no shortage at our own University.

The 13-year-old impresses me. I can’t help but be a little jealous that she’s doing the thing I still can’t seem to do. The backup plan guy though, he gets on my nerves.

Because for me, writing isn’t a backup plan, and it isn’t something I do once a month and then expect to win the lottery off of it.

It’s passion and purpose. Maybe it won’t be novels, but writing is the plan. That’s what I’m going to do with my professional life, in whatever form I can get paid for. Articles, novels, poems, textbooks, podcasts — I don’t care.

And I am painfully aware that I might have trouble getting paid for that work. I get asked at least twice a semester how I’m going to make a living as an English major and if I’m going to teach (I always wonder if teachers are irritated by the suggestion that their career is a backup plan the same way I am).

I think we could all benefit from spending time teaching other people how to do things, but after year three of college, I was over the question.

So I don’t appreciate backup plan guys’ (not a misplaced apostrophe, as there are multiple) arrogant assumption that he can waltz into the world of writing without ever taking the work seriously and effortlessly earn fame and wheelbarrows of money.

I do appreciate that he loves writing and reading. I do appreciate his desire to write a novel. It’s the ego that irritates me.

Maybe running into so many aspiring novelists is a side effect of being an English major, but I think it’s actually because (shhh, don’t tell anyone) I’m one of those people with six or seven novel plans, half a novel abandoned in my dresser drawer, and one I’m “working on” that I tell people about, but have yet to finish.

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There are so many books that exist that tell you how to write your novel. I own almost as many books on writing as the number of creative writing classes I’ve taken. They all have the same advice:

  1. Write every day.
  2. Understand what plot/character/setting are.
  3. Consider symbolism or metaphor or simile (but don’t make shitty ones), synecdoche, metonymy, assonance, consonance, alliteration, personification — all those poetic and literary devices you learned in high school. You don’t have to remember the vocab words, just think about using them. Remember that they exist and try not to write the same sentence 200 times with different words in the noun/verb/object slots.
  4. Make a plan, unless you don’t want to (plans are overrated. But you should probably make one. But be inspired, inspiration is key. Lists — lists are good, or plot breakdowns).
  5. Keep writing, word after word (or bird by bird if you’re Anne Lamott).
  6. Rewrite.
  7. Rewrite.
  8. Rewrite.
  9. Sacrifice your firstborn child, throw salt over your shoulder and pick a deity to pray to that your novel gets published (because publishing is hard, except that’s both true and an exaggeration. Hard when it comes to publishing novels in the traditional way. Less hard when it comes to things like poems, articles, blog posts or self-publishing. It’s hard to get paid. Not so hard to get published).
  10. Don’t bask in the glory upon publication, or wallow in despair in the face of rejection(s). Go write something else. Something better.

Someday I’ll open a library made up entirely of books on writing. Row after row of the same book written 2,000 different ways.

Every year a new one comes out that says on the dust jacket: “You’ve never read a writing book like this before.” It can go up front in a glass display case.

But it doesn’t matter that they’re all the same book. If they push you to write, they’re worth reading. And — as my screenwriting teacher, a professor who opts for no textbook, is fond of saying — every story has been told, but it hasn’t been told by you yet.

So let’s write books and read books and tell stories. When we’re gone, at least we’ll leave a story behind.

Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily.

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