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A Writer Looks Back - Gives Tips

Aug 1, 2008
I'll be blowing out 80 candles on the cake this month.

It's one of those terrible events that can't be avoided. The only way to avoid it is not get there.

So I've spent some time reflecting on where I've been.

And it occurs to me that I've been a writer (and author) for 60 of those years.

Which means I've cranked out millions of words, counting those penned at different career stages as a journalist, public relations man and creative writer of books and short stories.

Most of my earlier professional success came in the public relations field, where you might say Shamu at SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo's Albert Gorilla, helped fund my kids' education. Now in my retirement years, I have managed to publish several books and take a crack at screenwriting.

People sometimes ask me if it's hard writing a book.

I use a quote from comedienne and author Fran Lebowitz, who once answered that question by saying: "Three things are hard:

1. Cancer research.
2. Coal mining.
3. Writing a book.

Everything else can be done over lunch!"

A bit glib -- but you do have to go into the deep, dark crevices of your mind and sweat and search for the words. And that's what it takes to complete a printable book, a novel, a screenplay.

As I said in an earlier blog, "having to face a blank piece of paper is God's way of showing you how hard it is to be God."

The key to success, of course, as you've heard a hundred or more times, is discipline. Nothing will substitute for it. Authors Danielle Steele and Stephen King display it by cranking out several novels a year consistently - writing on schedule every day, rain or shine.

Stephen seems to make writing a best seller as effortless as whipping out a nose tissue. He removes one and out pops another. Kind of makes me feel like a shut-in (with only my two published memoirs and a few near-miss screenplays to show for years of struggle)

I might point out that for most, rewriting is the other key to success. The slow, repetitious (and often gratifying) process of cutting, adding polishing and rethinking is a must.

As best-selling author James Michener admitted: "I am one of the world's worst writers - but most successful rewriters."

And a deeper thought I find intriguing comes from playwright David Mamet: "All writing is getting over what happened to you before you were ten years old."

You may want to ponder that one.

Then I have this piece of wisdom in my novel file: Forget every rule the writing teachers taught you - except one. Never be boring.

And what does a good script boil down to, generally speaking, but that it should contain a simple premise with unforeseeable twists and turns.

I would add that helps to make your characters interesting. And try gaining sympathy in some way for your lead early on, so the reader can give a damn what happens.

Was there a writing background in my own family? No. My mother was a schoolteacher for a short time, then a bookkeeper. My father was a music teacher and band leader. My brother was into electronics but also loved playing piano.

Any creative genes may have come from my maternal grandmother. The dear wrote some poetry and displayed a vivid imagination in helping her children with school essays and English papers. Man on the moon and people from Mars stuff.

You might say I developed on my own what "The Writer" magazine used to call the creative writing urge: "The Divine Discontent." I HAD to compose stories from time to time, no matter what else I was involved in.

Otherwise, I grew hard to live with and walked over standing ashtrays and into closed glass doors while deep into forming a new plot or piece of brilliant description. My wife and four children would retreat to their own doings.

The burning desire to communicate I harbored, the urge to commit to paper a story you can't get out of your head, a passion to be heard can be found in most writers. It has been wisely said: "Writing is an aggressive demand for attention."

Robert McKee, famous for his screenwriting seminars, sums it up this way: "Literary talent is ten a penny. What is rare - so rare as to be worth hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, is story ability. Movies live and breathe and thrive on story ability. And very few people in the world have it."

When did I know I wanted to be a writer? I couldn't exactly pinpoint it.

I co-wrote a play with a friend in Iowa at the age of nine. We made 50 cents by coercing neighborhood kids to attend the barn presentation.

Then I was eighteen before a bit of talent surfaced (though I knocked down "A's" in English and theme writing.) The Navy, of all places, announced after a routine aptitude test, that I qualified to enter their new journalism school established at the end of World War II.

It was a surprise to me - but sounded better than chipping paint of some destroyer during my two-year hitch. When I graduated from the Navy's accelerated course, the die was cast. I joined a small daily newspaper at home in Iowa, after 16 months in the Navy Department's PR wing.

And soon after marrying, bought a portable typewriter on credit and in any spare moments wrote short stories unsuccessfully for "True Romance" magazine and other pulps of that ilk.

I kept at it through rejection-after-rejection. But often I received encouragement from editors and fellow writers.

I'm not any smarter than the next fellow. (In fact, I'm a college drop-in). But I never gave up. I'm still not on the best-seller list. But now I know the exhilarating satisfaction of holding in my hand a published book with my name on the bright cover and the ego-boost of book-signings at Barnes & Noble and requests to speak at libraries and civic clubs all over San Diego County.

And I still dream that when I finish the rewrite on this optioned screenplay, I'll surely make that Hollywood million and Jennifer Lopez will play the lead (Elizabeth Taylor, my first choice, is too old).
About the Author
Bill Seaton is a prize-winning author and lecturer who has served nearly 25 years as public relations director of the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld and the California State Lottery. To learn more about the San Diego resident's books, blogs and awards, visit Bill Seaton.
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