Are you a writer? Beloved children’s book author Roald Dahl offers a checklist of seven qualities anyone wanting to make a living out of writing fiction must have. It’s found in a short piece called Lucky Break appearing at the end of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More.
I’ll quote him and then give my experiences with these qualities. I offer my experiences as a way into thinking about yours:
1. “You should have a lively imagination.”
When I was little I told stories to myself while going to sleep. I thought everybody did that, so I didn’t think much of it. When I got older I found out other people got sleepy by watching TV, playing solitaire, reading, or some such activity. Somewhere along the way I figured out I could write my stories down, and so I began to do so. To this day I still tell myself stories when I go to sleep.
2. “You should be able to write well. By that I mean you should be able to make a scene come alive in the reader’s mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift and you either have it or you don’t.”
I remember my sister once saying something to me like, “I understand how you might have an idea for a scene, but I don’t understand how you fill the pages with words and then get from one scene to the next.”
I don’t understand it either. I just do it. I don’t even think it’s any special kind of ability much less a gift. But if Dahl says so, then maybe he’s right.
3. “You must have stamina.”
Here’s where I quote Fred Astaire: “If I don’t dance one day, I notice it. If I don’t dance two days in a row, my audience notices it. If I don’t dance three days in a row, I should get another job.”
I say, “You gotta have sitzfleisch and stay in the saddle.”
4. “You must be a perfectionist.”
The idea here is: revise, revise, revise.
I think revision is the fun part. The hard part is getting the words down on the page to produce the first draft. Think of revision as polishing a jewel, finding the facets to make your story shine.
5. “You must have strong self-discipline.”
I know a current bestselling novelist who went through a dry spell years ago. She just wasn’t able to sell her next book to a publisher. Nevertheless, she showed up every day for work, as she put it, which meant writing the next book and the one after that, even if the manuscripts sat in a drawer. She eventually got through that spell and then hit it big.
To be clear: she went through a publishing dry spell, not a writing one. Her job is to write, and she shows up for work every day, publishing rain or shine.
Discipline will get you through the bad times, because your job is to write. Discipline will get you through the good times, because without it the good times won’t last.
6. “It helps if you have a keen sense of humor.”
Dahl goes on to note that “This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children, it’s vital.”
We’re talking about writing as a profession here, so you really do need a sense of humor even if it doesn’t go into your stories. Writing as a profession is horrible. It’s hard work, it’s unpredictable, it’s ego-crushing, it’s … fill in the blanks. It’s also wonderful (at times). It helps to laugh along with it.
7. “You must have a degree of humility.”
You love your story. Your story is your baby. Your baby is beautiful. Of course it is. But Dahl warns, “The writer who thinks that his work is marvelous is heading for trouble.”
Confession: I’m working with a new editor. I was eager for her feedback on a recent manuscript of mine, imagining all the praise I was going to get for my marvelous work.
Uh … Dahl is 100% correct. My story was not marvelous. Fortunately I found an editor who saw the good bones of the story, zeroed in on the problems, and showed me the way to fix them.
In retrospect, if I had not thought my work so marvelous I would have seen some of the problems myself. I have newfound humility.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen