February23, 2009 – Writer’s Advantage

“If you’re a singer,” Mickey Spillane says, “you lose your voice. A baseball player loses his arm. A writer gets more knowledge, and if he’s good, the older he gets, the better he writes.”

I love this quote. It makes me think there’s hope for me. At 54 I’m not quite eligible for the seniors’ discount anywhere, but I reach for the handrail going down stairs. In our writer’s critique group I go early and claim the pink chair that works well for my back. The thing that scares me most is living past my “best-used-by” date. And writing is something I hope to continue well into my retirement years.

Notice that Mickey Spillane does not say a writer gets better simply by getting older. A writer has to continue to grow in knowledge and ability if he wants to  improve. An editor friend wrote me recently about a writer who, as he got older, could not understand the need to change with the times. A basic story idea may never grow old, but it probably needs to be updated.

Names Every decade names change in popularity. I google “most popular names” and get lists of the names that were most popular in various decades. If I’m writing a children’s story I try to choose names appropriate for the time of the story. That doesn’ t mean that every character needs to have a popular name, but often you can tell the age of a piece simply by the names of the character. I no longer have children at home. I don’t live in the US most of the time. Without these lists I might still be naming my kids Jessica or Gary.

Technology What would we do without technology? It’s our best friend and our most demanding master. If you ever catch up with it, a minute later you are behind again. This makes a special challenge for writing books. Many editors want their books to have a long shelf life. They avoid things that will date quickly. Others prefer to make their books trendy, realizing that doing this severely limits the shelf life. Specific references to technology will make books seem up-to-date when they first come out, but soon go the way of the eight-track tape. Ignoring technology altogether also dates your books.

Attitudes and Activities Editors now often reject fictional characters which are put in stereotypical activities. The mom shouldn’t always be the one in the kitchen. Dad’s don’t always work at the office. Missionaries don’t always go to third world countries and live in huts. Kids play Playstation more than baseball. Grandmas sometimes use the internet. Popular colors and specific styles date quickly.

Articles will usually be printed within a few years of the time they were written. They can contain trendier things than books. Consider how your piece will be used when you write it. Try to avoid things which date your piece too quickly, but include things that can show the piece moving with the time. One of my book editors chose to go with generic titles of items like “computer games” even though this made them less specific. This kept the book from dating too quickly.

But I hate change! Maybe you are still trying to figure out how to make your DVD player work and you don’t want to change. Can’t you go on writing the way you always have? You may not have to change much if you are going to write for older adults. But if you refuse to change and grow, your writing will become more and more limited the longer you live.

How can I ever hope to keep up with the quickly changing world? Maybe you want to change but you don’t know how. You are afraid of becoming a dinosaur, but change seems impossible. Here’s some ways to keep in touch with your readers:

Visit the library. If you are writing for children, read children’s magazines and books. See what today’s children are interested in. How long is their attention span? What kind of puzzles do they like? What subjects do they want to hear about? What makes them laugh? If your target audience is older, analyze the things they read.

Listen. Nudge your way into the edges of a group that represents the age or interest group you’d like to write for. Make yourself inconspicuous by doing something helpful. Ask them questions about themselves or something they love. Listen more than you talk.

Never quit learning. Try new things. Study things you’ve never cared about before. Take a class or join an activity. Make friends with people who have different viewpoints and try to understand those viewpoints.

We writers can be thankful that growing older doesn’t have to mean forced retirement and lack of usefulness. But if we want to remain useful, we do have to continue to learn and grow.