Dave Barry: How to Become a Successful Writer Without Really Trying

Dave Barry says you -- yes, you! -- are just days away from your first best-seller Putnam Adult

Being a professional author is a great job. You get to work at home, be your own boss and wear whatever you want.

FACT: Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises wearing a penguin costume.

Another benefit of being a professional author is you also have complete freedom to snack. I eat as many as 45 distinct snacks per day. My typical schedule is, I spend several minutes working on writing something (this sentence, for example) and then I’ll think to myself, quote, “Snack time!” Then I’ll head to the kitchen to see what’s available. There is basically nothing in my kitchen that I have not, at one time or another, as a professional author, smeared peanut butter on. I include pot holders in that statement.

And then there is the pay. It is excellent. I’m not saying that you will, right off the bat, with no author experience, make the kind of money Stephen King makes. Achieving that level of success can take, literally, months. But the potential is there, especially if you are a fast typist, because the standard practice in the writing industry is to pay authors by the word.

Another thought you may have is: Do I have what it takes to make the grade as a professional writer? I will answer that question with brutal and unflinching honesty: Yes. Don’t be discouraged if you have no formal training in the field of writing. Writing is not one of those activities that require a specific skill, such as golf, opera or radiator repair. You can be a writer. Anyone can be a writer.

FACT: William Shakespeare, who is responsible for some of the greatest works of Western literature including the original version of West Side Story, was raised in a rural village without any formal education and could neither read nor write nor speak English. Many historians now believe he may actually have been a horse.

FACT: When J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book, she was a single mother on welfare who was both blind and deaf and had been chained to a dungeon wall for 11 years upside down.

FACT: John Grisham is from Mississippi.

If these individuals were able to overcome such hardships and become successful authors, there is no reason why you can’t. So let’s get started!

The first step is to have a snack.

(Thirty minute break.)

OK, time to get started.

How to break into the writing field

Let’s get one thing straight: There are no shortcuts to becoming a successful published author. It takes determination and a lot of plain old hard work. You cannot just sit around and wait for literary success to be dropped on you out of the sky by some magical success-pooping seagull.

No, you must roll up your sleeves, plant yourself in front of your computer and perform the difficult – and lonely – task of writing a letter to a successful author asking for free advice. This is the only known way to succeed as a writer. We published authors receive such letters all the time. Mine generally sound like this:

Dear Mr. Berry,

I am a recent college graduate or stay-at-home mother of three or corporate attorney or 87-year-old retiree or prison inmate or vice president of the United States and I am a big fan of your writing, especially your book “Hoot,” which was hilarious!

Anyway, the reason for this letter is that I am looking for some guidance and I am hoping you can provide it. While not a published author myself, I have done some writing in my spare time, and my friends or parents or college professors or cell mates or goldfish or alien abductors have told me that my “tongue in cheek” style of humor reminds them of you.

Mr. Barrie, I know you are a very busy person so I will “cut to the chase.” I am hoping you will take a look at the enclosed selection of my humorous essays or the 873-page manuscript of my comic novel about a corporate attorney who becomes involved in a series of wacky depositions or my collection of family Christmas newsletters from 1987 or the Akron, Ohio, Yellow Pages or my handwritten account of the many humorous events that occurred during my 43-year career in the field of dental implants.

I am specifically wondering if you think I have “what it takes” to “make the grade” as a “pro” writer and, if so, what steps I should take next? Would you be interested in “polishing up” my work for publication? I would of course give you “full credit.”

Also would it be possible for you to put in a “good word” for me with your publisher? I understand that in order to get published, it’s a good idea to have an agent and I am hoping you can recommend one.

I would also be grateful for any “tricks of the trade” you can pass along to a “rookie” such as the “do’s and don’ts” of putting words inside “quotation marks.”

Also I have developed this weird lump on my right elbow and I’m wondering if you think I should have it looked at. Thank you so much, Mr. Berrie!



P.S. Please write back soon because the lump is changing color.

We professional authors receive many letters like this. Whenever one arrives, we immediately drop whatever we are doing so we can analyze the letter writer’s specific situation and develop a detailed plan of action for his or her writing career. Bear in mind that this takes time. If you write to one of the more popular authors – James Patterson, for example, or the late Jane Austen – you need to be patient, as they might be busy providing consultation services for other aspiring authors.

Allow two weeks for your author to get back to you. After that, you should consider a follow-up letter or personal visit to your author’s resident to see how your career plan is coming along.

Reprinted from You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About by Dave Barry by arrangement with G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright © 2014 by Dave Barry.