So…you wanna be a writer. And no, I don’t mean just any type of writer. Like a real storyteller. One of those people who burns the midnight oil slaving over a series of novels, dreaming of having them optioned for television or the movies, but really just needing to get the ideas swirling around in your head onto the page.
But where do you start? Or, once you’ve started “just writing” what steps can you take to improve?
Well, dear reader, I’ve assembled some thoughts on that very subject below. Here are my ten tips for young, new, or aspiring authors on how to approach the job of being a writer.
1.) Be Clear On What You Want to Accomplish
Why do you want to do this? What do you want to accomplish? Do you want to be a bestseller? Do you want to write full-time? Do you want to win awards? Do you mostly just like writing for fun?
Be honest with yourself.
It doesn’t matter what the answers are. And sometimes you won’t know the answers until you start writing. Maybe you find that you really don’t enjoy writing every day, once you actually start doing it. Or maybe you start writing for fun and end up writing every day.
Ultimately I think what’s important here is being clear on what you want to achieve and then creating the discipline and the framework to achieve it. If you want to be a bestseller or an award winner but you’re unwilling to put in the work, then you’re just going to be disappointed.
Be honest with yourself about matching your level of commitment to your expectations. If you want to be a full-time author at some point, you’re going to have to put in a lot of work and develop a strong sense of writing discipline. If you’re happy writing the occasional story whenever you feel inspired, that’s great too.
Just don’t let yourself believe you have full-time author aspirations when you never make time to actually write. Speaking of which…
2.) Make Writing a Priority
Now that you’ve decided that you want to be a writer, you will have to make writing a priority. Everyone in the world is busy, but if this is something you really care about, you will find ways to make time for it. This might mean waking up earlier in the morning to get some writing done before work. This could mean watching fewer TV shows so that you have some time at night. Or it might mean skipping the after work happy hours in favor of some time at the coffee shop where you can work.
Some will tell you that you have to write every day. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that, though I do think that this practice would benefit the vast majority of people. However, if you’re truly very busy, maybe “making writing a priority” looks like using the Sunday you have off to crank out your words.
You know your life and what sort of scheduling will work best for you. The important thing is making the time to write and to do some of the other things associated with being a writer (like reading, networking, etc). This will likely mean cutting some of your recreational activities in favor of doing this work, but if you’re really committed to this, then it will be worth it.
3.) Read A Lot and Read Broadly
Chances are if you want to write fiction, it is because you read fiction. This is good. As a writer you will need to. If you don’t already spend a good chunk of time reading, then it’s time to start.
In order to understand how a story works, you’re going to have to read some. Whatever genre your novel is, you should be reading books that are similar and trying to pick up the tropes and techniques authors who write in that style use. This will help inform how your story might be structured or what sort of characters and themes readers of the genre expect. Even if you end up going against some of the typical tropes for your genre, you should at least be aware of what they are.
You will also want to read broadly. If you’re only familiar with one style of novel, even if it’s the one you want to write, then your work will end up being derivative, just a watered down version of the same stuff that came before. Being familiar with other genres will add more tools to your writing toolbox and let you blend together a wider variety of interesting styles and themes.
As an example, most stories feature a romantic subplot. But if you are only familiar with the romantic subplots of all the Fantasy novels you’ve been reading, then it’s likely that the romantic subplot you add to your own story will be just retread of what you’ve seen in your favorite books. If you really want to know how to handle a romantic subplot well, try reading some Romance books and study the techniques of authors who write romance as a primary plot. Then apply what you’ve learned to add some more depth and nuance to this subplot in your own story.
4.) Research the Field
As with any discipline, you’ll want to learn as much about writing as you can. This means studying the craft of the art itself, whether that’s through books, or workshops, or lectures, or other means. You will also want to research publishing to determine whether you want to self-publish your book or pursue a traditional publishing contract. And you will need to know how to build an author platform and cultivate a following, something that is very useful regardless of how you choose to get your book published.
There are arguably more opportunities for writers these days than ever before, but you have to be good at more than just the craft of writing. Marketing yourself and your work is also important, and having some sense of business is key as well. Be ready to put in the time to learn about these things.
There are a lot of resources out there (including this blog!) that can help you, but you have to be willing to make time to get through them. I’ll be sharing a list of some of my favorites at the bottom of this post, so you can at least have a few places to start.
5.) Keep Living to Stay Inspired
You may have the temptation or desire to lock yourself away in your room and become a hermit while you put together your Great American Novel. Don’t. Your greatest inspirations will come from the world around you and your life experiences.
Even if you are writing a Lord of the Rings style epic that takes place in some fantastical world, it’s the relatable struggles of your protagonists that are going to ground your story and make it accessible and interesting to your readers.
Additionally, trying new things or even just being out in the world and interacting with others will give you new ideas for scenes or stories. Of course as a writer it is important to find time to isolate yourself and get the work done, but a lot of the creative inspiration you need is going to be found outside, not inside.
6.) Find a Community
Similar to the above tip, don’t try to go at the writing aspect of your life alone either. You will need the help of other authors, whether it’s to help you promote, get some advice or feedback on your work, or even just to get a pep-talk once in awhile.
You can probably find some in-person writing groups via Meet-Up or the NaNoWrimo organization. If you have the time and money, you might also consider taking a class or workshop and networking with the people there. You could meet like-minded people at conventions and try to create connections that way.
Or you can find a group online. #Chance2Connect (hosted by author Kim Chance) is a great Twitter spot to meet some other writers, and there are many other groups to be found on social media or various internet forums.
The writing process can be difficult, and it’s important to remember that you aren’t alone, and that there are other people out there who can help you out or answer your questions.
7.) Start Small
If you’re going to start writing, you’ll probably want to start small. Set word count or time goals that are realistic. Maybe just getting 500 words done every day, or writing for an hour every day. Like with every habit, you’ll have to get used to doing it, and if you set smaller goals, you will be more likely to complete them and generate some forward momentum.
Planning massive two or four hour writing sessions every day and then not getting through them because it’s too difficult won’t help you. It’s better to get just a little bit done than nothing at all, and setting small expectations can help with that.
8.) Ignore haters, but Seek Out Critique
Once you set out on the writing journey, you’re going to encounter a lot of negative people and naysayers. They might say that trying to be a writer is stupid and that you shouldn’t waste your time. They might think the ideas for your stories are stupid and tell you how bad you are at the craft.
Whatever the case, these are the type of people you should ignore. Every artist has to face down the trolls and the naysayers, and being a writer is no different.
However, that doesn’t give you license to dismiss constructive criticism. You should always be looking to improve your work, and you should be paying attention to reviews that give thoughtful feedback, even if it’s negative. Ask people for critiques of your work, and don’t get angry when they say something bad. The end goal will always be to improve your story, or if that story is already published, to improve the next one.
You can’t be overly sensitive in this business, or you’ll never grow.
9.) Be Ready for the Long Haul
Writing, especially novel writing, is a marathon, not a sprint. No part of the process is quick.
Writing the first draft of the story itself is going to take a long time. Then you’re going to have to revise it, probably multiple times, which, again, will take awhile. Then you’re either going to have to do all of the work associated with self-publishing, like finding an editor to go over the story and getting good cover art done, or query your story to an agent and wait for a traditional publisher to pick it up.
And that’s just for one book.
Let’s be real. The first thing you write is probably not going to be very good. So it’s going to take time, several stories, before you really hit a point where your writing is strong. You might write several manuscripts before any of them sell or get picked up. Much of your early work is going to be rejected, either in the form of low sales via self-publishing or literal rejection letters from agents and editors.
You have to be mentally ready for the grind and the rejection. Many authors don’t succeed because they aren’t, and they give up after only a few setbacks.
Most authors are really only successful once they have several books out. At this point they have multiple products they can point customers to, and they have enough experience with the craft that they can put together a good story more quickly. That’s the point where this pursuit can become a career. Yes, there have been some notable overnight success stories in the field of writing, but by and large that’s not how things work. If you’re looking for some kind of instant success or get rich quick scheme, you’re going to be disappointed…probably in life in general, but certainly in the field of writing.
Until you’re in the thick of it, it might be difficult to judge if you’re ready for all of this. But, again, if you think you can hammer out a book and make millions, you’re going to be disappointed, so do what you can to ready yourself for the grind.
10.) Don’t Wait to Start
Welp, now you’ve made it through the list. No doubt you are going to go find some other writing advice blogs or vlogs to check out as well. Or maybe you’re cobbling together a must-read list of books that are in and out of your genre. Or perhaps you’ve started looking up all of the writer hashtags out there to find a group that you can join. Doing these things is fine, even necessary, but make sure that you’re not using them as a way to procrastinate on your writing.
Similarly, don’t get too caught up in overly outlining your story and trying to make sure your idea is perfect (something I’m definitely guilty of). Settle on something and start working on it. If your outlining has stalled, don’t smash your head against the wall trying to figure out all the details of your story. Start writing on what you have, and figure out the rest later. Oftentimes it’s when we’re writing that we’ll discover a lot of these details anyway.
After all, if you want to be a writer, the most important thing you can be doing is writing.
There are many, many great writing resources out there, but here are the ones that I regularly tune into myself.