How to be a Writer

First, some good news: you already are.

I am confident you are capable of writing stories, for your own pleasure or other people’s. Jean-Dominique Bauby dictated a memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by blinking. Most of us don’t face such severe barriers to writing, and can’t ever imagine them. If Bauby could write, I am certain you can too. You do not need anyone else’s permission to be an artist, and you should not ever ask for it.

That said, you’d be forgiven for wanting something more than reassurances. Writing fiction is a tremendously daunting craft, let alone writing at a professional level, and when people ask me how they can be writers too, I think they’re often asking for specifics on how they should practice their craft. Although I can’t possibly cover every aspect here, I wanted to collect some bits of advice that I thought might be useful.

One principle that I think is non-negotiable is that a writer must be a reader. If you do not enjoy reading books, I have to question your desire to write them. This may seem like a strange point to emphasize, but you do encounter aspiring authors who don’t like to read. This strikes me as being as odd as an aspiring chef who doesn’t like eating, or indeed food. I feel that these are people who like the idea of being a writer more than they like writing.

Reading professional work is one of the easiest ways to improve your own writing craft. You will learn so much about plotting, pacing, prose style, characterization, etc, by reading. I would add that it is also a good idea to read widely. Try to branch out of your comfort zone. Nonfiction, poetry, stage plays, old newspaper clippings… the list of things you can read that will improve your prose fiction extends far beyond novels. If you are a true student of language and have a real love of it, even overheard conversations on the bus or the text of advertising billboards will be teaching you something you can use in your novels.

Once you have begun to read widely, these works and ideas will influence your own writing. Every great writer has ancestors, and it’s perfectly normal for your own work to reflect the novels and stories you really connect with. I would say that it’s probably best not to stick too closely to a single source of influence. This is another area where reading widely will aid you; imitate one writer and people will say you are derivative. Imitate a host of different writers and people will most likely proclaim you a true original. My personal favourite book about influence and inspiration is Austin Kleon’s small and excellent book Steal Like An Artist.

Something else that can be a great help is community. Finding others who are engaged with the craft of writing fiction can be a huge boost, as writing is really quite a lonely activity. Peers who can evaluate your work critically and suggest ways to improve your drafts are a great resource. Your friends and family will most likely tell you your work is ‘great’ – no matter its actual quality. Sometimes this is all you want to hear, but if you’re actively seeking to hone your craft and become a professional writer you will have to open yourself up to constructive criticism at some stage. Writer’s groups or writing workshops are an ideal setting for this to happen.

Lastly, in order to be a writer one must write. This is so obvious that it might not seem like it needs saying, but you will never improve your craft if you do not practice it. You must write. There is no getting around it. Blank pages are daunting, half-finished projects often even more so, but write you must. I suggest a target of three hundred words per day, minimum. Three hundred is not an awful lot of words – maybe a paragraph or two – but it is not nothing. Write three hundred words per day for a year and you’ll end up with a manuscript over a hundred thousand words long, a whole novel and more to spare. Three hundred words is often also the threshold at which I become interested in a scene I’m creating and actively want to continue. There are plenty of work days when I don’t stop at three hundred.

If you want to explore the craft of fiction writing further, there are innumerable books on the subject, and I would suggest perusing some of them. Stephen King, one of the most commercially successful authors in the world, has written a book on craft called On Writing, which is frequently recommended as a starting point. My personal favourite writing guide is Stein on Writing by novelist and editor Sol Stein, which covers many aspects of the novel-writing and editing process. I would also recommend the excellent How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Wittelmark, which details two hundred mistakes frequently seen in amateur novels, with hilarious examples of each one. Finally, you can’t go wrong with a dictionary.

It’s a difficult art, and a decade after I started writing novels I still feel like a beginner. You have a life of learning ahead of you. I try to take pleasure from just putting words together, and seeing where things develop from there. I hope you will find joy in it too.