31 December 2012

So you want to be a writer

Somewhere once I read that some famous writer said something like, "If you want to be a writer, then write." It is that easy, but it's also not that easy. I mean, if it were really that easy, then we would all be writers already, right?

Some people think the way to become a writer is by studying how other people have done it and learning all the "rules" to "good" writing. You can spend years reading books on how to write. Others think you have to have a degree in creative writing in order to call yourself a writer.

And these people who say that a "real" writer writes because s/he is compelled to and can't not write...I kind of want to punch these people in the face (not that I would ever). 'Cause I have it in me and it really wants to come out, and also it's a terrifying thing to try to articulate and organize the mental chaos and watch it come out on paper (or in a text box) and witness how different it looks outside the head as compared to inside.

I don't know that there's any magic bullet that works for all of us. Reading books on writing and learning the "rules" might work for some people. And doing an MFA program might work for others. But knowing the rules or having an MFA degree isn't what makes one a writer. What makes one a writer is the writing. The books on writing and the experiences of the MFA program are meant to help break down those mental barriers that keep us from doing what we so want to do. They're meant to create a safe, supportive environment in which to try and fail.

Yes, if you want to be a writer then you need to write. But most writers I know can't just write every day, day after day, without any sort of feedback or encouragement or sense of purpose. Most of us need community for accountability and emotional support and--most importantly--a sense of audience. If you don't need these things, I envy you. If you do need these things, here are some ideas for how to go about getting them.

A good place to start is with  DIY MFA, a concept and website created by Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) which has a whole bunch of ideas and resources for creating an experience for yourself similar to an MFA program but on your schedule and without the expense. Pereira's basic premise: in order to be a writer you need to write, read, and participate in community, and that doesn't have you cost you a bunch of money.

Do #writeclub Friday nights on Twitter. All you do is check in at the end of each writing sprint (timed by @FriNightWrites) with updates about how many words you wrote and/or with a line from the piece you're working on. It's community, low-stakes accountability, and encouragement.

Participate in A Round of Words in 80 Days (#ROW80). I just found out about this through Twitter and am completely in love. It's a community of people, started by Kait Nolan (@kaitnolan), who connect via blogs and/or Twitter, set their own writing goals for an 80-day period, help keep each other accountable, and offer support and encouragement. Similar idea to NaNoWriMo, but ROW80 happens three times a year and you set your own goals around your lifestyle. The next round runs January 7 to March 28. I'm so doing it.

Other ideas: Do NaNoWriMo or DigiWriMo. Take community education classes through your local college or a place like The Attic Institute. Find a writing partner: someone you meet up with for writing dates either online or face-to-face (I found one through OkCupid once). Join or form a writing critique group. Find yourself a developmental editor. Go to readings and open mics.

To be a writer you have to be willing to make writing a priority in your life and your schedule. You need not only the time to write but also the energy. And, depending on the circumstances of your home life, you might also need a physical space to write--a coffee shop, the basement, your bedroom with the door shut and a Do Not Disturb sign? Experiment until you find what works for you.

Most importantly, though, you need to be willing to fail. I'm still working on this one. When I get it figured out, I'll let you know.


  1. I'm one of the lucky few that had a story come to me. I really didn't want to write it. I didn't think I could. I took a chance, I'm happy I did. I have to work really hard at it. I write a little everyday. I read tons of books and websites on the craft. Thanks for telling me about #writeclub. I'm going to check out your links.

    1. I'm happy you took the chance too! A Muse's inspiration is a precious thing & shouldn't be wasted. I'm so glad you listened to yours.

  2. Sione
    That was the best, most honest description of wanting to be a writer I have seen in some time. You are a talent and a wonderful person to know. Your experience has empowered many to push forward and fail, with the purpose of learning and growing as a writer.

    Thank you for sharing this with all of us.

    1. I think failure is undervalued in our culture in general. I know that I could stand to appreciate it far more than I do.

      Thank you so much for letting me know this post resonated with you. It's a precious gift you've given me. Truly.

  3. Failure is just misunderstood in our culture and people think it's a bad thing. No one seems to realize that everything gets done because of "failure." No one starts out doing everything perfectly.

    As a baby we don't try to take our first steps, stumble, fall down and our parents say "Well I guess they're just not a walker." You get back off your butt and do it until you can walk. Think about how long it took to learn to walk and how easy it is now and you might get a new perspective on "failure."

    You can look at anything in life and you learned how to do it all by trial and error. Speaking, reading, driving, working. I challenge you to find one thing you did perfectly you're very first attempt.

    True failure is simply giving up. When you give up your dreams you fail... that's the only way to do it. Because if you honestly keep going and improving you're going to make it. As Malcolm Gladwell figures success takes about 10,000 hours... so get going.

    However there is another difference between being a writer and getting paid to write for a living. All of your tips above focus on the craft of writing and how to get better at it. If you want to make money writing you need to get better at selling your writing.

    Few people have a book deal fall into their lap. Those that do have publishers chasing them (and they're not many) are the ones that have built up an audience for their writing. Because publishers know that an audience means sales.

    Robert Kiyosaki has a quote I love... "I'm not a best writing author, I'm a best selling author." He writes for people who want to hear what he has to say and if you want to make a living writing I suggest you do the same.

    You might the book "How I sold a million ebooks in 5 months" interesting -

    This guy iss a fiction writer (and not the best one) who built a following for his writing and sold a lot of ebooks because of it. He breaks down his process and has very good advice for anyone who wants to make money writing.

    Hope that helps? :)

    1. Good points, Craig! Completely agree that writing is one thing and marketing your writing is another. For me the first one is a constant struggle & the second a steep learning curve. But I'm making progress on both.

      I had peeked at Locke's book "How I sold 1 million..." before & read J. A. Konrath's blog about the whole "scandal" Locke was involved in (he admitted to paying hundreds of people for positive reviews of his books rather than building a following in a more tradition way). Yes, I want to make a living off my writing, but money isn't really what writing is about for me. If it were, I'd write what other people wanted to read rather than working so hard to capture the whisperings of my Muse. ;*)

    2. Good to hear you're making progress on both... that's the journey :)

      Yes I looked into the "scandal" too and it got a bit overblown. He paid for reviews... not positive ones to begin with. However that was not the only thing he did otherwise everyone could easily have the success he had... he still spent the time to build a following as well.

      People act like paying for reviews is so morally wrong yet they don't bother to open their minds to the reality of life. If they got a book deal they would be more than happy for a publisher to pay for advertising of their book which would include little snippets like "Best book ever!" - NY Times which is... guess what? A paid review.

      If someone can explain why paid advertising of a book is ok and paid reviews are not then great... but they can't. Magazines, newspapers and writers all get paid to do reviews in their publications yet for some reason these people are deemed to be above other paid reviewers? It's just another example of big publishers tipping the scales against independent writers and independent writers buying the bs of the big publishers that are screwing them and quality writing that doesn't fit into their mold.

      I'm also not saying you need to tailor your writing to what other people want to read either. I'm saying you need to find a market of people who want what you read. You should never write what you think other people want to hear as this may make you a living but it won't make you a great writer or any real money.

      If you are a great writer then you can't help but make money because you are bringing value to lots of people around the world. We now live in a time where it is possible to carve out a true niche for yourself on a global basis by creating something you're passionate about and that others will be passionate about too. This is not pandering to the market... it is finding a market for your writing.

      The starving artist persona is just another pile of bs fed to us which keeps us down. If you want to hide behind the excuse that "true artists don't make money" then that's fine but it's just giving in to the fear. The fear that if people actually read your work it wouldn't be "good enough"... and by extension neither are you.

      Write for your muse... but don't use that as an excuse not to share your gift with the world. That's just fear speaking.

    3. RE: the "scandal": that's what Konrath said too. I thought he had some interesting points.

      RE: sharing writing/making money...I did the math. If I wrote 4 books a year (obviously would have to do nothing else, but hey, I'm dreaming here) and sold 7200 copies of each book, I could make a little over $100K a year before taxes (assuming I keep getting a similar return to what I'm currently getting). I only have to find 7200 people in the entire world--out of 7 billion!--who like what I write well enough to pay $5 for it each time I write a new novel. Now that is some serious earning potential. And it seems completely possibe--even probable--that I could find 7200 people in the world who like what my Muse tells me to write. That's, like, a ridiculously small percentage of the world population.

      But FIRST I have to write the books! ;*)