So, you want to be a writer…
It’s human nature to want to express and share our ideas and thoughts. Rather than regurgitate what others have written on the subject, here’s a short article that suggests how storytelling may have arisen in the first place.
To be a writer, you must first be a storyteller, and it’s implied that the stories you tell must be INTERESTING to whomever your audience may be. Further, if those stories are to be memorable and successful, they must connect with the audience in some way. Sometimes writers forget this basic fact and become more interested in being clever with their words and ideas than in connecting with an audience (or maybe they hope that someone will simply appreciate their cleverness).
Storytelling is more than putting words down on a page to express some viewpoint. Such pieces of writing have their place, but they are not stories. Stories create experiences and resonate with readers, which is why they were passed on orally before they were written down later.
Before I continue with the storytelling part, let’s consider what a writer needs besides a storytelling ability. In order to share your stories, you need a reasonable command of the language you’re writing in if you hope to communicate your ideas to your audience. In informal situations, you can get by with a less literate communication style, but if you expect readers to understand and appreciate your ideas—and to continue reading—you’re going to have to show your reader that you CAN communicate. This means knowing and using the basics of language: grammar and appropriate vocabulary (properly spelled).
I’m not saying that your writing must be perfect, but if you choose the wrong words—words that don’t mean what you think they mean—and if you don’t the difference between words like its/it’s, your/you’re, there/their/they’re, then/than, then you are not ready to be a serious writer because your readers may find it difficult to understand you and may dismiss your writing because of that.
Note that I did NOT say you should not be a writer if you’re weak in grammar and vocabulary. What I did say is that if you cannot use the words of the language to communicate your ideas properly, then you need to take steps to remedy this situation. This might involve taking some classes or finding someone who can help you with your writing. Grammar and vocabulary are basic and essential tools of writing. If you’re weak in these areas, your writing will suffer and you may never find an audience for your work.
I’ve known a few writers who suffer from dyslexia. They know their vocabulary, but they sometimes have difficulty choosing the right word from among the sound-alike homonyms. If you have a linguistic disability, you can still be a writer, but you may need to find someone who can help correct and repair your work.
Before I leave this section, I want to remind you that punctuation is also an important tool in writing. Here’s a good article that talks about the origin of punctuation and why it was invented in the first place.
If you’re weak on punctuation, check out our Punctuation For Fiction Writers. Scott and I wrote it to be a guide and reference for all of a writer’s punctuation needs.
Back to storytelling. Once you have your story idea, then you must decide whose story this will be:
(1) Who is the story happening to? Who are your main characters?
(2) Which of those characters will be telling the story? Or will the story’s narrator be an external one?
From there it’s just a matter of details and building your story scene by scene and chapter by chapter. That can be easy, or it can be hard, depending on the complexity of the story.
For me, the hardest part is not so much adding the details (which is time consuming), but developing a strong and viable story concept to begin with. This is where new writers can fail. They decide one day that they’re going to write a novel. They come up with an idea, then they launch into the writing without thinking it through and without asking the hard question: Is this a GOOD story idea and a strong one?
Sadly, too many novels are based on weak concepts, on ideas that have been done before (which the writer didn’t bother checking into first), or on ideas that are not properly developed. Done right, nearly every story idea can be turned into a good story.
Another problem with some novels is that, while they have good ideas behind them, they are populated with weak, uninteresting, or clichéd characters. But let’s be optimistic here and assume that you’ve come up with a stunning story concept, that you’ve created superbly interesting characters, and that it’s a reasonably fresh idea. What’s next?
Well, now you have to put your ideas and characters together into a cohesive story that flows smoothly from start to finish. One more tool that you should consider adding is one or more unbiased readers to read and critique your work so that you’ll know whether you’re on the right track.
“Wait a minute, Rick,” you object. “Hundreds and thousands of writers have worked in solitude and turned out great works. Besides, I don’t want anyone to see my work yet.”
In the past many writers did work in seclusion, but today’s writing world has gotten far more complex, more demanding, and more competitive. Do you really want to spend however long it takes you to complete your novel before you find out that you’ve wasted your time and that if you had received some feedback early on, you would have been able to make changes early on. As for not wanting anyone to see your work, I cannot buy that objection. It’s built on lack of self-confidence. If you’re going to be a writer you must develop confidence in your work or you may never get your work out.
The early work of most writers will suck. Many of the great writers did not start off being great. We all thought that Harper Lee turned out a masterpiece with her first novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Then we saw the original form in Go Set a Watchman and were privileged to see where “Mockingbird” began. While “Watchman” is a good book, it’s nowhere near the masterpiece that its successor was. The reason “Mockingbird” came about was that her editor advised her that “Watchman” needed revision and a different approach. Would Harper Lee have had the same success with “Watchman” had she not turned it into “Mockingbird?” It’s impossible to know, but it might have died in obscurity and never have become a classic.
Today, we rarely (if at all) find such caring editors as Harper Lee had at publishing houses. Your book generally works for them as is or it doesn’t. If you’re an indie author without the benefit of outside guidance and you publish a book that’s not ready, then you’ll learn that the hard way. I’ve seen several authors revise and republish their books after realizing their mistake, one that could have been avoided with proper input before premature publication.
Nearly every successful author will tell you that often the hardest part is not writing the novel but in revising it to make it a good novel. The common wisdom that “writing is rewriting” is very true.
Not every novel will need significant revision, but I’ve never seen one that doesn’t need some revision. Unless you’re a natural genius or already have a background and training in writing before writing your first novel, then you’ll save yourself time and grief by getting some objective input before you’ve gone too far. Even established authors often have critique groups or critique partners to look at their work before deeming it ready for to be submitted.
My good friend Graeme Reynolds, author of the excellent “High Moor” werewolf series didn’t go it alone. He was part of a critique group that I was in and received a lot of good advice and comments while developing the first novel. He’ll also tell you that he spent many years and had to work hard to turn out those three books. Read BRANDEN JOHNSON’S GUEST POST from three weeks ago to hear him tell you the same thing.
Being a writer is hard work, but it can be fun and rewarding if you start right and seek good advice along the way. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself backtracking, frustrated, and maybe ready to give up. My dad always taught me that anything worth doing is worth doing well. Not all writers are going achieve the success they desire, but those who forge ahead and put in the effort to get it right will have a much better chance of succeeding.