What does a writer look like? Is there a DNA sequence for creativity that you can channel through words? Well, if there is, no scientist has yet found it, and maybe never well. In truth, I hope they don’t, as I rather like the mystery of what makes me tick, and how I get a burning desire to write. Why do I feel incredibly uncomfortable if I go more than a day without writing? That I can answer – because writing is who I am. I simply couldn’t function if I wasn’t able to write.
People often append a word before the word “writer”, depending on their level of confidence with their writing, their consuming desire to write, and their ability to see beyond the end of their pen. But the important thing is that people call themselves a writer, even though I often take umbrage when people define their level of skill, talent, or ability on certain factors;
The aspiring writer; Do you enjoy recording your thoughts, whether using a computer, a notepad and pen, or a clay tablet and a stylus? If so, delete aspiring. You are a writer.
The successful writer; Define successful. If you’re happy when you write, that pretty much describes success, don’t you think?
The published writer; Define published. The astonishing ease of self-publishing, whether by way of blogs, e-books, print on demand, or vanity — er, subsidy — presses, has eroded the precision of that distinction. I’m often treated at a different level because I’m published through a house, Inspired Quill, irrespective of the fact that I’m undoubtedly no more or less talented than very many self-published writers, and am certainly no Stephen King.
The professional writer; Do you earn money by writing? If you collect pocket change by writing for content farms, placing yourself in that category might be a stretch, but many writers who are considered professionals derive much of their income from other sources yet still earn the label.
How devoted are you to writing? Do you get up at five o’clock every morning to churn out a few thousand words before you head off to work? Do you turn down social engagements, avoid competing creative interests, and refuse fitness or leisure activities because of your obsession with writing? Do you sacrifice things you would otherwise enjoy in order to write? I’m fortunate; I blog a lot, and use my life experiences as things to write about; that makes me a writer and a researcher by tenuous extension, but I thrive on the label of writer still, because I am.
How is a writer supposed to act, feel, and look? The answer is, pretty much like that person you see when you look in the mirror. If you are passionate about writing (regardless of how much or how little time you are willing or able to devote to that passion), if you strive to develop your writing strengths but recognise and focus on your weaknesses even more, if you pursue your passion even though you don’t put in as much time as you’d like because you understand that you need to maintain a healthy balance in your life, then, yes, you’re a writer.
My dad was a writer for nigh on fifty years; in his case, he wrote for newspapers, initially specialising in sport before moving into general news, getting promoted up to chief reporter, and then moving back into sports as an editor. He could easily have gone higher up the chain, but he chose not to; he preferred to have at least some work-life balance and come home most evenings at a semi-reasonable time and have most weekends with his family, even if he did have to sacrifice most bank holiday Mondays to the craft. He was a damn good writer, and that’s not just filial pride saying that; he was awarded multiple times for his work, and was recognised and respected by so many people for what he did. He was also incredibly modest about his achievements and, when he retired, decided to focus his attention on his family, his garden, and anything else that caught his fancy, so I was left bereft at knowing the world would stop seeing his output.
But he was – is – a writer, because his capacity to tell a story from the facts of a case was deeply professional; to him, it was a craft, not a job, and he make it look so very easy, even though I imagine it was actually very hard when confronted by the blank page in front of him. I empathise; the blank page horrifies me as well, and I’m a fiction writer, so I get to make things up, whereas my dad reported what was really happening – a far harder challenge, I would argue.
You see, in my view, writers take on so many different forms, but we’re all connected by a single goal; we want to tell a story, to communicate ideas. My mum is an avid reader; she loves fiction in particular, and that was what kick-started my own love of fiction, seeing the complex plots unfolding before my eyes, or occasionally picking apart a weak plot and thinking, in the callow way of youth, “I could do better than this, I know it.” That was mostly focused on science-fiction plots though, to be fair.
And then I discovered blogging as well, undoubtedly far later than a lot of other people, but still far enough along to pick up the basics and then discover a particular love of the field. I also discovered – or rather remembered – that I was rather opinionated, and being able to share my thoughts with a readership through a blog was rather exciting. It lastly gave me a small – very small – flavour of my dad’s work of verifying my facts, checking my sources, and making sure I was entirely telling the truth. At least with fiction I could be a lot more creative, and so that’s why I keep going back.
Commentators sometimes say that writing can’t be taught; that beginning writers either have “it”, in which case they don’t need to be taught, or they don’t have “it”, in which case money and time is being wasted by the exercise. Bad creative writing classes were best described by Phillip Hensher as looking like this; A student has submitted some work with the words: “I don’t think it’s very good.” The class has (mostly) read it. After a long silence, one of the student’s best friends, primed, says: “I really like the way you … ” The student says: ‘Thank you.” Another one says: “I didn’t quite understand about the bit where …” The student explains. Half the class stay silent; the student leaves with ego intact and work unimproved.
I’m not entirely convinced by formal structures in writing classes; I much prefer informal mentoring arrangements or commissioning editors to look at work and give you targeted, dedicated feedback. Writing, as Jeanette Winterson once said, is a love affair, not a solitary pleasure. You can write about anything you like, but there must be a connection between you and the material. That connection will shine to an editor, and they can work with you on making that connection stronger. I learnt so much from working with my editors at Inspired Quill that I have improved with every book I’ve written, and will continue to improve because of their input. If you haven’t got a publishing contract, commission an editor to give you honest, constructive feedback, and be open to it; that relationship will grow over time, and it will so much more rewarding than a creative writing course, believe me. Or, find a writing group that is actually willing to be honest with your work and do a similar role. But believe me on this; it’s your work, be bloody proud of it and want it to improve a hundred-fold by accepting fair, constructive advice from people who care almost as much as you about it.
Establish a routine for your writing time. This is more important the less time you have. If you work full-time, you might plan to write for an hour at 6am on Tuesday and Thursday, or at 4pm on Wednesday and Saturday. Write this commitment down in your diary or calendar, don’t schedule anything that conflicts with it, and sit alone somewhere you can focus when the time comes. It’s fine if you don’t produce sentences during that time, but don’t do anything else – don’t check email, don’t text, don’t go online (and for heaven’s sake, if you’re using a computer, shut all files and windows except for the one you’re working on).
Develop your characters and create an outline. By allowing your characters to grow and take initial shape (even if some of the finer detail change over time), then they will begin to shape the direction of the story, and by creating an outline, you’ll know the things you want to achieve. This doesn’t have to be formal and completely written down, but at least have it in your head. Know where you want to get to and then let your characters steer the way.
Writer’s block is not real. I know this is controversial, but it’s not possible for a writer to not write. And I’m not alone in this. Lots of other writers discount the notion of writer’s block.
Here’s what’s real: perfectionism, and many writers suffer from it. They want everything to sound perfect the very first time, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes, you’re going to have to write pure manure and plow through it, with the hopes that it will create a fertile soil. (It will.)
Many authors write every day and so should you if you want to be a serious writer. Even if you write only 20 minutes a day, keep the appointment with yourself.
Writers may well be hermits a significant amount of the time, but they also need to socialise with each other for perspective, advice, and some semblance of sanity. Find your own way of doing this; it might be a writer’s group, or a couple of friends who are authors. I have the good fortunate of knowing fellow authors and knowing of local writer’s groups as well; I could easily dip in and out whenever I want to.
As a writer, you also need to be involved in the whole product – the promotion of it as well as its creation – whether you’re published or self-published. Being a salesperson is so vitally important as part of it, even if it forces you to step out of your comfort zone. Sometimes writing is like that, and there’s nothing you can but follow it through to its, perhaps awkward, conclusion, but it becomes easier the more you do it – and helps you become a stronger brand.
And that’s the other, related point – be a brand. Accept that people are going to be interested in you as a writer as well as the actual book itself, so find the narrative of your experiences that you want to share with the world or, at the very least, are comfortable enough to share when you need to. You are a brand in and of yourself, and people will want to understand that so they feel that they can connect more with the story by connecting with you as well.
The real work of writing is hard enough without fretting about keeping up the appearance of being a writer. Instead of trying to resemble a writer, concentrate on being one. Allow yourself the freedom to create the worlds of your imagination, or share the knowledge that’s tucked away inside your head and is clearly desperate to come out. Don’t make a whole special routine around your writing – if you say that you can only write with your lucky pen, or at a certain desk, or with absolutely no noise around you at all, then you’re going to get precisely nowhere. Don’t be precious about your writing; just find a corner somewhere, pick up whatever medium you can, and just bloody well write.