How To Be A Writer

This is an amazing post by M. Molly Backes about how to be a writer.

The condensed version is: you write. But read the full version anyway, because it’s worth it.

I have to say how grateful I am that my own parents practiced benign neglect when confronted with a child who was interested in books to the point of monomania; if my mother had been poking me to meet writing buddies or buying me copies of Bird By Bird, I would have gone straight out and taken up something else instead, like rock-climbing or sniffing glue, because I was and still am a contrary pain in the backside.

But the post made me think about my own ideas on how to be a writer, so here they are. With a bonus mention of Triffids, because that’s what the inside of my head is like.

1) Respect your own pace, as long as you’re not kidding yourself.

Some people write fast, some people write slow. Slow writers get told off for being lazy and fast writers for being shallow, and more often than not neither is fair. I have a published friend with two children who’s writing a novel at 100 words a day, and I also know people who can write several novel-length fics a year, and all of them write the kind of prose I like reading and re-reading. Work out what your own energy levels and other commitments allow, and then just keep on at that pace and don’t beat yourself up about it. Especially don’t beat yourself up if you can’t write for a while because of depression.

On the other hand, if your writing speed is ‘no writing at all, but a lot of social chatter about the novel you’re going to write’ you might want to think about and getting some words on a page. Or, alternatively, aspiring to do something else. Probably best if it’s not sniffing glue, though.

2) Who you write for is up to you, but keep your options open.

If you genuinely write for yourself alone or an audience of a couple of friends, that’s OK. You’ll always have reading material of exactly the kind you want, which is a worthwhile thing to have.

If, on the other hand, you would like a wider audience but don’t think you’re good enough, you might want to consider at least testing the waters. Readers may be kinder than you think.

If you would like a wider audience but think the fandom you’re writing in is too mean, find a part of fandom that suits you better.

3) You are a writer if you want to be.

Don’t listen to people saying that you only count as a writer if you’ve sold your work. They are probably trying to sell you a critiquing service.

There are some great critiquing services out there, but the choice of whether to use one ought to be based on ‘I’m not sure this work is good enough’ rather than ‘This person doesn’t think I’m good enough’. Emily Dickinson only sold a few poems during her lifetime, and if anyone says she doesn’t count as a writer they are gravely mistaken.

There are good reasons for putting your work up on the Kindle Store or wherever for a low price to drum up custom; it’s worked for a lot of people. It’s also absolutely OK to put your work up for free if you believe that’s the right thing to do for other reasons. But if you’re sitting there thinking ‘This is a book, it’s worth the price of a book’ that is OK too. Don’t let anyone talk you into selling yourself short.

Also, it is generally not a good plan to give your work away for free to people who plan on making money out of it themselves. If you’re confused on this point, there is a wonderful chart by Jessica Hische at Should I Work For Free? that lays it out.

Now, just by saying ‘I am a writer’ it doesn’t mean that that’s it, you’ve reached the pinnacle of writerdom and you haven’t got anything more to learn. We’ve all got more to learn. But dividing people who write into ‘writers’ and ‘not writers’ is about as unhelpful and head-bendy as the annual Cosmo article on ‘how to make sex sexier’. It comes to a point where these people are just playing with words, and not in the good, fun sense that taken at the flood leads on to fiction.

Some people try to get round this by talking about ‘budding authors’, but every time anyone calls me a budding author it makes me want to do an impression of a Triffid.

In conclusion: Molly Backes is wise. Jessica Hische is wise. Me? I just write. And do occasional Triffid impressions.

10 thoughts on “How To Be A Writer

  1. Great post – thanks for pointing out that lovely advice, I think it’s pretty good advice for living really, whether you want to be a writer or not! And your ideas are emminently sensible too (and yes, I realise that is probably going to make you laugh, but it’s true anyway :P)

    1. WordPress’s helpful new ‘entry posted’ form suggested I add the tags ‘sniffing glue’ and ‘mention of triffids’. I think whoever coded that abomination must actually have a sense of humour.

  2. If I wanted a book about fluffy Christianity, I would not have bought a writing book.

    I had not come across Bird by Bird before, but this quote from a review is not encouraging me to seek it out (though that three-word philosophy is something I ought to apply at work – I am awful at not thinking I can start until I have everything, and then being overwhelmed by the stuff Ihave. Come to that, I ought to apply it to writing.).

    1. I got it out of the library when I was about fifteen and didn’t get on with it – I think the emphasis on faith was part of that, but I honestly didn’t find it memorable enough for the exact reason I didn’t get on with it to stick with me.

  3. I would like to write, but I have no talent for it. I can manage a ripping 1,000 or 2,000 word starting point, but then can’t manage a plot. OTOH, I have lots of friends who like knitting but don’t want to design their own patterns, it’s perfectly okay to read lots and not want to write, I guess.

    I wish to see your impression of a triffid!

  4. That is a wonderful post, thank you for linking to it.

    I am struggling a lot with the terminology at the moment. All the words seem so loaded: writer, author, book, story, published, self-published…. It was so much easier when all I did was dash off a fanfic that was in my head and stick it on LJ for anyone who was interested. But anyway, I write. That appears to be true, no matter what else is or isn’t true. So I shall call myself a writer and be done with it.

    Keeping your options open is great advice, too. I never thought I would want to write for other people and I still find it scary beyond belief, but it is incredibly exciting.

    1. It is all very fraught. I think there’s a lot of perception of ‘us and them’ out there, which is a bit weird when I consider how many people I know who have gone back and forth between traditional publishing and newer alternatives depending on what suited them at any particular time.

      ‘Indie authors’ is another odd one – I can see that it’s a useful category, but it makes me
      think that I really ought to have a shaggy haircut and a guitar.

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