Many aspiring authors dream of being published and growing a loyal and dedicated audience. This naturally takes time and perseverance, but here are 10 (open) secrets regarding how to become a writer:
1: Successful authors draw on their lives and surroundings
Aspiring authors often have the impression that they need high concepts. There needs to be a big budget movie adaptation, the possibility of one, built into the story. While this might be nice, readers respond best to writing that the author pours herself into completely.
The successful teen novel author Judy Blume (whose books have sold over 80 million copies worldwide) says:
‘I don’t think I could set a book in a place without knowing it really well’.
Blume’s lived in New Jersey, New Mexico and Conneticut, and Key West, Florida. She says that each different backdrop has helped her create a different book.
J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter fantasy phenomenon, has been open about the fact that the life-draining ‘dementors’ in Harry Potter were fictional symbols of her own struggle with depression. Drawing on your life – the good and the bad – is one of the best sources of inspiration and lends your writing greater authenticity.
2: Many accomplished writers have demanding day jobs
Maybe you daydream of being able to make enough money off writing fiction full-time that you can quit your day job. The hard truth is that countless writers have held day jobs to support themselves, their families and their number one passions. The most celebrated authors have held teaching positions at universities (including Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and more).
There is a silver lining to having to do other work and fit your writing around other responsibilities. You get to have more diverse experiences and acquire more knowledge that will nourish your writing. Jeff Goins says, of his progress towards becoming a full-time blogger, writer and public speaker:
‘I took my time, building a bridge between my day job and my dream job, finding ways for the two to complement each other.’
3: Successful authors have a passion for reaching out and moving others
For many authors who have persisted and kept submitting work until they’ve been published, writing is just as much focused on others as it is on themselves. Some might say that learning how to become a writer means building up a network and promoting yourself, and this is a necessary ‘evil’, but being interested in other people and wanting to move them in some way, whether to an action or feeling, inspires transforming work.
Author Charlie Vázquez, director of the Bronx writers Center, shares in ‘Why I Became a Writer’ how his experience of difficult and painful situations has motivated him to express himself and by doing so assist others to do the same. Author’s Promoter asked over 100 published authors why they write, and as their pie chart below shows, ‘helping others’ and ‘because I have to’ were two of the largest reasons.
In addition to focusing on the particulars of language and craft, think about how you want your book to affect others. Try writing to a specific person – any person, known or unknown, living or late. It will help you maintain a communicative, welcoming intimacy in your writing.
4: Writers who get published are willing to place faith in stepping stones
The brilliant Margaret Atwood offers wise words to writers seeking advice on how to become a novelist:
‘Be aware of smaller publishers, should the bigger ones not see the glory of your ways. They may want and need you. Go with the one who loves you, not the one with the biggest gold buttons.’
The truth is that being published by a major publishing house is competitive. Often you need a well-connected agent, or an ‘in’ by having studied in a prestigious writing program. The truth is that if you’re published by a small publishing house, this is a major achievement in itself and could very well be a stepping stone to broader recognition.
5: Even the best work with skilled editors
The DIY world of the modern writer and the self-publishing phenomenon means that many authors attempt to self-edit. If publishing with a small press it might be possible to get away with editing your novel yourself. Even so, if you’re serious about being published, get your book into the best possible shape with the help of a professional editor.
Even author’s who’ve worked as professional editors use editors themselves. Says Margaret Atwood:
‘I used to be an editor, so I do a lot of self-editing. I rewrite a lot before I show things to people. I like to have a manuscript in more or less its final shape before anyone sees it. That doesn’t mean I can spell. There’s that, and the fiddley things like punctuation—everyone has different ideas about that. So I work with an editor to improve that aspect of the text, of course.’
What an editor gives you is an external perspective. Often you’re too close to the text to notice the awkward constructions, the dicey punctuation or the narrative leaps that don’t quite make it to the opposite ledge. Publishers are experienced in reading manuscripts, and often can tell if your book hasn’t had a good going over. Give them as few reasons as possible to turn down your book.
6: Prolific authors are armoured
When your novel gets accepted for publication, by a small or large publisher, there’s a warm glow and a wonderful sense of accomplishment. But as M. Shannon Hernandez says, you also need to steel yourself for haters. Writing is subjective to a point. There might be cultural ideas of what ‘good writing’ involves versus ‘bad’. There will be some who find your first book awful. If you’re publishing a second, there will be reviewers who compare it to the first unfavourably.
If there is controversy around your book and its merits are hotly debated, that’s free promotion. Even if you’re inclined to agree with some of the more slanderous criticisms, take them on board and improve on that aspect of your writing the next time around. In the process you’ll learn how to stop writing criticism from wounding you and will be better equipped to deflect it into writing better fiction.
7: Successful authors understand the importance of commercial potential and promotion
Jane Friedman teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia and has over 20 years of experience in the publishing industry.
Friedman suggests subscribing to a writers’ platform such as Publishers Marketplace and keeping tabs on new publishing deals that are announced. This will give you an idea of what kinds of novels medium to large publishing houses are most interested in publishing.
Friedman also reminds that it’s less likely for your first attempt to be published than a subsequent book. Try to see your first manuscript as a practice round and a process towards becoming a professional writer. That’s not to say your first novel definitely won’t be published: It all depends on the quality of your writing combined with its commercial viability. The joy of self-publishing is that it’s still possible to reach a wide audience provided that you invest some time in promotion. This can include:
- Creating a dedicated author website and social media accounts
- Doing blog tours with popular book blogs
- Arranging indie book store readings
- Attending any significant book events in your area and networking with others in the book and publishing industry
8: How to become a writer: Never give up
This might seem obvious and not a secret, but you’d be surprised perhaps to learn just how much some authors have had to struggle for their work to see publication (via Lit Rejections):
- Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel Gone with the Wind received 38 rejections from publishers before it was accepted (30 million copies and counting have since been sold)
- Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife was rejected by 25 literary agents before it was picked up by a small publisher in San Francisco – it’s since been translated into 33 languages and sold 7 million copies
- J.K. Rowling herself was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury took an interest in her Harry Potter manuscript: The first book of the series has sold over 100 million copies
In short, if at first you don’t succeed, try (and try, try, try some more) again.
9: Published authors view imitation as a means, not an end
Culturally, there is a major emphasis on originality in the arts. Not being original is one of the most common criticisms levelled at books. The truth is that most stories are variations on classic themes and can be distilled down to classic story structures. Yet this is scaffolding and your style and writing ‘voice’ are what give your writing its particularly distinctive feel.
As Stephen King advises, don’t try to sound like anyone but yourself. The caveat to this advice is that imitation is an important part of developing your creative ability. Singers imitate other singers by learning their songs and vocal inflections. The baroque composer Bach learned composition by copying out the scores of his contemporaries carefully. Use imitation as a means to an end and you will assimilate other writers’ strengths into your own craft while developing your own voice.
10: Successful authors do what it takes to get their voices heard
Many authors are deeply uncomfortable with the promotion process. Some are modest and don’t like to shout from the rooftops about their own works. Others are introverts who shy away from the spotlight and prefer to let their writing do the talking. Whatever your feelings about promoting yourself, it’s essential if you want to be discovered and heard. Remember that whether you are planning to self-publish your finished novel or shop around for a publisher, the more you put into spreading the word about your book, the more visibility it will gain.
There is no single answer for how to become a writer. Published authors find different paths to getting their stories out into the world. Provided that you are determined, are dedicated to improving and are able to stay motivated to reach your writing and publishing goals, you’ll become the writer you want to be.