How to become a writer: 10 successful authors’ secrets

How to become a writer: 10 successful authors’ secrets

There’s no single path in how to become a writer. Yet the paths of celebrated wordsmiths shed some light:

How to become a writer: 10 important ideas

  1. Value the failures, too
  2. Persevere, typos and all
  3. Practice storytelling in any available arena
  4. Start small and work your way up
  5. Work with good editors
  6. Grow your publishing industry knowledge
  7. Have a strategy for the tough side
  8. Channel your passions into writing
  9. How to become a writer: Never give up
  10. Imitate heroes as means to an end

1: Value the failures, too

The late Ursula K. Le Guin speaks with deep eloquence about society’s obssession with ‘success’ in a 1983 commencement address titled ‘A Left-handed Commencement Address’.

The title of her speech references her novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) that cemented her stature as a master of science fiction. 

Says Le Guin:

Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.

What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.

Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘A Left-handed Commencement Address’, full text available here.

Le Guin’s words speak to the shortcomings of simplistic binaries such as ‘success/failure’. Becoming a writer is a whole that encompasses both of these paradigms, plus more.

Each experience – submission, rejection, publication, being read – is an opportunity for learning how to inhabit other worlds and our own.

2: Persevere, typos and all

Nobody is born an accomplished writer. No manuscript emerges word-perfect and pristine.

An anecdote about potatoes and cross-eyed protagonists shared by Nobel-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro about his early publishing attempts reminds us of this:

Interviewer: You had success with your fiction right from the start—but was there any writing from your youth that never got published?

Ishiguro: After university, when I was working with homeless people in west London, I wrote a half-hour radio play and sent it to the BBC. It was rejected but I got an encouraging response. It was kind of in bad taste, but it’s the first piece of juvenilia I wouldn’t mind other people seeing. It was called “Potatoes and Lovers.” When I submitted the manuscript, I spelled potatoes incorrectly, so it said potatos. It was about two young people who work in a fish-and-chips café. They are both severely cross-eyed, and they fall in love with each other, but they never acknowledge the fact that they’re cross-eyed. It’s the unspoken thing between them.

Kazuo Ishiguro, in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 196’, via The Paris Review

Elsewhere in the interview, Ishiguro lists multiple other experiences before he focused on writing – working with the homeless, an attempt to become a professional musician.

Each experience is a stepping stone you can one day point to, saying ‘this is how to become a writer’, or rather, ‘this is how I became a writer’.

3: Practice storytelling in any available arena

‘Why do you write?’ Successful authors have varied answers, but in one study a pattern emerged. Professional authors have a compulsion to write.

David Baldacci says if it were illegal to write, he’d be in prison.

Baldacci also shares how being a practicing lawyer prepared him for the life of an author:

Some of the best fiction I ever came up with was as a lawyer.

You know who wins in court? The client whose lawyer tells better stories than the other lawyer does. When you’re making a legal case, you can’t change the facts. You can only rearrange the to make a story that better enhances your client’s position, emphasizing certain things, deemphasizing others.

David Baldacci, quoted by FS in ‘Why Great Writers Write’, available here.

Baldacci’s personal background provides insights on how to become a writer, even if you’re working in another profession, or need to hold onto your current profession while writing, for financial security.

  • Work at telling better stories constantly
  • Learn the role of story aspects such as structure/arrangement and emphasis. What information should you privilege, and what is inessential? How do smaller changes affect the whole story?
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4: Start small and work your way up

The brilliant Margaret Atwood offers wise words to writers seeking advice on how to become a writer:

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.

Margaret Atwood

So often, we are impatient. We want all the glory (and/or the royalties) at once. Like an internship system, it often helps to start small, prove yourself, then work your way up.

You’ll make stronger connections and meet people who really champion your writing, should they love it, along the way. Keeping your goals in writing realistic and attainable will motivate you for a long and productive writing life.

Margaret Atwood on how to become a published author.

5: Work with good editors

Even indie authors spend money on crucial author expenses such as cover design and editing.

If you publish a manuscript that is full of plot or character inconsistencies, glaring style issues or harrowing SPAG errors, there’s a slim chance savvy readers will return.

Even authors who’ve worked as professional editors use editors themselves. Says Margaret Atwood:

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.

Margaret Atwood in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 121’, via The Paris Review

As the original author, often you’re too close to the text to notice the awkward constructions or narrative leaps that don’t quite make sense to someone who doesn’t have your private relationship to the story.

Give agents and publishers as few reasons as possible to turn down your book and work with an editor.

6: Grow your publishing industry knowledge

If you’re Googling ‘how to become a writer’, there’s a good chance you don’t know much about the commercial side of becoming an author yet.

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 announced. This will give you an idea of what kinds of novels medium to large publishing houses are most interested in publishing at the moment – what’s trending, how the marketplace is moving.

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.

For additional publishing tips, subscribe to Now Novel to watch our recorded webinar with hybrid-published author and writing coach Romy Sommer on how publishing works. Preview her insights on the traditional publishing model below:

7: Have a strategy for the tough side

At first, when your novel gets accepted for publication, 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’.

No matter how tight your novel’s prose or polished your style, there may be some who find your book awful and have no tact in how they let you know.

If you’re approaching publishing a first novel, keep in mind this challenging side of public and internet culture.

If necessary, hire someone to manage your social media, for example, and instruct them to delete trolling or vicious comments that aren’t worth your time or engagement.

How to become a writer - Hilary Mantel says follow your passion.

8. Channel your passions into writing

Many authors have background experience or studies that inform key aspects of their work.

Madeline Miller, for example, author of Song of Achilles (2011) and Circe (2018), draws deeply on her background in studying and teaching the Classics and ancient mythologies.

Hilary Mantel, the esteemed historical fiction author, shows how mining your passions for projects is a big part of how to become a writer:

Interviewer: You started with historical fiction and then you returned to it. How did that happen?

Hilary Mantel: I only became a novelist because I thought I had missed my chance to ­become a historian. So it began as second best. I had to tell myself a story about the French Revolution—the story of the revolution by some of the people who made it, rather than by the revolution’s enemies.

Hilary Mantel, in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 226, via The Paris Review

What missed chance (or current expertise) can you turn into boundless opportunity?

9: How to become a writer: Never give up

It’s no secret, but you may be unaware just how much many authors struggled to get published (via Lit Rejections):

  • Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel Gone with the Wind received 38 rejections from publishers before it was accepted
  • 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
  • Before J.K. Rowling became embroiled in controversy surrounding her views on trans issues, before Harry Potter, she was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury took an interest in her Harry Potter manuscript

In short, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

10: Imitate heroes as means to an end

Culturally, there is a major emphasis on originality in the arts.

The truth is that most stories are variations on classic themes and can be distilled down to classic story structures.

Yet this is scaffolding. Your style, recurring subjects and themes, phrasing – your writing voice – are what give your writing its specific flavour.

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. Copy out passages to understand how they work. Take them apart, put them back together. Then go and do your own dreaming.

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2 Replies to “How to become a writer: 10 successful authors’ secrets”

  1. Indeed , this aspect of book promotion is something else. I thought this used to be the job of the publishers. Now that the lot has fallen on the author I guess I just have to brace up for the task ahead. I’ll cross that river when I get there.

    1. Good thinking, Ohita. Wise to focus on what needs doing now. Creating author accounts on social media (Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest for starters) and building up a following will help you get the word out when you do publish. All the best with your writing.

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