Becoming a Writer: 7 Keys to Success

Raymond Carver: A writer who has some special way of looking at things, and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for some time.

If you really want to know how to become a writer, I can tell exactly you what to do in a single word: write!

Seriously... as soon as you put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) with the aim of creating fiction, you're a writer. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise!

Now for the more practical advice...

If you are anything like 99% of first-time novelists, you'll be tempted to skip this information and get cracking on the meatier material: planning, writing, revising and, eventually, publishing your own novel.

And that's great. But don't be in too much of a hurry.

Writing a novel is a long and not altogether straightforward process. To stand the best chance of reaching the finishing line and not quitting along the way (like 99% of people who dream of becoming a novel writer), you need to brace yourself for the journey ahead.

A determination to see it through to the end is just one of my "7 Keys to Success." I hope the list gives you all the encouragement you need in your quest to become a successful novel writer.

1. Becoming a Writer Takes Talent

Actually, make that a little talent... because you honestly don't need as much talent as you might think.

Most published writers have got where they have through some raw talent and a lot of hard work and determination, not because they are geniuses living life on a different level than the rest of us.

Novel writing is not some highbrow art reserved for the intellectual elite, but something that any reasonably intelligent and creative person can succeed in.

Don't believe me? Here is the novelist Stephen King on the subject...

"Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work."

And here's another one from John Irving...

"I wouldn't say I have a talent that's special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina."

Hard work and stamina - those qualities are crucial. (I'll be talking more about them later.)

Of course, some raw talent is essential. But here is why I am convinced that you do have what it takes to succeed...

  1. You are interested in writing. In other words, writing a novel would never have occurred to you in the first place without a love of language, a love of reading, a healthy imagination, a natural curiosity about this world we call home, and a desire to express yourself creatively. Instead, you would have been drawn to cookery or medicine... or something for which you did have a natural aptitude.
  2. You have plenty to say. Because nobody has ever seen the world through anybody else's eyes before, everyone has something unique and interesting and worthwhile to say. And, yes, that includes you!

Using language and telling stories is something that everybody does from an early age. Taking this natural skill one step further by writing novels is simply a logical extension of this. And that is why I have yet to come across a beginner who is without sufficient talent.

So have faith in your natural writing abilities. And have faith that, with practice and knowledge, your talent will lose its raw edge and allow you to write professional, publishable prose.

2. Becoming a Writer Takes Self-Belief

The first thing you need to understand is that succeeding as a writer does not take luck.

A few years ago, back when publishers and literary agents were like gods, luck probably did play a part (in the sense that you ultimately relied on your manuscript landing on the right desk on the right day).

But the Internet has changed all that...

Today, writers can self-publish and sell their books through online stores like Amazon. Crucially, they can promote their work, too, through the social network.

Do these things right and you will succeed (there's nothing to stop you because you don't need anyone to say "yes.") And to top it off nicely...

The more successful you are, the higher the chances are that publishers and agents will contact you. And that puts you in the position of being able to say "yes" to them... or perhaps, "no thanks, I'm doing just fine by myself!"

For more on the rise and rise of the independent author, see the section on how to publish a novel.

Where else does self-belief come from?

It comes from understanding that you do not need super-human levels of talent to succeed as a writer (but we've already talked about that!)

And it comes from understanding that you are a true original, and that what you have to say therefore has value.

"Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his true self and not from the self he thinks he should be."
- Brenda Ueland

The only person who has ever seen the world through your eyes is you. Nobody has ever thought the same thoughts, experienced the same events in precisely the same way, and so on.

If you use a novel to provide readers with a vision of how the world looks through your eyes, you can't help but be original.

The most important word in that last sentence is "if."

When you write about something - anything - it is easy to resort to the commonplace, the clich├ęd, the accepted wisdom. In other words, you give the reader a vision not of what the world looks like to you, but of how everyone else sees it.

If you describe a tree blowing in the wind, for example, describe what this particular tree looks like to you - or, to be more precise, what it looks like to your character (who is a facet of yourself anyway). Do not describe what trees blowing in the wind have looked like to a thousand writers before you.

Readers want original, interesting voices, not regurgitated blandness.

Have the courage to be yourself and you'll do fine. And that leads us neatly onto the next point...

3. Becoming a Writer Takes Courage

Not only is having the courage to be true to yourself critical if you want to stand out as an original voice. In this day and age, it's also economically smart.

I need to explain that...

Back before the advent of the Internet, when publishers ruled the literary world, there needed to be a large enough market for your novel to get published.

For novelists writing in one of the popular niches - crime, horror, and so on - this wasn't a problem. For writers occupying more obscure niches, it was a career killer.

But today, with the World Wide Web at your fingertips, you'll be able to find a large-enough market for your work no matter how offbeat your subject matter or your writing style.

In fact, deliberately targeting a very small market can be a positive advantage (because the tighter the niche you try to occupy online, the less chance there is of being drowned out by the competition).

How small is too small? This article suggests that creators can make a living with just 1,000 "true" fans.

But enough of the economic case for being true to yourself. Here's why you should do it simply for yourself...

Holding back from speaking your mind can be a good quality in everyday life, but when writing fiction it is usually fatal - at least if you want your fiction to be alive.

Censoring ourselves to save the feelings of others (call it good manners if you like) is crucial for oiling the machinery of society. But when writing novels?

Forget about it!

Becoming a writer is your one big chance to say exactly what you want to say, so don't blow it. Ifyou write what you think you should write, or what other people expect you to write, you are letting yourself down right from the start. So be brave!

"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."
- Dr. Seuss

"If you have a skeleton in your closet, take it out and dance with it."
- Carolyn Mackenzie

  • Suppose you want to write romantic fiction. Trouble is, you're male - and real men don't write "girly" romances, do they? Much better to write something gritty, like a war novel, than risk people finding out you're in touch with your feminine side. Right?
  • Or you want to write about unrequited love. You've experienced this yourself and believe that writing a novel about it would be a great cathartic experience. But it would mean standing naked, as it were, in front of everyone who knows you (and everyone who doesn't know you). And you're not sure if you have the courage to do that.

  • Perhaps you have an idea for a horror novel. You love reading them, at least when nobody else is looking. You want people to think you are smart, so you mostly read literary novels with fancy-sounding titles. Writing "trashy" horror fiction would make you look dumb. Right?
  • Or maybe you censor yourself in smaller ways. You know that Aunt Ethel is going to love your novel - all except for the shower scene and the "colorful" language along the way. You believe that they are important components of your novel, but you take them out to save your blushes. Good decision, right?

Wrong!

Write what you want to write, in exactly the way you want to write it, and let your family and friends, and the wider reading public, make of it what they will.

You never know, Aunt Ethel might secretly love it.

4. Becoming a Writer Takes Motivation

Simple question: Why do you want to write a novel?

What's that you say? You're doing it for the money.

There's nothing wrong with that whatsoever. But it shouldn't be your only motivation.

Why not? Because it's actually a negative. In other words, what really motivates you to write and sell fiction is the fear of NOT having money.

Having a positive motivation is important because it will keep you going whenever times get tough (when you're stuck in the middle of a difficult scene, say, and can't find the way ahead).

How do you know if you're well-motivated? Remove money from the equation entirely by asking yourself this: Would you still write if you knew that you would never see a decent return on your efforts?

If the answer to that is "yes," it means that you love writing for its own sake (i.e., the love of doing it). And that is what will make you push harder when you're stuck in that tricky scene.

Here is what motivates me to write (well, when I can find the time... which is virtually never :( )

5. Becoming a Writer Takes Determination

Writing a novel to a publishable standard takes time (more like a few years than a few months), and it takes a willingness to work at it.

It is one of those inconvenient truths that most newcomers to writing ignore (which is why they never actually finish anything). But what these newbies don't realize is this...

  • Writing a novel might be challenging but it really isn't as difficult as everyone thinks - not once you have learned the writing "rules."
  • Work that is challenging is also hugely rewarding - unlike "easy" work which, when you think about it, is not rewarding in the least.
  • Hard work can also be fun - especially if you manage to focus on today's work only and not get stressed out about how long it will take you to reach the end.

That said...

You still need a determination to succeed - because a challenge, by its very nature, is not going to happen all by itself.

So you need to promise yourself, right here and right now, to see this through, no matter what it takes to get there. Or, if you feel that becoming a writer really isn't for you, go find another challenge in life.

But whatever you choose (writing or something else entirely), give it everything you've got. There will be challenges along the way. But if you don't also enjoy yourself along the way, you're doing something wrong.

"I always presumed that I would be a writer, without actually doing any writing. I think I thought I was going to get a phone call from somebody one day saying they had a vacancy for a novelist. When I realised that this wasn't going to happen I thought it was about time to do something."
- Nick Hornby

"Beginning a book is really hard. I'm trying to begin one now and I just keep throwing stuff away and thinking, 'Can I do this? I don't think I'm smart enough.' But it has to be hard. You have to have a reverence for the undertaking."
- Barbara Kingsolver

6. Becoming a Writer Takes Knowledge

First, it takes knowledge of your subject matter (but there won't be a problem here so long as you write what you know about in the right way).

Second, it takes knowledge of your craft. Here's the thing...

Kind of learning the rules of novel writing isn't enough - you need to become pretty darn good at your craft, just like every successful novelist has.

Having a vague knowledge of the theory of how to tell a story just isn't going to cut it, not least because you won't be in a position to then break the rules - and doing that is the key to truly mastering your craft.

I don't mean that if you want to be a successful novelist, you must discard the rules entirely. The theory of fiction works!

But if you always follow every single rule to the letter, your novel will end up being - well, kind of mechanical, like it was written by a computer.

For example, here at Novel Writing Help, I tell you that dialogue should always be in conflict. Now, that's a good rule...

Without conflict of some kind, you don't have dialogue so much as a "pleasant conversation." And those are guaranteed to send your readers straight to sleep.

Sometimes, though, your instincts will tell you that a pleasant conversation is exactly what is needed right now - a gentle moment of non-conflict that acts as a contrast to the fights that have been before and the bigger fights to come.

So trust your gut and break the novel writing rules!

(But not until you've learned them first.)

Where were we? Oh, yes...

The reason that literary agents reject 99.5% of manuscripts (or so they tell me) is always down to one of the fundamental fiction writing mistakes...

  • Weak characterization
  • A plot full of holes
  • No sense of pace
  • Clunky dialogue
  • Inconsistent handling of point of view
  • Lifeless writing
  • And so on.

It isn't that the rejected writers don't have some knowledge of the art and craft of novel writing, because I'm sure they do.

But their knowledge simply isn't broad and deep enough to succeed. They probably bought a basic guide to how to write a novel, skipped through it, and believed they were suddenly masters of their craft.

But they weren't. Not even close.

You don't become a doctor or a lawyer or a master carpenter by reading a bargain-bin book on the subject. So why should it be any different for novelists?

The good news, of course, is that you can learn everything you need to learn about writing from me!

The third type of knowledge? A knowledge of your niche.

In other words, you need to know about the type of novel that you plan to write. Still a bit shaky in that department? There's no time like now to put that right!

Reading novels like the one you want to write yourself helps you learn three things...

  1. The craft of novel writing. Yes, you learn that right here. But seeing the theory in action by reading published novels is invaluable in your development as a writer.
  2. The art of novel writing. Most people are born with at least something of an artistic streak, but most also need to nurture it. If you read good novels, you'll do that - you'll simply "absorb" the art subconsciously.
  3. The conventions of your genre. These are the elements that your novel should or should not contain in order to satisfy the readers of that category of fiction.

Now that you write novels, you need to read them a little differently...

The main reason people read novels is for entertainment and escape. In other words, they want to be transported away from their everyday concerns and lose themselves in a well-told story in the company of compelling fictional characters.

Yes, they also want to enjoy the finely-crafted prose, and perhaps be made to think about the ideas and issues running beneath the story's surface. But mainly they just want to get caught up in the storytelling.

The trouble is that getting "caught up in the storytelling" is no good for a writer. And that's why I recommend studying novels you have already read - and preferably twice.

If you already know how a book ends, you can forget about "what happens next" and concentrate instead on analyzing the writer's technique.

7. Becoming a Writer Takes Artistry

Because novels are essentially the product of a writer's imagination, a vivid imagination is essential for success.

How do you know if you have a great imagination or not? Here are some of the tell-tale signs...

  • You often catch yourself daydreaming.
  • You had imaginary friends as a child.
  • You like to replay scenes in your mind, not as they actually happened but as they could or should have happened.
  • You find it easy to look beyond the way things are and visualize how they might be.

If some of these "symptoms" apply to you, you doubtless have a fine imagination and will do well as a writer.

"At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing - a sunset or an old shoe - in absolute and simple amazement."
- Raymond Carver

As well as being able to imagine, you also need a strong curiosity.

Novel writers are effectively students of life, meaning that everything that happens to you and around you every single day of your life is potential subject matter for a book.

So you need to be observant, interested, curious. Better still, you need to recapture that innocent curiosity you had as a child and learn to see things as if looking at them for the very first time.

Do that and you won't just improve your chances of becoming a successful writer, you will improve your whole life.

(See this article for much more on discovering your inner artist.)

Final thought...

It's the art in a novel that makes the novel remarkable. But craft gives the art space to breathe.

Craft without art is mechanical and lifeless. Art without craft stays buried beneath unconvincing characters and impenetrable plots.

Good novelists care deeply about craft, always. But through skill and sweat and a soul alive to the terrors and wonders of this funny old world, they learn to make art.

I hope this article inspires you to become a remarkable writer!