When people ask me what I do, I mention my day job and also state that I am a writer. It took me a while to feel comfortable calling myself a writer even though I’ve been writing for years because I haven’t published any novels yet. I wasn’t sure I could rightfully call myself a writer until I’d reached that golden moment.
So, when is it all right to assume the title? I’ve settled on five things that I consider helpful in distinguishing the “writers’ from the “dabblers’.
1. You complete a manuscript
Half the people I meet, when they hear I’m a writer, say, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a story.” Few actually sit down and try to write it. Of those who start, only a fraction actually complete their first manuscript. Joining this group is a huge step forward.
For me, my first manuscript took over four years and countless restarts to complete.
2. Write your ‘million words of crap’
Estimates vary from half a million to a million words, but the message remains consistent: you have to write a lot before you write well. Writing is a profession that requires a lot of blood, sweat and tears before any return on that investment is seen. This is a hard truth that many wanna-be writers don’t understand. Sometimes I wonder if I had really understood the long road I was embarking on when I sat down and typed “Chapter 1″ would I still have done it?
One of the most dangerous temptations for writers with the new easily accessible e-publishing option is to publish a story before it’s ready. It’s easy to convince yourself your story is far better than it really is. Unfortunately, the e-bookstores are inundated with this kind of wishful thinking.
I’ll just say, take the time to do it right. It’s a shame to see a book released too soon. It’s almost worse to see a book that’s almost really good than to see one that is terrible. If only the author had taken just a little more time. But I’ll explore this topic more in-depth in a future post in order to do it justice.
3. Make the hard decisions
Kill your darlings, and kill them as soon as they get in the way of the real story.
There’s a saying in business: “If you’re going to fail, fail fast.” It means identify flaws, learn what you can from them, and then move on. Don’t waste time bemoaning the fickle muse or the cruel fates.
The not-yet-professional writers don’t like to recognize this. Darlings might be favorite characters, scenes, conflicts, anything that makes up the story. Initial ideas morph as you progress down the journey of writing and ‘find’ your story. The story you find is often not the story you expected. That’s when the hard decisions must be made. To have any chance of succeeding, we must be true to the real story once we know it. Remove any extraneous material, no matter how dear to us.
For me it was a dark day when I realized my first book, the manuscript I poured my heart and soul into for four long years could not work in its current state. There were fatal flaws I did not recognize earlier because I lacked the mastery of story craft to see them. I faced a crossroads in my writing career that day. I could no longer pretend I was on the cusp of selling that book to a publisher. If I refused to kill that darling, I might never have progressed. To move forward, I either had to start an entirely different story; or I had to throw away that manuscript and redesign the story from the ground up.
I started again. The new book, using many aspects of the original story’s world-building and characters, is ten times better than the original. This new story is the one that landed me an agent and real hopes of a publishing deal.
4. Write the next book.
With everything else done, it’s important to know when a manuscript is complete. There’s still a lot to do even then. If you’re trying the traditional publishing route, there’s the long, painful submission process. If you’re going the e-publishing route, you still need professional editing, cover art, cover quotes, and a marketing plan.
Don’t let these tasks delay for too long the most important next step that a writer needs to do: write the next novel, and then the next.
5. Learn to enjoy the process.
Being a writer is not an easy road to travel. It is long and often discouraging. Most people don’t understand what it takes and can’t understand what we do. And yet, we write because we must. Writers are driven to write and we love it. The process of developing a manuscript for eventual release to the public is challenging, and also rewarding.
This is a journey filled with growth and exciting milestones. The road behind us may be littered with discarded manuscripts, cut scenes, and tens of thousands of words sacrificed to the editing red pen, but when we stand with a work worthy to be called our best effort in our hands, it’s a magical moment.
In the end, we keep writing. It’s what we do.
When did you first start calling yourself a writer? How did you know it was time?
Great post, thanks Frank. I re-read your fifth point several times. When it all just works, writing is a beautiful thing but so often it’s just hard slog and I confess I sometimes (often?) lose sight of just why I do this.