(Niceville, Florida – 12 August 2021) – The question “I want to be a writer. How do I start?” is often posed by people hoping to possess the potential to press a pen to paper, producing prodigiously potent prose while enjoying a luxuriously loquacious linguistic career.
This is a question I’ve been presented with increasing frequency since I got my feet under me on this blog and published my first two novels, Proud Lion and The Norfolk Murders. I suspect all consistent writers, professional and amateur, get set this riddle with alarming regularity. I find this an interesting experience because painters, sculptors, and other artists don’t seem to be asked “How do I become a painter?” or “How do I begin sculpting?” or anything like that. I believe its because, of all the arts, writing is the most magical, the most mysterious, and the most misunderstood.
You see, being a writer might result in a physical product (the written word) but, except for the act of putting pen to paper, the entire process is invisible. We can see the work of painting and sculpting being done; we can physically observe their work. We can’t see the artist’s mental vision, but we can see the physical processes by which they create their vision.
Conversely, while you can watch me write a novel, column, or haiku all the live long day, you can’t observe the synaptic processes inside my head that result in a complete story pouring forth. Even when looking at a rough draft, you’re looking at a complete object that seems to have sprung from whole cloth. The mechanics of refining that product are observable, but the product itself has seemingly emerged from nothing. The entire process of developing the story happens between my ears in a place only I can see and hear.
So, the question looms large for those who wish to write, but have no idea how to start: just how in the name of John Q. Arbuckle does one become a writer?
The pat, plastic, and patronizingly obvious answer is to simply say, “Well, just start writing!” That pat, plastic, and patronizingly obvious answer does nothing to actually address the needs of that nascent novelist needing guidance. Clearly you need to write to be a writer, but how do you start? Where do you get ideas? How do you find something to write others will find interesting so you can share your thoughts, stories, and gifts? Those are not easily answered questions, and anyone who says otherwise is either simply a dismissive dork, or else has forgotten the years of effort, trial, error, failure and success which led to their current career.
And so we circle back to where this all began: just how does a person become a writer?
I’ve discerned two different intentions behind this question—how does one start writing, and how does one become a published writer? This series of Writer’s Craft columns will focus on how a person starts writing. Getting published is a whole different kettle of fish, and I’ll work with that question in a later series of columns.
The only way to become a writer is not to just start writing. Nope. That’s putting the proverbial cart before the equally proverbial horse. You can’t start writing until you have an idea of what to write.
This is a tricky, sticky, and perplexing challenge because the answer of ‘what to write’ is unique to each person. The first thing you have to do is decide what you’re interested in exploring on paper. Do you enjoy the idea of writing poetry, or perhaps you’re more inclined towards political commentary? Maybe you enjoy fantasy subjects with wizards and magic arcing through the night, or do you prefer to tackle practical topics like local horticulture or auto mechanics?
I personally find a great many subjects interesting. I love to write fiction, history, mental health commentaries, and share sea stories from my days in the Navy. That’s a pretty wide field to choose from, so my first task as a nascent novelist was to decide what really interested me, as opposed to what merely interested me.
I’ve always loved detective stories and science fiction. I read every Sherlock Holmes story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when I was only 14. I grew up with my imagination soaring into space aboard the starship Enterprise and fighting epic battles with Luke Skywalker. Clearly, I’m excited by mysteries and star-spanning adventures. For me, for my career as a novelist, those are obviously the two genres I’m really interested in, so those are the two I’m focusing on. Currently I’m publishing The Accidental Detective mystery series, but I’m also developing a science-fiction series to begin writing as I complete the first wave of Accidental Detective adventures.
It’s pretty clear to anyone reading this blog (all 31.7 of you!) that I also love to share historical notes, sea stories, thoughts on independent thinking, and providing what guidance and assistance I can to fellow writers and fledgling writers. I’ve spent many years learning who I am, what I want, where I’m going, and, by extension, what interests me enough to write about.
That’s the first thing you need to do: learn what interests you vs. what really interests you. Most everyone understands that writing is hard work, so if you want to pick up the pen while you’re holding down a traditional job, you need to figure out what’s worth your limited time and mental energy. This can take a while and might involve many false starts.
I strongly exhort you to not be put off by false starts or a seemingly endless horizon of uncertainty as you explore this mystery. Like the TARDIS space/time ship in Doctor Who, we human beings are way bigger on the inside than the outside. Our bodies are finite, but our minds can conceive of whole universes. Getting to know yourself well enough to know what subject(s) and genre(s) you value enough to start dipping your pen into the inkwell can take time. Give yourself that time; the journey to discover your literary footing might take years, but that very journey will equip you to bring your chosen scribbles to life, and I mean really bring your scribbles to life with either elegantly extravagantly expositions, or subtly simplistic send-ups of wry humor.
So, to the lingering lament of “How to I become a writer?” I respond with the restrained riposte that you first need to learn what really interests you vs. what merely interests you. Once you have an idea of that, then you can move into the next part of the question, which is how to begin sharpening the blade of your pen until its supple and sharp enough to carve the words from the recesses of your mind.
Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/FL5MS7xBe4I
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