Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Wanna Be a Writer? 5 Things Every Writer Must Do to Succeed

Today my sister asked me an interesting question and I was at a loss to answer. How does one start writing fiction? I wrote my first story when I was four. It's one of my earliest memories, so I don't really remember starting. I knew the alphabet, I knew I wanted to tell a story, so I wrote a story. After that, I literally never stopped. So, how does one start writing fiction if one hasn't ever tried before? Clearly it's possible. Many, many successful and brilliant authors came to writing late in life. Probably they were successful and brilliant because they waited until they had something to say.

If you're feeling a little nervous or unsure about your future as a fiction author, below is a list of five things I've learned from a lifetime of writing that I feel are essential for success. Feel free to add to the list in the comments!

1. Read. A lot. Read some more. Read, read, read.

But don't read for pleasure and don't read like a lit student (and let's face it, you probably are a student of the humanities). Read like a writer. How does the author handle dialogue and action tags? Is it realistic? How does the author balance narrative style and characterization? How does the author handle pacing? Did the book begin in the right place? What's the rhythm of the language? Is the descriptive passages florid or tight? Where are the exposition dumps? When do the major plot points and plot twists happen? What works for this book? What passages do you wish were yours? Then read some more. Read across your genre, read across subgenres. Always read. Read, read, read.

2. Watch Movies.

Good movies or shitty movies, they're all helpful. Movies are essentially pure plot. They're all approximately the same length (90-120 minutes) and we all recognize the beats and rhythm of a narrative told in this way. Watch terrible movies with long unedited scenes, ridiculous dialogue, exposition dumps, plot holes, and offensive assumptions about people in general and the viewer in particular. Watch popular movies that everybody loves but aren't high art (the summer blockbusters, Lucas and Spielberg, etc). Watch foreign films, art films, independent films. Think about how they use plot and dialogue to move the story forward and keep you engaged.

3. Write Something Every Day.

You have to write to be a writer. Nobody ever has to see it again. You never have to see it again. Burn it if you must but write something every single day. Take five to ten minutes before you go to bed. Or fifteen minutes over your breakfast. Or an hour after dinner. Or two fifteen minute smoking breaks. Whatever. But you have to write something every single day. As for what you write, that's up to you. I'd suggest joining a writing group, either online or in meat space, so you can have weekly prompts and incentive to finish and share your work for feedback.

4. Practice In Many Genres.

You don't know what you're good at if you've never tried. Maybe you have a knack for dialogue. Maybe you're great at description. Maybe you can think of solid, unique plots but characterization throws you. Maybe you love prose poetry but hate ballads. Maybe you want to write for the stage or screen. Maybe fiction isn't for you but narrative non-fiction is. Maybe you should work with found poetry. Maybe you should write songs. The best thing my writing mentor ever did for me was force me to challenge myself. Ultimately I didn't stick with anything I experimented with, but I was better for the experimentation. Writing poetry helped me understand description and showing vs telling. Writing a screenplay helped me understand plot. Writing nothing but dialogue taught me how to convey what needed to be said without relying on adverb tags.

5a. Ask Questions.

What would happen if a giant shark terrorized a small resort town? What would happen if the Nazis tried to find the Holy Grail? What would happen if a crazed fan got her favorite writer alone and helpless in the mountains? What would happen if I kissed that boy I like? What would happen if I turned right instead of left? Is there a difference between humans and advanced robots? What if none of this is real? What if we live in some sort of matrix? What would happen if Han Solo and Luke Skywalker made out? There's a story in every single one of those questions and not necessarily the one you're probably thinking of. If you don't ask questions, you won't have anything to write about.

5b. Be Happy.

If writing makes you miserable, you shouldn't be a writer. If it's hard work and you hate it and it's not for you, then drop it and find something else to do. Writing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on--but that's only my opinion. If it makes you happy, write. No matter how much you suck and no matter how awful it is, write. If it makes you miserable, stop. If you don't take anything else from this blog or my life, take that. It's not worth it if you're not smiling.

Images thanks to Charles Jeffrey Danoff, ~ Phil Moore THEMACGIRL* on


  1. I've seen a lot of these kinds of posts, but I appreciate seeing something in yours that I haven't seen before. The practicing in many genres. Even people who have been writing all of their lives should follow that advice - how else are you supposed to know if you've gotten into a rut, or if there's something to learn from writing other things?

    Good post, thank you.

  2. Great post!! It encouraged me a lot, thanx!