What makes a writer?

I can sum this article up in six words: “A writer is someone who writes.”

I’m not talking about the various measurements of success or popularity, but simply the idea of a writer… an author. Writing is a habit. It’s something you do (or don’t do). I imagine there are many reasons to write, but for myself I’d call it an ‘itch’ towards the creative.

Back in 2010, around the time I’d finished my first novel, I went to the local ‘Borders’ store (back when they were still in business). My quest was to buy the latest version of the “Writer’s Market Guide”… that massive tome for hopeful authors. When I brought it to the clerk, she asked me, “Are you a writer?”

“I’m trying to be.”

“If you write, you’re a writer,” she replied.

I found that answer to be very uplifting. Navigating the daunting channels of agents and publishers can be a disheartening experience as anyone who’s ever attempted it is likely to tell you. But whether you are rejected or accepted, whether you are ignored or delayed or triumphant… regardless of any of these states, you are a writer. Many writers are never published, many never even try to get published, and that’s okay. The status of ‘published’, while an achievement many strive for, isn’t a defining aspect of the title ‘writer.’

As I mentioned above, writing is a habit. I think there are many people out there who want to write, but don’t. I’ve heard it said that if something is a priority to you, you need to do it frequently (at least once a week being the typical example, though not always). I agree with this idea. Like so many failed ‘New Year’s Resolutions’, writing requires the formation of a habit and the discipline to follow it. Sometimes you may sit down at the keyboard or pick up your pen and paper or whatever medium suits your fancy and just stare at the blank screen (or page) in front of you. Even if, in that particular instance, you don’t scratch down more than a few words, you’ve still partaken in the process. Some days are like that. Honestly, over the past few weeks, I’ve had a lot of days that feel that way… the story just isn’t speaking to me.

For those wanting to write and looming on the threshold, held back by uncertainty or insecurity, I would encourage you… just start! Dive in! You’ll almost certainly get it wrong and find that you don’t like what you’ve done, but that’s okay.

I cringe whenever I watch a TV show where a character decides to write a novel or some large nonfiction work. They sit down at a keyboard and seem to think that a manuscript will flow from them as a stream of consciousness. It isn’t like that at all. Writing a long work involves planning and preparing, wrestling with characters, plots, and ideas. That can add up to many long hours of doing and redoing. Often times, you have to get it wrong before you can get it right. But ultimately, the only way to get better is to do it. Write. It may help to start with smaller pieces. That’s what I did. I wrote over a dozen scenes and character sketches that were all under ten pages, most half that. Here’s an example that I posted in an earlier blog article.

There are also quite a few books out there if you want to focus on a larger work. I found the ‘Elements of Fiction Writing’ series to be particularly helpful, especially “Plot”, “Scene and Structure”, and “Characters & Viewpoint.” Finally, get feedback. This may come in the form of a writer’s group or from trusted friends. Find people you aren’t just foisting it on… it helps if they can reciprocate with you. Find people who will tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear. And listen to them.

But ultimately, to play back the same theme, the only way to learn how to write is to write. It is trial and error, write and rewrite. It can be discouraging and disheartening as you struggle through writer’s block or a host of other doubts and puzzles, but there is joy as you partake in the process of giving life to an idea that once lived only in your own mind. If you choose this path, then in the wise words of that store clerk all those years ago, you are a writer.

Periodically, I’ll include more articles on my own thoughts on the writing process. They will be my impressions, for better and for worse. Writing is an art and, as such, there are many paths to triumph (whatever your end goal may be). This includes already posted articles on writer’s groups and editing to music.