Every so often, I see a blog post about what an indie author would do differently if he or she were just starting out in the biz. These posts usually relate to the business of self-publishing and discuss what genres to write in or how to start earning money from your profession. That's not what I'm going to talk about in this post. I'd like to take it back even further to discuss what I would do differently if I was just determining I might want to be a writer "when I grow up." How would I build up my skills? What would I do to steel myself against criticism? Would I choose more education and workshops or go the self-taught route? Here's how I'd go about it from beginning to end.
1. Develop One or Multiple Writing Routines
At various points in my youth I started to write in a writing journal. If blogs had been more prevalent when I was in high school, I likely would have had one of those as well. I never kept up with my journal, often writing in it for weeks at a time before getting distracted and falling out of the habit.
If you're interested in being a writer, I suggest starting one or multiple writing habits. Starting a blog is one of the easiest ways to get everyday writing in, and for the sake of developing a habit, I would write a blog post every day. You could also start writing a story and contribute 250 to 500 words to it every day. You could be like me in 2008-2009 and take up a freelance writing job. No matter what kind of writing routine you might be interested in, you should keep it going for at least a month to make it part of your daily ritual. Make every effort to make writing as second-nature to you as brushing your teeth. By developing this habit, you'll be less blocked when you try to take up writing professionally.
2. Read Buckets of Books
In elementary school through middle school, I was fantastic at this step. In high school and college, I read all the books that were assigned to me, but I stopped reading for pleasure. I think that was a mistake for my future writing career. Permission is a big thing for creative artists like writers. If you read something that's been written in a style you've never seen before, that gives you permission to try out the same style of writing. If you don't read enough books, how are you going to give yourself permission to test out other styles until you find your own?
Reading a bucket of books also helps you to determine what's a cliche and what's not. My novel Ted Saves the World initially started out with a meaty first line in the middle of a conversation. I thought the chapter was too short though, so I stepped it back to Ted looking at himself in the bathroom mirror. A more experienced writer reading a rough draft of the book informed me that the mirror bit was a book opening cliche and that I should get rid of it. I feel like I would have been able to avoid that issue if I had read more between high school and now.
3. Learn How to Apply Grammar
I mildly paid attention during middle and high school grammar lessons. Listening and half-memorizing are not the same as application. I was not prepared grammatically for my first semester in college and I was getting thoroughly smacked down on my essays as a result. My good friend Ashley Gainer (you can read her post about editing here) helped me to beef up my grammar and my grades during that fateful freshman year. Seeing the way she changed my papers helped me to realize the mistakes I would make over and over again. By the time senior year rolled around, I had learned from my grammatical mistakes.
Getting up with an editor at a young age (before he or she starts to charge you) is a fantastic way to learn your craft. If that isn't an option, you can check out some grammar resources online or in book form. When you get better at grammar, you heighten your ability to convey your thoughts in a way that doesn't make readers cringe.
I continue to have an editor. It's still Ashley, though she charges me now. Just because you learn a little grammar along the way doesn't make you some magical being who writes perfect copy every time. Keep that in mind when you publish your first short story, novella or full-length work.
4. Put Something Out into the World
Holy segway, Batman! Once you've developed a writing routine, read a bunch of books to get an idea of what's possible and learned some of the basics of grammar, it's time to write something that other people will see. One way to do this is through the magic of indie publishing. It's easier than ever to create a story that people can read beyond your living room.
If you aren't interested in indie publishing, you can always submit a story to a contest, do a reading at a local open mic night or send it to a literary publication. It doesn't matter how you get the story out into the world. What matters is that you're getting used to finishing projects.
I was pretty good at finishing plays in college. I wrote several shorter works and one full-length during my time there. When I tried my hand at writing a novel, however, I ended up crapping out at around 70,000 words, approximately 10,000 words away from the finish line. Later attempts to write novels befell the same fate. While I think that outlining has had a lot to do with my success since that time, one of the other things I had going against me was that I needed more practice finishing fiction projects. The best way to learn that skill is to write some stories from beginning to end. They don't have to be long, but you have to get it in your brain that you won't quit until you reach the end. This is one of the most important skills you can learn as a writer, and I'm glad I'm finally starting to build that up here in my early 30s.
5. Develop Self-Motivational Habits
I knew that self-motivation would be my biggest challenge when I left college. I loved doing my assignments all throughout school. There was nothing more rewarding for me to write down what a teacher assigned me, work on the project to the best of my ability and receive a high letter grade for that endeavor. I was very used to every step of that process, and I knew that being a writer on my own would require a completely new set of skills. Sadly, I didn't know what those skills were.
Self-motivation is a muscle that needs to be built up. While my muscles for finishing an assignment could bench press a car, my strength at finishing something on my own time without any looming deadlines could barely lift the 10 lb. dumbbells. I was essentially starting from scratch.
It took me years to find a foothold in self-motivation and it began with an attitude change. I started to drown out negative thoughts with audiobooks that touted positivity and personal development. I worked on exercises that would make me happier and mentally healthier. It took years to get to the point where I had stopped sabotaging myself most of the time (I still do it sometimes, it seems to be part of my nature). Once I had many of my creative roadblocks under control, I was able to build up my writing muscles. I still don't plan as well as I should, but keeping my anti-writing in check represented a giant leap ahead as a writer.
If you want to become self-motivated, determine what's in your way and start devising a plan around it. Most of my hurdles were internal, so I had to work on myself to become an everyday writer. Others might have to put more effort into scheduling or weeding out the negative people in their lives. Whatever it is you have to do, growing your ability to self-motivate, to write when nobody is telling you that you have to, will serve you extremely well as an author.
If you can develop a habit, read to break down your barriers, learn grammar, put yourself out there and get self-motivated, you'll have the foundation you need to become a professional writer. What're you waiting for? Get started on number one and happy writing.
Do you have any tips for writers just starting out? Leave them in the comments below.
Bryan Cohen is the author of more than 30 books, many of which focus on creative writing and blasting through that pesky writer's block. His books have sold more than 20,000 copies. You can find him on Google+ and Facebook.