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I have had an interest in writing for years, but I don't know where to start or how to organize the process of "becoming a writer." I have plenty of time, but don't know what to do first.

This past week, I decided that I want to try to write thriller novels. I spent some time brainstorming my basic approach to how I'll do it, and am satisfied that I have some vague idea of how I want to write. The problem is, now I can think of a million reasons not to do it, and without a serious plan, I'm afraid I'll just end up doing what I've done in the past: nothing.

I've read parts of several books on writing, but none seem to address the question of what you do to actually get motivated and able to make progress as a writer. I know I should just dive in and start writing something, but every time I've done this before, the writing has been so bad that I get terrified of failure and stop writing altogether.

So, here are a series of related questions:

  • How can I overcome the fear of failure/being terrible?

  • How can I craft a plan for becoming a writer and actually getting things done beyond brainstorming? (What should "step one" be?)

  • How do you read masters of the genre (I started reading John Le Carre today) that interests you in a way that doesn't lead to the reaction, "I'll never be this good, so why try?"

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4  
Lets get step zero out of the way: love reading (and do it a lot). That one usually goes without saying, but it's still essential. – MGOwen Dec 1 '10 at 6:09
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@MGOwen: Things that "go without saying" have a tendency to just "go" without saying them regularly. ;-) – Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 9 '11 at 21:38
    
Bull's eye! The one question you're sure to get truckloads of advice on. – Ricky Nov 19 '15 at 9:25
    
Even though I wrote about 1000 words a day in my job before "becoming a writer," it took me about 100,000 words as a novelist before I was like "Ok, this no longer sucks." Don't give up! – Stu W Nov 19 '15 at 13:09

14 Answers 14

up vote 28 down vote accepted

There are myriad questions on this site that already address this issue, and the consensus is always the same.

Just write.

Write for yourself. Don't even read what you've written. Don't even look back as you're writing. Write until you're finished. Once you're finished, look back over your work. Only then can you begin to be critical of style, grammar, flow, etc.

The more often you write, and the more volume you write, the better your writing will get. As you look back on things you have written, you will see mistakes you have made and you will understand how not to make them in the future. You will improve over time. Nobody becomes a famous writer thinking about writing.

Just write.

Practice makes perfect.

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Sorry...didn't know there were other similar questions. Thanks for the advice. – Philip White Nov 29 '10 at 22:23
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This is the core activity behind each and every NaNoWriMo. – staticsan Feb 14 '11 at 0:01
    
+1 for "Nobody becomes a famous writer thinking about writing. Just write." – Lukas Stejskal May 16 '11 at 9:42
    
Write and write some more. Even if it starts out seeming like crap, as you edit and review it later, you can decide what works and what doesn't. (You can also try using an outline or a list of events as a means for getting started.) – Steven Drennon Jul 22 '11 at 5:13

Why do you want to be a writer? No offense, seriously. But for me, I want to write because stories come to me and need to be written. It's not "I want to be writer" so then I have to struggle with how to be a writer and then struggle with what I want to say (since writers have to say something) and then struggle with story ideas, all so I can be a 'writer'.

For me it's more just going through my day, watching and participating in life, something happens, or I reflect on something, and suddenly the idea for a story pops into my head. I spend some time thinking about it and it grows, then I have to write it down.

Do you want to write, or be a 'writer'? They're different. Here, let's look at your questions.

Do you have any advice for overcoming the fear of failure/being terrible?

Do you have any thoughts on how to craft a plan for becoming a writer and actually getting things done beyond brainstorming? (What should "step one" be?)

How do you read masters of the genre (I started reading John Le Carre today) that interests you in a way that doesn't lead to the reaction, "I'll never be this good, so why try?"

1) You shouldn't worry about pleasing anonymous strangers. Try to write stuff that you think is good. Then show it to people and listen to feedback. Some will be good and some will be bad. Learn to distinguish. If you write based on 'fear of failure' you will base your writing on trying to figure out what will be popular. That's the surest way to fail that there is. You're an artist. An artist is one mind, one vision. Listen to yourself. The key to being a writer is trusting your own judgment about what is good. If you keep looking to other people to tell you about your own writing, you'll fail.

2) Plan for becoming a writer? Ok, here: Write a book, get it published. That's it. At that point, you're a professional writer. If you mean a plan on how to write, here it is: you sit down at your computer and write. If you don't know what to write, then you need to think about it. There's no substitute for thinking. If you want to write thrillers, then think of a cool thriller plot.

Here, I'll give you one I thunk up 10 seconds ago: A woman wakes up to discover she's undergone a sex change operation and is now a man. More, her whole family has been murdered. She discovers that she is part of a UN experiment on gender meant to unify the sexes into one unisex type and relegate all reproduction to the authority of the UN, part of their evil plan to take over the world.

Could you take that, or some idea you thunk up, and turn it into a book? If not, why not. What I just wrote is the kernel of a thriller story that you, as a thriller writer, will think up, fill out, and turn into a book. When you get an idea for a book, it will take that form. That's what an idea for a story looks like.

3) No, I never think "I'll never be this good." because I never think that writing has only one measure, one dimension. Le Carre has his strengths and weaknesses. So does any writer. Personally, I think Le Carre's characterization is weak. I don't find his people worth knowing. Again, I keep coming back to one thing: what do you want to say? What do you want people to feel when they put down your book? Do you have any idea?

Why do you want to be a writer?

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Good point about "even Le Carre has his weaknesses". I'd recommend "try to find the weak bits in some well-known and/or successful [not the same thing] writing". – Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 13 '10 at 19:39
    
Actually, great opener with "stories need to be written". First reaction upon rereading the question (that's the trouble with having so few question: go back a bit and you go back a month or 3 ;-) – Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 9 '11 at 21:41

One note of encouragement: First drafts suck. This is practically an iron law of writing fiction.

Don't worry if, after you sit down and write something out and then re-read it, the thing doesn't hang together. First drafts never do.

Being a writer is about being a re-writer and editor; first just get your ideas down and then go back over and fix them. The real problem of writing is that if you don't complete the first step for fear of sucking, you'll never do the rest.

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Hum, good question, sometime motivation is hard but I can at least try to provide some answers to your three main questions.

1: Give your self permission to suck. Nothing is going to be easy the first go through, that's what rewrites and edits fore. Accept that it's not going to be the best and write it anyways, knowing that the more you write the better your writing will become.

2: How to get more done then just brainstorming. Write, just sit down and write. Set up a time to write and write that time every day, set up your goals, just do what ever it takes for you to sit down and write.

3: The correct thing to say is "I'm not this good yet, but someday I'll be better." It's hard to believe that, but believe it you must. Once again, the more you write the better you will be and the less intimidating professional writing will be.

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Writing something every day can be a huge boost. For facilitating this, I've recently become a big fan of 750words.com, but anything you do to get yourself in the daily habit would work just as effectively.

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Contend with the fact that the chances of you becoming even moderately successful as a writer are so slim that if they were to be a dress it would be size -100

You must face up to the worst case scenario and that is this:

You may pour months of free time into painfully nursing a written product into a shape where you feel about as proud of it as anyone ever possibly could feel about anything that wasn't their actual child. You can take it out to the world and shout to anyone who will listen about how wonderful it is and how you're sure that it has some commercial legs. You can do these things and most people won't even look at it, or read it, and people who offer to read it to be nice will criticize it in extremely painful ways and people in the actual publishing industry will reject it and reject it and reject it.

Fully integrate into your psyche the fact that the people whose names greet you from the best seller's list at Barnes & Noble have done the equivalent of winning the lottery for every consecutive week for a month. If after that you can still even be bothered then do whatever you feel.

If the worst case comes to pass, and you believe you will still be glad that you wrote it then what does it matter how you wrote it? The only reason to write anything is to please yourself, if you are sitting down to write for any other reason then you stand a high chance of ending up bitter, disappointed and unhappy.

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You make it sound so bleak! – Philip White Dec 1 '10 at 21:14
    
That's because it is. – One Monkey Dec 2 '10 at 10:03

Fear stops more people than anything else from writing. (Mind you, perhaps Solitaire beats fear!) Is it fear of not succeeding which bothers you? Or is it the fear of discovering that you can't do it.

You will never know until you try. By simply writing you will learn as you go along. You do seem a bit vague about the whole process, perhaps a clearer idea of what you want to write would be a good idea. And, write for yourself.

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I wrote a novel a couple years ago and I have two pieces of advice for the beginning steps.

1) You need an idea. 2) You need to persist.

The idea is everything, an idea that you can hold onto and that guides the entire story like a lighthouse. The idea could be something very small: a plot, a scene, a character, a feeling, a theme - anything that inspires you to keep going when it gets tough, and it will get tough. The idea should be the first thing always. Before you write anything, before you think about anything else you need an idea that you love.

The second is to persist. It is very simple, just keep going no matter what, and one day you will finish it.

Good luck.

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My suggestions are:

  1. The fear of being a failure isn't your enemy. It is your friend. It prevents you from sending the first thing you wrote after some glasses of whiskey to agents and to burn your name forever. This feeling won't go away. I'm a published writer and journalist and I still feel like a failure most of the time. Writing is hard. Writing is a learning process and you will constantly evolve. Most writers cringe after reading something they wrote half a year ago - and they thought it was a great piece of writing at that time - because they did grow the last six month and now they are much better than their past self. This usually happens to me. Work through that fear by working on your craft. Get a better writer and this is only accomplished by writing. A lot.

  2. Find out if you are a plotter or a pantser. A plotter plans a story from start to finish and then fills in the words to let this rough skeleton of a story come alive. A pantser discovers the way the story will take while writing. Most people can only work one way or another. To find out what you are will take some time and a lot of writing.

  3. Write daily. Or rather, work daily on being a writer. That means reading (a lot), reading about writing (not too much), connecting with other writers, brainstorming, researching, getting to know your characters, your setting, your plot. Not everything you will write will go into the story. Much of it will be just an exercise or background you need to write the story. For example let your main character write letters to his mom during a summer-camp at 16. This way you will know him or her by heart.

  4. Enter a critique group. Search for a group that will give you honest critique without going to easy on you. And without being mean, either.

  5. Maybe have a look at http://virtualwritersinc.com/current-events/. There are three timeslots every (work)day where you can find writers in Second Life who sit together to write for two half hours with a short break in between. This might help you to start actually writing.

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You want motivation? Set deadlines.

I am a great fan of National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. It has the advantage of being large and well-organised, but setting yourself a firm deadline on your own might work.

If self-imposed deadlines don't work, then spend the next few months planning your story and join NaNoWriMo in November to actually get yourself moving.

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Some great questions! I know right where you are coming from. Writing a full novel can be very daunting. There are a lot of possible answers to your questions because, unfortunately, there is not one right way to start a book. John Irving has been known to skip to the end of his book and write the last sentence before beginning a novel just so that he can keep that end mark permanently in his mind.

I tend to procrastinate things, so having some structure helps me get started.

  1. Make an outline of what you think your story is.
  2. Interrogate your Characters. You have to get into their heads if you want to write their story well.
  3. Have notes of the setting. Whether you have it printed out or minimized, always have your notes of what the setting is close on hand so that you can keep track of the world you're in. That includes places on Earth!

To your concerns about whether you will write as well as your favorite authors or fear of writing something good, don't worry, it'll take time. You might not be the next Stephen King or John Le Carre. Your stories are stories they can never write because the experiences that shape you are unique, and that's the art element of writing a novel.

Don't doubt yourself at the starting gate. If you think it's an interesting idea, try to go through the three steps above. If you can't make it through an outline, you won't finish that book and it's not a compelling enough idea Yet!

You will find a story that grips you that you are dying to tell and the outline and story will quickly following if you put your pen to paper.

Overall, don't stress yourself, just start. Don't compare yourself, just start. Don't edit and be critical of your work, just finish!

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There's only one way to start being a writer. That is, start to write. Sit down in front of your notebook / laptop when you are entirely to yourself and start writing /typing. Shut yourself off from the entire world. Let the thoughts and creativity flow within you. Of course, you won't become a Jeffery Archer or Wilbur Smith in a single day. But it's the first step. You wont know unless you try. Take criticism in your stride. Compare it with a baby walking. The first steps might be ungainly, but soon you will develop confidence and then, no one will be able to stop you.

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If you want to write, you should never stop writing altogether, especially through the fear of failure. As J.K Rowling was turned down many times before she published Harry Potter.

I'm new to this site, and I'm also an aspiring author. I also struggle with facing failure too.

So the advice I have had is that nobody has to see your book ideas or story ideas if you don't want them to. So if you don't show your ideas to people, then nobody can say you failed.

Also, about your writing don't write what you think others will want to see and read. Write about what you enjoy. Think to yourself 'If I was going to a bookstore what book do I wish was in there?' And then write that one.

The more you relax about it, the easier it will come to you as people say when you want it, it never happens. But when you stop thinking about it, or you relax more it comes to you within minutes.

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There's no single answer to the question of how to start writing a novel. Different "on ramps" work for different people, and what works in one case doesn't work in another, but here are three possibilities which may work.

  1. A loose outline

Writing an outline first can work - and it's standard advice. I find there's a trap to it, though. It's usually enjoyable to work out the details in the outline, but what often happens is you then have a terrible time fleshing it out into a full-length work. The fun has been sucked out of it like some previously enjoyed freezie, and you're left with this tasteless stick of ice. The writing stage feels as creative as painting by numbers. If you go the outline route, I find it helps to keep things vague, so that it provides the loosest skeleton for the structure. You might write something like "Stephen meets Julia and they fall in love. For some reason, he realizes he must return to Nevada, and she vows to kill him." Then you have can have fun figuring out how those things happen when you write it, knowing that those events must happen (because you said so).

  1. No outline - tell "your" story

Try writing with no outline. Play the main character and confidently tell what happened, even though you (the writer) have no idea where things are going. For example, you might start, "I'm going to tell you why I killed that damn goat. You see..." If you find you know exactly where things are going, challenge yourself by taking it in an unexpected direction. That keeps it surprising for the reader. This approach works best for first-person novels. I wrote a book this way once, and it was a very enjoyable experience. Of course, this approach doesn't usually lend itself to a tight structure.

  1. Write what MUST be there first:

In one of his books, William Goldman (Princess Bride) describes his process for screenplays, which you can apply to any fiction. He starts with the scenes that will be in the story, then works outwards from there, writing the scenes that set those up, and filling in other details. This approach is very organic because most of us start with a scene (or sometimes just a feeling) from the middle of the story.

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How are these two different in point three? I don't understand. – johnny Jan 22 at 20:07

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