There comes a time in every author or writer’s life when someone asks, “What do you do for a living?”
After a few years as a writer, I dreaded the question. Not because I don’t love my job ( I do!) or because I’m not proud (I am!) but because of the inevitable questions that quickly follow: “Do you write books? Are you successful?”
Depending on how you look at it, the answer is yes and yes—but not exactly in the way the person who posed these questions is expecting. Then you go wading into the literary swamps, taking along this poor, unwilling victim who doesn’t understand success beyond “bestselling hit author.”
In some ways I am glad of that, because invariably that person will say the next awkward thing: “Oh, I wanted to be a writer, too.” Depending on the person you’re speaking with, make sure you leave a pause here for the unspoken second part: “But then I got a real job.”
Now, I am not a heartless and insensitive jerk, nor am I particularly confined by certain ideas about who is allowed to be an author and who isn’t. I think people who love reading and books have the potential to write a book. So I always ask, “What made you stop writing? Why did that dream change?”
The simplest answer is usually this: they don’t have what it takes to be a published author.
Because in order to become a published author, there are a few basic things you absolutely must have.
You have the desire to write.
Don’t want to write? That book will never get written. First and foremost in this list is actually having the desire to sit down, do the work, and write a book. Instead of skipping ahead to the part where you sell the book, it gets royalties, and you become an overnight sensation, you actually want to experience the joys and evils that come with writing a book.
You have an idea, and you’re certain it’s a good one.
This sounds basic, but even the pantsers (those who don’t plot out their books) usually have an idea for their book and can roughly gauge what they hope will happen. Without a book idea, you are basically writing about nothing. That works if you’re writing a short story or creating your own Seinfeld episode, but if you ever try to write 80,000 to 100,000 words where nothing is happening, it is surprisingly difficult and inevitably goes nowhere. (Trust me, I have tried this.)
You actually like books.
Strange as it may seem, there is an entire subset of the writing world who do not like reading or books. Those who genuinely have something to say and have both the drive and means usually hire ghostwriters or work with a writer to complete their book. But there are also authors out there who don’t really read and don’t particularly like writing that much—and some of them have published books. Whether or not they have sold well and profitably, of course, is another question.
You believe in yourself enough to do it.
I have met some truly gifted writers, and I have encouraged many of them to channel their writing energies into a book. Most of them, of course, did not (see #1), but I have also watched talented writers talk themselves out of not only writing a book but also finishing one. You can be a gifted writer and a wonderful storyteller, but when it is just you and your keyboard, there is no escape from the nasty little voices that whisper, “You can’t do this” or “You are genuinely terrible and you are wasting your time and life.” And the minute you listen to those evil, impish impulses, completing the book will only get harder and harder.
If you don’t believe you can do it because you have neither the talent nor the skill, there is a nifty way around this: create a muse for yourself. It can be either a spirit or an energy that works through you. Not only will this take some of the pressure off you as you are writing, but it also gives you permission to make mistakes or not be perfect because then, ya know, it’s the muse’s fault. What could be better? (Author Elizabeth Gilbert has a great TED talk about this.)
You’re determined to finish the book even if it kills you.
How many people do you know who have started writing a book? How many of them have actually finished it? One of the best ways to achieve your goals is to see them through completion. But unlike cleaning out the garage, a book isn’t something you can easily hammer out in a few days, especially if you’ve never done it before. If you want to be a published author, then you have to be able to finish writing the book. You have to persevere and do the work. Which leads to . . .
You aren’t afraid to work—and then work more.
The unfortunate truth to publishing a book is that the work doesn’t stop with writing the book. Quite the opposite, actually. Once the book is finished, you need to address revisions and edits. Then you need to make some decisions about how you want to publish your book.
Do you want to go through the time and effort to find an agent and a publisher, knowing that the process can take months or years while yielding very little in terms of results? Or do you roll up your sleeves and get to work self-publishing the book on your own, managing not only the costs but the bulk of editing, design, production, marketing, promotion, and sales?
You don’t scare easily.
Earlier, I mentioned the word persevere. In order to become a published author, that word needs to be your mantra. There will be bad days, there will be a lot of self-doubt, and you will want to shove your draft into a file somewhere and never look at it again. Setting it on fire will not be completely out of the question.
Writing a book is a lot like embarking on a new relationship. It’s going to require time, patience, and a whole lot of compromise. You might decide it’s not for you. It’s going to get exhausting, and you will at one point shout, “To hell with this” and storm off somewhere.
But there are going to be incredible rewards. A good writing day is a swift kick of dopamine, where the world is filled with possibilities and potential. You may grow more confident. And bit by bit, you’ll want to stick it out.
You might just find the journey far more rewarding than anything you expected.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.