Some of us began our writing journey with this idea: Being a writer is a momentous responsibility. It should be heralded by a visitation from someone who knows the deal, a tap on your shoulder to say, “It’s time.” That was me, most of my youth. I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I kept waiting for the guru with the lamp to light my path so the words could find their way out. It never happened. I had to turn the damn lamp on myself.
Or you may know that an outward sign is silly, that a writer’s quest begins within. But you have responsibilities. You have a job, and bills, and maybe people who depend on you. How do you balance all the demands of life and a writing career? There's already a shortage of time in your day.
You might even be one of the lucky ones: You’ve given yourself permission to write and you’ve got a story and the bills are getting paid, independent of your contribution. But you're still at a loss. How does the story get from me to the that sacred unicorn known as the ‘reader’? Or you might have other issues. In fact, if you’re human, you have other issues. Your parents want you to be a doctor, not a writer. You don’t have thumbs. You're dyslexic. Jupiter isn’t in Aphrodite until next century. Whatever the excuse you're using to keep the story inside, I promise, can be surmounted.
Welp. I’m here to tell you how you can answer all those questions, and more. Here’s a test to determine if you are a Big-W writer. You don’t need to purchase anything and you don’t need any special materials. You will need something to physically write on. Pen and paper or a digital medium with the capacity for saving your work so that you can see it at some point in the future. The one thing you will need in abundance you can’t purchase, and that thing is patience. Fortunately, patience is an unlimited commodity once you’ve trained yourself in it. The test takes time, I won’t lie, but you will have the time for it. No matter how busy your schedule is, the big W test adapts to you.
Okay, ready to begin? The exercises should be done in order. If it isn’t expressed, you can do more than one in a day or you can skip days in between, but try not to let the slack time between steps stretch longer than a week or two.
This one is easy and you probably already know what it is. Today you are going to write. You can write anything you want, but you must devote yourself to the task for at least fifteen minutes. That’s it. If you can’t think of anything to write, try googling writing prompts, but don’t include the searching part in your fifteen minutes.
Today you are going to write again. You can continue whatever you were writing from step one or write something completely new. This time you can write for as long as you want, but you must write at least 350 words.
Today you are going to create an outline for a complete but short story. You can use the components of the prior days or something new, it can even be that an abbreviated version of your magnum opus. An outline should include the following elements: A sentence describing the beginning, one for the middle and one for the end. The names of the characters. The thing that changes. You can spend as long as you like on it, but if it feels too uncomfortable to come up with an idea, you may add an explosion.
Write the story from your outline in step three. The story can be the novel you have dreamed of writing, but try to only include the bare bones, the most important parts. If you feel like you can’t write this story within a week, that’s okay. Take the last day to add a few sentences to sum up the parts you didn’t get to for cohesion.
Put that story away. You are not allowed to look at it again until I tell you to. Instead write something new. Decide whether you liked the timed writing or the word limit and let that guide you. Remember to set a goal, the minimum being either x minutes or y words.
Repeat step five, but using the schedule of your life for how often. Keep doing this for one to three months, until you have a finished story or chapter or a completed vignette or essay. You can also try writing with friends, timed sprints, dictating and transcribing, doodling your scenes, or imitating the style of your favorite author.
Today you aren’t going to write. Today you are going to read what you’ve written. If you can, try reading it out loud. Not to judge it, but to ask these questions: Did the character/status quo change? Was a conflict resolved? If you can’t answer those questions, then think about how you can add those things to what you’ve written, or how you can add a section which includes those things. Don’t write the changes or additions this time. Only add notes to yourself for how you will do that.
Write the changes from step seven. Allow at least one day but no longer than one week to elapse between step seven and eight.
Read what you’ve written and change anything you’re not happy with, but make sure that at least one 24-hour period has elapsed between step eight and step nine. Make sure that the finished product is legible and as free from typos as you can make it. If it isn’t a complete story, at the least try to have a self-contained segment.
Prepare yourself. This is the point where many get tripped up. It may be the hardest step of all, but it’s crucial that you not skip it. You must let someone else read this thing you have written. It can be a writing group, another writer, a friend, or an anonymous (or not) online venue, or a teacher or mentor. However, it should absolutely not be your mother, spouse or offspring.
A note on step ten: Step ten is really the divider between little w and big W, and step ten won’t mean anything if you can’t do step eleven.
Whatever the response the reader gives, say thank you and nothing else. It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree or don’t understand, or if they don’t give the amount of feedback you’d like. Step eleven is about gratitude, not fulfillment.
If they’ve given you written notes you can go over them at your leisure and consider whether to make any changes based on the critique. However, it is your story and ultimately only you get to decide how it is told.
Today is a special day, and it’s one that you must prepare for. Today you are going to devote entirely to writing, so make sure you clear your schedule, make arrangements for an unencumbered day off of work and inform your family members that you will not be available for at least eight hours. Ideally, this step would be accomplished in a closed room with no other people around, so if you can swing getting a hotel room or the use of a friend’s empty vacation home for the day then do it. Don’t set up anywhere where people who normally expect things from you are. Go to a library or a coffee shop at least, but try to go somewhere where you can spend at least eight hours uninterrupted. Once you’re settled in, turn off your phone, turn off all access to email, google, texts. That’s right, no internet. No distractions. Today is an entire day of you and your writing.
Write, scribble, outline, or brainstorm, for a minimum of 45 minutes, but don’t write to exhaustion. Take a break for no longer than fifteen minutes. You may check your phone if you must but only if you can limit yourself to fifteen minutes. Once you’re satisfied the world has not crumbled without your thumb’s exertion, turn everything off again, and start writing for another session of 45 minutes to an hour. Take a good long break at some point for a meal. But try to complete seven 45-minute sessions of writing.
Marathon writing, like marathon anything, is hard. Don’t expect to come out of your first one with a gold medal. But don’t surprised if you end up with a real sense of accomplishment, either.
So now you have a veritable treasure trove of material from the blood sweat and tears of step twelve.
Put it away.
Remember that story I made you hide from yourself in step five? Today you’re going to take out this cooled manuscript that you haven’t thought about in months and read it. Do you think it’s pretty good? Do you think it needs a tweak? How would you feel if someone else read it? Now ask those questions about what you wrote in step twelve.
Finally, think about this. What is a Writer? What have you become? You’ve probably figured out by now that some version of these steps is how writers become Writers. Every published work you’ve ever read encompasses one or some combination of the above steps. Pick the one that works for you and go with it, until it doesn’t and then try another. Continue forever.
One final thought: If you don’t know the answer you can always go back to step one and go through it again, because there is only one limiting factor to being a Writer, and that is whether or not you do it.