The first rule is that there are no rules.
The second rule is that just because of rule number one, that doesn’t mean you can do anything you want.
Like art or music, there are no rules as to how you approach your work, but an understanding of the subject is still important, and usually necessary to produce the greatest works. If you break the rules, you should at least know what they are.
So what does it take to be a writer?
You need three things: PASSION, PRACTICE, and STUDY.
The most important trait that a writer needs is zest, gusto, passion. Although it’s important to understand things like story structure, point of view and how to write a scene, it can be easy to forget about the fire which causes a story to be told in the first place. Ray Bradbury has said that he wasn’t born with natural talent in writing. Instead, he was born with a passion for writing itself. His enthusiasm was the fuel that forced him to develop his skill as a writer. Think of it this way; if you want to fly to the stars you need a rocket ship full of fire. How do you know if you have the passion to write? How do you know an artist has passion for drawing? An artist draws all the time, simply for the fun of it. Writers write all the time.
“Write a thousand words a day and in three years you will be a writer.”
– Ray Bradbury
If you want to succeed as a writer, you need to write at least a thousand words a day. Ray Bradbury wrote a thousand words a day for ten years before he sold something. That’s three and a half million words worth of stories. Like a musician or a professional ball player, you need to practice every day to succeed.
An art teacher of mine (Gary Faigin, who teaches classical realism) once told me that he could tell how many hours someone has been drawing just by looking at his artwork. He said that every profession has a certain number of hours you need to put into it before you are proficient. Airline pilots need a certain number of hours of flying time before they are qualified to pilot planes safely. Music, art, sports and writing all require “X” number of hours of practice before you are good enough to work professionally. The number of hours required depends on your natural talent, how quick you learn the techniques of your craft and on how much passion you have for what you’re doing.
Everyone writes terribly at first, but after six months or a year of practice (or more), the bad stuff will tend to go away. Another way to think of it is like an athlete lifting weights. You shouldn’t try to lift heavy weights until you’ve developed the muscles. If you write all the time, things like your individual voice and style will develop naturally over time.
So if you want to be a writer, you need to write at least a thousand words a day.
Imagine seeing a bridge or a skyscraper or an automobile and deciding that you’re going to go build one too. Without acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to build that bridge or skyscraper or automobile, you won’t get anywhere. Yet this is the approach people take when they want to become a writer. They think they can do better than what’s gone before. They dream up an idea and just start writing, refusing to learn anything about how stories are put together. Fiercely independent, they never study the craft of writing. This kind of nonsense is the reason so many people fail.
Art is complex too. The principles and elements of design are: Line, shape, direction, proportion, texture, balance, harmony, contrast, unity, emphasis, space, and time. Without learning these things, you won’t go far as an artist, no matter how many hours you put in practicing. Artists need to learn how to mix paint, they need to learn how to prepare a canvas, and they need an understanding of color theory. Artists have no problem going to art school.
Imagine an artist saying something like, “If I go to art school, I’ll learn the FORMULA and all of my art will look exactly like everybody else’s.” This kind of thinking is nonsense, and yet this is precisely the reason why aspiring writers refuse to study writing techniques. It’s true that the best artists spend most of their time practicing, but they also need to develop the skills needed to be an artist. Michelangelo didn’t just spend time practicing. He studied his subject.
Study is one of the most important things you can do as a writer. Without study, it can take you ten or twenty years to succeed. With study, you can do it ten times faster. There are hundreds of great books on writing. Here’s my list of the top five books:
- “The Anatomy of Story,” by John Truby.
- “Zen and the Art of Writing,” by Ray Bradbury.
- “Writing the Breakout Novel,” by Donald Maass.
- “Writing a Great Movie,” by Jeff Kitchen.
- “The Scene Book,” by Sandra Scofield.
How To Become A Writer
Becoming a successful author is like becoming a successful athlete, or an engineer, or a musician, or an artist. All of these things require dedication and daily practice. You can’t just sit down and start playing the piano and expect to produce anything great. You can’t simply choose to start drawing and produce a work of art at the first try. Yes, some are born with great talent, but most people with talent rarely go anywhere without an equal measure of passion. Mozart was a virtuoso, but even Mozart needed to learn his craft. He was full of passion for music, he practiced all the time, and he studied.
– Mark O’Bannon