How do you create your own path as a writer?
It is easy to get sucked into the belief that to give yourself permission to call yourself a writer, there is a rigid set of external steps that you have to fulfil. The fiction writing world, at least here in the UK, can be a small one, demographically speaking. Much as I love all the writers I know, it is, in my experience, an overwhelmingly white, middle-class, university-educated crowd (and yes, that goes for me too). That means that for many writers, the “officially-sanctioned path” – with its inherent assumptions about cultural background and income – can seem rather limited and exclusionary.
For instance, it is not enough to just sit down every day and write; it has to be literary fiction. It must be in the form of a novel ( you have to pick one form) and has to be traditionally published. You must have done – and paid for – an MA or MFA or one of the publisher courses specifically set up to rival these, or you are “ not doing anything”. Or you must have studied English Literature at university and have gone to university in the first place. You must be under 40. Blah. Etcetera.
This, of course, is all bollocks. There’s nothing wrong with these things (well, apart from the under 40 focus), they can indeed be helpful for many – but they are categorically not the only ways to develop your writing, nor the only path to follow. It is perfectly possible to “become a writer” while missing any or all of these, and to create your own path yourself.
Five Ways To Create Your Own Writing Path
Know Yourself Well
Be honest. Think about the things you really like reading. What are your guilty pleasures? How do you see your writing dreams? What genres do you love? When push comes to shove, would you rather win the Booker, be a performance poet or make millions with a commercial bestseller? All of these make a difference to the decisions you might make on your writing path. The books to read, the authors to study, the courses to consider.
Learn Your Strengths & Weaknesses
It’s also worth getting clear about your writing strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps people have told you you’ve a knack for suspense, or you do a great line in sharp character observation, or your plot twists are sublime and your writing zips along. This is the stuff you champion and build on. On the other hand, your editing might need work, you might be rubbish at endings, you might struggle with structure or story. Nobody likes to be anything other than marvellous, but knowing your weaknesses means you can concentrate your learning efforts on trying to bridge those gaps.
Study The Greats
Your greats and my greats might be different – and that’s fine. I’m a short story writer and lover of dark, off-kilter literary fiction. You might be writing gritty urban YA, century-spanning family dramas, murder mystery spoofs, zombie sci-fi. I’m assuming if you are serious about your writing that you are already a voracious reader. But this isn’t just about reading for pleasure, although that too, of course. You need to actually study the best work in your chosen genre. Read a little around it too, explore the boundaries a bit. Compare and contrast different writers and forms and look at the patterns. Examine how the work is constructed; see how it has been put together, consider what the effects are on you, the reader and how those effects have been achieved. Make notes.
Don’t – ever – copy in the plagiaristic sense, but can you try out some of the structures in your own work? The effects? How might you improve on them?
Find Your People
No writer is an island – even for an activity that tends to involve so much isolation. It’s great to have like-minded people to connect with. I myself found a huge network of short-story lovers, first from joining a small short story book group close to my work, plus independently going to events and running into the same people, from there to a regular spoken-word night and joining a writing group with some of the attendees, connecting with new people over Twitter and by following blogs that interested me. If you take action, such as attending readings based on the stuff you genuinely love, you’ll soon start to connect with others doing the same. And who knows what can follow from there?
Seek Out Resources That Will Help You
The better you know yourself as a writer, the better you can target the learning experiences you need. You may be someone who works best by yourself, using exercises from books and online and setting your own pace. Or you might benefit from the classroom atmosphere of a good course, or the silence of a writing retreat – or a one-to-one with a supportive mentor. You may want a critique group. You may want writing exercises targeting on one or two of your weaknesses. Personally I’ve done in-depth courses in screenwriting, playwriting, script-reading, short fiction. I’ve been to hundreds of author talks and spoken word nights. I have a ton of online resources I use and shelves full of books, many crossing over between screenwriting and fiction, which I happen to find useful. I’m in two critique groups. I do also have an MA, though seem to do my best work when setting my own pace and supplementing with short, targeted courses when I can afford them. That’s just me. Everyone is different, after all.
Truth is, there is a wealth of information and resource out there for you already – you just have to decide what you need to take your work forward and go out and find it. And yes, you are allowed. You might find that all of the listed “official channels” are right for you, or only some of them are, or only aspects of some of them that you can source yourself. Chances are if you want to, you will be able to find your own alternatives as and when you need to. Creating your own path may well empower you – and improve your writing, too.