What makes a writer? by May Burnett


Inventing stories and scenes inside the mind is one of the hallmarks of the writer, a habit we share with many people who never bother to write their ephemeral creations down. However, not everyone does it. Quite a few simply cannot if they try. I have even met people who seemed unable to follow a simple “What would happen if…?” scenario, getting upset that I was wasting their time with something unreal, even though we were just chatting over lunch. Perhaps they were never told stories in their childhood, or discouraged from using their innate imagination, and I can only pity them. (It seemed more tactful to change the subject, than try to discover the origins of their inability.)

If you are one of those people who love to invent scenes, stories, settings etc. in your mind, you have the most important prerequisite. Congratulations!

However, even within the group of those who habitually invent stories (it would be interesting to measure how high a percentage that is in different populations and age groups) only a small minority  ever seriously attempt to write. Others may say, “One of these days I must really write a book.” Until they sit down and actually try it, they tend to remain unaware of just how much effort and hard work a publishable book involves. If they are also readers, the impulse to try may come from feeling “I can do better than that!” or “I would like to write something like my favorite author” (an impulse which can lead to fan fiction.)

Those who do attempt writing stories, soon discover that what seemed so clear in their imagination, is not at all easy to transfer to a blank page in a form that random other people get, and appreciate. There are some natural talents whose first efforts at writing turn out original and interesting and even accomplished, but those are the rare exceptions. More likely, writing without a basic toolset will lead to frustration. You need to learn the craft, the tricks of the trade, and master vocabulary and grammar, if other people are to enjoy the vivid stories and pictures of your imagination.


It would be interesting to know how many of those who try to write a book manage to finish it, or go on to finish other projects after abandoning the first attempt. From my observation, new writers most often plunge straight into a novel, rather than build their narrative muscles on short stories or novellas.

NaNoWriMo is one way to get the necessary drive and motivation, but even so, many fall by the wayside long before November ends. And no wonder. Modern life is so full of duties and distractions, that finding the necessary mental and creative energy to complete fifty thousand or more words of one story is a small miracle. I started to write a book several times during my active career, and only finished some stories, never a whole novel, because young children, the demands of the job, and a thousand other times interfered. Of course, I might have done better if at the time, self-publishing had already been a thing because there was so little prospect of ever seeing what I wrote published. – Sometimes writing and finishing will only be possible when the children are out of the house, the job is gone for whatever reason, and a period of possible leisure beckons.

For those heroes who finish a whole book while working and bringing up children, I have nothing but profound admiration.


Before I came across the writers’s site Scribophile, I had not heard of filtering, or head-hopping. But I had enough grounding, from my wide reading and long-ago studies of literature, that I immediately grasped these concepts. Now I not only cut out unnecessary filters in the editing stage, my first drafts don’t contain a lot of filter words to begin with. Head-hopping is less clear-cut, for once I became sensitized to the issue, I could not help but notice that many classic romances that I read with great enjoyment over the years, contain what we would now consider reckless head-hopping. Standards seem to have become stricter over time. There are many other things that work better if you have a grasp of the proper technique, e.g. the correct sequence of external/internal/verbal reaction to something. These things are not particularly hard to learn and can greatly enhance the story. They often make the difference between marketable or not.


After finishing a story of whatever length, and editing it so that it is as good as you can make it at your current stage of accomplishment (hopefully each stage will be higher over time) the question is, whether and how to publish it. Many a masterpiece has languished unread in a drawer, or on a PC file, on some old unreadable floppy disk, simply because the author lacked the confidence to put it out there to sink or swim. It takes a certain amount of ego to tell a publisher, in effect “my new book is as good or better than what you put out now.” Putting your work straight before the public, as more and more of us do, takes a different and perhaps greater kind of confidence.
Yet if you have a finished book of which you are proud, why not go ahead? If you are shy, or fear repercussions in your life because the genre and your normal persona don’t fit together, that’s what pen names were invented for. After taking all the previous hurdles, it would be a pity to give up now.

And more Persistence

Once you have pressed that “Publish” button, or sent your book off to an agent, it is time to evaluate. Was it fun as well as work? Do you want to do it again, or are you content to rest on your laurels now you have fulfilled that dream, crossed “Write a book” off your bucket list? Some stop there, even if the first book was successful, and never write again. Others are neck-deep in the next project before the first ever reaches the market. Lasting commercial success is a great deal more likely for the second type, though there is never a guarantee.

What about success?

People have very different criteria what constitutes success, and it may be best not to get yourself involved in any bragging contests until you have sold your first thousand books.

Remember that if you have written and carefully edited a full-length story that your writing buddies consider marketable, you have the worst behind you. The rest is marketing (a quite different skill set), luck, hitting the right tropes for your genre, having the right kind of cover, a good blurb, etc. And even if you do everything right, chances are it will be difficult for your first book to achieve much visibility. There are just too many excellent books being published these days. You should be happy if you find readers and they indicate in their reviews that they enjoyed your book.

But never mind all that – having finished the book, to that standard, already is enough to call yourself a writer.

Good luck!

About the Author

May Burnett has published over a dozen historic romances and co-written (so far) six urban fantasy novels. She writes and edits full-time since her retirement some four years ago.

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