There are only two things you must do if you really, truly want to be a writer.
We can talk it to death (and let's do! Writers love to talk about writing and process and where and when and pens and paper and all of it), but it comes down to this: You have to write. You don't have to do it for long. I've been relearning lately that I can get 500 words written on a 15 minute break -- and if you do that four times in a day? 2000 words! Your mileage may vary, but you'll be surprised what you can do in a short amount of time. And remember, you don't have to do it well. First drafts are automatically garbage. But you do have to write.
I seriously hit PhotoBooth instead of WriteOrDie (the logos look similar) and I shot this snap before I knew what I was doing. This is writing. It isn't pretty.
I like to get my writing done first thing, ideally. At my day job, I write on my breaks, when I can. But on my days off from work, the first thing I do is eat two eggs for some needed word-writin' stamina, and then I get in the car and drive to the cafe for my caffeine. (I love my cafe so much. It's my office, really. I say hi to my "coworkers" (the baristas and the other patrons) and then I put in my earphones and ignore everyone, but when I come out of the writing haze, there are people to smile at, to chat with. When I leave, everyone says, "'Bye, Rachael!" It's really the nicest feeling in the world, and it's something I worked at making happen. For years I went in there and felt unseen, which was fine for a while. Then I started methodically learning every employee's name, and that expanded to the regular coffee gang. Now I'm part of that crew, and that was NOT the point I started out to make, but that's the magic of writing -- you never exactly know where you'll end up.)
Back to what I was saying: I try to write before I do anything else, because besides my family, my writing is the most important thing to me. And if I get something done, first thing, then at least no matter what happens later, the day's not a waste.
You, however, might need to write at night, or in the afternoon, or on your lunch break, hidden away in an unused cubicle. Whenever and wherever works to write is the right place, as long as you're getting it done. If you say, "I'm a night writer. I could never get up a half-hour early to write--I'm just not awake enough at that time of day," that's great if you know that.
Protip: But if you're not writing at night even though you tell yourself you will, then night ISN'T actually your ideal time, and you should stop telling yourself that. Try a different time. Sneak up on yourself. Turn off the internet before you talk yourself into checking Twitter one more time (it's not easy). For me, it helps to land at the page when I'm still a little sleepy. I feel fewer mental barriers then. Also, I usually need to get out of the house and block the internet before I write. I eventually get bored sitting in front of the computer with nothing to do, so I write. It's not a great system, but it works for me.
Just write. For every half hour you let yourself read about writing or surf publishing industry blogs, make yourself write (badly!) for fifteen minutes.
You don't have to be published to call yourself a writer. You do have to write.
As John Scalzi so succinctly said,
So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.
2. Find your circle of writer friends.
Just like at my cafe, my circle of writer friends is something I worked at. It isn't some random group I happened to trip over in the new fiction section of Books, Inc. I had to think about it. That first time I went to a local RWA meeting was one of the smartest moves I've ever made. But do you know how hard that was to do? I'm sometimes terribly shy, most of all when something really matters. I was sick to my stomach walking up those stairs at Pyramid Brewery that first Saturday morning. But from that meeting, I met some of my core friends, my staunchest supporters, the people I can turn to for just about anything.
Last night, I emailed Sophie Littlefield my notes on her newest work-in-progress (which is AMAZING, by the way--I can't wait to be able to tell you it's available). Today I emailed my beloved Cari Luna about my most recent work-in-progress. I needed a little a lot of hand-holding. She sent back, as she always does, the words that made all my hair lie down flat again.
Over the years, I've cultivated friends who are in ALL stages of the publishing/writing process. I'm dedicating my March release, Pack Up the Moon, to my favorite high school English teacher and to my favorite college English professor, both of whom are still my friends. I've kept writing friends from my writing circle in undergrad, back in the 90s, when we used papyrus to write and smoke signals to Tweet.
I know who to email when I need someone to gently but firmly nag me to keep going (again, Sophie) and I know who to email when it's bad enough I need her to meet me at the local bar for a quick drink (Juliet Blackwell). I know when a writer friend needs a phone call and not an email (the acceptance! The first bad review!). I know when to drop (literally) everything and get in the car with a bottle of champagne to toast the news that a friend (Juliet) has hit the NYT bestseller list.
Julie, Gigi Pandian, and Sophie at Bouchercon
I couldn't write without my people. Okay, that's not quite totally true. I could write for a while. I'm just not sure I could keep writing.
Our voices are small. The audience is large. We need backup. Choose that backup wisely. If you end up with a crit group that makes you feel worse every time you meet, ditch them. (And if they make you feel like the best writer in the universe every single time you hook up? You might want to think about ditching them, too.) A true writing friend both believes in you heart-and-soul and isn't afraid to bring up the parts of your book that suck. Know why? Because they truly believe you can fix it.
And you can.
* The winner for Vanessa Kier's giveaway is Mary from TN! Thanks for commenting!