Write Start: What Makes a Writer? By Charles Todd

Charles and Caroline Todd/Photo courtesy of the authors
Charles and Caroline Todd/Photo courtesy of the authors

Editor’s Note: Charles Todd is the author of the Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries, the Bess Crawford mysteries, and two stand-alone novels. A mother and son writing team, they live in Delaware and North Carolina. Their latest book is A Fine Summer's Day. For Signature’s Write Start series, in which authors share advice about how to start writing, Charles and Caroline talk about what it takes to be a writer.

What makes a person a writer?

That’s a hard question to answer. What makes a painter or a sculptor or a composer? What’s the driving force? In our case it was very different. One of us had always wanted to write. The other had had no expectation of ever writing. And yet together we found a story we really and truly wanted to tell.

So is that the secret? The story?

Or was it the character, an inspector at Scotland Yard who comes back to his duties after four unspeakably awful years in the trenches of France in the Great War of 1914-1918?

Or was it the challenge of writing about a country not our own, a time not our own, and in many respects a language not our own?

Or a little of all three? Finding the right character and the place and time in which he or she lives?

And yet when it comes right down to it, writing is not an easy occupation. It demands time and energy and creative juices and a determination to finish what we’d started, if only to see if we could actually produce a manuscript. Did we really want to take six to twelve months out of our busy lives and give them to a “career” that might not exist except in our imaginations?

What’s more, there’s the question of experience. Writing is a craft, it isn’t something you decide to do on Wednesday and sit down at a computer to start Page One. There’s a great deal of bad writing just as there is a great deal of good writing. What, then, made us think we would fit in the “good” category?

We’d been avid readers all our lives. We’d read great books in many genres, and we’d read others that we simply couldn’t plow through. It’s frustrating to give up on a book you thought you might like. And so we often found ourselves asking why this particular one didn’t work for us. Was it poorly written? A subject we found we didn’t like? Were characters unbelievable or the dialogue fake?  Or was it just simply not our cuppa? That can happen too. There was one novel where the lives of the characters was so depressingly tangled that it was hard to see how they could win through to anything more than suicide. Another was too bloody for the sake of being too bloody. And yet another never caught our imagination.

And that teaches you something too. You learn what makes a great book, one you want to tell others about, and what makes a book fail to reach the reader. You learn what it is about certain characters that makes you like them, care about them, want them to win. What it is that makes a setting so real you feel you are there. What there is about a plot that lures you on to the very end, and that satisfies even when it didn’t turn out to be what you expected. Above all you learn how a single word can define a character, or what makes a single sentence stay with you for the rest of your life. You often absorb these things without realizing it, then find the tools at hand when you need them.

But it’s finishing a book that makes a writer. Desire isn’t attainment, and wanting to write, working on a book, talking about a book, isn’t the same as getting to the end of a book and looking back at all the various threads of plot and character that you’ve managed to bring to a conclusion. It’s so easy to start – very hard to finish. But until you’ve written The End, you don’t know if you are capable of getting that far.

We put Rutledge aside for a few months, uncertain about our own ability to do him justice. But we couldn’t walk away, and so we came back and finished A Test of Wills. Even then we weren’t sure we’d captured what was in our imagination. What we believed we were capable of. And so it was a great surprise when others felt it was a terrific book.

This isn’t to say that a first book is always a terrific book. But you know you can do it now. What that first book will show you, if you will look at it objectively, is this: where your weaknesses are, and what your strengths are, and how to improve on both. The first book is always a test. But there’s no rule that says it has to define you forever. Yet it does confer on you the title of “writer,” and that’s no small accomplishment. Those long weeks closeted with a computer haven’t been in vain.

Check out more in Signature's Write Start series.