What do I have to do to become a writer? I hear this question a lot. Probably, the reason is that there is not one simple answer.
First, the number one thing you must do is WRITE. Write every day even if it's only for ten minutes. But what do I write, you ask? It doesn't matter. Write something. Type out whatever random thoughts pop into your head. Daydream and let your fingers record it. Soon, you will find that it is beginning to take on the form of a story that you are telling yourself. When you are not writing, read. Read the great authors in your chosen genre, but don't limit yourself. Read something in as many genres as you can. Get a feel for how others have done it.
If you have more time to devote to your writing, maybe some writing prompts would be helpful. They are easy to find on-line. A good source is Writer's Digest. You can find their prompts at http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts. Another good exercise comes from a friend of mine, Quinne Darkover. Known as the Darkover Prompt it has a single drawback. You absolutely MUST have at least three friends. I know. For a writer, living our solitary hermit's life, this can be a challenge. If you do have three friends, however, this is how it works. Get one friend to give you a noun, any noun. Ask another for a verb and the third for an adjective. That's your prompt. Write a story using these three words. Here's one that Quinne wrote from the words, vacuum, fly and purple. https://qdarkover.wordpress.com/short-stories/
I know that I have a novel in me, but I don't know where to start, you say. This, too, I hear often. I recommend starting with short fiction, and I do so for a number of reasons. First, if you can write a compelling short story, you can write a great chapter. The second is instant (or at least rapid) gratification. We all get a sense of accomplishment when we complete a project, and third, there is a learning curve. No one decides one day that they want to be a climber and books a flight to Everest. You start on the small hills and peaks around home and work your way up.
When you add up the writing, the self-editing, the beta reader feedback and more editing, a professional edit and proof-reading, your book is going to take many months often years to complete. There are too many opportunities for discouragement and self-doubt. Start with something smaller that you can complete and get feedback on before you move up to the grand project. I don't want to see anyone pour their heart into their work for a year or two only to discover that it's crap, because they didn't learn their craft first.
How do I know if I'm ready to try something bigger? This is a much more difficult question. I think that a good sign might be when that big story will no longer let you sleep at night, when it is crying out to be told, because then you might have the passion to see it all the way through to the end. Another indicator might be when your short-stories are consistently garnering good reviews and your editor is no longer bleeding to death on each page. Maybe you'll even have a few sales under your belt and the confidence that goes with that.
But what if someone else writes my story before then or the subject becomes irrelevant? Two- part question. For the first part, no one can ever write your story. If you take your idea and go to any other writer and say, “Here. Write this”, the story is going to be completely different from the one in your head. Even if the broad outlines are the same, no one is going to write it just the way you would and they aren't going to touch the same hearts that yours will.
What if it becomes irrelevant? Who cares? Some stories do. They are not the stories which stand the test of time, are they? So, you didn't write your political thriller about the 2016 election. Guess what? By 2018, no one would have cared about it anyway. Find a new topic and a new story that will last. Look around you. Stories are everywhere and thankfully, you didn't waste a lot of time on that loser.
Bottom line is, you will know when you're ready to write that first novel. Put the pen down. Not yet. Stop and think. Think for a few days at least. Why do I want to write this book? If the answer, the real deep-down-in-your-soul answer is “to see my name on the spine”, “to have a best-seller”, “to get rich”, “to do something that no one else I know has done”, or anything remotely resembling these answers, go back to the short-stories and essays. You're not ready yet. If you proceed, you will probably write a book. You will likely take short cuts and not have it properly edited. You will publish before it is ready to be read, and you will damage your reputation as a writer, maybe irreparably.
If, on the other hand, you really do have a story that MUST be told, the one that keeps you awake at night and the only thing that you want more in the world than to write it, is to get it right. You're ready. Put your butt in front of the keyboard and let her rip.