Recently I was e-mailed this question:
My daughter is looking into [a particular college writing program] because she would like to become a fiction writer, and their school, in her opinion, is where she needs to attend to accomplish her goal. I, on the other hand, feel that she doesn’t need to go into loads of debt to a major college to learn how to be a writer…. am I wrong? What would your advice to her be?
Here’s the answer I gave:
Well, it certainly depends on the situation. It’s very difficult to make a living writing fiction. In our writing group, out of about 80 active members only a handful have yet been able to go full-time, and generally this was after at least a few years of writing seriously and constantly. Many more of us have made professional fiction sales but are nowhere near being able to live off the proceeds. Short stories typically pay so little that the income can’t possibly add up to a full-time living; $350 for a story, for instance, is a good pro rate, and there are a limited number of markets that pay even that (although there are a very few that pay much more). So writing fiction for a living basically means writing novels. First novel sales generally net well under $10,000 for the advance–$5,500 would be typical, and the writer’s agent gets 15% of that–so even selling a novel is only a baby step on the road to a full-time fiction writing career–although if that novel is exceptionally good it might get a higher advance and/or earn royalties above the advance. This is, however, the exception rather than the rule. Later novels begin to net more money if earlier ones do fairly well. And first novels are extremely hard to sell, even for talented writers. And those first novels sold aren’t necessarily the first novel written; it’s very common for a good writer to take two or three or more novels before they’ve written one that will sell. It takes both talent and a lot of practice to get it right for the vast majority of people.
Of course, a new writer might immediately come up with a best-selling novel that sells to the first publisher it’s sent to, and such a person can certainly make a living from the word go. However, this is comparable to winning the lottery, not only extremely rare but also more than a little arbitrary. Just being very talented alone will not achieve it. Very talented plus exceptional lucky might do it.
So a very talented writer who writes constantly and pays attention to the proper way to do things (querying, working with agents, and so forth), after three or five or ten years, may finally get to the point where she or he can live off fiction. Personally I’ve been writing seriously for seven years, after having written off and on for a number of years before that, and my first book only came out this last year. It’s possible I might be making a full-time living as a writer within a year or so, but it’s also possible that it might take me another five.
I apologize for being so discouraging, but it’s essential to understand the nature of fiction as a career for someone who’s contemplating it. Anyone who imagines submitting their first novel and shortly thereafter having a full-time income from writing is almost certainly in for disappointment. However, if a person really loves to write–if a person is driven to write and can’t stop doing so–and if that person is talented and patient and professional, then it’s sometimes possible to eventually carve out a fiction writing career.
Other areas of writing are easier to get into and more lucrative. Romance novels alone among fiction are relatively easy to break into for a talented writer and can pay the rent. Non-fiction writing is often much more lucrative than fiction, for instance including magazine articles and non-fiction books on popular subjects, although full-time journalism is still not a very lucrative field. Writing for television, while hard to break into, can be lucrative if a person finds the right niche. Writing for the movies, while very lucrative, is much harder to break into than writing novels and requires an entirely separate set of skills.
But to finally address your question: if your daughter is going for an undergraduate degree, I would suggest that college probably is pretty important. Someone who has only a high school education is much less likely to have developed all of the skills necessary for effective fiction writing, or for that matter to have experienced enough of life to have something meaningful to write about. College can provide a general educational foundation that will be crucial in good writing down the road. It can also provide the skills for a career that can provide a living wage while a person builds up a writing career, which is an essential piece of the puzzle in most cases.
As to a writing program specifically, opinions differ. Several members of Codex have gone through MFA programs; not one of those writers, despite all being good, has yet sold a novel, whereas others without an MFA have done so. Some college writing programs can even be harmful to a writing career, if they are taught by an amateur or not very accomplished writer who believes she or he knows the rules of writing a good novel but has never produced one; or if they are taught as literature courses, which are more about dissecting fiction that may or may not be of interest to the reading public than understanding how to create it. Chopping vegetables is a very different skill than growing them.
However, if a writing program includes a lot of practice writing commercial fiction (by which I mean fiction aimed at the general public instead of “academic” or experimental fiction), and if it includes on its faculty one or more people who have actually placed novels with major publishing houses that have gone on to sell well to the public, then it could be a good place to grow one’s writing skills and get some good advice. I would caution your daughter that many successful writers seem to be of the opinion that they way they write is the only effective way to write, and therefore tend to pronounce things as rules and commandments that in reality are only one possible way of doing things. The best innoculation against these kinds of problems is to read a lot of writing books and Web sites by successful novelists so as to get a wide variety of points of view, and to participate in writers’ groups.
I see I’ve gone on in some detail, probably more than you were looking for. The short answer is that an undergraduate degree, whether in writing or in some other discipline, is probably a very good idea for an aspiring novelist, whereas a graduate degree may be helpful but is unlikely to be the key element in creating a novelist’s career. Further, it’s essential to find some other way of making a living while one slowly builds one’s readership, writing skills, and writing career. And it’s probably a bad idea for that other way of making a living to be journalism, since the people I know who have tried that have tended to find it drains their writing energy and leaves little behind to use for fiction.
The key elements of a successful fiction writing career, other than talent, are writing constantly, continuing to learn how to write better, being patient and persistent, and submitting work regularly in a professional manner.
I’d be happy to answer questions from your daughter if she has them. I hope this has been useful.