My 16-year-old son Ethan recently wrote his first short story intended for publication, and my niece, a high school senior, is visiting colleges like Middlebury, Williams, Wesleyan, and Bennington looking for a school that can help her develop a career as a writer. Just in case I wasn’t already thinking enough about the topic, I also recently received this question through my Web site:
Could you offer some advice for my 17-year-old daughter? She is about to apply to a Canadian college for English, and she aspires to become a novelist. Her strengths are writing, philosophy, drawing, photography. She wants to be her own boss, and not necessarily take courses that most people do if they want to become a writer–any advice?
In terms of my qualifications for answering this question, I should make sure you know I don’t make a full-time living at writing. At the same time I’ve won a major international writing award, sold a book and multiple short stories, gathered a large daily readership for my Web site, and appeared in magazines that are circulated around the world. What may be even more useful in answering this question is that I run an online writer’s group, Codex, and have had the opportunity to talk to literally hundreds of skillful writers, from people still trying to make their first pro sale to ones who make a comfortable living from their fiction, about their approach to building a writing career and their experiences trying to do that.
Based on that, here are the 11 most important things I can tell an aspiring fiction writer.
- Making a living writing fiction is a long shot, like making a living acting or painting. If you try to do it, try because you love writing and will write no matter what. If you don’t love it, spare yourself the heartache and aim for a field that can actually pay the rent. This article from a few years back explains some of the sad realities of trying to make a living in writing.
- As the article I just mentioned suggests, you don’t have to go to college to become a good writer, but for some people–especially people who haven’t had a college education in another field–it can be an important step. With that said, facing actual troubles in the real world and learning something from the process is usually the strongest basis for writing that connects with readers.
- Write only what fascinates you and draws your passionate interest. Don’t waste effort trying to write something solely because it seems more marketable, more respectable, more lucrative, more popular, or more seemly. Writing what you love will help inspire you, make it easier to push forward through difficulties, and will shine through in both your work and your promotion.
- You can make a living at novels, feature-length screenplays, and other long-form work, but consider writing many short works first to hone your craft, to boost your spirits with sales, and to gain some credentials.
- Never get angry at feedback or critique. Try to learn from it, and use it if it strikes a chord with you, but make a practice of understanding that your work is not the same as your identity and that nothing you can write will suit everyone. Also, learn to distinguish between “I don’t like it now, but I would if you made certain improvements” and “I don’t like it because I’m not the right audience for your work.”
- Becoming a better writer stems from practice and feedback. Write a lot and get people to read your work by joining critique groups, submitting to publications, blogging fiction, or any other means that gets you information about how people experience your work. A useful article on this topic is “Critique, Mentors, Practice, and a Million Words of Garbage.”
- Read a lot of books about writing, but watch out for advice that you have to do things a certain way. Many very successful writers seem to believe that their way of writing, editing, planning, outlining, or of structuring a career is the only one that works, and this is rarely true. They will promote their ways of doing things because those are the only means they’ve experienced. Talking to or reading about more writers will clarify that there is not just one way to succeed.
- The publishing world is in the midst of a huge upheaval, and the way to build a writing career has changed even in the last few years, closing some doors and opening others. Self-publishing and eBooks are now an essential part of the process, whereas they used to not matter. Pay attention to the changes in publishing, but don’t let them throw you. People will always be willing to pay for good stories, so there will always be writing careers of some kind, but don’t get too attached to your career unfolding–or continuing–in any particular way.
- The most important basis for a writing career is strong, professional, affecting, engaging writing. If you always strive to make your writing better, you will be investing in your career. However …
- Regardless of how good your writing is, you will almost certainly have to market it to someone, whether that’s an agent, an editor, a producer, the readers themselves, or some combination. Learn how to present yourself and your work professionally, how to summarize your writing projects effectively, and how to connect with new people who might just love your books.
- Guard your integrity: it’s extremely valuable and very difficult to regain if lost. Misusing online review venues, misrepresenting your publishing history, or mistreating your colleagues, for instance, will all ultimately tend to cost you more than you’ll get in short-term benefits.
Photo by Christopher S. Penn