Career Writing in Three Steps
It was roughly ten years ago when I made the decision to write. I was the angry, young author archetype pounding away on his keyboard, totally wired on cigarettes and booze and this passion for the written word. Nothing could stop me. Yet, like most people starting out, I had no direction whatsoever. I approached the craft guns blazing, paying little mind to things like agents and query letters and lit mags. Even if I had a book ready I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. Young writers, I’ve often found, have the drive but lack the direction. As a result, they usually burn through a few years with little to no results, and I’m no exception. I wasted about four.
Fast-forward to now, the sun is setting on my twenties. My temperament has leveled out but my publishing prospects have never been better. I signed two contracts this year already, pulled in some advance money, and my agent is currently working on a third. My calendar is booked with projects for at least the next year. I wouldn’t say I’ve ‘made it’ yet, but it feels like I’m on the right track. It’s certainly better than where I was ten years ago when I was first starting out.
Looking back on the last decade, I’ve come to realize that the journey thus far can be divided up into three levels of progression. I’d like to share those now.
Learn to Write:
Master the basics first. No one is going to care how good your idea is if your work is a grammatical mess. Learn where commas go. Check your spelling. Know the difference between ‘their,’ ‘there,’ and ‘they’re.’ You can’t play the guitar until you master the scales. Same with this. Learn the damn scales: grammar, punctuation, capitalization, etc. This is all the stuff you learned in high school English class, so I hope you paid attention. If not, then it’s time to brush up.
Since you’re learning to write, let’s dispel a little rumor while we’re at it: no one is self-taught. Perhaps you’re not one of those MFA folk studying at Iowa University or taking what would be considered ‘formal education.’ That doesn’t change the fact that you need to learn how to write from somebody. This is the exact reason why nine out of ten authors will tell you the best way to learn to write is to read a lot. Every essay or poem or novel you consume will yield something useful, even the ones you don’t care for. Reading is learning, and at this stage in the game, you should be learning as much as humanly possible. So learn through reading, and learn by seeking out the people who know more than you do. Take classes. Enroll in a writers’ workshop. Surround yourself with individuals who are trying to do the same thing you are.
Then you need to find yourself. Find what you want to write. Find your style, your voice, your genre. Find the regiment that suits your lifestyle. No one expects anything of you, so write whatever the hell you want. Go nuts. That’s the allure of the written word: complete uninhibited freedom, the ability to do or say anything that comes to mind. Write often. Experiment. Make mistakes. Find your comfort zone.
It’s a process that takes years. You’re never really done learning, but eventually, you’ll get to a point where you feel ready for print.
Learn to Publish:
Most young writers have the wide brushstrokes planned out: write the book, get an agent, and then let the agent sell it to the highest bidder. If only it were that simple.
The game has changed, and it’s gotten to the point where there are so many aspiring writers out there that it’s close to impossible to nail down representation with no experience to back you up. I’m not saying it can’t be done. It can. However, I’m a firm believer in the building of credentials, or as some have come to refer to it: the writer’s resume.
Learn to write, learn to publish.
Publishing is how you start to establish your career as an author, and more and more places crop up every day looking for submissions: small lit mags and independent blogs. New publishers are more likely to give a new writer a chance, so getting a few pieces of work up shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, if you have a Duotrope account (which all of you should) there are some places that have a 100% acceptance rate. The real trick to building your resume is escalation, going bigger. Don’t get in the habit of letting anyone with a Blogspot or Wordpress take your work, and don’t limit yourself by publishing in the same place multiple times. Let’s say that you have three stories ready: would you rather publish at Word Riot three times or split them between Word Riot, The Nervous Breakdown, and Caketrain?
That second scenario not only shows more diversity in your experience, but each publication has a different readership. The more readers you can hit, the better. So publish widely and publish often. There’s absolutely no shame in starting small, but it’s up to you to pursue those more exclusive publications as these are the kinds of things that agents and editors look for. The goal here is not only to build a following but to look better on paper than the next guy. Remember, it’s not all about short stories; you can publish essays, book reviews, columns, etc.
Get as much experience under your belt as you can. The more seasoned you become, the more likely you’ll be able to cash in on it.
Learn to Make Money:
This is the hardest part. Just to make something clear, no one should get into writing specifically for the money. If money is all you’re after, go be a lawyer or something. You’ll save yourself lots of time and anguish that way.
There are a few ways to make some significant scratch penning words, but this runs a parallel with the publishing section: you’re more than likely going to have to start small and work your way up. Some publications will throw you $25 for a story. Others, like Electric Literature for example, will shell out $1,000. Keep in mind, the more money at stake, the longer the wait typically is to hear back. If you’re looking for shorter response times, you can find tons of contests on places like www.pw.org. Some only pay a few hundred, others pay a few thousand, but each one is going to have some kind of entry fee. Isolate the ones you believe you have a legitimate shot at winning and go for it.
Of course, the bigger payday lies with the selling of your novel, and if you’ve got the publication credentials under your belt, this makes getting an agent that much easier. If you’ve won some contests, even better. Agents don’t get paid unless you get paid, so having one is likely to yield more money than not having one since they can query places like Random House and Doubleday. If you don’t have representation, you won’t be able to do that. Always remember that being an author is a marathon, not a sprint. The first few books you write might be through small or medium-sized houses. You may have to self-publish or do a Kindle-only release. A sale to one of the Big 6 might take a few tries.
Those are the main methods: short story pay-outs, contest winnings, and book royalties/advances. Freelance work can be beneficial too if there’s a website or magazine opening that you can find.
Again, learn to write, learn to publish, learn to make money.
This will not be a fast and easy process. In fact, it’ll likely be many years before you start to see significant success. The trick (which isn’t really a trick) is never giving up and never going backwards. Don’t let a rejection or bad review stop you. I guarantee you that your favorite book of all-time has plenty of bad reviews and got rejected multiple times before it found a home, so learn to not give a shit. Keep moving, and keep moving upwards. Don’t publish a short story on some new Blogspot when you know you can get it put up on an established site or lit mag. If you publish your first novel with a small press, make sure the next novel is on a bigger label.
Continually improve. Never stop. You get back what you put into this, and if you play the game long enough, it will pay off.
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