Young Writer's Scene

Beth Adele Long, Associate Editor, Young Writer's Scene

Issue #1: 01/01/01

Feature Articles
Making Histories
By J.S. Burke
Women and Childbearing 
in Fantasy

By Bryn Neuenschwander
Matching Your Money to Your World 
By Ron Brown
Capturing Time for the Muse
By Vicki McElfresh
In Praise of Praise:
A Second Look at Critiquing

By Lazette Gifford
Fantasy: 
Building a Better Beast
By Sarah Jane Elliott
Horror: 
State of the Horror Genre
By Ron Brown
Poetry: 
Poetry and Everyday  Life
By Jennifer St. Clair Bush
Romance: 
Your Characters Are 
Not Puppets

By Anne M. Marble
Science Fiction: 
Are We Going Somewhere 
Nice?

By Bob Billing
Stage & Screen: 
The Promise of Premise
By Robin Catesby
Suspense & Mystery:
The Motives of Villains 
and Heroes in Suspense Fiction
By Shane P. Carr
Young Adult & Children:
The Gulf
By Justin Stanchfield
Young Writer's Scene:
Five Practical Tips for Young Writers
By Beth Adele Long
Book Reviews
Web Site Reviews
How Critique Circles Work
By Jim Mills
Doggerel Contest Winner
News from Forward Motion

That thing you had to force yourself to do -- the actual act of writing -- turns out to be the best part.  It's like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.  The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

Anne Lamott
Bird By Bird
1994
Anchor Books
ISBN: 0-385-48001-6

 

Five Practical Tips for Young Writers

by Beth Adele Long

2001, Beth Adele Long

You're in school---maybe junior high, maybe high school.  You love to read, you're discovering that you also love to write, and at some point you've thought to yourself, "Writing is something I might like to do for real."  Career planning is on your mind, so you start to wonder: could I someday be a writer---and get paid for it? 

If you're like me, the idea of getting paid to think up wild stories and write them down is almost too good to be true.  But when you're young, it can be hard to know how to go about becoming "A Fiction Writer."  Should you go to college?  If so, what should you major in?  English literature?  Creative writing?  Something else?  And what about money?  It's not as if the publishers put out ads in the paper: Opening for entry-level novelist, $35,000 plus benefits, opportunity for advancement.  No experience required.  You can't just announce you're a writer and expect the cash to flow in. 

So what can you do? 

A huge part of what you can do is simply apply yourself to learning the craft of writing.  The rest of Vision, as well as numerous other writing resources, can help you with that goal, and I'll look closer at those issues in future columns.  But you also have think about practical issues, like where to go for college and what kind of job to get while you're waiting for those novel contracts.  How you handle these practical issues will be unique to your situation and talents, but here are some tips to help you chart a course toward being a successful (and financially solvent) writer. 

Tip #1: Plan a second career. 

You will not earn enough to support yourself (let alone a family, if you have one) from your writing alone, not for a long time.  You won't.  Repeat this to yourself again and again, until you firmly believe it. 

"There is the tendency," Kathleen Ann Goonan says, "for the individual to think, 'Yeah, but I can quit my job, write full time, and make money soon because I'm better than everyone else.'"  Does this sound familiar?  It sure does to me!  Not too long ago I expressed that exact sentiment to a friend.  Then I started talking to people in the industry, and following publishing news, and my perspective changed.  Let me tell you why. 

Even if your first novel sells---which it most likely will not---and you go on to sell more novels immediately, it will still take a while before your writing earns enough that you can live on it.  It's fair to say that most successful novelists in the science fiction and fantasy genres take at least ten years from the time they sell their first novel to the time they're able to support themselves (with a modest income) from their writing.  (Note that I said "successful"; I'm not even including people who slog it out for years and never get a big break.)  For many people it takes longer.  You have to start thinking now about how you want to support yourself in the meantime. 

I admit, some writers have been able to write full time early on because their spouse is willing and able to support their writing habit.  Novelists like Sean Stewart and Kathleen Ann Goonan come to mind, among others.  But please don't count on this; you'll be fortunate if it works out, but you'd be foolish to assume it will happen.  (And please don't pick your spouse based on whether they'll support your writing!  "I'm sorry, I can't marry you; you don't make enough money for me to stay at home and write."  Horrors!) 

Even for people with supportive spouses, it's not easy to reach financial independence.  Thanks to his wife's support, Sean Stewart has been able to write full time for most of the years he's been writing novels.  It's now been eight years since his first novel sale (thirteen since his first submission), and he says it's "unclear at this time" whether he could support his family from his writing alone.  That's with seven successful novels published.  Kathleen Ann Goonan has been writing full time, supported by her husband, since 1987; that was two years after writing her first novel, which never sold.  She finally made her first novel sale seven years ago, and since then has published three more well-received novels in addition to about twenty short stories and novellas.  At this point, she says she would be able to support herself by her writing "if I lived very frugally, had no spouse or children, and wrote constantly." 

Both Stewart's and Goonan's novels have been nominated for and/or won major awards; both receive impressive critical acclaim for their work.  And they still can barely, if at all, support themselves comfortably based on writing income alone.  Do you see the picture I'm painting here?  It's a tough industry. 

Having rained on your parade for this long, let me point out that it's not impossible to have financial success as a writer.  Obviously, people do succeed.  Not as obvious is precisely why people succeed; I wish I could tell you the Big Secret to Financial Success, but there just isn't one.  Some people achieve it, a lot of people don't.  I don't want to tell you that you can't reach that dream of being a "full-time writer."  But I do want to prepare you for a long, tough road that is anything but predictable. 

And don't forget to look at the bright side of this whole "day job" business.  Goonan points out, "I think that life in the 'real world' is essential to developing the broad background a writer needs to have in order to accomplish work that has that sometimes elusive 'verisimilitude.'"  A day job does not have to be a heavy burden while you're waiting for publishers to recognize your genius.  If you have the right attitude, it's just more grist for the mill.  It will equip you to be an even better writer. 

So we've established that you'll need a day job.  What should you think about when you're deciding on that job? 

Tip #2: Find a career you enjoy. 

Your first criterion for your "other" career should not be "Allows me to make $150,000 annually."  Money is important, don't get me wrong; think carefully about what kind of job will let you support yourself adequately.  But money isn't the most important thing.  If you're going to be in a career for ten or twenty or forty years, and you want to have the energy to write scintillating prose at the same time, then make it a high priority to find a career that excites you. 

A lot of young writers wonder if the best college major would be English Literature, or Creative Writing.  These are certainly options, but don't rule out other possibilities.  One of the great things about being a writer is that everything is useful!  Nothing you learn is wasted, and that can be very freeing. 

So should you go to college?  Maybe.  In today's economy, probably.  If the career that you want to pursue requires a degree---or if you're not sure what you want to do, and you want to be exposed to all the possibilities---then certainly go for a degree. 

But suppose you're interested in something that doesn't require a university degree---like interior design, where you only need a certification in order to get your start.  Don't be fooled into thinking that you somehow "need" a degree to be a good writer.  Many successful writers didn't get a college degree, and it didn't seem to hold them back at all.  One of those writers is named Holly Lisle.  (For her take on college and writing, read  Experts, Professionals, and College.) 

Do what's right for you

Tip #3: Find a career that will leave you time to write. 

If you want to be able to devote yourself to writing outside of your day job, keep in mind that certain careers will take more of your time than others.  Perhaps you're interested in medicine---but being an emergency room doctor would not give you the kind of time you'll want to develop your writing career.  Be realistic and practical when you consider your career choices, and try to find something that will let you handle "real life" and still have time and energy left for writing. 

Of course, if the only career aside from writing that really excites you is emergency room doctor---or a similarly time-consuming job---then go for it.  But be aware that your dream of success in writing will probably take a lot longer to realize. 

Tip #4: Stay out of debt. 

Those four words might not mean a whole lot right now, but believe me, when you're spending as much each month to pay off school loans, car loans, whatever loans as you pay in rent and food, "stay out of debt" will mean a lot.  Debts will follow you wherever you go, they will tie you down, and they will limit your ability to take risks.  If writing is a goal for you, then debt will be one of your most unyielding obstacles. 

Avoid it when you can.  When you can't avoid it, make it as small as possible.  Your future self will be unspeakably grateful if you do. 

Tip #5: "To thine own self be true." 

Listen to Sean Stewart:  "In my opinion you owe it to yourself to write the most important and urgent and heartfelt and personal books you can, even when staring directly at the facts of the marketplace." 

With all this talk of money and jobs and debt and whatnot, it might be easy to lose sight of the real purpose of writing.  But if you forget why you're writing in the first place, then everything else is less than worthless. 

Financial success is not the measure of your success as a writer.  Financial success means you've found a niche in the market, but it doesn't necessarily mean you've found a niche in people's minds and hearts.  If you have the need and the will and the determination to write the stories that really matter, then you know what the real point is, and you'll push on despite the tough realities of the publishing industry. 

Telling those stories is what makes it worth holding down a full-time job, maybe one that doesn't thrill you, and spending your evenings and weekends hunched over the keyboard, agonizing over the inadequacy of your words and pushing forward anyway.  Don't let this other stuff make you forget that. 

# 

If you are determined to someday be a full-time writer, earning enough from your writing alone to support you (and your family), then remind yourself daily that you're in it for the long haul.  It will take a lot of time, effort, and sheer determination to reach your goal, and you'll have to make a lot of sacrifices on the way. 

Realize that many top-notch writers reach the level of "professional" writer without making a full career of it.  Many writers are also teachers, and they do their writing during summers and on days they don't have classes.  Many writers reach some level of success in their writing and go part-time with their other job, working as consultants or the like.  Some writers could support themselves from their writing alone, but choose to continue working another job as well, because they value the experience.  The possibilities abound. 

Whatever you do, remember that these are only guidelines.  There are no quick and easy solutions to sticky issues like these.  It will take a lot of thinking on your part, a lot of advice from people you know and trust, and a lot of patience to make your dreams reality. 

But if you succeed, it will all be worth it. 

(Thanks to Sean Stewart and Kathleen Ann Goonan for providing pages and pages of helpful material.)

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