Young Writer's Scene
Beth Adele Long, Associate Editor, Young Writer's Scene
Issue #1: 01/01/01
Practical Tips for Young Writers
by Beth Adele Long
©2001, Beth Adele Long
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?
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.
what can you do?
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.
#1: Plan a second career.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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."
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.
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.
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.
we've established that you'll need a day job. What should you think
about when you're deciding on that job?
#2: Find a career you enjoy.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
what's right for you.
#3: Find a career that will leave you time to write.
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.
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.
#4: Stay out of debt.
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.
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.
#5: "To thine own self be true."
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
if you succeed, it will all be worth it.
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