Recently, a high school reader of my work asked for my input for his school project on what it takes to be a writer. Below is my response– ten things that a would-be writer might want to consider:
1. You should read a lot of a) the genre you’d like to write in and b) the best other writing too. We’re in a dialogue with the authors who came before us and those coming after, and we have to participate in the conversation. An instructor of mine once said (and I think she was quoting), “If you want to write it, you’ve got to read it.”
This may seem obvious, but sometimes a new writer gets nervous about whether their own ideas are original and scared to find out someone has already written their story. So they take the head-in-sand approach to the problem. Two responses: first, most ideas aren’t purely original. You give them originality by their combination and execution. So even if someone has done something before, you’ll probably do it differently without even trying. Second, if something has been done in a way that will make selling your particular story almost impossible, then you definitely don’t want to waste your time.
Reading a lot also means you’re not getting your material and techniques primarily from TV and movies. TV and movie stories often tend to rely on tired formulas and to be derivative of other material. If you’re copying TV and movies, you’re writing derivatives of derivatives. Even if your goal is to write for TV or movies, you need to steal better than that. (Side note: fanfic is fun, but you can’t legally make a living at it.)
Reading also means staying current. As a young kid, I read a lot of the fantasy and science fiction classics, but I wasn’t reading much genre later on. When I decided I wanted to write genre, I had a lot of catching up to do. Also, the way we read changes, so we can’t rely on the reading we did at a younger age.
2. You need to be able to take and give criticism. If you can do this a little, but want to learn to do it better, you can go to a writing workshop. Some famous ones in SF/F are the six-week long Clarion Workshops (I went to one of those) and Odyssey. Attending a workshop helped me make the jump to professional sales.
You can also join a local writing group. It should be in your genre–e.g., an SF/F writer shouldn’t join a literary fiction group or workshop. Or you can join an online writing group. I personally prefer groups with the other authors present.
Taking criticism enables you to improve your work with the help of others. Giving criticism trains you to look at texts objectively–a skill you can then turn upon your own work.
3. You need to be able to handle rejection. You aren’t likely to write something that sells with your first effort the first time you submit it. For short fiction, you should submit all your finished work to the full market, starting at the top and working your way down. That means sending a story out, getting a rejection, sending it back out, until you run out of markets. That’s a lot of rejections.
Novels are a whole other problem. For traditional publishing, you’ll probably want an agent, and that leads to a lot of rejections–oh boy, do I have a lot of those. (For self-publishing, see below.)
And what do you do while you wait for a response which is probably another rejection? You keep writing, because the next thing you finish will probably be better and will be more likely to sell.
4. You’ll probably want another way to earn money. You know the names of all the authors who earn their living solely through writing. The rest of us are like indie rock bands. I was a lawyer, and I saved a lot of money to pursue my writing career. Despite having published two novels, I’m currently looking at other non-writing employment to supplement my income. Other writers have a supporting spouse. The writers on TV like “Castle” are mostly mythical. Don’t count on being a George R.R. Martin exception to the rule. Even writers for TV and movies, where there’s more money, have to worry about this issue.
5. You need to actually sit down and write. A lot. They say it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. Or with writing, some people say it’s a million words. There’s no substitute for butt in chair. You’ll have more cool ideas than you’ll ever be able to actually write, so you should get them down in print while you can.
Watch out for social media and other time sucks. All that other stuff may be promotion, but for the most part it’s not your real writing.
6. You should seek interesting experiences and people. Yes, write what you know, but you should know more. If the people and experiences are hard to find, read primary sources about them. This will give you stories that are more thoroughly your own. Again, don’t be derivative in your material. (But see below about being boring.
7. Find your community. This should be primarily done in a non-linear, non-profit seeking way–for fun and friends. Go to conventions and events for your type of writing. Meet people, talk about your craft and concerns. Get on programming panels and discuss your work and interests in front of others. Good things will come of this professionally, but only if you have patience and enjoy the community for itself.
Some events (e.g., brief industry receptions packed with agents and editors that you have to meet) are to be approached in a more mercenary way.
8. Be ready to be boring. Writing is hard work, and besides your skill, your primary asset as a writer is your time. Constantly partying bohemians may have been good at poetry, but they’re terrible at long-form production. Writing is primarily done alone, so the social aspects of many workplaces are missing. I’ve found that writing is something not well-understood by those who don’t do it seriously, so even one’s hardest-won achievements may only get the barest acknowledgment from family and friends.
9. Know your limitations. Overcome some, work around others. As a writer, you’re already got long odds against success, so anything you can do to improve those (aiming for the right markets, learning more skills) could make a decisive difference.
Self-publishing is an area where I know my own limitations. To succeed at self-publishing, a writer needs to do everything that a traditional publisher would do, either herself or by hiring others. It means being almost constantly in a sales/self-promotion mode. Any exceptions you’ve heard about are noteworthy because of how exceptional they are.
Sales, self-promotion, and delegation aren’t my strong suits, so I went with traditional publishing. I may self-publish later, but it will have been after establishing my name through traditional publishing.
10. Be professional (at least on the outside). Know your markets, and submit your work to them in a way that indicates your seriousness and your knowledge of what they want (if only by getting the word count limit right). Deal with publishers and editors with the same professionalism you’d deal with any potential employer. Meet your deadlines, and get a reputation for doing so.
The writing community for your genre of choice is probably pretty small. Try to be positive about and toward other people in your community, because a negative remark can and almost certainly will come back to haunt you. One of the paradoxes of writing in the internet age is that we have to self-censor sometimes to succeed, but that self-censorship is mostly just the same politeness we’d show if the people in question were present in the same room.
Finally, be nice to your readers. They’re the ones you’re doing this for. So when one of them asks for help with a school project, you help. And I hope I’ve been helpful!