Advice for New Writers

Every now and then, I am asked if I have advice for new writers. Usually, I laugh for a good long while afterwards, but then if it turns out the person was actually serious, I realize I have to come up with something.

I don’t blame people for asking, of course, especially because being a working writer is not at all what I thought it’d be. Before I decided to really pursue writing as my career, I assumed that one of the big bonuses to being a author was that you get to be your own boss. Nobody tells you what to do. There are no meetings, no conference calls, no HR, no annoying coworkers, no stupid sexual harassment seminars or leadership training weekends. Nice, right?

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Giving a conference presentation: one of the sad days when I can’t wear sweatpants.

All too soon, however, I discovered that while wearing sweatpants all day is fun, writing is also a business, and one of the problems with being your own boss is that nobody actually trains you on how to do your job. You have to train yourself, and there’s no blueprint on how to do it. So here we go, fellow and future writers: my advice for new or aspiring writers. I’ll start by breaking down what being a writer really means. There are three phases.

First, of course, you have to learn how to write. Believe it or not, that’s actually one of the less complicated parts of your self-training. There are any number of schools, workshops, conferences, online classes, teaching books, and so on. You can pretty much decide what kind of writing you want to do – a blog, a novel, short stories, an autobiography – and then look for the resources to learn how. Learning to write isn’t easy, mind you, but the tools to learn are easily available. I’ll give you a bit more detail on advice later, but let’s keep going for the moment.

Second phase: when you feel like you more or less know what you’re doing, and have a complete product in your hands. If you’re trying to get a book published, the fun is actually just beginning. Phase two is the surprisingly complex process of getting an agent, or, for some people, the unsurprisingly complex process of self-publishing. This is where a lot of people drop out of the whole enterprise, because it is frustrating, tedious, filled with hope/disappointment jags, and will inevitably require math skills at some point. And if you had crazy good math skills, why would you be writing in the first place? CPA’s have much more stable lives.

But, if your finished product is good enough, and if you’re persistent, it can be done. You sign a contract with an agent, who will then take the book to publishers and try to sell it for you. As I understand it, ten or fifteen years ago that would pretty much be the end of the training process. You would have your agent, you’d give them the book, do a little editing, and then you were pretty much ready to start some more writing. The agent would tell you when to show up somewhere to promote the first book, and you’d do that, but for the most part your work on book one was done. You could crawl back into your writing cave and not emerge until you had a new book.

I would totally put a desk in there.

I would totally put a desk in there.

These days, however, everything is changing, and very quickly. Now there’s a third phase to the self-training process: marketing. For one reason or another, authors now have a lot of responsibility when it comes to marketing and publicizing their work. It doesn’t really matter if they’re self-published or traditionally published.  And unless you just happened to pick up a marketing degree in your adventures, it’s yet another learning process to go through. And it never actually ends. At some point, you have to call a book finished, and at some point, you sign a contract or hit “publish” to get your book out there, and it’s complete. But marketing is forever. And you never stop doing it.

This is another problem with being your own boss: you never actually leave work. Even when I watch television with my husband at night, after we’re both home from work and the kids are in bed, I am usually working on a blog, trying to boost my Twitter presence, answering emails, helping my author friends with their problems, looking for help with problems of my own, or responding to readers who contact me about my books. It’s not that I dislike the marketing part of the business – it’s often fun, always interesting, and it’s much better than phase two, in which you get to experience frequent and brutal rejection. But there are times when I realize I’ve been working on marketing stuff more than I’ve actually been writing, and I feel an awfully long way from what I thought being an author was about.

The funny thing is, although I love writing, I never actually wanted to be a writer. Hell, I don’t want to be a writer now. I would much rather be a competent biochemist or history professor or FBI agent, but that’s not how my brain is wired. My brain is wired specifically to create things. I’m not claiming to be something I’m not – I will probably never win a Pulitzer or a National Book Award, and it’s entirely possible that I will live and die without ever seeing one of my characters appear on a screen.

But the hard truth about myself is that I have a very limited set of talents that qualify me for a very specific occupation -which, as it happens, I need to do in order to feel like myself. If I’m not writing, I don’t feel like me. You can think of that as a calling or destiny, nature or nurture, whatever you like. I tend to think of it simply as “sucking at everything else.”

Bottom line? Writing is hard. Being a writer is even harder. But it’s never predictable, always interesting, and you can wear yoga pants, which is more than I can say for accountants.

Still with me? Still want to be a writer? Cool. As promised, here are a few specific tips if you’re just starting out.

Get a writing group.
This might not even to be the kind where you read each other’s work (a lot of authors love workshopping; not me), but a group of writers who support each other and give advice is crucial. Make sure you support other people however you can –tout their releases on social media, help with editing, etc– so that when it’s your turn to put something out, your friends are eager to return the favor.

Call yourself a writer.
This may sound kind of silly, but it’s important. No one is going to believe in your abilities to do this if you don’t. If you’re really willing to give up your free time to do this, it means something to you. Take it seriously.

Don’t quit your day job.
Okay, I know this sounds harsh, and I promise, I’m not just trying to cover my ass in case any of you sue. But the sad reality of the current publishing climate is that even midlevel authors often have to maintain another job in order to keep doing what they’re doing. I have another (part-time) job, and most of the authors I know do as well. I hope that someday I sell movie rights, or one of my books hits really big, and I won’t have to have that anymore. But I need to be realistic, too.

Make goals.
You don’t have to have ridiculous, NaNoWriMo-levels of ambition, but promise yourself you’ll aim at something, whether it’s a thousand words a week or a half hour of writing a day. Work hard at it, but:

Forgive yourself when things don’t work out.
It’s going to happen, believe me: you’re going to miss a deadline, or a personal goal, or it’s going to take a lot longer than you planned to find an agent. It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up about it; chalk it up to part of the experience and try hard not to let it happen again. The important thing is just to keep going.

I do get to hang out with interesting people.

I do get to hang out with interesting people.

 

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