Where to Start?

Last week I wrote about things a new writer – in this case defined as someone who had a novel finished or nearly finished and was wondering about what to do next – might want to know.

Living Creatively

Living Creatively

The following question came to me via e-mail: “I really liked what you wrote but, what is your advice for someone who is serious about writing professionally, but doesn’t know quite where to start?  Should I take courses on writing?  How about workshops?”

I thought I’d offer an answer here, since even those writers who are beyond this point might know someone who would benefit.  In fact, the more I think about it, how to become a writer is a question most writers get asked a lot.

Q: What is your advice for someone who is serious about writing professionally, but doesn’t quite know where to start?

A: First make sure you really like to write – not just like the idea of having written.  It’s much easier to talk about your great story idea than it is to actually get the idea down on the page.

Next, consider what you’re going to do to make a living until you start making enough money to give up your “day job.”  I strongly recommend not taking up a profession that involves a lot of writing – even if writing is what you’re best at.

My experience – and I’ve heard this from other writers as well – is that each person has only a certain amount of writing in them on any given day.  If you use that all up in your day job, then you’re not going to have it when you come home in the evening and want to work on your novel.  Even the difference between writing non-fiction and fiction is sometimes not enough to stop your brain and creativity from drying up.

Q: Should I take courses on writing?

A: Certainly you should take courses if you wish.   Just don’t major in creative writing!

Alternately, if you already have a career path, don’t fool yourself into believing that taking courses on creative writing will suddenly make you publishable.  In my experience, the only thing that numerous courses on creative writing – especially the type taught at most colleges – are good for is to give you the credentials to teach other people about creative writing.

Yes.  A course or two can be useful, if for no other reason than that, if you take them seriously, they’re going to teach you about writing to a deadline (always useful for a professional) and how to structure your day so that you make time to write.  However, writing – a lot of writing – is what you need to do to refine your skills so that you can become a “pro.”

Q: What about workshops?

A: Workshops can be very useful.   Many workshops address “genre” or “popular” fiction – a topic that is, sadly, anathema in many college courses.  Therefore, if you’re interested in writing mysteries or romance or science fiction or fantasy or thrillers or any other of the many forms of popular fiction, writing workshops may be of greater use to you than college courses.

There are workshops specifically focused on specific genres.  However, even workshops that aren’t as tightly focused will offer lectures on subjects such as narrative hooks, researching, characterization, and keeping the plot moving – all of which you can apply to your own writing.

Writing workshops also often include lectures on the business side of writing.  This can be very valuable, even if all you learn at first is the vocabulary of the trade.  (You’d be amazed at how many would-be writers I’ve met who don’t know the difference between a publisher and an editor, an agent and a publicist.)  Especially during the more intensive workshops, you will have the opportunity to network, thereby making contacts with writers and other professionals that may be valuable for years to come.

Since writer’s workshops can be expensive, both in time (some run several weeks) and in money, research your potential options before signing up.   Take a look at the schedule before attending and map out those lectures you want to attend.

Some workshops offer an opportunity for attendees to sign up for a short interview with an agent or editor.  I wouldn’t recommend attending a workshop in the hopes that this will be your big break.  However, such pitch sessions are something you’ll rarely find as part of a college course.

Q: If I shouldn’t major – or take lots of courses – about writing, then what should I do to prepare myself to be a professional writer?

A: First, train for a day job that you’ll either like or that at least won’t drain away your creative energy while you work on your writing.   Even better, consider a job that will stimulate your creativity.  Just in sampling our New Mexico writers, I know an environmental engineer, a physicist, several lawyers, a couple journalists, myriad computer geeks, a doctor, and a couple of teachers.  All of them have, at one time or another, drawn on their professions in their fiction.

Second, consider taking a course or two on subjects like contracts and accounting.  Yes.  I’m serious.

From the minute you sell your first story – even a short story for half a cent a word – you’re going to be signing contracts.  At the beginning of their career, many writers don’t have an agent to advise them on what to sign and what not to sign, so it’s a good idea to be familiar with the basic form of contracts.  Did you know you’re not required to accept everything in a contract?  However, knowing what is negotiable and what in non-negotiable will be a matter of learning your profession.

Why take courses in accounting?  First, you’re going to need to declare any income you make from writing.  That means no more EZ tax forms.  If you’re going to itemize your deductions, you’ll need to file various additional forms.  It also helps to know what you can deduct and under what circumstances.  Yes.  You can pay an accountant to prepare your tax forms.  (I do.)  However, you’re still required to supply the accountant with the basic information.  Since most accountants charge based upon the time they need to do the job, the better prepared you are in advance, the more money you’ll save.

Many people think the life of a writer is filled with creativity and imagination.  It is.  However, if you want to sell what you write you need to accept that writing is also a business and educate yourself accordingly.  I’ve known a couple of writers who didn’t bother to do so and they’re paying the piper for their ignorance, either in lost rights or in cold, hard cash.

Q: That’s a lot to think about.  Anything else?

A: Yes.  Although courses and workshops may help you, the only way to become a professional writer is to write, to submit what you write, and to keep doing so until you finally “make it.”    (See last week if you want my views on the self-publishing option.)

Recognize that writing as a career – rather than as an art or hobby – involves more than knowing how to tell a good tale.   I promise, you won’t regret it!

10 Responses to “Where to Start?”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Hi Jane,

    I love your advice, but as someone who’s struggling at the beginning of a career, I’d suggest a couple things you didn’t talk about:
    1. NANOWRIMO: This isn’t a particularly good way to get a novel ready to publish, but it is a great way to find out what it feels like to write 50,000 words under some stress. The stress comes from writing in November, and if you’re in the US, that means you get to deal with Thanksgiving during the crunch time of getting your 50,000 words done. I’d suggest doing NANOWRIMO (or any of its companion races) as an experiment, to see if you like writing as much as you think you do.

    2. Find the form you like to write. This may sound stupid, but I’ve always had this perverse desire to challenge myself, rather than doing what’s easy. For several years in college, I studied physics and avoided biology. Why? Biology was easy, physics was hard, and I came from a family of engineers. Finally it dawned on me (after years of suffering and crappy grades) that biology wasn’t easy, I was just naturally good at it, and struggling with physics wasn’t going to make me a physicist like my parents. I’d suggest the same thing for writers. Someone may suggest that formula romance sells pretty well, but if you find romances an impenetrable mystery but write natural history essays for fun, perhaps you’ll find more joy (and heck, even money) in perfecting your essay writing skills, rather than attempting a romance. Not everyone can hack it as a romance writer. While you can learn a lot from struggling through writing a novel, if it is nothing but joyless struggle, with the only pleasure being getting it done, perhaps you may do better at a different form of writing.

    3. Get used to living beneath your means. I’ve had this argument repeatedly with my partner, but here’s the problem: art isn’t a steady job. It can be a spectacularly rewarding job, but those rewards don’t come regularly. The best advice I received was to have a year’s worth of living expenses at all times. No, not six months. A year. A number of blogging writers have had bad years, and I suspect that’s the norm, not the exception (comments, Jane?). There’s a constant tension from spouses, children, and relatives to spend more money, and you’ve got to hold the line, and save more than most people think is prudent. In my limited experience, it takes at least one crisis for them to get the idea, and a couple of years later, they’ll forget. Make living beneath your means the norm, not the exception.

    4. Marry Well, especially if you live in the US. As Linda Nagata said recently on a guest blog at Charles Stross’ site, this is the joke that isn’t a joke. Having a partner with a steady income and good health insurance makes a lot of art possible, especially in the US. There are two issues here: insurance and cash flow. The US suffers from what might be called cranio-rectal insertion syndrome when it comes to the health care industry, and it’s horrendously expensive to get sick here. Compared with the UK and elsewhere in the civilized world, artists suffer in the US. Stross (a Scot) has some chronic medical issues he blogs about, but he has no trouble paying for them or getting treated. Contrast that with here, where I’d be without insurance if my partner didn’t have a good job, treating my medical conditions with over the counter medicines and a lot of hope and prayer. The cash flow issue goes back to #3: a partner with a steady income evens out the unpredictability of an artist’s income. Of course, you don’t want to be a parasite, so if you’re lucky enough to marry well, figure out what you contribute to the relationship that doesn’t involve money or insurance, and work hard at providing those things in addition to your writing.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I think you’ve scared everyone except Brave Alan away…

      While you make some good points, I think some can be taken more seriously than others.

      1) Certainly one approach to NaNoWriMo is “Hey. If you can’t devote one month to writing, then what makes you think you can make a career of it?”

      However, not all writers are sprinters — nor should they be. For more on my mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo, newcomers to this Wandering might want to look at my WW for 10-31-12.

      2) You make a good point here. I can’t write formula romance no matter how hard I try. However, not all forms of writing will enable you to make a living no matter how good you are at them, or how easy you find them to write.

      Poetry, pretty impossible. Many forms of non-fiction, ditto.

      The subject of this was planning for a career.

      3) Yes. Living beneath your means is a good idea — actually for pretty much anyone, unless you value immediate indulgence over peace of mind. That said, it’s even more important for someone who hopes to make a living writing because paychecks are erratic to say the least.

      My accountant refers to this as a “bumpy income stream.”

      4) This is just too flippant for me. The point is sound but what is to assure that you insurance contributing partner will continue to be able to do so?

      More seriously, would-be full-time writers should consider where they will get insurance, how to convince a bank to give them a mortgage, and such things. However, at the “getting started” phase this post was addressing, “considering” is probably sufficient.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Am I a sadist by pointing out the hard stuff to people who are simply dreaming? I’m never sure. I know some people are happier if they don’t know how much they’re going to suffer before it happens. Others like to know. I happen to be in the latter camp, but tastes differ.

      The one disagreement is minor: NANOWRIMO is more of a marathon than a sprint. I’d quietly suggest that, if one is serious about a project, it’s a great venue for outlining, research, and character development, as much as for writing that novel. All that matters in NANOWRIMO is that word count, not what those words are. The point is to learn what it feels like to produce 50,000 words in a month, rather than that this has much to do with writing a salable novel. Producing 20,000 words per month (1000 words/day, five days a week) feels much easier if you know that, in a pinch, you can work 250% harder.

  2. Alan Robson Says:

    I absolutely love the “Living Creatively” photograph. There are days when I feel exactly like that myself…


  3. Emily Says:

    I have a question regarding the Creative Writing section of your Wandering. I’m an English Major which may lead to me being a teacher (though I hope to write or maybe become an editor eventually). However, I was considering having Creative Writing as a minor. Is this advisable?
    Also, do you know of any other careers I can pursue with an English degree? I’m looking for alternate careers where I can use my strengths and passion (reading, writing, etc.) to make a career I’ll enjoy. If there’s any suggestions, I’d be very grateful for any input!Ideally, I’d like to write full-time, but I’m aware that there is a lot of competition and all that to impede me.
    I also agree with Mr. Alan. Kwahe’e is adorable. That is very “creative living”.

    • Sally Says:

      Jane will correct me if I’m guessing wrong, but I think she was saying that a Creative Writing major isn’t of much use specifically for preparing for a career as a professional writer. I know I enjoyed the creative writing classes I took in college, but they did very little to teach me about either the practical or the craft aspects of writing stories to sell to commercial markets. What I’ve learned of that came through workshops like Clarion, advice from writer friends, and hard-fought-for personal experience.

      • janelindskold Says:

        From what you say about “major,” Emily, I’m guessing you’re an undergraduate. If you are serious about wanting to teach, then a minor in Education would probably give you better credentials, as well as preparing you for the quirks of that particular business.

        If you’re serious about Creative Writing as a minor, I’d start by taking a look at what classes your college offers. I’d talk to a few people and find out how the teachers feel about genre fiction (if that’s what you’re interested in writing).

        A friend of mine is taking courses in Creative Writing at UNM, mostly to bolster her credentials as a writing instructor. (She already has several novels published by major publishers.) She reported how in one class an anguished classmate asked the instructor: “But what if they [future students] want to write genre fiction!” From the tone of voice, it was clear the student in question thought this was the worst possible fate imaginable.

        Obviously, you’re going to want to take classes that build your dreams, not belittle them.

        One of the biggest challenges for finding a job (other than teaching) with an English major is getting over the assumption that it’s useless. If you want to work as an editor or researcher, make sure to take courses in technical or “business” writing. Consider internships. Don’t assume your degree alone is going to prove how versatile you can be.

  4. Emily Says:

    Thanks everyone! I really appreciate all the input and advice.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Hi Emily,

      It’s very hard to know how to plan a future — especially in an odd career like writing. If you think of any other questions, maybe we can toss them out here for wider discussion.

      The one thing I’ve learned about making a writing career work is that no two people do it exactly the same!

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