Many people say they want to be professional writers.
Having taught journalism and writing to adults and to college students and writing professionally since 1978, I wonder, though, how many really do.
Here are some of the things you need if you truly want to make a living as a writer of fiction, non-fiction or journalism.
If you’re too scared to attach your name to your work, or to publish it, or to show it to blog readers/editors/agents, how will you ever be(c0me) a published or read writer? Every writer is scared shitless on some level, often on so many levels we resemble a multi-storey office tower. But the whole point of writing is sharing your voice and your ideas with others. You have to be certain you have something to say.
Workshops and classes and graduate school can be amazingly helpful. Or they can sap your self-confidence as you place more value on others’ opinions (and grades.)
Being a writer means you’ll face a lot of rejection. You have to listen to feedback — whether about your ideas, your execution of them, your crappy attitude, your procrastination. Every single person whose work has been selected, edited and chosen by others as worthy of publication faced the same challenges. Get over it!
If you’re not ready for rejection, you’re not ready to be a published writer.
Without which, you’re toast. But talent is subjective, so every rejection can mean you’re lousy — or you just haven’t found your audience yet. You’ll know pretty quickly, because you will sell and keep selling, if you have the goods.
My favorite success is the humor essay about my divorce I sent in to an American women’s magazine, who sent me a smarmy rejection letter. I sent it to a Canadian women’s magazine — who published it and submitted it for a National Magazine Award for humor.
The single most essential element of writing success.
I know people now writing their third or fourth (unpublished) novel. My two non-fiction books, “Blown Away” and “Malled” were each rejected by 25 (!) publishers before a major New York house bought each one. The process was deeply unpleasant and shook my confidence to the core. But my agents (different agent for each) kept plugging away, because they believed in it.
I recently applied for a highly competitive fellowship, again. Too many people just give up and walk away, wounded and whining.
There’s a different and just as important sort of persistence — the commitment to your story and whatever it (legally/ethically) takes to get it first and exclusively. It took me six months of negotiation to win my exclusive story about Google that ran in The New York Times in June. It took me six months, starting from “Over my dead body!” from the PR official at one group to the interview with four of her clients, all young women convicted of gun-related felonies which I included in my book “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”.
Veteran magazine writer Jeanne Marie Laskas’ new book about America’s invisible workers, “Hidden America”, required a year negotiating with the FAA to finally watch air traffic controllers do their job. You can’t give up if you hope to get good stuff! It is never handed to you in a press release.
A thick skin
This is not a business of delicate phrases and warm hugs. People yell. Some people swear. Some do both. Readers will loathe you and say so in plain language on blogs and amazon where you cannot respond to them. Some critics will pan you.
A sensitive heart
And how, you ask, can you possibly have both of these? You must. The very best writers keep their hearts open — and readers can feel it.
What are you willing to give up or postpone to achieve success as a writer? Work at a horrible day job? Rarely see your husband/wife/sweetie/kids? The world is filled with amusing distractions, but staying focused is the only way to reach your goals.
Especially in journalism and publishing, EQ often beats IQ.
Can you mask your bitterness and frustration (see: drive, persistence, humility) with a big smile and a soft, gentle voice? Can you quickly find a way to relate to someone powerful who’s 30 years younger or older than you? Can you happily continue to network with people whose rudeness, arrogance and/or dismissal of you and your work may have left deep scars?
Members of this tribe are:
passionate about ideas; often deeply insecure about their talent; desperate for recognition and financial reward; ferociously jealous of those above them on the ladder. At every stage of this game, you’ll need every scrap of calm, mature self-management you can muster.
This is also a small industry based on long-term relationships. People in it move from city to city, publisher to publisher. They talk! They meet up every year at the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs and at BEA. We attend and teach at the same conferences.
Keep your nose clean.
You’ll need to forgive yourself when your work fails to find a market. You have to forgive your agent and editor if your book doesn’t hit it big, because they probably gave you their best anyway. Your friends and loved ones will have to forgive you the endless, insane absences that a book or serious project demands — travel and/or solitude.
A stiff spine
No one will stiffen it for you on the latest Monday facing a pile of deadlines — or a dwindling bank account. That’s always going to be your job.
If you’re not intensely curious about the world, what do you have to tell us?
If you’re not intensely curious about how writers think/write/teach/succeed/fail, why do you even want to be one?
If you’re not intensely curious about how to get better at your craft, even after decades, how will you do so?
I’ve given away hours, probably months, of my time and skill and advice over the decades. These days I’m likely to insist on being paid for it, but this business depends on reciprocal help. This week, a friend asked me to read her essay — and wrote me a letter of reference for a fellowship. Last week I spent some time advising one of my assistants, a fresh Columbia J-school grad — and asked her if she’d make an introduction for me at the glossy monthly she’s starting to pitch.
I recently started playing golf. I actually haven’t played a game yet. I just keep going to the driving range, buying a bucket of balls, and hitting for an hour or so. It’s a totally new set of skills. My husband says he won’t play a game with me until I can hit consistently.
Same for would-be writers. Anyone can bang out an awesome piece, once. But it’s showing up for years, doing every single one of them well, that creates a reputation for excellence.
Anyone in journalism, especially, has to crank out good stuff every day — sometimes every hour. That’s what they hired you for!
Here’s a powerful blog post about the determination and stamina it takes to stay in the writing game for the long haul.
Kristen Lamb’s blog about publishing offers a lot of excellent advice.
I really like this blog, Freelance Folder, which offers practical tips.
Want to hear the secrets of book reviewing? Come tonight to Park Slope, Brooklyn to this event at Barnes & Noble.
Do you dream of being a paid writer?
Are you one now?
How’s it going?