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I know people now writing their third or fourth (unpublished) novel.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?
21 thoughts on “So you want to be a writer? How badly?”
Yes, I dream of being a paid fiction writer, at least one who can afford to live semi-comfortably. I’ve only been paid once for my work, about $100 for a short story. I hope someday to get paid again. For now, I just want to get my name out there a little more. Speaking of which, know anyone who’s looking for a young, aspiring writer who writes horror, science fiction, fantasy, and thriller?
I’ve been writing, editing and managing publications professionally for 30 years, and I often dream of being a paid writer! I know what I mean. I’m sure you do too! Joking aside, it’s gotten VERY hard lately; that ideal of stamina is very much part of the deal. Especially now with the ground-shift in print media and publishing – I have virtually given up trying to pitch features. Even if they’re used, I spend more time and effort chasing payment than it’s worth. Book writing has always been more lucrative, but even that is staggering a bit just now. It’s a matter of adapting and moving onwards and upwards, of course.
I have been lucky enough to get some on-line photo editing work and paid speaking engagements to boost my income. I asked one of my editors for a raise yesterday — the publisher has not raised their rates in five years. You can guess the answer.
All great points and I have none of them but that’s ok because I know I wouldn’t even begin to want be a writer – I like pictures too much!
Yes, I dream of being a paid writer. I believe I possess the qualities you listed and discussed (my blog is anonymous to respect the privacy of my children). There have been several times where I’ve thought I was very close–and then the rest of life got in the way. Being a writer is being determined, not giving up. There have been times when I’ve needed to shelve my dream, but I’ve yet to lock it away.
I don’t have kids, which I know makes this all a lot simpler. Hope you get to make it happen.
Thanks, I’m hoping, and I’m working on it 🙂
A wonderful and accurate list. I particularly like ‘Every writer is scared shitless on some level, often on so many levels we resemble a multi-storey office tower’ – so true! Perhaps there are two points I’d add. I think it’s important to write what you want to write; writing what a writer things will sell usually ends in tears. The other is ‘compare yourself to no one’ – so while awareness and connection are really important, particularly in terms of a willingness to hear and accept advice, I believe a sense of isolation is equally important. Final point, and for me it’s a biggie: a writer who gets paid for their work doesn’t mean he or she is an excellent writer; similarly, someone who doesn’t get paid a cent doesn’t mean they are a bad writer. There are only two kinds of writer: a great writer and a writer who is yet to produce great writing. Here endeth the lesson!
I knew you’d weigh in! Glad you did….
It is deeply alluring to compare yourself to others, and in NY you could just slit your throat daily at the adulation and $$$$$ and success others have, easily and young. Why can’t I?????? one whines.
I have always been surprised (and grateful) what of my work has rocketed my career upward. It’s not what I expected and it’s actually what I feared might even end it. But that’s your point, I think. Write from your heart and people can feel it. They are deeply hungry for it, ever more so these days. The best advice I got from my speaking coach was to be “emotionally naked” — which very few speakers are. Those who hate hearing that, hate it. But those who love it thirst for that honesty.
Isolation is really important, and it’s lonely and painful and I think many would-be writers avoid it. But that’s where the really good stuff bubbles up.
Thanks, Nigel. I so love our antipodean connection!
i’m very glad you wrote this. i don’t possess all of those things, and i know which ones specifically have been my downfall. when i get two or three rejections, i give up, and i think, “oh well, not gonna happen.” i get great reviews from blog followers whom i trust, and i need that “cheerleader” affect to keep me going, but i don’t yet have the ability to keep my foot on the pedal. i have a bit of a fear of failure.
i’m constantly asked why i haven’t been published yet, and i’m constantly told that it’s going to happen – but it won’t unless i gain the ability to just make a fist and keep my feet moving.
a couple of months ago i was approached by an editor who saw my writing online and asked to work with me. she’s had her name on more than one NYT bestsellers. and she said she would forego her usual fee to instead take a percentage, which – to me – says she has great confidence in me. and then when she told me what she wanted me to do to revise, i just started retreating.
i don’t know how to get that “drive.’ maybe it’s something you either have or don’t have. i don’t know enough, but i need to find out.
thanks again for this. it might help me a great deal.
Go! gogogogogogogogogoggogoggogo. Go!!!!!!
Seriously, this is insanely great news. An editor found you and wants your work. Shriek. End-zone dance.
This will sound arrogant, but fuck it, it’s my blog. You can NOT be scared of failure, or of success. Because…what does failure look like? Sound like? Feel like? (Rhetorical question, your homework.) I was a BIG fat success by 27…and deeply envious people gossiped viciously about me and it hurt like shit and I left Toronto and never came back. My books have gotten some breathtakingly mean “reviews” — like “she’s bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy.”
WTF? You can only laugh! I do believe you must want it so badly that you push the pedal down and (steer!) and GO!!!!!! It might be fear that your friends or family or kids will be envious or annoyed or threatened. Or your dog. Whatever. If you REALLY want X you will go get X. Figure what is frightening to you about what happens if you get it (or fail to get it.)
“Failure” is not failure at all. It is a temporary setback. It teaches us what we didn’t foresee or prepare for. I have failed plenty. Just pick up, dust off and go.
The only true “failure” in my book is death. No do-overs there.
thanks, miss. i need to save all that so i can re-read it. there are days when i say, “i can’t find any good fiction. mine kicks ass on all of it.” other days i’m feeling like, “who am i to say that? what have i ever done?” but i also have to remember that those with successful fiction were once in the same chair i’m in without having yet done anything either.
Thanks for the coaching and encouragement …. ONE DAY
Yes I did/do dream of being a paid writer. My high school English teacher begged me to major in English; instead I became a cop, now I’m a nurse. I’m only 27; I’m getting restless again in my career and it’s always in the back of my mind that I might become a full-time writer. Your post gave me much to consider about the vocation.
It’s a very tough world. I think many people assume that talent/hard work are enough and it is such a crapshoot. The two fields you have already worked in are steady, decently-paid and there is always work to be had. The same can NOT be said of being a writer, unless you can do (and want to) technical writing. I’d urge you to consider keeping a “day job” (this is no reflection on you) and writing on the side. The stress of not having a steady income can certainly crimp one’s urge to write.
Indeed, the income is more a “sure thing” with what I do now. What appeals to me about writing is that it seems you can jump into it later in life (by that I mean beyond your early 20’s in college) and potentially become very successful at it. Success might mean having a column in your local paper every month, writing a popular online blog read by people all over the world, or having a book become a best-seller. I’m very attracted to the idea -which I still believe in the Facebook/Twitter world- is that words can provoke change in society.
Yes and no.
Yes, it’s very true you can take up writing at any age and you can indeed find different definitions for yourself of what “succcess” looks like. I think you’re wise to see it can have different forms. But I would gently caution against the very popular fantasy of your book being a best-seller. It’s extremely difficult and the system is often (shockingly) gamed by people able to buy up their own books, for example.
I do agree that words can provoke change. The challenge these days, I think, is to cut through the insane amount of chatter to be heard by people with the real power and desire to make change.
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