Monday, May 20, 2013

So You Want to Be a Writer....

When I first heard that Tony, the 20-year-old son of our good friends Hank and Mary, had made the decision to drop out of college to become a writer, I paled. It's such a risky business. He was doing so well in college and he could only be helped with more training, more education, more time to mature.

But, of course, he wasn't asking my opinion of his decision -- and who can talk a 20-year-old with a dream into or out of anything anyway?

His rationale did make a certain amount of sense: when better to take a risk like trying to break into the writing business than when one has two well-employed parents, supportive of his dreams, who can offer food and shelter and when a part-time job can bring in whatever additional money one needs? And when an absence of other obligations gives one the opportunity to drop back into college if that turns out to be the best option after all?

When I visited Tony and his parents last night, he showed me his work in progress. He is off to a good start. He does seem to have a good sense of the fantasy niche and a compelling story to tell. There are aspects of his writing style that reveal inexperience and a nervous inclination to tell the reader too much. But he is working. He is writing. And he is open to constructive criticism, which is good.  I am working on very specific comments to share with him that I hope will be helpful.

Of course, as an experienced writer, there is so much more I would like to tell him. But how do I share the realities of the business without dampening his enthusiasm?

One reality is that here are many people with talent, with a dream and with wonderful stories to tell.

On the other hand, there is the business of writing and publishing.

For every newcomer who snags a six-figure advance, there are many thousands of others, some equally talented, who never publish or, if they do, get considerably more modest advances.

There are the career ups and downs and the fact that many experienced, published writers don't make a lavish living or, indeed, a living at all.

There are trends. Niches and genres go in and out of fashion. Certain kinds of writers can become unfashionable as well.

When I was younger, someone with an M.D. or Ph.D. was a shoo-in to write non-fiction books. At the advice of an agent with whom I was briefly associated, I returned to graduate school in my forties to complete an academic Ph.D. and a clinical Master's degree in psychology. In part, this was to create an alternate source of income for the lean writing times, but, in large part, it was to increase my marketability as a writer in the areas of psychology, health and self-help. However, when I emerged from eight years of school, clinical internships and the prolonged licensing process, I was greeted with the news from the publishing world that "experts are out, real people are in..."

Just as in other speculative ventures, it's hard to time the market and anticipate trends, especially when your attempt to be trendy takes some years.

There is a blockbuster/celebrity mentality that goes with many of the publishing houses now owned by entertainment conglomerates.  In this culture, the celebrities rule and the lesser knowns pay the price. In one memorable instance, a publishing house had paid Jay Leno millions of dollars in advance for an autobiography that bombed. To partially recoup losses, they cancelled the contracts of about 100 lesser known writers.

Recently, best-selling novelist Scott Turow, who is also a lawyer and current president of The Authors' Guild, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times decrying a recent Supreme Court decision to allow the importation of foreign editions of American works -- often cheaper than domestically produced books and now being sold on a secondary market with no royalties for the authors. He pointed out that, until now, such a move has been forbidden as a violation of copyright laws and that this new erosion of copyright will not hurt best-selling authors like him as much as the lesser known "mid-list" authors and newcomers to the business.

He also saw bad news for new and mid-list authors in traditionally published e-books, pointing out that while these are much less expensive to produce than paper books, the savings have not been shared with authors. He stated that the six major publishing houses all insist on limiting e-book royalties to 25% of net receipts. While best-selling authors like Turow can negotiate better deals for themselves in their contracts, lesser known writers don't have such power. He said that they find their earnings declining as a result and "that will accelerate as the market pivots more toward digital."

Despite declining fortunes, there are many still eager to publish. And now there is another challenge: the Platform. You don't just need talent and hard work. Now you need to have a platform to ensure the success of the book -- a platform that will enable you to promote yourself and your writing to the widest possible audience. Celebrity is the ultimate platform. Blogging is an essential part of a platform and the ability to promote yourself and to use social networking to your best advantage are other essentials.

And despite all these efforts, most published writers are not rich or famous. Many of us are like working actors -- there is some rub-off glamour, but not the riches or the fame a beginner might imagine.

Of course, whether one becomes rich at writing or not, or even publishes, there is still the joy of doing what one loves -- and that's a huge reason to take the risk of trying.

I know well the joys of doing work one loves -- and I've been doing it for a long time. I have skills. I have multiple degrees in journalism and psychology. I have a track record: a dozen books and hundreds of magazine articles published. I have a wonderful agent. And still it isn't easy.

I can well understand -- and applaud -- the growth of self-publishing, giving writers more control and a chance to bypass traditional gatekeepers. New possibilities bring hope in a time of diminishing prospects for people who are not already famous.

But, of course, many -- including my young friend -- still hope for a traditional publishing contract and a chance to make a living as a writer.

What equips one to compete in such a fierce and changing marketplace?

A strong need and will to write.  This is quite different from wanting to live the imagined writers' lifestyle, to be famous, to pen a lucrative best seller.

It means that writing is a part of who you are, something you've always done for fun and for personal satisfaction and growth. It means that you love the process and would write even if you didn't get paid but yet dream of having your passion also be your career.

Excellent skills. Even those young writers who have hit the jackpot with a lucrative first novel or break-through non-fiction book may well have worked for years to hone their craft before what looks like an overnight success.

The best writers make it look easy. But it isn't.

When I was a college sophomore, I thought I knew everything there was to know about writing. Then I encountered my toughest writing teacher ever -- Elizabeth Swayne, an Australian journalist who taught me everything I didn't know -- and that was a lot. I shuddered as I looked over her syllabus for my first writing class with her. She began it with "Do not bore me!" And she proceeded to write more than I did -- in blazing red grease pencil -- on my first paper for the class and gave me a "C-minus." I was crushed until I realized that was the highest grade in the class. Some of us eventually got A's in her class, but we worked hard and listened and put our egos on hiatus to learn what we so needed to learn: to write clearly and concisely.

Agents and editors get many thousands of submissions a day. When I was a magazine editor, for a publication not known as a major market for writers, we still got thousands of submissions a month. Most were totally unacceptable -- not the correct tone or subject matter (about 99% of those submitting short stories or articles had not bothered to read our magazine first).  Most were also badly written, something we could tell from the first paragraph.

So you may have mere seconds to make an impression on an editor or agent.

The wisdom to treat writing as a business.  It is an art. But, if you want to make a living at it, writing needs to be a business. If you want to support yourself as a writer, you put your rear end in the chair and write, hour after hour, day after day, whether you feel like it or not -- just like any other job.

During the years I was working full-time as a free-lance writer, people would smile and ask me how I got inspired to write, how often inspiration came. I would reply that I got most inspired when I looked at a stack of bills to be paid.

It was true, at least in part. If you want to be a writer, a self-supporting writer, you can't be a tortured artiste awaiting inspiration. You just sit down and do it. You meet your deadlines. You deliver what your agent and publishers and readers expect.

Once, when on a trip to New York, I had lunch with another well-established writer who told me about her trials with her publisher when the book she delivered was radically different from the outline of the book idea they had bought a year before. She asked how closely I stuck to my original outlines. Like glue. That was the deal. Unless my editor felt something wasn't working. Unless I thoroughly discussed a change of direction with an editor before trying it. Of my dozen books, only one had to be re-written -- and that was because the turnover at that publishing house was so bad that I had seven different editors on the project and each one had a somewhat different vision for my book.

When you see writing as a business, in addition to a passion and an art, you can discuss possible changes with an editor without getting hysterical about defending your golden prose. You learn to pick your battles. You learn there are many good and right ways to say something.

Over the years of my freelance writing, some people have said to me "It must be so great to not have to work! I mean, to just sit around and write and be creative and have that freedom."

They had no idea. I had the freedom to work seven days a week -- which I often did when an article or book deadline was looming. There were a lot of setbacks and disappointments as well as triumphs. I did not have the security of a regular paycheck or benefits. The riskiness of the business made me work harder than I ever did for a regular paycheck.

The confidence and skill to make your writing like fine music.  There is a difference between writing that is technically excellent and writing that leaps off the page and sings. Later in my college career, I began to learn the difference in a critique from yet another writing teacher -- Clarus Backes, who was editor of the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine at the time.

He gave me back a paper with the comment "This is excellent, but you need to take your writing a step beyond this. You need to put something of yourself into it. The fine pianist hits all the right notes, but the vituoso puts something of himself into the music and that makes all the difference.  I know you can do that in time. Everything else has come along beautifully."

His challenge has given me a goal to strive for to this day.

Building life experiences, skills and options.  The lovely thing about being a writer is that every life experience you have adds to the richness of your literary expertise. Every class you take, every person you meet, every failure and disappointment, every small step toward success is a growth opportunity, both personally and professionally.

Sometimes experience in a field besides writing can ignite a wonderfully successful writing career.

Although I did things backwards and became a psychotherapist years AFTER my first book was published, my training and experience as a therapist brought a whole new depth to my writing.

Continuing to study and learn all your life is essential: fine-tuning one's writing skills, learning more about the world  and, not so incidentally, developing skills that offer support and options through the ups and downs of the writing life.

Many established writers go the academic route. The novelist Joyce Carol Oates can certainly claim considerable success as a writer, yet she spends much of her time as a college professor.

Scott Turow's writing career grew out of his profession as a lawyer,  Patricia Cornwell's from her career as a medical examiner. There have been successful doctor-writers -- from Michael Crichton to the amazing author-performer-director Jonathan Miller to Samuel Shem, the pseudonym for the Harvard psychiatrist who wrote the classic "House of God" that amused and inspired several generations of young doctors. Some of these left their original professions to become full-time writers; others, like Samuel Shem, wrote strictly as an avocation.

All of the above doesn't mean that my young friend Tony, the aspiring novelist, shouldn't be writing. If he has what it takes to succeed in this business, nothing I say will dampen his enthusiasm.

But it's important that he -- along with other aspiring writers -- follows his dream with his eyes -- and his mind -- wide open. I would encourage him in so many ways: to keep working on his novel; to study writing; to learn the business; to learn from his failures; to celebrate his successes, both large and small, to keep questioning and exploring the world around him. Doing all of this will not only give him a chance to make his dream reality but will also give him the resources to have a good and satisfying life as well.


  1. Ten years ago, I didn't think that writing a book was easy, however, neither did I think it would be very hard.

    I have since figured out much of what you've said in this post and by reading books on writing and publishing.

    Will your young friend, Tony, be reading it? You've detailed a lot of important facts and considerations. Seeing something in print sometimes resonates more than the spoken word.

    I wish him much fortitude.

    As for me, I wrote a non-fiction manuscript years ago, but shelved it once I discovered blogging. Reflecting back, it was a training ground, as is my blog.

    If I discover a "gimmick" that feels right to me, maybe I'll tackle the desire to be published again. :)

    As for now, I will continue to read and write, and hope to improve. A class might even be in my future.

    Continued best wishes to you!

  2. Such excellent and well thought out advice. I know my writing will never reach beyond the blog, but what you've posted here makes me think carefully about what I write there.

    I hope your young friend makes it as a writer~

  3. I find that my writing is best in the form of emails!

  4. This post should be required reading for any aspiring writer, Kathy. I will never write anything more than a blog post or a sermon, but I've still learned from what you've written here.

    if I'm honest I think your young friend has made a mistake in leaving college to write - especially novels. Fiction - even a fantasy novel - demands more than mere imagination. It needs experience of life and a real understanding of what makes people tick. By all means take time out to write, if you're lucky enough to have financial support, but get that education first. :-)

  5. When I was in my early twenties I decided that I had to be a writer! I quite my job and was determined to live off my savings until I took the world by storm! Unfortunately for me -- and the world -- I did not have the discipline, the knowledge or the talent to be even a mediocre novelist. I am, however, not a bad journalist. I can research and put facts together in a reasonable fashion. You have given a brilliant analysis of what it means to be a 'writer'. I think it is also important to be able to analyse your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Not long ago a friend suggested to me that I should write a book, specifically a novel. I know I would not be good at this kind of writing because I do not have that kind of imagination.

  6. You hit all the notes! Wonderful post for all aspiring writers, including this one. Thank you.

    p.s. Do you mind if I shared this post on Facebook?

  7. Good read for all potential, aspiring writers, Kathy... It's hard sometimes to try to tell a 20 yr. old to get their education first... When do we encourage them to follow their dreams and when do we not???? It's a hard call... Encouragement is one major part of making dreams come true... I had dreams --but ended up getting married and having babies..Talk about a life-changer!!!! ha

    Thanks for this post.. I hope all aspiring writers take time to read and study it.


  8. I emailed the link to this article to myself so I can read it again from time to time.

  9. Dear Kathy, this posting is excellent. You bring to it years of writing and being published. That has given you the background to truly help all of us who seek to write and to published.

    I believe that the majority of writers don't write just to put the manuscript in a drawer. Writing is a conversation. It's a way to communicate. Someone communicates in a book and if the communication is to work, someone else needs to read it and respond in some way. And when that someone else writes a letter or leaves a comment on a blog then we know that the two of us have communicated.

    This posting needs to be published far and wide. I am in awe of your ability to write with such clarity about a rather complicated publishing world today. Thank you for al the work and effort you have put into this posting.

    I am sending the URL for this posting to a friend with whom I spoke last evening. He is just finishing his first novel and your words will put into perspective what might happen next. Peace.

  10. It is so interesting to read about your experiences as well as your advice for aspiring writers. It seems a very hard job, to me!

  11. It is a hard slog, writing, and the odds of success are so slim it's got to be a work of love.

    I am glad at least for the self-publishing opportunities now available.