Listen to this post
“Step up private! So, you think you want to be a writer. And have they warned you, what kind of a grueling, draining, and utterly unrewarding the job of writing is?”
“And you still want to do it?”
“By God, there must be something wrong with the brains of you lot.”
“Nevermind. Go speak with the quartermaster; he’ll give you some paper and something to write. And son, guard that pencil with your life, you won’t get another.”
People think of writing as an art form, or as a profession, a craft, a hobby, a passion, a business, or a way of self-expression– all these are perfectly valid ways of looking at writing, but each comes with its unique set of challenges. Every successful writer faced them all and found ways to overcome them.
While I can’t guide you through every challenge out there, I want to share the things I wish I understood when I started writing years ago. Maybe then, I wouldn’t have sent my very first unedited short story to the top magazine of my genre.
Being a Writer
A baker bakes, a painter paints, a writer… tries to avoid writing at all cost. We can be ridiculous about that sometimes but remember: you are a writer when you write. The more you write and learn about your craft, the better writer you become. If you don’t write, then you’re as good as a baker who developed an irrational fear of the oven.
The Finances and Timelines of Writing
I’d like to get this one out of the way. It may be years before your writing can pay even for a single sheet of paper or a pencil. Most people who assume they will be different find out they’re not, and quit, leaving more space to the rest of us. You can do yourself a tremendous favor if you prepare for the long run. For most people, a writing career really is a marathon.
If your goal is to get published, a couple of years is a reasonable timeline.
Should I Write Novels or Short Stories or…?
Try both. Don’t get too attached to your early work, though. Most writers have a special hole in the wall, or a loose floorboard, where they hide their early manuscripts. Your only goal near the beginning is to get all the bad writing out of your system as soon as you can.
Be pragmatic and stick with either short stories (around 5000 words) or novels (60000 – 80000 words). These two lengths are the easiest to sell, and they teach you how to work against a word count.
Plotting and Pantsing
There are two extremes on the spectrum of how people write. On one end, you have people who spend significant time planning out the events of their stories before they write the opening line. They call themselves plotters. On the other end, there are those who make their stories up as they go along. They fly by the seat of their pants, so to say, and therefore are called pantsers.
If you’re just starting, try both extremes and see which one produces better results. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches so you’ll do well if you can find a balanced middle ground. Planning and spontaneity aren’t mutually exclusive.
Long gone are the days of a writer sitting at his typewriter, producing pages of near-perfect prose. Most writing today is produced in a series of drafts.
The first draft, also called the vomit draft, is to get all the raw out there on paper. The second draft, or a rewrite, focuses on fixing all the problems and inconsistencies of the story. You only start worrying about the style when you get to the third draft.
Don’t be surprised if your story requires five or six second drafts.
How to Get Feedback
Friends and family are great to begin with, but make sure you only send your work to those who read a lot. Uncle Stephen, who never read a book in his life, may not be the best authority on writing, even if he’s eager to offer advice.
After writing a couple of stories, search online for a writing workshop. It’s a place where you can share your work with other writers and get feedback. Finding out what complete strangers think of your stories can do wonders for your writing.
The two sites that come to mind are Lit Reactor and Scribophile. Membership costs a few bucks, but these are the kinds of focused communities that can help you grow.
Standard Manuscript Format
Here’s the Standard Manuscript Format preferred by the industry. Use it. It makes you look professional when you submit your stories to editors and agents.
Submitting Your Work
Finding out where to submit can be tricky business. You need to figure out the specifics for yourself. But here are a couple of places to begin:
Submission Grinder – a free tool listing currently open calls for submissions and other helpful details like the acceptance ratio. It’s run by Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), so the selection of publications may be biased towards genre fiction.
Duotrope – same as above, but this is a paid service. I never used it, but it’s popular and boasts a large catalog of available publications.
Writer’s Market – a listing of current openings in the world of writing. A good place to search for agents. Writer’s Market releases a print version of their directory every year.
Expect your stories to be rejected. Many, many times.
Embrace rejection, each one moves you closer to your goals. Think of all those rejection letters as battle-scars on the body of a warrior. These are marks of experience, not failure.
Most rejections you’ll receive are going to be polite form rejections, but sometimes you may get a personal rejection letter. This means an editor liked certain aspects of your story but disliked others. He took time out of his busy schedule to help you, take what he says to heart.
A writing career, like all things worth pursuing, takes time. It’s the domain of the dogged, the bloody-minded, and the persistent. Stay in the game long enough, and you’ll be fine. Quit, and you’ll never know how far you could’ve gotten.
Bonus – Great Books on Writing
I hesitated whether I should mention these or not. I’m not a big fan of listicles since they tend to give you a lot of information, but very little knowledge. I’ve read many books on the craft over the years, these are my favorites. I suggest that instead of tossing them all into your Goodreads bag of books to read, I suggest you pick only one and give it a try.
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury – Ray’s thoughtful advice on the craft. Anything said by a prolific and influential writer such as he is worth considering.
The Elements of Style by W. Strunk & E.B. White – Short, sweet, and to the point. This book can teach you, in very few words, about the value of writing in a clear style.
Structuring Your Novel by K.M. Weiland – Great guide for novices and intermediate writers alike. A couple of techniques from this book opened my eyes, and made me understand how “it’s done.”
The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman – Read only if you want to have your deepest dreams shattered by an uncompromising voice of industry reason. If you intend to turn your dreams into reality at some point, you should give this one a read.
Story Engineering by Larry Brooks – There’s a degree of engineering to every domain of art. In visual arts, people learn human anatomy and study how light diffuses in different environments. In writing, there’s the ever-present three-act structure. Read if you want to understand the technical side of storytelling.
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder – No-nonsense collection of techniques used by Hollywood screenwriters. Overdoing them leads to stories and movies that feel manufactured, but using them thoughtfully can have a great impact on your ability to tell great stories.