Six impossible things

Spring Shadows, or How Should I Become A Writer, Ms. Pro?

Spring is always a busy time for YA authors and would-be authors. Teachers are trying to come up with ways of keeping middle-grade and younger students interested when the weather is turning nice, so they have students write to their favorite authors, and if they can swing it, they schedule author visits. High school students are worrying about college, and college students are worrying about what to major in (and perhaps about grad school), and their career counselors are urging them to contact someone in their field for an interview, to find out what jobs are available and what skills they’ll need. (And there are a raft of good, fun SF/F conventions, for those of us in that field.)

Most of the time, the student authors I talk to have fairly realistic expectations. The trouble is, they often have teachers who are trying to shoehorn an atypical career (writing fiction) into a standard set of questions and procedures. Here are some of the things that come my way, and how I usually respond.

I’m supposed to job shadow someone in my field; would you be willing?

Job shadowing a fiction writer is about as worthwhile as watching paint dry. I sit and type; sometimes, I’m typing answers to emails from my agent, my editors, or my fans, or answering/forwarding inquiries about subrights availability, sometimes I’m writing a blog post, but mostly I’m working on some aspect of a book. Once in a while, I get up and look something up in a book, or flip open my browser and google something on the Internet. None of it is particularly interesting or informative. You’re better off just doing a long interview.

OK. I have a bunch of interview questions I’m supposed to ask, too.

Go for it.

What is the best part of your job?

Being able to set my own hours.

What is the most stressful part of your job?

Having to set my own hours.

See, writing isn’t terribly predictable. Some days – or weeks – I’m going great guns and I can do three work sessions a day and get 5,000 or more words per day. Other days, I struggle to get 200 words. And it’s terribly tempting to slack off on nice days and go to the park, regardless of how well I’m doing or how far behind I am. (Somehow, one is never ahead. Not ever.)

Where did you go to school and receive your training?

I went to Carleton College and majored in Biology. Any “training” specifically for writing was in the School of Hard Knocks.

What training would you recommend? What classes should I take?

Learn to type. Even if you are a pen-and-paper writer, or a chisel-and-stone writer, you will eventually have to get your manuscript into typewritten form, and it will go a lot faster and easier if you know how to type. Yes, you can pay somebody else to do it, but that’s an additional upfront expense that not very many writers can afford.

Also, learn to budget. The odds of a fiction writer having a steady, reliable income are not good, not even for the blockbuster Big Names. If you can’t cope with that, you’ve got a problem. A couple of business classes for entrepreneurs would be really useful, but almost nobody actually does that, so I can’t really claim they’re necessary.

In addition, I’d recommend taking enough basic English grammar that you understand what a dangling participle is, know the difference between “affect” and “effect,” and can recognize and avoid writing things like the “wrong” example sentences in The Deluxe Transitive Vampire even if you can’t explain exactly why. I also recommend reading vast quantities of fiction and nonfiction, of as many different types as possible (but if you are only doing this because you think you want to write, it probably won’t help much).

Beyond that, take whatever classes interest you. It’s all material, and it’s especially nice if you are interested in something that might lead to a paying day job. (See “learn to budget,” above.)

Wait a minute! Shouldn’t I take Creative Writing? Or at least English?

Hardly any of the professional writers I know took Creative Writing before they became writers. I can think of two who did, and two more who got M.F.A.s after they sold some novels, but that’s it for CW, so obviously it’s not particularly necessary. If you find it useful, go ahead.

English – well, about a third of the professional writers I know majored in English, and they’re some of the best writers I know (in my own opinion, of course). All of them had considerable trouble getting started though – and not because they weren’t writing well enough to be published. The trouble was that English teaches you how to see what’s wrong with a story, but not how to correct it, so all my English-major friends were extremely discouraged by their own early efforts (since they could spot every flaw, they thought they were terrible writers. Even though I have learned to point out that they should be comparing themselves to other not-yet-published writers, rather than to Jane Austen and Shakespeare and Dickens and Faulkner.) As long as you’re prepared for that effect, and stubborn enough to keep on in spite of it, English is a perfectly good choice.

What kinds of jobs are available in your field?

There aren’t any, not the kind you mean, with a boss and an office you go to and a regular salary. There are a few one-time jobs, like ghostwriting someone else’s book, and there are a number of related jobs that aren’t actually writing, like teaching, editing, proofreading, agenting, etc., but novelists are freelancers. That means that whatever you make is yours (less what Uncle Sam takes), but it also means that if you happen not to make anything, you’re out of luck.

Has the field changed much since you entered it?

Oh, boy, has it. And it’s currently in the middle of two of the biggest changes in well over sixty years: the explosion in e-books, and the concurrent rise of print-on-demand and, which have opened up distribution possibilities that authors have never had before. It’s a little complex to be going into in this kind of interview, but believe me, the book field is changing so fast that everyone in it is dizzy. So pay careful attention, use your brains, and check the dates on any advice you get about the business, because chances are it will be out of date in six months.

And that includes all of this.

  1. Love your “check the sell by date” advice! So true!

  2. Ha ha ha. It seems like they have set questions that they didn’t even really think about. I mean, asking to shadow an author would definitely be boring.

  3. Oh, yes, definitely on the sell-by date. And make sure that there is one. All too often on the Web, there is not. When matters.

    I just started my blog yesterday. Today, I decided to connect it to my LinkedIn account. Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to the Web I go for instructions. Two sets did not work. It seems that LinkedIn has changed since those instructions were written. The instructions did not have dates.

    I finally did get it to work, but only after reading complaints about how LinkedIn was not allowing links to blogs. That was out of date which I could tell because the complaints were dated 2010.

    “The water in Boston Harbor is tea-coloured today.” “What?” “Oh, the morning of December 17, 1773.”

  4. Once upon a time, I was sitting in the hotel lobby waiting for my sister to finish what she was doing at the con, and working on revising a manuscript longhand.

    A friend of hers came along and, when I said she was coming, waited for her. Then we went to lunch. He told about her how I was going zip, zip, zip down the page, scribbling and scribbling and scribbling, then on to the next page. He sounded fascinated. She was rather more blase, having often seen me writing.

    So it might be interesting for a few minutes.

  5. I’ve often thought that writing is one of those things that we do because we can’t help ourselves–because it keeps us marginally sane, because the story or characters won’t shut up and leave us be until we write at least some of them. So my questions would be more like: how do you force yourself to be disciplined with writing while juggling a day job +/- kids? How do you make the new shiny ideas shut up so you can work on the piece with an actual deadline? How do you force or cajole or sneak your way through the granite walls of a writer’s block?

    🙂 Thank you for this piece!

  6. Mary, when I was at my alma mater, I had classmates choke on what I was doing with my rough drafts. “Is it really that bad?” Well, no. I am the world’s meanest editor but. I would be busily marking where I should put a comma, etc. I have learned that it is easy to miss such small edit marks so I tend to circle my edits as well which makes them look bigger.

  7. I took Creative Writing in college, and also a Fiction Writing studio. They were immensely useful to me even though I didn’t learn a great deal from them directly, because they built writing time into my week. I will note that one of the most common delusions I have run into in intelligent, creative high school and college students is the idea that they will not be so busy when they are out of school. “Ha ha,” quoth the Mris, also, “Ho ho,” and similar. Some people really are more overscheduled than they’ll otherwise be. But most people are experiencing the effects of *their personality* (ask me how I know) and need to learn to build in time for things they value sooner rather than later.

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