Tips from James Scott Bell and some writing friends.
1. What training does a career in writing require?
Mostly it is SELF training. You must teach yourself to write. You can read good books on writing, take courses, go to writing conferences, etc. But the most important thing you must do is WRITE, each day if possible, and APPLY what you are learning. You learn by writing, trying, seeing where you need to improve, and writing some more. There is no shortcut.
In college I wrote to an author I admired asking some of these same questions. He wrote back and said, “Be prepared for an apprenticeship of years.” He was right.
2. What natural abilities or interests are needed for a career in writing?
You should love to read, and be moved by books. You should have some love of words and the rhythms of language. You should be something of a dreamer.
“It seems to me that most writers I know have a natural ability to organize their lives in a way that allows them to do what they do. Messy offices and panic over deadlines aside, a lazy self-indulgent person isn’t going to get far in the writing life IMHO. I think plotting and outlining and planning a book require some natural ability to organize, whether it be a legal pad or twelve or a stack of note cards or a spreadsheet. The mechanics can be honed, but I’m thinking a natural bent towards organization helps tremendously.” (Steph Whitson)
“I would add that they have to enjoy long hours of solitude, have a long enough attention span to finish a 400 page manuscript, then rewrite it several times, and they must be able to accept delayed gratification. If they’re looking for instant gratification, they are in the wrong business…Real writers work quietly, diligently, sometimes slowly, with no feedback (except that from the characters and that feeling in your gut when you know the writing is going well), and hope that someday it will pay off. But as you said, the payoff is really the writing itself. The money is just icing. I may be speaking too broadly here, but I have a hunch that most real writers get much more thrill out of the writing than they do in seeing the book on the shelves. By the time my books come out, I’ve forgotten all about them, because I’m now deeply entrenched in the one I’m working on, enjoying the thrill of that one. The stuff that goes with the book actually coming out is often just an annoyance to me.
“On the other hand, if you ask me while I’m working on a first draft, I’ll tell you I hate my job and wish I would die so I wouldn’t have to finish it. But it’s an agony I’m somewhat addicted to.” (Terri Blackstock)
3. What is the approximate starting salary range for authors?
Using “salary” with fiction writer is like using “sure thing” at the racetrack. When it comes to fiction, there is no regular or predictable income.
Fiction writers get an “advance against royalties” and then the royalties themselves-if any. The advance is a portion of what the publisher thinks the book, when published, will earn in sales. First-time novelists, being unknown commodities, do not demand large advances (though there have been exceptions for first novels that publishers thought would be blockbusters. But most of these bombed out, which hurt the authors’ careers.)
The average income for fiction writers in the U.S. is something very low, maybe $3,000. But that is skewed. A handful of authors make millions; a number make virtually nothing. My goal, and the goal I advise for new writers, is to try to build your audience progressively by writing better and better books. Gain the publishers’ confidence that you can turn in a solid performance every time. Then you will make some money, too. And there’s always that racetrack chance you’ll win the trifecta, and join the John Grishams or Danielle Steeles— just don’t bet the farm.
I don’t advise “quitting your day job” any time soon. Having another source of income is a wise idea, unless and until you have enough of a track record to predict future income. You could always marry somebody very rich, of course.
4. Is there good job availability for those who choose writing?
There is always room for another SUPERB writer. It’s hard to break in, but if you are consistent and persistent, and can show that you can produce over and over again, you can make it.
5. Would you rate the opportunities for advancement as poor, fair, good, or excellent?
As with ANYTHING in our capitalist system, the opportunities for advancement vary with the VALUE that you offer an employer. As an author, if you offer your publisher and readers value in your writing, your advancement possibilities are good to excellent.
But writing, as with all the arts, does not offer as predictable a path as other work, where you can pretty much know that Effort X will result in Reward Y.
But if you are writing only for the money, you’re in the wrong game. You write because there’s an upward pressure on your spirit to write.
6. Could you list a particular advantage to being a writer?
You can’t beat the hours. Or the workplace. Or the dress code. During the summer, I work in shorts, flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt—sometimes at my local Starbucks. I often erupt in spontaneous giggling.
7. A particular disadvantage?
Not knowing how much your next royalty check is going to be. Also, writing concerns can easily take over your life, which is a very real threat to more important things, like your spiritual life, family life, etc. You have to keep watch. If writing becomes the MOST important thing in your day-to-day existence, you could end up like Fitzgerald or or many another writer who turned to the bottle for solace.
“I think the loneliness of the job could be looked at as a disadvantage. I honestly cannot imagine the writing life without Chi Libris to talk to. Not every writer is so blessed to be part of a “community” of writers. There is something to be said for the social aspects of normal work. I’ve been tempted to take a part time job just to be around people.” (Steph Whitson)
8. Do you have any special advice for someone interested in writing (such as college courses to take, things to study)?
Read some good books on the craft (you may check my website, under “Writer’s Helps” for a list of my favorites). Take classes, sure. But remember to PUT INTO PRACTICE what you’re learning. Try stuff. Show it to others. Get feedback. Develop “Rhino skin,” which means you can take criticism without dying the death of a thousand cuts. Remember, no criticism of your writing is personal, unless it’s accompanied by a punch in the nose.
“I tell aspiring writers to PAY ATTENTION to the world around them. Observe people. How they talk, how they move, how they react to different situations. Be a student of life. Live life fully. Try new things. Talk to people who are “different,” people who try things you never would, people from all walks of life, from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Develop a diverse personal world and then take time to really SEE. And take notes!” (Steph Whitson)
From Lisa Samson:
1. Check your ego at the door. Realize that there are plenty of other writers ready to step into your shoes, so be easy to work with. Choose carefully the battlefields on which you are willing to die. Make sure your publisher is glad to hear from you, not wondering what’s wrong with Miss Difficult this time.
2. There’s always room for improvement. If you think you’ve arrived in your writing...it’s time to stop. If you don’t feel the need to grow, you won’t. If you don’t grow, it’s only a matter of time before the excitement is gone. If the excitement is gone...why bother? Think of your commitment to craft as that carrot on the stick, always ahead of you, always leading you forward to better things.
3. Read great writing. It’s great to study books on writing, but don’t get so caught up in the “how to” you forget to study the “how it was done.” Careful reading of masterful works, dissecting prose, dialogue, form, plot, imagery, overall construction, you name it, is crucial to the growing novelist. If you don’t like to read good fiction, that may be a warning sign to consider.
4. Writing isn’t at all glamorous. (Two words: Wal-Mart.) Most of us have no cherry-paneled study overlooking a quiet lake. So find your satisfaction in the act itself. Let it take you all over the world as you sit there above the garage, at the kitchen table, in the living room or the spare bedroom still painted bright yellow from your daughter’s smiley-face days, and remember that the perk is the job itself.]
9. Are there any current problems faced by most authors?
More and more books are being published, an estimated 114,487 in 2001, compared with 39,000 in 1975. This is good news and bad news. Your chances of being published are increased a bit, but your chances of getting noticed in the avalanche are smaller.
The only way to get (and keep) that notice is to become known as someone who writes quality books—emphasis on the plural.
10. Why did you choose writing as your profession?
Writing chose me. It was something I couldn’t NOT do. Even if I never made any money, I was going to write. At the very least I was going to publish at Kinko’s and distribute copies to my family until they shouted “Mercy!” And then I was going to find ANOTHER family to torment.
I do think my fiction writing is a gift from God—so I view what I do as my gift back to Him. If I start to think it’s all me, I’m sunk. See Deuteronomy 8:17, 18 on this.
11. Looking back across your career and where you are now, was it worth everything you did, everything you sacrificed to get where you are?
The “sacrifice” is really countless hours spent trying, studying, trying again, surviving disappointment and on and on. But since that was the only way I was going to get anywhere in the writing game, it was certainly worth it. I loved the learning. Flashbulbs would go off when I discovered something, and then saw I could do it. I still love that aspect of the craft. I will never stop trying to learn to do things better.
Not to discount the frustrations and obstacles. They are real. But if writing is what you must do, and you love it, you can keep going. I like this quote from an old professor at the Yale Divinity School named Grenville Kleiser:
Be done with the past, save where it serves to inspire you to greater and nobler effort. Be done with regrets over vanished opportunities, seeming failures, and bitter disappointments….Be done with the “might have been” and think of the “shall be.”…Trust God that no good is ever lost or withheld.
May God bless you in your future endeavors.