Some Words of Advice for a Young Writer

TheTruthGirl recently dropped by the comments and asked the following question:

Writing is my dream, and all that I have ever wanted to do. The idea of a day job is odious, but a necessary evil. I guess, what I’m trying to say is, would you have any writing advice for someone in my position?

At which point, regular readers are probably chuckling a little, ’cause this is one of those topics I can rabbit on about for a while. Turns out, I’ve waxed lyrical about all manner of writing advice in the last couple of years – a lot of it conveniently located under the craft/process and the business/writing life categories here on the blog – and I actually a post about things I wish I’d known as a young writer after I did a talk at a high-school last year. I’m also gearing up to spend a whole year writing blog posts about writing and publishing over at the Australian Writers Marketplace blog through 2015 (and if you’ve missed me talking about writing, you should probably start heading over there more often).

That said, I threw together a few things that are useful to know when you’re a young writer, and it quickly grew too long for the comments system on the blog, so it became a blog post unto itself.

One: Start Writing and Submitting Your Work Now

If you’re writing SF/Fantasy, head to Ralan.com to find markets. Submit to the best place (highest paying/most read) first, then work your way down the list if they reject your work. Treat getting the work out as the achievement, not getting published (since you have no control over whether an editor says yes), and focus on getting as much work out as possible over the next couple of years.

The sole exception I’d make to the “start at the top” rule, in Australia, is submitting work to Voiceworks magazine, which is specifically aimed at publishing work from writers under the age of twenty-five, pays pretty well for an Australian fiction magazine, and is a great way of getting to know other young writers.

Two: Don’t Take Rejection Personally

The thing most people struggle with, in terms of writing, is the rejection. It’s never particularly bothered me, but you do have to get used to hearing editors say “sorry, this is’t right for us” quite a bit.

You need a thick skin. Or, at least, the ability to get rejected a lot without taking it like a punch to the ego that will stop you from writing forever. But a thick skin is better – you’re less likely to complain about your rejections on facebook or twitter.

Three: Develop Your Writing Skills and Learn How the Industry Works

Australia has a number of state writers centres that are a fantastic resource for writers at every stage of their career, which offer any number of courses that will education you about aspects of writing and the publishing business (I may be a little biased about this, given that I work at Queensland Writers Centre). The only state that doesn’t have one is WA, but they have a number of regional writers centres that pick up the slack.

I also got a lot of mileage out of my university degree in creative writing, which forced me to study a whole bunch of things I wasn’t all that interested in – from poetry and script-writing, through to lit-theory and novelists that I hated – that ultimately made me a much better writer and forced me to produce a lot of the early work I submitted.

Four: Ignore the People Who Tell You There Is No Money In Writing

They’re not exactly wrong – I’m not a full-time writer by any stretch of the imagination – but I managed to avoid having a full-time job until I was thirty through a combination of writing, writing-related work gigs, and preparing for the occasional month or three of unemployment.

The problem with writing, as a career, is that people who aren’t writers have their perceptions of the job warped by the fact that you only ever hear about the extreme outliers in term of income. They think “succesful, full-time writer” means Stephen King, JK Rowlings, Nora Roberts, James Paterson, and other big, best-sellers, which is kind of like saying that there’s no money in being a doctor unless you’re a highly successful neurosurgeon.

Basically, there’s are a whole lot more people making a living from writing than non-writers think, although it often takes a lot of time and effort to get there. The upside is you tend to make more money as you go along, since the way writing income works is heavily dependant on reprints and royalties, which means you can keep getting paid for work you did a decade ago.

Five: Be Prepared to Write a Lot and Think Long-Term

When you look at the people who do make their living out of writing alone, they write a lot. A book a year, at a minimum, and many of them are much, much faster. They’ll also add other income streams to their writing income, whether it’s through teaching or providing editorial services.

I mention this ’cause a lot of times, in my day job at the writers centre, I talk to people who dream of making it big on the back of their first novel. I generally start encouraging them to start thinking about what it’ll take to get their tenth novel published, since that’s where they’re likely to tip over into “full time writer” status.

Six: Become Part of the Writing Community

Writers are a pretty helpful bunch, on average, and I can’t understate how much I’ve been helped along by various friends who are part of the writing industry. I got my first novella published ’cause another writer heard part of it at a reading, bugged me to finish it, then personally recommended it to an editor they knew.

Talking to other writers is how you learn about the industry, about the best places to submit work, and how to handle the necessary evils of day-jobs without going crazy. Talk to other writers, learn to ID the people who are taking the gig seriously, and network with them. You’ll often find that highly successful writers tend to know each other and come through in waves – this isn’t a coincidence. I suspect a lot of them have found their peers and done a lot to help each other along the way.

You’ll be at a slight disadvantage with this ’cause, well, you’re young. There are lots of people who want to write when their 17-to-20. I went to uni with about 100 of them when I started, of which maybe 5 or 10 were serious enough about writing that they’re still around and working on stuff. The signal-to-noise ratio is pretty high when you’re in those early years, so you have to learn to look for the actual signs: Who is actually producing new work? Who is submitting? Who shows signs of understanding how the writing industry works?

Seven: Learn to Touch Type

It’s been over two decades since I was in school, so I have no idea if typing classes are mandatory or not these days. They should be, given how much of our lives are spent at keyboards, but that’s neither here nor there. If you want to be a professional writer, learn to touch-type. The ability to type quickly without looking at the keys is invaluable throughout your career, and you’ll learn the correct way to position your hands so you can avoid or lesson a lot of the RSI type injuries that afflict full-time writers.

  2 comments for “Some Words of Advice for a Young Writer

  1. 25/01/2015 at 9:50 AM

    OMG, #1!–I feel like I *just* figured this one out this year. I might have gotten a lot more out there earlier on if I’d understood that back then. Excellent advice, all around!

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