Careers in the Arts – Writing

Of all the career areas in the arts, writing is one that may well have the most resources available for people who want to make a career out of it.

One serious traditional path of going to college, gaining an MFA, and then writing in your chose genre still exists. Traditional publishing – that is acquiring a literary agent, working from an advance, and then having a publisher publish your book in hardcover and then paperback – is still one way to success.

Starting probably around 25 years ago, maybe earlier, when the internet began, more and more writers chose self-publishing as the path to success, and today there are both services that help with the whole process, for a fee, and people pretty much going it alone, but publishing books, both digitally and as paper books.

I’m in the middle of both areas right now. I’m working with a literary agent on my biography, and I have some books self-published via Kindle Direct, in an entirely different genre.

The opportunities for people to just put their writing out there have never been more accessible. Blogs and social media mean that a writer needs no-one’s permission to express their thoughts, opinions or creativity. One of the most popular hobbies right now is working with Planners/Journals/Notebooks, taking over from the prior hugely popular obsession, Scrapbooking.

If you want to write a book, you can make it available at no cost to you, and even choose to make it free to readers if you want. You can write for fun, or write to seek a living. You can write in any genre, on any topic, and for any audience. You can display your eloquence and your idiocy with equal ease.

Which brings me to the notion, that just because you are writing, doesn’t mean anyone else is reading it.

Here are some of my opinions about writing for a living.

  1. If you want to get rich from writing, there is really only one way. Write genre fiction, especially in series. JK Rowling, Lee Child, George RR Martin, Tom Clancy, James Patterson, Stephenie Meyer – genre fiction in series. Sticking to a popular genre, if not in series, is another way – Stephen King, Debbie Macomber, Danielle Steel, Barbara Cartland. One thing many of these successful writers have in common, is that their stories have been adapted to film and/or television. Cha-ching.
  2. If you just love writing, write what you enjoy or enjoy what you are able to write well. That might be fiction or non, or it might be how-to’s or academic writing, or it might be technical manuals and white papers, or it might be sales or ad copy, or it might be poetry, or it might be journalism, or it might be screenplays. You might find you can earn a living or at least supplement your income.
  3. Just keep writing. Ernest Hemingway is credited with having said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” You will get better the more you write. Your last chapter will be better written than your first, and editing improves everything.
  4. Keep submitting your writing. On the way to writing your series or major opus, you can submit your shorter work to many places – magazines, journals, blogs.
  5. It doesn’t matter what working method you use, as long as what you do is productive for you. Some people are meticulous plotters, others are “pantsers”. Some people write a set time every day and stop at a set time every day, others binge write in long blocks. Personally once I get started on any particular day, I find it hard to stop. But if your working method is NOT working to create tangible results – that is words written, words read – then you might be wise to explore a different way.
  6. Keep learning and studying. Go to events, read books and articles, take classes if you can. Go to the big conferences. Read.
  7. If you have a deadline, try an accountability buddy. That is how I wrote a 135,000 word biography. Just thinking about how I will be reporting to someone, helps me make a start. I have one now, while I work on my next project – the first in a genre fiction series. Oh yes.
  8. Giving your work to someone else for their feedback is really hard, even when it is someone you are paying for that process like your editor. But it also really helps. Take a deep breath. Let the initial desire to absolutely reject the critical notes and the defensive desire to argue with them, flow through you and away. Then after a bit, consider that the critique might be right. Make the changes and see what happens. They aren’t necessarily permanent. You can always go back to a prior draft. I didn’t want to do the hard work to change my story from YA to Middle Grade – it’s frustrating and effects so much stuff in both the story and the character interactions. But I think it’s going to be worth it.
  9. Sometimes people will make changes to your work. Sometimes it burns when that happens. Personally, I like to at least be given the opportunity to make the changes required myself, but it won’t always happen. If you write a screenplay, or sell your story to a film producer, know that there will be many changes made so that even the fundamental character of the story might alter. Let it go. If you don’t want a different interpretation of your work, don’t sell it.
  10. Most agents find their new clients through referrals from existing clients or other agents, and through attending writers’ and publishers’ conferences. If you want an agent, it is worth working on a pitch and learning about query letters and book proposals.
  11. Oh, and learn about marketing.

General Resource ideas

Many of the MFA or MA writing programs at colleges are full ride scholarship affairs. Some even include stipends for living expenses. This is usually in exchange for various amounts of teaching or tutoring at the undergrad level. These programs are generally small – between 2-8 people accepted in different genres. Plus they are competitive. You will need excellent writing samples. DO NOT NEGLECT your Statement of Purpose. That is also a writing sample, and some (most!) admissions folk give it more weight than the creative portfolio. One good thing about studying writing at college is the opportunity to submit your work to the college journal. When the writing program is prestigious, so is the attached journal.

Writing fellowships and grants are another way to support yourself. Some relate to under-served populations, while others relate to particular topics or research areas. Some are residential, others for ancillary purposes like paying for attendance at a conference. Some come with a first-look deal for publication, others have no strings whatsoever.

Contests – ah the dizzying variety of writing contests available. Some are nonsense – basically buying the sticker for the front cover and everyone is an “honoree.” Others are well known by the general population, while still others are more esoteric but still prestigious in their own circles. Caveat Emptor. The best ones will usually be written up or dissected in serious writing magazines like Writers’ Digest or Poets and Writers Magazine. Many of them require submission by the publisher, rather than the author.

Useful websites

Authors Publish and Freedom With Writing – lots of researched and curated information about where you can submit your work updated constantly, and informative books and articles

Kindle Direct

Writers Digest

Poets and Writers Magazine

Association of Writers and Writing Programs – holds an awesome annual conference

Heart Breathings – this successful writer, Sarra Cannon, has a terrific blog and YouTube channel with wonderful advice, productivity strategies and sales/marketing tactics for self-publishing authors writing genre fiction (in series).

Ali Shaw at Indigo Editing – the wonderful editor that helped me whip the biography into shape, especially the 500 footnotes.

Do you have a favorite writing resource? Come and join the discussion at the Facebook Group.