We’ve now covered, however briefly, what I believe to be the essentials to shortening the time it takes to move from novice to professional writer. If you’ve studied the books I’ve mentioned, treating each one like a separate class taken in school, you’ve come a long way toward understanding how to be a published writer. Of course, you’ve also got to start writing on a regular basis. I’m not one of those writers who believes you should write every day. I have a full-time job and a family, and I believe that doing anything every day can get old. (But I’m not as prolific as a lot of other writers, either.) I do try to keep a schedule, however, writing at least Monday through Friday for as much time as I can squeeze out. Writers write, and if you really want to be one, you have to work at it.
I enjoy the process of writing–putting the words down, shaping the sentences, writing the first draft where I can let my imagination go, editing the second, third, and sometimes fourth draft to bring the novel into its final form. If you don’t enjoy the process, you should probably pursue something other than writing. Nose to the grindstone and all those other painful metaphors.
Here are some other thoughts on becoming published:
A lot of writers, especially in SF and Fantasy, are inspired by novels—sometimes very long novels. For me it was The Lord of the Rings. So it’s only natural to want to write a novel right off the bat. The trouble I often see, and the trouble I encountered with my own early work, is that you can write a 100,000 word novel, making the same amateur mistakes throughout. This is not a good use of your time.
I recommend writing short stories, attempting to get feedback from dispassionate readers (i.e: not your spouse or best friend, and never your mother), and submitting those stories to the pro magazines. It’s a great way to learn the craft; it can be fun, and having your first short story published in a professional forum, either in print on on-line, is a tremendous thrill. These days, with the plethora of on-line magazines, there are a lot of markets available to you, too.
Your first objection to reading the above could be that you don’t like writing short stories; maybe you don’t even like reading short stories. (With only a few exceptions, such as Ray Bradbury’s short stories, I prefer reading novels.) Nonetheless, you’re trying to become a professional, and if you’re going to make writing mistakes, which you will, it’s easier to do it in a ten-page story than a novel. In the process you’ll be learning how to use all the skills we’ve talked about so far. A year out of your life writing short stories is very little time, especially if you get progressively better.
When I was twenty-five years old, I sold my first short story to Amazing Stories magazine. Shortly thereafter, Stephen Spielberg licensed the Amazing Stories name for a TV show, resulting in its being known beyond the small world of science fiction. I didn’t take full advantage of that because I stopped writing for a number of years to pursue a career in music, but I can’t begin to tell you how much clout that single sale gave me when I returned to writing. When I wrote letters to agents and editors, listing that credit, it lent me credibility. It proved that an editor had, once upon a time, judged my work as professional. It opened a lot of doors for me.
Selling a short story also helps you maintain your resolve. Trying to be a writer can be discouraging. Some work for years without ever selling anything. Having a professional sale or two proves to yourself that you can do it.
On an different topic, especially if you are a young writer, you should address the question of emulation. We all emulate other writers–it’s how we learn. We see the way another writer handles sentences or scenes, dialogue or plotting, and we model our work after them. It’s a necessary step in the process. However, there is a point where you have to move past emulation.
Think of the writer you admire most, the one you want to write like so badly it makes you ache. For me it was Ray Bradbury. Write your hero’s name on a piece of paper in big letters. As you look at it, think of the wonderful stories, the wonderful experiences he or she has given you.
Now tear the paper up. You will never be that person. You will never write in the same way he does. Because his writing comes out of his soul, out of his experiences and his viewpoint, just like your writing must do. You can emulate him; you might even do a decent job of it, but it won’t be the same. Let your hero go; if not, you may find yourself paralyzed, comparing everything you write to your idol. I did, and it kept me from finishing lots of my early stories.
Secondly, you must realize that your life-experiences are valid. Whatever has happened to you, no matter how insulated your upbringing, is grist for stories. Maybe you think nothing extraordinary has ever occurred to you. Let’s even go so far as to say you’ve had an extraordinarily ordinary life so far—nothing bad has happened; you were raised in a nuclear family with one brother and one sister; your parents have been happily married since the time they were high-school sweethearts. You always got along with your siblings. School was a breeze for you; not only were you at the top of your class, but you were a natural athlete; everyone liked you. You had plenty of boyfriends/girlfriends, none of whom ever broke your heart. You always had plenty of money. Friends and strangers come to you for advice because you’re so caring. You’ve never done anything selfish.
Seems pretty unlikely. The truth is, you’ve had some traumas—maybe nothing devastating like the loss of a parent or the death of a sibling, but you’ve got scars. And you’ve had good experiences as well. I’m not suggesting that old silly advice about “write what you know.” If you’re reading this, you probably want to write science fiction or fantasy; how can you know what it’s like to live in the Shire? Or in Oz? But you know what it’s like to have people misunderstand you, like they did Bilbo, or to feel lost, like Dorothy. Use the material you have, the material unique to yourself, to make your fictional world real. A lot of us don’t like to look at the traumas of our lives; some are literally too painful. But we can take parts; we can take feelings, and we can apply those to a fictional situation. Someone said that our stories must be specific to be universal. You tell stories unique to you, and your readers will empathize with the feelings you recreate.
An example; I sold a short story called Christmas at Hostage Canyon. The story is based around a Swell Idea, one of those writers get every now and then. Early versions of this particular idea have been wandering around in my mind for over ten years. I finally saw the way to write it. I had no intention of writing about my older brother. He snuck into my story and created a simple moral dilemma for my young hero. I think it gives the story depth. Gene Wolfe says every story needs two ideas—in this case it was my Swell Idea and the relationship between the brothers.
I want to end by giving you The Best Advice Any Writer Can Get. Honest. It isn’t original with me, but I’ve lived by it throughout my writing life. It comes from the talented SF writer Barry Longyear, who wrote Enemy Mine, which became a movie, and the highly entertaining Momus stories.
Long ago, there was a magazine called Empire: For the Science Fiction Writer. It was a fanzine with amateur artwork and printing, and it was a great resource, because famous writers like Gene Wolfe and Longyear wrote articles for it about becoming a pro. There was also a section called Crazy Diamonds, where three professionals would critique novice short stories. (I hope someday, someone puts the back issues on the web.)
I am quoting from memory here, but Longyear’s advice was this: no matter how important you feel your writing is, even though it may be one of the most critical things in your life, no one, not your spouse, your children, or your best non-writing friends, will ever think it is as important as you do.
The bottom line to that advice is that you don’t have the right to abuse the people around you for the sake of your art. You are not entitled to be the misunderstood artist, clutching your work to your chest, demanding everyone kowtow to it.
This advice has served me in good stead. When they were growing up, my children never heard the words, “Don’t interrupt, your dad is writing. This resulted in a number of interruptions, and to this day, I’m not certain my kids understand how important writing is to me. But it’s better than having them resent it, or having my wife pack her bags because she’s worn out by the angst. Because there is angst in a writing life—there is a lot of rejection; a lot of highs and lows.
I hope this brief article is useful. Please let me know if there are other areas of writing you would like me to address.