“You have to pay your dues.” It’s the most maddening, worthless, ambiguous reply we receive when we ask grizzled veterans what we need to do to become working writers. It isn’t just aspiring writers, either. No matter what field one pursues, some self-appointed gatekeeper stands ready to offer up this tired old chestnut. (Also a tired old chestnut? “This tired old chestnut.”)
The words feel punitive, like we must endure some sort of fraternal hazing before admission into the secret society. I’m sure that some speakers mean them that way, but set aside the emotion and implicit judgement and there’s truth lurking behind the cliche. If you want to become a working writer, you need to serve your apprenticeship.
A writing career differs from your current day job in that not only must you learn how to write, but you must develop a writing business. That’s not a sexy thought, but it’s the truth. Go ahead and forget that romantic notion of the writing life, the one that features you churning out inspired pages from your beachfront cabin whenever the muse visits. Do you know where you got that idea? From writers who understood the craft well enough to evoke that image, and who understood the business well enough to get it into your eye holes.
Most of our early dues payments are fun rather than work. We accidentally write an entertaining story — no idea how, but we do it — and we love the reactions, so we try to write more. We knock out page after page of junk, but occasionally we work up a good sentence or two and that keeps us going. Over time the gaps separating the junk from the good stuff grow smaller and we start feeling like writers.
We take the next steps, and we enroll in writing programs, workshops, or local writer groups, and we’re back to square one. Why in the world did I think I can write? There’s so much to learn about structure, pacing, character, and dialogue. In media res? Denouement? What kind of crazy talk is this?
We hang in there, and we keep our hands moving. We learn how a story works much like a young mechanic learns how a car works — we take them apart, put them together, diagnose the non-starters and the sputterers. We’re churning out some pretty good stories now, so we decided to start submitting them, but how? To whom? What’s a ‘blind submission’? What’s a query letter? Do I need an agent? Why do these people want money and those people don’t?
We muddle along, and as we go we assemble a knowledge base of what to do, how to do, and when to do. Eventually we receive that sweet, sweet first acceptance letter, which leads to a whole new world of unknowns: working with an editor. Who is this person, and what is she doing to my story? How do I navigate this so that my work retains its integrity but I don’t blow this opportunity? Handle it well, and we have the beginning of a network; handle it poorly, and we’re back to the slush pile (and that what the heck is a slush pile?).
Assuming we played nicely with our editor, we now have our first published piece. Now what? If a story falls in the forest but no one reads it, does the top of the straw still break the camel’s iceberg? How do I build an audience? How do I promote my work? How do I turn this success into the next success?
Over time we figure all of that out, and now we have a few bylines to call our own. Next comes the big one: How do I get paid to write? Once again we feel like we’re back to square one. We’re unsure what to do next, but at least now we have a scaffolding beneath us. We’re closing in our 10,000 hours of working on our craft. We’ve built a small network of writers, editors, and publishers. We’re learned a bit about marketing and self-promotion.
That’s what “paying your dues” means: serving your apprenticeship, acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to do your job. We don’t question the necessity of this in other vocations. Nobody walks into a law office and expects a partnership because “law has always been a passion of mine.” No reasonable person thinks he can jump off of the couch and play starting quarterback for the Jets just because “I watch, like, a ton of football.” (Well, maybe the Jets.)
Don’t be discouraged when a working writer tells you that you need to pay your dues. Your apprenticeship will actually be the most exciting time in your writing life, filled with new discoveries and unexpected surprises. It’s neither punishment nor roadblock, simply a very necessary working education.
Still interested in jumping from writing hobbyist to working writer? Get to work. We’re waiting for you.
Categories: on writing