on writing

Quick Directions To Working Writers’ Highway

A young man recently asked me for writing advice. The request came via email, and I replied in kind. My response was something along the lines of, “Sure, I’ll be happy to chat, but I don’t know whether I can  offer much help.”

He didn’t reply, at least not yet, but the exchange led me to noodle on how I might answer the questions I imagined him asking. I thought about all of the books I’ve read on the topic over the years, all of which contained a useful nugget or two but none of which answered my neophyte questions. I didn’t want purple prose about finding one’s muse or speaking one’s truth, nor did I care for rigid formulae for plotted stories. I didn’t want exercises or writing prompts, either. I was a lost guy walking into a gas station and asking for directions to the writers’ highway, and books on writing were mostly gas station attendants urging me to find my inner highway.

Imposter syndrome set in while I considered the questions I hadn’t even been asked. Who am I to offer advice on writing? My prose is nothing special, nor is my C.V.: no fellowships, grants, or doctorates; no best sellers or viral sensations. I’m just another rubadub stringing words together because my insides don’t know what else to do.

Imposter syndrome aside, I’m not really stranded at that gas station; in fact, I’m a couple of miles down the highway. I’ve authored over 500 published stories and essays, and the blog you’re reading right now is closing in on a million views. It ain’t Stephen King, but I might have something to share with that lost kid who just wandered into the station and asked for directions.

So I’m putting on my gas station attendant smock and offering you one path to the working writers’ highway. There are others, but I’ve driven this particular route so I feel confident recommending it to you:

1. Industriousness Is More Important Than Talent. Talent is wonderful, and if you have any then congratulations, but talent is no more than a bag of flour on a pantry shelf. That flour sack contains five pounds of potential: It can become bread, cake, cookies, pie, roux, on and on, but it’s none of these things just sitting on the shelf. Even with talent, you’re going to have to be willing to put on an apron and crack a lot of eggs, and if you aren’t then there’s no reason to read any further.

2. Be Honest With Yourself. Writing requires a lot of solitary time, and when you’re alone there’s nobody around to impress so you may as well be honest with yourself: Do you really want to write?  I don’t mean “do you want to think up stories” or “do you want your picture on a dust jacket” or whatever, but rather “do you want to sit down on a regular basis and string thousands of words together?”  It’s a slow, tedious process that lacks glamour, and some people who want to be writers don’t really want to do it. They like the fun stuff–generating ideas, telling their friends about their ideas, enjoying an afternoon or a weekend at a writing conference–but they neither enjoy nor are compelled to actually write. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that road doesn’t lead to the highway. You can’t find work as a writer if you don’t want to write. That sounds obvious, but it’s a point that’s lost on a number of would be authors.

3. Write. A Lot. Every day, in fact. Write even when you have nothing to write. This is critical for two reasons:

  • Writing a piece even as short as 2,000 words requires more mental and physical endurance than one might think. Sustained concentration is difficult, wrists and fingers cramp, eyes grow strained. Writing every day builds endurance.
  • Writing generates ideas. It’s not the only method by which inspiration strikes, but it is a reliable one. Many times over the years I’ve started my writing day with “I’m empty, nothing in the tank” and left with a story or essay draft.

4. Do What Works For You. There’s no right way to write. Some people work better in the mornings, others at night. Some type, others prefer pen and paper. Stand up, sit down, walk and dictate into your iPhone–it doesn’t matter. You don’t need a special nook with a Yankee Candle and a dream catcher, but if those things  are helpful to you then have at it. I draft with a fountain pen in a notebook, and then I polish on a keyboard. That’s what works for me, so that’s what I do. If standing on my head and writing with a crayon got my mojo working I’d do that. All that matters is that you write frequently and consistently, so do whatever you need to do in order to make that happen.

5. Read. A Lot. Football players analyze game film. I’m sure they enjoy watching the games, but that’s not why they’re parked in front of the television rather than out on the practice field. Writers read for similar reasons: “Why am I laughing? Why am I lost? Look how she uses descriptive paragraphs. Why is this ending both a surprise and yet so obvious?” When you’re writing every day you can’t help but read with a writer’s eye, and doing so will only improve your game.

6. Have An Interest That Isn’t Writing. It doesn’t really matter what that interest is. Games? Cool. Movies? All right. Hungarian pencil stacking? Sure. Your interest provides a home base–something to write about other than writing or yourself. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing about you. I love memoir, but an interest provides common ground between a potential audience and you.

Your interest will lead to writing opportunities, too. I guarantee you that Hungarian pencil stacking piece you spent hours on will find a market.

7. Write For Free.“People in other professions don’t work for free, why should I?” This might be unwelcome feedback, but you aren’t a professional. You are an apprentice, and the more desirable the career the more likely that apprenticeships in that field remain unpaid.

Take pro football, for example. No professional football player works without pay, but every NFL star spent around 15 years working for free: pee-wee football, junior high, varsity, college. That’s how they learned their sport and honed their craft, and that’s essentially how the sport pared down the talent pool to the pay-worthy candidates.

The same holds true in the arts, and while you also worked at your craft from an early age, “how to write” is not the apprenticeship in question. “How to work as a writer” is the game that you are learning, and there’s no better way than by serving your apprenticeship.

You may not receive monetary payment during this period, but you’ll reap benefits nonetheless. You’ll learn how to work to deadline, how to build relationships with editors, and how to promote your own work. Trial and error will sharpen your query letters. You’ll build a bibliography, and perhaps more importantly a network of working professionals.

How long should you write for free? Mark Twain believed three years, which seems reasonable. If after three years of apprenticeship no one is willing to pay you to write, it might be time to accept that for you writing will remain a satisfying hobby but probably isn’t a good career choice. Consider this a guideline, not a rule. If you’re willing to hang in there for 30 years, by all means do so.

And where does one write for free? Literary magazines are the traditional route, and they remain essential to authors of memoir, poetry, and fiction. If you tend more toward essays, opinions, and trivia, there are thousands of websites out there that are hungry for content. You can start your own blog, too, and offer to swap content with other bloggers.

8. Stop Giving It Away. Write for free, but for God’s sake write. If a current event stirs so much passion that you need to rant on social media, then it has stirred enough passion for an op-ed. If you stumble upon a great idea for a story, don’t jump on Facebook and chat about it with your friends–write the damned story.

Ideas are the clay from which stories and essays are molded. Writing is unlike other arts in that the artist must not only create the finished product but also the raw material. You can’t hand out all of your clay and then expect to have something to work with when you sit down to write.

Develop a habit of curating your ideas rather than treating them like worthless small talk. Stop wasting your clay.

9. Be Useful. Remember that boss who was always shouting, “You got time to lean you got time to clean”? What he was saying was, “I need employees who make my job easier.” Editors are no different: They surround themselves with writers who make their lives easier. Make your deadlines. Conform to the website’s/publication’s style guide. Proofread. Say “yes” to that assignment, even if it’s inconvenient or it doesn’t interest you.

Once you’ve chosen to publish your work, writing stops being solely about you and the page. It’s a business now, and just like any other workplace the boss gravitates toward the good workers.

10. Don’t Argue. Editors aren’t just bosses, they are also your customers. When you choose to write for publication, you surrender some of your creative autonomy. If your editor doesn’t like Oxford commas, remove them. He doesn’t want to have a debate about grammar, he just wants you to make the necessary changes. If she doesn’t like your title, pitch five more. If he feels your point is ambiguous or she finds your ending weak, offer a rewrite.

J.D. Salinger was notoriously combative with editors, refusing to change a word. You can go that route, too. You can lock your stories in a safe or you can self publish them, but if you really want to get on the working writers’ highway then you’ll have to learn to compromise with a smile. Happy customers are repeat customers.

Getting to the working writers’ highway isn’t difficult–it’s hard work, but the steps themselves aren’t complicated. Of course there’s a craft to learn–there are questions of style, grammar, and form. Yes, on the business side there’s a whole lot more to consider than what I’ve laid out here. Sure, some modicum of talent helps. But the basics of making the leap from aspiring writer to published author are incredibly simple, much more so than the shelves of “how to be a writer” books at your local store suggest.

So there’s your directions to the highway. Will there be anything else? If not, that kid behind you has been waiting ten minutes to pay for his Mountain Dew. Good luck, safe travels, and have a great day.

Categories: on writing

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