A friend of a friend wrote to me today asking for advice about writing. I don’t typically have time to give personalized advice, as much as I’d love to, but this was a good friend, and I thought it might be a good chance to put my “aspiring author advice” thoughts down in one central place. If you’re a writer, or you want to be a writer, this is my very basic “how to get started” guide.
Note that some of this info, particularly the bit about cons, is specific to my home state of Utah, but the principles can be applied no matter where you live.
I wrote this for a man named Justin, who at the ripe old age of 32 decided he’d been wasting his time in marketing when his real love was writing. Whatever your age or gender or geographical location, it’s never too late for now.
Dear [insert your name here]:
The good news is, your story is common, and your solution is more or less what you already know it to be: write a lot until you’re good at it. I’ll be saying a bunch of other stuff in this post, but it all comes down to that. Write a lot until you’re good at it.
The other good news, and arguably the best news, is that you can make a living as an artist. Dave Wolverton told me that in college, and I realized–like you–that no one had ever told me that before. Our education system is not designed for artists, it’s designed for people who sit in cubicles and earn salaries and get retirement benefits, and that’s fine if that’s what you’re into, but artists have to make their own way. So let me reiterate: you can make your own way. It’s scary and it’s hard and it requires so much more effort than just going to work and getting a paycheck, but you can do it and it’s worth every hardship.
Don’t feel like you’ve wasted time in law and marketing and such, because there are very, very few writers in the world who got that way by studying writing academically. Anyone can learn writing just by reading a lot and then trying it on their own. By studying other things, you’ve filled your head with stuff to write about, which is often way harder. Look at how many “mainstream” novels are about literature professors who want to write books: there’s a ton of them, because those guys write what they know, and that’s all that they know. Take the time to study new things and learn new awesome stuff, and then you’ll have more to write about. I started in marketing and advertising, just like you, writing brochures and websites and stuff for a long parade of health and beauty companies (and one scrapbooking company), and right now my agent is shopping around a science fiction novel I wrote about a health and beauty company that destroys the world. The more you know, the better, so hooray. Particularly if you have a family and a house and all kinds of other stuff to pay for, having a “real” job before the writing takes off is pretty much requisite, and I worked that marketing career for eight years, writing in my off hours, before I finally started selling books at a level that allowed me to quit and start writing full time.
What advice can I give you? The first thing is to point you to my podcast, Writing Excuses, which I do with three other authors (Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Tayler). It’s completely free–I’m not trying to sell you anything–and designed for aspiring writers, with fifteen-minute episodes on everything from dialogue and plot to editing and talking to agents. We’ve been doing it every week for years, and there’s hundreds of hours of it posted online, and frankly there’s not much I can tell you that isn’t already presented more usefully there. Jump in on the current episodes, cherry pick the archives for your favorite topics, or just start at the beginning and try not to get overwhelmed.
Second: check out your local writing scene, looking for conventions, conferences, writing groups, and so on. Depending on where you live, and what genre(s) you’re trying to write, there are a ton of options out there–far more than you think, I can almost guarantee. Go to your local bookstore or library and ask if there are any writing groups that meet there; if they have a bulletin board, start your own group and post a notice. Do a quick Internet search for writing conventions, or SF conventions that might have a writing track. If you’re in or near Utah you’re in luck, because there’s a ton of stuff: CONduit, LTUE, LDStorymakers, Writing for Charity, Salt Lake City ComicCon, and more are all fantastic places to meet other authors. Wherever you are, there’s bound to be some kind of local (or near-local) convention. If you’re writing SF or fantasy, also consider WorldCon, World Fantasy, and Writing Superstars, though those are going to involve much more expense and travel. If you’re really serious and have the time/money to spare, considering signing up for Clarion or Clarion West, or some of the similar conventions out there, which are intensive, multi-week writing workshops with big-name authors teaching the classes. A cheaper option, if you can’t make any of these in person, is to go online to a place like NaNoWriMo’s website and start clicking through their forum to find the one for your region; it might be kind of sparse this time of year, but in the fall it will fill up with like-minded aspiring authors, who often do local meet-ups and might be interested in joining a writing group.
Third, and this is a big one: allow yourself to write a bad book. Don’t insist that your first or second or even fifth book be perfect, because they won’t be–give yourself the chance to try new things and screw them up and learn from your mistakes and try again. Your first book will teach you how to write your second, which will teach you how to write your third, and so on and so on until your books are as awesome as you’ve always wanted them to be. I didn’t get published until my sixth book, and like I said earlier it took me eight years of working other jobs before I got to that point. Nothing worthwhile is free, and if you want to get good at something you need to work at it. The good news is, if you invest the time and effort, and really give it a sincere try, it will pay off. I see it happen every day.
I include this last section because I know people are going to ask about it: is it better to go traditional publishing, or self publishing? You’ll hear a lot of stuff on both sides, but the only true answer in my opinion is this: it’s better to not limit your options. They both have their ups and they both have their downs, so don’t worry about which one is better and just do everything. Write as much as you can, try different genres, try different publishing models, try all the new things you can find until you find something you love that works for you. “Write a lot until you’re good at it” applies to the business model just as much as the craft.
I hope this helps. Good luck, and please keep in touch. I can’t always write big advice essays, and I have a policy against reading people’s manuscripts–I used to do it, but I just don’t have the time and had to force myself to stop. What I can do, though, is cheer you on and exult in your successes. And if you have the chance to say hello at a con or a signing or whatever, please do. I’d love to shake your hand and share a…well, I don’t drink, so how about some hot wings?