Take it seriously. It’s just about impossible to make a living writing, so doing so means Fanatical Focus. When I decided to start making a living a writing, I wrote (for free, for all kinds of local publications) every night after work for four to six hours, and throughout every weekend. Six months into that I was offered my first job as an editor; three months after that, I was making a great living as the main entertainment features writer for (then) new website of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Lesson being: Sweat pays.
Decide right off what kind of writing you want to do. Journalism? Fiction? Nonfiction? Magazine articles? Plays? Poetry/song lyrics? Each of these fields has its own rules, outlets, primary players, processes — and each is filled with talented people who are totally dedicated to only that form of writing. Decide what you want to write, and immerse yourself in that kind of writing. You can really only swim in one pool at a time.
Learn to think before you write. So many writers think that beautiful thoughts come from beautiful words. Wrong. First have the clear, beautiful thought, and then let the only words that can express that thought naturally attach themselves to it. That’s how you get a style. Put developing a style first, and at best you’ll end up as a writer with a nice enough technique, but nothing to say. The world has plenty of those. Never forget that the only point of writing is to serve thought.
Cultivate relationships. People in publishing are just like everyone else in the world, and everyone prefers to do business with people they know, or at least people who know people they know. Buy a Rolodex. Get busy emailing, phoning, writing, networking. Be proud; never act like you need anyone more than they need you. But make it so that when as many people as possible do need someone, they think of you.
Believe in your lack of competition. It’s true there are a zillion writers out there, but 99.99% of them have no idea what they’re doing. A decent writer (let alone a great one) is as rare as rare gets. You know all that great writing you see in magazines? That was all done by editors who shaped whatever they got from their freelancers into whatever you read. Writing is freakishly difficult (because it’s so hard to make what’s subjective objective). Very few people are good at it. Become one of those few, and within a very short time you’ll have more work than you can handle.
Start where you are.You’ve got to work your way up. You’d think that you could write stuff so great that an editor will see it and basically pluck you from obscurity and publish it — but boy, would you be wrong. Everyone along the food chain of publishing is already swamped with people and material appropriate to their level of publishing. You can’t just step into an arena you don’t naturally belong in. Start where it’s not at unreasonable to expect you could get a foothold. Get that foothold — and then take the next step. Try to go around, or try to take a short cut, and you go nowhere.
Don’t sweat rejection. There are an infinite number of perfectly good reasons why anything you write might get rejected that have nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the rejected work. If someone bounces your work back to you, forget it, and move on. It means nothing. Keep submitting. There’s always another outlet you can approach. And it only takes one to publish you.
Get an agent. Trying to publish a book with one of the larger, mainstream book publishers without an agent is like trying to fly without wings. It can’t happen. Publishers depend upon agents to bring them stuff to publish. If you take your writing career seriously, know that you do need an agent. And as is true in every field, agents are aligned along a power hierarchy. About 5% of them sell 90% of the books. You want an agent in that 5% club. And that means you’ve got to have a body of work behind you that makes at least one of them want to participate in your future. (And forget whatever nonsense you’ve ever heard about agents not being worth their 15% of your money. A good agent is worth twice that.)
Believe you’re a genius. Hey, someone’s gotta be. Why not you? And it’s surely not your goal to be a mediocre writer, is it? Believe you’ve got a unique, valuable, indispensable, irreplaceable voice. Because you do. (That said, though, let me cram this in here: Do not think that just because you can talk you can write. They’re not the same thing at all. They’re exact opposite uses of language, actually. Which is actually a whole other piece I’ll be happy to write if anyone wants me to.)
Write a lot. A lot. For years and years and years and years. And not for yourself, either: For others. For publication. Subject your work to the brutality of the marketplace. Learn to hone it, trim it, shape it, toss it, bend it, maul it, polish it, lose it. Write for so long, and so consistently, for so many different kinds of outlets and editors, that eventually you come to know, without reference to what anyone else thinks, what’s good. That knowledge is your ticket. Costs a lot. Worth a fortune.
Okay! Thanks! I don’t know if I’ll write any more of these How To Write-type posts, since … enough is enough already, I would imagine. Then again, since this stuff is basically my entire life, I could … go on until every last one of you insists I stop. Anyway, thanks for reading them. I appreciate it.