Advice for Career Writers (and NaNoWriMo Two Months Late)

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cartoon robot breaking nanowrimo machine

Image by Davidd/puuikibeach

 

Way back in November, Bob Clary of Webucator emailed me about writing a piece for their NaNoWriMo promotion. They even wrote questions for me to answer so it would be nice and easy. But because I am lazy a successful copywriter in high demand, I failed to write and publish said blog until now! Oh, as they say, well. Apologies and thanks to Bob and co.

 

What were your goals when you started writing?

I wanted to write the kind of book that I liked to read. I wanted to do to other readers all the things my favorite authors did to me.

I also wanted to be a child genius who published the next great American sci-fi novel at the precocious age of 13, became rich and famous and got to co-direct the film adaptation. That didn’t happen and I got over it.

What are your goals now?

Finish my novel. Get it traditionally published. I have growing respect for the indie publishing world, but for now, at least, I’m still aiming for traditional. Though I may be beginning to doubt my trust in the gatekeepers of the literary world, there’s still something inside me that wants their stamp of approval. Sort of third-party confirmation that yes, this novel is a real piece of literature and not merely an amusing hobby that has stolen years of my life.

What pays the bills now?

I’m a copywriter at a Texas marketing firm. I write everything from billboards to blog posts about everything from cowboy boots to wound care. Every day is different, and I enjoy it tremendously.

Assuming writing doesn’t pay the bills, what motivates you to keep writing?

I’ll rephrase this question to: “What motivates you to write fiction when you already spend so much time writing copy?”

I need to write fiction to feel like myself. I rarely feel like writing when I have time to write, but if I let a weekend go by without working on the old WIP, I feel incomplete. I can even be cranky.

What advice would you give young authors hoping to make a career out of writing?

For copywriters:

  1. You’d better really enjoy playing with words; even the menial tasks like translating technical jargon into human-speak, and writing product descriptions.
  2. Read a lot and write a lot. You need to be able to recognize and fix confusing copy.
  3. Start a blog. A topical blog, not a personal blog. Pick a subject you’re passionate about and know something about. There’s a big push toward content marketing in the ad world and it will help if you have experience planning, developing, publishing and promoting content. Follow the blog at Copyblogger.com to learn more about it.
  4. Read Luke Sullivan’s Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.

For fiction writers:

  1. Don’t do this for the money. Do it because you love it, but don’t be heartbroken if you can’t make a living out of it. Few can.
  2. Don’t wait until you’re in a “writing mood” to write. The thing that separates the hobbyists from the real writers is that we put words on paper even when we don’t feel like it. Anyway, sometimes the writing mood doesn’t come until you’ve already been at the keyboard for a few hours.
  3. A lot of people will give you writing advice. Be careful whose advice you trust. Half of them don’t know what they’re talking about. Look for tips from storytellers who have proven themselves multiple times – like the Neil Gaimans and Joss Whedons and Pixar writers.
  4. When it comes to critiques of your work, drop the attitude that “they don’t like it because they don’t understand it.” Sometimes that’s true, but most of the time it’s because your work actually stinks. Cry and rant for a little while, then sit down and figure out how to fix it.
  5. Writing a novel is the hardest thing you will ever do (and good luck emerging from the experience with your sanity intact). Still, it’s worth it.

Feel free to post your own answers to these questions in the comments; you can also read answers from other writers.

 

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20 Comments

  1. Didn’t we all want to be precocious child geniuses who won over the hearts of publishers and directors alike?

    Your advice here is solid, Stephanie. Writing isn’t a sprint. On the worst days, it’s a slog through the swampy waters of writer’s block, procrastination, faceless gatekeepers and form rejections. On the best days, it’s a hard job that has enormous rewards.

    Keep writing, Stephanie. You’ll get that novel published one day.

    • True. Though I’m glad on reflection now that I didn’t become some child genius. I want my work to be appreciated because it’s good, not because of my age, you know?

      It is, indeed a slog. Here’s to slogging.

      And thanks for believing in me. : )

  2. I’m glad you got around to doing this and posting it; you have great advice here as always. Especially #2 for fiction writers. Oh so true.

  3. I love your advice! Solid and to the point. As for my answers… hmm.

    What were your goals when you started writing?

    To write a story I wanted to read. I realized I could do this before I realized that I didn’t have to show the results to anyone (I’m slow like that, sometimes). It was realizing that I didn’t have to share it that gave me the guts to try. Some 7 or 8 years later, I realized my work was decent and I decided to let someone else look at it. …thus people have been spared the horrible manuscripts of my first efforts. I think I ought to be paid good money for having such mercy on the world. 😉

    What are your goals now?

    To live long enough to finish the novel series I am working on. I think I might be able to pull it off if I live to 70.

    What pays the bills now?

    I’m a Federal Documents Librarian. Most librarians would rather jump off a tall building than deal with the involved world of Docs. I love my work, which probably says something about my personality…

    Assuming writing doesn’t pay the bills, what motivates you to keep writing?

    Well, my most recent post explains part of the problem: https://jubilare.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/double-mind/ What am I supposed to do with all these voices if I don’t write? But, also, I love writing. It’s a great high to see things unfold and to find ways of communicating them. It’s also terrifying and frustrating, but in my experience, the good outweighs the bad by a lot.

    What advice would you give young authors hoping to make a career out of writing?

    I’m not qualified to give advice on that as I’ve not made a career out of it. I’m pretty sure that discipline is important, because it’s easy to fall out of the habit of writing, even if you love it, and it’s easy to say “meh, that’s good enough” when you should work hard to make your work the best it can be.
    I try to absorb good writing and to train myself to recognize shoddy work. I try to be aware of the tools of my trade, from grammar to tropes and narrative patterns.
    I also try to trust the story and the characters, because forcing them to do exactly what I want blocks those moments of inspiration that make a story really interesting rather than contrived.

    However, I will also point to Stephanie’s advice because I think it is excellent and she has studied this area more than I have. She’s a gifted and diligent writer and I can’t wait to own her books. 😀

    • I hope you live longer than 70. I plan to be at least 100. I’m not sure if I’ll have finished my current trilogy by then. ;-/

      What exactly does a Federal Documents Librarian do? Do you do a lot of filing and research? Do you get to deal with a lot of historical stuff?

      “Forcing them to do exactly what I want blocks those moments of inspiration that make a story really interesting rather than contrived.” Spot on. I really have to fight not to force it.

      Hey, I haven’t made a career out of fiction yet, either. Your own WIP and the stuff you’ve written about things you’ve read or watched shows that you have a great grasp on how all the elements build a story; you notice weaknesses I tend to ignore, and you’re able to point out strengths I don’t always notice. That’s all given me a lot of confidence in your thoughts about my own work.

      I’m not sure I HAVE studied all of this more than you have. I think I have a lot to learn from you. : )

      • I hope so, too, provided I have the physical and mental ability to still enjoy life. 🙂 I will say, though… you’d better have finished your current trilogy before I die. You may not be aware, yet, that you have created a Fury that will hound you mercilessly until the work is complete. 😉

        No filing and not much research, but yes, I do get to deal with a lot of cool historical stuff! Basically, the Government Publications Office (which is what GPO means to me 😉 publishes stuff for the Federal Government. Since this published stuff technically belongs to the American people, all of it that isn’t presently classified needs to be available to the public. So there is a program, started in, I think 1858, that distributes Federal publications to libraries for free. The documents still belong to the Feds, but the libraries house them and make them available to the public. Because the docs belong to the Feds, there are rules for managing them, and that’s why most librarians don’t like to deal with them. But I get to catalog (and therefore look at) awesome things like WWII Women’s Army Corps manuals and hair-raising propaganda, art prints, Smithsonian Institute publications on various topics, and cool stuff like that. On the flip side, I sometimes have to catalog boring things, too, but ah well. 🙂 Now you probably know more than you ever wanted to about my job.

        I think I’m blushing. Your confidence in me helps me have a bit more confidence in myself, and I am very grateful for your encouragement. One of the most valuable things, I think, that we get from feedback on our work is the different perspective of another mind. We all notice different things, and I love that!

        I am quite sure you’ve studied it more than I have. If you have anything to learn from me, it will be because we’ve focused in different areas and have some different talents. I’ve learned a heck of a lot from you and your blog. You’ve made me consider things, angle and ideas, that I hadn’t faced before. Your blog is my favorite among all the ones I follow for its clarity and insight… and I’m not just saying that. It is absolutely true.

        • Your job sounds SO. COOL. I can’t believe I didn’t ask you about it before. What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever cataloged? Do you ever come across classified information? Your life could be the inspiration for a suspense thriller or something.

          I’m rather surprised that this blog is your favorite. Seriously? That comment made my day. It also may motivate me to actually write a new post this month.

          I will try desperately to finish the trilogy before you die, provided you agree to aim for a healthy 100. I’m over a decade into the first book already, and there is no telling how long it will take me. Part 3 is coming along, but at a snail’s pace, as my weekends for the last month have been consumed by house hunting and CHL classes. Did I tell you I was buying a house? Anyway, every time I find a chance to work on it, it’s been so long that I have to re-familiarize myself with what’s there. Well, you know the drill. But I am quite grateful to have a Fury. It is excellent motivation.

          And by an amazing coincidence, you will meet some Rai’an “Furies” in the next part!

          • Hm, that’s a hard question… collections of nature prints, and some combat-art that I absolutely love. The WAC documents previously mentioned are fascinating because of how not-sexist they are. There are these Department of War (pre-1949) pamphlets for returning soldiers and their families on a wide variety of topics ranging from shell-shock, to radio technology, to preparing soldiers for the possibility that their wives and girlfriends might not want to quit their jobs, there are even cartoons! ^_^

            Heh, sometimes (rarely) we are asked to destroy stuff because it has either incorrect or sensitive info, but the Feds, being the Feds, are often a bit slow. A few years ago I was asked to destroy a document containing people’s SS#’s. It was from the 1970’s 😛

            But part of the reason for libraries not dependent on the Feds housing Federal information is that it’s a lot harder for an administration to disappear something just because it makes them look bad. There are face-palm-worthy things in the archive, like a pamphlet on the wonders of DDT showing a woman spraying it in her kitchen cabinets.
            Now that so much info is born-digital, it is, unfortunately, a lot easier to vanish it.
            A while back,the Dept. of Defense took down a lot of documents from their database. Some of the stuff has reappeared, but the Documents community was alarmed, not just because the docs vanished, but because it was so easy and we have little real recourse. I mean, how do you demand to see a document when you can’t prove that it existed?

          • Mmmm. Scary thought.

            All really fascinating, though. Stuff like that is what’s REALLY interesting about history. You learn a lot about wars and inventions in school, because they only have time to give you the highlights. But the details are what MAKES it – because you can imagine what it was really like then. Even DDT in the kitchen cabinets. It’s like when you see those old ads encouraging parents to start their babies on Coca Cola earlier.

          • “I’m rather surprised that this blog is your favorite. Seriously?” Seriously. This blog has gotten me writing when I’ve stalled, made me think about issues in writing that I hadn’t considered, and entertained me all the while. And that’s not even touching on the great fiction you’ve posted here. I refer every writing friend and acquaintance to your blog.

            I will do my best. 🙂
            Hmm… and when can I expect these “Furies”? 😉

            House hunting! What sort of house? I will warn you that houses also eat time, but I do think it is worth it, having my own place to nest.

          • You continually encourage me. I really want to get something new written this month. I have the topic! And some notes! Just gotta wrastle it all into a post.

            Gahh. I don’t know. The Furies are in the very next part. And they SPOILER someone SPOILERY! But the princes are giving me trouble.

            House hunting was just the first half of the month – the second half has been signing of lots of papers I’m afraid I don’t fully understand. I close next week! It’s a small ranch style, pier and beam, wood siding, built in the fifties. Pretty good condition, in my budget, and coincidentally right around the corner from my brother. I expect it will eat a lot of time. There’ll be small repairs and painting. And moving of course. And a yard – I do not look forward to having to take care of a yard! But there’s a hammock, so it may be worth it. : ) And I’d rather pay a mortgage than toss money down the rent hole. Fortunately, I have vacation time to get some of the stuff done. Wish me luck!

        • Hi Jubilare,

          In spite of feeling a bit like I’m eavesdropping, I wanted to tell you about a Hallmark Movies & Mysteries TV series named “Signed, Sealed and Delivered”. To quote IMDB:

          “A group of postal detectives work in the Denver USPS Dead Letter Office to solve the mysteries behind undeliverable letters and packages from the past, delivering them when they are needed most.”

          I love it because the characters are quite individual and quirky, the stories are (mostly) non-violent and the character motives are so altruistic.

          Somehow I imagine that your job as a Federal Documents Librarian could be spun into such a unique and interesting series with similar attributes.

          Here’s the IMDB page for the series.
          http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3592718/

          Cheers

  4. Good, sound advice Steph. And you’re not too late for Nano, you are nine months early!

  5. Turnabout’s fair play. 🙂 Go forth and blog.

    *Snicker* Well, you know, characters. I am currently wrestling with pacing. 😛

    Oh! Exciting! That sounds a lot like my house, only mine’s brick. I envy you sibling proximity, though. I am near-ish to my parents, but separated from my brother by a four-hour drive. Oh that it were not so!
    I can offer some advice for yard-stuff! I’m all about the low-maintenance, but also about the native-plant-gardening. Not everyone likes the messy wildness I want for my yard (though the neighbors seem to appreciate the wildflowers in my front garden, and the bumble bees and butterflies love it). I plan to eliminate my front yard entirely either this year or next year and have it all wildflowers. No more mowing, just occasional weeding, and less of that as the years go by. I’ll keep some grass in the back yard, but that’s much easier to deal with. ^_^

    • No mowing + wildflowers sounds amazing. Just how messy/wild does it look though? Not sure my neighbors would be groovy with it. I will definitely look into native plants – have looked into it some already, and I like what I’m finding. There are so many options more interesting than grass!

      • I’d love to help you figure it out! I hope to reply to your non-story e-mail tonight, so maybe we could talk more about it there. Some pointers I’ve picked up over the last few years are: structure is important. If people can see that a landscape is a garden and not just the result of not mowing one’s lawn, they tend to be fine with it. Structure is provided by trees, shrubs, and hardscapes(paths, walls, bed edging, birdbaths…). The other thing I’ve learned is that this website: http://www.wildflower.org/plants/ and a few others I have found, are fantastic resources for deciding what to plant. Understanding what the best options are, for your area, is important. What is the climate like where you live?

        I plan on keeping some lawn in my back yard, for my dog, mostly, but the front shall be all garden! And the back shall have a fair number of wildflower beds. 🙂

  6. “But the details are what MAKES it – because you can imagine what it was really like then. Even DDT in the kitchen cabinets. It’s like when you see those old ads encouraging parents to start their babies on Coca Cola earlier.” I totally agree. The bare facts are good to know, but it’s the details that prove to us that our fore-bearers were as human as we are, with their own quirks, insights, and blind spots.

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