How to Get Started in Writing

Increasingly, I’m asked by aspiring writers if I have any advice for getting started or “breaking in” to the writing business. I’m asked this often enough that I’m posting this here so that I can provide a more complete answer than I might otherwise have time for.

First, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a reality check. David Gerrold, author of the Star Trek TOS episode “The Trouble With Tribbles,” and The Martian Child, says the best writing advice he can give is, “Do something else–anything else.” The cold hard reality is, the idea most people have of the writing life is a myth. Very few authors can support themselves exclusively through their writing, and those who do often struggle to consistently meet routine expenses like those for insurance and medical care. I don’t say this to discourage you, but rather to encourage realism. If you think you are going to write “the great american novel” and escape your soul-crushing day job, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

Even if you are the next Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rolling, there is no guarantee you will even enjoy their success, and if you do it might take many years to pull off. What will sustain you in the meantime? If you want to write professionally, you must be prepared to cope with persistent frustration and rejection, laughable returns on your investment of time and effort, and a level of isolation and self denial that can be corrosive to health and relationships. Plan for that, and you can manage it. Pretend it isn’t true, and likely as not, you’re in trouble. Of course, I learned much the same thing from Rob Sawyer’s website, long before I ever met him, and that’s didn’t dissuade me, and as David says (paraphrasing), if that only pisses you off, if that just makes you that much more determined to prove me wrong, if you feel you have stories inside and your head will explode if you don’t give them life, then welcome aboard, God help you, you’re a writer.

So…how to get started.

Read. Write. Seek and get feedback. Repeat.

As I say in How Can I Improve My Writing, the best thing you can do to advance your writing career is to read widely and write about a million critiqued words. Of course, writing means different things to different people. I once met a woman who’s written three 300,000 word novels that no one has read and that at that length, are almost certainly unpublishable. But she writes for catharsis, and that’s just fine. I’ve also met writers who have a small backlist of self-published works featuring some theme or geography of narrow interest, and while they know they will never attain mainstream success that way, they are happy feeding a small and loyal following. And that’s fine too. Obviously, some writers write poetry or literary fiction and I say “go get ’em.” Then there are writers whose work will never reach a wide audience, but gleefully defends (or at least entertains) some particular niche market, and that can be a wonderful thing in its own right. I also know writers who crank out and self-publish five or six novels a year in order to bring in enough income to scrape by on, and that’s fine as well, I guess, as long as they don’t complain at every turn how industry “gatekeepers” are blocking them from reaching a wider audience (as some of them do).

But if you’ve read this far, I’m going to assume you are at least flirting with the idea of making your writing a career and at least a part of your living. That means it’s a business, and the purpose of business is to make money, and the way you make money is by providing a product of sufficient quality and appeal that a large enough market will buy it in sufficient volume to make it worth your while.

Those “gatekeepers” who so many complain about exist to find that product and get it in front of the most lucrative possible audience. It’s not a game or a vendetta, it’s a business, and while it is certainly true they may be wrong, it’s equally true that on the whole, they serve a valuable purpose to consumers and other participants in the trade. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be prepared to go around them (you definitely should, and today that’s easier to do than perhaps at any other time in history) but it does mean you should do so consciously, and not merely out of impatience.

If you are going to make a go of writing, you face an uphill battle in which yours is but one voice in a positive miasma of competitors. So how can you be heard?

Most aspiring writers, as near as I can tell, think the secret is to get an agent. That’s debatable. First, you don’t need an agent to sell short fiction, and since time immemorial, that’s generally where you want to start to get experience and exposure. Second, it’s really not that hard to get an agent if your work is good enough and unique enough to sell. That’s what agents are looking for. Give it to them, and you’re in like Flynn.

So what’s the problem? Well, nothing….unless your writing is mediocre or worse, or your stories are uninspired and unoriginal or only appeal to a small market, or just don’t appeal to the particular agent you are targeting, or the business contacts he or she has made. The biggest mistake that most of us make starting out (including me) is impatience. They want to write their great tome and get published immediately so they can tell that day job boss where to shove it. Well…maybe. Did it even work quite that way for Stephen King? The reality is, most new writers start down this particular road long before they are ready, or even capable of telling whether they are ready. So relax, and don’t feel bad if that was you, you are anything but alone.

Someone (it may have been Scott Card or Dave Wolverton, but these things run together after a few years) once told me that you need three things to succeed in writing: You need to be good, you need to be nice, and you need to be punctual. If you are sufficiently good at any two, you can get by with a little sliding on the third, but no matter how wonderful you are at any one, it can’t compensate if you suck at the other two. So you have a little control, but not much, and to be good, you have to have talent, skill, and something worth saying. Talent and “having something worth saying” are not entirely within your control, but raw skill comes from practice and study, and behavior and punctuality only require will.

So…accept that there is a certain amount of luck involves, and control what you can control: read good example literature, write until you are consistently good at it, use feedback to improve your aim. And to that add, be nice and respectful to people, and keep your promises.

Craft, I discuss in more depth in How Can I Improve My Writing, so let’s cover the more professional aspects of this little triangle.

  • If you are starting out, you need to be writing. Focus on adjusting your lifestyle to fit in regular writing without going insane or driving off loved ones.
  • Yes, you will need a mailing list and a website, but you don’t need to be a master of social media from day one. Until you start getting traction, you probably don’t have much to post anyway, and you should not let this distract from the far, far more important work on craft. There are many easy, free ways to set up a website (WordPress, Weebly, etc.) and free to start newsletter management tools like Mailchimp. Those are fine, and until such time as you are selling something to someone as professional rates, that’s all mostly distraction.
  • Enter contests, but not if doing so costs more than a nominal reading fee. Contest wins can help build credibility, but only to the extent the contest itself has credibility.
  • When you have a win, toot that horn. No one else but your mother and that one crazy uncle is ever likely to. Just don’t be a dick about it. Toot and move on.
  • And on this point, accept that you will have to self-promote. Today, more than ever, interviews and appearances and blogging and asking complete strangers to buy things or look at things or answer questions for a story, all are just part of the job. Writers tend to be introverts and some don’t want to do any of that. And nobody is going to hold a gun to your head, but nobody’s really going to do it for you either, not even with the best New York agent at your side.
  • Write what fits you. You’ll hear the advice “write what you know,” but taken literally, that’s mighty restrictive. I don’t need to be a woman or an alien or a trauma surgeon to write a  story about a female alien trauma surgeon, though a little empathy and research might not be a bad idea. There are also stories I wouldn’t tackle because it would amount to cultural appropriate or simply because I’m not the best voice to tell that story. To me it’s less about writing what you know than writing what fits your particular interests and talent and perspective on the world. Find that, and you’ll find your passion. Find that, and you just may get it across to a reader or two.
  • Don’t pick fights, especially online. No matter how far apart your opinions, you can express and discuss your differences respectfully if you choose to. Whatever else might divide you, you presumably share with anyone else in the business, at least a love of books. Look, and you’ll be surprised what else you might share. Look for differences and you’ll find them, until you find yourself in a corner, part of a party of one. It’s up to you.
  • Don’t cheat: There is an author as I write this who has attempted to trademark the word “Cocky,” among other things. Aside from possibly having committed fraud and definitely having paid a lot of money for incompetent legal advice in the process, she has made herself a pariah in the industry. Don’t be that person. I once declined to sell a story to an editor I learned had used deceptive practices to inflate the rankings of his own self-published work. Spin is fine, and marketing essential, but a lie by any name is still a lie. For all the sea of aspiring writers, it’s actually a small business, and memories are long.
  • Oh, and one more thing: Be nice to your readers. It’s all about them, after all, and many of them are pretty cool.

So there you have it. I don’t know how helpful that is. At a writing workshop I attended, George R.R. Martin told us, “I can tell you everything you need to know about becoming a successful writer in 1974. I’m not sure what good that will do you.” Every successful author has to find his or her or their or its own path. No two are alike, but none are really all that different either.

Good luck. Keep your stick on the ice, as they say, and Go Boldly.

What do you think? Do you have tips or advise to share with other reader? Let us know in the comments!

See also:

My earliest post,  How Can I Improve My Writing

And my blog for Galaxy’s Writers of the Future: Winning is Just the Beginning