WRITING NOVELS, PLAYS, POEMS
OR HOW TO LIVE A DREAM
Of all the writers who have published two or more books of fiction or poetry,
only 2% make a living at writing. In other words, trying to make a living
writing novels or plays or poetry is like trying to make the NBA or the USA
Olympic track team. This doesn't mean that it can't be done. It does mean,
however, that most people who love to write novels, poems, plays and such do not write
these things for a living. They do something else. I am a good case in point:
I teach. Fortunately, I knew I wanted to teach well before I knew I wanted
to write. So I got lucky.
/ You need to decide what kind of work would make
you happy. As I discovered when I became a professional musician (for 6 years),
making work of one's passion is not always a good idea. Remember that many
writers have held jobs that were quite alien to their private pursuit of writing
(e.g., Hawthorne was a customs inspector, Wallace Stevens a banker). Remember,
too, that if you are meant to write, if you have an inexorable passion for
writing, nothing will stand in your way -- you will write, even if, like a friend
of mine, you have to get up at 4:00 every morning, stumble into the cold garage,
and pound out your dreams for an hour or two before shuffling off to work.
And what if you don't write the great American novel? What if you don't publish
before you're 30 or if you never publish at all? Will the mantle of the world
crack? Will angels tumble from heaven? Will you be a failure? I, for one,
won't think less of you. Go easy on yourself. Remember, the nature of life
is that it eats you up. Do what you have to do. Get married, if you must.
Buy a couch, a car, have a kid or two or three. Above all, be happy with your
life, with the choices you make. I became a professional musician, for instance,
because I wanted to see if I could do it--it cost me a lot, took me farther
from writing than I had anticipated, but I had to do it because I didn't want
to look back, years later, and say, "I should have tried that...."
Here's what I've learned about experiments: your 20s are the prime time.
If you can afford it -- if you don't have loans pursuing you, if you don't have
burdensome obligations, like a sick mother to support or a baby to raise -- then
take this time (your 20s) to experiment and explore. Work the kinds of jobs
that stimulate you. Travel, if you feel travel would help you become the kind
of person you strive to become. Don't do an on-the-road-fear-and-loathing-in-Las-Vegas
trip just because you think you should
. Do what feel. Do a year volunteer
work, if you feel this would be a good thing for both you and the people you
would help. Before doing such work, however, talk to a few people who have
tried this because, as with any experiment, you will benefit from the advice
YOU SHOULD KNOW: Nobody really expects great things of you in your 20s. Mostly,
parents and parental types will want you to "settle down," get a
good-paying job, because that would make them feel good. You will be sorely
tempted to do just this. And it's fine if you do. Maybe you're eager to get
married -- as I was at 24. So get married, if you think that's the answer. (It
wasn't for me.) Just keep in mind that nearly nobody will understand your
need to write. At best, it will seem to your friends and family that you have
a quaint hobby. If you're lucky, you'll find a mate who will encourage you
and offer emotional, if not financial, support. Eventually, though, most people
will look at you with suspicion because, here in America, if you want to be
taken seriously you have to be making money. "Creative" writing -- stories,
novels, poems, plays --does not make money.
By the time you approach 30, parental types and others, like your prospective
spouse, will be haranguing you to get serious and get a career. If you want
a decent car and a nice couch (i.e, one that doesn't have mice living in it),
you should take their advice. I myself went to graduate school when I was 30.
That calmed everybody down right away. But it was another 7 years before I
got a real job.
A HAPPY STORY: I knew a guy who, for twenty years, wrote short stories and
novels and never had a single success. He had a Ph.D. in English and taught
adjunct classes (for more on "adjunct," see grad school
), made a
meager living, burned up a couple of marriages, and then, when he was 43,
surprisingly, miraculously, he sold his novel. Sold it, ultimately, for $500,000.
It changed his life, you can well imagine. He got a 3-book publishing deal,
bought a new house, got a new wife, etc. Is he happy? I don't know, I've lost
track of him. But he did realize a big part of the writer's dream -- he joined
the NBA of creative writing. And he did so because he never gave up. He pushed
and pushed, worked, improved, revised....
That's why I said earlier, if you are meant to write, if you insist on writing,
you will write, no matter what. But if you don't continue writing, that's
okay. Become a dedicated reader instead. Support those who continue to carry
that dream. And you can dream of other things, like the tree house you'd like
to build for your kids. It's all good energy so long as you put it some place
that does you good.
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WRITING AS A PROFESSION
Those who make a living as professional writers, usually do so as versatile wordsmiths in business settings. Every business and organization in America (and the world) needs a writer. Therefore, if you enter the workplace with writing expertise and an ability to cooperate easily with others, you can make yourself invaluable to any business that hires you. You can double your chance of success if you have expertise in software programs like Quark (for page layouts) and Photoshop (for graphic manipulation). Here is a list of some possibilities for you to consider:
BOOK PUBLISHING: the traditional route for English/Writing majors interested working with literature. The pay is low at all levels but the work can be gratifying. New York City is still the publishing capital of America, though there are opportunities in other cities as well. To get started in publishing, usually you take a job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house. Here are some of the positions you may seek in a publishing house:
An editorial assistant does everything from fetch coffee to read manuscripts (if lucky).
Reader: somebody who reads the "slush pile" (un-asked-for) manuscripts sent to the publisher, sends out rejections, and writes summaries of promising manuscripts to be sent to an editorial assistant or an assistant editor.
Assistant editor: more responsibility, may propose books to editor; may work some with writers, maybe only as a copy editor; most likely will do a lot of paper work.
Copy editor: proof-reads manuscripts and makes corrections; may also fact check.
Editor: solicits manuscripts from writers, reads manuscripts, pitches promising manuscripts to the editorial board for possible approval, then works with writer to complete publication of book.
Managing Editor: directs traffic flow of manuscripts and may oversee production; also reads and selects manuscript. This position is more usually found at magazines rather than book publishers.
Senior editor: more responsibility than an "editor"; might have his/her own imprint (branch of the publishing house).
Other positions in marketing, public relations, and distribution.
Link to article on being an editorial assistant
SMALL PRESS PUBLISHING: similar to the above but with many fewer books published and a much smaller budget. Small presses range from tiny, desktop operations in somebody's basement to prestigious literary publishers, like Gray Wolf Press in Minneapolis, MN, who publish mostly established writers.
DESKTOP PUBLISHING: this is an old term for the new technology that has, pretty much, taken over the publishing industry. It refers to books and things being published via the computer. At its most crude, it is just pages spewed from the printer in your home office and the bound as a book.
At its most sophisticated, it's using a computer to print "camera ready" text for publication. This includes creating the cover art also on the computer. Then this digitized master copy is printed off either as photocopies (essentially) or as plates that are inked on a traditional printing press.
The main thing you need to know about the desktop printing revolution is that NOTHING is typeset anymore. Computers have replaced the large, clunky machines that made metal type that stamped the page. This process -- stamping the page with metal type -- is called "letter press" printing and it's now reserved for special-edition art books mostly.
The great thing about the desktop publishing revolution is that ANYBODY can become a publisher because start-up costs are so low -- you just need a decent computer and printer and the right software. That's why, starting in the 1990s, every company in America began printing its own newsletters and fliers and brochures. And that's why, you would do well to learn something about formatting and putting together different kinds of texts using computer software like In-Design. Writers need to know the tools that will enable them to put their writing to work.
Let me say that again: writers need to know the tools that will enable them to put their writing to work.
Virtually every company of every size has a need for a writer who can put together a package of information, whether that package is a brochure (public relations) sent to prospective clients or a newsletter distributed to employees or brief explanations printed in the company's catalogue oran e-flier to the company's prospective clients or a web page for the company's site, and so on. All of this is done on the computer, using software that you should learn (start with Adobe's Creative Suite).
Just because you like "creative writing" doesn't mean you have to go into publishing. But if you're determined to do so, you should consider taking seminars in publishing to learn more about its business, its technology, its history -- and how all of this has changed -- in order to better qualify yourself for a career in publishing. Some universities, like UVA adn Emerson, offer summer programs (2-6 weeks). Others, like Pace University, offer academic degrees in publishing.
WRITING FOR THE WEB
Below, I mention many facets of professional writing-- all of them are now either exclusively online or heavily reliant upon online media. The internet is probably the most promising source of employment in the writing field because the possibilities are endless. But you need to understand that writing for websites is different than writing for traditional (hard-copy) texts. Study the forms online; study the online formats; study the mix of online media -- all of this you can use to your advantage.
PUBLIC RELATIONS: this is simply a matter of you, the writer, making a client or a company look good on paper. The range of tasks could be very broad or very narrow, depending on the job. See "desktop publishing" above.
ADVERTISING: copy writers are the people who write copy (the ad), which is not a position you can get right out of school. As with any of these pursuits, you must pay your dues, start low and aim high. Other positions include accounts executives (they find and woo clients), graphic designers, and marketing personnel of various sorts.
GREETING CARD PUBLISHING: You may think I'm joking, but I am not. Hallmark Cards, of Kansas City, MO., has a huge operation that employees hundreds of writers and editors and creative persons of all kinds. They have test booklets you can send away for in order to assess your suitability for this career. I kid you not, it's a nice place to work and the work itself can be very gratifying. Link:Hallmark Careers.
FREELANCE WRITING: The easiest way to break in nowadays is blogging. Consider starting your own blog so that you can train yourself to work with a frequent deadline and try to build a readership. You may be able to move to guest blogging. Blogs have become a form of online magazines and sometimes more popular than many online magazines. Many writers have found full-time writing work -- at magazines, news agencies, think tanks, etc. -- because they gained exposure and credibility through their blogs.
In order to get work writing for any publication, you need "clippings," which are samples of your best, published work. Write for the your school newspaper (if you're in college) or your local newspaper or arts paper. Nowadays, every newspaper has an online branch. It's ALWAYS easier breaking into online publications. You might start by submitting an editorial or piece of commentary or brief essay on a current topic. Study the publications you would write for. Make sure you know what kind of article that publication usually runs, then send a query letter/email to that publication to see if the editor is interested in your idea. You have to make that idea attractive in a single page. Be to-the-point and polite. For more info. and advice on doing this, see WRITER'S MARKET, WHERE & HOW TO SELL WHAT YOU WRITE, published by Writer's Digest Books.
Freelance writing is a tough way to make a buck and, in most cases, it's best left as means of supplemental income. However, if you're really good with deadlines and flexible with assignments--willing to write for all kinds of publications--you could make a decent living writing this way.
REMINDER: there are now more publications, serving more special interests, than ever before (due, in great part, to the internet).
FREELANCE (copy) EDITING: this is fairly easy work to get because it's arduous and does not pay especially well, though I've known people who have done it for years to get by or to supplement their incomes. Send a letter to a mid-sized or small book publisher (usually not a literary publisher) to inquire if you could be of service as a copy editor to proof-read manuscripts before they're sent to press. Eventually one of these publishers will give you a chance (check with them every six months). Then, once you've done a good job with one assignment, you're on your way. You get paid for the task itself, not by the hour.
GRANT WRITING: you write proposals that convince rich people to give your organization money. There's considerable art in writing an effective (i.e., convincing) grant and, depending on the organization that hires you, you could make a very good living doing this. Virtually every non-profit organization -- from hospitals to church groups -- needs the help of one or more grant writers. Although there are specialized courses and workshops in grant writing, many grant writers simply learn the art by doing it, usually of necessity (e.g., the only write on staff takes a stab at writing a grant proposal, is successful, and soon becomes that organization's grant writer).
WRITING/EDITING: look in the newspaper and in other want-ad directories (e.g., Washington Post on-line) and you will see openings for editorial assistants, writers, etc. in various capacities at companies of every kind. Everybody needs a writer of some kind. Your challenge is to find what type of organization you'd like to work with (profit/nonprofit, arts-related, business-related, science-related, service-oriented/research-oriented, etc.). Remember, it's much easier to get a job if you bring related work experience to that job. So now's the time--through internships and extra-curricular activity--to get your editing/publishing/writing portfolio together.
TEACHING: To get your certification to teach public school, you'll need to take one year of graduate school specifically designed for this purpose. Chances are, you'd end up teaching English. If you don't want to go for the extra year of schooling, you can teach English and writing in a private school right away (private schools don't demand certification). Naturally, it helps to have had teaching experience. Volunteer at the Loyola tutoring center, check with the Center for Values and Services to see what teaching opportunities they might offer.
If you want to teach at the college level, you schould consider getting a Ph.D. That's 5-7 more years of schooling beyond the B.A. (link: GRAD SCHOOL) You can teach at the college level with a master's degree in English or writing but only as an adjunct. That means you would be hired from year to year (no job security) and you would get paid about half as much as a professor. It can be a tough way to make a living.
MAGAZINE PUBLISHING: look at the masthead of any magazine and you'll see the list of positions you might consider. Magazine publishing is dead-line-based (weekly, monthly, quarterly) and the range of magazines themselves is tremendous, everything from big-press magazines (called "slicks"), which publish 50,000 or more issues each run (PEOPLE or TIME are good examples) to "small press" magazines or "little" magazines, which publish as few as 100-500 each run. The latter category are usually literary or special interest magazines.
Increasingly, magazines have gone to online versions in lieu (or in addition to) print versions. This means that the chances of your getting a writing gig are greatly increased because publication cycle of online versions is shorter than print versions and so they eat up more material. Study the magazines you would write for. Find the easiest way into print in these magazines (letters to the editor, contests, special editions,e tc.).
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KEEPING THE DREAM ALIVE
Once you're out of college--whether as an undergrad or a grad student--you will find that it is difficult to meet people who share your interest in reading and writing. In fact, it's downright unnerving to discover that most people don't read anything except memos at work and snatches of newspaper. There's simply no place in their lives for that kind of activity. Most people, we discover, are just trying to get by and it's all they can do to slog through a muddy day of work, stumble home, pop something into the micro, zone a bit in front of the screen, then crawl off to sleep, only to start it all over the next day. That's the American Way: drones to the hive. . . .
So the challenge is great because the Hive wants to make you a drone too. (Hear that buzzing in your head?) If you want to keep your mind alive and open to the siren song of writing, here are some suggestions and resources:
1) INVOLVE YOURSELF in writing groups & clubs at the local level, regional level, and national level. Check out listings in local classifieds, in arts announcement, on the bulletin boards of arts organizations and colleges. Also go online and do a search for "writers' groups"; lots of links will come up.
2) MAKE WRITING A PART OF YOUR DAILY LIFE: keep a journal or notebook that contains your observations, ideas, jottings, anything. I never know where my ideas are going to come from for a story or an essay. But I do know that I have to feed myself ideas constantly--that's why I am reading constantly and reading anything and everything that catches my eye. And I'm using my notebook to jot down ideas that I may or may not use. Don't worry about how silly or stupid it may sound. Nobody's going to see it but you. The idea is to start a writerly conversation with yourself, keep the fires of your thinking stoked.
YOU SHOULD KNOW: if you wait around till inspiration strikes or until somebody gives you something to write about, it isn't going to happen. Like anything else, practice helps make you stronger. So put aside a little time every day--even if it's as little as fifteen minuntes--to write the thing you most enjoy writing. Even letters are helpful--anything that gives voice to your inner speech.
3) READ, READ, READ: If you have a passion for writing--whatever kind it may be--chances are you like to read. So organize your interest in a way that will help you prepare for the kind of writing you would like to do most. Start keeping a reading list of books and writers you'd like to check into.
In whatever field you want to write, you'd do well to read some of the biggies in that field because others in your field will have read these and have learned from these people and will refer to them. College courses give you a taste of some of these major writers and trends. But not all. If you're not sure where to start, getin the habit of comging through book reviews. You can subscribe to some mainstream reviews like the New York Times Book Reivew or The New York Review of Books and/or check out more independent reviews--there are hundreds online.
You'll find lots of helpful links on my resources page.
4) ACQUAINT YOURSELF WITH PROFESSIONAL PUBLICATIONS to see what's happening on the scene. This may include magazines that will introduce you to new writers, new techniques. But also may include information on contests, grants, and networks that could help you out.
Check out Newpages.com to see a large sample of magazines that publich creative writing. Or oo to the library and check out all the print (hard-copy) publications they have--it's a smorgasbord of options for you. Take an afternoon to sit there and read through a handful of these magazines. If you're into journalistic essays, for instance, pick up the hybrid journalistic-literary publications. Find the magazine that appeals to you and support it. University libraries are a really good resource to check out--and they have tons of online stuff too. At the very least, spend an afternoon browsing the magazines at your best-stocked local book store.
The following list is not an endorsement, it's simply an acknowledgement of the major outlets available to you. Most of this information is online now. Check out my resources page for more.
WRITER'S DIGEST and THE WRITERare both big-circulation monthly magazines that offer general how-to writing articles and updates on contests and prizes. Most book stores carry these.
POETS & WRITERS MAGAZINEis a six-times-yearly publication that profiles a wide range of American writers and discusses an equally wide range of issues and problems American writers face. Each issue features an extensive listing of contest and fellowship information.
AWP (Associated Writers and Writing Programs) CHRONICLE a six-times-yearly publication that does pretty much what POETS & WRITERS does but offers also fairly in-depth articles on the latest issues and controversies on the writing scene, particularly as they apply to college and university writing programs. If you are planning to enter a writing program or want to know what's going on at other writing programs across the country, this is the publication for you.
POETRY MAGAZINE and AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW are long-established magazines that feature new poems by both established and "emerging" talent, as well as reviews of poetry books and the poetry scene.
PLAYBILL is a long-established magazine on the theatre industry.
To find more speciality magazines, go to a well-stocked magazine section of your local book store: you'll be surprised at the variety. Nowadays there is a niche magazine for just about every interest or pursuit. (See International Directory below.)
Subscribe to a literary journal either in their print or online versions--these are great for the latest in what's happening in essays of every kinds, short stories, poems, and even plays and novel excerpts. They also have contests and articles on current trends in the writing world. They're cheap too. YOU SHOULD KNOW: the majority of "literary" writing in America occurs here. There are over 500 literary magazines that publish stories, poems, and essays. The big magazines, the "slicks" like THE NEW YORKER and THE ATLANTIC, publish only one story and 2-3 poems per issue. There are only about 7-10 such magazines in America. Consequently, they are hardly representative of writing scene. The best print source for a complete listing of literary magazines is THE INTERNATIONAL DIRECTORY OF LITTLE MAGAZINES AND SMALL PRESSES. See the resources page for more on this.
Here are a few live links to check out online:
the Antioch Review,
the Georgia Review,
Greensboro Review . . . .
Catalogues & Guides
Catalogues, Guides, and Directories are a primary source to help acquaint you with your options in the literary world.
AWP GUIDE TO WRITING PROGRAMS explains all the basic info. about college and university writing programs throughout the U.S.A. Also it gives you addresses and application guidelines for Writers' Colonies and Centers.
THE INTERNATIONAL DIRECTORY OF LITTLE MAGAZINES AND SMALL PRESSES is the most extensive guide to literary magazines in the U.S.A. (well over 1000 to choose from!). This book tells you what kind of work each magazine publishes, how often it's published, etc.
WRITERS' MARKET (published by Writers' Digest Books, at most book stores) offers descriptions of magazines and book publishers, submission guidelines, and how-to advice.
GRANTS AND AWARDS AVAILABLE TO AMERICAN WRITERS describes submission requirements for virtually all awards and grants offered to American writers (fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, children's lit., nonfiction, and translations).
5) TERMS YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Grant: a gift of money that allows you to undertake or complete a writing project. A grant is usually given outright as a lump sum.
Fellowship: a term most often associated with academics, it entails a gift of support, like a grant, but often over a period of time, like an academic year. A fellowship may involve support in the form of room and board (instead of cash) for a week, a month, or a year, during which time you are free to write.
Scholarship: Almost exclusively an academic term to designante money given for support of study. Most writing conferences offer scholarships to a few talented applicants.
Writers' Colony: this is a writing center that supports writers with room and board for short periods of time, ranging from a week to several months, so that the writers may work on their projects without distraction.
Writers' Conference: a 2-4 week gathering of writers, usually during the summer. Accomplished writers run workshops for the participants and hold readings. A conference is a good opportunity to network and learn a lot in a short period.
Manuscript: any piece of writing, published or unpublished. Usually referring to a piece to be submitted.Ms. is the abbreviation; "mss." is the plural.
SASE: self-addressed stamped envelope. This is what you include with any submission you make so that the people you've submitted to can send your work back to you. Otherwise you won't hear from them.
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