This is the next writerly question I thought I’d tackle, and people, it’s a multi-part, tentacle-flailing beast. I’m going to break it down into several posts, starting with this one, focusing on choices one can make to help angle their life’s trajectory toward traditional publication. Notice my careful choice of wording here.
Writing isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of gig. I think this can be hard for even established authors to accept. There’s no well-lit, groomed path to success, no clear series of steps to follow, no set-in-concrete age by which certain milestones must be reached or the entire endeavor given up for lost. In a way, that’s a good thing. That means it’s never too late to achieve your dream of seeing your story printed, bound, and sitting on a bookstore shelf, waiting to embrace a new reader, introduce them to your much-loved characters, and show them around the world you created.
Maybe the struggle is necessary because stories are made of dreams, chance, and hope–maddening, intangible things which refuse to behave themselves. Our task as storytellers is to grab those diaphanous threads, wrestle them down, and force them into something recognizable to a reader, forming a path for others even as we ourselves can barely find the way.
There’s more writing advice available online than anyone could–or should–ever read: “How to Write a NYT Bestseller this NaNoWriMo!”, etc. It’s my feeling that improving your fiction to a level where agents and publishers will take you seriously comes from years of writing/living and reading everything you can get your hands on. What I offer in this post are what life choices I have seen to be beneficial to those who want to be novelists by trade. These are not choices I’ve necessarily made myself. Believe me, if I could hop into a DeLorean, blast back to the 90’s, grab my little child self by the shoulders and terrify her all wild-eyed-Doc-Brown-style into making these decisions, I probably would:
FOR TEENS/COLLEGE AGE WRITERS:
Okay, you’re young, energized, and hopeful; at this time, those are your biggest assets, because you can’t really argue the whole “life experience” thing. My best advice is to seize the day NOW and take this writing thing seriously. Of course you can do it; of course you’re good enough, and can become better with proper schooling. The world needs writers just like it needs skilled people in every other professional field. My sincere wish is that you spare yourself years of toiling in crappy jobs while despairing that you’ll never be published. Yes, some toiling will be necessary to eat/pay bills for a few years, but if you get yourself to into an institution of higher learning, you’ll give yourself a much better chance of improving your craft faster and making vital connections:
FOR YOUR UNDERGRAD WRITING DEGREE:
I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t matter all that much where you get your undergrad degree, as long as it’s from an institution which ACTUALLY OFFERS A MAJOR IN CREATIVE WRITING. In my infinite wisdom, I went somewhere that did not offer it as a major; hard to justify my decision now* (but I’ll get back to why it was still beneficial.)
Go get one of those bright, shiny Creative Writing degrees! If writing fiction is the thing which stirs your soul like nothing else, OWN THAT. Be that, no apologies! The kid who loves to write. And shall make their living at it eventually.
Will it qualify you to make a fantastic living as a defense attorney or civil engineer while you submit your manuscripts to agents? Well . . . no. It will qualify you to write creative fiction. Which other people may or may not like or want to publish. As I said, there will be toiling. Possibly the wearing of paper hats or hairnets. Many nametags. If temporary financial insecurity really scares you/turns you off, writing may be more of a sideline for you than a calling, and you are now free to find the profession which really lights your fire.
But believe me, college creative writing courses are a blast; you get to mingle with your writerly peers, critique each other’s work, have lively discussions about characterization and plot, and meet badass professors who actually have !real publications! under their belts. For the record, I didn’t really want to go to college. I always hated school, the whole structure of it. Why zombie my way through lecture after dry lecture when I could be home doing the actual work of writing books followed by running through fields of wildflowers? But I’m glad I went now, even for the broader English degree I earned instead of a pinpointed CW major, purely because of those few, incredibly valuable creative writing classes I took, and because of a fantastic author I had as a teacher named Elaine Ford.
Elaine has quite a few literary novels and short story collections out in the world and I was STARSTRUCK by her. She was a real author, which are not in abundance in rural Maine (seek out her books, guys; my personal favorites are MONKEY BAY and THE PLAYHOUSE). She encouraged me in this earthy, no-nonsense manner, full of humor and relatability. I still remember her advice and the comments she wrote in the margins of my fiction assignments. She taught me skills I use every. time. I. write. She, a Real Author, took me seriously, and because she did, I was able to believe in myself that much more. Sadly, Elaine passed away a few years back, but I will always treasure the time I spent as her student, and forever appreciate her generosity of spirit. She made me a better writer; of that I have no doubt.
Even for an unschooling advocate like me, thanks to Elaine, college was indeed well worth it.
FOR YOUR MFA IN WRITING:
Okay, so, keep in mind, this is coming from someone who does not hold a Master’s degree in anything and probably never will as, at this point, I’ve basically gotten to where I want to be professionally–BUT, if I had it to do over again, immediately after graduating from a college which offered an undergrad degree in Creative Writing, I would enroll my still-youthful and reasonably unattached self at the Vermont College of Fine Arts to earn a Master’s Degree in Writing.
Full disclosure: I applied there about nine years ago and was accepted. I ended up declining, because at that point I was nearly thirty and afraid that if I started on another path of study, I would never have the kids I knew I wanted. I’d been beating my head against the door of the publishing world since I was a fourteen, thinking I would start a family after I established myself and could provide for them; low and behold, it hadn’t happened yet, so I decided not to go for a Master’s and set about having babies and writing anyway. No regrets–it all worked out eventually (see: GRIT, begun when my oldest was about six mos. old, finished when he was a little over 1 yr.)–but it just goes to show that a writer’s path can have many, many twists and turns and seemingly dead ends. For me, having kids was the right choice, and I believe they’ve made me a better writer and person.
But for those in the market for an advanced degree–VCFA! Follow the link. The place is beautiful, it’s in Ver-frickin’-mont of the rolling green hills, they offer a summer residency in England, and I cannot tell you how many author bios I’ve read that mention they earned a graduate degree from this school. It strikes me as a place where you dig deep, produce some of your most mature works to date with the guidance of published authors as your professors, and also make some all-important connections with people who are already in the biz. I also get the impression that many authors’ debut novels were written as their senior projects at VCFA, polished up with professional advice, then submitted to agents and, with luck, accepted. Can anyone guarantee this will happened to you? Of course not. But it could be one potential way to bypass some of that toiling we talked about. (Seriously. No one’s going to mail me a box of free VCFA T-shirts or anything after I post this.) Know of another amazing school of fine arts? Leave it in the comments! Let’s drop some names so fellow burgeoning writers at least have a place to start looking. This calling is challenging enough without having to sift through the ad-laden minefield of the internet, trying to figure who is legit.
So. I hope maybe this post helped a little, or at least got you thinking about various avenues you might want to explore on your path to publication. Future blog posts will touch on craft: how to strengthen and build what skills you already have in order to become the writer you want to be. See you on the flip side, my talented friend.