“I want to be a writer . . . but how do I get there?” Part 1: Finding Your Path

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.

A few words on art and publication…

I decided to resurrect my blog today. After one of the hardest years in our lifetimes, I thought it might be useful if I shared a bit about how I got here, and why you–yes, YOU, my talented and very worthy friend–can, too. I rarely do appearances these days, as I’ve got three precious, high-energy little boys to take care of (kiddos and writing come first), but in the past, the question, “How long did it take you to get published?” was something which always came up during any author talk. I think lots of people are looking for permission to believe in their own dreams, a reason to feel it’s okay to continue–or to begin, for the first time in their lives–reaching for what truly brings them happiness. Now that I’ve got a few books out there for readers to discover, it actually gives me pleasure to say that my road to publication was SEVENTEEN YEARS LONG.

Yep. I want that massive number–nearly two decades of my life!–to smash through any phony-ass, Instagram-pretty, overnight-success-story illusion you have been bombarded with by our frenemy the internet. YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE OR A FOOL IF YOU AREN’T EARNING MONEY FROM YOUR ART RIGHT NOW. OR IF YOU NEVER HAVE. If you’re driven to create in any medium at all, you have a incredible gift inside you which you absolutely deserve to share and earn a living by doing so, but it often takes a lot of hard work and frustration to reach what is regarded as a professional level in any artistic field. It’s my opinion that authors are pressured to become glib, snarky, “pretty” versions of themselves on social media in order to sell a few more books (“Oh, that National Book Award? No big. I’m just that good.”) To act like a celebrity and pretend everything is effortless. God knows I’ve caved and done some stupid stuff online and off for the sake of convincing my publisher that I was really working it. Not proud. I do visit my social media accounts once a day because it’s the best way to interact with readers and run giveaways, but I have no talent for viral posts and my relatively low number of followers speaks to that.

You know what’s unpretty? The years spent in the trenches. Double-digits worth of manuscripts–truly, my blood, sweat, and tears–sitting in a plastic file box. They never found a publisher or won me an agent, and all the while I worked one low-level, zero benefit job after another to pay the bills, taking me from being a teen with big aspirations to a self-proclaimed loser pushing thirty with only a few writing contest wins and minor short story publications under my belt. Sometimes I COULDN’T pay the bills–gasp!–and had to borrow money from my parents. How embarrassing, right? (But thank you, Mom and Dad; you guys have always been there for me.) Literally everyone has gone through hard times financially and has needed to seek help. Ev.er.y.one. Anyone who tries to shame you for doing so is being dishonest about their own experience in order to preserve a false image of themselves and should be ignored. Also unpretty: hundreds of impersonal form rejections, eventually adding up to thousands. Having an editor ask me to make a long list of changes to a manuscript so they could accept it, then having them reject it anyway based on reasons completely out of my hands. Most unpretty of all: depression, frustration, self-doubt, two a.m. insomnia sparked by the terror that I was never, ever going to get my books out into the world no matter how hard I worked, that I could never get past the gatekeepers to the publishing world, and that everyone who ever criticized or doubted me in my life was right to do so.

My advice to you–and I hope you’re still interested at this point–is to LET GO. You can’t control the art world. You can’t control malicious people who want to tear you down and make you feel ashamed of who you are. All you can control is how much of yourself you put into your creative work. Baby, give it ALL. Spill your guts on the page/canvas/software/whatever, because truth resonates. Art is about sharing your truth. Everybody, whether they show it on Twitter or not, has experienced pain, failure, utter joy, crushing loss, and they’ll recognize themselves in your work if you’re willing to expose those unlovely truths. The very best thing you can do RIGHT NOW to improve your art is let go of your fear and defensiveness and frustration for a few hours a week–though I’d suggest working for at least an hour every day–and just let the freefall happen. Roll around in it. MAKE A FREAKING MESS. Even if you only have time to work on weekends or at night after the kids are sleeping, own that time. Be your unpretty self. Then polish, polish, polish your work’s uniquely imperfect face to a shine.

Surround yourself with people who are kind and supportive. This does NOT mean you need a huge social circle; I’m a true introvert and have a hard time making friends (ooh! Another unpretty truth!) But artists need to keep their eyes on the horizon to survive. They need people who help kindle their enthusiasm, not discourage them or damn with faint praise. If 2020 has taught us anything, it should be that life is too short to waste time around people who disrespect us. Hold close those special few who are always there for you, and share your art with them first; they’ll always give the best, most honest advice, and back you up when the rejections are too many and the road ahead just looks too damn long.

You do have what it takes to go after your dreams. Every artist has something worth saying, regardless of race, gender, age, creed, or orientation. Don’t be silenced. Don’t stop trying. Make connections with the people who share your interests and keep slamming your shoulder into that gate until the keepers HAVE to open it for you. Too many times I’ve overheard people actively discourage young artists from trying to make a living at their medium, citing the arts as too difficult, too impractical. Promise me you’ll ignore those people. They’ve given up on their own aspirations and now their only grim satisfaction seems to come from inflicting that same fate on others. I’ve had people say those same things to me. Go for it anyway. Trust me. You’ll never regret not giving up, no matter how long it takes. Don’t let them keep you from the moment where you get to share your story, your image, your creation, with the world.

Don’t let them.

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