“Truth is a matter of the imagination.” —Ursula K. LeGuin
Many people have emailed me asking what advice I might offer to an aspiring writer. Here are a few thoughts. A lot more could be said, obviously, but I hope you’ll find the following useful:
Read, read, read. Read widely and voraciously. Since you’re looking at my web page, you probably have an interest in science fiction or fantasy (SF/F). Seek out the best in the field. (Look at my recommended reading list but only as a start; it doesn’t even pretend to be exhaustive.) Read the classics, both SF and other. I wish I’d read more of the non-SF classics when I was in school.
Practice, practice, practice writing. Writing is a craft that requires both talent and acquired skills. You learn by doing, by making mistakes and then seeing where you went wrong. Short stories are a good training ground and an easier market to break into.
If you’re wondering about a course to pursue in college, and you think you want a career in writing, choose the school that you think will give you the best all-around experience. Much of what I learned in college I learned outside the classroom. Study what interests you (though it doesn’t hurt to get some training for work that pays a salary!). What do you feel passionate about? Pursue it! You don’t need a certificate to write; you do need self-discipline and inner fire.
Write from the soul, not from some notion about what you think the marketplace wants. The market is fickle; the soul is eternal.
If you can stand the thought of not writing, don’t attempt a career as a writer. It’s difficult and often painful. Don’t subject yourself to it unless you are driven by a passion for it. If you find this too discouraging, you probably shouldn’t aim to be a professional writer. But nothing says you can’t be a happy amateur. (Remember, the root of the word “amateur” is amare, to love.)
Don’t plan on making a lot of money from your writing. A survey by The Authors Guild a few years ago found that the average author earned about $4000 a year from his or her writing. That was a general survey, but even in the genres, there are plenty of people struggling–many of them quite good writers. If you make it into print, you are doing well. If you succeed in breaking out commercially, you’ll be among the extremely fortunate few.
Seek out constructive feedback on your work. Take suggestions seriously, and learn from them. Not all criticisms will be on the mark, but even those that aren’t can help you spot problems that need attention. You must decide for yourself which suggestions to take, and which to leave. Writing workshops can be invaluable–not just to the aspiring writer but also to the working professional. I have belonged to a local writing group for over twenty years, and they critique every piece of work I do before it goes to a publisher. My writing is far better for it. There are numerous online workshops available, both on the Internet and on the big commercial services. See my recommended reading list for a guidebook to writing workshops.
If your work is of publishable quality, sooner or later it will sell. Probably. There are no guarantees, of course. I’ve got some pieces of my own in the trunk that I thought would sell, but didn’t. But that’s what keeps us going–the belief that what we are doing is worth it. Please note: many people think their work is of publishable quality when it isn’t, at least not yet. That’s why it’s so important to get good, objective feedback–and to act on the feedback to improve your work. Only you can decide whether your faith in your own abilities is enough to get you through the learning curve.
Don’t send me your manuscripts. I can’t read them. I’m not an editor, and I’m busy trying to earn a living myself. Nor can I find you an agent or a publisher. You’ve got to do your own legwork. I know how hard it is, but there’s just no other way. See Getting Published for more on selling your work.
Seek out good sources of information. There are many fine books on writing, some of them general and some specifically oriented toward writing SF/F. The SFWA (Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) web page has links to numerous writer-friendly resources on the net, and at the bottom of this page you’ll find a number, as well. Your library has many resources, also. Ask to see The Literary Marketplace, which lists both publishers and agents.
Be determined, and be thick-skinned. I collected rejection slips for 6 years before I finally sold my first short story. Why did I keep going? Was I crazy? Probably. I was convinced I could do it, and I refused to take no for an answer.
Once you decide you’re ready to begin submitting to publishers, I suggest the following rule:
Always have the next market in mind. If your story comes back with a rejection note, don’t take it personally or stew about it. GET IT IN THE MAIL TO ANOTHER MARKET THAT SAME DAY. (Then you can go back to whatever it is you were doing, preferably writing the next story.)
If you’re thinking about asking me to look at your work, read this first.
Good luck, and I look forward to seeing your work in print!
“Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” —Gene Fowler