Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Building a Career

by Darlene Ryan

If you came looking for Sharon Wildwind who's usually in this space on Tuesdays, check back on Saturday, Sharon will be here then, interviewing mystery writer, Lyn Hamilton.

Since we’re almost a month into the new year I thought this would be a good time to talk about building a writing career. Think of this as a list of things I’ve learned the hard way, things your mother would tell you, except she’s not a writer.

1. Writing for a living is not the same as getting published no matter what. The desire to have your book in print—to be able to wave it in the face of all those nay-sayers who’ve delighted in telling you it was never going to happen—can be enough to make otherwise intelligent people act as though their brains just fell out of their noses. If what you want is to make writing your career, stop pouncing on every gimmick and dubious opportunity that pops up. Set goals. Make a plan. If you don’t take your writing seriously neither will anyone else.

2. Writing is a profession. Behave professionally. Trashing your agent, your editor, your publishing house, or that writer you know who just signed a contract with a lot of zeros, in any public forum, will come back to bite you. With pointy teeth. In a place that hurts a lot. A conference is a public forum. So is a book signing, a workshop and a critique group. So is a blog. When that big vein in your forehead starts throbbing think twice about where you blow off steam.

3. Writing is a business. Educate yourself. Agents, publishers, genres, trends, marketing-- find out the basics about all of it. Read. Take workshops. Go to book signings. Make friends with librarians and booksellers and other writers. Ask questions. It takes years, a lot of studying, a lot of hands-on work, and more than a few shocks to become an electrician. Building a writing career isn’t a whole lot different.

4. Other writers are not the enemy. The publishing business is not like a cake. If Sandy and Liz and Julia and Sharon and Lonnie get to a cake first it’s likely there won’t be anything left by the time I show up—especially if it’s chocolate. But if Sandy and Liz and Julia and Sharon and Lonnie all get book contracts it doesn’t mean there’s no longer anyone who wants my book. I admit I’m not that highly evolved a person that I haven’t felt some twinges of jealousy, or eaten half a cake when a writer I know signs with the hotshot agent or gets a multi-book deal. But the feeling doesn’t last. And it gives me the push to get back at it, so that next time I’ll be the one with the good news.

5. Published writers don’t have some inside knowledge that gets them published and keeps you out. There’s no secret handshake or special code we add to our correspondence. We don’t say, “The scarecrow walks at midnight,” when we meet an agent or an editor so they’ll know we’re part of the club. We just write. We write the very best book we can. Then we send it out into the world and start writing another one.

6. Write the book. This one seems so simple but it’s also what messes up a lot of writers. You have to finish the book. And that won’t happen if you never get past chapter twelve. “But there’s this voice in my head that keeps telling me it’s all a pile of dreck,” I’ve heard more than one writer say. It’s your head. Ignore the voice. Kick it out. Tell it to go do something anatomically impossible.

And that’s it.

You want to be a writer? Go write.

That’s what it takes.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Right on target, Darlene. Not sure about a critique group being a public forum rather than one of the few places it's okay to let off steam. I'd say it's on a case by case basis--but if we plan to let our hair down, we need to get a consensus on a "What's said here stays here" rule. And make sure we have critique partners we trust--which is a good idea anyway. :)

Joyce Tremel said...

Excellent advice!

Anonymous said...

Oh, man, have you nailed it! And this was something I needed to hear this morning.

Um, regarding the cake, If it's chocolate, you can have my piece. Allergies, you know. But if it's carrot cake, every woman for herself!