To major or not to major–that is the question

Here is the cover of The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, which will come out on May 2nd. I love it, and I’m super-excited about the release. If you remember, this is the prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

And I’m now on Instagram, where you can find me under my name gailcarsonlevine. I’m finding my way, feeling like a total newbie, but at least you’ll see my dog. I’ll also–if I can figure out how–be directing people to the blog, so that may be old for you. (This is why I shouldn’t self-publish–I warn people away!)

On September 22, 2016, Veralidaine Sarrasri wrote, My mother keeps going on and on about how I should do something in college besides creative writing as my major, and keep writing as a hobby. I feel like I really want to become an author and not much else, so I want to take creative writing as my major. What do you think? I could really use your opinions.

You guys had a lot to say:

Christie V Powell: I can’t tell you what to do, but I can give you a few case examples from my siblings who are grown up now and what they’re doing:

I actually had a similar argument with my mom. She had an idea of “acceptable” majors that would get me a good job, but I was more interested in learning interesting things. I took Wildlife and Wildlands Conservation because I wanted to know more about it. I’m now a mother, author, and hobby farmer, while my husband works as a school teacher. So I’m doing the kind of things I’ve always wanted to do, but there is a cost. We struggle with money quite a bit. If my husband couldn’t work and I had to, I would have a lot of trouble earning enough money to pay for daycare. It wouldn’t be too hard to find a decent job in my area with my degree, though.

My little sister got a degree in English (another degree my mother disapproved of). She got a divorce a few months ago. Now she lives at home where my mom and other siblings can watch her little daughter while she works. She has an entry-level job at a movie theater. I know she likes to write and participates in NaNoWriMo, but I don’t know if she has any plans to use her degree.

My closest brother didn’t finish college. He has a job in pest management (spraying for bugs and such), which he seems to enjoy. He struggled over the summer when they laid him off for the off season, but he can afford his apartment and an engagement ring. Another sister chose a degree in Family Counseling, but she’s currently on a mission for our church. Maybe some of the younger ones will take a more traditional path.

Kitty: I’m in the exact same boat as you right now. Everybody is different, but here’s my plan if you want a reference point:

-I’m applying to college right now. I’m probably going to major in Economics/Business since I really like it, with maybe one writing class. I plan to write the whole time, though, and hopefully will have a few novels self-published and more ready-to-go by the time I graduate.

-When I graduate, I’m going find a job (fingers crossed!) in some economics-related field that pays decently but is relatively light on the workload. (A standard 9-5 job, no need to work overtime or on weekends, etc.) I like to think that I’ll work in a company’s marketing department, an economics research facility (I love science, but lean towards the social sciences), but realistically, I’ll probably end up an accountant or financial analyst. Or something boring but stable along those lines, which I’m not wild about, but it’ll only be temporary.

– Hopefully by now, I’ll have a nice backlist of books that are making decent returns. An economics/marketing/business degree will *definitely* give me an advantage with the marketing. If I’m doing well enough after a few years of saving up, I might quit and become a full time indie author/entrepreneur like Johanna Penn. If not, that’s fine too, I’ll just work a day job and write at night, just like when I’m in school.

My dream is also to become a full-time author, but personally, I don’t think it’s worth it to get a Creative Writing/English degree. For starters, if the author thing doesn’t pan out (and you have to be prepared for the possibility that it might not, self-pubbed or traditionally), you don’t really have anything job-wise to fall back on, unless you like teaching, which I don’t.

Second, a business degree will help you a *lot*, more so if you want to self-publish, but even traditionally-published authors are expected to do more and more marketing nowadays. And if you self-publish and essentially run your own business, you will pretty much *need* to know how to do accounting, bookkeeping, and other stuff. I did DECA, which is an international business/finance competition, in the Business Finance Category last year, and trust me, anything involving numbers and math (as to, say, more creative pursuits like marketing) is *not* something you can BS without actually having learned how to do it. Sure, you can learn on your own like I did, but having a class would make things *much* easier. Writing is becoming more and more of a business, so a degree will serve you well.

Third (and this is *very* much my own opinion, so take it with a heavy grain of salt), I don’t think a Creative Writing/English degree will teach you much. I’ve taken three years of high school English, and apart from things like literary devices and parts of a sentence, I haven’t really *learned* that much. Of course, I’ve only taken expository writing/literary analysis courses, so Creative Writing or college classes might be different. Maybe Gail or somebody else who has taken them can weigh in on that. Once you have the basics, the “tools” of the English language out of the way, everything else is very much the honing of the craft. And I don’t think that’s something you have to–or even *can*–learn in a classroom. For me, I learn by “osmosis” and practice. I read *a lot*, and sort of just subconsciously absorb how sentences are formed, how stories are formed, that kind of stuff. Sometimes I’ll consciously analyze books and what makes them good or bad, or seek out blog posts or articles online that teach the craft of writing. But all of it is free and unstructured, not something you necessarily need a class for. And practice. Just keep writing, the more the better, and sooner or later you’ll get better. You might need some help along the way, but that’s what critique groups are for. And from I’ve heard about Creative Writing classes, most of the course is just enforced writing and critiquing. I can go grab a CP from the NaNoWriMo or PitchWars community and do the same thing on my own, for free. Since I learned writing this way, and it works fine for me. I just don’t think it’s worth shelling out several tens/hundreds of thousands of dollars for. But others who have taken a college writing course might be better informed on that topic.

Christie V Powell: Kitty has a good point. I can see how a business degree would be really useful.

I just wanted to point out that there are other ways to take creative writing classes, even when you’re not at college. Brandon Sanderson, a Sci-fi fantasy writer, teaches a college course on writing and posts his lectures on youtube for free. Here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4ZDBOc2tX8. You can also attend writing conferences and groups near you. Some are very pricey, some aren’t. The Festival of Books in Tucson Arizona, for instance, has free writing courses one weekend in March. I also attend a writing group that has a very class-like structure, with lectures and lessons and everything.

Melissa Mead: For what it’s worth, I only found one of my college English classes helpful for fiction writing. I majored in Psychology instead, which I actually think comes in handy more often, because it helps me get into my characters’ heads.

I actually LIKE keeping my writing as a hobby. It takes the pressure off having to write to survive, so it’s still fun.

Besides, if I had to write for a living I’d have starved by now. I made my first professional-level story sale in 2004, and published one e-book, and there have only been 2 years since then that I’ve earned enough to pay the mortgage. For a month. Not a year, a month. Plus writers don’t generally get health insurance. So I’ll stick with writing for fun for now. Maybe I’ll get famous after I retire.

These are so interesting! Everyone carves out a writing life differently.

When I started college and after I finished, I had no plan, no list of what I hoped to accomplish during my life. Due to a damaging remark by my high school creative writing teacher, which I may have mentioned on the blog, I believed I had no potential as a writer.

As a planless person, I majored in Philosophy because I admired a particular professor. It later turned out I didn’t like the subject particularly, but by then I had too many credits to switch. Philosophy is a useful pre-law major or good for going on to a PhD and then teaching, but otherwise, it and $2 (or whatever) will buy you a cup of coffee.

What I did know was that I wanted to help people, so I got a job in New York State government helping people on welfare find jobs. I loved it and stayed with it until I got promoted into administration, when the loving petered out. As a security-minded person, I stayed on. At first, my creative outlet was painting and drawing, but I was too self-critical to be happy. When I started writing, I felt that I had finally found myself.

By then, years had passed. I didn’t start writing until I was thirty-nine and didn’t get published until I was forty-nine.

Of course I was a big reader, and I had a tight grip on grammar. When I wrote a memo, the meaning was clear. My job at the time had me writing correspondence and reports, and my bosses were encouraging. One day, while meditating, I thought how much I loved stories but never made up any. I opened my eyes and picked up my pen–in pre-computer days. That was the beginning.

You can see that my trajectory until Ella Enchanted got published was the same as Melissa Mead’s and much like Kitty’s intended path. Six months after Ella came out (before the Newbery honor and long before the movie), when I thought I could have some kind of writing career and income, I took early retirement, knowing that I’d get a small pension when I turned fifty-five–security-minded again.

In my ten years to publication, I did what Christie V Powell suggests: I took adult-ed classes. Mine were at New York City colleges and universities. I left myself back in one marvelous class and took it five or six times. (The year Ella won the Newbery honor, another honor book, Lily’s Crossing, was by another alum of that class, Patricia Reilly Giff.)

Also to prepare myself–in a pre-blog universe–I read books about writing. I read everything on the Newbery shelf of my library. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, attended conferences, joined critique groups–did everything I could think of to improve my craft. And I sent my work out and accumulated a four-inch thick stack of personalized (not just form) rejection letters.

Publishers in children’s literature don’t care if an author dropped out of school in the third grade and certainly don’t care what her major was–as long as her manuscript is good and also likely to find a market. Adult literary publishing may be different. The poetry world smiles on an MFA–but almost no one earns a living by publishing poetry.

The good of a degree in creative writing is probably in the classes, in sharing work, seeing what other students are doing, getting feedback, having readers. Frankly, since it’s so hard to earn a living as a writer, the quality of college writing teachers is likely to be very high. A professor may mentor you. If publication is discussed, you may also get a leg up there. However, you can find all of this in other ways, as I did. I’m not coming down on one side or the other.

If some other, possibly more practical, major interests you, too, you can minor in creative writing or even have a double major. But if nothing else is appealing, you’ll get your degree and spend the time doing what you love.

Whatever you decide, there’s commercial value in writing well, because few do. Clarity in business and government writing is priceless, say I, who had to read a lot of murk. The creative writing program I completed sends out job notices, and I just saw one for an assistant in a law firm. The posting said that the position had been held for the last nineteen years by a succession of poets!

There are also writing-related fields. There’s journalism, a possible major. Suzanne Fisher Staples, author of the young adult, Newbery honor Shabanu, studied journalism and worked as a journalist before she got published. There’s business and technical writing, public relations, advertising–though I don’t know if these are majors.

You know yourself. Do you need security, as I did? Some people don’t, but if you do, you may want to factor that into your plans. You may or may not care a great deal about possessions and money. Your lifestyle may be simple, and there’s freedom in that, but–just saying and maybe sounding like a mom–worrying about enough money for necessities is miserable.

One other thing to throw in the mix of considerations: automation. The most complicated, high-skill jobs are being replaced or partially replaced by machines. When you think about a field, you might research its chances of continuing to exist. Novelists, according to something I read, are unlikely to be replaced by robots. And here’s the link to where I read it: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/05/21/408234543/will-your-job-be-done-by-a-machine. Writers and authors have a 3.8% chance of being automated out of existence. Not bad.

Finally, there’s chance. Nobody knows what marvelous and terrible curves are going to be thrown at us, no matter how carefully we plan. I’m proof of that. I couldn’t have guessed how my life would go, and more surprises may lie ahead. So we can relax, at least a little.

Long post! Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC is a writer. Whenever she introduces a character, that character comes to life and appears in her non-book reality, in ordinary circumstances that are nothing like what she’s writing. How does she proceed? Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Cinderella marries Prince Charming. They ascend to the throne. She loves Charming but has no aptitude for queening. Write what happens.

∙ Cinderella is a fine queen, and Charming is a great king, but an invading army defeats their soldiers. They’re taken captive and have to reinvent themselves. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Beautiful cover!

    We really do have similar paths! I was going to be a counselor, but ended up working for NYS. I got promoted to supervisor and got too stressed to write much, (although that wasn’t all because of the job.) But then I got moved to a lateral job, and now things are more balanced again and I’m trying to get back into the habit of writing more.

  2. What a gorgeous cover!

    And what an interesting topic. I’m in a one year leadership development college program, but as grad draws nearer, figuring out the next step is definitely on my mind. I know for sure I want to write full time, or at least work from home. But job security is important to me too, and I’m stuck trying to figure out how much writing should factor into my schooling decision! Authors aren’t like surgeons or lawyers–they aren’t required to get a degree in anything. But I’d like a degree anyway. Something to fall back on, like Kitty said. I’m currently deciding between something directly related to writing and something more businesslike. As a writer, you are pretty much a small business owner after all. Lots to think about! Thanks for the thoughtful post, Mrs. Levine!

  3. Majoring Villain (formerly "Failed Villain") says:

    Thanks, I’m in a similar situation! And what a coincidence- not one week ago, I discovered a very interesting major: International Studies. For writing people who also like history and politics, you should look into it!

  4. Love the cover! Time for me to speculate! Is she flying? Are those magic leaping boots? Is her hair growing or has it just been cut fork Rapunzellian length? I’m so excited!
    Now I’ll throw in my two cents as a college sophomore majoring in English. I like my major because it lets me take interesting classes from other writers. That Brandon Sanderson class you can watch on YouTube? I watch it in person. I’m also in a class on fairy tales in television.
    I have a friend who wanted to be a writer and had no intention of going to college, because she didn’t “need” a degree. Then she decided to go, but she read somewhere to major in “anything but English.” So she’s studying psychology. With no intention to work in psychology. Good major? Sure. But a bad way to pick one.
    I plan on taking an entrepreneurship class and public speaking sometime before I graduate, because writers are self employed and have to talk at conferences and school visits.

  5. I don’t want to act like I have all the answers here, but my experience with not majoring in writing but still learning about writing has worked out well. I am double majoring in Letters (which is essentially a liberal arts degree. I take classes in history, classical culture, philosophy, religious studies, english) and French with a minor in Latin. I am constantly reading and writing for school and I get to take classes in writing whenever I want because it fits in with my Letters degree. The beauty of college is not only can you double major or minor, but electives. Take classes in writing, cycling, or Russian. It doesn’t matter!
    Major in what interests you but may look better on a resume. minor in your passion but others may not value. But whatever you do, don’t major in something you don’t care about or you’ll end up lost and on track for something you don’t want to do.

  6. Jenalyn Barton says:

    So I’m one of those who actually did get a degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing, while I minored in Business. But I may have been a bit rare in that I never intended to use my degree to make a living — I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a stay at home mom. But I am very glad that I did major in Creative Writing, because I got some of the best instruction in the craft from one of my professors. Unfortunately, it can be a bit hit and miss when it comes to Creative Writing professors; while I liked some of my other professors, most of the time they judged my writing on their personal preference, rather than on craft. I’ve also improved much more in the years since I graduated than during college, simply because I desired to learn more. Another downside is that many college professors look down on speculative fiction, and gravitate towards mainstream fiction instead. But I still wouldn’t change a thing. I learned a lot about the craft of writing, and in my other classes I learned a lot about critical thinking. It’s a valuable experience that I wouldn’t change.

    But if you’re looking for a degree that can give you a stable income, then creative writing probably isn’t the way to go. But English degrees, despite the stigma surrounding them, are actually very flexible. A lot of business people actually look for people with English degrees, because of their communication and critical thinking skills. So there is always that option.

  7. Veralidaine Sarrasri says:

    Thank you so much, Mrs. Levine. This really helped me a lot! Thank you so much.
    I can’t wait to read The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre!

  8. I wanted to major in Creative Writing, but the school that offered me financial aid didn’t have that major. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduating, so I chose International Studies. I also considered French and Theater. I knew none of those would get me a career I really wanted, but I didn’t know what could. And those were what interested me. The majors that actually teach you applicable knowledge or skills (business, marketing, education, law, etc)…not for me.

    What am I doing now? Writing. I’ve also had 3 steady jobs, none of which required a degree.

    In my experience and observations, unless you have a pretty good idea of the field you want a career in, your major doesn’t matter that much. Better to enjoy school and not know what job you want, than to hate school and still not know what job you want.

  9. So excited for the new book!
    Others may have mentioned this, but creative writing isn’t offered everywhere as a major. At my college you can major in English with an emphasis in writing. To my knowledge, this involves a lot of different types of writing such as research and non-creative work. It was something I considered studying but decided to do music instead. I’m hoping to take creative writing as an elective course though. Also consider writing club groups on campus. There are sure to be others who love writing but choose not to major in it. Get together and form a critique group. Just some thoughts.

  10. Cecilia Marie says:

    I’m going to major in veterinary science and I think I will minor in theater. I only recently got into writing and I was wondering if it would be good to take a class (probably creative writing) since I don’t plan to actually have any of my books published

  11. Gorgeous cover! I’m so excited for this one to come out!

    I majored in English, but stayed away from the creative writing classes in college, because I didn’t like the professor. I think the best part of my degree was the excuse to read lots of books. 🙂 I minored in Russian and ended up studying overseas. I think the experience of living abroad and knowing a rather unusual language has opened up more doors for me as a writer (and in my other profession, teaching) than English ever did. So, one thing I would think of is choosing a major or a career that will allow you to experience life. You need something to fuel your imagination and gives you interesting experiences to draw on. That to me is the whole purpose of a day job–and I agree that it’s nice to have one that does pay the bills.

    And my best creative writing instruction came from an amazing but very inexpensive community college class, conferences, retreats, critique groups, and lots of how-to books.

    • Russian is cool! I went to a writing conference this week that had a panel on revolutions. One of the panelists was a Russian major. He said he was qualified to be there because “you don’t learn about Russia without studying revolutions”. That fascinated me because I never would have made the connection on my own. Everything you can study is connected to something else, and you end up with all sorts of knowledge.

  12. I LOVE the book cover!!!!!!!! I can’t WAIT to read it!!!!!!!!!! The Two Princesses of Bamarre is my FAVORITE book by you. Besides Writing Magic and Writer to Writer, and closely followed by Ever and Ella Enchanted and ALL the others!

    I have a question — Sorry this has nothing to do with the post really.

    So, I was wondering, I often tend to make my characters a lot alike. For example — I will be writing one story and there will be a character who loves animals, is gentle and smart. And then I start writing, thinking this character is quite unique for me. and by the end (s)he always seems a lot like another character that I have either made up or read.
    I don’t know how to fix this, even if I write out a character questionnaire, or think about how to make my characters deeper, or even base them off of people and put them into places I can relate to (or not). By the end of the book, they are always very alike to a character in another story.
    Any thoughts on how this could change?

    • Well, that’s not always necessarily a bad thing. Mrs. Levine said herself that writers have to imitate. But if you really want to change, you can give them a habit, something that’s unique to them. That might change them enough, and add some depth to your character.
      I hope this helped, Samantha.

    • StorytellerLizzie says:

      Favoring a certain type of character isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion. If you hope to publish your works someday, that could be a part of your writing style/voice.

    • I think, deep down, characters come from you. The superficial things we put on those questionnaires give us ideas and help on the outside, but who the character IS and what they feel like is going to come from your subconscious mostly, based on you and your understanding of others. Part of that just comes from maturing, meeting more people, and having more experiences.

      In a more practical vein, you might try looking into motives and backstory: these characters have certain characteristics, but why? What in their lives has shaped them into the person that they are?

  13. Oh, that cover is beautiful! I am so glad your publisher listened when we all threw hissy fits in the comments years ago about the photographed (or worse, headless) girl covers that are trending in the YA world, and how we all preferred the illustrated covers instead.

    As for the topic of this post, major in what interests you. In most cases your major doesn’t have a direct link to your future job. Most jobs just want you to have your bachelor’s degree, but they don’t care so much what the major was as much as they care about what experience you have and whether it’ll help you do the job they want filled. Besides, with how expensive college is these days, do you really want to rack up that much debt studying something that isn’t your passion? You’ll be paying it off for years. Make it worth it.

  14. Margaret Anne says:

    Hello! I was getting ready to send my first book to agents and I am seeing options for “authors.me” … Does anyone have any experience with that? Or heard anything about it? I am kind of nervous to submit through something other than mail.
    Also, love the cover! I am so excited for it to come out!

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