On Being a Writer

Thanks again to Jane Collen for her informative blog post on intellectual property!

Sarah wrote this on the website in January: I’ve loved writing stories for as long as I can remember. Even before I could write actual words, I’d draw pictures and make up stories to go along with them. I’ve always hoped that one day I might be able to be an author.

Now, I’m in high school, and I still love writing. I’m getting to a point where I need to begin thinking seriously about what I want to do. I’d still like to be an author, but I’m not sure that’s possible. I write all the time in a journal, and love it, but I’m hesitant to share my writing with anyone else, because I’m scared of what others might think. I know that when someone sends something to get published, it’s very likely to be rejected. I guess I’m afraid to pursue a career where I might never get anything published and never be successful. So, my question to you would be, do you think I should pursue a writing career, or continue to enjoy writing for my own enjoyment but look into a different career. Any advice you could offer for an aspiring writer would be much appreciated. Thank you!

Let’s start with careers. If your goal is to be a novelist, few people who aren’t very wealthy can graduate from college and devote a year or two or four to writing without some other source of income. During the ten years it took me to get published (nine to get an acceptance), I worked for New York State government. I wrote mostly on the train during my very long commute. So I think it makes sense to prepare for a job while you also continue to write. I’m not a career counselor, but I am certain that good writing is an asset in almost any job. If any of you reading the blog know something about this, please weigh in. You may want to prepare for a career that will use your writing skills directly. Public relations, grant writing, technical writing, and advertising leap to mind. I have no idea what the opportunities are in those fields. There must be more fields for writers, too. If there are career counselors at your high school or college, I suggest you consult them. And again, if you’re reading the blog and write on the job, please tell us what you do.

I say, look for a field that interests you, that you think will be fun to do most days. And – I hope this isn’t presumptuous – cultivate in yourself the capacity to have fun in whatever you’re doing. One of the charms of being a writer, professionally or not, is the ability to stand outside what’s going on. You can satirize it or dramatize it. You can invent backstories for the players, your fellow toilers, the boss, the boss’s boss. You can imagine the meetings that led to the insane employees’ manual.

You may need to decide whether you want the kind of career that will engage you fully, that will demand sixteen hour days of you, or the kind that will let you go home at night and write. There are pluses and minuses of each.

I must confess that I did no such planning. I graduated from college during a recession, and I had been a philosophy major, and I took the first job I could get, which was with an economics research firm, a very bad fit. I took a test for a government job and began to work for the long-defunct WIN Program, placing welfare recipients in jobs. I loved it, because it fulfilled a need in me to be helpful. But it really was dumb luck. Then I got promoted out of what pleased me, and the second fifteen years of my twenty-seven years in state government were only intermittently satisfying. I stayed because I needed the security – not a good reason. However, my job didn’t demand much overtime, and I started writing in my last ten years there, and you know the rest.

The point is, life is full of surprises. The path you start down may be the right one, but if not, you can veer off, change your mind, do something else. I was almost fifty when Ella Enchanted was published.

Onto success. I am extremely lucky (because of the Newbery honor, the movie, the Disney books, the confidence that HarperCollins had in me from the start) to be able to earn my living as a writer. Not many writers do, and they are still successful. Let me repeat that: They are still successful. In the arts, where competition is extreme, success needs to be defined in other than monetary ways. If you’ve written an entire novel, that’s a measure of success. If you’ve gotten something published that is success too. If someone – one person! – has read your work, has been moved by it, even changed, that’s success. You don’t have to have the whole enchilada to be successful. And no matter how much success you do accumulate, someone else will have more.

An aside. You may be thinking that the Newbery honor wasn’t luck because I’d written a good book. But plenty of good books don’t get the recognition they deserve. I once judged picture book texts for a contest. My fellow judges and I had to come up with one winner and, if I remember correctly, one runner-up. The book I loved the most didn’t appeal in the slightest to the other judges, so it was out. From the other ten that I adored it was almost impossible to choose which was best, and yet we had to. If I had eaten a different breakfast on the morning when we decided, if one of the judges had seen a different movie the night before, if the day had been rainy, we might have made a different selection. There was definitely an element of luck.

And now onto, criticism, which is everyone’s lot in life. I confess that I can tolerate writing criticism much more comfortably than I can take criticism of my character or of the stupid things I sometimes do or the thoughtless remarks I sometimes make. Being called up for those really makes me cringe. If the criticism is on target I endure a period of miserable shame.

Some writing criticism I actually like, if it shows me how to improve my work. If it lights a path to a better story, if it inspires new creativity, I’m ecstatic.

And some writing criticism I dislike. If I start to feel that my whole effort was a failure, I find that as hard to tolerate as the personal criticism. But once I see how I can make my story better, the pain fades.

For most writers criticism is essential. Few of us bang out perfect prose, and few of us can see all our flaws. We need an objective eye.

If writing criticism is intolerable to you, I’d suggest you reassess your position. Try to take the criticism in, in a way that’s less painful. You might read some of my other posts on criticism and rejection. However, if you try and you just can’t deal with it positively, then writing professionally may not be for you. You may be happier keeping it as a hobby.

From criticism to rejection. We all experience it, as writers and not as writers. In ordinary life, we get rejected by our first choice school or by a crush or by a potential friend. In writing, rejection is as common as the flu and just as welcome. I’m still experiencing it. Not too long ago my editor turned down a picture book project I wanted to do. And my poetry is garnering more rejections than acceptances. It’s hard not to take it personally, but writing rejection is affected by many factors. One, of course, is the quality of the work. But others may be the market or similarity to something else the publishing house is putting out or the personal preferences of the editor. The problem is, you may never know what the real reason is. It may be impossible not to feel bad, and it’s fine to wallow in your misery – but not forever. It’s important, probably crucial, not to let a rejection make you dislike your work. The trick is to send it back out and keep writing and using criticism to get better.

Whew! Time to get off my soapbox! Here are two prompts:

• Write a journal entry about yourself and your future and your attitudes toward success, criticism, and rejection. Assess yourself. Consider what you think will make you happy in your professional life. Write about what you need to do to get there. Do not heap criticism on yourself in the process!

• You know The Rule of Three? Cinderella goes to three balls. The queen in “Rumpelstiltskin” guesses his name three times. The evil queen in “Snow White” visits her in her home with the dwarves three times. That’s three examples, but there are lots more, because three seems to be a satisfying number. Write a fairy tale about an aspiring writer using The Rule of Three. If you like, turn her into a toad (or anything else), bring in a dragon, an actual fairy, a talking wolf.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I have not yet been published, so maybe m advise isn't exactly valid, but here's my bit. My dad, (Who also isn't published, but is a great deal wiser then I am, and therefor holds more trustability) says that authors don't normally make much money, at least, not enough to live on, so, my advise t you would be to prepare for something else, just in case. If you don't want to do anything else, then I'll give you this: Your first book has the power to either make or break you. A good friend of mine told me this, and it's pretty accurate. If your fist book is good, then you have a fighting chance at greatness, but if it's bad, the chances are, you won't do so well. If you really want to be an author, and nothing else, I suggest you get married, (Though, I'm guessing your a bit too young for that) and let your husband do the money work for the family. Like my aunt. Or, if marriage doesn't appeal to you, pour your heart and soul into your first book. Make it GOOD. I hope this helps. Good luck.

  2. I need help, I have a problem with my voice. My writing voice that is. I'm a copy-cat. If I've recently read a book, say, by Shannon Hale, and then I go to write on my story, I find that my writing style is a lot like hers. If I haven't read anything recently and have started writing, my writing is really bland. I do actually have my own "voice", it's quick, sarcastic and quite funny. (Think Patrick McMannus, only, slightly less hysterical.) My problem is, I write a lot of serious stuff, and I'm not sure I like my "voice" very well for that type of tale. And, Also, I can only slip into my "voice" every once in a while. I'll come up with one thing, (say: "Atomic just doesn't fit those cinnamon jawbreakers. No sir, Atomic just doesn't do them justice." Excerpt from one of my "try-out" stories, called "Ode to Atomic Fireballs.) and then I come up with a whole string of them and mold them into a story. My problem is this "Voice" strikes at the oddest time, very rarely while I'm in a position to write stuff down and it never lasts long. In my "Ode to Atomic Fireballs", my "Voice" died out right before I finished the story (It is maybe two pages long) so the end didn't quite fit. I have a problem and I don't know how to solve it. Can anyone help?

  3. Elisa, this happens to me a lot. My voice will be loud and clear one minute, and the next it's completely gone. What I do is keep writing. I push myself deeper into my story, and keep typing, even though my voice isn't consistent. After a while, my voice magically reappears, and everything is back to normal. After I finish what I'm writing, I go back and either re-write the scene with the messed up voice, or add things to try to make it sound consistent.
    Does this help? I hope it does 🙂

  4. I need some advice of my own…
    I'm writing a story right now, and one of the characters has a speech impediment. The character often drops his "Rs" and pronounces them wrong. I read online that an author should never write out accents or quirks in the characters speech, and that it's distracting, hard to follow, and generally doesn't work. The author of the article that talked about this said that mentioning it a few times will do the trick, but I'm not sure.
    What does everyone here think about writing out things like that? Is it annoying? Should it not be done? Does it make it easier to hear the character in your mind if it's written out, or is mentioning it a few times enough?
    Any advice is appreciated.

    • I'd find it annoying if it was overdone or simply hard to read. But I have read several books where I thoroughly enjoyed the accents the author wrote out:
      -A mystery series set in London in the 1800's, where the lower-class people dropped their Hs. (For example, "Mr. Astley set 'er out on 'er ear, 'e did.")
      -And a series set in the South during the Civil War, in which the slaves' speech was written out exactly how they'd sound. (It's been a while since I read those, so I don't have any examples.)
      I've also read a book where a character was Irish or Scottish, and whenever he said "you", it was written "yu." It took me awhile to figure out that it was supposed to be pronounced with a short u, not a long u, but once I did, I think I could hear his accent better.
      Anyway, I'm not sure about just mentioning it a few times. I think I'd wonder why a character started out talking differently, then began speaking normally. I'd probably consider it a mistake on the author's part.
      Just so we can all see how your character talks, could you give us an example of his or her dialogue?

    • I don't especially like lots and lots of funnily spelled words. You might mention it a couple times, or something, but don't over do it. If he has a speech impediment, don't make him talk a whole lot. If he can't talk correctly, then have him be sort of embarrassed about it, and try his hardest not to say anything with R's in it. Or every now and then do this: "It was red, really bright red." he said. (Only it sounded like he said: It was led, eally blight led.) and put the pronunciations in brackets. I do that with one of my lisping characters. I'm not sure if people find that annoying, but I don't do it that often; maybe once every three chapters or so, just to remind everyone.

    • Very good question! I have a character in my books who can't pronounce s's properly, and I read the "mention it a few times" advice before I wrote it, so that is what I did. I discovered, however, that before long, even I forgot that he had a lisp! I'm still trying to figure out just how to fix it, so I appreciate these comments, too!

    • An author I enjoy, Brian Jacques, had a habit of giving his characters very distinct (and sometimes heavy) accents. At first, I couldn't understand a word one group was saying, but it was really fun to read. After the first book, it was much easier. I love them. It's so fun to try and read them out loud, or listen to the audio books to see how they sound.

      The only drawback is that some people end up skipping the heavily accented dialogue. They never learn to read it, and may end up putting the book down.

      I say a balance is needed. I probably wouldn't write accents as heavily as Mr. Jacques, but I would want it to be present. If a character has a lisp, I think you should write his dialogue with a lisp. If it seems a little overdone when you're finished, then smooth out a few parts.

    • Michelle Dyck–Here is an exert from my story–
      " "Ah you okay, Kahwina?" My name sounded foreign on his lips. His "r" sounded like it had been thrown in a blender with a "w," making him sound a little young for his age. "I'm suhpwised you didn't bahn up." "
      Elisa–lol that might be kind of hard to do. He's one of the main characters, and has a speech in one chapter which is important to the plot. Plus, I've never written a character that sounded like that (which is actually how I talk–I've been in speech therapy for years lol)and I'd like to give him his fair share of talking. I like the brackets idea, it might work well, since my story is told in first person with a sarcastic narrator.
      writeforfun–that's happened to me during storys too!
      Rosjin, ah that's a good point. Sometimes I skip over heavily accented dialouge. Yet I also love reading them out loud and hearing them in my head.
      carpelibris, "Use dialect like hot pepper" is an awesome saying! LOL
      Thanks for all the advice, everyone!

    • Oh, okay. I see now. I, for one, would enjoy reading his speech just as it is. (It reminds me a little of a book by Frank Peretti, in which the lead female had a speech impediment. She stuttered when she was upset or nervous, and some letters came out wrong…)

    • A year or so ago I read THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS, in which I think all but one of the characters speak in a dialect. It was fine after I got used to it, and I enjoyed trying to read it aloud. But occasionally, there would be a word I couldn't puzzle out, no matter how hard I tried, and that was annoying. For example, I didn't figure out until later that there's a dialect that uses "I allow" the same way I would use "I bet" or "I guess." So when a character said, "I 'llow" something or other, I had no idea even what word he was saying, much less what he meant.
      All that to say, I personally like the idea of actually spelling out your character's speech; I would tend to forget otherwise too. But if you decide to do it that way, I'd suggest making sure to clarify anything that you think might be confusing, like a word with several r's, or a name that you've invented where the reader might not immediately make the connection. (You did it perfectly with your MC's name. I love the simile with the blender, by the way.)
      P.S. Love your username. I'm a homeschooler too.

  5. I have also been wondering on a career on writing as Sarah did. So if I were to become a part time writer at first, starting off with another job and working on my novels for my free time, I would probably want a job that is not too hectic – like a doctor, or a lawyer- so I would have time to work on my stories.
    My problem is, that that's exactly what I want to be- a lawyer or a doctor. If so, I might not have time to work on writing. Any suggestions?

    • I know of at least a couple of authors who are lawyers, and a couple more who are doctors. (Pediatricians, specifically.) Their lives sound pretty hectic, but it can be done.

  6. I have a question, too! So I've heard authors say that when writing, you shouldn't "second-guess" yourself in your writing, make excuses for something you've invented, and you don't need to explain WHY every single little thing happens, because the reader takes the author's word as law (unless something is just too ridiculous and inconsistent). Unfortunately, my problem is that I don't know where to stop asking why. Why did this happen? Why does this minor character do that? Why does this person have this trait? And I'm not sure when the "backstory" details I throw in are useful, or just clogging up the story. When do I just need to tell my reader a fact and expect them to not question it, and when ought I to explain things in deeper detail? Any suggestions are welcome 🙂

    • I have that problem, too. I have noticed that when I go so far explaining something that I realize I've forgotten about the important thing is supposed to be happening, that is usually the point at which the readers begin to say "That's enough – we don't really need to know that!" The rule I try to follow is that, if it distracts from the actual story, there's probably too much detail. Notice that I said I try to follow it – I didn't say I ALWAYS manage to follow it! Nobody's perfect:) I hope others weigh in, too, though, because I do still struggle with the area. I feel your pain, Kenzi!

  7. Also, pertaining to career options, I'm studying right now to be an editor, even though I'm aspiring to be a writer. I liked this career option the best because it still allowed me to be around and doing the things that I love–writing and grammar! So you don't necessarily need to be an author to do and be around writing; you can always choose a job that is closely related, like editing or teaching creative writing, for some examples. Hope this helped anybody at all 🙂

  8. I have been a lurker on your blog for quite some time, but this post brings up an issue I feel strongly about, so I thought I would finally speak up.

    When I was in high school, a writer was all I wanted to be. I was highly discouraged by some very well-meaning adults in my life, but once that was off the table, I didn't know what I wanted to do or be anymore. I think that has a great deal with why it took me a break of four years to go to college after graduation.

    When I finally went to college, it was with very noble ideas of doing something "useful." Nevertheless I gravitated toward English classes and that ended up being my major anyway. I also started writing again around this time. It took me quite a few years of feeling lost, but I came full circle, right back to what I'd always wanted to do.

    I did ultimately do what Ms. Levine suggests, by the way, and got a related job as a technical writer. A year later (and with the help of a very supportive husband) I started freelancing full time, primarily as an Internet marketing copywriter.

    The downside of a related job — and yes, there is a downside — is that you can get very burned out and not want to spend your spare time working on fiction after you have been writing for other people all day long. Now I work part-time as a nanny, and spend the rest of my time on a combination of freelancing and fiction. It keeps me quite busy but I don't feel burned out anymore. Nothing published yet, but some good stuff in the works.

    I suppose the advice I'm trying to give is to do what feels right to you. Don't let well-meaning adults derail your dreams, but keep in mind that you don't have to be just one thing. Most of us are many things; writing is just one part of it.

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