Answering questions from an aspiring writer

[October 2011] I recently agreed to be interviewed by a college undergrad for one of her classes. Their assignment was to interview someone working in a career that interested them. Since that interview won’t see the light of day outside of the student’s class, I thought I would post it here in lieu of my usual blatherings.

What is your career and how long have you been working in this career?

I actually have two careers. For the past 22 years I’ve worked for a company that sells scientific instrumentation – that’s what I call my “day job.” However, since 1999 I have also been a writer. I’ve published dozens of essays and interviews, hundreds of book reviews, over sixty short stories and two books, along with a third that I edited. I’ve also written several novels, none of which have been published yet.

What is a typical day like in this career?

Because I have two jobs, I have to handle my schedule quite carefully. The day job is fixed: eight o’clock to five o’clock, Monday through Friday. Since I’m a morning person, I get up at five a.m. and go upstairs to my home office, where I do my writing. My writing window is 5 – 7 a.m. After that I exercise for 30 minutes (because I spend most of my day at a desk, this is very important!) and get ready for the day job. Most evenings I take off; however, if I’m on a deadline I might review or edit material. On the weekends I work at the writing job in the middle of the day, too, when possible.

On a typical morning, if I’m working on something new, I can write 1000-1500 words during that two-hour session. On the other hand, I can completely revise a short story once during that session. Other days I have to handle business matters, such as finding new markets to which to submit short stories, or doing research for essays or stories.

At the moment I’m working on my third non-fiction book.

What is your favorite part of this career?

Getting acceptance letters, seeing my work in print in a new book, seeing one of my books in a store, getting a positive review or a nice piece of fan mail. I’ve been doing this for over a decade now, but the thrill of having an editor accept my work for publication hasn’t decreased. When a reader takes the time out of his or her busy schedule to write an e-mail saying that they liked something I wrote is also thrilling. I remember the first time I saw an anthology that contains one of my stories at the local grocery store, as well as in a bookstore in Newark airport.

What is your least favorite part of this career?

Waiting. The turnaround time between when I submit something and when I hear back about it can be anywhere from one day (rare) to three months (typical) to over a year. I always have anywhere from 10-20 works in submission at any given time, so it’s not like that’s the only thing I’m waiting on, but it’s still tough.

What surprised you the most when you started working in this field?

I can’t think of many surprises from when I started writing. Perhaps how quickly I managed to get my first acceptance letter—it took less than a year. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover the various different ways that a writer can find a community to become part of. When I began, online message boards and critique groups were becoming established and writers had a way of gravitating together—often not to do any real writing work but to share the experiences of being writers, with all its ups and downs. The full-time writers often have issues to deal with that aren’t part of my experience: how to get health insurance, how to get a delinquent publisher to pay, how to write enough to pay the bills. With my full time job, I don’t have to worry as much about those matters.

However, what surprises me most now is that I should have ended up being better known for my non-fiction writings than for my fiction. I didn’t set out to be an “expert” in any subjects, or to write non-fiction books. I always saw myself as a short story and novel writer, and while those still form a large chunk of what I do, my best successes have come from non-fiction. I wouldn’t have predicted that back in 2000.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get started in this field?

I have a lot of advice! On the 17th of every month I write an essay for a group blog called Storytellers Unplugged wherein I offer advice based on my experiences over the past twelve years. One of my biggest issues is that young (novice) writers are often so eager to see their names in print that they fall prey to scams (there are a number of them out there) or take shortcuts that don’t serve them well. Currently, self-publishing is one of the biggest minefields. Anyone can slap together a book and put it out, either through a print-on-demand service or as an eBook. However, most of these books are terrible. They haven’t been properly edited, either on a word-by-word basis or as a whole. While writing is a solitary business for the most part, publishing isn’t. My best publishing experiences have been the ones where astute editors have offered feedback—suggestions for how to fix or improve my work—and this vital stage gets skipped in the rush to get works out there. As I mentioned above, I have several unpublished novels in the drawer. I could easily self-publish any or all of these . . . but I won’t. I want them to find an editor who’s willing to work with me to get them into shape first.

My biggest piece of advice would be: listen to advice! One of the most frustrating things is to see young writers making the same mistakes that other people have made. Over and over again. There seems to be a “yes, but it will be different for me” mentality that allows young writers to ignore advice. They give away their work or allow it to be published poorly, they argue that getting paid isn’t important—it’s about the art. Artistic aspirations aside, getting paid is part of the deal, and it’s often an important way to discriminate between a good publishing situation and a bad one. If someone is willing to pay you for what you write, they are probably professionals. If someone offers a pittance – or a promise of royalties down the road – chances are they don’t know what they’re doing, which means the work will get no promotion or distribution, which means no one will read it. Also, if they’re willing to pay the printer, the cover artist, the person laying out the book, the advertisers, etc. why shouldn’t they pay the most important contributor: the writers?

If you were a college student again, what would you do differently to prepare you for this career?

I would probably take more courses on classic literature. For my birthday several years ago, my wife signed me up for a class at the local community college that “forced” me to read some of the great classics that I’d missed. It was terrific. Knowledge of these works helps inform my writing. Many (most?) important themes have been covered countless times over the centuries and you can bolster and strengthen your work by acknowledging and alluding to those past works. It also makes you a better reader (and reading is an important facet of being a writer) by letting you recognize the allusions and references when you encounter them in someone else’s work.

What are the key personal characteristics for success in this career?

First of all, you have to have the patience and persistence to treat writing like a job. Write every day, even when you don’t feel like it. A novel is a large body of work, tens of thousands of words, perhaps even over a hundred thousand. That seems daunting. But if you write 1000 words every day, you can produce that amount in just a few months. That’s not guaranteeing it will be good, but getting a first draft done is the first step. In a way, writing is like exercising—the more you do it, the better you can get, especially if you have someone providing constructive feedback that you are willing to hear.

You have to have a thick enough skin to handle rejection, too, because it’s going to happen. Repeatedly. It’s just part of the business. Even though I’ve published 65 short stories, I still get more rejection letters than acceptances. On the other side of the coin, I’ve had short stories accepted by an editor that were rejected by a dozen others. Sometimes, a rejection is not a reflection of the quality of the work but rather on whether it appeals to an editor or whether it fits into the style and tone of the publication. They still sting a little, but you can’t let them get you down.

Being and acting professional goes a long way. Hit deadlines, be willing to consider critical feedback, be polite and respectful instead of defensive when responding to critiques. Publishing is a small world and editors talk to each other. If you develop a reputation as someone difficult to work with, word will spread. Don’t argue with editors over rejections—pick yourself up and move on. There may still be a place in literature for the occasional “enfant terrible,” but for the most part if you are abrasive, high maintenance or difficult, people won’t want to work with you and may not want to read your work. This applies to both your professional interactions and to public interactions on message boards and social media. If you are a reliable writer who is easy to work with, you might end up being invited to participate in projects that aren’t open to the public.

What skills do I need to develop to prepare me for this field that I may not be taught in the college classroom?

Obviously, you should have decent grammar and spelling skills. However, you should also make a study of the art of telling a story if you plan to write fiction. Everyone shouldn’t re-invent the wheel. Understanding basic concepts like Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and the three-act structure of most movies will go a long way toward helping you grasp what goes into a story. There’s a reason why these structures have been adopted as standards. You don’t have to adhere to them strictly, but you should understand them.

On the more practical side, few college courses teach you the mundane elements of preparing a manuscript or how to research markets for submission. The former is not rocket science, but unless you realize that it’s something that you need to know, you can go on making the same mistake over and over again. If you send in a manuscript that is single-spaced in a wacky font, or one that is handwritten in crayon (it does happen!) you won’t necessarily be automatically rejected—but you increase the odds against you. Some markets receive so many submissions that they are just looking for an excuse to reject someone, and a poorly formatted manuscript might be all it takes.

Also, if you submit your romance novel to a market that is only interested in short crime fiction, you aren’t doing anyone any favors. Learning how to research markets, reading and understanding their guidelines, and playing by their rules is one of the most important skills a writer will develop. It seems like common sense, but the funny thing is that a lot of people don’t seem to have common sense!

I recommend Stephen King’s book On Writing to aspiring authors. Even people who aren’t fans of his novels have found a lot of good advice in this book. Part of it is autobiographical, what he calls his C.V. The life skills that translated into his writing.

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