“I want to be a novelist. Advice, please.”

Recently I received an email from a college student who’s now attending my alma mater, Stanford. He has already completed two book-length manuscripts, one of them in the fantasy genre. He enjoyed writing them so much that he’s now considering a career as a novelist, and he wanted to find out what it was like to be a published author, and what he should do next to get published. I thought I’d share some of his questions, along with my answers. Not every author will agree with my answers, and I’d love to hear from those with other viewpoints.

Is it actually possible to support yourself writing books?

Yes. But not everyone can. The writing profession is like the acting profession. Many, many actors must support themselves by waiting tables or tending bar. Then there are the lucky few who happen to be Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts. The range of incomes in writing is as wide as it is in acting, and you just can’t predict who will break out and be the next JK Rowling. Some writers will never earn enough to support their families, even if they’ve sold a dozen books. But unlike acting, you don’t have to also win the genetic lottery and look like Gwyneth Paltrow to be a success. A writer can get there on hard work and talent — plus a little luck.

Do you actually enjoy what you do?

Yes. Except for the times when I hate it. Being a novelist is a yo-yo existence. When the writing’s going well, I feel high and I know that I’m the luckiest person in the world. When the writing’s going badly, I can’t sleep, I’m sure I’m a failure — and I still know I’m the luckiest person in the world. I’m a writer because I chose to be, and because there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. (With the possible exception of archaeologist. Or luxury resort tester.) The saying is true: “If you choose a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Should I apply for a Masters in Fine Arts program? Would getting an MFA improve my chances of getting published?

Here’s where I’m sure there’ll be people who disagree with me.

Enrolling in a graduate writing program may give you a chance to put off the responsibility of earning a living while you hone your writing skills. It will keep you off the streets. It will give you the chance to interact with mentors and other writing students. And if you ever plan to teach at a college level, you will need that MFA. But I’m not convinced that a writing degree will improve your chances of getting published. Most of the published novelists I know did not go through an MFA program. They learned their craft by a lifetime of reading, and by writing and re-writing. Many of my fellow novelists also spent some years out in the world, working to support themselves. They learned another profession, they got married, they had kids. And simultaneously, just by living their lives and having new experiences, they were gathering material that would one day go into their books.

Writing courses or workshops are good for those who feel they need a little extra guidance, either on the creative or the marketing end. But the years you spend getting a master’s degree in writing might be better spent learning a marketable skill with which to support yourself, while you wait to sell your first book.

Should I try getting some short stories published first, before I try selling my novels? Wouldn’t those writing credits help me?

The credits won’t hurt. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’s any easier selling a short story. The market for short fiction has dried up. There are only a few magazines that still buy short stories, and the competition is tremendous. And even if you’ve sold a dozen short stories, all a book publisher really cares about is the novel you’ve written, and whether it’s any good. So no, I wouldn’t waste my time trying to break into the short story market if what you want to do is write books. You’ve already finished two manuscripts. Polish them until they’re perfect. And once you’ve done that, you’re ready for the next step: landing a literary agent.

10 replies
  1. Nonny
    Nonny says:

    IMO… Particularly for a Fantasy writer, college writing courses are a waste of time. There are a very few that are worth their weight in gold, but the average creative writing professor is looking for literary writing. I cannot count the number of fantasy (and romance) writers I have known that were belittled and told their work was crap because the professor didn’t like the genre.

    Add to that, the old adage of “If you can’t do, teach” holds some weight. If the prof doesn’t have any professional writing credits himself, aside from university publications (which have a different barometer than commercial fiction)… it’s probably not going to be a lot of help. There are always exceptions. But I’ve heard horror stories of professors teaching the “No-no”s in commercial fiction, like infodumping, telling instead of showing, head-hopping, etc, as the “proper” way to write.

    I have heard excellent things about the Seton Hill graduate writing program, but that’s about it. I’m sure there will be individuals pop up to argue that their experience elsewhere was great, but I’ll still hold that for every 1 person I know who found college helped their writing immensely, there’s another 5 that it did no good for or even harmed.

    There are soooo many good, free (or cheap) writing resources online that I don’t see the point in spending the time on a graduate degree for writing (unless you intend to teach).

  2. Tess
    Tess says:

    Seton Hill is one of those rare writing programs that actually focuses on commercial fiction, and helps students develop a publishable novel. It may be the only one of its kind in the country, and it seems of far more practical use to a budding novelist than a literary MFA program would be.

  3. therese
    therese says:

    Great advice, Tess! I’ve heard that MFA programs are great for teaching writing but the problem is, the graduate has nothing to write about, but learning to write. It is the living life experience that brings heart and truth to story.

    This young author has learned the best lesson, he loved writing them. He is a writer, even if he needs a day job too.

  4. Abe
    Abe says:

    Hi Tess,

    As usual, your answers were extraordinary. Did you ever think of becoming a professor teaching a writing course? You would be exceptional at it. Either way, it was a “novel” approach.

    Abe

  5. sarah pekkanen
    sarah pekkanen says:

    Agreed, especially the part about getting an MFA. Writing is one of those amazing fields in which you can educate yourself by reading like crazy, writing, re-writing, then starting all over again. The best part is, you’re never done learning.

  6. Lynette
    Lynette says:

    I agree with this. I am currently taking a creative writing course run by the university and it has done nothing for my confidence. I am already a published author, but thought it would be nice to get a formal qualification, but I’m now regretting it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am still learning new things but the course doesn’t really prepare students for the publishing world. One student was told by the tutor that she needed at least 80% in one of her assignments for it to be of publishable quality. What rubbish that is.

    I am now of the opinion that some of these courses could even do damage to the student.

    I got published by reading about writing, then writing and writing, submitting and submitting, taking rejection on the chin and sending my work back out again. I learned from each rejection. They were like stepping stones.

    I will carry on with my university course because I have paid for it, but the best knowledge about writing came from the University of Life, with honours lol!

  7. zukeypr2
    zukeypr2 says:

    I have held off taking courses at our local college for the reason’s Lynette has mentioned – plus, I just can’t see the sense in ‘learning’ from someone who has never had one of their own fiction works published.

    Thanks Tess for the sensible answers. Although its sad that one could get a dozen books published and still have to have a ‘day’ job to support the family, it’d still be nice just to achieve that goal & see their own books in print, I think.

    And these help-me-be-a-writer-Tess!-posts (and replies) are some of my Tess-favorites. 🙂 More on self publishing and taking ‘rejections on the chin’ please!

  8. taerin
    taerin says:

    As a reader, I find short stories very valuable in helping me choose which books to purchase.

    Like many people, I don’t have enough time or money to consume all the books I’d like to, so first I read short stories by authors I’m considering. They give me a taste of the writing style and characters, and it’s usually convenient to hit an author’s website over lunch and read what’s there.

    They’re also a great tool when I’m recommending a book or series I love to someone else. Being able to provide a link to a free short story on the author’s website means people can make up their own minds, and not just take my word for it.

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