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.