Spring is always a busy time for YA authors and would-be authors. Teachers are trying to come up with ways of keeping middle-grade and younger students interested when the weather is turning nice, so they have students write to their favorite authors, and if they can swing it, they schedule author visits. High school students are worrying about college, and college students are worrying about what to major in (and perhaps about grad school), and their career counselors are urging them to contact someone in their field for an interview, to find out what jobs are available and what skills they’ll need. (And there are a raft of good, fun SF/F conventions, for those of us in that field.)
Most of the time, the student authors I talk to have fairly realistic expectations. The trouble is, they often have teachers who are trying to shoehorn an atypical career (writing fiction) into a standard set of questions and procedures. Here are some of the things that come my way, and how I usually respond.
I’m supposed to job shadow someone in my field; would you be willing?
Job shadowing a fiction writer is about as worthwhile as watching paint dry. I sit and type; sometimes, I’m typing answers to emails from my agent, my editors, or my fans, or answering/forwarding inquiries about subrights availability, sometimes I’m writing a blog post, but mostly I’m working on some aspect of a book. Once in a while, I get up and look something up in a book, or flip open my browser and google something on the Internet. None of it is particularly interesting or informative. You’re better off just doing a long interview.
OK. I have a bunch of interview questions I’m supposed to ask, too.
Go for it.
What is the best part of your job?
Being able to set my own hours.
What is the most stressful part of your job?
Having to set my own hours.
See, writing isn’t terribly predictable. Some days – or weeks – I’m going great guns and I can do three work sessions a day and get 5,000 or more words per day. Other days, I struggle to get 200 words. And it’s terribly tempting to slack off on nice days and go to the park, regardless of how well I’m doing or how far behind I am. (Somehow, one is never ahead. Not ever.)
Where did you go to school and receive your training?
I went to Carleton College and majored in Biology. Any “training” specifically for writing was in the School of Hard Knocks.
What training would you recommend? What classes should I take?
Learn to type. Even if you are a pen-and-paper writer, or a chisel-and-stone writer, you will eventually have to get your manuscript into typewritten form, and it will go a lot faster and easier if you know how to type. Yes, you can pay somebody else to do it, but that’s an additional upfront expense that not very many writers can afford.
Also, learn to budget. The odds of a fiction writer having a steady, reliable income are not good, not even for the blockbuster Big Names. If you can’t cope with that, you’ve got a problem. A couple of business classes for entrepreneurs would be really useful, but almost nobody actually does that, so I can’t really claim they’re necessary.
In addition, I’d recommend taking enough basic English grammar that you understand what a dangling participle is, know the difference between “affect” and “effect,” and can recognize and avoid writing things like the “wrong” example sentences in The Deluxe Transitive Vampire even if you can’t explain exactly why. I also recommend reading vast quantities of fiction and nonfiction, of as many different types as possible (but if you are only doing this because you think you want to write, it probably won’t help much).
Beyond that, take whatever classes interest you. It’s all material, and it’s especially nice if you are interested in something that might lead to a paying day job. (See “learn to budget,” above.)
Wait a minute! Shouldn’t I take Creative Writing? Or at least English?
Hardly any of the professional writers I know took Creative Writing before they became writers. I can think of two who did, and two more who got M.F.A.s after they sold some novels, but that’s it for CW, so obviously it’s not particularly necessary. If you find it useful, go ahead.
English – well, about a third of the professional writers I know majored in English, and they’re some of the best writers I know (in my own opinion, of course). All of them had considerable trouble getting started though – and not because they weren’t writing well enough to be published. The trouble was that English teaches you how to see what’s wrong with a story, but not how to correct it, so all my English-major friends were extremely discouraged by their own early efforts (since they could spot every flaw, they thought they were terrible writers. Even though I have learned to point out that they should be comparing themselves to other not-yet-published writers, rather than to Jane Austen and Shakespeare and Dickens and Faulkner.) As long as you’re prepared for that effect, and stubborn enough to keep on in spite of it, English is a perfectly good choice.
What kinds of jobs are available in your field?
There aren’t any, not the kind you mean, with a boss and an office you go to and a regular salary. There are a few one-time jobs, like ghostwriting someone else’s book, and there are a number of related jobs that aren’t actually writing, like teaching, editing, proofreading, agenting, etc., but novelists are freelancers. That means that whatever you make is yours (less what Uncle Sam takes), but it also means that if you happen not to make anything, you’re out of luck.
Has the field changed much since you entered it?
Oh, boy, has it. And it’s currently in the middle of two of the biggest changes in well over sixty years: the explosion in e-books, and the concurrent rise of print-on-demand and Amazon.com, which have opened up distribution possibilities that authors have never had before. It’s a little complex to be going into in this kind of interview, but believe me, the book field is changing so fast that everyone in it is dizzy. So pay careful attention, use your brains, and check the dates on any advice you get about the business, because chances are it will be out of date in six months.
And that includes all of this.