Happy New Year!
This post originally appeared at Crista McHugh’s blog on November 30, 2009, but I felt it was especially appropriate for New Year’s Day.
Today’s topic is lessons I’ve learned about being a professional writer. After “butt in chair, fingers on keyboard,” the most important lesson I’ve learned is to take every chance.
That means a lot of different things, and all of them are important.
First, take every chance to write. If you’re waiting for a lovely long summer to spend holed up in some mountain cabin crafting the best novel of your life, you might be waiting for a long time. Some writers can take writing retreats, and some write novels in long outpourings, and some benefit from deadline pressure, but for many writers, life interferes and we have to write when we can, even if “when we can” is fifteen minutes while waiting for the bus. It’s pretty amazing how many words you can accumulate when writing in tiny increments, so long as there are a lot of increments. At one point in my life, I wrote several thousand words in a notebook, accumulated over a couple of weeks of adding a paragraph in every spare moment. Even a sentence here and there is progress. I’m a tortoise, not a hare. But we both reach our deadline in the end. The words have to go on the paper.
Second, take every chance to write something new and submit it. You never know what genre or style of story you might be exceptional at writing until you try. Sometimes a call for submissions will spark ideas that otherwise never would have crossed your mind. New ideas make new connections in your mind and often result in something unexpected and wonderful, that could enrich your future work or at the very least keep you from boredom and burnout. In addition, submitting to new markets opens new doors. The story or novel might sell or might not sell; but regardless, your writing and your name went in front of more sets of eyes, different eyes than had seen your work before. You never know when that might pay off. Years later, one of those editors might be editing an anthology and remember the story they rejected. It might be perfect for their new project.
Third, and this is related to my point above, take every chance to submit your work. Short stories in particular can be published in multiple venues over the years as various anthologies go out of print, or reprint anthologies request submissions. Selling a story a second or third time is, essentially, free money. You did the work once and were paid. Each additional sale is not only more money, but another chance for your name and your work to be seen. Stories you haven’t been able to sell might not be unsalable stories in the long run. The market changes and editors come and go. Periodically, it’s worth it to pull out your oldest unsold stories and search for potential new markets. I had a couple of stories on hand for literally years before I found appropriate markets. One of those stories led to me acquiring an agent.
Finally, take every chance to make friends, both online and in person. Writing is a lonely business, and you need all the support you can get from people who understand. Some call this “networking,” but I think of it as necessary. It’s a necessity, though, that shouldn’t be a chore. Make contacts with people whom you like, or who interest you. Don’t hunt people out solely because of what they can do for you, with no plans to do anything for them in return; it’s not the best foundation for the future. Share progress and information and calls for submissions. Be a good friend. Form networks of friends. And you’ll all be able to help each other.