If you’re reading this article, I bet you can tell that I’m a writer. I wrote the line you’re reading right now. This one too. I wrote this whole article, as a matter of fact. What might not be as obvious is that I am also a veteran.
Five years ago, as I was preparing to separate from the Navy, I made the choice to walk away from a more lucrative job field to try my hand at writing. This article is the essence of what I learned about the field.
It’s one of those enduring clichés that we’re always on the edge of just dropping out of the world and going to write the “great American novel,” but the reality of what it takes is a bit different than most people think. It’s certainly different from what I thought when I got started.
For all the glamour that best-selling authors receive, the job is often tough and lonely and you’ll spend long periods without any positive reinforcement from the outside. But, if it’s something you love to do, it can be infinitely rewarding, and (if you’re persistent and lucky) potentially lucrative.
So, if you’re still reading this line, I’m going to assume that you’re at least curious about what it would take to take the plunge. My goal here is to give you some baseline information that can help you avoid some of the potential pitfalls that new writers can step into.
This is by no means an all-inclusive look at everything you need to know about the craft and business of writing. There are entire books devoted to grammar and style alone, after all. These are simply the things that I wish that I would have known when I started; a guideline for veterans interested in a writing career.
When I talk about wanting to be a writer, I’m going to make the assumption that what you want to do is write fiction. I’m sure there are people out there who want nothing more than to write microwave manuals and software FAQs (which is called technical writing, and happens to be a great career), but let’s assume that what you want is to entertain people by writing books that enlighten the masses.
First, the cold, hard reality of writing: You probably will not make all that much money. Yes, there are the famous writers of the world – people like J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin – who haul in the big bucks, but these are the outliers. There are probably more professional sports millionaires in America than millionaire authors. That’s right, you’re probably more likely to be the next LeBron James than the next E.L. James.
Don’t let that discourage you. There is money to be made, it’s just that it’s a tough road to write fiction as a full-time job. Many people (such as, say … me, for example), pair “real” part- or full-time writing jobs with fiction writing to help pay the bills. Other people (such as, say … also me, for example) do editing work on the side. Still others teach high school or college writing courses (not me, but maybe someday).
Part of the motivation for moonlight work is getting enough income to live on, but another reason is that paychecks are few and far between as a fiction writer. You usually only get paid for what you sell, and even if you have a nice contract, there’s a good chance that you’ll get it all in a lump-sum check once per year. It’s fine and well if you’re successful in theory, but all those sales can’t keep your lights on if the check is still six months away.
In short, if you’re doing this for the money … well, you know how G.I. Jobs is packed with informative articles about lucrative careers? Yeah, maybe try one of those instead.
It’s slow going from the start to getting to the point where you’re making enough money to even significantly boost your monthly income. Those early months and years are all about improvement, which can be a slow and painful process at times. There’s this strange myth that writing books is easy, you just have to sit down and crank out the words. After all, most people can read and write, it’s just a matter of lining up a hundred thousand of those words in a row and cashing the check, right?
Nope. Not at all. Learning the craft is hard. How hard? I don’t know. I’ll let you know when I get there.
Unless you happen to be the one-in-a-million savant who just naturally gets it, you’re going to need a ton of work on the craft. You can believe me on this now, or when you look at the first draft of a novel, and realize what an awful stinker it is.
That’s not a personal dig at you, or at new writers in general. It’s a fact of first drafts. My first drafts are still terrible. Everyone’s first draft is terrible. Even published and relatively famous authors that I know tell me that their eventually successful books started out as nearly unreadable piles of garbage.
It would have saved me a lot of self-doubt and heartache if I’d known in the beginning that self-editing is the key skill for writing a good book. I can’t overstate this – edit, edit, edit! Edit everything. Edit and submit and then go back to writing so you have something to edit.
As difficult as it might be to accept (it sure was for me), you are not a serious writer until you start editing and submitting your work.
Another great, I might even say indispensable, habit to get into is to critique the work of other writers. I have on many occasions noted errors in someone else’s manuscript and suddenly realize that I’m the worst offender of that very same thing.
The value of getting into a critique group is threefold: First, it helps you see what other people are doing right and what they’re screwing up. Second, it gets eyes on your work, which helps find problems that you wouldn’t otherwise have seen. Third, it gets you involved in the community.
This last point is deceptively important. Overwhelmingly, the writer’s job is to work alone. It can be very easy to slip into feeling like the work you’re doing is pointless and no one will ever notice. It’s very easy to start feeling like a fraud.
Joining a group of peers, even if it’s just online, will help you feel like you are a real writer. If you can do more than that, even better. There are conventions, meet-up groups, and writer’s retreats out there to help you get involved with the community. I suggest you involve yourself in as many as possible. This is your community; get to know your competition.
Alternatively, you can follow the same path I did and use your GI Bill on an English degree. I was extremely fortunate to wind up in a school (Seton Hill University) with an incredible commitment to veterans and a wonderful English program. I am confident that I would not be the writer I am today without them. Whether or not this causes pride or shame for them is up for debate.
If you’ve already got a bachelor’s degree, consider adding a graduate degree. My current program, a low-residency master of fine arts program, allows me to spend much of my time outside of the classroom, working on my craft. When we do meet up, twice a year, it’s for intensive study. Not only does this afford an opportunity to learn from the experts, but it gives me a chance to rub elbows with fellow students who are far more polished and published than I am. It’s amazing what kind of learning you can do over the cafeteria table or at the bar.
That isn’t to say that formalized education is the only way to go. You can write, and write well, without a high school diploma. It’s one of the few fields that no one cares at all what your degree is in. If you can deliver the goods, you’ll get the jobs. If you can’t, you’re out on your butt.
Which brings me to my last piece of advice.
As one of my mentors once told me, there are no entry level jobs in this field. If you’re looking to publish, you’re going up against the best. There are no minor leagues. You will almost certainly fail at first, probably many times, until you finally start to get it.
Talent helps, constant improvement is a must, but if you do not stick with it, if you are not willing to hold on in the face of early rejection, your writing career will be over before it begins.
So there it is. I sincerely hope that I have not mauled your dreams too badly. I want to stress that for the patient, dogged writer, there is a way forward. If you’re willing to work for it, the dream of a writing career can be a reality. And if you’re not, hopefully I just saved you an unnecessary case of carpal tunnel.