Emails to a Young Writer

Illustration by Machado http://machado.portfoliobox.io/bloomylightstudio

Illustration by Machado

A while back, a former high school teacher of mine reached out and asked if a student of hers could send me some questions about being a writer. I felt like a hack since I haven’t really gotten too far in my writing career yet, but said yes anyway. I pretended to know a thing or two—and thought I’d share my answers publically in case there are any young writers out there who want some advice from a slightly less young writer.

*Bonus points if you can figure out what the title of this post is riffing on (see answer at end of post).

Hey! Here are my answers to your writerly questions:

1. What made you decide to go into the field of writing?

I always was interested in reading and writing (when I was a toddler, I used to pretend to read books even though I didn’t know how to read yet). Growing up, my parents encouraged my reading habit, and often when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, “writer” was usually on the top of the list (along with Veterinarian and Interior Designer). I started writing stories here or there, and part-took in some online Hogwarts roleplaying that was really writing heavy (I was, and still am, a huge Harry Potter fan). Often I found myself being the scribe for any creative group projects I did too.

It wasn’t until my junior year of high school though (when I was at Suffern High School…I graduated in 2007, by the way) that I began identifying as a writer. I remember how it happened—I was in Mr. Tully’s Honors English class when he had us read “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King. The book we were reading it from, called Different Seasons, had a few of King’s other non-horror novellas in it, and also an introduction from King himself. I read his intro and fell in love with just the way he was describing the writing process and his thoughts and feelings about the field in general. Which led me to buy his famous writing book, On Writing. It was while I was reading that book—on a spring Sunday, curled up in my bed, avoiding homework—that I realized, “Hey wait a minute…I’m a writer!”

At that point, I started thinking about being an English major in college, though I still had some interest in going into the medical/veterinary field. The summer between my junior and senior year of high school I attended the National Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine at Emory University in Georgia. My family made a road trip out of it (14 hours each way). But while I was attending all of the seminars during my ten days at Emory on things like the Hippocratic Oath and how to stitch up a wound, I found myself much more excited about the 14-hour car ride home, where I’d have all the time in the world to do my AP English Literature summer reading and to write and think about writing. That feeling pretty much put the nail in the coffin for me on me deciding to pursue writing.

It wasn’t until after college, though, that I really figured out my routine and strategy, which I’ve written about below (it’s all still a work in progress, so take it with a grain of salt).

2. Are you a full-time writer or part-time writer? How does this affect your writing?

Oh definitely part-time (most writers don’t have the luxury to be a full-time writer—see my answer to question #5). But I don’t even know if I’d call my writing part-time either.

For the last six years or so (ever since graduating college), I’ve held a full-time job in some aspect of publishing, except for a short time at a tech start-up. My first job was at Simon & Schuster in their subsidiary rights department. My next publishing job was in audiobook marketing at Penguin Random House. I’m currently working in marketing at JSTOR (an online research library that people use for finding scholarly articles when they’re writing papers. Maybe you’ve used it? If not, you probably will in college!).

Working full-time, I have to say, does make it harder to get writing (and reading) done. I’m sort of in a constant state of flux. There are some months where I’m on top of my game, breezing through books during my morning and evening subway commute, coming home from work and writing, making time to do the other things in my life too, like going to the gym or hanging out with friends, etc. And then there are months where all I can do when I get home is lie on the couch and watch Friends and Frasier re-runs (I’m currently at the tail end of a lazy stint like that).

The other thing about my writing life is that I’m not only a fiction writer—I also write nonfiction. And both fiction writing and nonfiction writing require you to do a bit more than just write. In order to get your name out there, it’s best to be doing things like submitting articles to websites and magazines (hopefully ones that pay!) and submitting short stories to literary journals (most don’t pay, but some do!). I haven’t reached the “novel” level yet, but eventually, I’ll need to be submitting query letters and manuscripts to literary agents so that they can try and sell my book to publishers. Plus, it helps to have a website/blog or social media presence, which can be time-consuming too. So I’ve resigned to trying to sit down and do SOME aspect of writing at least 3 nights a week (usually for an hour session or longer). That’s about all I can do at the moment.

That said, I honestly think I’d go a little crazy if all I was doing was sitting at home and writing all day, so I do think having a day job is a good thing for me. Frankly, it’s good for most people. I just wish the work day was like 5 hours instead of 8 hours. 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.—that’s all I ask!

It also helps that my boyfriend is a writer, and he hosts a podcast called Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, where he interviews authors (like George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood…). That definitely keeps me inspired.

3. Have you had anything published? If so, what was the publishing process like?

Yes! You can see my full list of published stuff on my website. Though like I said, no novel yet. But I’ve had some publications of shorter works in the last year or so that I’m pretty proud of.

My first professional publication was back in June (I’ve had a few things published on small websites in the past, but none that were recognizable/paying). I wrote a narrative nonfiction essay for Paste Magazine called “Why I Spent My Summer Vacation Dressed Like Hermione Granger” about my experience at the first ever Harry Potter LARP (live action role play) in the U.S. It was the geekiest thing I’ve ever done, but I had a great time, and felt it was worth writing about, especially because I learned a lot about myself and others in the process.

Then around Halloween, I pitched a Halloween article to Hypable about the best episodes of “Goosebumps” to watch on Netflix, and they took it.

As for fiction, a humorous short story I wrote recently accepted to be published in Hobart (it’s called “An Open Letter to the Guy Who Asked Me For Directions“). Hobart is actually a pretty prestigious and edgy literary magazine that’s published authors like Roxane Gay (not sure if you’ve heard of her, but she’s pretty famous for her memoir, Bad Feminist). Prior to this, my only other fiction publication was a piece I wrote called “Poison” which came in first place at my college’s school-wide fiction contest. I later submitted it to a bunch of places and it was accepted in a (now defunct) literary magazine, Fiction365.

The publication process for nonfiction work was pretty different from the publication process for fiction. For the nonfiction, I needed to pitch the article ideas (before even writing the actual articles) to editors at various magazines. I had some interest in my Harry Potter piece from WIRED and Vanity Fair, but Paste ultimately was the one that accepted it. Once it was accepted, the editor sent me a bunch of edits and suggestions to make before finalizing it for publication (I also had to bug him like every week because he kept putting it off—which is not unusual). Once it was published, it was shared on social media, I signed a contract, and a few months later, I got a check in the mail. Hypable didn’t pay, but I still pitched it to an editor before it was published.

As for fiction, the process is different in the sense that the literary magazine editors don’t want you to pitch them your story—they want to see the actual manuscript (note that when trying to get an agent for a novel though, you’re supposed to send pitch letters to agents and wait for them to request to see your novel manuscript). When it comes to short stories, you’re usually submitting on some kind of submission manager website, where you paste your very brief cover letter and attach your story. I actually put together a presentation about the differences between submitting nonfiction and fiction (and within fiction, the differences between submitting to mainstream literary magazines vs. science fiction and fantasy and horror magazines). Here’s the presentation. 🙂

4. What are you currently doing/working on as a writer?

Oh jeez, I’m not very productive lately! But right now I’m working on revising a few stories I’ve written over the years in order to get ready to apply to Creative Writing MFA programs (graduate school). I don’t HAVE to do the MFA thing in order to be a writer, but I’ve always wanted to do it, and I’ve heard great things from friends about programs they’ve attended. I’m revising stories that are realistic, slightly speculative, and even straight up science fiction. I’m also about to get going on a short nonfiction essay about how my boyfriend and I met, all because of the existence of one book, Swamplandia by Karen Russell. And I’m gearing up to take a one-off writing class at New York University so I’m reserving two stories to write during that time. And I think the only other thing is I’m trying to regularly update my blog again because I’ve really fallen behind on that.

Eventually, I want to work on my novel that I’ve been thinking about for way too long, so I hope that will happen in the next few years (though I’m nervous because I’ve never written a novel before).

5. Are there any misconceptions about being a writer, or working in that field?

Yes! Though there’s a lot of people who will give you cynical answers to this sort of question, so I’m going to hopefully give them a more positive spin.

One misconception is that writers make a lot of money. Unless your book(s) really takes off (like in the case of J.K. Rowling or Stephen King), most fiction writers need some kind of full-time job in order to make a living (and in order to have affordable health insurance). This is NOT a bad thing though. Lots of writers still write in their day jobs—they could be a journalist, or a technical writer or a copywriter. At my day job in marketing, I do a ton of email writing and website writing and coming up when they creative campaign ideas. Or you could be doing something completely random! There seems to be a lot of writer-lawyers out there. One exception to the idea that just writing alone can’t make you a lot of money is screenwriting. There are lots of writers out in Los Angeles and Hollywood who sell the rights to their screenplays to directors and producers for a lot of money, and often those scripts don’t even get made into films—so it’s kind of like free money. Either way, just remember that with the way our current economy works, most writers are not full-time writers, so don’t think that it’s a failure if you don’t ever do the full-time writing thing.

Another misconception is that you need to work in publishing in order to get your book published. While it certainly helps to have connections, this is not necessary at all. Many writers like to get jobs as editors, which is cool, but one pitfall of that route is that you are constantly reading and working on manuscripts that are not your own, and often you have to take a lot of work home with you, which cuts into your own writing time. Of course, it can be done and can be helpful in finding your voice (Toni Morrison was an editor at Random House for many years).

Most people think you have to major in English in order to be a writer, but seriously, don’t feel that you have to do that. If you have other interests, incorporate those into your college education. I know lots of people who double majored in English and Math, or English and Biology, and both are teachers now. And like I said, an MFA in creative writing is not necessary either. Basically, the main things that will get you where you want to be are continuing to write and being persistent with getting your work out there.

And speaking of getting your work out there, another misconception is that you can just submit a book manuscript to a major publishing house and get it accepted. That doesn’t happen anymore. Now, you need to get a literary agent who will help make your manuscript the best it can be and then they’ll submit to publishers on your behalf. Their job is to know the market and make connections with editors. Your job is to write and promote yourself. Also, YOU SHOULD NEVER PAY AN AGENT. If one requests money from you, it’s surely a scam. Agents make their money by getting a certain percentage of the money you get from a publisher if they accept your book (therefore, it’s in the agent’s best interest to get you the best deal possible and also the best contract possible).

And last but not least, another misconception is that all writers are mentally ill or crazy or prone to depression. While there is some truth to that in the sense that people with mental health struggles tend to be creative and drawn to the arts, this is definitely not the rule. All people have their own neuroses of course, but thankfully, those who write have all sorts of different backgrounds. If anything, having untreated mental health issues make it harder for writers to get their work done. So if you ever do go through a tough time, remember that getting help (therapy, or medication, or exercise, or self-care, or some combination of these…whatever it takes) will NOT take away your inspiration, even if the only things you write are tragic sad stories (which are sometimes the best types of stories, by the way). And if you never have any mental health struggles or trauma in your life, don’t think that that makes you any LESS of a writer either. Everyone is different and everyone has their own stories to tell (and being healthy and generally content makes it easier to tell those stories).

6. What inspires you?

Many things. Anything weird or that has to do with the supernatural (I’ve always loved horror stories and ghost stories). I also just love anything that’s well-written and/or beautifully written, or that has complex characters and a surprising plot. Also, the realistic, small moments in life inspire me. And I love good culture writing/journalism (like what’s in The Atlantic). And I have to say that being around other writers and reading about writing inspires me too.

7. Do you have any tips for anyone who decides to go into the writing field?

You’ll probably hear this a lot, but the number one tip for every new writer is to remember that “rejection” is normal. Your percentage of rejection (as in rejections from magazines or editors or agents, etc.), especially when starting out, should probably be around 99%. Acceptances get easier as time goes on, but even published writers who have been in the game a while still face getting a book rejected by their editor or getting bad reviews on Amazon. I’m not writing this to upset you, but to show you that hearing “no” is never a sign that you’ve failed or that you shouldn’t keep going.

Which brings me back to persistence. Keep going out there and doing your thing, submitting work to magazines and agents (or even going the self-publishing route if that’s for you). You can be super talented, but if you’re not giving gatekeepers and potential fans the opportunity to see your stuff, then you can’t expect to get anywhere.

8. Do you have any suggestions for me to become a better writer?

Aside from telling you to write regularly…yes! I’m really impressed that you, as a teenager, have had the self-awareness and bravery to reach to other writers for advice. I wish that I had been so on top of things when I was your age. Another thing I wish I’d known about when I was your age was the existence of teen literary magazines, teen writing contests, and teen writing workshops. Here’s a handy list of teen writer magazines and contests (One Teen Story is a great one, by the way, in connection with one of the best adult literary magazines around, One Story). My boyfriend and I also teach at a science fiction, fantasy, and horror writing workshop for teens each summer in Pennsylvania called Alpha (let me know if you end up wanting to apply). But there’s also tons of teen writing workshops out there. Here’s a pretty good list and here’s another good one.

Another really cool piece of advice I once got was that you should hand write your favorite short story or favorite section of a book. Doing so brings you a lot closer to the text than if you were just reading it for pleasure. You can study the sentence structure and word choice in a much deeper way.

Also, try to take honors English or AP English if your schedule allows. And don’t forget about reading short stories and poetry and nonfiction, along with all different types of novels. Read widely. Write often.

Hope all of this helps! And let me know if you end up having any more questions down the road!

All the best,

Stephanie

*Title is a twenty-first century play on Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.

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