‘Dear Roz, how do I get a career with my writing?’ – Anya
You might already guess what I’m going to say: everyone finds their own way, and a career happens after an apprenticeship of muddling and wandering. That muddling period might be long, or it might be short if the stars align. (It will still feel long to you, even if everyone else tells you it’s short.)
Planning might help, but luck is more important; outrageously so.
But here’s where I can be more encouraging. Luck doesn’t have to mean dramatic big breaks. Luck can also be small stepping stones that together line up into your own individual and unexpected path.
Also, most of those stepping stones are not random; they are choices you make yourself. You try this and that, and even if this and that were not what you hoped, they helped you stumble across a better this and that.
For a while now I’ve been running a series of interviews where I ask writers how they made their careers. I’ve seen lots of those stepping stones and choices.
So here are a few general principles.
You might follow in the footsteps of creative family members.
Connie Biewald’s family encouraged creativity. One of her brothers is a musician. Her father built furniture.
But every principle has a contradiction. Your family might believe that arts are only a hobby, not a means to earn a living. No worries. You’ll do it anyway.
Like Annalisa Crawford. And me!
You might take a writing course or two, or even a degree.
Like Ian M Rogers.
Or you might teach yourself as you go along.
Like Apple Gidley. Actually, like everyone. Even if you take a degree course, that’s only a few years – a blip in a writing lifetime. Your real education as a writer starts from the moment you discover reading, when words become your playground, your workshop, your analyst, your element.
You might decide there’s a point where you own that you are a writer.
John McCaffrey describes how he had always ‘couched my writing in deprecation when asked, but decided I was making light of real accomplishments and harming my true self’.
You might use your writing sensibilities in adjacent professions.
Many of the novelists I interview are editors or teachers for other novelists. Some use their writing-fu for more down-to-earth purposes, as journalists – like Martha Engber, Mark Chesnut (and me!). Ann S Epstein wrote psychology papers for many years. Ian M Rogers edits academic and business materials. Rishi Dastidar is an advertising copywriter, journalist and brand strategist. John McCaffrey writes grant applications.
Or you might keep your writing mojo for yourself.
Connie Biewald says she decided early on to not try to work in the literary arts – ‘I thought it would take my writing energy away’. Even so, she hasn’t strayed far from books – she teaches reading and writing in schools and is a librarian and growth education specialist.
Or you might work in something completely different.
Martha Engber and Annalisa Crawford are also fitness instructors.
Although you might have imagined your destiny was novels, you might find you also write other kinds of books.
You might write manuals for other writers, like Martha Engber, Jessica Bell, David Starkey, Alexis Paige and me.
Because narrative is intrinsic to your way of living, you might surprise yourself by writing a memoir.
Like Gina Troisi. Elaina Battista-Parsons. Jessica Bell. Mark Chesnut. And me.
You might, if you’ve been at it long enough, answer yes to most of these statements.
You might do a lot of unpaid work to get started.
Amie McCracken describes how, in the early days, ‘I worked my butt off, most of it for free’.
But you learn your worth.
You learn that when you contribute to another person’s creative work, you give something of value. You learn to ask what value you’re getting. In the early days that might be a training experience or contacts or a reputation. But there comes a point where you can charge the full value that you’re offering.
Creativity doesn’t switch off. You might also do other artforms.
Steve Zettler is an actor. Nick Padron and Jessica Bell are musicians. Ann S Epstein weaves textiles. Melanie Faith is a photographer. Mat Osman… well, if you know the band Suede, you’ll know what Mat does when he’s not writing novels.
You don’t do it alone.
You might set out alone, perhaps in secret, but you’ll gather others around you. Some will be fixers and mentors – editors, critique partners, publishers, other authors. Some will be cheerleaders – advance readers, reviewers who are pleased to see new work from you. Some will stick with you, some will become an inner circle who’ll see the wobbly days, who’ll tell you the truth or help you find what your truth is. You have publication credits, books in the world, people who have read you and want to know you because of that, maybe want to work with you too.
And there you are, with a writing career.
All the interviews I mentioned:
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.