Steps to Starting a Writing Career
Step 1) Get a portfolio:
One of the best ways to get a foot in the door is when one randomly pops open for you and you take it. A common, circular problem for the potential writer is the issue of 1. Not knowing where to start, and 2. Not being ready yet when you do know.
Opportunities will show up in random, unexpected bursts. Often times, there are a lot of ways to start right in front of us, but we can’t or don’t take them because they demand things that are “above our level.”
Things like fellowships, contests, places that actually take submissions will suddenly appear and you won’t be able to do anything about it because it’s due tomorrow and none of your stories have actually been finished.
For this very reason, it’s best to start gathering material immediately. Unlike publishing aspects, writing is a step that only requires you and your effort. While trying to get further along in your career, accumulating a mass amount of work to deal with, and a varied mass at that, will allow you to spend two years on your novel and still take opportunities as they suddenly jump out at you.
I suggest writing a few shorter things first: short stories, short films, one-acts, etc. Get a few of those out because they are quicker to finish instead of working on the priority projects first. Once you have three short pieces of fiction, not only do you get to practice on editing them, but now you can make an effort to get published with them at your leisure. And, because short stories are easier to get printed (in literary journals), and are more likely to be what people are looking for for applications and contests, they are more likely to be needed.
There are, of course, some people who believe they are only one type of writer (“I am a novelist. I don’t do short fiction.”) And on that point, are only willing to work on what they consider the important projects. This is a valid right that all authors have—to write what they want to write. But as I suggested to my friend who only wrote “full length screenplays,” it’s important to ask why a person is limiting himself and how it behooves them. Snobbery helps maintain reputation, but it also traps options.
Step 2) Peer stalk.
Now that you’ve gotten the material together and are working on making it the best it can be, the issue comes to finding places that will take it.
For the most part, the obvious ones will probably not be taking any unsolicited submissions. Universal Studies will send a script back unread saying, “Don’t sue me. I didn’t touch it.” Getting an email address from HarperCollins is like getting a cat to take a bath. The Pantages Theatre will just laugh at you. The New Yorker will… well, is actually a good bet. They have a pretty obvious means of submission there. They’ll still reject the hell out of you, but at least they’re decent enough to send a response in return.
And, as for anyone who has ever remotely had an interested in getting published knows, “Googling it” will only lead you to a bunch of self-publishing sites who take joy in reminding you how unlikely it is you will ever be published normally.
So what to do? How does someone get a name for any of these great literary journals, these grants, these contests, these fellowships, and these agents?
The easiest way, for a person who absolutely has no clue, is to peer stalk.
Peer stalking is the process in which we find someone who is at a similar level to our own career—maybe a little higher if our career is nothing—and follow in their footsteps.
You find someone who is interested in writing. You look them up. You talk to them. You find out that they’ve been published in blank, blank, and blank. You got three names. They won this award. You got another. They tell you they’re applying to these contests, you got some more. Write them all down and chase after them. Know what you’ll find there? More names with more things they’ve done.
You get one person whose been published in a literary journal, you’ve suddenly opened up a cornucopia of options. That journal will, most likely, have biographies of all their authors, many of whom will have several other places they’ve been published listed. And what’s great about it is because they are on a similar level as you (not much resume credit and a whole lot of obscurity), you have a good chance of getting accepted by these same places.
But how do you find that first person? The trick is simply knowing where to look; they’re all around you. Your writing teacher, for starters, especially if you’re in college. Or an author in an anthology in your local book store. Did that not work? Well how about me then? Writers of writing blogs may often just be letting off some hot air, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they could give you some sort of lead. Find their names, look them up.
And once you’ve got one start, you’ll very likely to have thousands more.
(Or, for those of you interested in more traditional ways, for five dollars a month, duotrope.com will give you names of literary journals perfect for your needs, and the current Writer’s Market has a great list of now seeking agents and publishing companies.)
Step 3) Look at it from the other side.
During the arduous process of getting your material together, it’s time to start walking in other people’s shoes. And I don’t mean hypothetically thinking about what it would be like, I mean being in that position.
Nothing clarifies what will get you a rejection like when you have to reject people.
Being in a position of power allows the author to objectively understand how we judge each other. Sure, each individual is different (while I believe good writing comes from nurturing, many people believe in fatalism, so I’m more likely to give someone a chance then they might be giving me), but no one’s so unique that their perception isn’t indicative of others.
Any sort of judge will do. Looking at photographs, drama, films, or whatever will still give you a good idea of how we choose our favorites out of thousands of options, and, more importantly, how irrational the process can really be. Being in a position where you have to discuss quality with other judges, or even just listen to them argue about it is a real clarifier why rejection doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
Step 4) Get it where you want it to be.
A mistake I made while submitting is the idea that someone else will edit it. Thinking that errors will be caught by a second set of eyes, my concern with proofing wasn’t what it should be. Sure I cared. Sure I tried. But after the third read, I sent a story in believing that it would be liked or it wouldn’t, and if it was liked, they could fix any tiny errors I hadn’t caught.
And that’s how I got back my first printed story with a typo in it.
Yeah, if you’re doing novels, you’re less likely to believe that someone might just take a glance at it, go, “This is good,” and shove it into a cover. However, my opinion is still the same:
Send it out so that if it were to be published “as is,” you wouldn’t be horrified.
The idea of having a professional editor is a safety net. It’s great that it’s there, and it’s not as if I’m asking you to take it down. But acting like you don’t have it to fall onto will make it less likely you’ll fall at all. Make the book what you want it to be before you send it out. When they want to do more edits, not only will they not be able to focus on the stupid superficial stuff, but you will understand the work better and be more apt to make decisions and argue your points. Submitting with the idea that it could be published as it is now written will be more likely to make you accepted and less likely to make your heart drop when you open up the first page of your glossy new book.
Step 5) Just go for it.
There are two excuses I hear a lot from people not following their dreams 1) I’m not ready yet. 2) I’m too old.
But the fact of the matter is you will be too young until you are too old. End of story. Do it anyway.
In slight contradiction to the last step, it is important to go after querying even if you don’t feel ready. Mostly because it is likely you’ll never feel ready. It is highly unlikely you’ll get a black mark for being an idiot your first time around, as long as you’re not a jerk. While it is important to get things right, it is just as important as to actively take the next step and not use perfectionism as an excuse to not face rejection.
Give yourself a deadline, make arbitrary rules that will let you know when you’re “done,” because you probably won’t feel it on your own. And if you’re doing something with an actual deadline, even better. Submit on that date it no matter how unhappy you are with it. Again, it is so unlikely you’ll be blacklisted for doing something badly you don’t have to worry about it. And when you get rejected, it won’t hurt as much because you knew it wasn’t your best work, but you’ll still get the experience of the process, and might just even find out that you really were worrying too much.
And if you’re still having questions of whether you should be improving it or sending it out, just ask yourself what you are inclined to do. If you are the sort of person who has been perfecting it through several drafts and submitted nothing, then it’s time to commit. If you are the sort of person who prints off the first draft and sticks it in an envelope, then you can take a little bit to improve it.
A career in writing requires doing. And unlike many of the other arts, the isolation of it allows the “doing” to be done on your own time. Don’t worry about how to start, just start. Waiting around for the opportunity to comes just means you won’t be ready for it when it does. Have the material, have it well made, and blow off that inner voice that says, “You’re not ready yet. What do you think you’re doing, you hack?”