A young woman in middle school once wrote me an angry letter. She had recently contacted another favorite author of hers, asking where she should submit the novel she had just written, but the author had written back to say that she shouldn't submit it anywhere, that she was too young to have a chance. So this bright and talented young woman wrote to me for a second opinion, complaining about my colleague. "He's underestimating me!" she said.
Is he? Let's put the shoe on the other foot for a minute. Her favorite author had worked for years to make it in this very difficult business, putting in all the disciplined work that publishing success requires. He had finally made it after God only knows how many rejection letters and rewrites, and then our middle school student wrote, not to say, "I want to be like you one day," but rather, "I think I already am like you." She said, in effect, "I can do your job—at half your age, in my spare time, without even earning a high school diploma."
Which one of them is underestimating the other?
A lot of authors get upset about this. We know that it's easier to make a living as a doctor or a lawyer than it is to make a living as a novelist.
The fact is that you CAN do my job—
IF you have that spark of inborn talent every author has;
IF you work hard to provide yourself the best writing education you can, mastering grammar, spelling, and word usage skills, because books are made of words;
IF you read thousands of books, because if you don't read them, you won't know how to write them;
IF you spend time living your life, so that you will have experiences to draw from when you create your stories.
Middle school and high school prepared me to become a writer. College put the polish on my skills. Graduate school taught me important information on how to think about novels and publishing.
HERE'S WHAT I ADVISE YOU TO DO:
Prepare for college. Over 90% of professional writers have college degrees. Over half the novelists have a graduate degree as well. (Smith) This can present a real challenge, but if you start early, you will make it.
I worked for years to earn the highest grades I could because I knew my parents couldn't afford to send me to the university I wanted to attend. I worked part-time jobs and earned enough scholarship money to pay my own way. If you work hard, you can too. Talk to your teachers and your counselors about your goals. Show them year after year that you mean business.
Take the tough English classes from the demanding teachers who really love to teach writing. Make sure they're picky when they correct your papers. You need to know what you're doing wrong. Professional writers have to know how to write perfect English. We make very few grammar or spelling mistakes.
Learn all you can about literature from around the world. If engineers have to know formulas and doctors have to know every little vein and tendon in the body, we authors have to know what has been written in the thousands of years before us. Don't just read about great literature. Read the literature! Think about what you like and don't like about it as you're reading it.
Learn to love reading. Professional authors read several books a week in addition to writing our own. We read very quickly, and so will you once you have enough practice. Most of the things a writer needs to know cannot be taught. He or she has to learn them by reading the work of great writers.
Get out there and live life. My daughter is one of the best writers I know for her age, but she's not writing books at the moment. Instead, she's spending every other day volunteering in the emergency room of a busy hospital. The real-world experiences she has had will provide her priceless material for future novels.
Write for pleasure only when you have time. You're a busy student. Don't try to force yourself to finish a book-length project. Write the best scenes from your latest story and don't worry if you lose interest and keep dropping stories in the middle. Give yourself a break. Keep your writing fun. Otherwise, you'll burn out and teach yourself to hate it.
But wait, you say. What about the novel I want to publish now? Aren't you going to give me advice about that?
Unlike the favorite author in the story above, I'm not going to tell you that you can't make it in the publishing world. But I will tell you this:
IF YOU WANT TO BECOME A GREAT AUTHOR, YOU SHOULD NOT WASTE TIME TRYING TO BREAK INTO THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY NOW.
Read all the other web pages in this section. You'll find out that publishing is a tough, dangerous business full of scam artists and dead ends. Trying to break into that world in your teens will take you away from everything you should be doing now, like earning scholarships, making good grades, reading great books, and having new experiences. It will even take you away from your writing! In the end, you won't have used this time for the preparation your career needs. You will waste money that could be going into your college fund, and you almost certainly will end up disappointed.
This job isn't something you can do in your spare time with no hard work or decent education. It's a career that will demand the best work you can produce every single day of your life. Down the course of human history, some of the brightest minds among us have given heart and soul and talent to achieve it. You are hoping one day to join their ranks. Don't underestimate your goal.
Smith, Nancy DuVergne. The Freelance Writers' Lot: The NWU American Writers Survey Profiles. New York: National Writers Union, 1995. Also available on Author's Website. 28 Oct. 2006 http://members.aol.com/nancyds/wlot1.html