Spending time with young people can make you feel old, but it can also make you feel young, too.
I had the pleasure of talking with students at Waupun High School yesterday. My mission: to share my educational background, professional writing experiences, writing advice, and tips for getting published with the fledgling writers—in 45 minutes or less.
Despite my best efforts, I might have uttered “when I was your age” at least once.
In all seriousness, it was a very casual environment, and even though I did most of the talking, I couldn’t help but be a little inspired as we went around the circle, and the students told of their current projects and future ambitions.
Because I’ve been up to my (pointed) ears in editing a certain fantasy trilogy, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking a shortcut here by repurposing my notes from yesterday’s spiel—quasi-transcripts, if you will.
Hopefully, you’ll find a nugget or two of wisdom regardless of where you are on the path to authorhood.
I started writing in earnest in high school. My fantasy tales bore a resemblance to the books I was reading at the time: DragonLance, Forgotten Realms…you know, books with dragons on the covers. Mostly, I engaged in world-building exercises and episodic storylines, though there was at least one false start to a novel
By senior year, I knew I wanted to be a novelist. At UW-Fond du Lac, I signed up for an independent study writing course. It turned out to be a one-on-one with a professor, where I delivered a chapter for her to critique each week. This was one of the most valuable college courses I ever took, and I learned an awful lot about the basics of storytelling, the importance of word choice—and how to meet deadlines.
In those two years, I wrote two-thirds of what would come to be Volume 1 of The Renegade Chronicles. When I transferred to UW-Milwaukee, I completed the first draft and then rewrote the entire manuscript from scratch senior year since my writing style—not to mention skill level—had dramatically changed since freshman year.
I submitted chapters of my book for various writing workshops, and peer review also proved incredibly valuable. (Though in one class, I had to convince the professor that genre fiction had merit before we were allowed to present fantasy, sci-fi, romance, etc.)
Meanwhile, I took as many literature and linguistics classes as I could. Beyond English courses, I signed up for philosophy, psychology and a ton of history courses. An all-too-common adage dictates one should write what one knows. Ergo, the more you know, the more you can write about.
I somewhat regret I didn’t take any journalism, marketing, or radio/TV/film classes. At the time, I wanted only to write fiction, so none of those related disciplines appealed to me. Then again, I picked up many of those skills later in life.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing, I taught for a year in China, where I had my favorite job title to date: foreign expert. While overseas, I wrote a sequel. I also tried to publish a short story I had written in college (to no avail) and researched agents to represent my fantasy novels.
When I returned to the U.S., I got cracking on Volume 3—while racking up rejections for Volumes 1 and 2.
I was fortunate to find an entry-level position at a newspaper. As a news clerk, I mostly was responsible for formatting lists, such as marriage licenses and school lunch menus. (Have you ever questioned the proper spelling of “tri-tater”?) I typed up letters to the editor, too.
But I also got to do some proofreading and wrote an article here and there. In less than I year, I was promoted to entertainment writer and editor. I picked up a slew of skills in the newsroom—writing and proofing using AP style, headline writing, lead writing, pagination/layout, the basics of photo editing.
Most importantly, I learned the virtues of brevity.
After a few years, I went to the “dark side”—public relations and marketing. At UW-Oshkosh, I wrote press releases, coordinated interviews with faculty and staff, wrote articles for the online news publication and the alumni magazine, became a wiz at Word Press and other content management systems, taught myself project management, and supervised student interns.
I learned even more when I became an account executive at BrownBoots Interactive, including more website skills, search engine optimization (which injects a lot of science into the art of writing), writing for TV and radio commercials, managing multi-channel marketing campaigns, estimating on projects, blogging, and much more.
That’s right, the guy who couldn’t care less about journalism, public relations, and marketing in college grew to appreciate them and, if I do say so myself, excel at them.
But my dream has always been to be a novelist…
About 10 years ago, I joined Allied Authors of Wisconsin. Because I couldn’t get an agent to bite on The Renegade Chronicles, I decided to go outside of my comfort zone and wrote a sci-fi novel that got very good feedback from my beta readers. An agent, who is also a member of AAW, elected to represent If Souls Can Sleep.
And because I didn’t learn my lessons with The Renegade Chronicles, I wrote a sequel before selling the first one.
My wife and I wrote a children’s chapter book to test the waters with self-publishing. (More on that here and here.) But between a full-time career and family obligations, I always felt as though my fiction got short shrift.
Earlier this year, I decided I to take a chance and put my fiction on the front burner. I transitioned to a new role at the agency to allow for larger pockets of time for writing and editing fiction. I created a business plan and am committed self-publishing The Renegade Chronicles in 2016.
My long-term goal—my dream—hasn’t changed remains the same: I want to make a living writing fiction.
There’s no shortage of writing advice out there (and sometimes tips contradict). But here is some advice my mentors gave me “back in the day”:
- Margaret Weis: “Treat your writing like a job. Write on a schedule.”
- R.A. Salvatore: “If you can quit, then quit. If you can’t, you’re a writer.”
- Tom Ramirez: “The first one million words are just finger exercises.”
I’ll add a few of my own observations to the mix:
- Embrace a variety of life experiences—everything is fodder for your writing.
- Learn as much as you can about the industry and gain related skills. Even traditionally published authors have to be business-minded marketing experts.
- Write as many different kind of things as you can because you might be surprised at what you’re good at…and what you might enjoy.
- Don’t turn your nose up at any writing gig—even if it’s the company newsletter—because everyone has to start somewhere.
- Get feedback from others (e.g., writers groups, online forums) but realize that not all critiques are created equal. Not everyone is your target audience, and ultimately, it’s your story.
- Always write what you love and do whatever you can to hold onto that passion.
- Most importantly, don’t give up.
Tips for getting published
A lot has changed since I was in high school. Back then, you were supposed to write and publish short stories (which I sucked at), and you couldn’t hope to publish a novel without an agent. Also, self-publishing was for losers, and vanity presses that preyed on amateur writers made it expensive, too.
Today, self-publishing is both respectable and profitable. Print-on-demand means publishing a book is relatively inexpensive, though there are outside costs like proofreading and cover design. The biggest challenge is getting noticed above the noise.
As someone who is still on the path to publication, I don’t have any surefire secrets for becoming a bestseller. I do, however, have a couple of tips:
1. Don’t publish before you’re ready. After more than a decade between drafts, I’m now hacking apart The Renegade Chronicles, and they’ll be much better for it. And do your homework to avoid wasting your time…or getting sued.
2. Don’t be afraid to take chances. By the time you’re ready to publish a novel or a comic book or your memoirs, a lot is going to have changed. It’s never been a better time to be a writer, but it’s also the Wild West of publishing right now. If you want to get noticed, you have to experiment.
If you follow the crowd, you’ll always be behind.