Ten Things They Don’t Teach You in Your Undergrad Writing Workshop

After getting asked a couple times this week for my advice to early career writers, I decided to throw everything I didn’t learn from my BA in creative writing into one handy reference. Many of these lessons have to do with emotional resilience, self discipline, and self care. Some of this advice is more pertinent to career writers than hobby or intermittent writers, so feel free to select what is helpful to you. And it’s okay if you’re in one category one day and another the next; identity is nebulous.

  1. Talent is only 30% responsible for success. During my time in my program, I saw incandescently talented writers languish in obscurity because they didn’t make the time to work on their writing, or because they didn’t think they were “good enough” to submit their work for publication (we call this self-rejection, which is another name for the devil). Other writers, objectively less talented and less experienced, ended up getting the grades and the acceptances because they wrote and submitted relentlessly. By my senior year, a colleague who I had written off as mediocre had won the departmental fiction award and had been published in a literary magazine with an acceptance rate lower than Harvard. That sobered me up real quick.
  2. There’s nothing you can’t fix in post-production. Okay, there are some things you can’t fix in revision, and some projects do require you to rip out the seams and start again from an entirely new pattern, but that’s rare. Your first draft should be you putting color on the canvas, or chipping a rough form out of marble. I used to be a habitual edit-as-I-went type and it became crippling. I could never finish a first draft, and would spend ages re-writing the first 17 pages. Don’t be me. Lean into the discomfort of not-perfect and keep pushing through.
  3. Don’t spend eons working on the same project. At least not without working on other things too. True, some writers spend ten years agonizing over their debut novel which is published to much acclaim, but they are outliers. Allow yourself to try new forms, tell new stories, to play and grow. This will build up your portfolio and give you more things to submit while you chip away at that magnum opus. It will also making getting said magnum opus published 500% easier since you won’t have emerged from the vapor, unheard of and unproven.
  4. Listen to criticism, but don’t write by committee. In order to graduate from my program, we had to write 50 pages of a novel and commit to working them over with twenty people weighing in on our progress every week. It was incredibly easy to become a slave to other people’s advice (which would inevitably conflict) and lose yourself rushing to appease every opinion. We refer to this phenomenon as “writing by committee”. Know who your trusted critique partners are and be vulnerable to them, but don’t invite everyone in. You can’t be all things to all people.
  5. In order for some to love your work, others have to hate it. Not everyone is going to love what you have to bring to the table (ex: I recognize Brandon Sanderson is an excellent writer and I adore listening to him talk writing, but I don’t enjoy his books) but having people divided on your stories is far preferable to having everyone shrug and say “they’re alright I guess”. Nothing to write home about”. A few bad reviews are always worth making the statement, taking the artistic risk, or being honest to the story you want to tell. An exception to this rule is being belligerently dismissive of other people’s constructive critique, especially if that critique sounds a little like “you’re being an ass”.
  6. Routine is God’s gift to writers. If you want this life to pay you like a job, you have to treat it like a job. That means carving our regular time in your schedule to write, setting project goals with deadlines, and seeking out critique partners and beta readers who will support your journey and keep you accountable. For the last few years, I drifted from project to project, only submitting when I felt like it, and I had not been published for years. In October of 2017 I made myself a promise to start treating my writing like the career I always wanted it to be. I set daily word goals, wrote down submission dates on my calendar, researched marketing and self publishing, and spruced up my social media. It is now September of 2018 and I have self-published my first novella and had a short story published in a traditional anthology. Attitude makes a world of difference.
  7. Read where you submit, and then read their guidelines twice. I’m sure you’ve heard this one but it bears repeating. Take the time to get a real feel for the magazine or publisher you’re swinging for, then tailor your cover letter/query letter to their tone and specs.
  8. We’re literally all faking it. Neil Gaiman? Lied about his experience to get his first publication. F. Scott Fitzgerald? An absolute disaster who couldn’t spell. Donna Tartt? Committed to her authorial brand before anyone knew her name. The only thing that makes someone a writer is their decision to do the work and call themselves a writer. You do that long enough, and soon other people start calling you a writer too. When I first started posting my writing on Tumblr way back in ye olde 2012, I posted my poems in quotations with my pen-name at the bottom like a ~real~ author That created the social proof I needed for people to search for my name, ask my questions about my work, and encourage me to keep going.
  9. Imposter syndrome does not go away when you get a byline. If not being published is eating up at you, so will not being published in the “right” magazines, or not getting a high enough advance, or not being invited to conventions, or not selling enough copies of your first print run. The earlier in your career you can get a handle on that little demon called Not-A-Real-Writer that lives in your chest, the better.
  10. You will need to rest. This is a tough lesson for us go-go-types, but you can’t pour from an empty cup, and you can’t create when you’re burnt out, poorly fed, badly rested, or stressed to the max. There are seasons for pushing through the exhaustion to the accomplishment on the other side, but this can’t be your normal. Don’t forget to check in with your body for captured tension (in grinding teeth, tight shoulders, shallow breaths) and please nourish your flesh vessel with brisks walks, cold water, long baths, snooze buttons, and comforting fresh-from-the-oven goodies.

We’re out here together hustling and trying to pull words together into stories worth sharing, so no matter where you are in your writing career, I believe in you!

What are some lessons about writing you wish someone had shared with you sooner? Leave them in the comments section below; I’m curious to know!

Seven Ways to Break Into the Publishing Industry

Today someone on Tumblr asked me how I had gotten my position as an associate editor of the Princeton Theological Review, and if I had any advice for those seeking a career in publishing. Well, I’m in the trenches right now seeking a career in publishing or book publicity, and I’m happy to share job-hunting tips I’ve collected along the way!

  1. Apply to work for your campus literary magazine or academic journal.  Campus mags are a great first step towards your goals; they tend to be eager to bring on new associates and to teach them the ropes. My first editorial job was as a submissions reader for my campus magazine; it was by no means high-profile, but I learned a lot about working as part of an editorial team. Once you’re brought onto the magazine, ask if you can help with or observe all the different stages of production. Be a sponge. Absorb everything.
  2. Gain editing, marketing, and writing skills at other jobs. While in college I worked as a web content editor for the provost, a writing tutor in academic advancement, and a scientific writer and editor at a national environmental agency.  None of these jobs related directly to publishing, and they required me to learn new skills, like basic graphic design and navigating the back end of drupal, but the experiences I gained are very translatable to a publishing context. Landing a job is all about showing employers that the skills you already have are the ones they need, whether or not you initially seem to check their “requirements” boxes.
  3. Sniff out internships at publishing houses, newspapers, or literary magazines. I worked as a summer intern for a local paper, but I so wish I had taken the time to be mentored by a literary agent or fiction editor!  If there are no job postings that interest you, don’t be afraid to send a company you love a brief, polite email asking if they would like an intern, and be sure to attach your resume. Sometimes you can find paid gigs, other times you have to do due diligence in an unpaid position for a semester.
  4. Know your industry. This is crucial. I’ve heard of interviewees at Penguin or Tor being thrown for a loop by the most important question an interviewer is likely to ask: “‘what have you been reading lately?”. If you’re looking for work in academic publishing, be up on current research; subscribe to journals in your field or read the current editions in your library for free.  If you love fiction, be able to rattle off authors you’re into and cite a couple of game-changers published in the last year. Extra points if they’re associated with the company you’re in talks with.
  5. Publish. There’s no better way to get a sense for the shape of peer review and the academic publishing process than to go through it yourself. So revise and polish some of your best academic work and start sending it out to journals.  If you’re a fiction enthusiast who also pens short stories and poems, it can never hurt to have your name in a couple of magazines where you would like to work. Those with journalistic aspirations might submit their bookish articles to place like BookRiot.
  6. Consider conferences and conventions. Cons are pricey and might not be a reasonable investment for you right now, but the kind of connections you can make there are invaluable. Big publishing events like BookExpo in New York, The Miami Book Fair, and the LA Times Festival of Books can be fertile territory for meeting authors, connecting with publishers, and passing out business cards. If you’re an academic, look into conferences where you can present your research, but also consider going even if you aren’t presenting to learn and connect.
  7. Slay social media. Make your accounts clean and professional, but also be attentive to ways to brand yourself with a unified tone and clear statement of what it is you’re good at. Connect with journals, contributors, and editors on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, and showcase your projects, articles, and work experiences on those platforms. Networking is absolutely essential in this game.

I hope these tips help you guys get connected to some great opportunities! What advice do you have for someone looking to establish themselves in the publishing world?