I was a child writer. As early as first or second grade, I spent most of my free time filling up notebooks with story ideas and character sketches. Somewhere in my closet are several picture book manuscripts I wrote during grade school. On my hard drive is a 160,000-word epic of adolescent angst from my last year of high school. I’ve got dozens of scripts and short stories left over from college.
Fortunately, none of them were published — but it was a close call. During most of that time, I was actively sending out query letters to agents and publishers. I didn’t want to be a published writer when I grew up. I wanted to be one now.
Looking back, I’m glad it didn’t work out. I’m much more savvy about the publishing industry these days, and I’d rather build up my career slowly than have to distance myself from my embarrassing early work. Besides, a lot of what I believed about writing was just plain wrong.
The advice I read in how-to guides and on my favorite authors’ blogs wasn’t always what I needed to hear. Here are three false assumptions I’ve had to work hard to overcome:
1. Writing requires a lot of time
As a kid, I had the false impression that to be a “real” writer meant writing all the time. One of the reasons I wanted to be published while I was young was so that I wouldn’t be stuck in a day job, trying to finish up a manuscript after a full day’s work.
Many of the writing guides I read suggested that the average book takes a year to write. But was that a year of full-time writing, or part-time? Would I have to get up at 5 a.m. to squeeze in my writing between other commitments? I squandered my college years, thinking that I couldn’t possibly be a full-time writer and a full-time student. I procrastinated on many of my manuscripts because I wanted to set aside a whole year to write them.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only was I unlikely to “find the time” all at once, but it flew in the face of how writing actually works for me. Even if I have a full day set aside to write, the most I’m likely to work on a given manuscript is a few hours. Having other commitments and responsibilities — even other writing gigs — can actually increase my productivity, because I can switch between multiple projects.
2. Creative writing classes are worthless
As a kid, I remember hearing the same advice from several authors I respected: that you “can’t teach writing”, and the only way to be a better writer is to write. For some reason, that left me with the notion that studying writing wouldn’t get me anywhere — that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to take creative writing classes in college.
I’d heard that writing seminars were particularly rough on fantasy/sci-fi writers, and that MFA programs were best suited to “literary” fiction. So instead of attending college as a creative writing major, I studied film and signed up for a few writing workshops on the side.
What I failed to realize was that even if you can’t teach good writing, you can learn a lot from group critiques and by reading your work in front of others. The years when I had deadlines to meet for my fiction classes were the years I was most productive as a writer.
Not only that, but writing classes and conferences can be key to networking with other writers and keeping tabs on the publishing industry. That’s how you’ll find out which magazines to submit to, which writers’ groups to join and which grants or residencies to apply for.
Lesson 2: Writing workshops aren’t just about teaching people how to write. They’re also about feedback, deadlines, and making connections.
3. Self-publishing is bad
I grew up long before print-on-demand publishing, when “vanity presses” were the latest scam. I’d heard stories about writers who’d paid thousands of dollars to print copies of books that were now sitting unsold in their basements. As far as I was concerned, there was one simple rule: never pay to get published.
That idea was pretty well-ingrained in my head by the time ebooks came along, and for a while I strongly resisted the urge to self-publish. The few success stories I read about seemed like outliers, and I wouldn’t feel like a “real” writer unless I got a traditional book deal.
But soon it became obvious that the industry was changing, and an old-school publishing contract was no guarantee of success. Even if I did get one, I’d be expected to do most of the marketing myself, and I’d probably have to pay for a book tour out-of-pocket!
By choosing the self-publishing route, I can release my books on my own terms, with very little up-front cost. Even if my first books don’t sell, I’ll be learning the process: how to format books for Kindle or print-on-demand; host Goodreads giveaways; run a crowdfunding campaign and more. Why not start learning while I have the chance?
Lesson 3: Don’t let the stigma of self-publishing scare you off. Getting your books out into the world may be better than letting your manuscripts collect dust.
What ideas about writing and publishing did you have growing up that may not be true any more? How did you learn to get past your early assumptions about writing?