Advice to Young Writers

Advice to Young Writers

Here’s some practical advice from some top authors in the field on what it takes to become a tie-in writer…and survive in the profession.

  1. What personal qualities must you have to work in the profession?

Enthusiasm, dedication, perserverance, objectivity, generosity, professionalism.
—Karen Miller (Kingmaker duology, Stargate SG-1)

You’ve got to love it, because it’s too hard to handle if you don’t.
—David Seidman (Hercules, Disney, others)

Perseverance. A thick skin. The ability to multitask. Without those three things, you’re screwed. Seriously.
—Keith R.A. DeCandido (Star Trek, Supernatural, Doctor Who)

The most important trait, in my view, is the ability to respond well to criticism. Editors will have strong opinions (most likely different from yours) about your work—usually backed up by lots of experience—and they often won’t have the time to break it to you gently when changes to a manuscript are needed. Having a vision for your work is good and necessary, and you may be able to find some type of compromise if you disagree strongly with a particular editing decision, but it’s essential to be flexible and find a way to adapt quickly. After all, the company is taking a business risk to print and market your work, so they have the final say. Another important trait to have is perseverance, because a deadline doesn’t care whether or not you’re motivated to write on any given day; the work has to get done.
—Elizabeth Christensen (Stargate Atlantis)

A relatively high tolerance for solitude, a willingness to deal with the challenging—and sometimes damning—financial circumstances, and the ability to separate the voices/characters in your head from the voices/characters in your real life.
—Russell Davis (Twilight Zone; current president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America)

Dedication/focus, the ability to manage your time effectively, a thick skin, and the ability to distance yourself from your work. Without the first you’ll never stay on topic, without the second you’ll never meet a deadline, without the third you’ll give up after your first rejection or first negative review, and without the fourth you’ll be unable to handle editorial revision or negative reviews.
—Aaron Rosenberg (Starcraft, Warhammer, World of Warcraft)

A need to write beyond even a desire to write.
—Steven Paul Leiva (12 Dogs of Christmas, Blood is Pretty)

I think self confidence, verging sometimes on arrogance, in your abilities is a benefit, right up there with the ability to read selectively and therefore willfully ignore all of the unpleasant stuff that appears seemingly at random on the interwebby. This answer is only vaguely tongue in cheek. There are days, weeks even, when you are going to doubt yourself and your story and your ability to carry it to a meaningful conclusion –
it is that third of the way slump I think most writers hit—many many people simply give up at this point. That supreme belief in yourself is a useful asset when it comes to getting past this point. It helps to be vaguely antisocial and like your own company as well… ahem.
—Steven Savile (the Slaine series, Warhammer, upcoming Stargate trilogy)

The ability to force yourself to do a task regardless of how exhausted, busy, or uninterested in it you are.
The ability to force yourself to let go of something even though you think
it’s not perfect, sometimes even when you think what you’ve written is complete crap.
The ability to be able to stand up to friends and family who assume that just because you don’t work in an office it means that you are free for lunch, for shopping, for chatting on the phone, or for anything at any time of the day regardless of what is actually going on in your job.
An incredibly strong ego to believe that what you have written is worthwhile and worth somebody shelling out money to read. Ironically, you also need the ability to check that ego and recognize that sometimes your editor knows how to make a better story than you do, or can at least get enough perspective on it to suggest changes that you might not like but that will ultimately help the story.
Plus, what everyone else has said.
—Debbie Viguie (Charmed, the Wicked series, the Sweet Seasons series)

An imagination and a big enough ego to think that your ideas are worth sharing with the entire world, but also enough self-doubt in abilities to drive you to constantly improve your abilities.
—Will McDermott (the Kal Jerico series, Dungeons and Dragons, Guild Wars)

  1. What do you like and dislike about this career?

I love most that I get to play with my imagination. I love that it encourages me to read widely, travel widely, be curious about the world. I dislike the uncertainty, the fact that luck plays such a big part in what happens to you, and that it can be so brutally driven by financial considerations that don’t always have a connection with the quality of work on offer.
—Karen Miller

Dislike: The inconsistent income.
—Keith DeCandido

I love having the opportunity to climb into a character’s head and really explore what drives him or her. I like seeing my creation take tangible form; I still get a kick out of seeing one of my books on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. I dislike how capricious the business seems to be. I wish there was a set path I could follow that would ensure me success in pitching a new novel to a publisher now that I’ve demonstrated some skill and a willingness to work with editors—but if that path exists, I haven’t found it, and neither has anyone else I’ve asked.
—Beth Christensen

Dislike: Low pay rates.
Like: Freedom to think, explore, and express.
—David Seidman

What I like most. getting paid (eventually) to make stuff up. How cool is that?
What I dislike the most. getting paid (eventually).
—Russell Davis

What do I like about it? I love to tell stories, so getting paid to tell them and being able to tell them to people I’ve never met all over the world? That’s awesome!

What do I dislike about it? The uncertainties: making the contacts, getting the chance to pitch, pitching, hoping they go for it, revising it, finally getting approval and contracts, waiting on editorial notes, waiting on payment, waiting on reviews. It’s nerve-wracking.
—Aaron Rosenberg

Dislike: The business aspects—finding the job and all that goes with that.
—Steven Paul Leiva

Like: The feeling of completion, the letters from readers who are moved by your story, the satisfying heft of that paperback in your hands, the complete fan-boy thrill of working on shows you loved growing up and realise that somehow you are sowing seeds—some other kid is reading what you have written and thinking, man this must be a cool job, I want to do this… and you’re ruining his life just the way yours was ruined 20 years ago by some other writer whose book you picked up and thought damn this must be such a cool job… I want to do this. Heh.

Dislike: self-promotion and the fact that a writer can’t just be a writer these days but has to learn about ‘delicious’ and ‘rss feeds’ and ‘blogger’ and forums and second life and everything other than the business of telling stories.
—Steven Savile

Like: Getting fanmail from people who were touched by something in one of my books.

Dislike: Getting mail from people who are eager to share with me every typo/misprint in the book. Half a dozen people touched that manuscript and yet the writer is the one that gets blamed for it all, even if it wasn’t their fault.
—Debbie Viguie

I get to spend my day writing words that millions of people read (I currently write for an online computer rpg) and I get paid for it. How cool is that?
Seriously, though, I think if you ask most writers they will tell you that they don’t write for the money (there usually isn’t much) or the fame (again, only a few are known by more than a small set of readers). Most authors write because they can’t NOT write. They have stories inside of them that they want to tell.
My favorite part of writing is the moment when I’m in a story and some cool description appears on the page or a thought or motivation of a character comes rising up from the words and I realize that that moment has been building throughout the entire story and I’ve even laid all the groundwork with little pieces here and there that I thought were just filler at the time. I guess I have a very gestalt approach to my writing.
—Will McDermott

  1. What advice would you give a current high school student going into this career?

Writing is one of the few careers that rewards people for being older, and having lived. Be aware that writers examine the human condition, so you need to have lived a bit and experienced a lot of things so you can write about life honestly, and with perspective. Hone your skills of observation. Read widely. Watch lots of film and tv and theatre. Be curious about people and the world. Be prepared for a lot of rejection. Work as hard as you can to write as well as you can. Don’t be a prima donna. Never be satisfied. Celebrate when other people do well.
—Karen Miller

Don’t expect it to be easy. Make sure you have the skills to be employed in another job while you’re trying to get started. I can only speak for myself, but I wasn’t willing to risk my livelihood on fiction writing when choosing a college major, and I’m still not willing to do it today. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done; it just means you should be careful.
—Beth Christensen

Write a lot. Start a blog, keep a diary, carry a notepad (one never knows where inspiration will strike), and get published everywhere you can, whether you get paid or not.

Read the best stuff you can find, but don’t worry if you don’t like the stuff that other people say you should like. (For me, one of the happiest aspects of finishing college was knowing that no one would ever again require me to read Henry James.) And read out loud when you can. I get more out of reading Shakespeare or Dickens aloud than I could ever get from just looking at the words.

Another thought: write outside your normal preference. As a sometime journalist, I’ve found that taking notes while people speak gives me a fresh sense of how my fictional characters should express themselves. I can also recommend writing poetry with a strict arrangement of rhythm and rhyme. It builds the mental muscles by forcing you (or at least me) to find new ways to express yourself and not depend on your usual habits—e.g., if “the sky is blue” won’t fit the poem’s rhyme scheme and rhythm pattern, you’ve got to invent another way to say it.
—David Seidman

Okay, seriously: Accept the fact that you will spend your entire life being rejected. I am, by most definitions of the term, a successful writer. I’ve had 35 novels, 28 short stories, 12 novellas, a bunch of comic books, and many essays published, and I still get rejected all the time. It’s part of the job. You cannot take it personally and you cannot let it stop you.
—Keith DeCandido

Read EVERYTHING—fiction, nonfiction, different genres, magazines,
newspapers, religious tracts, whatever. Write CONSTISTENTLY—in any form,
format that appeals: fiction, nonfiction, (see above), etc.
—Russell Davis

Reading is important but writing far more so. You need to know what you can do: how fast you can write, how tightly you can hew to an outline, what your strengths are. Hone your craft as much as you can, and thicken your skin as well. Then start finding ways to interact within the industry. Attend conventions, sign onto message boards, write for fanzines, submit materials to pro magazines. Start getting your name and your face out there. Be courteous and friendly but not pushy. Ask questions but don’t get too demanding of someone else’s time. Start targeting markets, publishers, series you want to write for and start making inquiries but accept that it might take years before someone actually gives you a shot. When they do, be prepared to take it and rock their socks off.
—Aaron Rosenberg

Fasten your seatbelt—it’s going to be a bumpy ride! But then, that’s what we go to theme parks for, isn’t it?
—Steven Paul Leiva

Don’t do it. Just don’t. Go get another job. Be an accountant or an executive or a lawyer or something. The odds of becoming a full time novelist are slim in the extreme, with a mean wage of about 4,000 dollars a year spread across the most successful to the least successful. You need a good partner with patience and a cracking wage packet… and if that is enough to put you off, well then you shouldn’t be thinking about this as a career in the first place because writing isn’t a career, it is a
—Steven Savile

You will work twice as hard as your friends and you will have very little to show for it in terms of money. Forget your weekends, they aren’t free days, they’re work days just like all the others. People who can handle this career are those to whom writing is an obsession. If you find yourself in church, in restaurants, in the restroom, and in cars madly scribbling story notes or actual text then this might be the career for you. If you have ever nearly broken down your front door in a mad attempt to get to a paper and pen (or computer) or reached the point where you routinely carry scratch
paper and a pen with you on your person then think long and carefully. You might have the needed obsession with writing but do you have the stomach to deal with the frustration, the uncertainty, and the rejection of it all? Lastly ask yourself if you could be satisfied with writing as a hobby for just the enjoyment of yourself and one or two friends. If the answer to that is yes, pick a different career.
—Debbie Viguie

I have to say that I’m guilty of many of the things that the advice-to-young writers suggest avoiding—I tend to thin skin, I hate criticism, I am disorganized, and on and on. And yet I’ve been fairly successful.
I believe a willingness to work very hard at your craft (almost to the point of obsession), including a stubborn persistence, is key. A modicum of talent is necessary, but it’s probably the smallest component. The other thing (and I know I’m ignoring the questions) is an ability and willingness to work in various modes of storytelling, and this will be even more important in the years to come. The truth is, any would-be writer who can be discouraged probably should be. This is not a field for the easily discouraged.
—Max Allan Collins (Road to Perdition, CSI; co-founder of the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers)

Write and then write some more. And read.

The best way to improve your writing is to write. Join the school paper, create your own underground paper, work on the newsletter for your club, go home and write short stories. Heck, even volunteer to write an extra essay for class. Just keep writing and you will see your writing improve over time.
The caveat to that is that you have to learn how to write better. So read. A lot! And don’t just enjoy the stories and the characters and the action. Look at the words. Look at how the sentences are constructed. Notice how the word choices and sentence length change from exposition to action. See how good authors pick strong verbs and nouns and don’t rely on strings of adjectives and adverbs to pepper their work with descriptions.

Read critically. Look at how the plot is constructed. See what the author does to make the characters come alive. And then, when you get back to your own writing, try to incorporate what you have learned.
—Will McDermott

A while back I tried to come up with the shortest possible list of answers to this question, a “first principles” approach that couldn’t be reduced or qualified any further. The result was a list of 10.5 “commandments” that I trot out every time I’m asked for advice. It saves thinking of a new answer every time.
Here’s the list. There’s more on each point here:

  1. Read a lot.
  2. Write a lot.
  3. Write what you love but be aware of the market.
  4. Define your version of success and take concrete steps towards achieving it.
  5. Be professional at all stages of your career.
  6. Listen to everyone.
  7. Be visible.
  8. Challenge yourself, always.
  9. Never believe you’ve figured it out, because everything changes.
  10. Work hard.

(The 0.5 relates to community, without which many of these points are impossible.)
Someone once suggested that this list should be printed on business cards that writers could stick under their monitors. I like that idea because this advice applies to all writers at all stages of their careers. It certainly won’t hurt anyone.
—Sean Williams (The Crooked Letter, Star Wars: The New Jedi Order)

If I may, I’d like to add this, from my perspective as a musical dramatist (composer-lyricist and lyricist-librettist):
There are all kinds of ways to tell stories and find yourself engaged by storytelling and, especially at a young age, you must leave yourself open to—no, more than that—expose yourself to theatre, TV, film, etc. Because you never know where the bug is going to come from, or the tap on the shoulder from the muse that says This Is For You. You never even know what toolkit is for you: book? music? lyrics?—some hyphen-combo?—screenplay? play?
I had seen a number of Broadway and off-Broadway plays by the time I’d reached 11th grade, including musicals, and would even be playing character leads in the school shows (I was Alfred Doolittle in MY FAIR LADY and Oscar Lindquist in SWEET CHARITY—yeah, we had a nutball teacher who actually managed to push that one through); and I thought maybe acting?…and then, because I was a rabid William Goldman fan, I decided to try his (then) only non-fiction book, THE SEASON (1969 and a classic, still in print via Limelight Press, by the way), an analysis of a single season on Broadway (1967-1968). Now the really weird thing is, a lot of this book is mournful and sad about the state of things (a lot of it still hasn’t dated yet either), and yet his glimpse of what happens behind the scenes was like, I don’t know what, a siren song to me, an irresistible lure, a drug (maybe too it’s that, for all Goldman’s anger and disappointment, what he wrote was fueled by passion and hope); and a year after that I saw D.A. Pennebaker’s extraordinary documentary ORIGINAL CAST ALBUM: COMPANY about the recording session for the Sondheim-Furth musical (the first in the line of Sondheim’s revolutionary collaborations with Hal Prince as director)—whereupon I bought the album and saw the show and there was simply no turning back. It was writing musicals for me. I had no choice. I still don’t.
Interestingly, a guy whose work we often talk about here, or at least allude to, Russell T Davies, thought he wanted to be a playwright, and I believe even had a few things staged, but the process didn’t feel a match to his sensibility. Then one day he found himself observing the recording of a show in a TV studio, and “it felt like home.” And now “All I want to do is write good telly.”

I mention both of these because, while certainly there’s solitude involved in any form of writing, there’s a point in theatre and film where that ends and you start collaborating (you can be collaborating right from the start too, each project and/or collaborative configuration is different), the dramatists with the director, the director with the performers, the composer with the orchestrator and musical director, the input of the designers, etc. etc. And ultimately the piece with the audience. (Films can be recut or reshaped based on test screenings; and as for plays—well, the development process can be exhilarating, because the audience response gives you so many clues: the degree and immediacy of laughter and applause, for example, palpable emotional responses…even the intensity of concentration, and believe me, it’s almost a sound. You know when it’s there—and you sure feel it when it leaves. A thought sometimes attributed to Sondheim, though in fact he was, with attribution, citing a director named David Trainer—who ironically migrated to TV—is that one of the reasons theatre will never die is that it’s the only art form that consciously acknowledges the presence of the audience.) I’m never happier than when I’m in rehearsal. Don’t get me wrong I LOVE writing books too, and equally, but—to me, and I speak only for me—the writing of a book, even getting the finished product in your hands, is a very quiet pleasure—even its enthusiasms are a deep, inner rumble. But the immediate feedback you get when a song or scene is on its feet, when something lands (or—*gulp*—doesn’t), oh, that is a charge like no other, especially when the working environment is healthy (and sometimes it may not be, but that’s another discussion). Because you’re either dealing with the rush of pride or the rush of adrenaline that comes with having a problem to solve and knowing a little more about how to go at it.

By coincidence, just this last week, I moderated one of the Master Classes I put together twice a year for the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop where I’m on faculty, and the guest panelist was the aforementioned Harold Prince. He listened to the work of two writing teams, and while he was energetically complimentary and respectful, he was also giving them the hard, tough, fast notes you learn to take as a professional, and everybody—the writers on point and a room jammed full of others, observing—was soaking it up. (I was angled so that I could see full on one of the lyricists, Kristen Maloney [who’s also a terrific actress], listening to Prince’s notes, and even when he was hitting his hardest, there was this irrepressible smile on her face, and a light in her eyes that…well, you can imagine.) Actually more than soaking it up. Brought in touch again with the reason why we do this, the thing that inspired us—which you must never lose sight of, but the business is hard, and at times you do. Yet in that room, people of all ages and levels of accomplishment…well, we were ALL young writers then. Because Prince is 80, and a legend, and a lot of us are pursuing the muse because of what he’s been bringing to the table for half a century, and he was talking with all the passion, energy and alertness of a kid. And I guess what I’m saying to newbies is…even as you let your talent grow and your professionalism mature…don’t ever let your spirit grow old. Don’t lose touch with why you love what you do, why it’s necessary to do it. If you can keep that invigorated—and you always keep your toolkit sharp, and your writing muscles in fighting trim—somehow you’ll survive…
—David Spencer (The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival Guide)

Advice to Young Writers:
Finish it.
—Burl Barer (Murder in the Family, The Saint, Maverick)

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