The Business Rusch: Careers, Critics, and Professors

The Business Rusch: Careers, Critics, and Professors

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I just spent forty-five minutes clicking through various websites on careers in the arts to doublecheck one of my assumptions from my past. When I graduated from high school, everyone I knew casually would have thought that I would have become a politician or a musician. My interests seemed to be in public speaking and performing music. Many of my friends knew I wrote, but those friends would have guessed that any writing career I chose would have been in journalism—and it was, for a while.

When I went to college, I would walk past the music school and see the notices on the door about auditioning. Auditioning scared the piss out of me. Music performance scares me to death. It still does. I’m a half-assed musician. I can sight-read extremely well—can actually hear the music in my head when I read the music—and I get to the point where I can play what I’m seeing on the page (or can’t play it in the case of some piano pieces because my hands aren’t large enough), and I move onto another piece of music. I don’t want to master that piece of music; I just want to understand it. I suspect, had I gone through the doors of those two different music schools at my two different schools (a college and a university), I would have become a composer. Yep, the creative bent always remains toward creating my own stuff, not doing someone else’s.

(And jazz, which is often about improvisation, requires a mastery before you get to improvisation on stage, which meant I would have had to conquer my stage fright to get there. Oddly, I don’t have stage fright when speaking publically, especially extemporaneously. I do whenever I play music, sing, or work off a script before an audience. Yeah, weird. I know.)

Anyway, after last week’s post, I found myself thinking about education and attitudes and training, which is what led me to the music schools. I wanted to see if my undergraduate assumptions were correct.

What were those assumptions? I assumed that as a musician-in-training, I would have to perform. I also assumed that the music school would train me for a musical career in any one of a dozen disciplines, including performance and making a living as a professional musician, not just as a professional teacher.

But I wasn’t sure that my assumptions were correct. So, today I researched. I not only found that the music schools I didn’t attend put a career in performance, conducting, composing, and arranging front and center, well before any teaching or research, but also that there’s a National Association of Schools of Music, which provides accreditation for music schools around the country, setting standards for those schools. Both music schools I avoided were accredited.

Before those of you who are familiar with all of this jump all over me, I know, I know. Everything is filled with politics, particularly universities. I’m the daughter of a professor, the sister of two professors, the sister-in-law of yet another professor, and I spent decades in and around higher education.

I also know that music schools, particularly those at universities, tend to focus on classical music (although some also have prestigious programs in other musical disciplines, like the University of Idaho does in jazz).

I understand all is not as it seems from a quick website search.

However, I did a similar website search for my home university’s graduate program in creative writing.  This program is (according to its website) ranked third in the country for a Creative Writing MFA.

I poked around the site and didn’t see much mention of a career in publishing at all. In fact, the only mention came through the list of visiting authors, who would spend time discussing “the academic job market or the ins and outs of publishing.”

I dug deeper into the website, and it became clear the benefits of the MFA program in Creative Writing are an opportunity to edit the school’s literary journal, and the opportunity to teach courses in Creative Writing and English Composition.

Training in how to publish works doesn’t exist, nor is there any real mention of how to have a non-teaching career in publishing. The only hint of that comes from this: there will be visiting editors and agents who are “on the lookout for the next generation of American literature.”

I saw the name of one visiting “professional” who is currently scamming literary authors with a horrendous contract and promise of major publication. This particular author/editor is actually buying ownership of the unsuspecting writer’s property in the contract he offers, and paying that writer a pittance.

Am I bashing my former university’s creative writing program here? No. In fact, nothing I’ve told you is new to me.

I learned about that program back when I was a hot-headed journalist, newly returned from the Clarion Writers Workshop. For an article I was writing for the local indie paper, I saw the then-head of the Creative Writing division of the English Department and asked him why his writing program didn’t feature published writers or emphasize careers in writing.

First of all, he didn’t believe that genre writing was writing (just like, at the time, there were music professors who didn’t believe that popular music was music), but that aside, he was quite frank with me. He stated that the program as designed was to help the MFA candidates become PhD candidates in Creative Writing so that they could get prestigious jobs teaching creative writing at major universities.

He also pointed out, correctly, that I should have researched the creative writing program before taking classes there, to see if it fit my goals as a student. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that at the time I was in his program, I only took the writing classes to fit in my fiction writing along with my homework for my history degree.)

He also told me that (at the time) there were no programs at reputable universities that offered the kind of writing education which I wanted. Clarion itself which was then sponsored by Michigan State University, was a graduate course taken for a handful of credits, not an entire degree program.

So, if I’m not bashing, why am I talking about this now? Because a number of things happened in the past few weeks that got me thinking about the deeply ingrained attitudes that writers have about writing, their work, and their futures.

First, the response to my blog post last week was a revelation to me. I did expect a lot of comments. Certainly not as many as I got, however.

I fully expected to have more questions about what I teach. I also expected to have a lot of negative comments. Now I might have circumvented those by telling people that if they were rude, they couldn’t comment, but I figure people who disagree with me should be mature enough to do so politely. I’m told there’s a lot of disagreement on writer boards and other listserves, but I haven’t followed any of the links I got sent because I’ve said my piece and flame wars don’t interest me.

What surprised me was that the bulk of the 210 comments (so far) are from writers who feel relief, who are happy to be released from this idea of perfection, who are pleased that they can just write what they want without fear of having to continually revisit past work without doing anything new. See for yourself. It’s startling. (At least I think so.)

So I’ve been mulling over the comments, both the content of them and the sheer number of them. The post went viral, which I expected, but not because of the folks who disagreed with me, but because the folks who agree with me are passing it along. (Usually it’s the angry folks who share.) So that’s a surprise as well.

Then last week, I received yet another Google alert about a post of mine someone disagrees with. This time, it was something I said about promotions. The person who disagreed with me hasn’t read my promotions post, but was convinced I didn’t know what I was talking about when it came to the necessity of promoting work, particularly for a new writer. The writer actually said that I had never had a point in my career where I was unknown, which made me laugh. Um, we were all beginning writers once upon a time.

The writer challenged me to self-publish things under a super secret pen name, and was convinced I would understand then why new writers need to promote. I actually responded to this one—I usually don’t—because of the challenge, and because I’d met it  years ago.

I have four things up under four super-secret pen names, things which I put up with no promotion. One outsells everything I do under my name and my known pen names. One isn’t doing very well at all, and two are doing okay. All outsell some titles I have under the Rusch name. So I have met the challenge, plus some.

Because I had to explain to this new writer that back in the Dark Ages of Publishing when I started, there was no such thing as Twitter, blogging, Facebook, and the like. If a writer wanted to promote her work, she had to spend more than her advance to do so. Because even back then, publishers didn’t promote 95% of the books they published. Those books would sink or swim based on sales in bookstores that might or might not carry the books. Some of my early work wasn’t even listed with description and a cover photo in the publisher’s catalog. Just a one line listing under “Also Available” which was arranged by genre.

So how did a writer sell a lot of copies of her book? She wrote another. Back in the Dark Ages of Publishing, before the conglomerate bean counters got involved, most writers (even new writers) got a multibook contract. Because publishers knew it was the number of titles on the shelf that sold books, not the quality of an as-yet-unread single title, that got a reader to pick up a book.

So I not only met the challenge in this new world of publishing, I met that challenge every time I had traditionally published a book with a brand new name on the spine.

As I wrote my response, I realized that this writer/blogger didn’t have a clue about a writing career. It was all about the book.  The book had to be promoted because it might sink. And that, according to the writer/blogger, would be a catastrophe.

This writer/blogger is not alone. Most of what I do in my nonfiction and in my teaching is about training writers to think about a career, not about a book or a single story.

I spent a week in June teaching professional writers just that very concept: write and release. Write and release. Get your work out there. Build an oeuvre. We didn’t talk about business much—at least overtly—but we were talking about it all the time as I taught them to get rid of the roadblocks that they, and their training, had put in the way of the writing.

The thing, though, that rattled through my head was a realization about my friend Bill Trojan. Bill, as those of you who’ve followed this blog for years know, was a bookseller and a dear friend who died last August, leaving his entire estate to my husband Dean Wesley Smith. Bill was a collector and a hoarder, so we now have 4500 square feet of boxes, many of which are filled with amazing treasures and many of which are not.

Dean’s been sorting through those collections, keeping some of the books and setting everything else aside to deal with later. By some of the books, I mean rooms filled with shelves of books. For most of May and June, Dean used my desk at the office as a place to sort. (I’m not there much, obviously.)

Every time I went through, I saw books—famous books, blockbuster books—that I had forgotten about. Some were published in the 1970s. Some in the 1980s. Some before I was born, with many going all the way back to the dawn of the mass market paperback era.

Those books that I remembered often made a huge splash, made someone’s name—at least for a little while. And then the book(s) and the author disappeared.

I finally understood a comment that Bill had made to me shortly after I met him: He believed all published writers were “neo-pros” (a derogatory sf term for new professional) until they’d published at least ten novels.

I thought ten was an arbitrary number, just something Bill had pulled out of his hat. But, as Dean sorted and organized, I realized that ten wasn’t arbitrary at all.

First, ten mass market paperback books filed alphabetically by author fill a quarter to a half of an average shelf. When publishers increased all book sizes and started demanding authors write longer books, that ten-book gathering started filling half a shelf. Which made the books—and the author—noticeable to the average book browser (back in the day when books were actually on bookstore shelves).

It was more than that, though. It was amazing to see the number of writers who had that blockbuster or critically acclaimed novel who only published one or two or three books afterwards. And sometimes not even that many. Yes, the book came out to great reviews. Yes, it sold tens of thousands of copies. And then what? The next book wasn’t as good (usually sophomore efforts aren’t) or the third got critically savaged (critics often respond poorly to success), and the writer either changed names, or couldn’t sell another book because it wasn’t as good as that first book.

Or the writer realized just how hard this business is, and how much effort it takes to actually make a living at it, and went on to other things.

What surprised me the most were the working writers. They had twenty, fifty, one-hundred books under one name, and even more books under other names. Those books, when shelved alphabetically by author, didn’t take a quarter or a half of a shelf. They took two, three or four shelves all by themselves. And that didn’t count the pen-name books.

Some of those books are truly forgettable. I found a book the other day by a rude, snotty writer (now dead) who had been unbelievably nasty to me in person about the “literary” quality of my work. That book made me laugh. Because it was a tie-in novel, published in the late 1960s, for a cult TV show (not Star Trek). This writer had written dozens of tie-ins in the 1960s and 1970s, then berated me for doing the same in the 1990s.

Maybe I had heard him wrong way back when. Maybe he hadn’t been criticizing my literary abilities, but concerned about the time the tie-in work took away from my other writing, and expressing it badly. After all, like most writers, his social skills were…um…lacking to say the least.

Or maybe he was just a mean old jerk. That was possible too. But, by Bill’s definition, this guy had a career. A long, varied, and with some titles, storied career. One of his books is a mainstream classic. A couple are science fiction classics. Out of the hundred-plus books that he wrote, of course.

That number isn’t unusual. Dickens wrote a lot of novels, short stories, plays and nonfiction. I was going to include the actual number here, but I just Googled him and discover that the Interweb disagrees with itself about the exact number. I’m seeing everything from 22 to 34 novels, and “dozens” to “hundreds” of other works.

My point, however, is that only a few of Dickens’ works are considered classics, although I disagree with one website that said the most famous of his works is Oliver Twist. The most famous is A Christmas Carol, because it has so permeated the culture. Of course, that wasn’t a novel, but a short work, which we would call a novella.

If you look at all classic works by a famous long-dead author, you’ll find dozens of other works that the author wrote that aren’t nearly as famous or nearly as well thought of. If you look at those famous authors,  you won’t find one work behind their name, but an entire career.

So why, in that instance, do we spend all our time trying to write the perfect short story, the perfect novel? Why are our writing workshops and our universities training writers to “improve” only one or two works?

Take a look at the beginning of my essay again. If you go to music school, you go knowing that you’ll have to perform, knowing that you’ll spend time learning all of the disciplines in the profession—from performing to conducting to composing to teaching to research—before deciding which discipline is for you.

If you go to a creative writing program, you’ll learn about teaching and research and oh, yeah, you might be lucky enough to be discovered.

And the universities aren’t the only ones with that attitude. The peer-level workshops also focus on one story, one novel, one sale. Not on careers. Not on business. Not on anything long-term that will teach a writer how to survive the ups and downs of the business.

We as a culture don’t give wannabe writers the tools they need to survive in the real world.

We give those tools to budding musicians. We even give those tools to budding artists (they can get a graphic arts degree or a fine arts degree, but the choice is made in graduate school, not undergrad).  Theater majors learn how to put on plays, act in them, direct them, stage manage them. Journalism majors learn how to write for publication and often publish in professional venues. Broadcast majors learn how to work (and sometimes intern) in radio and television with the hope of getting a job in those mediums. I could go on.

Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional who makes her living at the craft described in the title of the degree. In fact, in most universities, creative writers are told from day one that they cannot make a living at their chosen profession.

And that’s just bullshit.

(Which I have debunked dozens of times. See the contents for both the Business Rusch and the Freelancer’s Survival Guide if  you want more. Or look at Dean’s post on this topic in his Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing.)

So, if we’re not training writers to be professionals who make a living at their chosen career, what are we training them to be?

Critics.

We’re training critics and editors (kinda, but there are actual degree programs in editing/publishing) and professors. Think about this professor part, as well, because according to at least three websites I looked at, these professors-in-training are teaching creative writing courses as early as their first year of graduate school.

In other words, nonprofessional writers are teaching creative writing at the university level, often as assistants, in preparation for teaching creative writing at the university level. People with no experience with the profession at all.

And here’s something even screwier. I (and writers like me) can’t get a teaching position at any university in the creative writing department because I don’t have a master’s degree or a Ph.D.  Even if I had an advanced degree, I’d need one in Creative Writing or at least in English to get said job, learning from people who know nothing about my profession and who, later in life, often come to me to learn how to be professional writers.

For more than seventy years, the teaching of creative writing has worked like this.  The professional workshops affiliated with universities often had English professors overseeing the entire thing, and all of those workshops dealt with critique only, not with the business of a writing career itself even if the guest lecturers were professional writers.

Is it any wonder that writers who go to peer-level workshops get savaged week after week? Is it any wonder that writers who manage to publish one thing believe that they have to promote, promote, promote that one thing? Is it any wonder that writers have no idea that long-time writers actually had to work to get where we are?

After all, we successful writers were anointed by some editor/agent who came to our writing workshop and discovered our talent, right? Right?  The myth is that we didn’t work at getting published; we worked at improving our story. And once our writing was perfect, we were accepted in the club of published writers.

Which is why, someone who seems pretty reasonable in correspondence (that writer/blogger) could make the boneheaded statement that writers like me were never unknown and unappreciated. If we were “discovered” in our creative writing classes or our peer-level workshop, if our one brilliant short story got the attention of a big-name agent when said story was published in a pay-by-copies “prestigious” literary journal, then of course we have never suffered the slings and arrows of anonymity.

We were “lucky.”

Those of us who get that “lucky” word leveled at us all the time find that term insulting as hell. Of course we weren’t lucky. We just worked harder than everyone else. We learned our craft, and we learned the business of a profession that does not teach anyone business, and we managed to survive all kinds of mistakes we wouldn’t have made if we’d actually had the opportunity to be mentored or we studied such things as accounting as part of our training.

Training. That’s the other thing. The more I talked with successful, long-term career writers, the more I realized that very few of them had been English majors in college. Or if they had been, they got their graduate degree in something else.

One of the writers at the June workshop thought it amusing that the bios in the year’s best science fiction I had the students read were full of engineers and scientists by training, not English majors. These engineers and scientists who became full-time writers have had long careers, whereas the English majors seemed to cluster with their English professor counterparts in The Best American Short Stories, and almost none of them have had writing careers.

Romance writers almost always come at the profession from a variety of non-writing related jobs, often as small-business owners. The bios of mystery writers have a preponderance of police officers, forensic examiners, and lawyers.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think these folks weren’t trained to be critics. These writers also weren’t repeatedly told that they couldn’t succeed in their chosen profession. I think most of them believed they couldn’t be successful writers, so they went on to another profession, wrote a book to please themselves, and then had some success with it, so wrote another and another and another, thinking their success made them outliers when, in fact, if you look at the statistics, you’ll discover that the majority of people who write and publish on a regular basis actually make a living at it.

It is a profession, after all.

This is why professional writers stop going to writing workshops relatively early, although they’ll occasionally “teach” one—if you call critiquing teaching, which I don’t. Professional writers don’t have the time to go to workshops, considering all the demands of the career.

That career is what no aspiring writer understands. How can they? No one talks about it. No one tells them how it’s done or how it works.

Unfortunately, the people that the aspiring writer asks to help with those questions have a vested interest in the wrong answers.

The universities aren’t interested in writing the career when their entire system is set up to teach writing instruction. The book editors have their own jobs and really don’t understand how professional writers make a living. (In fact, most editors will tell writers that they can’t make a living, especially after seeing the small advances that writers get, not realizing that writers make their living from more than one source.)

The agents make their money off writers who believe an agent knows how to build a career, when agents don’t have any idea how to build a writer’s career. Agents know how to build an agent’s career, because—guess what!—agents have a mentoring system. They get hired as an assistant in an agency and learn the business before ever striking out on their own.

Is that agent’s business how to make one writer’s career? No. It’s how to make a living on 15% of a lot of writers, some of whom are successful and most of whom are not. The long-term agents in the business—the ethical ones, the ones who are still around (but you have to search for them)—make their living off writers like me, career midlist writers who have more than ten books, because we’re constant earners. We make tens of thousands for the agents who represent us, year in and year out.

Now, with the new world of publishing, all of that is changing. Agents, the middlemen in all of this, are feeling squeezed, and many are moving toward a new (and unethical) business model which will help the agent and harm writers.

Some book editors are already discovering that their business is changing too. Writers who’ve indie-published are asking uncomfortable questions. Formerly pliable midlist authors are demanding new contract terms—and walking away if they don’t get those terms. The writers who remain are either older and already established, or brand-new and not likely to remain the business long enough to be called anything but a neo-pro.

And the universities? They continue to churn out critics and professors instead of savvy writers. There’s an opportunity here to change that Creative Writing MFA program into something businesslike and useful, but it won’t happen because no one in charge of these programs understands a creative writer’s career.

So, where does a writer go to learn how to be a professional writer? Unfortunately, writers will have to continue to do what they’ve always done—cobble together their own curriculum and learn by doing. There’s some good information on the web, but there’s even more bad information. Dean and I teach established professionals, but we’re not a degree program and we don’t take beginners.

The best thing a writer can do is remember this: If you want to have works that are considered art by succeeding generations, if you want to write classics, then you need to have a writing career.

A career spans a lifetime. A career has ups and downs. A career requires building, and lots and lots of hard work.

A career changes over decades, and requires constant learning. Would you go to a fifty-year-old doctor who is still repeating all wisdom he learned in medical school, but hasn’t done a bit of study since then? Of course you wouldn’t. Nor should you listen to someone who has no experience in the career you want. You should never treat that someone as an expert.

This writing business has been upside down for almost a century now. Those of us who have careers have been quiet about our hard work for too long. We didn’t make it because we’re the best critics or the best teachers. We’ve made it because we know how to learn, improve, and persevere.  And—ironically—we don’t think we’ve made it. We have yet to achieve our goals.  We keep working, and probably will until we die.

But we’re working on our careers, which are a major part of our lives. We’re not working on our novel. We’re working on a novel.

And that’s the biggest difference of all.

Since I wrote longer than expected this week, I’m only going to add a short reminder here. I make my living writing fiction, not nonfiction. If you want me to continue the weekly nonfiction blog, then please support it with a donation. Think of it as a tip on the way out. Thanks. And thanks for the comments and e-mails and insights. I appreciate all of it.

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“The Business Rusch: “Careers, Critics, and Professors,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

 

174 responses to “The Business Rusch: Careers, Critics, and Professors”

  1. Richard "Serack" says:

    I’m pretty sure I’ve heard you acknowledge in earlier blogs that University programs aren’t completely without career writers teaching their programs, but since you derided them so hard in this blog, I thought I would point out that the University of Oklahoma writing program has Deborah Chester as a creative writing professor.

    Jim Butcher credits her for giving him the writing tools he needed to succeed in his career, but also says that his undergrad degree in English Lit. impeded him from taking her sound instruction at heart for the first couple years of grad school.

    • Sam says:

      Richard, good point, and I’d also like to point out that Jim Butcher never did graduate from that program.

      He went on to write professionally, and advies everyone who wants to write, to write. 🙂

      • Richard "Serack" says:

        Point Taken.

        Jim says that he was asked by the Dean to speak his mind at a meeting in front of a bunch of donors, and he made the mistake of taking that at face value. The next semester, that same Dean had to grade based off of grammatical errors on his final paper to give him a C for the class… 6 applications for re-admittance later Jim got the hint.

    • Richard, the University of Oklahoma program is quite a bit different from a traditional creative writing program. It’s actually a professional writing program and it’s not part of the English department. It’s actually setup under the School of Journalism. Back in the day it was setup by some old school pulp writers: William S. Campbell (who wrote westerns under the name Stanley Vestal) and William Foster Harris.

      I could go on and about this (I never attended the program but have all of Foster-Harris and Campbell’s books on writing from the 40s and 50s) but I don’t want to take up Kris’ comment section. Glad you brought it up, though. There are a TON of writers who went through that program who went on to become pros.

      • MaryA says:

        And don’t forget two other influential professional writer-teachers from the Oklahoma school: Dwight V. Swain and Jack M. Bickham. Seems their down-to-earth, practical books on writing fiction keep getting “discovered” again and again.

        • Oh, yeah, Mary, you can’t forget those two. A lot of people don’t know this but Swain and Bickham were both pros. Swain was a SF writer back in the day (and apparently friends with Jerry Pournelle, who mentions him a few times on his website) and Bickham wrote thrillers and goofy westerns.

  2. Craig Reed says:

    I’ve just come to a realization about literature reading these comments: those big names that we all know — Dickens, Conan Doyle, Bronte, Austin, Bradbury and any other author whose names are well know over a hundred years — didn’t sit down and said to themselves one day, “I’m going to write stories that will be read long after I’m dead!” No, they sat down and wrote the stories. It is their stories that have made their names well known and loved, not the other way around.

    Yet the MFA people drill the greatness of these authors into us, but forget that these people wrote not for the future readers, but for the ones of their time. Dickens didn’t write “A Christmas Carol” on the off chance it would become a classic and be filmed three dozen times. He wrote for his mid-19th century audience. The fact the story still hold up today is a testament to his skill as a writer. Any story we consider great literature is because the author wrote a story we can get into. The New “Sherlock” series shows that despite being set in 2010 England, the Character is not far removed from his 1890 roots.

    So don’t try to write the perfect literately story — it is up to readers 60 or 100 or 200 years down the road to decide whether or not the story is worth being called literature.

    Craig

    • Rob Cornell says:

      Oh, come on, Craig! You don’t think Dickens was banking on having his story adapted into a cartoon featuring a talking mouse and duck as the primary characters? Dickens is a Disney sellout! 😉

  3. Passive Guy posted this … I thought it belonged with this great article of yours, Kristine:

    Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.
    Flannery O’Connor

    c”,)

    • ABeth says:

      And, as I said over on PG’s site… I had a Fiction Writing teacher who loved loved loved Flannery O’Connor. And apparently believed that witticism.

      I didn’t write for a year after that class, and am still pretty ticked about it.

  4. Russ says:

    Another excellent post, Kris. Something you and Dean said ten years ago during the masterclass still guides my career today. “It doesn’t have to be right it just has to be done.”

    Of course what this refers to is the current story I’m working on. Every story I write this message surfaces from my subconscious. The other message that surfaces is, “trust the process.” The process of course is the career and one book or short story is not a career, as this post points out. You have to think long term and building a body of work. Using this approach the odds of me being on the Forbes list are slim but in the long term I fully expect to be making a living.

    Thank you for all you have taught me and continue to teach me.

  5. Faith says:

    Thanks for another great post, Kris! I started my writing career late after twenty+ years in business and I always appreciate your (and Dean’s) business posts and emphasis on what a writer needs to know and do to make a living. I still have enough years (baring any major illness) to get a substantial body of work together and hope to make a second career out of writing.

    My daughter is a gifted writer and an English major (senior in college.) We’ve had a number of discussions about when to ignore/use peer feedback and the tendency of college programs to squash creativity. This summer we’re writing buddies and I’m trying to pass on the business side of things by actually having her finish a project (non-fiction) and getting it out there. Almost there. I’ve been using your columns as a kind of informal validation (“See, mom isn’t the only one who says this!”) She may decide that she doesn’t wan’t to make her living writing, but at least she’ll know what it takes!

  6. I’m an outlier in that I’m an English major, and a PhD and I teach undergraduate writing. I attempt to teach the business in my classes, but that definitely is not the focus. I teach only undergrads. I have tried to teach in grad programs, but I get the typical response that I write genre fiction and it’s not acceptable or quality or blah blah blah, and another oddity, any kind of real productivity is seen as anti-literary. Which is to say, if I produce quickly (ish, because I’m nowhere near as productive as you) then it must be dreck by definition of speed. Teaching about the business is critical and it’s disappointing that programs don’t. But I think there’s a perception permeating academia that you can’t, or rather you shouldn’t, make money on art. Commercial ‘greed’ is incompatible with the artistic. So back to the starving artist model. It’s dumb, but I think it’s definitely there.

    I have students who want to go on to MFA programs and I explain to them what they are likely to get out of a program, and what they won’t.

    I can say that it always surprised me in all my creative courses that no one ever discussed manuscript formats, how to submit, how to find markets, or anything else. I always thought it was crazy.

  7. So true, Kris! College English programs can ruin a writer for life.

    I took every creative writing and English lit course I could in college, but I wasn’t a declared major because my primary major, Speech and Theater, demanded a lot of night work that made reading and writing tons of things something I did on the fly. I took classes in what I wanted to study, but I didn’t want grades to be an issue. Also, I found the English majors (not the teachers; they were great) pedantic and pretentious and buying into the “Lit’ry” snobbery. It was a women’s college, but the students running the college literary magazine considered getting guys from the nearby men’s college to write stories for “our” literary mag their biggest coups. My best short story then was a twist on a classic Twilight Zone episode with a woman in her sixties as a protagonist. They rejected it as “too much like Death of a Salesman.” Please. I’d seen the play many times. Not!
    I then submitted (anonymously) my second-best story, about something more familiar, college girls. In English classes a call suddenly went out to whomever had left that story in the office, the Ariston (means “the best”) wanted to publish it… I fessed up. And they never printed it. (Decades later, the rejected story was included in a prestigious NY-published anthology.)

    Those experiences turned me off on writing “literature” and were the beginning of my career. The novel I started in college became my first published book.

    My point is that I was lucky in that conformist era that I’d loved reading the best of nineteenth and early twentieth-genre century genre fiction–including Poe and Lovecraft, Conan Doyle and Dumas and Tolkien, Stoker and Dorothy L. Sayers, etc.–and couldn’t be seduced by literary snobbery.

    Recently, I met a woman I know slightly, who’d been downsized from a local newspaper, for lunch. She was wanting to write fiction. I was there to find out what she wanted to write and
    advise her on the publishing options these days.

    I listened, she listened, and toward the end of the lunch she said in a tone of wonder and discovery, “Why, you’re a business woman.”

    Exactly. To have a writing career you have to be your own “talent/manager.” And nothing teaches that so well as writing what you love and fighting to get it to readers, whatever route you take.

  8. Sarah McCabe says:

    It seems to me that, particularly with writing, the greatest teacher is experience, provided you can survive it.

  9. Randy says:

    Many of us may not have advanced degrees, but when “career day” rolls around, who do they call?

  10. Kort says:

    I remember a story from a creative writing class I took in college, where the main character was living off the royalties from a single novel he’d published years earlier. The overall story wasn’t bad but I made sure to point out that that part of the story was inaccurate and ended up lecturing the class about what a professional writing career involved with my professor agreeing with me. This same professor asked which grad program he should be sending my recommendation to because he truly believed I had talent. He was shocked when I told him I had no intention of going to grad school but I was going to be a professional writer.

    I was asked if I could serve as a contact for other students who wanted to be professional writers and I told him I was happy to. I’ve been contacted by more of the creative writing professors at that college than I care to think about and I DO NOT consider myself a professional yet. I was doing things the traditional way after I graduated and that put me behind more than some of the life bumps I’ve gone through. One of my former professors asked if I had anything traditionally published so she could get me in as a guest lecturer. Just for her, I’m sending out some of my more ‘traditional’ stories that I would have otherwise self-published.

    Oh, and I was originally going to school to be an engineer. I had more fun in my History classes, though, and my British Lit classes and ended up majoring in English. Part of that, though, was the desire to just get it done with. I went to 4 different colleges and I could take the English classes half-asleep while I worked on my ultimate goal of being a professional writer. I found History lectures a great time to work on my novels 🙂

  11. JJBrannon says:

    KKR, I think I’ll simply refer to you from now on as La Matadora, because of your gift in column after column of piercing to the heart of the snorting, rampaging beast of a modern publishing career with a deft thrust of the sword.

    This entry harkens to mind a distinction Neal Stephenson made between “Beowulf” versus “Dante” writers, arising from an encounter at a writers conference in an academic setting:

    To set it up, a brief anecdote: a while back, I went to a writers’ conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we’d exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me “And where do you teach?” just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another “And which distro do you use?”

    I was taken aback. “I don’t teach anywhere,” I said.

    Her turn to be taken aback. “Then what do you do?”

    “I’m…a writer,” I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

    “Yes, but what do you do?”

    I couldn’t think of how to answer the question—I’d already answered it!

    “You can’t make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?” she tried.

    “From…being a writer,” I stammered.

    http://slashdot.org/story/04/10/20/1518217/neal-stephenson-responds-with-wit-and-humor

    JJB

  12. Joe Cron says:

    Love this post, Kris. I was intrigued by your contrasting of music studies and writing studies at the university level. I totally get what you were observing, but I also couldn’t help but draw parallels between them rather than contrasts.

    When I was in college, I decided not to be a music major for the same reason I wouldn’t have majored in a writing curriculum. I wanted to be a professional musician, not a teacher. I think I took a cue from my childhood piano teacher, who stopped offering me lessons – quite amicably – because I wanted to play jazz, and she believed she had taken me as far as she could through classical lessons. From that point, yes, I learned some theory in classrooms, but I learned musicianship from other musicians.

    In the end, I majored in theatre, on – yup – an education curriculum, because I eventually succumbed and figured it was the most practical fallback plan, but my friends and I viewed all college arts courses as what one had to endure to be able to practice and play with facilities and resources the likes of which I knew I would probably never see again after I left school. I took the classes, but was essentially on my own separate professional training program the whole time.

    Oddly enough, writing is the area where I picked up the most bad habits and critical thinking from academic training. I’ll get over it, though. Considering the music analogy, I quite often remember your description at my first workshop of thinking about writing as being about the story, not about words, in the same way that music is about the song, not notes. Thanks for that!

    • You’re welcome for that, Joe. I wish I could remember it when I’m playing music. Maybe I’d be a better musician then. 🙂

      I think all art is about finding your own voice, and no college program or teacher can give you that. All they can do is point you in the right direction, and that’s hard. I think knowing that we can make a living at our chosen profession, however, is more helpful than most people realize. It means you’re not wasting your time daydreaming; you’re actually doing something useful.

      Thanks for the post.

      • Joe Cron says:

        Agree – knowing you can make a living at what you do is a valuable frame of mind, and I also agree that the general approach by colleges to other arts programs besides writing at least acknowledges that the program exists partly because some people want to make a living doing it (rather than teaching it). Not so, writing. Not even a hint there.

        I just thank my stars I found you and Dean, or else I’d have probably given up already. Now, not a chance – it’s too much fun in this new world to not keep driving and see what can be accomplished. The scenarios both of you present on making a living in this profession (with math!) make it real and achievable. Also the sound craft instruction, obviously, but the business side supplies that critical knowledge that you can make a living at this. Can, should, and are responsible for it. Always excellent advice.

  13. Craig Reed says:

    Another great post!

    Write and release, write and release, I think that is a key concept.

    While most of my time writing is taken up with writing Work for hire stories (Following some distance behind Michael Stackpole), but I have started expanding on my original writing, and beginning to work my way through this new universe by writing short stories that I hope I will epublish one day. I’ve even brushed off a novel I’d written ninety thousand of and starting to cut away the dross and sharpen up the story (Something I couldn’t understand until I had to revised my work for hire stories)

    I took a couple of creative writing classes in community collage, but until you sit down and write, you can’t understand the process of writing. It’s a personal thing, coming from inside you, not some MFA standing in front of a class talking.

    Thank you again, Kris, I need to go off and write some more….

    Craig

  14. Randy says:

    Isn’t it wonderful that one’s “qualification” to teach is solely determined by a piece of paper?

    A few years ago a college President asked me if I was interested in teaching journalism, as an opening was coming up. I had more than 20 years experience in broadcasting at the time. I told him I was very interested. Then he asked me where I’d gotten my Masters Degree. When I told him I didn’t have one, he said, “I would love to hire you, but legally I can’t. This state requires all teachers to have a Masters.”

    Even though I have worked for a major network for the past seven years, I still am not “qualified” to teach. Meanwhile, I have a mentoring business and end up “fixing” journalism grads who have been taught by people with advanced degrees who have never worked a single day in the business.

    If politicians are serious about fixing education, they might look at a system that denies the people with the most experience the chance to pass it on, and teach real world skills that are actually useful outside an ivory tower.

    • I’ve had similar experiences, Randy. And years after I started working in news, the station I worked at got a bunch of journalism grads as interns on their way to a Masters. Not one of them knew what passive voice was. None of them knew how to write active prose. None of them knew how to write a lead, for god’s sake. I had to spend most of that summer teaching them how to write. I was mad. I was already overworked and underpaid (putting in 12 hour days–news director at the time), and having to add in that was irritating beyond belief. I asked these kids if they’d had any writing classes at all, and they claimed they had. I don’t know what they were being taught, but it wasn’t how to write news copy. (Oooo, I guess some residual anger remains.) Sad to see that things haven’t changed in 25 years. 🙁

    • Daniela says:

      That reminds me a lot about all the business admin people I had to deal with (aka teach on the job) who knew all about the theory but had absolutely no clue about the basics like how to write an offer, order, or invoice. Yet, they could run around and call themselves Sales Manager and earn the big bucks while I was only the lowly assitant. The different between a university degree and an apprenticeship (training on the job) with vocational school (practical theory) in business administration.

      Same with translators who have a university diploma. They might learn all about translating but never had any dealing with a native speaker and have no idea how to run a business. And studying translation means in 99% of the cases working as a freelancer and running your own business. But they have a piece of paper that says they are better than other translators!

  15. Melissa says:

    “What surprised me was that the bulk of the 210 comments (so far) are from writers who feel relief, who are happy to be released from this idea of perfection, who are pleased that they can just write what they want without fear of having to continually revisit past work without doing anything new. See for yourself. It’s startling. (At least I think so.)

    So I’ve been mulling over the comments, both the content of them and the sheer number of them. The post went viral, which I expected, but not because of the folks who disagreed with me, but because the folks who agree with me are passing it along. (Usually it’s the angry folks who share.) So that’s a surprise as well.”

    This is exactly they way I felt too! As I read, I thought: “Yes, this is what I have been thinking for a long time.” I’ve also noticed the tendency for writers to focus on perfecting that *one* book, only to lose time they could be using to write their next one.

    “Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional who makes her living at the craft described in the title of the degree. In fact, in most universities, creative writers are told from day one that they cannot make a living at their chosen profession.

    And that’s just bullshit.”

    This cracked me up because it is so true. You can make a living at nearly anything as long as you have the will to do it. I was a server all through college and people told me that I would always be a server and that the college degree I was getting would not help me to get a job in the career I wanted. They were wrong.

    But … what I noticed about college was the same thing you noticed – many of the teachers knew nothing of having a career in the field I was studying because they were teachers. And this was in Computer Science, not English or Creative Writing. Universities cost an awful lot for not being able to prepare their students for actual careers. I found this out when I graduated and went into the job market.

  16. Bob Vardeman says:

    I gave the same talk at a university, one to a creative writing class and the other to a journalism class. I began: “You can make money writing.” The temperature in the creative writing class dropped 20 deg and things went downhill from there. I expected the same thing in the journalism class. “You can make money writing.” Pens clicked, notebooks opened, students leaned forward and every last one of them wanted to know how. Could be their professor (Tony Hillerman) had instilled in them the ways of the world. But the other class’s professor is widely known if not famous. But the undercurrent there was fame is fine, making a living off your writing is venal, if not a mortal sin.

    I hope Mike Stackpole posts here about his forthcoming genre fiction classes at ASU. Some universities might be getting the idea that alumni might actually make a living in writing genre fiction.

  17. Steve Perry says:

    When I was a newbie, I wanted to go to Clarion a whole lot. I couldn’t afford it — neither money, nor time. I was married, had a full-time job, two small children, and it wasn’t possible. I bemoaned it to myself. I was living in a place where I didn’t know any other writers, and not even that many people who actually read for pleasure. I wanted to meet other writers.

    By the time I could afford to go, I had already sold more material than most of the Clarion writers I knew, and I decided, you know, if somebody is buying the stuff, it’s good enough.

    John Locke I’ll never be, but as long as they were paying me for it? I had at least that much going for me. Perfect was never in the cards …

    Steve

    • I think Clarion has held me back on some things. I was told I couldn’t write science fiction at my Clarion. I still fight with those voices at times. And I completely dropped one direction in my work because of Clarion, something I’m just coming back to now. So I don’t think you missed much.

      Besides, Steve, you’re one of my favorite writers. And you know how much I love your short stories. 🙂 Willie of the Jungle is still one of my all time favorites.

  18. Leah Cutter says:

    I have so many feelings about this post, Kris.

    Excellent job as usual. About a year ago when I took the “Think like a Publisher” workshop I started to really notice the lack of practical training for treating your writing like a business. Everyone hears, “act professional.” Very few give actual advice on how to do it, how to grow it into a successful business.

    This weekend I spent a lot of time ruminating about my experience at Clarion West. Of the five professional writers (one week was taught by an editor) only three could have been considered professionals — the other two were neo-pros, and AFAIK, have never published 10 books, even now, 15+ years later. Of those three professionals, I believe only one supported themselves with their writing. One had a working spouse, the other a job. (I could be wrong. Possibly none of them supported themselves with their writing.)

    Don’t get me wrong, I learned a *tremendous* amount at Clarion West, and it had the desired effect: after I finished I started selling regularly. I do wonder at the lost opportunity to teach not just critique, but having a writing career.

    When beginning writers have asked me, I’ve always told them to just write. An MFA is only for those who want to teach. I wish there were more interdisciplinary programs though, that combined both.

    In the meanwhile, we’re lucky that we live now in the age of blogs and the interwebs, and can actually get better information.

    Thank you again for your marvelous insights.

    Leah

    • Thanks, Leah. For a while, both Clarions invited the hot young writer instead of the established pros. Sounds like you hit one of those years. The problem with the hot young writer is that very few of them become the established pro. That’s something only time will show you. Of the hot young things that come in every few years, only one or two survive for decades, and of those few, even fewer make a living. It’s sad and hard.

      When Clarion started, btw, only long-term pros who made a living taught it. That changed by the 1980s. Rather sad. At least, though, that Clarion tries to bring in working writers, not professors. And that’s a good thing, as you point out.

  19. Bob Sojka says:

    Hi Kris,

    While I am still a fiction writing newbie, I have witnessed the vast breadth and depth of denial (and simple lack of knowledge, or belief in dying myths, or complete inexperience with “real” writing and marketing) by English profs (Oh, the anecdotes I could share!). Most workshops touch on aspects of the career requirements, but seldom with an adequate emphasis or degree of understanding. You and Dean do us a great service in sharing your insights. Thanks!

  20. Kerry Blake says:

    I have to agree about your comments on universities. I trained as a teacher of English as a foreign language. My professors were morons. They taught us theory and we never once did anything practical (like teach real students or even mock teaching). Now, 3 years in, I realize how incredibly bad there preparation of me was for the real job. 100% of what they taught me I have never used – ever. When I moved to Asia, I was so full of ideas, but the reality of what they taught me to do (their way of thinking) was so far off what I actually had to do that I had real trouble learning the job. I now see (after helping dozens of co-workers into the job) that it would have been easier to learn on the job (essentially what 1000s of teachers do each year in this country). The university took my money and forced me to do a ton of work in exchange. I am no better off for a moment of it and the only good thing i did get was a piece of paper (my degree) that is a legal requirement of my visa.

    Additionally, I do have a seminar story to you. I once was so ‘perplexed’ at now writing 45 assignments of the 3,000 word variety for one course would help me to be a better teacher (it was literally ‘copy the textbook’ stuff) that I paid a visit to the lecturer and asked him what he was thinking (We had three tests and an exam as well and I had three other course that were the same that year [same department]. He mumbled some trash about repetition that made no sense. I then asked him why we did all theory and no practical. His answer was clear this time: Lesser courses did that and it was a POINT OF DIFFERENCE for the program. They didn’t want their stupid program to be associated with private course they turned their nose up at. The irony is that 2 years later I did one of those courses. They did 90% theory (the same trash) and let us see real students 5 times with heavy restrictions. I felt sick afterwards and when I got to this country and learned the truth of things, I got angry. If i could get my money back I would (not because I need it, but because they don’t deserve it.)

    In the end, higher education and age has taught me that most ‘higher education’ is a waste of people’s money and time. Certainly, for some areas are necessary, but for me it was not. It’s changed my whole way of thinking on education and what the system provides and not in a good way.

    • Wow, Kerry. I’m stunned. Your post is so similar to Joe’s (below) that I checked to make sure that yours wasn’t a duplicate. (Sometimes a commenter will revise and I’ll get both posts.) I’d like to believe you went to the same school, but I’ll bet you didn’t. Wow. Amazing. Thanks for the post.

  21. Nick Marsden says:

    I do know of one undergraduate degree that can help professional writers. I went to film school to concentrate on screenwriting. I earned my BA in screenwriting. Screenwriting classes are very different than most creative writing classes. There is an emphasis on creating a story, but (at least at my school), there is also an emphasis on what it takes to succeed as a writer, which is very difficult in Los Angeles. It involves market research, persistence and self-promotion. And yes, it does include pumping out stories (plural). You will never make it as a screenwriter if you spend all your time perfecting one work. Reading this post took me back to film school, because it sounds just like something my screenwriting professor would have said.

    • Great to know, Nick. I’ve always heard good things about screenwriting, particularly when taken at universities in Los Angeles.

      • I’ll second the recommendation of screenwriting courses.

        I went to UCLA for undergrad film/tv and the MFA program in screenwriting. We did have to take critical studies courses, which were as useless as my undergrad English classes, but the screenwriting classes were valuable.

        Mostly what they taught was dramatic structure and creating characters. UCLA has a ten-week quarter, and you had to complete a feature film script in ten weeks. I took three undergrad screenwriting classes, and six MFA screenwriting classes, and left UCLA with nine finished film scripts.

        Also, all of the classes were taught by professors who had professional film or tv writing credits. And every quarter there was at least one visiting professor who was still a working professional.

        When people ask me whether to go to film school, I usually tell them just to go out and make films. And writing scripts on your own is a great substitute for screenwriting classes.

        But at UCLA film school I did learn a lot about dramatic structure and creating characters. And I got a lot written.

        Another thing to consider: take an acting class. You can learn a lot about creating characters that way. It can be a great form of cross-training for writers.

        David

        • Great points all, David. I’ve taken acting classes and I have to second all of that. Plus doing things like going an open-mike night for comedians in a place like Vegas or LA, where you’re seeing beginners along with established pros teaches you a lot about storytelling and timing as well. (I don’t recommend standing on stage to try it unless you’re really able to handle audience rejection. Comedy is haaard.)

  22. Joe Ranks says:

    I agree on the university point. I learned second language teaching. I do that now as my part time job (a year ago full time). My professors were fools – that’s my opinion after 3 years in the game. They don’t get the game and, although they could and did do the job, what they taught me NOTHING USEFUL. In fact, I once asked a high level professor why we didn’t learn anything practical or practice on real learners (we didn’t even do mock practice!). His reply was that was for ‘lesser’ courses. They joke was that I did one of the best of those courses In my home country two years later. We did teach learners (in a hugely restricted way), but, again, it was all theory that NO ONE uses – ever. More wasted money… yeah…

    On an aside, when I did start teaching, the environment was so different from what I learned that I actually felt incredibly depressed for week. After that I chose to put it behind me and just know them as idiots. However, I wish I could get the thousands of student fees back. I would go through a lot for that (not for the money – that’s a no issue – but because they don’t deserve my money.)

  23. Nancy Beck says:

    Kris, what a great post (yet another one). I always assumed that writing fiction for a living could not be done, but because of you and Dean, I’ve totally dismissed that myth, for which I will be forever grateful. 🙂 I mean, obviously, if you two are still writing, that dispels that myth to the ash heap of history (or it should).

    @Daniela – I love this: In Germany there’s still this belief that good writers just spring fully-formed from Zeus head and then spend years agonize over that ONE book. 🙂 Heh.

    Had to send a little donation because of the help you and Dean have given us. (And you gave me permission to write whatever I felt about a year ago, so no problems about that ;-), esp. as my latest novels is somewhat all over the place – but I’ll get it done.)

    I’ll make this short: Please keep the Retrieval Artist novels/short novels coming! 🙂 Anniversary Day actually reminded me of 9/11…

  24. Mercy Loomis says:

    My grandfather used to teach at UW-Madison, many years ago. He taught farm science. He never went to college himself. I’m not even 100% sure he finished high school. But he was a farmer all his life (until he retired, anyway), and apparently was a very good teacher. (I can see that. He’s the quiet no-nonsense type with the sneaky twinkle-eye sense of humor.)

    I wish more schools had teachers like that. People who have experience, not just learning.

    I took one English class in college, because they wouldn’t let me test out of it. This was because I, in my young self-assurance, didn’t want anyone telling me how to write. By the time I realized I needed to learn craft, I was out of school. So I read some really good books, and I kept writing. At times I wish I’d taken some classes in college, but then I hear about some of the bad experiences people had, and I’m glad I did it the hard way.

    I did take a lot of folklore classes though. I always recommend those to writers. You learn a lot about story in folklore, and I think story can be harder for people to learn about in English classes. There’s pressure to apply it to your work in English classes, whereas in folklore you get to pick it apart and play with it and see what makes it tick with your left brain without having to try and force through your right brain. But your right brain is paying attention all the same.

    • Things have truly changed at universities, Mercy. I had a prof at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the journalism school who wasn’t a professor at all. He was a long-time reporter who had “retired” there and started teaching. He’d worked for UPI during World War 2, and he hated the whiney students. We wrote in class every day, we had overall assignments due at the end of the week, and we had to turn in copy daily, even if there was no class. We worked our butts off, and he wouldn’t pass anyone who missed a single writing assignment. He read all the assignments too. I loved him, but I know a lot of the other students thought he was “too hard.” Then I became a journalist and realized he was going easy on us. Great guy, great class. Very different from the creative writing “seminars” in which we had only one assignment due per semester. I simply couldn’t believe that. I got my homework done week one, and never looked back. The prof used to yell at me for turning in too much material. I ignored him. I’ve always been contrary students with teachers I don’t respect…

  25. Pete Miller says:

    Thanks for another enlightening post. I went to college and studied film, but even there, despite the school administration pushing very hard not to be a ‘trade school’, to make films you had to learn how to operate cameras and editing equipment. People were encouraged to submit to festivals, and many of us went on to careers in the trades in film.

    Of course there were no classes in managing a free-lance career, or setting up a business. Film was treated as art, not craft, and yet it is the craft that has earned me a nice living and given me a nearly 30 year career.

    Of course my early attempts at writing SF in creative writing classes were squashed by criticism and it is only now that I a seeing a small measure of success there.

  26. I’ve self-published seven novels and novellas and two short story collections. Thanks for reminding me that in terms of a “career” I’m just getting started. Sales were incredible last year, but just so-so this year. And it’s helpful to remember that even the masters wrote a lot of things that didn’t reallly catch on.

    By the way, I earned a Bachelor of Music degree and two-thirds of a masters. And you’re correct—it’s all about classical music, and teaching classical music. And there’s nothing wrong with that—if that’s what you’re looking for. But you certainly don’t need it to prepare you for a career in rock, jazz or country music. A little music theory is helpful if you want to be able to write out the music you have composed. But I learned enough music theory to do that in a year of high school theory.

    Thanks for another great post. And now I’m off to PayPal. It’s time for another donation. 🙂

  27. “Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional”

    Except philosophy. Take it from a former philosophy major. 🙂 They actually tell you there’s no career in that major.

    But now you have me worried, Kris. Should I stop telling people I got my degree in English? 🙂 I would have switched to creative writing, but the advisor literally shut the door in my face when I said I wanted to write science fiction. This was in the heyday of the Cyberpunk/New Wave, when SF was actually gaining some intellectual respect.

    Your point is well taken, about peer-level writing groups. Yes, there is a tendency to give more negative than positive critique, or even “savage” people (although sometimes people think honest criticism is “savage”). However, for some folks it is the only place where they can get any feedback at all from non-family members, so they do serve some purpose.

    But seriously, I could have gotten graduate credits for Clarion? Shoot. Guess it’s too late to apply for them now…

    • LOL, Sarah. I forgot about philosophy. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

      As for your other question, wear your English degree proudly. Those profs I mentioned in my piece–my siblings? English profs. (Although one went back to school and got a degree in Library Science with a specialty in Children’s Literature.) One of them has a great story about trying to hire a professional writer to teach the creative writing classes. It was hard to find someone and then she didn’t play by the same rules as the other profs…

      And yeah, I got grad credits for Clarion. The only grad credits I have. 🙂

      • Laurie says:

        How about history and sociology as well? I’ll take an amateur historian who’s been out in the vast ocean of the real world over most professorial historians who’ve never left the academic kiddie pool.

        Academia has too many people who’ve never left the ivory tower, taught by too many professors who also never left the ivory tower, going back for generations now. It’s mental incest.

  28. Brilliant!

    As a culture, we offer training to people who wish to make a career in many of the arts, but we do not offer it to people who aspire to a writing career. Worse, we offer training for criticism and teaching, while pretending it is training for writing.

    You’ve opened my eyes. I had not noticed this.

  29. David Barron says:

    I do like the concept of “neo-pro”, even though I still am one. Stripped of insult, it’s a good reminder that I should be writing more. I think it’s OK to be a neo-pro so long as I am getting those 10+ books written…

    I had exactly one university-level English class, and the professor said he “had a novel in him”. I disliked that phrase. I wasn’t sure why, it just felt wrong.

    Now, of course, I know that a lifetime of reading genre had led me to expect more Stuff To Read from any author I liked, and that it is a gross sin to write only one thing.

    Repent! Slow writers; and amuse me.

  30. Sawyer Grey says:

    And you guys wonder why we n00bs spend so much time hanging out on your blogs. It’s an informal apprenticeship system, and it works very well if you’re self-motivated enough to be a career writer in the first place. 🙂

  31. Alan Spade says:

    Funny, I have also mentionned the word “career” in my last blog entry.

    I don’t want to sound aggressive, because what you say is immensely valuable for me, who haven’t much experience. And I agree with 90% of what you say. But what do you think of J.R.R. Tolkien ? A failed writer ? A procrastinator ? An amateur who spent 13 years to write the three books of Lord of The Ring ?

    The book is still graded as one of the 100 best novels ever written. Tolkien has rewrited the beginning entirely, several times to get it right. It seems to me that his prose will endure time.

    I know, we authors shouldn’t compare to each others. I shouldn’t feel crushed when I learn Dean is writing 1,2 millions words of fiction in one year in average (for myself, I just go past 500 000 words of fiction in my entire life). Perhaps authors like me, who want to get the best of their novels, even if it takes them 2 or 3 years to write them, just act with too much foolish pride ?

    For myself, I don’t think I do that because I believe in the myth of publishing great novels. I do much rewriting because I analyze what authors have done before me, and I realize my prose is so naturally crappy I have a great handicap to fill in, not in order to write beautiful things but just passable things.

    Yet I know Dean and you are right in your conclusions, and we have to write many stories to improve. And I’ll try to write a short story without rewriting (after my first priority, my novel), just to experiment. Short stories are great for that.

    • Every writer is different, Alan, and every writer follows his own path.

      But Tolkien was not a professional writer. He was a professor, who wrote these stories to help his research in his chosen field. That the books sold well and became classics was a side product of his goal. You must remember that.

      I’m talking to and about professional writers here. Professional writers write. They don’t rewrite (much). They have careers, and they make their living off their writing. That’s who I’m writing for. And that’s the difference.

      • Tom Simon says:

        Ma’am, Tolkien did not write The Lord of the Rings (or any other fiction) to ‘help his research in his chosen field’. In fact, fiction came first; he began writing The Silmarillion in 1917, and did not take his first teaching job until 1920. He always had the habit of filching time away from his research duties to write fiction. Before the Second World War, he had an enormous amount of research work projected and in progress; almost none of it was ever finished, to the vast annoyance of his collaborators and superiors. After he finally found a publisher for LOTR, his research work dried up entirely.

        It was always Tolkien’s intention to find an audience for his stories; it just happened, when he started writing, to be impossible, because the British publishing industry was convinced that fantasy would bring them neither profit nor prestige. Publishers were too busy seeking the bubble Modernism even in the cannon’s mouth.

        That attitude did not survive the war; but then paper rationing made it impossible for anyone to publish significant quantities of Tolkien’s stuff until the early 1950s. It was the search for a publisher who could afford the needed paper that delayed the publication of LOTR for five years after it was finished — even though fans of The Hobbit had been clamouring for it.

        It would be fairly accurate to say that Tolkien wanted to be a professional writer, but was prevented for many years by circumstances — above all, the gigantic and ghastly circumstance of the Second World War and its aftermath. Instead of criticizing or dismissing him for not publishing more, perhaps we should be thankful that we have not had such troubles to deal with.

        • Fascinating, Tom. I just rechecked the short bio of Tolkien that I referred to, and yep, it said he did the stories as part of his research for his teaching. I have not read the longer bios and I have no idea if the person who wrote the short one (in my library) knew what he was talking about. So I bow to you.

          As for the troubles, yeah.

          And I wasn’t criticizing him at all. I like Tolkien, but from everything I learned he didn’t write for anyone but himself without desire for publication because he was happy in his career. So if I’m mistaken on that, so be it.

          The point remains: if you want to learn how to write, you must write a lot and a lot of new words. As Nathan said, there are outliers. Using them as examples of how it’s done will make you take a road that’s impossible, because you’re not them.

          This is a profession. And I write this blog for professionals. That was the point I was making to Alan.

    • nathan says:

      Alan, argument by exception can leave you semantically correct and completely ignoring the practical truth.

      Why stop at JRR T? Why not bring up JD Salinger or Harper Lee? You wouldn’t be wrong in noting their careers (if defined by time earning reward for an effort spent)consisted of…not a whole lot of books, but decades upon decades of sale.

      That seem like a high % move to career success to you? Of course not. Give yourself a chance. There’s only one nobel laureate a year in fiction (and sometimes not at all)—but thousands of writers in that same year making a *living* from writing. Play the %–not the exception.

      Also, don’t worry about the ‘naturally crappy prose.’ Only wannabe writers, English majors and critics care about prose. The vast, vast, majority of people out their willing to part with cash for your writing care about “story”.

      Think I’m crazy? Ask any of the popular now millionaire authors out their who make wannabe’s, English majors, and critics go into convulsions. (latest example; 50 Shades of Something–she’s taking that ‘crappy prose’ right to the bank).

      Story trumps prose. Always.
      ;->

      • Excellent, excellent points, Nathan. I’m currently reading a bestseller (who shall go unnamed). I came out of a workshop, so my critical voice is high. The first chapter missed every hyphen and had at least one sentence that made no sense. I had to remind myself that this guy isn’t a stylist, but a storyteller. Once I remembered that, I sped through the next 55 pages, absorbing story. But seriously, his prose sucks. And as a reader, I don’t care. His stories are spectacular. That’s why he’s a repeat bestseller, and why I buy his books.

        • Alan Spade says:

          Yes, great stories can be contained in rough shells. I experienced it at a time I was reading books of unknown authors from a Quebecois publisher (in order to interview them, in an effort to promote ourselves).

          Tolkien used to said he writted the books he would want to read, and that’s my main criteria about quality (writing books I’d want to read).

          Nathan’s point is well taken, though, especially about 50 Shades of grey, which I only knew because of its best seller reputation (haven’t read it).

          • Tori Minard says:

            I just have to (have to) chime in on Fifty Shades because I’ve read it–all three books–and it seems to me that a lot of the “criticism” of it come from people who didn’t. The books are written in first person present tense, which probably puts a lot of people off and is very unusual in the genre. Also, James writes with an obviously British voice, which didn’t bother me at all because I’ve read enough Brit fiction that I’m familiar with it, but which probably bothered some Americans. Third, the book isn’t even that hot, in my opinion. Yeah, she talks about BDSM, but the sex scenes aren’t any hotter (more explicit) than those in your average non-erotic romance these days. The big fuss is just plain silly, if you ask me. I don’t think her voice is any rougher than the average erotic romance writer’s, just different. And the story was really moving and involving, about a truly wounded man. This is stuff that makes a lot of romance readers’ hearts beat faster, and makes people who “hate” romance want to hurl. 🙂

      • nathan says:

        does anybody know why I kept spelling “there” as “their”?

        It seemed almost pathological in that post.

        Never type while trying to read an instruction menu on lulu.

  32. A trenchant analysis (i like saying “trenchant”), as always. The infuriating circle of professional non-writers teaching hopeful writers to become professional non-writers has always seemed bizarre to me, but the comparison to other artistic academic programs really nails it down.

    When i was in the Creative Writing program at the University of BC a looooong time ago, the best instructor there (Hart Hanson, later the creator of TV’s Bones) actually got into trouble with the faculty because he insisted on trying to teach writing as a broad and multidisciplinary process — talking about structure and mechanics, the realities of the industry (film and screenwriting in his particular case), bringing in industry pros to discuss the process of career building, et al. But in the wisdom of the faculty, Creative Writing was a “workshop program” — which is to say, a program designed to teach nothing but how to be a critic, and to churn out MFA hopefuls whose primary goal was wanting to teach.

    By way of comparison, my older daughter has just finished her first year of the Writing and Publishing Diploma Program at our local college, which consists of a grand total of four required English lit and writing workshop courses — alongside courses in accounting, financial management, communications, journalism, marketing, business management, creative process, and publication design. And all of that comes on the heels of her having already published her first book. (Okay, i did the Kindle and CreateSpace formatting for her.) I’m incredibly happy that for her, the idea of writing and publishing is something she can view as a career path, not just a largely futile academic exercise.

  33. Jeff Ambrose says:

    And I thought last week’s post was fantastic! Wow, Kris. Great job all around. Another one to file away for future reading.

    Also, you hit on a subject I’ve been wrestling with for … oh, a very long time. You wrote: “Of course we weren’t lucky. We just worked harder than everyone else.”

    Obviously, how hard one works — or can work — is determined by one’s circumstances. I have four kids, am an at-home dad, and during the school year, have at three days when all the kids are in school (the other two days I have my 4-yr-old running around, but he still takes a 2-hr nap most days).

    I’m constantly trying to make sure sure I’m working as hard as I can. No matter what I do, I’m not happy with my output. (This isn’t much of a problem in the summer with all the kids home; my goal this summer is a story a week. It’s works well for me, and the only week I missed was when we took a family vacation to DC.)

    I don’t want to bore everyone with the minutia of my daily life, but I’m wondering how I can determine if I’m working as hard as I can … or working harder than everyone else? Obviously, there’s no algorithm to determine how much one can produce, but how I wish there was one.

    My own thoughts run something like this. Stephen King is a full-time writer. Back when he wrote ON WRITING, he was writing 10 pages a day. During the school year, when I have from 7:15 am to 3:15 pm to myself, I should be writing 10 pages a day. At least. Though I hope to get up to 15-20 pages when all four kids are in school 5 days a week. On days when my 4-yr-old is home, I should aim for 5 pages a day, which would be part-time work. And on weekends … well, with 4 kids, each weekend is different, so I don’t schedule any writing on weekends, though I’ll write if I can.

    Writing it, it seems like enough. Though living it, I often find myself wasting time throughout the day. But maybe I’m not wasting it; maybe I’m just letting my subconscious work.

    Wondering what your thoughts are on this.

    Thanks.

    • What you have to remember, Jeff, is to do the best you can. Your life is as important as your writing. Your family is more important (and your kids are only young once). So you do the best you can in the current circumstances and don’t compare.

      Btw, when life is as busy as yours, I’d suggest not a word count, but an hour count. How many hours can you devote? If it’s only 30 minutes, then make sure you work hard at writing in that thirty minutes, and then move on. That way, you know you got your time in and you don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get as many words done one day as opposed to other days. Just my opinion.

      • Jeff Ambrose says:

        Thanks, Kris. You’re absolutely right about family, and I thank God my wife is as supportive as she is. My kids are, too, BTW.

        What your advice tells me is that I’m thinking about my writing time almost correctly — different times of the year and different days require different levels of output. The only difference would be to work by the hour than by page count. That’s interesting, and it would certainly solve my problem of feeling I’m not doing enough. On busy Saturdays with the family when I don’t have time to write, I never feel bad for not writing. I only feel bad when my output doesn’t seem to equal the time I have.

        Thanks!

      • Rob Cornell says:

        I second this opinion. When I went from a word quota to a time-based schedule (despite all advice to the contrary) I found I ended up producing more words. Think of the schedule not as boundaries, but as protective walls around your writing self that allows you to worry about nothing else for that hour or so except the writing.

        And that’s about as New Agey as I get. 🙂

  34. Ty Johnston says:

    Kristine, thank you so, so much for this post. I know I’ve seen such responses before to your posts, but this was just what I needed today. I become concerned when one of my new works doesn’t sell well right out of the gate while some of my older works keep chugging along just fine, but you’ve reminded today this is about a career, not a single book. If some books don’t sell as well as others, that’s fine because I can always write the next one.

  35. Daniela says:

    My desktop right now say: “Good things come to those who work their asses off and never give up.”

    It’s a good reminder to write every day and be persistent.

    Just a few days ago there was an article in that in Germany writers can’t earn enough to live by.

    I know several writers, even in Germany, who can live from their writing, though some supplement by working as freelance editors or translators. But of course they are all writing genre and churning out a new book or two every year. I also know a lot of writers who can’t live from their writing.

    But, as was just yesterday pointed out to me, genre is not real literature and people who write and publish this persistently and regularly can’t be real writers.

    In Germany there’s still this belief that good writers just spring fully-formed from Zeus head and then spend years agonize over that ONE book. And then, after years and much agonizing, maybe a second one. It’s slowly changing, but as you said, most creative writing classes focus on writing, on all the details and the strive for the elusive perfection and not on the business, on discipline and persistence or even the career.

    I really liked Jeff VanderMeer’s suggenstion in Booklife of doing short-term and long-term goals and write them down. And then update them regularly. It gives one a good focus.

    I still remember when I was in university and we were talking about the daily output of a writer and published novels. I said something along the lines 1000-5000 words (one of my favourite fantasy-writers at that time had mentioned that number) and one book per year. The professor looked at me as if I was crazy. So yeah.

    Even with a fulltime day job I try to write every day. I’m not always successful, but mostly because I’m writing something else (part of the career though) or had a tight deadline. But I always try to work on a project (novel, short-story, flash-fiction). I’m often writing one project and jotting down notes for another one, or doing basic plotting, research and such.

    I want that career, not that one novel :-D. It will be ahrd work, but I’m prepared to work my ass off :-).

    Thank you for this amazing and thought-provoking article :-).

    • You’re welcome, Daniela. Thanks for the post. Sounds like things are similar in Germany (which is not a surprise, since in the late 19th century, the US modeled its education system on the German system). I think Jeff’s advice is good to follow on this. Long-term and short-term goals. Perfect. Thanks for the post.

      • Daniela says:

        I think we are still several decades behind the US when it comes to accepting writing as a craft and that writers should work on a career. Fantasy and SF especially is still very much frowned upon by the literary establishment. One of the most prominent lit critics (Elke Heidenreich) even dissed Tolkien without having read him. She said something along the lines of: The guy who wrote about people with furry ears (meaning hobbits).

        • Cora says:

          I always found that remark a bit odd, since Elke Heidenreich is also a Raumpatrouille Orion fan.

          Though nowadays, we at least have Dennis Scheck who is a genre-friendly critic and recommended Patrick Rothfuss, Susannah Clarke and Suzanne Collins in his TV show.

          • Daniela says:

            Movies are different than books. I know people who love Star Trek or even Star Wars yet turn up their nose when it comes to Octavia Butler, Usula K. Le Guin, Lois Bujold or Andre Norton.
            Then there’s also SF versus Fantasy. SF is viewed a bit more positive than Fantasy mostly because the tradition is differently and many critics aren’t aware of the complexity of Fantasy. They think elves and trolls and books for children, and don’t consider Goethe, Shakespeare or E.T.A. Hofmann.

    • Cora says:

      I know exactly which article you mean, Daniela, since some well-meaning person sent me the link. My response was “Well, the sort of people who win the Bachmann prize probably can’t make a living writing. Doesn’t mean it’s not possible.”

      I did not study writing, but the university where I got my English degree was one of the fairly few that offered regular creative writing classes. And I wouldn’t say that those classes were a waste of time, even though there wasn’t much of a business focus. The craft aspects were worth it, as was actually getting to know other writers, since I had worked very much in isolation up to then. And my volunteer work for the university literary magazine definitely helped with the production aspects of indie publishing (plus, the mag gave me my first actual publication credit). Finally, my professor was the first person who actually encouraged me to submit a short story to a magazine. Those classes actually turned out a bestselling non-fiction writer, two small press published literary writers and crime writer with two trad published crime novels under her belt.

      Nonetheless, many of the well known myths were peddled there, e.g. that slow writing equals good writing. Confessing my admiration for the enormously prolific pulp writers of old elicited horrified expressions and the comment, “Well, you’ll never become Thomas Mann, if you write that fast.” (“But I don’t want to be Thomas Mann”, was my reply.) Or the fellow student (who could’ve eventually made a living if she’d stuck with it) who was explicitly lauded as an enormously prolific writer. The annual output of this enormously prolific writer? 32000 words per year! I write that much in an average month.

      • Daniela says:

        While I was reading that article I was thinking: I know several historical novel and fantasy/sf writer who can make a living from writing (Kay Meyer and Andreas Eschbach would only be the most known ones). Or the Perry Rhodan-writers.

        Sounds like your university was a bit better than mine. Although the English department was a bit more open about things than the German department.

        I have a lit-writing friend who at most writes a sentence or two each day. I once told her if she practiced more and wrote more every day, the words might flow better. Insetad of this waiting for the muse to hit. If looks could kill… :-P.

        But that’s a thing I’ve noticed. The more I write, the more I practice, the easier it seems to become. Sentence structure becomes better, words flow easier, everything seems to come together more naturally. Sure there are bad days when I struggle, but in general I think practice makes better. Every musician practices every day to be good at their art, so why don’t writers?

        • Cora says:

          I bet that all of the Romanheft writers make a living, as do many German writers of SFF, historical fiction, crime fiction and women’s fiction. But those writers don’t even appear on the radar of the kind of people who wrote that article.

  36. Rob Cornell says:

    I think these folks weren’t trained to be critics. These writers also weren’t repeatedly told that they couldn’t succeed in their chosen profession. I think most of them believed they couldn’t be successful writers, so they went on to another profession, wrote a book to please themselves, and then had some success with it…

    This hits home with something I’ve been thinking about since your last post. It reminds me of Lee Child’s standard answer to interviewers who ask him what tip he’d give to aspiring writers. “Ignore all advice,” he says. “Even mine.” He elaborates by talking about how a novel needs to be an organic whole, from a single writer, and that outside advice will often make you change what you write to fit that instruction. His other advice is similar to yours, Kris. Read, read, read.

    The cottage industry of creative writing degrees and how-to-write books, I think, might be doing more harm than good. This comes from a person with a BA in Fiction Writing and a horrible addiction to writing books. All that stuff can put so many conflicting voices in your head that when it comes time to tell a story, you can’t hear your own voice over the din. You can become so wedded to the things you learn from these sources that you not only don’t trust your own voice, you distrust your process—this book says write a sixty-page outline, this literary writer instructing your class says outlines are the death of creativity and if you use one you’re doomed, this writer’s blog says don’t bother moving onto the next story until you’ve done fifteen drafts of the last one…and on, and on…

    So many successful writers don’t have this problem because they never bothered to mire themselves in all that. Instead, when asked, they’ll say something like, “Oh, I had a creative writing class in college once, but mostly I just read a lot and wrote.” I can think of only one successful writer (who is also a successful author of how-to-write books for Writer’s Digest) who credits his success to the how-to books and classes.

    I think I might have strayed from the topic a bit, but at the same time, I think it lines up when you look at it this way: Who is teaching at the MFA programs and/or writing instruction books for writers? The same people who took those classes and read those books. Who is writing successfully and has a writing career? A lot of people who didn’t take those classes or read those books.

    I did learn a lot at Columbia College Chicago where I got my writing degree, mostly because I sought out the professional writers teaching the “elective” writing classes—Mort Castle, Patricia Rosemoor, Phyllis Eisenstein. But I don’t know that the degree was worth the money I spent, especially since I could have spent that time finishing stories instead of only starting a lot and re-re-re-writing the rest.

    Whew. Okay, rant over. Thanks for yet another great post, Kris. What I really should have done with my tuition, had I known at the time, was put it toward taking your workshops. 🙂

    • “The cottage industry of creative writing degrees and how-to-write books, I think, might be doing more harm than good.”
      Exactly true! While Kris is helping us to see how the whole education of a creative writer has to be mostly self-taught due to the lack of appropriate teachers/courses, and that most writers have no idea about how much actual production of creative work it takes to be a professional writer, these courses and classes and critique groups do tremendous damage. For me, one creative writing class in college nearly crippled my writing permanently. It took years for me to get over it and start writing again…

    • If our workshops existed then, Rob. I don’t know when you went to school. 🙂 Sounds like you had some good instructors in your electives. And I love that Lee Child quote. I agree. Ignore all advice, even mine. 🙂

  37. Suz Korb says:

    On the contrary, you and Dean do teach new writers right here on yours’ and his helpful blogs. For free! So thank you.

  38. Zelah says:

    This post really strikes a chord with me!

    I have a BA(Hons) in Creative Arts, majoring in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University, Faculty of Crewe + Alsager (try fitting that on application forms!)

    I thought I was signing up to study writing and drama, with a core section that involved looking at all the creative arts. Instead, I wound up on a pretentious course where lecturers came out with things like, “There is no more meta-narrative, only paralogy.” (That’s a genuine quote from one of my lessons.)

    The arts centre there has the following disclaimer on its website, “At present we do not promote stand-up comedy, amateur performance, pop, rock or folk bands, or other work in theatre, dance, poetry, music or visual art which does not appear, in our humble opinion, to be facing up to the challenges confronting such art-forms in the 21st Century.”

    I rebelled against their teachings but I remember having them attempt to drill into us that the arts were about challenging and educating people, and using as many big and pretentious words as possible to do it. I once asked a lecturer why art couldn’t also be about entertainment. You should have seen the look on his face! He actually told me that theatre shouldn’t be about entertainment…

    What did they teach us in the creative writing lessons? Let’s just say that I only discovered two years ago that I’d been punctuating dialogue incorrectly for years. They taught us nothing (that I can remember anyway) about grammar, style, technique or structure. All of the lessons were based around looking at someone else’s work and then choosing from a list of creative writing projects based on it.

    I had a truly, truly useless lecturer who gave me exactly the same mark for every single piece of coursework I handed in over the first two years – regardless of quality. I tried every format I could think of to try to get some kind of variation, even handed in deliberately bad work (since only the final year counted for grades) – the same mark always came back scrawled on it.

    By the third year I had writer’s block so badly that it was more than a dozen years before I was able to write anything other than song lyrics or poems again. My final file was largely formed out of material I’d written when I was sixteen.

    I still had ideas (which I thankfully noted down) – but writing had gone from something I did at every possible opportunity to something I was almost phobic of. If I hadn’t discovered improvisation then I might still be suffering.

    Apologies for the lengthy rant – but oh – arts degrees can have lasting effects on your writing in all the wrong ways! If someone asked me how to become a writer, I’d advise them to read lots, seek out decent books and websites on the craft of writing, and to study narrative improvisation.

    • Oh, yes, Zelah. I know a lot of writers who got completely shut down by their university writing education. I think that’s a crime. We’ve actually done what I call rehabilitation for some of them, teaching them how to think about their writing differently, and they’re back to work again. But it’s hard and crushing. I have no idea why writers should be crushed, but judging from last week’s post, so many are. That’s a crime, imho. How many writers have we lost? How many good books?

      I don’t mind your rant at all. Thanks for posting.

  39. I read an article in a writing magazine that stated basically the same thing you did above: that MFA programs are really only training the next generation of MFA professors in a weird, self-replenishing cycle. At that point, I decided not to spend money on an MFA. 🙂

    No way I can fly to Nevada any time soon. Ever think about doing an online teaching course?

    • I can’t fly to Nevada either, Monica, at least right now. 🙂 We’re in Oregon. But I love that part of your post, because the nifty thing about the web is that we can communicate from anywhere.

      We’re talking about webinars, but it won’t be the same. The workshop I taught in June is immersive. You need to be here 24/7 to get the full class. Most of what we teach is immersive, not lecture. There are very few things that are suited to a webinar–at least the way we teach. We will do some, but they’ll be nothing like the courses offered here.

  40. Vera Soroka says:

    I have never taken a writing course in my life. I think the best teachers for me as been other writers.
    I “fell” into writing so it was not something I had planned on doing, it just happened.
    This is something I’ve taken up later in life so this self publishing thing is just right for me. I don’t have all day to wait for a traditional publisher to approve me.
    I’m also an artist so I view my writing as another form of my expression and don’t wish to revise it to death. When the piece is done I move on to the next.
    This was a wonderful post, I most enjoyed it!

  41. Robin Brande says:

    Ten years ago I attended a workshop you and Dean taught. And something you said there has stayed with me ever since–something I tell new writers in workshops I teach.

    It’s that your best book, the one that will change people’s lives or make some impact in the world, may not be until your 34th book (or some number like that). And if you’re only writing one book every year or two, you’ll never get to it.

    This post just adds to that. And it’s a perfect companion to your life-changing post last week about perfection. We need to get over the idea of writing one blockbuster book, then sitting back and basking in the praise. A writing career is built with one story after another, some of them great, some of them less than great, but it’s for the readers to decide which books or stories have meant the most to them. One of your cat stories may completely change a person’s perspective and make them happy for weeks. Or one of your science fiction novels may spark an idea that will change how someone dreams about the future. You don’t know which one will matter most, so you’d better write them all and get them out there.

    Thanks for another great post, Kris. I know it takes time to think about, research, and write these posts every week, but those of us who eagerly await them appreciate the education you and Dean are still providing. And we don’t even have to get out of our pajamas to learn.

  42. Ferran says:

    Kris,

    for whatever’s worth, I’ve been trying to get reacquainted with Go [the board game]. I suck at it. But… Beginning players tend to overfocus in the survival of every single group of stones, throwing good moves after bad, not realizing how a stone far away might help the plight of the group, or when to “let go” and start anew somewhere else.

    If you think of the sheer mass of books as your “opponent”, fighting for reader’s mindspace (or stores’ shelves), then it would look like most writers are indeed beginners. To contrast, I have a friend in a field notorious for low production (per author) who started writing not long ago and now has, in the production pipeline (as opposed to already published): a review of a finished product, an editing review (DVD; what to add, what to cut off), a couple of scripts, a written collaboration, a syllabus, a manual, a horror anthology, several articles, a nonfiction book, and is setting up several seminars. His main calling is not writing, but he’s doing well enough. Specially compared to… authors.

    Take care.

    Ferran, BCN

  43. Jim Self says:

    Thanks for another great post, Kris.

    The reason people focus so much on promotion is simple. They want a shortcut. I’ve felt it too. I put out my first story a couple of weeks ago, and in less than three days I was trying to think of quick ways to draw attention to it. It’s hard to watch your first (or first few, I imagine) stories sitting on the e-shelf with no copies moving.

    Looking for shortcuts isn’t a bad thing. It’s quite intelligent to want to grow an audience faster. However, this is where the points in your promotion post come into play. Assuming your promotion is awesome, you get a lot of attention and sell a bunch of copies of your Golden Child. And then? You write, and then start all over again. The cost in time, effort, and money to do promotion just isn’t worthwhile to a writer with a small catalog. However, promotion becomes more effective along an ascending curve based on the size of the writer’s catalog.

    I’d agree with anyone who said that most promotion is worthless, but the surveys you cited in the other post show that reviews accounted for 22-37% of sales. That’s a BIG HUGE chunk. Assuming it doesn’t cost you much time or any money, why not do it?

    The theme I hear whenever I read your and Dean’s excellent posts is “Writing is more valuable than promotion, so do that instead.” But I don’t think that’s what you do. (I’m not calling you a liar, though I realize it sounds that way.) You have links to your stories here, just like Dean does on his blog, and you do Free Fiction Monday. All of that is a kind of promotion. If you didn’t believe in any promotion of any kind at any stage of a writing career, you wouldn’t bother. However, if it takes you 5 minutes to dangle a carrot in front of your thousands of blog readers, why not, right?

    I don’t mean any of this as a challenge to you; I think I’m using a broader idea of promotion than you and Dean do. Even using a good cover can be seen as promotion. I would like to hear a little more from you about what you think is worthwhile promotion and at what point to consider it. Or, let me say it this way, what is worth doing besides writing and publishing a story?

    • I’ve been asked this before, Jim. If you’ll note, in the promotions post, I say only do what you enjoy. And I like Twitter, Facebook, etc. I’d be on them even if I weren’t a writer. I mistakenly signed up for Linked-In and don’t know how to delete my profile. Folks keep linking to me, and I have no idea how to stop it. The site is not something I enjoy at all.

      As for the on-the-blog promotion, I feel it’s for the fans. I have no idea how many there are or even if they come here. But I put the free fiction out, not as a promotion, but as a gift. It’s fun for me. The only true promotion I do is letting people know that something’s out and the novel excerpts, probably the things that get the least amount of traffic on the website.

      And folks have to already know I exist to come here. So it’s rather circular. That’s why it’s for the fans.

      Yes, a cover is promotion. So is having a book on the stands. That’s what writers forget. Write and release. I publish so much more than I let people know about. And you know what? Readers find it all, with or without the nudge from me.

      • Jim Self says:

        I have the same feeling about LinkedIn. I never fully set the thing up for that reason.

        I think when a new writer (me) looks for ways to boost their readership, it’s partly a rush to get to where they can support themselves with their writing. Following your rule of doing only what you enjoy, I can’t imagine that I’d do much promotion at all. The data does make soliciting reviews seem time-cost effective.

        Thanks for the answer!

  44. “So, where does a writer go to learn how to be a professional writer?”

    I read every blog both you and Dean write, then think about it, and if I agree (I mostly do) I put what you teach into action and continue to plot, write, edit, format, create covers and publish, then repeat.

    So, thank you for all your hard work putting into practice what you have learned and then passing the information on to me. I appreciate it.

  45. Whew!

    I just had a discussion with someone who was worried about fragile young writers. I think she misunderstood me when I tried to tell her that the way to get over being fragile was not to hide in a closet and perfect your work, but to get as many works out there as possible — Write and Release.

    Of course, if you haven’t written and released a bunch of books, you can’t imagine how much stronger you are as person just for having done it. It’s not a matter of developing a thick hide from having endured abuse — that’s the worst way to gain confidence. The way you gain real confidence is to do it enough that you know you can.

    (Oh, and btw, I was one of those people teaching creative writing in my first year of grad school — but I’d been to Clarion, so I gave them as much orientation to being a pro as I could.)

  46. Ryan Viergutz says:

    Framing writing in career terms completely blew my mind when I first considered it and I’m still not completely certain what it means. I imagine it’ll be a long time before I understand it, because I wasn’t sure I’d ever build a career of any kind! This year I’ve published a small amount of books and short stories digitally and have had a few dollars sitting in my accounts. No deposits yet, but it’ll happen eventually.

    I figure I’ll keep on publishing things myself perpetually, because it’s even more fun than I’d anticipated through the decade when I wrote books with the aim of going to corporate publishers. I haven’t given up on the idea of them, but banging my head against that wall looks immensely insane when I can publish it myself a few days after writing it. Some of my friends don’t get that and I just chuckle. There’s nothing to it!

    It’s the hours of pounding the keyboard in, too frequently, complete isolation that gets me. Building a career built on so much isolation (at least it is on my end) feels incredibly gloomy to me, and I’m not sure I’m anywhere near ready for it. I know there are other professions where I could interact with people more (even corporate publishing lets you talk to copy editors, story editors, artists, etc) but I’m not sure I have that option.

    Cold hard reality sets in too often, in too many ways, and if nothing else, immersive fiction allows me to escape that. Which sounds odd to me, because I read for education as much as escapism. Anyway, just thinking out loud. I had to get these thoughts out there.

    • It sounds like you’re already building a career, Ryan. Just keep doing what you’re doing.

      And you can build your own community of like-minded writers. We have one. We do that everywhere we go, we put together a group of writers and talk. It takes time to find professionals, but once you do, you have a good group. There’s probably a chapter of RWA or MWA or some other professional group near you. I’d start there. It’ll also get you out of the house once per month. Don’t critique anything through the group, but go to a meeting and get to know the folks. You’ll be surprised what you might learn.

    • Are you kidding, Ryan? Isolation is absolutely a feature, not a bug! I consider the long hours alone a major perk, man! 🙂

  47. Lilian Darcy says:

    Want to add, this terrific post really resonated for me, as a career author of more than thirty years standing. People often ask if – or assume that – I studied creative writing at college/university.

    Nope.

    I do have a degree but it’s in French, Russian and Linguistics. As a professional fiction writer, I definitely learned by doing.

    But you know what? Maybe we’re luckier that way than people who learn their trade or profession in a formal environment and then find that the real world requirements are actually quite different.

    • You’re right, I think. My real world experience factors into my writing career a lot more than any writing classes I had. Except that I met Kevin J. Anderson in my very first writing class at the university. I learned more from Kev that semester than the professor, and I still learn a lot from Kev. So that was quite worthwhile.

  48. Lilian Darcy says:

    This post reminds me of highly successful historical romance writer Anne Gracie’s response to Australian literary critics who often claim that there are “only ten or twelve” people making a living as novelists in Australia. “Yeah,” she says cheerfully, “and I know forty-five of them.”

  49. N. Cedeno says:

    http://www.utexas.edu/academic/mcw/program/

    The Michener Center at the University of Texas comes the closest to training people for a career in writing. But it’s a small program.

    NMC

    • So does Seton Hall. Nowadays there are a few very small ones, but you really have to look. And I hesitate to recommend, because I’ve had students from a few of those places who seem to have absorbed a lot of the same myths as folks from the other programs.

      • Nancy Beck says:

        Don’t you mean Seton Hill? Seton Hall is a private college in South Orange, NJ. The other one is somewhere in Pennsylvania (I’ll be damned if I know where, though).

        • That’s what I get for going from memory. Yes, Nancy. Seton Hill. 🙂 Or something like that. I’ll Google it later.

          • Daphne says:

            I went to Seton Hill. (It’s in Greensburg, PA, outside Pittsburgh, BTW. Now you don’t have to Google it. 🙂 ) As I read your article, I was thinking that as much as I liked the program there, I don’t remember a strong focus on career the way you’re talking about. I wish there had been.

            I also have felt that some of the myths in Dean’s Sacred Cows series are perpetuated in the program. Some are, some aren’t.

            On the other hand, I learned a lot at Seton Hill, and improved my writing a great deal. So I think the net sum was good, even though looking back I’d prefer a few things to have been different.

      • Stefon Mears says:

        Hi, Kris.

        Thank you for your post, and I agree that MFA programs don’t do enough to train writers.

        I attend the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts low-res MFA program (up on Whidbey island), and a major reason I chose this program is its mandatory track on the profession of writing. Of course this may be the only accredited MFA program run by a writers workshop instead of a college.

        I will say though, that while all of my fellow students have had the same opportunities, not all avail themselves with the same drive. I don’t believe all my classmates want careers in writing.

        For my part, when I graduate next month I might already have an agent (one I’ve met, know her credentials and negotiation history, and want to work with) to sell one novel while I’m writing the next, and I plan on self-publishing at least two compilations by the end of the year.

        • Good to know this program exists, Stefon. And it doesn’t matter who is teaching the workshop, some students will be much more driven than others. We try to select for drive, and even in our programs, we lose some students who aren’t as driven. (Of course those who don’t have drive don’t survive the immersion courses, either. )

      • Stefon Mears says:

        All that said, I still probably revise too much, but I’m trying your write and release idea. I’m reminded of Thelonious Monk, who insisted that studios tracks were finished by the third take. He said that anything after that lost its energy.

        • I love the Monk quote. I’d never heard it. He’s right, of course. Same with writing. YOu’ll hear most professionals say they go over a story no more than three times. The first is draft 1. The second is adding things missed (or cutting repetition) and the third is usually a spellcheck. 🙂

          • TXRed says:

            My non-fiction is done in three passes. First I wrote the section with a few skeleton footnotes, and full notes for direct quotes (since I’m looking at the source, might as well note it.) The second pass is full footnotes and text revisions/ corrections. Then it sits for at least 48 hours before I go back and look for typos and spell-check oopsies.

  50. RD Meyer says:

    Your point about the courses turning out little more than critics and professors is spot on, but don’t a lot of courses do that? Or perhaps more accurately, aren’t they taught by those who aren’t really in the field? Most of my business professors went from college to graduate school to a PhD to teaching. Few, if any, had actually run a business or been employed by anyone other than a university any time in the past 10-20 years.

    Still, I understand the difference. I was at least given some concrete knowledge of “do this when you’re employed at XYZ Corporation.” Maybe someone could start a course that offers just what you’re looking for. It’d have to be independent at first, because those in the Academy will initially protect themselves and scoff at any change.

    • Yes, RD. Often entire disciplines are taught by people with minimal practical experience in the “real” world. But they offer courses in how to survive in the real world as part of the curriculum. Often students will get to the “real” world and learn that there is so much more, but at least they have an inkling. And a knowledge that they can make a living in their chosen field. (Or could, before the recession and the glut of professionals.) That’s really what I’m talking about. This idea that you can offer a discipline where people do make a living and tell folks they can’t is just wrong, imho.

      • RD Meyer says:

        Absolutely. I think I’d have to raise my hand in class and say, “If I can’t possibly make anything out of myself with this, why are you teaching it?”

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