A few weeks ago, I got a request from a work colleague to talk to his son who is thinking about becoming a writer.
Not a fiction writer, mind you, but just a writer. You see, I’m a professional writer (of a technical nature) already. I make my writing off my pen, just like Stephen King or Neil Gaiman, but in a much, much less glamorous way. I show up to work five days a week, bang out some material, my editor reviews it and if it’s good enough it gets published and I get to draw another paycheck. It’s actually not a bad way to make a living and I like to think I’m good at it.
Anyway, I agreed and set up a phone call with “the son” to talk writing. I was expecting a rather dry, short talk, but it turned out to last 45 minutes. And besides pumping up my ego (a young writer wanted to talk to me?), I learned a lot during the talk not only about the young writer (let’s call him Mike), but about myself.
We started off talking about what he had done so far. Turns out, he had taken LSAT prep courses (LSAT is the test you have to take to enter law school in the U.S.), but had decided against going to law school. I told him that was the right decision. I know far too many bright people in their 20s who have finished undergrad, are looking for something to do, and decide to go to law school. My advice to him and anyone else in a similar situation is: unless you want a career in law, DON’T. That doesn’t mean that some people aren’t suited for a career in law, I know a couple of people who chose law and actually enjoy it or at least don’t mind it. But you have to know WHICH PERSON YOU ARE before you commit yourself to three years in law school and $150,000 or more in debt.
At any rate, the conversation moved on. He had worked at a car dealership recently which had been a “disaster.” And now he was thinking about writing. “Why?” I asked. He said that he had always enjoyed writing and that other people, friends, class mates, teachers had always said he was good at it. That was the first time that he reminded me of my own experience in high school, even grade school, when I got the first feedback from “the others” that my writing was something good, that I had found something I excelled at…Mike and I kept talking…
I said that it was a good sign that his writing had struck a chord with others.
“Well,” he said. “I thought, you know, I can do this. And maybe I could do this professionally. So, I wanted to talk to you.”
At this point, he had successfully engaged my vanity (The sin of Lucifer!). I said that it was worth a shot, if it was something he enjoyed and was good at, why not try to make a living at it? Then, I asked him if he had any experience, because that’s what employers would look for.
He said he didn’t, not really. That a friend had offered him $10 to write a story for a car website, but that he turned it down because he thought it wasn’t a lot of money and couldn’t make a living at that rate. I stopped and asked him if he had published anything, had a portfolio of writing samples. He had nothing.
So, I gave him a basic overview of the economics of writing. I said that I used to have nothing in my portfolio. Nothing except for a few newspaper articles from my college newspaper. And that luckily I met a guy, my first employer, who liked the samples enough to take a gamble and bet that I could write. He decided to pay me a small salary, but you know what, I took it. And in two years, I had a great portfolio of writing pieces (articles, press releases, ads) and was able to use that to get a new job with a better salary two years down the road. It’s been the same ever since, just building that portfolio up and taking it to the next employer.
I told him his biggest challenge was to find anyone—anyone—that would pay him to write. $10, $5 it didn’t matter. Heck you might even have to do it for free. But if you do it for free the first time and the second time, make sure you ask for money the third time. Hell, even Isaac Babel didn’t get paid money the first time. Once you have a portfolio, it makes it easier for the guy across the desk to hire you. And the deeper and broader the portfolio, the more money you can ask for.
We said our goodbyes and he thanked me for my time. I wished him luck and that was that.
Except, it wasn’t. That night I thought more and more about the call and I finally realized why it was bugging me. It was like I had been talking to myself. Not my younger self so much, but myself today. I realized that all the advice I had given Mike about writing professionally could apply to myself and fiction writing. Because in the field of fiction writing I’m just beginning, just like Mike. Just like him, I have the belief that I could be good at it. I have friends and fans say that they see something in the writing. And now I just have to build up a portfolio of good writing—piece by piece—until I can convince that person on the other side of the desk, the editor, that I’m worth it.
So, day by day, week by week, I keep writing. I keep adding piece by piece to that portfolio, making the person on the other side of the desk a little more nervous with each submission, with each new manuscript. Each time I want to make the question: “What if I reject this guy?” a little harder to answer in the negative. And with each new published piece (“He’s been published somewhere else now”) and each new fan (“He’s getting a bigger following on Twitter.”) I turn up the heat just a little (“The manuscript does have some good qualities…”) until (“His characters are getting stronger, more well-defined…”) one day (“Maybe it’s worth a shot???”)…the dam breaks and an editor somewhere accepts my next piece.
It turns out the one who really needed to build up his portfolio was me.
In a continuing sub-series, I’m mentioning each time viewers from a new country visit the blog. This past month the blog had its first visitors from:
– Bosnia and Herzegovina.