Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Questions For Writers #3

I was just cleaning up my desktop and I noticed this exchange I'd had with a kind fan/aspiring writer last spring. I can't for the life of me remember if I posted about it (forgive me if I did already), but I figured I might as well toss it up here.

Here, in part, is what the individual wrote to me:

"I was wondering if you could tell me how you got published/learned how to write well. I'm a freshman at Duke and am completely and utterly confused about what to do with my life. I know I want to do something that correlates with my passions, and writing does that, but I don't know how I could get published so that I could sustain myself by writing."

First off, it's wild and kind scary to get letters from folks asking for life advice. If you knew all the things that I've screwed up over the years... Although, I guess that's how someone gets the bumps and bruises and later emerge as advice.

Second, I couldn't possibly answer the entirety of that question. But I did take a brief crack at part of it. Here's what I said:

Hi M,

Thanks for writing. Your question could lead to pages and pages of thoughts in answer to it. For both our sakes, I’ll try to be brief instead.

Here are three things about a writing career I can say with certainty:

It’s a long road that almost always takes much longer and requires more work than you think is fair. (Case in point, I took tons of writing courses as an undergrad, got a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and wrote two complete novels before getting beyond them to write the third, Gabriel's Story. That’s the first one to get published, and it took me about nine years of thinking of myself as a novelist before I truly became a published novelist.)

There is no one best way to do it, except that...

Becoming a writer requires years of reading and writing.

That last one should be obvious, but you wouldn’t believe the number of times people tell me, “Oh, yeah, writing… That’s cool. I might write a novel. I don’t really read much, but I have this great idea…” Honestly, that happens quite a bit. There’s something about the arts that makes a lot of people think they just pick up a pen one day and write a bestseller. I don’t know why. I don’t think that I could build a house without studying to be a carpenter, learning the tools, techniques, improving through trial an error. I don’t think I could pick up a musical instrument and just know how to play it. I know the fact that I can imagine a stellar acrobatic dunk doesn’t mean I’ll ever in my life be able to perform one. But people do seem to think they could write a good book without practice or work, if they sat down when day and cranked it out.

That’s not intended as a lecture to you. Obviously, you are reading and you are writing. That’s exactly what you should be doing, and if you want writing as part of your career for the long run you should be doing it a lot! I think the way to go is to try everything in pursuit of writing. Writing classes? Absolutely. They’re never perfect, but you’ll always learn something. It’s crucial that you do have others read and respond to your work. Sometimes they’ll say helpful stuff. Sometimes they won't. Sorting through it and finding what works for you is essential, though.

I also think it’s important to live an interesting life too. I can’t imagine being the writer that I am if I hadn’t traveled, lived and loved and made lots of mistakes and seen lots of cool things. Because that’s the other thing about the long road of becoming a writer: in many ways, it’s not a young person’s game. Writers that make a splash in their twenties are very rare. Much more likely to happen in your thirties, forties. Hey, fifties and into sixties can be many writers’ most productive times! Makes sense if you consider that all those cumulative experiences build wisdom and perspective. Writing well requires that.

So, yes, sign up for some writing courses. Keep writing. Keep living. All of this is geared just at encouraging you to become a stellar writer. The publishing side of it is another matter. It’s complicated and frustrating and involves too much for me to give you any quick suggestions. You might want to check out 2011 Writer's Market. It comes out every year, and there’s lots of useful information in it. Also, I quite liked How To Be Your Own Literary Agent: An Insider's Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Good book, which is really about why you should get a literary agent.

All the best,


And that was it.

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Anonymous Shawn Crawford said...

Great advice David--trying to follow much of it as we speak. Though I'm a bit long in the tooth compared to you when you started your academic career. That said, I feel like my writing and work ethic is probably the better for it--I didn't have the discipline as a lad, unfortunately.


4:47 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

There are many writers that didn't get serious about writing until later on in life. The time you spent living and working counts, and if you've got a good work ethic you've got a lot of the young guns beat.

I know - I work with them all the time.


9:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, I do believe that email was from me (and how long ago that was, as I am now a sophomore!). Your advice was excellent. Being a writer is tough, being an aspiring writer is tougher, but getting advice by an author you respect is priceless.

Thanks again for the advice, David.

P.S.: The last two books were amazing. I love Acacia.

P.S.S.: You may be happy to know that George RR Martin has recommended you on his website as an author to read while his fans wait for his 5th book (which is taking...forever)

11:29 PM  

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