Advice to new writers who want to become professional authors or the trials and tribulations of all fiction writers
It’s time to share some of the things I’ve learned during more than fifty years of professional writing. I thought about calling this “advice to young writers,” but many writers are no longer young when they turn pro. So this is probably good advice for all writers, young and old alike, professional or aspiring, myself included. Take it for what it’s worth. My advice is usually free. I charge for my stories (smile). If you like what you read here, perhaps you’ll buy one of my novels at Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com. I’ll eventually get royalties. Every penny helps.
You’re a writer if you write. You’re a real writer if you write regularly. You become a professional writer after you sell your first story for cash money paid at professional rates, and the story is actually published and available for public sale.
Very few professional writers earn their living entirely from writing fiction. Most pros have to supplement their royalties by writing non-fiction, and/or teaching creative writing classes, or working a full or part-time day job. Short stories and novels may pay the rent and put a little food on the table, but you have to be really prolific (as well as good) to also pay for heath insurance, social security (self-employment tax), and income taxes solely from fiction sales. And, if you expect to save any money for retirement, you need to start saving now and put something away from each monthly or semi-annual royalty check. Royalty income tends to diminish with time, and you can’t count on receiving big royalty checks forever. You’re only as popular as your next novel. Backlist books don’t usually sell well unless you’re Stephen King or James Patterson.
I began writing when I was four. I turned pro when I turned seventeen. I won a state-wide writing contest for high school students. My short work (less than 2000 words) was published in multiple places and I was paid for each publication. I earned $175.00 from that initial sale ($25 for winning the contest, $150.00 for first serial rights and subsequent publications; I considered that big money back in 1962). I put all that big money in the bank and it helped feed me my first year at the University of Illinois. Eventually, I earned a BA in English with a minor in journalism from Loyola University, and I sold a bunch of non-fiction pieces to newspapers and magazines and worked briefly as a magazine and a book editor.
I wrote my first novel while in high school, my second, third, and fourth novels while in college. Those novels were valuable learning experiences for me, but the novels never sold. I still have dog-eared copies tucked away in trunks somewhere. From time to time I think of revising them and trying again to sell them. Someday, perhaps, I will.
I sold only four short stories between 1966 and 1977. I sold three work-for-hire down-and-dirty novels (one western and three erotic/porn novels) between 1977 and 1984. Although I did consider myself a professional writer, I wrote only part-time and worked full-time day jobs while serving my country, managing businesses, raising a family, and learning a lot about living. None of the four science fiction novels I wrote during that time period sold. They are also buried in a trunk somewhere; rightfully so, I suspect.
I became a full-time pro writer in 1984 with the publication of multiple short stories and three novels bearing my Paul Dale Anderson by-line. I also taught writing classes for the University of Illinois and Writers Digest Schools, and I wrote articles on writing for which I was sometimes paid and that were published in national and small press publications. I joined SFWA, HWA, and MWA. I served as a vice president and trustee of HWA. I remained a full-time writer until 1990. In 1990, when my wife first became ill and we needed insurance, I took a day job at the local public library and remained working full-time for libraries until 2011. I earned a masters in Library and information studies from the University of Wisconsin and retired as an honest-to-goodness reference librarian. I worked for both public and academic libraries and taught classes during that twenty-year time period, and I earned both a meager state university retirement and a public employee retirement. I also earned a masters in educational psychology and worked on a doctorate. I did research and wrote journal articles and a University-published thesis and dissertation, but I wrote no new fiction from 1993 until 2013.
When Gretta died in 2012, I decided to return to writing fiction to save my sanity. I retired from academia and closed up my successful hypnosis practice in 2013. I didn’t write full-time until 2014, but I did begin to attend sf conventions and reactivated my memberships in SFWA, HWA, and MWA. I joined ITW and The Authors Guild. I dropped my memberships in National Guild of Hypnotists, American Psychological Association, and Association for Psychological Science. I sent out novel proposals to editors and agents, and I sent new short stories to editors. It was like starting over again. Most of the editors I had worked with had died, as had Barbara Puechner, my literary agent. Few people in the industry recognized my name in 2014. I used multiple pen names when I was a prolific writer working in multiple genres, and that didn’t help. Nor did being best-known as a horror writer, because my new works were more fantasies and thrillers or crossed genres.
It took me two years to get rights back to my previously-published novels and find new publishers to reprint them. I began selling regularly to the small press. Eldritch Press, Damnation Books, and Crossroad Press bought new novels and Weirdbook and The Horror Zine bought short stories. Within a year after publishing my novel, Eldritch Press went out of business. Damnation Books sold out to another publisher before they published my book. I immediately sold both titles to Crossroad Press.
I only recently acquired a new agent.
So here is my advice: write every day. Write what you want to write and like to read. Writing should be fun and you should be so absorbed in the story itself that you can’t wait to find out what happens to your characters next. Before you finish one novel, start on your next novel. Write a short story a month. Keep writing. Take a break from one project to work on another, if you need a break. Have lots of fun because you deserve it.
Although writing should be fun, revision and editing should be, and will be, hard work. So, you will find, is marketing hard and time consuming work. You write for the love of telling a good story. You edit and sell your writing to make a living.
Never hire an editor to edit your manuscript. Editors offer to pay a professional writer (you) in advance for the privilege of editing your manuscripts. Editors pay you. You don’t pay them. Period. End of sentence.
Editors today expect a manuscript to be almost perfect before they first see it, so the real editing work is your responsibility. It’s not the responsibility of an editor you hire. Nor the acquisitions editor. Nor your agent’s. The responsibility for editing your work is yours and yours alone. Your editor may assign a copy editor to check continuity and facts, a line editor to check spelling and punctuation, and a proofreader to catch typos. If you are a true professional, their job will be easy and minimal. They’ll remember you and thank you for it.
Before you can write, you must read. Read everything, including the ingredients listed on a cereal box. Read everything you can get your hands on.
Before you can edit, read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style. I’ve memorized The Little Book (Strunk and White), and you should, too.
Next Up: The business of writing