Email to a Teen Writer: You Won’t Be a Starving Artist

I got a lovely email with thoughtful questions from a young writer today. I thought I’d share her questions and my answers for anyone interested.

Dear Ms. Sommers,

My name is [redacted]. I just finished my sophomore year in high school, and I am an aspiring author. I was given your email by [redacted] who helped me with a mock interview at my high school a few months ago.

If it would be okay, I have a few questions I would like to ask…

1) Do you think running a blog has helped you market your books?
2) Do you use your blog as a marketing strategy, a creative outlet alongside your books, or a little bit of both, and has it helped a lot?
3) I read that you went to Northwestern for creative writing. Are there any colleges that you think have better programs than others?
4) Do you think that taking classes for other writing styles would help my creative writing?
5) As a high schooler, I don’t have a lot of outlets to display my writing. What do you suggest on that front?
6) My family is supportive of my writing, but my parents are worried that I won’t make any money. When you were younger, were you faced with that and how did you overcome that? Did you get discouraged by it and if it did, how did you work through that?

Thank you so much!

Hi [redacted]! It’s so nice to hear from you! You have some amazing questions here.

hannah-olinger-549282-unsplashMy blog has definitely helped with marketing– and to connect with my audience who find my blog after reading my book. The blog is a marketing strategy, a creative outlet, a platform to share about issues I care deeply about (mental illness, faith, literature, underdogs), and a way to be real with readers. It’s a good way for me to keep writing and “publishing” material that while I’m working on a longer piece behind the scenes, if that makes any sense. Sometimes I think of my blog as writing “practice.”
I went to the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I loved the program. I think it’s important to learn creative writing from professors with their MFA (master of fine arts) versus their PhD (doctor of philosophy) because an MFA’s specialty is creative writing whereas a PhD’s is literature. Both are tremendously important, of course, but ultimately I think it helps a writer to learn writing from a writer instead of a literature expert. For undergraduate (the first four years of college), you may want to keep your creative writing program supplemented with professional or technical writing classes, which will help you get a great job after graduation. In undergrad, I suggest courses in fiction, poetry (even if you don’t consider yourself a poet– poetry improves your prose!), creative non-fiction like memoir, writer’s style, as well as more professional writing courses like editing/proofreading, technical writing, social media marketing, etc. If you have electives, think about using them for subjects that fascinate you, like history, mythology, science, theology– or maybe those are just my areas of interest. 🙂 Look for a writing program that makes professor and peer critiques a regular part of your coursework, and you’ll especially want to have some sort of writing project– maybe a senior capstone– where you tackle a larger project. Again, this should include a lot of peer and professor critique. My senior project was writing four poems and one memoir piece, and I got one-on-one feedback/criticism from my advisor every week– I also met with the other writers doing their projects every week, and we shared feedback too. At my school, this was a rigorous, MFA-level critique experience. It can be harder to find at an undergraduate school, but for me it was so incredibly valuable. It was what prepared me for later critiques from my agent and editor.
As a high schooler, I think it’s okay that you don’t have a lot of outlets to display your writing. Two thoughts here: firstly, you should find a way to show it off in SOME way, whether that is with your school newspaper, starting a literary magazine at your school, starting a blog, or even just sharing with your friends. You may also want to find others who are interested in writing and form a group that meets monthly to encourage each other and give feedback on each other’s work. Secondly, as you head into your junior year, I wouldn’t concern yourself TOO much with where to show off your writing. Smaller, more intimate experiences like the ones I listed can be so helpful, but it’s too early to pursue publication yet. Focus first on your craft. Publication will follow as your writing continues to improve, and as you experience more of life. This is NOT to belittle the high school experience– in fact, as a young adult author, that’s what I write about! I personally (and many other authors agree) that life experience is just as important in writing as actual writing skills. You will continue to learn and change and grow; you won’t be the same person today as you will be ten years from now, and that’s a good thing! You have meaningful things to say right now about life; you will have different meaningful perspectives in ten years. Fill all ten years with writing. 🙂 (Please don’t misunderstand me here– I only mean that our writing grows as we grow, and as a teenager, you have a lot of that in front of you. I’m 36, and *I* have a lot of that in front of me. Life experiences influence our writing in beautiful ways, so make sure to experience life.)
It can take a while to break into publishing. I graduated from college in 2003, won my first major writing award and was offered a book deal with a major publisher in 2013. Ten years!! So, what do we do during those years? You can tell your parents that I, along with most other creative writers, had no interest in being a starving artist. 🙂 The good news is that every business in every industry needs excellent writers– and those jobs are often very high paying! Before you have a book contract, you will need to work on your first novel on your own time; but while you are at it, you are highly employable. We think that writers must have jobs in places like publishing, marketing, book stores, etc., but writers are needed everywhere. I have had friends write for the corporate offices of major coffee shops, friends write for technical industries, friends write for journals and magazines that are about subjects they may not be passionate about (one friend wrote for an agriculture magazine, haha!). The highest paying jobs, I think, are in technical writing. I had a friend who did technical writing for Boston Scientific– the company was creating life-saving health devices, and she was writing instruction manuals for how to use them. Even as an intern back in the early 2000s, she was making $33/hour– after graduation, they hired her full-time– and this was a girl whose passion was writing fantasy stories about dragons! She would do her technical writing during the day at her high-paying job, then work on her novel in the evenings and weekends. The first novel you write has to be completely finished before you can pursue publishing anyway, so this is honestly the way that most authors write their first book. As for me, I work at a university in the admissions office. I do a lot of professional writing, marketing the college to families, and then in the evenings and weekends, I work on my creative projects. For nearly ALL of my friends in publishing, this is how they began. Please read my blog post about this (https://jackieleasommers.com/2017/01/11/writing-careers/) and perhaps share it with your parents as well. Writers are highly employable and are often the smartest people in any room they are in. 🙂 Yes, it is true that it may take you 5-10 years before you will have a book contract, but you will be working during that time. When people ask, “What can you do with a writing degree?” my answer is “Anything you want.”
I hope this is helpful! Keep writing! The creative life is so meaningful and fulfilling, isn’t it?
All my best,
Jackie

 

 

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