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 ( 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,



Thoughts on Writing: Navigating the Road to Publication

thoughts on writing 3So, you’ve sent out your query letters, signed with a literary agent, and secured a book deal. Your dream is in writing, in the language of a contract. Now what?


The Mighty Scope

I swear HarperCollins purchased my book based on its potential. My editor’s first request was to rewrite the entire ending, beef up a handful of characters, and completely change the chronology of the book. In six weeks. 🙂

The Editor-Author Partnership

Up till this point in my life, I’d had two critique relationship experiences: in college, where if my professor suggested something, it was in my best interest to make those changes; and with my writing group of peers, where I collected ideas and feedback, but it was fully my decision whether to implement them or not. Working with my editor at HarperCollins was different– she was not my professor, though she did have more experience with writing and with story than I did; and she was not my peer, though she treated me with respect and genuine warmth. It was just a new scenario. We were partners in this project, and I had no idea what that was supposed to look like.

Ultimately, I learned to try everything she suggested. Usually I ended up loving it. If I didn’t, I would talk to her about why it wasn’t working, and we’d scrap it. There were very few things that we completely disagreed on, and in those 2-3 things, she let me win.

The Panic

The anxiety that followed my book deal was so intense and unexpected and alarming that I ended up back in therapy.

And so it goes.


I’m often asked how much influence I had on the cover of my novel. I had always heard that an author had zero input— but that wasn’t quite true in my experience.

First, I was asked for my thoughts:

We will fill out a form to share with our designers—who work serious magic and make the best looking books in the industry—but we want your thoughts, too. What sort of design or image do you picture for your cover? Photographic or iconic? Is there anything you absolutely don’t want? Are there other books whose covers you admire? As much info you can give us will help us—and the designers—create the perfect look for TRUEST.

truest-doodlesI was later shown eight choices and asked for my opinion again. They ended up going with my second choice (although by the end it was my absolute #1 favorite!), and let my thoughts guide multiple changes.

To see the detailed evolution of my book cover, click here.


A couple months after my publication day, I made some notes about what I learned:

  • I loved my street team, but I did everything too early and put too much money into it. I tried to come up with enough swag to entice readers to join the launch team, but I think the people who joined it would have joined it for less. In future, I will probably do a street team, but I will a) give them only the ARC plus some exclusive content, b) do everything within a month of the release date.
  • I would absolutely dish out the money to do a couple book tours during the release month. I’ll be doing a couple of those here in November and December, but I really wish I’d had the foresight to do them in September. Newbie!
  • At every event (except maybe the launch party), I would also promote other books that I enjoyed. I really want to give back in this way, plus I want bookstores that host these events to sell more than just my book.
  • I made a handful of promo materials. I probably should have just come up with one incredible idea, made a ton of them, and then given them out EVERYWHERE.
  • Here’s one that might shock you: I would have been more spoiler-y in my flap copy (i.e. the text on the inside flap of the book). A story about three teens in the summer isn’t particularly compelling, but once I mention that one of them has a disorder that causes her to question whether she’s in real life or just dreaming, I see lightbulbs go on. Every time. I’ve been looking at the flap copy of other books, and theirs is open super spoilery … and it doesn’t hurt the experience of the book. I think this was a big mistake of mine.


Celebrate Like Crazy

I will never regret having a huge launch party on the day my book came out! It was so much fun and so special to have people I love from so many parts of my life come together to celebrate my book … and to celebrate me. I had heard from so many writers that their launch day was “just another day,” and I wanted so much more than that: a celebratory climax to the day I’d been counting down from for nearly two years (or my entire life, depending on how you look at it). YES to release day parties.

The Magic of Kind Words

It’s hard to explain just how special it is to hear words of praise about your book. In the midst of fear and reviews and silence, sweet words at the exact right moments are each like a miniature rescue.To hear that you’ve made someone rethink things or that your book changed their life or became a new favorite or that they connected with a character or that it gave them hope during a particularly hard experience … it makes it all worthwhile. Please tell authors when you love their work. It’s like fuel, an instant battery-charge, strength to continue. I have an Instagram comment that has taken up permanent residence in my heart, ringing like a little bell.


You get back to work.

This is the writing life.


Did you miss the other parts in this series on writing?

Part One | Part Two

thoughts on writing 1thoughts on writing 2

my writing process

Having recently plowed through all three of Kristin Cashore’s books, I ventured over to her blog and found this fascinating post on her writing process.  I thought maybe I’d share the details of my own with whoever might be interested (all three of you, haha).

In general, I need the following things in order to write: time, a distraction-free zone, and my laptop.

Time: I am not one of those writers who is able to write for five minutes at the drop of a hat.  I need to have at least an hour of open time yawning in front of me … better yet, five or six hours.

No distractions: I can listen to music but sometimes only without lyrics.  I can write with friends, but only if they have their own projects.  I cannot write while there is a movie on.  It just isn’t going to happen.  This does not, somehow, apply to the internet.

Laptop: I can’t write freehand anymore.  My thoughts are too fast, and I edit so furiously that I would shred the paper with my pen.  Plus, the idea of having to transcribe it into the computer seems like a terrible waste of my limited time.  I like to keep everything in its place.  (I don’t even like to edit a copy on my work laptop during my lunch break because then I have to make sure to copy and paste it into the right document on my personal laptop.)  Such a hassle.  I just need to have my laptop.  If I am without it, I will journal thoughts here and there on pieces of scratch paper, but I won’t tackle actual novel work.

I have to have access to the internet.  I go absolutely insane without it.  I can have Facebook and Gmail and Words with Friends all open, and it just blends into my whole writing program.  I do a lot of in-the-moment research, so I need to have access to the web (for example, I will just NEED TO KNOW in that EXACT moment what that heavy bib is that you wear during an X-ray … lead apron.  Okay, lead apron.  Moving on.).

I start with characters.  In fact, I like to start with names.  And then I find a picture of that person.  (Sure, it’s some random picture from Google images, but I find a picture that matches the name and the image in my head.)  And then I write down a few thoughts about that person.  I keep this document with me the whole duration of the writing and refer to it often (mostly since I am terrible at descriptions and need to use the photos for inspiration).

With this last novel, I gave myself six months to write a first draft– and didn’t allow myself to rag on myself while I did so.  The first draft is just the bones (and probably weak ones) of the story– I still don’t know my characters super well until the first draft is done.  Only then can I go back and know them well enough to see how they really would react to the situations that took place.  (I know that seems backward … but it’s not.)

I trust my writing group and other creative friends to catch the glaring imperfections for me.  You’d be shocked at what things seem clearly obvious to the plot that would have never been included if a friend hadn’t said, Um, this needs to happen here.

I can write from my couch, but it’s better if I am at a coffeeshop or Barnes & Noble.  There’s no laundry waiting to be done there.  If I am particularly inspired, though, I can sit at my kitchen table for 10-15 hours.  I am not joking.

I am terrified of losing any edits I make, so I email myself my draft after every writing session, and if I am not at home, I email it to myself before I leave the coffeeshop, etc., just in case I get into a car accident or my laptop (or car my laptop is in) is stolen by bandits or the laptop has a total meltdown.  My latest draft is always safe and labelled in the right folder in my Gmail account.  I have been working on my current story for a year, and there are 176 emails in that folder.

When I decide to cut something that I kinda liked, I save it in a separate document called “extries.”  Over the months, this file grows ridiculously large itself.  Also, if I am completely re-doing a scene, I have to edit the scene in the extries file and then copy/paste it into the actual document file.  This seems to go against what I said earlier about keeping things in one place, but it doesn’t: same laptop counts.

I am always thinking about my story, particular scenes that are giving me trouble, my characters I don’t know how to help.  I pray when I get stuck.  I cry.  I ask close friends to discuss problems with me so that they can help me muddle my way through.  Whenever I get an idea and I’m not around my laptop, it goes into my phone.  Later, I dump all of those ideas into the extries file and work through them.  The ones I write down at 3 am sometimes make no sense.

I also keep a fake calendar of the time the story takes place and list out events on the calendar to make sure I’m keeping track of time right.  (There can’t be 6 weeks in June.)

And the whole time I am riding the world’s longest rollercoaster … I love what I wrote tonight! … I am a terrible writer who will never be published … people like this story … it’s not good enough.  The lows are hard, but the highs are fantastic.  And I love the process.  I love the act of creation.  LOVE IT.  My characters and I feel each other out, and they make some of the decisions, but I usually get the final say.  Usually.

Writing a book is kind of like volunteering to be crazy.  Not just to spent time in the loonybin … but to legitimately be crazy.  But then again, maybe that’s already a given if you’re a writer and writing a book is just your way of acknowledging it.

Gah, no laptop!!

Gah, no laptop!!


the writing journey

I’m reading a novel right now, and one of the characters featured is the author H.G. Wells.  Since it is fiction, I don’t know if the following is true, but the book said that H.G. Wells was a writer who hated writing but who liked to have written.

I was thinking how sad that is.  But I suppose people do that sort of thing all the time, an exercise in delayed gratification.  I know a ton of people who hate exercise but liked to have exercised.  Actually, I am the same way with travel.  I don’t particularly love it, but I liked to have done it.

But writing.

I love it.  I love sitting down and opening up my document.  I love thinking of an objective and then stategizing the best way to achieve it.  I love landing on that perfect “lightning” word.

Don’t get me wrong.  It is hard.  Writing is an arduous process, difficult, sometimes painful.  It is not always exciting.  The rush and thrill of freewriting last perhaps a few months before you find yourself settling into the nitpicking task of editing.  It comes with criticism, difficult to swallow and frustrating as hell.  Your characters take on lives of their own, and they become as impossible to steer as headstrong toddlers.  You write yourself into a dark corner and have no idea how to find the way out of it.  You cry.  Sometimes you write brilliant, lyrical prose that everyone in your writing group hates and makes you cut.  You have to “kill your darlings” left and right.  It hurts your heart.

But I love it.  I love that whole process, painful and heartbreaking as it may be.  There is such true joy in the act of creation.  It is an adventure, a battle of wills against your characters (and sometimes yourself), and there is nothing I enjoy so much as returning night after night to my manuscript, trying to shape something lovely out of blank pages.

I love the process just as much as the product.  The journey is a joy.

manic writer

I had lunch with my friend Brittane this week.  Brittane is tall and gorgeous and insightful and full of God’s strength.  She has her degree in psychology, and she has this perfect way of asking questions so that you almost feel like you’re getting free therapy while you hang out with her.  She’s a delight.

I was telling Brittane about the rollercoaster I can’t seem to get off … the high highs, the low lows, the sudden switches.  “I don’t mean to be blaise about this, since I hate when people are like, ‘I’m so OCD,’ but sometimes I wonder if I am manic depressive.”

Brittane, in her perfect way, nodded, listened, asked questions, offered insight until we stumbled upon one important fact: these days, my rollercoaster is only about my writing life.  Since my writing life is SO important to me, I wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees.  It felt important, like a hand-hold.  “Maybe it’s just what the writing life is like,” I said.  “It’s just a continual up-and-down.”

If it is, I’m on the rollercoaster for good.

Back in the office that afternoon, I read a quote on Donald Miller’s blog that fit so perfectly with our conversation.  It read:

To write is to struggle with your sanity, at times. And there will be bad days and you will feel defeated. This work is more difficult than climbing a mountain because you are doing it in the dark. I want to urge you to keep going. You matter and your words matter. By writing, you are saying to God I agree with you, you gave me a voice and the gift was not in vain. By writing, you are showing up on the stage of life rather than sitting in the comfortable theater seats (there is a time for both) and are casting your voice out toward an audience who is looking for a character to identify with, somebody to guide them through their own loneliness, no matter how transparent or hidden that loneliness is.

It was just what I needed to hear in that moment.  I will continue to write, to ride this rollercoaster, because I agree with God, that he gave me a voice and the gift was not in vain.