Advice for Teen Writers

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12 Jun 2021

Occasionally teens get assigned to interview an author as part of an English assignment or as part of a unit on future career prospects. Answers collected here for easy access:

June 2020:

1. What sort of postsecondary education (if any) or experience did you have and how did it help you become an author?

I knew I wanted to be an author from about the eighth grade on, but everyone in my life insisted I needed a day job because I wouldn’t make any money. So I figured because I loved books, why not become an editor? (Not realizing that other careers in publishing are just as hard to get into and underpaid, lol.)

I was nearly finished with a Bachelor’s degree in English Language (grammar, history, linguistics—as opposed to Eng. Lit., which is more Shakespeare and novel studies) at UBC before I realized it would do absolutely nothing for my prospects as an editor OR as an author. In my opinion/experience, the major didn’t do a thing for me, but some of the things I did in random side classes were helpful (coding websites, using design software.) These days it’s hard to get by without any post-sec education, but in hindsight, I could easily have just gone to UFV and done any arts degree with the same results.

I also took a couple of term-length workshops through UBC extended studies focused on children’s publishing and editing and rewriting fiction in an attempt to snag an internship with Vancouver-based small press Tradewinds Books. Those actually were somewhat useful. It’s important to study your industry and take opportunities for focused continuing ed where you can get them. However, I got buried under finishing my degree and establishing a “day job” for several years, and by the time I was actually ready to publish, my intel was way out of date.

I worked part-time throughout university and was already established in marketing/communications for the Vancouver engineering industry by the time I had graduated, and worked for several years in that before finally returning to publishing. That ended up being fairly useful in terms of relevant experience (and launch funds). Understanding business, the basics of marketing, communications, social media, how to read a contract, etc. all give you an edge.

My recommendation to young writers is to get a two or four-year degree in something they’re interested in and might find useful. Business is a fantastic choice because if you become an author, you will be a small business owner. Marketing/communications are useful. Comp-sci or anything tech-related can come in handy.

You don’t need a creative writing or English degree, but if you’re set on it, there are worse things to do with your time. And you’ll need to have a plan for earning money, at least at the beginning. Few jobs are 100% secure these days, but jobs in the Arts are less reliable than most. There are authors out there making steady incomes (or, in some cases, exceptionally good incomes) but it’s usually something you have to build up to over the course of years. (Royalties can start to add up as you get more books out, as long as you don’t license to a publisher that lets it go out of print.)

2. What does a day in the life of an author look like? How often do you write?

I don’t subscribe to the “must write every day” camp of authors, so my schedule varies depending on the current project. I also work best when I don’t have to multi-task and switch gears that often, so I try to set aside time in batches to work on writing, instead of putting in an hour a day or whatever.

I teach weekly creative writing workshops during the school year (and camps, in the summer). If I’m in the middle of one or preparing for the next camp, I’ll spend time writing feedback, providing copyedits, preparing presentations, or developing curriculum. On a standard week during the school year, that’s 1-2 days on marking and prep, plus a half-day on the actual workshop.

I also freelance as a business marketing and communications consultant, though I try not to let it eat up too much of my time. So I may lose a few hours a week to writing or rewriting corporate content or sorting out a client’s tech woes.

I’m on the board of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators of BC Society, (currently Treasurer, nominated as President come July) so that’s another hour or two a week responding to requests. (But membership societies are worth the effort from a career opportunity perspective—definitely join one when you get the chance!)

Then there are the not-writing parts of being an author. I send a newsletter every second week, spend a couple hours on social media a week, several hours on things like emails, paperwork, accounts, and research, and a few hours on advertising. I do a lot of things myself, from creating graphics to bookkeeping to coding my website, so it all takes time. Submissions and queries (when I’m working with a publisher) also sit in this huge general “administration” pool. All sorts of random occasional stuff like book formatting, updating book listings, sharing review copies, etc. also fits here.

As much of all that as possible gets pushed to the side for actual book production. You get faster as you go, so at this point, I’m spending about a month on planning/prep/research for any novel-length works, about a month on the first rough draft, another two weeks each on a markup and a rewrite pass, and then another week each (or less) for revisions/rewrites/final review. I’ll spend maybe four to six hours a day when I’m in book mode. (The rest of the time is for unavoidable chores from the previous lists.) And there are two weeks to a month’s break between each step to catch up on everything I ignored while I was writing.

For short fiction, I kind of just throw those together whenever a rare slow day crops up.

So to sum it all up, I work from home and on my own a lot, which suits me. And I’m on the computer from maybe 8:30/9 in the morning to 7-9pm (with breaks to make meals) weekdays and maybe 6-8 hours/day on weekends. Depressingly, most of that time is spent on things other than the actual writing, lol. Again, writers are small business owners, so our experience is not that different from entrepreneurs!

3. How do you get inspiration for a book?

This sounds a little (or a lot) loopy, but dreams are a big influence, actually. If I have a really entertaining lucid dream, I’ll often make some notes and come back to it. I also think about and do research on industry trends and the current market to try to pick something that may connect with readers. Other books, tv/movies, etc. often provide inspiration I’m unaware of until I look back and see the influence. Same thing with real life—in hindsight, I realized I’d used a lot of places and experiences for “fantasy” settings and situations, just with a twist. In general, I have no problem coming up with ideas, so it’s more a matter of weeding through all the options to find something I’m interested enough in and that has a strong chance of connecting with readers.

4. What is the process of publishing your books? Was it very difficult to get it published and how do you advertise your books?

With my first book (Blind the Eyes), I was operating on out-of-date information and was aiming for a “Big 5” traditional publishing deal. (In the 2000s, YA books were selling in seven-figure deals, dystopian and paranormal subgenres were hot, and contracts hadn’t gone quite so sideways.) So I spent a couple years writing and then hired a developmental editor to help me get it in the best possible shape for publication. (Learned a lot about story structure and character development!) Then I started querying literary agents.

But by the time I started receiving “full requests” back (a positive result, signalling agent interest), I had started researching the current publishing industry and realizing that (a) I didn’t want to sign over my rights and was very done letting big businesses run my life (b) I might have the skills and resources to build my own career. I figured if agents thought my book would be worth money to them and to publishers, that was a promising sign that it could have value to me even without them.

So I hired a proofreader (it had already gone through a couple rounds of editing) and a cover designer, set up a bunch of promotions, and launched it independently. From a technical standpoint, there’s definitely a learning curve to this approach but it’s not all that difficult. And the way I did it, there’s also some cost, although the more skills you develop yourself, the lower that cost can be.

The last two books have followed the process I outlined below question 2: prep work with my developmental editor, rough draft, couple weeks to a month rest time to get some perspective, read through and markup notes for revisions, wait 1-2 weeks, actual rewrites, send to first readers, third revisions, send to proofreader, final clean-up edits, format, send ARCs, upload final ebook and print editions to storefronts. I have a rough timeline in mind, but I start setting hard dates and ramping up marketing around that third revision or when I send to proofreader.

And then short fiction is kind of its own thing. Contracts are much more favourable, so I do sell short fiction to traditional markets. I do a quick draft, often in one sitting, re-read and clean up, and then start submitting to magazines or anthology calls. Most of the time on short fic is spent on submissions (and endlessly waiting on responses—it can take months).

Advertising and marketing is a huge topic in and of itself, but in a nutshell there are ongoing/longterm efforts and then launch or special promo pushes. In general, I try to make sure my brand is strong and my books are visible as many places as possible. That means a website and listings on every industry site I can manage. Social media. Newsletter “swaps” with other authors. I build connections and maintain them through social and a regular newsletter. I do paid advertising on an ongoing basis (mostly Amazon ads) but in all honesty, I haven’t really cracked the code to sustainability on that front.

For new book launches or special sales, I schedule paid promotions through book deal newsletter services, maybe a small blog tour, sometimes a few days of Facebook ads, and then keep the Amazon ads running. It’s important to keep in mind that some books fit the market better than others and offer better return on investment. My books seem to do well with ongoing/traditional marketing efforts but not as great with paid advertising.

5. Is there anything you wish you would have known before you wrote/published your first book?

Haha, so much. I’ve mentioned it a few times, but I thought I understood a lot about the industry when I was writing and moving toward publishing my first book. My information was out of date. This industry moves fast. Subgenres, tropes, markets, contract terms, formats, everything is in flux. So some decisions I made around the kind of book I thought I should create and what I could hope for in terms of a career were pretty off base.

I also wasn’t as comfortable with story structure and planning out novel-length (or series-length) stories as I could have/should have been. It made for a lot heavier rewrites on book one!

And I was hyper-sensitive about quality because I’d come from a corporate career and didn’t want indie publishing a sub-par book to reflect badly on me as a professional. In hindsight, I procrastinated, angsted, and focused too much on presentation when I should have been focusing on telling great stories and getting them out to readers.

That said, writing (and publishing) is also a very learn-by-doing skill. You try things, you learn, you adjust.

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