Advice to a Budding Author, Old-School Version

by James Scott Bell

The other day I was rooting around in some old files and found a document from 2003 titled “Budding Author Questionnaire.” I wrote it to answer some questions a high school student sent me. His assignment was to find someone who was doing what he wanted to do someday and conduct an interview.

It was a stroll down memory lane to see what I advised the lad. Remember, this was four years before the Kindle arrived and changed everything. Self-publishing was not an option. The only way forward was by way of the Forbidden City.

Which was probably why Dorothy Parker once quipped, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

But one should never toss cold water on the hopes of high school students. They’ll get to real life soon enough.

So I wrote the following answers. I thought it might be fun see if you think any of it still applies…or what you would add. (Do so in the comments.)

Here we go:

What training does a career in writing require?

Mostly it is self training. You must teach yourself to write. You can read good books on writing, take courses, go to writing conferences, etc. But the most important thing you do is write, each day if possible, and apply what you are learning. You learn by writing, trying, seeing where you need to improve, finding out how to improve, and writing some more. There is no shortcut.

In college I wrote to an author I admired asking some of these same questions. He wrote back and said, “Be prepared for an apprenticeship of years.” He was right.

Are you in a particular genre of writing?

I write thrillers, mostly legal thrillers.

What additional special training did it require?

Since I’m a lawyer, I have that background. But I have also written in other fields, such as bio-technology. You can stretch your mind and experience through research, interviewing experts, and actually participating in some activities you wouldn’t normally touch. Writing, in this way, becomes an exercise in personal growth.

What natural abilities or interests are needed for a career in writing?

You should love to read, and be moved by books. You should have some love of words and the rhythms of language. You should be something of a dreamer.

What is the approximate starting salary range for authors?

Using “salary” with fiction writer is like using “sure thing” at the racetrack. There is no regular or predictable income.

Fiction writers get an “advance against royalties” and then the royalties themselves—if any. The advance is a portion of what the publisher thinks the book, when published, will earn in sales. First-time novelists, being unknown commodities, do not demand large advances (though there have been exceptions for first novels that publishers thought would be blockbusters. However, many of these bombed, which hurt the authors’ careers.)

The average annual income for fiction writers in the U.S. is something like $3,000. But that is skewed. A handful of authors make millions; a large number make virtually nothing. My goal, and the goal I advise for new writers, is to try to build your audience progressively by writing better and better books. Gain the publisher’s confidence that you can turn in a solid performance every time. Then you will make some money, too. And there’s always that racetrack chance you’ll win the trifecta, and join the John Grishams or Danielle Steels—just don’t bet the farm on it.

I don’t advise “quitting your day job” too soon. Having a dependable source of income is a wise idea unless and until you have enough of a sales record to be able to count on book income alone. Even then, you might consider keeping a low-stress side job, like price checker at the 99¢ Store.

Is there good job availability for those who choose writing?

There is always room for another superb writer. It’s hard to break in, but if you are consistent and persistent, and show that you can produce over and over again, you might make it.

Would you rate the opportunities for advancement as poor, fair, good, or excellent?

As with anything in our capitalist system, the opportunities for advancement are tied to the value that you offer an employer. If a publisher begins to make money from your books, and you stay productive, your chances to build a career are good to excellent.

But writing, as with all the arts, does not offer as predictable a path as other work, where you can pretty much know that Effort X will result in Reward Y.

That’s why you need to write for more than just financial gain. You’ve got to write because writing itself is a reward.

Could you list a particular advantage to being a writer?

You can’t beat the hours. Or the dress code. During the summer I work in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. If I go to Starbucks, I wear flip flops.

A particular disadvantage?

Not knowing how much your next royalty check is going to be. Also, writing concerns can easily take over your life, which is a real threat to more important things, like your spiritual life, family life, etc. You have to keep watch. If writing becomes the most important thing in your day-to-day existence, you could end up like Fitzgerald or many another writer who turned to the bottle for solace.

Do you have any special advice for someone interested in writing (such as college courses to take, things to study)?

Read some good books on the craft. Take classes, sure. But remember to put into practice what you’re learning. Try stuff. Show it to others. Get feedback. Develop “Rhino skin,” which means you can take criticism without dying the death of a thousand cuts.

Remember, no criticism of your writing is personal unless it’s accompanied by a punch in the nose.

Are there any current problems faced by most authors?

More and more books are being published, an estimated 114,487 in 2001, compared to 39,000 in 1975. This is good news and bad news. Your chances of being published are increased a bit, but your chances of getting noticed in the avalanche are smaller.

The only way to get (and keep) that notice is to become known as someone who writes quality books—emphasis on the plural.

Why did you choose writing as your profession?

Writing chose me. It was something I couldn’t not do. Even if I never made any money, I was going to write. At the very least I was going to publish at Kinko’s and distribute copies to my family until they shouted “Mercy!” And then I was going to find another family to torment.

Looking back across your career and where you are now, was it worth everything you did, everything you sacrificed to get where you are?

The “sacrifice” is really countless hours spent trying, studying, trying again, surviving disappointment and on and on. But since that was the only way I was going to get anywhere in the writing game, it was certainly worth it. I loved the learning. Flashbulbs would go off when I discovered something, and then saw I could do it. I still love that aspect of the craft. I will never stop trying to learn to do things better.

Not to discount the frustrations and obstacles. They are real. But if writing is what you must do, and you love it, you can keep going. I like this quote from a long-ago professor at the Yale Divinity School named Grenville Kleiser:

Be done with the past, save where it serves to inspire you to greater and nobler effort. Be done with regrets over vanished opportunities, seeming failures, and bitter disappointments….Be done with the “might have been” and think of the “shall be.”

I wish you abundant success in your future endeavors.

James Scott Bell

36 thoughts on “Advice to a Budding Author, Old-School Version

  1. Thanks for sharing these questions and answers, Jim. 2003 seems like an eternity ago. Actually, I guess it was. T

    The Dorothy Parker quote is pure gold.

  2. Jim, every word rings just as true as it did in 2003.

    Funny how the average income for writers has remained about $3000/year. How come OUR “salaries” don’t increase with inflation???

    I’m sending your post to a young writer who would benefit from your wisdom. Many thanks!

  3. Thanks for sharing this treasure from the past. The words still ring true.

    As I read through your answers, I thought of a couple additions:

    Could you list a particular advantage to being a writer?
    There is satisfaction in creating something, seeing the physical product of your labor, and knowing that you have carved your initials in a tree of that huge forest of books.

    Do you have any special advice for someone interested in writing…things to study?
    Explore what your interests are, what you might want to write about, then train for a job or occupation that will make you an expert in that area. Consider occupations or jobs that will give you a lot of contact with a lot of people.

    Thanks for sharing your advice. If any young writers ask, I’ll direct them to your post.

    Have a great remainder of the weekend!

  4. I wonder if that high school student did become a writer? I hope if they did that one day they’ll write back and let you know.

  5. I enjoyed reading the interview. The student did a good job, and I hope he took your answers to heart. Like BK, I wonder if he became a writer and what his answers to those questions would be now.

    Could you list a particular advantage to being a writer?
    In addition to the satisfaction of creating something new, the writer learns more about himself/herself in the process.

  6. Superb advice, Jim. The Yale quote is an important reminder. It’s easy to get stuck in the “if only” or “should have” lanes, but if we take a moment to flip the script in our mind, we allow the space for amazing things to transpire.

    May you and your bride have a fun, relaxing Sunday!

  7. Love this, Jim-thanks! Put it in my file.

    Do you have any special advice for someone interested in writing…things to study?

    In addition to the excellent answers from you and others, I would answer, Know yourself.

    Meaning, what do your life experiences, good or bad, bring to the keyboard? Dig deep into the well of your own particular brand of harshness, excavate what you find, and put it on the page. Create characters who are part you and part themselves. Make them live on the page. Readers want a connection, and IMHO, the best way to connect is to give them part of yourself.

    And, I love this: Remember, no criticism of your writing is personal unless it’s accompanied by a punch in the nose.

    So far, no bloody nose for me!

    Happy Sunday all…

  8. Timeless advice, Jim. Thank you for sharing it here. I agree with every word. Your quote from Professor Kleiser about being done with regrets over vanished opportunities was the perfect way to finish your letter to the aspiring writer. Regrets about perceiving lost opportunities are one of the banes of a writer’s existence, alongside out-sized expectations about success and worry (about nearly everything 🙂

    Focusing on what you are doing today with eye toward what “shall be” is a much better use of your time and energy.

    Have a wonderful Sunday!

    • Thanks, Dale. That Kleiser quote comes from a daily devotional book called INSPIRATION AND IDEALS, published in 1917. My parents had a copy and it was a great help to me at a certain point in my life…the copy now sits on my shelf.

  9. I studied Chemical Engineering, not a profession where I’d meet a lot of people, but one that ensured I know how stuff works, or can figure it out. It’s appalling to read a screenplay involving a technical field, written without a grasp of its core concepts.

    I was asked to speak to 5th graders about writing. After a little spiel, I took questions. One kid jabbed his hand in the air and asked, “Is it hard to write?” I said, “Yes.” A few minutes later another student asked the same question rather meekly. I said, “No; it’s like anything else in life. Divide it up into smaller pieces and then do those one at a time.” I don’t think it was my intellect that said this; more likely my Inner Author.

    My father’s library held about 3,000 books. If too sick to go to school, I’d go to “the den” and read all day. This alone was enough to make me a writer ten times over.

    • My parents also had an extensive library. Many a great book I remember reading from the shelves. My dad, a lawyer, also had full sets of the official reports on Cal law. I started reading those, too, because I discovered that in the statement of facts there was an actual story being told, often riveting. A great education, that!

    • My students who were the best writers came from homes where the parents valued books and reading.

  10. In 2003, there was a thriving alternate publishing route through small e-publishers who also sold trade paperbacks. The Rocketbook and the Palm were the readers, and B&N and Peanut Press sold the e-books. The authors build a large readership while the idiots in NYC and their author minions were doing everything in their power to destroy the market, and most refused to sell their books as ebooks. Anyway, there was an alternate market beyond The Big Whatever-the-Conglomerate Number was back then. Then Amazon looked at the numbers, and the rest is history.

    The sad thing about your financial advice is nothing has really changed for authors despite the new markets, etc. “Don’t quit your day job” has never gone away.

  11. Whew. I thought for a second, you were gonna tread all over my sage advice for novices in this Tuesday’s post. I will leave you hanging….:)

  12. Interesting. In a related tangent there was an interview with John Grisham in today’s NY Times You both write legal thrillers, although his sell a few more copies on average. One topic that comes up is his legal background and the genesis of him writing at all. He states that he wouldn’t have written anything had he not had the legal background. Above you state that you weren’t not going to be a writer. But…. how much of a bearing did your legal background have on you becoming a writer? Was it more influential that your acting ambitions? How does your legal bg affect your work ethic? Did that constant cranking out of legal documents back in the day make it easier for you to get your butt in a chair and get the job done? And how did you choose to branch away from legal thrillers? Having read that NYT piece just before your column made me think of these questions.

    • Those are all good questions, cat. I definitely believe the discipline of study I picked up in law school helped me when I decided I needed to learn how to write. I approached the whole thing with that same ethic.

      I branched off from strict legal thrillers to explore other areas of philosophy and society. I still have a hand in it, though, since in my Romeo books Mike works for a lawyer!

  13. If you take the study of law seriously it teaches a thorough and rigorous way of thinking if you are naturally inclined that way that lends itself to many fields. If you can think and read and imagine the world is your oyster. I went through the year before they retired the Digital VAX and enabled the masses to escape the stacks but hard copy teaches thorough multi channel thinking. I spent many happy hours up on the third deck of the law library reading the English Reports when I should have been studying taxation. I still haven’t mastered Norman French though.

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