I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!
Today's guest is Kerri Majors, author of This is Not a Writing Manual: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World, out July 9 from Writer’s Digest. Publishers Weekly called TINAWM “Candid, honest advice and reflection from a writer who’s been there,” and Kirkus described TINAWM as “An upbeat and honest guide for teens already considering writing careers.”
Majors is also the founder and editor of YARN, an award-winning literary journal of YA writing. Her short fiction and essays have been featured in publications across the United States. She earned her MFA from Columbia and now lives in Massachusetts with her husband and daughter.
One thing I really enjoyed about your book was the honesty. You talk about the goal of being published, but also about recognizing reality and the fact that it might not happen. I found that very refreshing from the "If You Believe In Yourself It Will Happen" mentality. Did you worry that being straight-up might cost you readers?
Thanks, Mindy. I really did try to be totally candid in this book. Otherwise, what was the point? (That was what I thought, anyway.)
I hope that honesty won’t cost me readers! It’s funny—I never considered that till you asked, and I’m glad I didn’t because it might have made me think twice. I suppose I hope that younger readers who are turned off by the honesty might still keep the book, or remember it, and find/read it later, when they clue in to the fact that “Oh, yeah, this writing thing is hard…That Kerri Majors chick I used to think was full of crap had something to say about that…” ☺ And that’s fine with me.
You mention a lot about learning from other venues - TV shows, artwork, audio books - and of course, reading other novels. I agree with you 100% that reading can count as writing if you are paying attention to what is working (and not working) in any particular book. However, I know a lot of authors try not to read while they are working on a WIP for fear of accidentally adopting the voice of what they are reading. Do you read fiction while drafting?
I am always reading something, and I probably read 80% fiction and 20% nonfiction these days, though that ratio is shifting to include more nonfiction. I’m not the kind of writer who is easily influenced by what I’m reading, but I have friends who are—and they just try to read writers who are totally different than they are while in the midst of a draft. Or, sometimes, they read for strategic influence. For instance, a novelist who’s really interested in language and beautiful prose might read poetry on purpose while drafting a novel or story.
Something else you are very straightforward about is having a day job. We all do! Very, very few people make enough off their writing to live on, something I'm not sure the general public understands. One of the things that resonated with me was the idea of making sure that any choice you made, career or hobby wise, wasn't going to "kill your creative writing." How can one tell before leaping in whether a certain job is going to be the knife to the brain of their writing?
I think sometimes it’s just trial and error. I was convinced, after college, that working in museums would be the perfect kind of day job to complement my writing. I was wrong, but I never would have known that unless I tried.
I hope that’s something the book liberates writers to do: experiment. If you are committed to your writing, and to taking the long view of the writing life, then you have time to figure out the right day job that will fit with your writing.
Also, the right day job will probably change over time, as you get older, maybe married, maybe have a kid or two, or you might want to travel more (or less!). There are lots of factors.
Time management is huge. It's one of the first things you address in your book. Do you have any general advice for the on-the-go writers of the world to help get those ideas from mind to paper?
Be consistent. Probably the worst buzz kill for a piece of writing is to neglect it too long. You derail everything if you work too sporadically or take breaks that are too long, because when you return to the project, you wind up spending more time reviewing than getting new words on the page.
If you only have one day per week to work on your writing, do it—every week. Write it down in your planner and commit to it (if it’s early in the morning, don’t go out the night before!). Then, between writing sessions, try to think about the writing a bit (on the treadmill, driving to work, cycling to classes, etc). That will keep your head in the work, so that you can keep moving forward every time you sit down to it.
Envy is something you talk about as well, quite openly. It's very easy for any writer - published or unpublished - to look at the bigger sales of someone else and wish it were theirs. We all deal with this emotion from time to time in real life, but what's the best way to handle this in the creative world?
I’m not sure I have much to add to what I wrote in the chapter except that I think admitting you have envy is a good first step. Then cut yourself a break. As my friend said, it’s a natural human emotion. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling it. Instead, try to channel all that energy into something productive—more writing, or something that will lift your spirits in other ways (call an old friend, volunteer to babysit for someone you know needs help…that sort of thing). Being miserable is not going to help your writing, so you need to find a way to channel the envy or set it aside.
Lastly, workshops and writer's groups are mentioned in your book as a great way to get feedback and grow as a writer while connected with people like you at the same time. You give some great advice for starting your own group in a face-to-face format, and also recommend some specific online sites. Can you tell us more about the importance of good writing buddies, and how to find them?
I can’t say enough about the importance of community for the writer. In fact, the incredible support and warmth of the larger YA community is a big part of the reason I’ve stayed with it so long. Other YA writers are like, “You’re a writer? You published a book? Welcome to the party!” This just isn’t true for other categories of literature.
So community is essential for feeling part of something bigger than yourself—and since so much of writing is solitary, that’s really nice. And in the world of literature, no one cares if you’re a big dork, because, let’s face it, most of us were/are dorks, too.
The best way to find more writing buddies and writer’s groups, and to broaden your community in general is to put yourself out there. Go online—Twitter, Yeah Write, Figment, etc—and join the conversations. Ask your librarian and English teachers about writing groups. If you see an ad for a class or group of writers, sign yourself up! It’s mostly up to you. You need to put your hand up and say “Hi, I’m Kerri, and I’m a writer,” before anyone else will know or care. And then people will care, and it’ll be awesome.