Reader Question Friday: What classes should I take if I want to be a published author?

Every Friday, I’ll answer a reader question (anonymously). I’m open to anything (it doesn’t have to be writing or book related), so don’t hesitate to send in a question. Email to brigidmary@gmail.com or use the Contact tab.

Q: I love writing, and I want to be a published author one day. What classes should I take in high school and college to help my chances of being successful?

A:

Anything that will help you earn a steady paycheck while you wait for your writing career to take off.

You might think I’m kidding, but I’m not. I started writing in high school, and continued writing well into my twenties. The first book I considered worthy of publication? It didn’t even land me an agent. I wrote a second book, and that one did land me an agent, but it didn’t sell to a publisher. I wrote a third book, which ultimately sold at auction to Kensington Books. That book was Storm. I started writing that first book in 2006. I started writing the second book in early 2008. I started writing Storm in 2009, and we got the first offer in January 2011.

Even if I’d gotten paid the entire advance up front (which doesn’t happen — more on that later), it wouldn’t have been enough to replace the annual salary from my day job. Writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme.

Here’s the thing: there’s no prerequisite for becoming a published author. You do not need a college degree. You don’t even need a high school diploma. You do need to be able to write, which means using reasonably correct grammar and spelling to clearly convey your thoughts and ideas, and you need to be able to tell a story well. That’s it.

There was some blog advice to young writers a few years ago that basically boiled down to, “Follow your dreams of being a writer. Live on your parents’ couch for ten years if that’s what it takes.”

I’m betting no one asked the parents how they’d feel about that.

(And seriously, if you’re a student now, how would you feel about that? Do you want to wake up one day at 26 or 29 or 35 and still be sleeping in your parents’ house? All for the sake of a dream you could have accomplished alongside of having a life?)

Look, don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing wrong with going to college and majoring in a writing-related field, including going on to obtain an MFA, if that’s your passion. But don’t think that’s going to guarantee you a million dollar book deal. Don’t think that’s going to guarantee you a book deal at all, much less one that will allow you to live on more than Ramen noodles while sharing an apartment with three other people. Yes, it’s possible. But just because something is possible doesn’t mean that it’s probable. There’s nothing wrong with being a practical dreamer.

Many people think that if you choose to have a career, you’ll never be able to write. This is so not true. I have a full time job (yes, still, even with my fourth book coming out in January), and I have two small children (with a third due in March). Many, many other writers work full time and raise families, including my incredibly talented agent, Mandy Hubbard. (Did you know she’s a fantastic author too?) If we can find the time to write, anyone can.

But let’s get away from intangibles like hopes and dreams. Let’s talk about the money for a second. I’m sure you’ve heard that the average advance for a first time writer is around $5,000.00. While I’ll tell anyone the specifics of my own deal over coffee, I don’t want to get into my specific details online (because those details involve many more people than myself). If you have access to Publisher’s Marketplace, you know the original book deal wasn’t listed as anything better than “nice,” which means the whole schebang was less than $50,000 for all three books. Just for the sake of easy math, let’s say I got $45,000, or $15,000 per book.

Not bad for a year’s salary, right?

Wrong. Even if you sell three books for $45,000, that doesn’t mean you get it all at once. While book deals can have many different structures, a common scenario would be that you get a third up front ($15,000), a third upon delivery of each respective manuscript ($5,000 for each manuscript delivery), and a third on publication ($5,000 for each publication date). If you’re talking about three books, those successive payments can be spread out over years. Even then, you don’t get all that money. Your hard-working agent is going to keep his or her well-deserved 15% (dropping your total number to $38,250). And don’t forget taxes. The government is going to keep roughly a third of your money. Now you’re down to $25,245, spread across 2 – 3 years.

That’s not a whole lot of money — especially if you’re repaying student loans or trying to start a family. (Or eat.) That doesn’t even consider spending some of your advance on self-promotion. Have you gotten any bookmarks from me? I paid for them. When books go in the mail? I pay the postage, not to mention having to pay for the books themselves. I personally stand in line at the post office and fill out the customs forms. Did you get any of the Hunter Garrity bracelets from when Storm was first released? I paid for the materials and made them myself. How about the giveaways at my book signings? Yup, the funding for those comes out of my own pocket. While publishers do create promotional materials, a lot of the “swag” you get from authors was purchased and paid for by the author. This isn’t a complaint. This is reality. If you sell a book, you’re expected to participate in the promotion.

And despite all that, even if you do everything right, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get another book deal after the first one. Say you get the advance and scrimp and save and live on that and your book comes out and no one wants to buy it. What then?

You hear about the million-dollar debut book deals because they’re news. Not commonplace. Saying you’re going to crash on your parents’ couch while you try to become a famous author is pretty similar to saying you’re going to crash on your parents’ couch while you buy a lottery ticket every day and hope you dream of the right numbers.

I’m not trying to be depressing. Actually, quite the contrary. I’m trying to point out that you can have your dream of being a published author and earn a living at the same time. It’s never “either/or.” If you want to write but you also love math and physics (which was SO me in high school), go to college for the math and physics, and maybe take a few creative writing classes. Have you ever heard the expression, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity”? I love that saying. Because it’s so true. Sometimes it’s all a matter of timing, and all the degrees and brilliant writing in the world aren’t going to guarantee a bestseller. Look at JK Rowling. Last year, she published a mystery novel under a pen name, and no one knew. Despite the fact that she was JK Rowling and the book got great reviews, it still didn’t sell like a bestseller. (Well, not until the news broke. :-))

The challenging thing about writing is that there are no guarantees. Never, ever give up your dreams.

But don’t give up the chance to earn a living either.

 

~

 

11 thoughts on “Reader Question Friday: What classes should I take if I want to be a published author?

  1. Perfect advice-
    Excellent advice.

    Also– take lots of English/Lit classes. Better yet, be an English major. Read for four years. Learn from that. Then get a nice internship that will make you marketable. Best of both worlds. :O)

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  3. Don’t forget taking classes at the School of Hard Knocks. These will either give you something to write about or else they will inform your writing on other topics. They teach you about conflict and tension, relationships and dialog. They teach you about courage, terror, despair, elation, and that love overlaps all of these. You’ll learn about the rich and varied cultures of the friends you meet at places that are *not* your parents’ couch, should you pay attention. By the time you obtain a post-graduate degree in the School of Hard Knocks, you will have the perspective to understand, at an instinctual level, the temporal context for complicated story arcs and how they weave together.

    In other words, think of the job, the social life, the family, and all the attendant complications of these, as training and research for your writing career. It’s all a big writing class that spans many, many semesters.

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