How easy or difficult is it to become a published writer?
Becoming a "published" writer isn’t that difficult. If one has a little talent and is willing to work, it’s not that tough to get published in local magazines and papers. Now becoming a NATIONALLY published writer, that’s a different story, and very often takes years of work and tons of luck as well. It’s obviously easier to publish non-fiction than fiction, simply because there’s so much more of it, but it’s still not easy.
How would you compare publishing fiction to freelance writing?
Well, publishing fiction IS freelancing, in a way. The only difference is that you’re selling books instead of articles. That’s the short answer. In truth, freelance magazine writing involves a lot more hustling — that is, trying to sell the articles. Most agents won’t do this for you, they deal almost exclusively in books, so trying to get magazine assignments usually involves a lot of time on the phone with editors and a lot of follow-up. You are much more of a salesman than a novelist is. (I lived for five years with a freelance magazine writer, so I have some experience with this.)
Is the idea of self-publishing a good idea?
Not for me. For some people, it works, and some people have even become successful self-publishing. I would never have felt that I’d made it if I’d published my own work. On the other hand, recently I’ve read two self-published novels that I thought were good enough to have been published commercially. Both authors are still struggling at other jobs, but they are certainly good enough to turn pro. They just haven’t had the breaks yet. Some ideas, specialized ideas in the how-to field for instance, can sometimes be successful commercially if there’s a market. For instance, there are a couple of books on how to speak pidgin available in the Hawaiian market, and they have both sold over 200,000 copies. This is a successful book by any standard, but what the authors found was a subject that had an audience and a way to distribute the book. Distribution is the biggest drawback to publishing your own work. Again, if you don’t go out and sell it yourself, you just have garage full of books. If you want to be a salesman, learn to sell real estate. You’ll make more money and you can always write in your spare time.
What is the key ingredient to success in the publishing industry?
Honestly? Luck. I read authors every year who are better than I am and are not as successful. On the other hand, there are authors who are just horrible and they sell many, many more copies than I do. (I really only have my own experience as a measure.) The difference, as far as I can see, is luck.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer who is not currently a good writer or has nothing interesting to write about?
Well, not being very good can usually be fixed, but having nothing interesting to write about can’t. If you can’t think of anything to write about, it’s best, probably, to learn another skill or aspire to a different career. (I’m talking about fiction here. If you want to write non-fiction, you can always work as a journalist. Then they tell you what to write.) So my advice would be, and is, if you’re not very good, but you’d like to be, then take five years, learn your craft, do some writing, and if you’re still not good, go do something else. You’ll live a lot happier life that way. Writing is too hard to do if you aren’t enjoying it and getting better.
What other books/websites would you suggest to me on this topic?
I’d read Writer’s Digest and The Writer magazines every month, and there are numerous web sites for aspiring writers out there, but frankly, I’ve been doing this professionally longer than the web has been going, so I haven’t needed to find sites for aspiring writers. I used to read the articles in the Fiction Writer’s Market, which is published each year by Writer’s Digest, and I found the articles most helpful. I also found John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction very helpful and still use some of the techniques Gardner writes about. (He has another book on writing, but the title slips my mind right now.)
Are there any other important items would you like to add that would be important to know?
Yes. Have fun with writing. Be as silly and off the wall as you want to be. Yes, you should learn how to write a sentence and a paragraph and you should learn how to tell a story, but it’s always good to remember that good writing entertains, even as it accomplishes its other goals. So entertain yourself while you’re doing it. There are few experiences more fun than thinking up a great story. Writing it can sometimes be hard work, but even when plodding through the work of putting down prose, occasionally you can have a great time turning a phrase or crafting a particularly musical line. Enjoy it.