Craft: How to Be a Writer by Risa Nye

My sharp-eyed cousin spotted a “How To Be a Writer” board game published in the Los Angeles Times recently. She sent me the full page version of it so I could check it out. The “roll the die” Candyland/Chutes and Ladders-like game was created by the organizers of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. After tabulating the approximately 200 responses to a “nonscientific survey” given to writers participating in the festival, the results were integrated into the amusingly illustrated “game board.”

We’ve probably all attended readings or conferences where an aspiring writer asks the featured author about his or her path to publication success. Did she always know she was a writer? How many times was his manuscript rejected before it got published? Are there novels collecting dust in a drawer? How many? What was the path that led them to their successfully published present, in which they travel around the country answering these same questions over and over? The answers to some of these questions are presented on the game board, with clever bar graphs mixed in. While I can’t recreate the entire board game here, I can offer some of the highlights (and low points) that the authors chose to share.

If you have begun your writing career already, the first few squares on the board will look familiar. Let’s roll the die and see what happens.

Starting at the beginning—at square one, if you will—these authors learned to read. Obvious, right? Then they got library cards. And so it continues. . .

Over 50 percent of the authors kept a diary. Somewhere along the line, they decided to be a writer after reading a life-changing book. Which books? Some that are mentioned: The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, Harriet the Spy, Grapes of Wrath, and Portrait of a Lady. And at what age did they make this decision after reading these influential books? An impressive 30 percent decided to be writers by the time they were ten years old. The largest number of writers determined their course between ages ten and twenty. Others began to follow the muse at a more advanced age: 24 percent between ages twenty and thirty; 6 percent started banging on a keyboard between thirty and forty; and the late bloomers account for the remaining two percent.

Back to the board: A roll of the die might land you on “Poem published in school paper.” Or, you may go back two squares if you land on “Story rejected by lit magazine.” The path to publishing success is marked by squares labeled “read, write, revise”: a familiar litany for those who keep at it for any length of time.

According to the survey results, 25 percent of the authors earned an MFA in creative writing. The path remains the same, regardless of the advance degree: write, revise, write, take writing classes, face rejection . . . and then perhaps that first book deal comes along, followed by celebration. Or maybe the author first chooses to self-publish an ebook, which then leads to other opportunities in literary magazines and so on.

My favorite section of the game’s curvy path is the all too familiar Pit of Despair. I found it comforting to know that 64 percent of the survey respondents had had a book rejected. Misery does indeed love company. Other features of this section include: losing a manuscript in a computer crash, weeping, one (or maybe more) crisis of confidence, writer’s block, further rejections—but hope is restored when a roll of the die may lead to more revisions and the eventual book deal.

…that the path to publication isn’t a straight line—or even a line, really.

About half of the authors teach creative writing. According to the survey, 41 percent do and 59 percent don’t. It also is interesting to note that 90 percent of those surveyed are published through a major publishing house, while 37 went with an “indie” house, and 8 percent self-published. (Keep in mind, these responses are from a group participating in a single event.) The fact that they all attended the festival as featured authors shows that the path to publication isn’t a straight line—or even a line, really.

Did these authors achieve publishing success right out of college? Or were they more mature individuals when that first book deal came through? The truth is that most of the authors represented here had their books appear on the bestseller list in the years between ages 35 and 50, with a sprinkling (12 percent) between the ages of 25 to 30 while 18.7 percent hit the big time between 30 and 35. By far, the outliers are the 2 percent of senior citizens, and I say good for them! They still made it to the bestseller list, and who cares how long it took them to get there!?

In a world where dreams come true, you may roll the die and have your book nominated for a prize, or maybe you’ll have a bestseller on your hands. You might win a national book award! How about if Scorsese makes a movie from your book, starring James Franco or Scarlett Johansson? Maybe the Nobel Committee wakes you up with some good news. We can all dream, can’t we? Yes, but the reality is that only 58 percent of the authors who responded to this survey make a living from writing. The others most likely teach or lead writing workshops or both.

Where will your writing life take you? If you don’t sit down, get started and roll the die by submitting your work, you’ll never know.

If you’ve decided to be a writer, my advice is this:

  • Forge your own path
  • Know that the Pit of Despair is out there, so be prepared with a flashlight and some sustenance to get you through the darkest moments
  • Write, revise, and develop a thick skin for the inevitable rejection
  • Rejoice at every success and let each one sustain you through the tough times
  • Seek a community of writers: fellow travelers on their own paths, who will give you support and offer their helpful feedback in return for yours
  • Keep at it, no matter what age you start. Remember the 2 percent!
Risa Nye, Columnist

Risa Nye is a San Francisco Bay Area native. Her essays, stories, and articles have appeared in a variety of publications, and she continues to mine her vast experience for more things to write about. She also eavesdrops.Her three children live far away and cannot stop her from mining their experiences too.She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College in California. Some of her writing--including her forays into the world of mixology as Ms.Barstool--and her current blog can be found at www.risanye.com.

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  • Jim

    Thank you for this. Exactly what I needed to read.