Becoming a writer during my gap "year"
September 8, 2009 4:38 PM   Subscribe

I have savings and, soon, no work. I want to do something interesting, write about it, and publish - ideally to kick-start a writing career. How should I go about these 3 things?

I am a talented writer but have let my skills lie pretty much dormant since high school. Recently I took a fortnight's holiday and, having forgotten to take a camera with me, decided once home to write an account of my travels. It ended up many times longer than I had expected, I adored writing it, and all those who've read it seemed to really enjoy it. Hive mind: I'm hooked. I think I want to be a writer.

This desire coincides with the last few months of a research degree in computer science, about which I have become completely ambivalent and after which I have no plans other than to avoid programming for a living. (To the programmers out there: A great way to make a living. But not for me.) I have a lot of pent-up wanderlust, a desire to do something interesting in some interesting corner/s of the world, and a reasonable stash of savings with which to fund myself. I guess what I want is a worthwhile gap year, plus or minus a few months. And I want to be a writer.

So my logic is, let's go somewhere interesting, do something interesting, and write about it - ideally in order to kick-start a fruitful and enjoyable writing career, but in the worst case to have fun and to develop as a person and as a writer. That's about as specific as I get at the moment...

My question to the hive mind is: how should I go about (a) choosing what I'll do, and (b) writing about it, both with a view to getting published? Should I get talking to publishers right away? Do I approach them with an idea, or do they have ideas that they want people like (hopefully) me to work on - or a mixture of both? What kind of publishing format should I be targeting? Am I mad to even want to write for a living, in the age of blogs and tweets ten a penny?

I should add that the other genre of writing that particularly appeals to me, once I have satisfied my biting wanderlust, is popular science; and I'm 25 and based in the UK.
posted by jeatsy to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Magazines and newspapers assign journalists to stories based on their previous work, which you have none of. You can't get paid in advance to do something cool and write about it unless you've previously written about cool stuff successfully.

So what you could do is do something cool, write about it, and then sell your articles about the cool stuff after the fact. Which would give you a track record of being someone who can write about cool stuff in a professional manner, which would lead to assignments to do cool stuff on other people's dime.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:48 PM on September 8, 2009

And publications don't have ideas, except for really stupid ideas like "Write us another 'TOP TEN SECRETS TO MAKE HIS ORGASM AWESOME' feature but this time put in something about strap-ons" (I'm looking at you, C*sm*p*litan!) Writers pitch ideas to publications. This is a pretty good how-to overview with a UK focus.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:51 PM on September 8, 2009

This is basically like saying "I want to go to Hollywood and direct a movie for a big studio, who do I call and what should I make my film about?" unfortunately, in this economy. Established writers are having a really hard time getting work-- let alone getting paid for it.

Without an agent, a publisher isn't likely to pay any attention to you. In the UK, even if you were an established journalist writing regularly for major publications and had an agent who managed to sell a book proposal you'd written, the advance you would get would likely not be enough to live on. To get an agent, you'd need to have a truly unique idea that you are ideally situated to write about-- and a history of publications in magazines, etc.

Unless you have a compelling misery memoir-- and the bar is pretty high here now, did you grow up in a cult, get raped by multiple Satanists, shoot heroin when you were three and do you have the documents to prove it-- why would *you* be the person a publisher would want to hire to write a book for them, when, for just as cheap, they can get someone with much, much more experience?

Consequently, the advice would be start a blog and try to make it go viral-- find a unique topic and place that appeals to many people but that few have written about it, develop a compelling voice and self-promote the hell out of.

Ie, yes, this idea is somewhat crazy-- even for successful writers, it's hell out here right now. However, there are always people who discover a niche and do make it-- so I would work to find something or somewhere about which you are passionate and go from there. Sorry to be so pessimistic but there is a world economic collapse going on, on top of a crisis in how to get paid for content.
posted by Maias at 5:00 PM on September 8, 2009

Admittedly I'm throwing this out for somewhat selfish reasons, but start a blog about popular science and technologies and then travel all around the world to major conferences and trade-shows and write about them! Or visit inventors and interview them.

Seems like you'd build a portfolio of popular science writing that way, and get to do your traveling. If you build up a reasonable readership, I would expect that could help you get book deals or hired somewhere (source: Julie & Julia, heh, so feel free to disregard...)

And let me know the address of your site so I can check up on it.
posted by losvedir at 5:01 PM on September 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

I guess this is an attempt to answer (a).

What you need to do first is set aside any notions of writing or publishing. I'm not saying forget them—only hold off and concentrate yourself elsewhere. Namely, take a good, long look at yourself. What would you change? What would you learn, or experience, given the chance? Because this is your chance.

Grab an atlas and pick the place that most intrigues you. Go to the library and dig around the relevant 700/900s (where you'll find the travel section and all the history/anthro stuff, respectively), read a few books, and then get on a plane/bus/whatever and go there. Live, learn, and enjoy life. Witness tragedy, celebrate victory in life, and chronicle yourself as you change and learn for as long as you can. Take notes, if necessary.

In your journey you may find the inkling of an expression for your writing passion. It may not be until you get home. You may find it in your preliminary search. But if you look and think and change some you may find your story. Or someone else's story that inspires your telling and as such your participation.

Only keep in mind as you go that all of your awareness and preparedness may turn up nothing. A story is as likely to find you as you are to find it, and it is as likely that nothing will find you (and vice-versa) instead. But if you are lucky, and aware, and prepared, you may be able to capture life in prose in a marketable fashion and sell it on Amazon. But it begins with you, with your openness and willingness to seek out that which piques your passion the most.

As for (b), you will be in much, much better shape with your story in-hand than you would if you went with it in-brain.
posted by carsonb at 5:08 PM on September 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

Well, here's what I'd do. I'd pick something with a gimmick to it. Not "Jeatsy Goes to Ireland and Writes About It," but something like -- well, if I had a really good idea I'd probably be doing it, but something with a hook. "Jeatsy Visits the Home Towns of the Best Rock Bands of All Time," or "Jeatsy Visits Every Town in America in Alphabetical Order."

Then I'd start a reasonably professional-looking blog about it, with lots of pictures and good punchy writing. If it gets enough attention, you might be able to make some money from ads. If it gets a lot of attention, then you'll have something to point at when you approach publishers.

This is more or less how I got my book published about ten years ago. I wrote a series of humor essays, and a publisher approached me. I can't say that's common, but it worked for me.
posted by lore at 5:13 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's what I wanted to do: I wanted to go to the desert in northern Chile and attend a UFO conference that they used to hold there each year, write about it, and then sell the piece to...I hadn't thought that far. With your interest in popular science, you might find equally strange adventures to take, but I suggest you think farther than I did and identify potential markets.

I've worked as a writer, and I suggest a hard-nosed approach: Look hard at your skills and interests. Look hard at the market. Find where the two groups overlap. Identify publishers in that niche. Examine their publications, choose one, and write a piece specifically for that publication. Then send it in or pitch it following the guidelines used by that publication. I got a kids' book published with one submission by following that cold-blooded approach, and the pieces I used to write for magazines you've never heard of were never rejected, but that could be because I was aiming too low.

I also agree that a viral blog is a great way to prove yourself. Of course, it needs to be unique and focused and build a big following... You'd also be more marketable if you develop strong photography skills.

If you become a writer for publications, you'd better enjoy really cheap travel. I got tired of the crappy pay and crappy treatment and switched to writing for business. Now I get much better pay and more respect and still get to travel.
posted by PatoPata at 5:33 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

I can't help you with what to pick as your awesome experience, sorry. But I do have some suggestions for selling your writing without any clips to print media, in addition to the excellent suggestions about blogs and experience outlined above.

After you have The Awesome Idea you'll need i) a list of publications you want to sell to ii) a pitch, including pics and a teaser/taster no more than a couple of pars of the article you're planning iii) to ask the editors you're pitching to will they accept your article on spec. Then go and do The Awesome Thing, write about it, deliver it on deadline or before, within the word limit agreed and with any pics you've offered to the first publication who have said they will accept your spec piece. They may or may not publish it. Repeat until you are published.

This is, obviously, the very short version, and it can be a very hard slog, especially in the beginning, but that's it basically.

When you write the piece, it must be (and this is REALLY IMPORTANT) the kind of Awesome the editor wants, not the kind of Awesome you want. If the two things are the same, hooray, but make sure you are super familiar with the style and tone of the publication you're submitting to. And above all, keep within the word length you've promised. It sucks to have to cut or rewrite copy to fit the space you have. And I assure you, it will suck for you to have your piece cut. So if you say 1500 words, it had better be...1500 words.

If you're having no luck at all, solicit feedback, listen to that feedback and work to improve.

In general, smaller less prestigious pubs are more likely to give you a whirl. And there's no shame at all in giving a piece to Accordion Fanciers Monthly about your madcap escapades at the Romanian Inaugural Accordion Festival for free when you're starting off. But have a limit on how much you'll do for free - stop when you have enough clips and experience to get paid.

Also, caveat, you may have no success at all. This could either mean, you are not as awesome a writer as the readers of your first travel piece (friends? family?) have lead you to believe or no-one is buying right now. Or both.

Good luck! Even if you never make a dime out of it, you'll have given it a go and hopefully wil have a great year, and a memorable experience.

I am a journalist, FWIW.
posted by t0astie at 5:57 PM on September 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

Great idea.

I was in Indonesia, somewhere on the island of Sumatra, in 2001, and ran into a writer living in this bungalo I was staying in at the time who went out there to write. The rationale was that the cost of living was so freaking low that he could survive on his modest savings for years while working on his magnum opus. It was on a lake, and basically paradise. If you can arrange for something like that, you can give yourself the time and space to make something happen more cheaply than if you were to continue living in the UK. However, the #1 key is discipline. Writing every day. Experimenting. Making sure to get work done. You start drinking and smoking and hanging out with locals and working on occasion and you'll stand no chance.
posted by kryptonik at 6:18 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I write about popular science and get paid. Getting to that point was a long process. At least for me, it started with writing for free (college paper) then using those clips to get assignments writing for next to nothing (local book reviews and alt-weeklies.) It was probably five years from the time I first started publishing outside college to the time I first got paid a substantial amount for an assignment. And I think the prospects for freelance writing, in pop science or otherwise, are much worse than they were when I started.

Some uncollected thoughts:

1. Regular blogging is a great idea; it'll help you figure out whether you really like writing, and what matters to you as a writer.

2. At least for me, having a credential (a Ph.D. in the scientific area I write about) was very important -- it gives you instant credibility and makes you a very rare commodity among freelancers. But I certainly don't think you should pursue an advanced degree in a subject you're tired of in order to be a more marketable freelancer!

3. The life of a writer who has another job that pays the bills is much, much better than the life of a writer who needs to live off writing. It's possible you're mad to want to write for a living, but you're certainly not mad to want to write -- and you can, even if you have a separate career.
posted by escabeche at 6:20 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

I agree with escabeche. I write occasionally about sciencey/humor and get paid, but I started writing for free (college) and then got a writing job and then got freelance contacts through my writing job.

Now I do something else entirely but still write for fun (and get paid) because I really enjoy writing. I'd pick a topic that you like, start writing about it and maybe approach a website or local newspaper and see if they'll print your stuff. Then you have clips to take to someone else.
posted by melodykramer at 7:17 PM on September 8, 2009

Great advice here. Chipping in as a former freelancer - Forget about your "talent". Seriously, forget it.

Believe it or not, there are tonnes of great writers out there, who can prove it, and even more shit ones that still astonishingly get hired _all_ _the_ _time_. Do not expect your writing ability to get you an in (or an out, for that matter) anywhere. If someone happens to dig your style, bully for you, but that's the lottery, baby, no testament to skill etc etc. And you lose that lottery as well as win.

So if you can't fall back on talent, what do you have left? Experience. Demonstrate - not that you can write well, per se - but that you can write to a brief, to style guide, to an editor's whimsical and nonsensical demands.

How do you do that? Write for free. I know it's trendy to look down on publications or writers that do this - but money really is the most arbitrary indicator of both writing, writing experience, and publication prestige. People _in_ the industry know this, people outside, not so much.

As a corollary, blogging is over-rated. I know the internets is filled with stories of bloggers who hit the big time - but believe me this is the equivalent of the mid-west waif who hit the big time when she caught a director's eye whilst waiting tables in LA. It might happen. But it tends not to.

Editors don't give a shit if you have a blog - in fact, the more traditional ones may hate you a little bit for it. They don't care if you can write, they care if you can write for them.

So write. Pick publications that are looking for good content, but also regularly publish it, and then pitch them. Preferably with a completed piece when you're new, but non-completed isn't a deal-breaker (it may be once they read it, however). Be short, polite, to the point. Don't forget - they deal with heaps of dickheads every day asking to write for them, they won't initially know you're not a dickhead, so prove it in your _short_ cover letter.

Being an "expert" in something is a great way to do that initial convincing. Why not apply some computer science princples/technology with something else a bit counter intuitive - beekeeping, ballet, greenhouse negotiations. Those fusion things are quite popular with a lot of editors.

So in summary:

Journalism is far easier for publishing than novels, books etc. (and provides a good base for the latter down the track)
Your knowledge is an asset, not your writing
Be prepared to do it for free - thousands of equally talented others are
Don't put your eggs in the blog basket
Be polite, to the point, and never forget: You have a right to pitch for these publications as much as anyone else. They shouldn't turn their nose down at you, and you shouldn't at them.

Good luck, you will need it, but you will need hard work more.
posted by smoke at 7:49 PM on September 8, 2009 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks very much for all the advice so far - really appreciated. I think the lesson in the short- to medium-term is, live, experience, enjoy, read, write, write, write, remember camera (not necessarily in that order). In parallel, I'll pay attention to your advice on examining and tailoring my work to particular publications.

I'm looking forward to the ride! Thanks again. Now, where's that atlas?
posted by jeatsy at 5:37 AM on September 9, 2009

"go somewhere interesting, do something interesting, and write about it"

Sounds like being a travel writer, but it's a very competitive field. Anyhow, there are loads of books of advice on how to break in. Search Amazon for "travel writer" or "travel writing."
posted by Jacqueline at 12:30 PM on September 9, 2009

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