In the September 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, successful writers generously answered our call to share the small moves that had proved to be career-changers. (To read the complete feature—filled with tips for steering your own writing and/or publishing career in exciting new directions—download the issue instantly now.) In fact, they answered the call so generously that we didn’t have the space to print all of the inspiring stories we received!
So here, in this online-exclusive roundup, more writers from all walks of life share their secrets to success and lessons learned along the way.
RECOGNIZING HAPPY ACCIDENTS
Control? Whatever success I enjoyed did not result from careful planning or even wishful thinking, but from a lack of confidence and fear of failing that made me inclined to float with any breeze that blew my way. Fortunately, I was sometimes lucky enough to be in the right place to hear the right advice. In retrospect, I am surprised at just how much was accidental.
My first indication of myself as anything more than a 9-year-old came when Mr. M., one of my elementary school teachers, said, “Arthur, you could be a writer.” That was uncharacteristic of him. The class gasped; I blushed. I had never dared to entertain such a notion, and his are among the very few words I remember from those days; the others are what Mrs. McV. wrote on my 5th-grade report card: “Arthur wastes time drawing.”
What I learned: Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.
As an Army vet, I enrolled at a university to major in journalism, and hated every minute of it. Too many useless courses, not enough writing, and too formulaic overall. Mr. S., my wonderful English Comp prof who would become a famous poet, suggested that I was not college material, intending that as a compliment, and saying something like “You’re a writer. Go write. This place will make you a robot.” So I dropped out, and it was the best dumb decision I ever made. On the other hand, when Mr. S. said that I was too young to get married, I proceeded to prove him right.
What I learned: Once you hear the words you’ve been waiting for, you will never be able to push them aside.
So there I was, young and stupid, a college dropout about to be a father, in a $42-a-week dead-end clerk-typist job. Two years flew by. And then one day, a Writer’s Yearbook article convinced me, though I had no professional art or writing experience, to send some cartoons to The New Yorker. As I expected, I got them back with a rejection slip. But weeks later I got a $50 check—they’d bought one of my captions, and for more than my weekly salary. That was inspiration I could spend. I signed up for night courses in advertising, if only for the money. I never saw my cartoon in print; it was years before I could afford a subscription.
What I learned: Shoot for the top. It’s more exciting, more dignified, and a rejection slip from there feels more like a Purple Heart.
I worked for ad agencies—wrote copy, did design—then hung out a shingle and put serious writing on the back burner. One day a photographer friend with financial worries asked me for help with a brochure. I wrote and designed one for him, and one of its recipients, an editor at Philadelphia Magazine, asked him who created it—which got me hired as the publication’s art director. I became a writer and an editor. With newfound confidence, I wrote a letter to Writer’s Digest and ended up writing the “Nonfiction” column for many years.
What I learned: Nobody knew who I was until I did a favor for a friend, and that changed everything in my life. When you create a good product—even if you don’t get paid for it —it’s never wasted.
All accidents. All inadvertent long shots. It was not control that got me here. Or maybe that is simply how things happen for everyone. If I had missed a bus on any day, it probably would have changed everything. For better or for worse, I’ll never know.
“You never know where the break will come from, and all you need is one.” That’s the kind of simple wisdom people tack above their computers, and I own a mountain of such unreasonably optimistic metaphors, to wit:
“If a door opens, walk through it.” Instead of wondering whether you can handle a job, assume that the people who want to hire you know what they’re doing.
“When you’re thirsty, don’t let anyone poison the well.” People will sometimes warn you not to do this or that, or tell you that you’re not good enough. Don’t believe them. They’re invested in keeping you where they’re comfortable.
And finally, here’s one from a shrink I used to know: “Don’t think in terms of climbing the ladder of success. Success is more sudden than that. You’re at one level, and then there’s a quantum leap to another. There’s an elevator that will take you there when you’re ready to push the button.”
—Art Spikol, longtime WD contributor
To paraphrase Ray Bradbury: “Writing is a simple act … like jumping off a cliff and growing wings on the way down.” Having jumped a few cliffs in my career, I’ll share some experiences.
Back when I was a junior writer at a Madison Avenue ad agency known for its TV work, I volunteered for an assignment nobody wanted: a radio spot for a paint store; 60 seconds; make them see the colors.
“Ever do any radio, kid?” my boss asked. I had been with the agency less than a week.
“Sure.” Small lie. “Lots of times.” Bigger lie.
“It’s yours. Don’t eff it up.”
The beauty of radio—at the time—was that even the clients didn’t care much. It’s only radio. Just stick to the copy points and don’t make us look bad.
For voice talent, I hired Paul Dooley (Breaking Away, Popeye, Sixteen Candles). Dooley liked my script somewhat but asked if he could do a little tinkering, make a few suggestions, saying I needed “more show, less tell … even on radio.”
Fifteen minutes later I had an award-winning spot. I learned a lot from Dooley and others like him over the years—Broadway stars, bit players in Hollywood. They tinkered … I learned.
Later, years later, my agency needed someone to script a screenplay for a Fortune 500 sales meeting—10 to 12 minutes, somewhat lighthearted, maybe Tom Poston for the lead. Client’s dictates.
“I’ll do it.” Had I ever written a screenplay? “Lots of them.” Huge lie.
On the way home I stopped at a bookstore to pick up Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men). A week later I had a script.
During filming, the lead—not Tom Poston but a character actor whose face you’d recognize—helped me “goose” the script, taking it from a bad B movie to something of an award-winner—lessons I use to this day.
My point: Never turn down an assignment. Take whatever is offered, be open to constructive criticism, and grow your wings as you go.
—Pat Fagan, Orlando, Fla.
Two on my early journey to becoming a writer:
The last semester of my senior year in college, I took classes outside my major (sociology) I’d always wanted to take, including creative writing. I began writing a story and for five days, abandoned all else. It came to thirty pages, won first prize in the college’s writing contest, got me into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and changed the direction of my life. Advice: Do what you most want to do.
I was accepted by the Workshop but hadn’t heard whether I was accepted academically, and the semester was about to begin. I was desperate. I’d gone to NYC for the summer, couldn’t get a job, and knew I wouldn’t keep writing without support. So I hitchhiked to Iowa with someone going in that direction. Students I met on the way from Chicago to Iowa City gave advice about jobs, places to live, and offered me a bed for a few nights. The day after I arrived, I went to the Workshop office and discovered I was accepted, found a waitressing job, and a place to live. Then I told my father and asked him to loan me the first semester’s tuition and he agreed. Advice: Let desperation fuel you forward.
After having a full time first teaching position for four years, I’d earned a living either by waitressing or teaching part-time, so I’d have time to write. I had begun a novel but could only write fully during summers. I was nearing 40. I was tiring of being broke and having so little status. Then I met my husband, a visual artist with a full-time tenured professorship. After several years of marriage, during which I taught three writing courses part-time, earning a fourth of what he made teaching three art courses, I asked if I could lessen my load, if he would carry us financially, and he generously agreed. The possibility of time that this provided is the single most important boost to my mature writing life. Advice: Swallow your pride and principles about independence, and find a generous, financially stable partner who believes in you and your work.
I must have worked Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way six times, from beginning to end, altering the pace according to my own, most recently only two years ago. It is like having an angel whispering in my ear, “dig out your own identity, expand, trust, have faith.” The principles seeped into my pores. Advice: Be fierce in getting all the support you need. Don’t be ashamed to read self-help books or do anything else that provides more ground under your feet.
After I published a story in the Bellevue Literary Review in 2004, the editors asked me to be a first reader, an unpaid, mostly unrecognized position. For the past seven years I’ve been Fiction Editor. Wearing this editor hat has provided me perspective about publishing, given me a sense of the amazing amount of talent and competition out there, increased my editorial skills immensely–for my own as well as others’ work–and brought me a sense of community with the other editors as well as the writers we publish. It also led to a teaching job at hospitals. It has, in short, given me another place within the literary world. My advice: if asked to volunteer to do anything in the literary world, go for it. Participation is its own reward, but other kinds can follow.
—Suzanne McConnell, New York, N.Y., suzannemcconnell.com
FOLLOWING YOUR HEART
I’ve been a writer my entire life and have always been driven not by the need to be successful but by the simple need to do what I know I was born to do—write. It would have been easy along the way to abandon what my heart was telling me to do and go for a big job with lots of money. I actually tried that once and was miserable. It might seem like a small thing to listen to yourself, to stop and say, “What do I really want to write about?” instead of, “What will sell?” because it’s what is in your heart that will make you a writer, an author, a novelist— someone with a true voice.
I listened to my heart and not the other voices surrounding me. I worked hard to fight off the temptation to sell out and fall into the next publishing trend. I never stopped believing that one day the magic I felt when I sat down in front of my typewriter and then my computer would transport me into a new world where I would be called an author. Listen to your heart. Stop comparing yourself to the ideals and trends of others. The music you hear when you do this is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world.
—Kris Radish, bestselling author of A Grand Day to Get Lost, krisradish.com
On naivete …
I have learned to lean on my own naiveté, realizing that every writer has to have a bit of that to ever succeed. Rather than shrinking away from an idea out of fear or lack of belief in myself, I pursue an idea wholeheartedly (and sometimes spontaneously), knowing that the worst that can happen is I receive a “No” response or no response at all. That’s not to say I am sloppy with my queries; I still do my research and make sure my idea is a good fit for a particular publication. But once I feel I have a good grip on the idea, I don’t dwell on it; I get it out there. Then, I get busy with something else so I’m not mired in that one idea or project. In other words, I diversify my writing projects like I diversify my money: I try to always keep eggs in multiple baskets.
On trust …
I have learned that writing is an act of trust. And to trust something, even when you don’t know where it might lead, is scary. At times it’s terrifying. On many occasions I have set out to write something – re-live an experience, say – that is so neatly packaged in my head. But when I start to let the words out, the whole idea unravels and becomes unruly. In some ways, the writing process is about learning to let go of control and let the words and ideas direct themselves. It can be uncomfortable. You can get lost. But if you want to find the real gold, you have to mine for it. You have to wander through that wilderness. And it can get messy. But that’s OK.
On gentleness …
It is important for me as a writer and a mother to be gentle on myself. Right now, because of my demands as a mother, I can’t write as much as I want to. It is so easy to fall into that mind trap of “I’m not doing enough” or “I’m not good enough.” I try to view my life in the context of seasons and focus on what I am doing instead of what I’m not doing. In a season of childrearing, I may not find all of the creative space I so crave. But I am taking an active role in the formative years of my kids. And even when I can’t write as much, I know that every day is fodder for material. So even when words aren’t being written, experiences and dialogue are being stored away in my head (or on the “Notes” app of my iPhone) for a future essay or poem. The beauty of being a mother, a wife and a writer is that my vocation is never black-and-white. I will never not be a mother. I will never not be a writer.
—Kate Meadows, katemeadows.com
INVESTING IN AN EDITOR
I finished a novel and sent it to a professional editor for feedback. Getting concrete input tailored to my strengths and weaknesses, sympathetic to the genre I was working in, and in the context of a specific manuscript, taught more more than I learned in all the undergraduate and graduate-level creative writing courses, online workshops and books on writing put together.
—Migdalin (screen name via WritersDigest.com)
Two things made a big difference for me, as a would-be writer struggling with getting published. Twenty-two years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle accepted a long article on my 15-year correspondence with the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, publishing it in the beloved Sunday Punch section, where I’d been trying to place a piece for a while. I bought 10 copies, and sat on a bench in Golden Gate Park just staring at my byline, not even reading the article.
Ten years after that, I won the National Steinbeck Center’s short-story contest, having entered without having had my fiction published anywhere of note. I was presented with $1,000 and a large, beautifully engraved glass plaque by Leon Panetta, subbing for an ill Thomas Steinbeck, John’s son.
Those two events, years apart, told me that I could write both nonfiction and fiction that could be appreciated. While the writing (and the publication) remain a struggle, those small moments of recognition motivate me still.
—Tom Bently, tombently.com
I’ve done a lot of things. I’m not sure I’d call them all “small.” You decide. Here are three:
I got involved with the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, first as an attendee and then as a volunteer. Over the course of eight years I learned a ton about what it really takes to get published. I met aspiring authors, agents, acquisitions editors, designers, and PR and social media experts, and began to make a name for myself as an editor, blogger and writer. I later was asked to speak on a panel, and that spurred the idea for my book, How to Blog a Book (Writer’s Digest Books, 2012). I went on to become a full-fledged speaker at the conference as well as at other conferences, and much of what I’ve learned will be in my next book, The Author’s Training Manual (Writer’s Digest Books, 2014).
I started blogging. This one activity helped me build my platform and my expert status in several subject areas. My blogs have helped me write books, land publishing deals, promote my books, and garner writing gigs.
I decided failure was not an option. With that attitude, which I call an “Author Attitude,” everything else fell into place. I became willing to do whatever it took to go from aspiring to published author. I became more objective about my work so I could see it from the perspective of industry professionals (not just from my perspective). I became optimistic even in the face of rejection, seeing every challenge as an opportunity to learn and get better. And I became tenacious. I was going to succeed no matter what. Even if that meant putting some chutzpah to use as well.
—Nina Amir, ninaamir.com
It’s definitely social media for me. I was a freelance writer but I wasn’t really known for anything really good. I started solely freelance writing when the company I was working for, called me in one day to inform me that I have to pack my bags and leave. One Saturday I posted up an original poem in Instagram. A writer with a network read it, commented on it and I casually mention that I can be of help if ever she needs an assistant. 2 weeks later, they called me in for a chat and so happened that the session was actually an offer for me to take up a full time scriptwriter position with them.
I’ve always believed and will continue to believe that social media when used with an apparent focus and tone will reap wonders.
—andyidris (via WritersDigest.com)
KEEPING IT FUN
Just starting to write for fun has been the biggest career changer. I’ve always had story ideas in my head, some I’d written down, some I’d even started as a story, but always talked myself out of going further, viewing it as a ‘silly’ thing to do. One day I just decided to write whatever came to my mind down and just go with it. I didn’t need to show it to anybody, good thing because what I initially wrote is embarrassing to read, I just had to go ahead and do it. The more I wrote, the more I enjoyed it and started reading books about writing. It snowballed from there and turned into the first thing in my life that inspired a fire and passion I didn’t have and felt just right.
—Danielle (via WritersDigest.com)
SEEKING STRUCTURE & SUPPORT
Two things have made me a better writer in very different ways: the first was learning to plan/outline my writing—something that I always did for technical writing but which was initially lost on me when I switched to writing novels—and meeting fellow writers on Twitter. Of course, I’d been a part of writing communities before, and had writing friends, but Twitter gives me up-to-the-minute updates on my friends’ works—how many words they’ve written, what they’re working on now, what they just posted, etc. It’s a constant reminder that *I should be writing*, and it feels a lot less lonely than communities where I might wait for days for responses.
SEIZING THE OPPORTUNITY
My journey to writing my first novel was akin to the Titanic hitting an iceberg. I was motoring along life’s autobahn when I hit a brick wall, burned out from stress, and fried like a crisp. It was not pretty!
It meant making a few slight changes to my plans, like retiring early from my coaching business, giving up all but one of my volunteer positions, and generally laying low in an attempt to heal and become whole again.
What does a life-long writer do when faced with a year of forced inactivity? Read. And write, of course. So, I dragged my 10-year old manuscript from my drawer and read it from beginning to end. Joyfully, I discovered I still loved the writing but it didn’t have a plot (a teensy-weensy little problem) and it didn’t fit into any particular genre (another conundrum).
Today, my work-in-progress has morphed into a murder mystery with shades of embezzlement. It is set in Tropea, Italy, and Carmel, Calif, and some of my characters may even make their way to Mexico. I’m three quarters of the way through what Anne Lamott would call my first “shitty draft,” which I hope to have completed by the Surrey International Writers Conference in October.
Would I ever have made the commitment to write full-time and complete my manuscript if the decision had not been made for me? Probably not. So, while you may not understand at the time why the universe has slapped you up the side of the head, just go with the flow and know that she has your best interests at heart!
—Karen Dodd, karendodd.com
1. Defining my own version of success. A list of what I wanted to have achieved by the first anniversary of the publication of my first book has turned into a road map for building my author brand.
2. Picking a virtual role model. Donna Leon, who writes the Commisario Brunetti series in the international mystery genre, is my virtual role model. Like hers, my books are set in a unique foreign location, plots frequently hinge on aspects of local culture, and relationships are key.
—Carmen Amato, carmenamato.net
RECOGNIZING “THE LITTLES”
What a great idea to do an article on career-changing moves, and focusing on what I like to call “the littles.” The big projects seem to get done because of the littles.
One of the littles that stands out for me happened when I had first left a high-paying job on the East Coast to return to San Francisco to help my daughter with my newborn grandchild. I had my own place in Monterey, and would drive up to the city every Monday, help out with my grandchild during the week, and return home on Friday to write all weekend. One day while in San Francisco, I was pushing my granddaughter in her stroller when I twisted and broke my ankle. I had to stay at my daughter’s home for six weeks, and couldn’t walk for that time.
While waiting for my ankle to heal, I did two things. First, I decided to start an online journal featuring writing done by other women about their spiritual journeys and I began writing a column for an online newspaper. At the time, the one thing that was big in my life experience was grandparenting, and so that is what I wrote about. That was eight years ago, and since then I have published two books, written for numerous online publications, and started my own independent press.
Each new, successful experience has had its roots in a small step that has led to setting my intention into action. Sometimes I had no idea whether the idea was a good one or not, but with each step I took, I learned something about what it was going to take to do the kind of writing, reach the audience I wanted to reach, and share the ideas I had to share. The online journal was a great experience, too, and taught me that I could transfer my administrative and organizational skills into encouraging other writers to help create a beautiful and meaningful online journal. I also learned it was too much work to do without help and without making the project pay for itself. All that we learn in steps we take that are successful and those we take that are not, helps us refine, define and focus our future attempts.
—Catherine Al-Meten, Astoria, Ore., https://sites.google.com/site/catherinealmetenauthor
I am delighted by the question you’ve posed about small moves that have resulted in big career changes.
I’d been laid off in 2009 from a huge publishing company where I’d worked for over 20 years and in effect lost my identity. Doodling one day, I started playing around with the letters of my last name, imagining what sort of name I might want if I ever had my own publishing company; this seemingly simple and rather insignificant “game” resulted in the name and logo for what would eventually become my own children’s editorial and publishing consultancy company, with a brand that spans across my blog, website, and the social network.
Recalling that unexpected career move I made, I now sometimes suggest to clients look at their own names and make up logos for themselves—it can instill just the creative confidence authors and illustrators need to feel good about themselves and take ownership and pride in their work!
Thanks for the opportunity to share these thoughts,
—Emma D Dryden, www.drydenbks.com
For 17 years, I held a couple of demanding positions at an enterprise software company. During that time, my husband of twelve years developed a brain tumor and died, and until his final weeks, I continued to burn my candle at both ends because I thought my company needed me more than my husband. I did not see how near the end he was.
A year and a half after he passed away, I quit my job with no replacement because my company killed the project on which I had worked so hard to complete when my husband was ill. Filled with anger, guilt, and regret for blindly following what I believed to be misplaced priorities, I no longer wanted to make life choices because they were prudent and safe. I wanted to be happy and I finally understood that being happy requires risk.
A few months into an unemployment period filled with soul-searching and reflection, I decided to eschew searching for a future job in my previous industry because it was comfortable and, instead, write a book on my recovery from my husband’s death. Because I couldn’t find the hopeful books I wanted to consume after my husband first passed, I thought I should write one.
It has been a year and a half since I’ve started my manuscript. I knew nothing about writing a book at the beginning, but have since discovered a wonderful new world. I’ve enrolled in writing webinars, workshops, online tutorials, and have subscriptions to a few writing publications, including Writer’s Digest. I am on my fourth draft of my manuscript and hope to finish this summer and shop for an agent. In the meantime, I’ve been investigating an opportunity to be a owner/operator of a business completely outside of my previous industry that would not only allow me to have a more fulfilling life, but would provide me with material for a blog I’ve been intending to start as well as additional memoirs on living without fear.
Writing a book has been the catalyst to a new me. To put thoughts into words required me to fully understand their origin and affect on my past, present and, possibly, future. They made me look deeply at myself. When I saw who I was, I had to decide if I liked that person or not and if I wanted that person to continue to exist as she had. Ultimately, I saw that I did not. Had I not had the courage to quit my job and start my first memoir, I wouldn’t be living now—I’d be merely existing.
—Sheryl A. Yankovich, Kent, Ohio, @SYankovich
TAKING A LEAP OF FAITH
I was perfectly happy in my job as a lawyer for the World Bank in Washington, D.C., specializing in projects in East Asia. But my attempts to write and publish fiction in my spare time were going nowhere. So, in 2001 I decided to quit my job and devote all my energy to writing. It took me awhile to be comfortable calling myself a writer instead of a lawyer, but since that time I got an MFA, have published dozens of stories and two story collections, have worked on two magazines including one that I currently edit, and have written two novels that I am hoping to publish. Quitting my job made my writing career possible.
—Clifford Garstang, Staunton, Va., http://cliffordgarstang.com
A few years ago I had written and illustrated two picture books, and I was also working on a novel. I didn’t have the patience to wait possibly several years to see my work in print, so I decided to start my own publishing company. I purchased computer software that would enable me to design my books, and I taught myself how to do it by reading books on the subject. It was difficult to learn book design, but I did it. I then uploaded my materials to a printer, and soon I had a finished book! Now, I have a website (chrantinpublishing.com), and I have authored three books, This Is the Cat That Roared, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall! and In His Paths. My picture books are available in local libraries and local bookstores, as well as online. Through school visits, I’ve had the very rewarding experience of seeing children get excited over my books! This week, a local school is holding a book sale that includes books by four local authors, of which I am one! And currently, I am fiercely working on a middle-grade novel, as well as a young adult novel and a third picture book. Life has become very busy, but I love what I’m doing and can’t imagine doing anything else—ever!
—Linda Auteri, Franklin Lakes, N.J.
WRITING EVERY DAY
About five years ago I knew I wanted to write. I’ve always read a couple of books a week, but now I wanted more from stories.
I followed my typical MO for learning something new: I read a lot online and bought a lot of books on how to write characters, outlines, plot, dialogue, conflict, etc. I read them each night with a highlighter and a pack of sticky tabs. I learned a lot, but two years later I still hadn’t written anything.
The one thing that changed my focus and productivity was following advice I had read in several places before I realized I was not really following it: Write every day.
I started to write every day, first character sketches and outlines, and then paragraphs and dialogue and scene sketches. For about three months now I have written something almost every day (I had the flu for three days), and I have an outline with 50 pages of dialogue and scenes. This may not sound like much to a seasoned writer, but to me it’s a breakthrough!
It is now part of my daily life. A successful day is a day I have written something.
—Daniene Richards, Fairbanks, Ala.
To read our feature compilation of career-changing moves from real writers everywhere, download the September 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest.