This past week, I participated in a Career Faire at my son’s high school, where I spoke to two classes about what it takes to make a living as a writer and editor. Following the class presentations, I spent three hours in the gymnasium speaking with passersby at the faire.
There were 30 students in each of the class presentations, 25 of whom were there by choice. As is to be expected, most wanted to write novels or screenplays but had no idea about the reality of publishing today. I explained that you can’t just plan to be a novelist and assume that you can make a living immediately through that writing. Using one of my best friends as an example, I spoke about Meg Gardiner (author of the Jo Beckett forensic psychology series and the Evan Delaney crime thriller series), explaining how it took seven years to get her first novel published, after she had worked on it for years prior to its completion, and how now, as her seventh novel is being published, she is finally picking up momentum and will soon make the kind of sales that will support a family and then some. This year, she also won the Edgar Award, the highest award in mystery writing, which will bring her great publicity.
My point was that a writer can’t just assume instant success once a novel or screenplay has been completed. Success depends on talent, but it also requires an enormous amount of perfect timing and luck.
Given that fact, I assured the students that they could indeed make a living as a writer, while they worked for and sought success as novelists or screenwriters. My handout listed some 20 different jobs in various fields where writers would be an enormous asset to any business. With businesses almost required to have a Web site now, writers and editors are needed more than ever.
When asked, I opined that an English degree was a marvelous first degree for anyone who planned to write for a living, but added that their best preparation, no matter what degree they pursue, is to read, read constantly and widely. To my great delight, the majority of the students were readers, though they admitted to a narrow range of material. I suggested that anyone interested in broadening their horizons email me, tell me about what they like to read and what interests them, and I would send a reading recommendation list. So far, one girl has taken me up on the offer.
One discouraging aspect of the students who stopped by the faire table was the widespread assumption that one could be a writer without knowing grammar and punctuation. My favorite comment from a young man, “I’m a poet, I don’t need to know grammar and rules like that.” What to say?
But overall, I was pleased with the questions I was asked, the interest the students showed, and the love I saw for the written word. Encouraging in this world of instant and abbreviated communication. Writers — and love of language! Excellent!