How Can I Become a More Successful Writer?

Picture of Jen Lambert and Liz Kay

Authors: Jen Lambert and Liz Kay

Liz Kay, editor burntdistrict and Spark Wheel Press

Last year, I had the opportunity to participate in a Q&A panel of publishers at the Omaha Lit Fest (a spectacular and growing event spear-headed by Timothy Schaffert). Most of the questions posed were variations on the following: “how do I become a more successful writer?” Obviously, there are many ways to define success, and one person’s end goal is rarely identical to another’s, but the question itself implies a certain career-mindedness that I’m going to speak to, above and beyond the most obvious answers: read more, write often, write better.

Start building your resume (C.V. if you’re academically-minded). If you have no writing degree; no experience editing, teaching, or interning with a journal or press; and no significant publications, you’re screwed. Get them.

You do not have to have an MFA, but do attend a writing conference, a community workshop, something. There are more and more of these popping up, some even on-line. Some you’ll have to apply for, most you’ll have to pay. You don’t have to pick the most prestigious, but make sure there are workshop leaders with solid credentials and work that interests you. The point of this is not to have someone teach you how to write, but to make connections with like-minded people who will push and inspire you, and to show the rest of us that you’re serious about what you do.

Get involved. Find the writers in your community. If there’s a local reading series, show up. If there’s an open mic, read. If there’s a journal, buy it, or better yet, offer to help out. Most opportunities in the writing world are not jobs, they are C.V. building opportunities. There are no postings, there is no H.R. department, and it will rarely seem fair. Opportunities will be extended personally, to one person. If you want to be that person, networking is critical. Get to know people who know people, and get introduced. Be indispensible. Be known as someone who gets shit done.

For beginning writers, publications seem like the end goal. They are not. They are a small, small step in the process. Sending work out for publication is a constant chore. It is time-consuming, and it is critical. Your reputation will be built on a large part by the reputations of the journals you publish in. You must carefully consider where you will submit your work. Many people will tell you to start small. Send to the more “approachable” journals to start getting your work out there, and as your writing improves, send to the next rung up. This is a load of crap. As an editor, reading a list of low-level magazines where you’ve previously been published does not predispose me to be interested in your work. While this won’t necessarily impact the likelihood of you placing a poem or story in a journal (at burntdistrict, your list of previous pubs is interesting, but won’t affect our decision to publish or not), a listing of low-level magazines on the acknowledgements page of your manuscript can kill your chance of publishing your book. If you can’t get published in respected magazines, read more, write often, write better until you can. Keep in mind that most well-edited journals have an acceptance rate of 5% or less. Expect rejection. Get used to it, and push on.

Jen Lambert, editor burntdistrict and Spark Wheel Press

Like Liz, I agree that a writer’s success comes in many forms. I also agree that many writers measure success with publication. Of course it is success; it is the end product of our agony. The publications, the books, they are the prize, no doubt. They are the trophy, the plaque to put on your shelf and carry around like a beautiful baby to show off to your friends, but success is rarely just the prize; it’s the work that makes a writer successful. It may seem obvious that writing, the production of pages, is necessary for success, but I believe it is in fact, the production that IS the success.

Now, I am a poet, so I can only speak for poets, since this is all I know. Poets work very hard at the details. It is tedious and anxiety filled, but ardent work. Every word, every line, every break, every space, labored over. When a good line is crafted, a stellar stanza created, or an entire poem is finished, when that work is complete, it is success. The only advice I would offer for a writer to become more successful is to produce and to complete and to find a way to do this as often as possible. If this means finding a small table in the back of a drafty library to escape the television and the sweaty fists of your babies, do it. If this means sacrificing all else, do it anyway. We are accustomed to allowing life to interfere with our writing and we must instead make writing our life. Success is piles of finished work and notebooks of handwritten pages and hard drives full of good words and images, and success is one damn good haiku. It’s dirty, laborious work. It’s digging, and for shitty pay.

Many poets hunger for the big game. They strut around and look for editors and fancy parties full of shiny people who talk a lot about how much they are writing, and they want these fancy parties to be about them, but poets are a different kind of people. We are strange little beasts. Strange little beasts who, as a poet friend of mine once claimed of himself, want to be invited to the party, but don’t actually want to go. We poets like a great party, especially one that celebrates our poetic self and our poetic achievements. Sure we like the confetti and the horns and the fancy people, but we are cursed to recognize a good façade. We can’t help but notice the falsity of the human condition, even in crowd. We will surely notice the wounded trumpets, the brassiness of their high notes, the faded, jagged edges of the confetti, the long nosed faces and the too big jackets of our guests. We can’t escape our writer egos, they pile around us like trays of delicately shaved meats, but the truth is, without our pages, we will get nothing but fat on the marbled meat. The business side of our success is worth the feast, but it is nothing without the digging, and our fingernails will always be dirty, no matter how tall and how sweet the sweaty rimmed glasses of gin.