In Publish or Perish, Tony Tulathimutte dispenses subjective, unsolicited, and frankly sort of aggro advice on the practical aspects of a building a writing career.
Writing literature and having a writing career are entirely separate things. A writer is an artist whose work may be informed or influenced, but never overdetermined, by the pressures of making money, publishing, and building an audience—that’s a writing career. Writing is pointless if you don’t get to write what you want, even if it’s obscure, difficult, or non-lucrative. But there’s also no reason to assume you’re not clever enough to make a career out of it too.
Most people don’t have a specific plan, and you don’t need one, but it helps to know what options exist, how viable they are, and which suit you best. Here’s four:
1. The Traditional Approach
Lots of people assume that a writing career is, like other careers, linear and incremental, a slow-and-steady race punctuated by opportunities and breakthroughs. The traditional narrative goes like this: You start off by writing short stories, often in a workshop or MFA setting, until they’re good enough to be published, likely in an online or college-affiliated literary journal called something like Donkey Hen Review or Mop Bucket . You keep writing, you improve, and your previous publications unlock the gates to more prestigious magazines: Tin House, McSweeney’s, Harper’s, The Paris Review, Playboy, The New Yorker . At last the stories pay off as you attract an agent, shop around a two-book deal (your collection of stories and a partial novel manuscript), sign with a publisher, and live out your days as a tenured professor in an Omaha farmhouse with two wives and three husbands and a border collie.
This is one way, but not the only way, and not the most efficient, especially if short stories aren’t your deal. First and most importantly, publishing stories usually does zilch for your career. Really. I’d even say it’s optional. It doesn’t boost your chances of future story acceptance, and while publishing stories might attract an agent, there’s no real point to having one unless you have a book to sell. Plus, everywhere except the biggest magazines pays in cat litter. You may even come to regret having your juvenilia out there, especially online (though in most cases it’s not a big deal).
Of course there are still reasons to publish stories: to share your work, boost your motivation, contribute to publications whose work you admire, become eligible for a baby-handful of fellowships or residencies. You also might work with an editor who’ll challenge and strengthen your work—for instance, the editor of this article, who thinks I’m overstating the uselessness of publishing stories and who “believes in the rigorous and careful editorial process at literary magazines.” (Thanks Yuka.) But if you expect any of this to move the needle on your career, well, don’t. I published short stories for seven years, winning a novella prize, an O. Henry Award, and a Pushcart nomination; these felt great, but did squat. The existence of notable exceptions—Wells Tower, ZZ Packer, Nell Freudenberger—does not make it a wise bet. Publishing a book advances your career far more than publishing individual stories or poems—there’s no comparison. And you don’t need to have published stories to publish a book.
2. Stealth Mode
If you’re like many writers, you are an insecure perfectionist egomaniac, and prefer not to show anyone your work until you’re absolutely ready to eclipse the sun with a book-length debut. You need isolation to concentrate, so you pilot a submarine into the Mariana Trench and toil for years. This usually yields more polished stuff, since you’re never tempted to send out anything prematurely, and the bar for publishing a book is higher than for stories. If you’re lucky, you can sustain it with a flexible day job, supportive partner, funded MFA program, scratch ticket winnings, and/or disappointed parents. Lots of writers teach creative writing, which is mostly underpaid, unbenefited, weirdly competitive adjunct work; if you enjoy teaching enough to take that turd of a bargain, or you’re pretty sure you want to make a career of it and need the experience, then go for it, but don’t do it just because you think your livelihood needs to be adjacent to your creative work.
This is an all-or-nothing gambit. If your novel doesn’t sell, or make its advance back, or attract a following, then it’s back to the submarine for who knows how many years. You’ll also be entirely starved of encouragement and recognition along the way, which might sound frivolous but is, for non-machines, a massive psychic burden. At best, you can expect tepid, uninformed support from loved ones. On a more practical level, you won’t have any experience working with editors or submitting work, though those skills are easy enough to pick up.
If you can stomach the obscurity and the higher risk of having no career, then this might be for you. But don’t fall for the romanticized notion that this approach makes you somehow a purer, realer, better writer. There’s a reason Stephen Dedalus allows himself silence, exile, AND cunning.
Surprisingly, some writers like people. Or maybe they don’t like them, but enjoy having an audience to perform for. If you live somewhere with a strong literary community and are comfy behind a mic, you can build a modest following by doing lots of readings and performances, or by starting a reading series of your own, so long as you’re not perfunctory about it—just showing up and boring audiences for ten minutes won’t help, no matter how often you do it. The plusses are that, especially in New York, you can network this way, meeting agents, editors, talented writers, extremely bad writers, and even the occasional fan. This can assuage your starving ego and put you in the minds of editors who’re looking for submissions. Some writers become known for their rousing performances—Allan Gurganus, Tommy Pico, Cecilia Corrigan, Ariana Reines, Camonghne Felix—and their charisma draws an audience that’s more devoted than usual.
Social media is more or less the same thing, with greater perks and perils. You can do it while naked, the audience is potentially limitless, there’s no restrictions on content, and you can meet cool people. It’s also distracting, gossipy, and frequently hostile; trolls lurk aplenty, and shitstorms rage across its desiccated surface. Some writers, like Darcie Wilder, Patricia Lockwood, Saeed Jones, Mark Leidner, and Melissa Broder, seem as well-adapted to social media as eagles are to thin air. (If these lists are notably poet-heavy, it’s mostly because poets, having fewer and smaller outlets for their work, face more pressure to promote their work through performance. Poetry’s better suited to it, anyway.) My advice would be to use social media only if you enjoy it. It’s easy to tell when you force it.
Beware of pigeonholing yourself with your performance persona. Once you find an approach that people respond to—that aloof snark, or political indignation, or oddball role-playing, or oozy motivational sincerity that play so well on Twitter—you’ll face pressure to keep serving up more of the same for your fan base, which incentivizes pandering and rigid consistency. Don’t get lost in the game. Making connections, having admirers, and being a “good literary citizen” are still not writing, and career advancement is easy to mistake for achievement. Every minute you spend crafting a tweet or trimming your nose hairs for a reading is time spent not writing (which is the goal, I hope). And it’s not like you’re getting paid for it, either.
Side note: Blogging I generally don’t recommend, because if a longish prose piece is good enough to publish online, shouldn’t you be getting paid for it? And if not, do you really want to put it online? Plus you’d be saying the word “blog” all the time. Then again, if you enjoy the editorial freedom and instant gratification of blogging enough to forgo payment, go ahead. And of course some writers who’ve gone and started their own sites—the Toast, VSB, the Rumpus—have found success, though these have always been closer to full-fledged publications than solo blogs.
In my stupid opinion, freelancing is the most dependable route to building a writing career. It’s flexible, the pay can scale upward, you can get experience writing for a variety of publications and editors on a variety of subjects, you can garner bylines more quickly, and the exposure trounces that of fiction. It’s not easy, but neither is raising a kid, and you turned out okay, didn’t you?
If you’re unfamiliar with the media world, I’m about to tell you a secret, so have a change of underwear handy. For early-career writers, the publishing industry’s one big vulnerability—the exhaust port in the Death Star, so to speak—is that all those fancy, intimidating New York media companies? Well, they’ve got websites, and those websites are neverendingly voracious for freelance content. I’m talking about VICE, The New Republic, Salon, Buzzfeed, NPR, erstwhile Gawker sites Jezebel, Deadspin, Gizmodo, Slate, GQ, Vogue, Elle, The Atlantic, and so on. They’ve got to get literally dozens of posts up every day, and their editors are always looking for reliable freelancers who can quickly assemble 800-word takes on whatever topic is relevant that day. This is the easiest way to start racking up experience, editorial contacts, writing credits for big-name publications, and a (tiny, so tiny) bit of money.
So the game here is to come up with lots of ideas for short essays, and pitch them opportunistically to the right places. Unless you’re feeling philanthropic, don’t accept offers to write for free; always get paid. You’ll need to understand what each publication is looking for, and what subjects they’re interested in running at a particular time, usually pegged to current events. (I’ll talk more about how to pitch these stories in my next installment, for which I will naturally be paid.) Literary writers are accustomed to polishing work for weeks on end; this isn’t about that. This is, at base, a purely mercenary exercise in getting paid and establishing a portfolio. Obviously you still want to publish work you’re not ashamed of, and if you happen to have spare time to add an extra coat of wax, then go for it; most editors are just looking for clear, straightforward prose. If you can find an angle on the material that genuinely interests you, it’ll be better and more fun to write—for instance, after the 2016 Oscars, I wrote for VICE about the hosts’ bad Asian jokes, as a pretext to discuss the hierarchy of racial outrage.
Once you slay about five of these, you can start pitching longer, more ambitious, better-paid pieces. Unlike with fiction, magazine and website editors do care about your track record, and if you’ve written fast, clean, well-received articles, they’re more eager to listen. Print pieces are where the dough is—I’m talking two, three bucks a word. You can live on that, and if you hit a nerve, your freelance work can attract an audience like Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, and Jenny Zhang.
Among the many sorrows of freelancing: It’s tons of work for little money. You may be a working writer, but possibly not one who devotes all or even most of their writing time to literary writing. Burnout is a danger—it’s not easy to freelance for six hours and then write your own stuff for six more. You sit inside all day and develop unhealthy relationships to food, sleep, and porn. You’ll also have to scrape together healthcare somehow. So why freelance, instead of getting a secure job with benefits as a staff writer / editor? Not only are those scarce, they’ll give you even less time and freedom for writing anything besides magazine articles. (Though maybe you’re fine with that. That’s fine.)
Throughout your career, you’ll probably shuttle between these different paths—I started by publishing stories, went into stealth mode finishing my novel in an MFA program, did a ton of readings to promote it, and surfed the wave of publicity to get better freelancing and teaching gigs, while those still exist. But no approach guarantees any career success at all, even if you’re a great writer. And you’ll still die eventually. Your pets, too. Tune in next time for more useful career advice!
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