Get Inspired! Speaks With a Professional Writer

Nov 02, 2010

It's National Novel Writing Month! To help you find inspiration, tracked down a professional writer for tips on crafting a good story, pursuing a writing education and becoming a professional writer.

By Megan Driscoll

Scott Driscoll Please tell us about your career as a writer. What type of writing do you do and where have you been published?

Scott Driscoll: I write fiction and nonfiction. I've been published in numerous literary journals, two anthologies and a wide variety of magazines - everything from Poets and Writers Magazine to trade magazines and Horizon and Alaska Airlines magazines (I write frequently for them). Most recently, I wrote a story for The Official Ferrari Magazine, which is published by Conde Nast. What inspired you to become a writer?

SD: I discovered I had some talent for writing as early as fifth grade, but didn't do anything about it until I was a young adult traveling around the world when I found myself desperately needing a way to reflect on the strange world I was encountering. It wasn't enough to live it once, I had to relive everything, and writing about it gave me that chance (I get very grumpy and despondent when I can't write for any period of time beyond a few days). At some point I also realized I had to make a living, and teaching and writing for magazines helped me plug my artistic sensibilities back into the real world where we must, in the end, all manage. Many people dream of supporting themselves as a professional writer. What's your secret, and what would you tell someone who's aspiring to that position?

SD: These days it's harder than ever to support yourself with writing in the conventional sense. To write for magazines, you need to learn the craft first, then identify the magazines you want to write for, learn (and follow!) their submission guidelines and then learn how to write a really catchy query letter. Also, you have to be able to write on a deadline and to learn to mimic a magazine's style preferences.

Beyond that, an advanced degree, such as an MFA, is all but a baseline requirement these days, especially if you hope to teach. In grad school you also tend to make connections that will help you later.

Community colleges and university continuing education programs offer teaching opportunities. The CCs don't pay very well, but they look good on a C.V. Private for-profit colleges also offer entry level teaching positions.

Blogging is also a very good idea if you're getting started because you never know who might read it.

Remember to be bold. Send your queries to the right departmental editors and expect a positive response sooner or later. Be prepared to do internships to get a foot in the door. What's your educational background? What sort of education would someone need to become a professional writer?

SD: For fiction and literary nonfiction, you really need an MFA these days to be taken seriously, unless you just want to write commercial fiction or you can amass enough publication in literary journals. But any aspiring writer should take writing classes - if not an MFA then local university extension courses or online courses. Learn the craft. Nobody gets by on inspiration and talent alone.

Find schools that offer these popular programs What's the most important thing a prospective student should consider when hunting for a writing school or program?

SD: Query former and current students and get the lowdown on which profs actually spend time in the classroom. A famous name means nothing if they're never around. Go to an accredited college or university and don't shy away from the ones that require GREs to get in. You mentioned that you also teach writing. Can you share a couple of writing tips with the aspiring writers who are reading this interview?

SD: Don't be content to understand plot structure. That's basic. Everyone knows at least that. Really study the idea of narrative distance. Consider and experiment with the relationship between writer, narrator, character and story. Learn to manipulate that relationship. Study how to write a strong story spine. Remember that all characters are really just embodiments of desire. Desire has an object. Push a character with a strong desire toward an object, place opposition in his or her way, undermine every step of progress with a contradictory 'unconscious' or unexpressed desire and at the very least you'll have rich characters and drama. How you design the story is really up to your sensibilities. Finally, I'd like to give you an opportunity to share anything you'd like about yourself and the writing profession with your readers.

SD: I have a novel that I'm wrestling into submission (and going back and forth over with an agent), and if I've learned one thing, it's to use your best ammunition on the project in front of you. Don't save it for the next project. Be prepared to be misunderstood and vastly underappreciated and very often rejected. It's hard to find an editor who likes your work, understands what it's about and believes he or she can sell it easily enough to convince their editorial board to take a financial risk. You have to keep working and working until you know that you've done your very best with the project you send out. Don't take shortcuts, and don't be dismayed if it takes longer than you expected. And sign up for classes. There is no shame in admitting you still have a few things to learn.

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