How to Be a Contemporary Writer


1. Read diversely.

2. Write.

3. See items 1 and 2.

4. Accept that there is no one way to make it as a writer and that the definition of making it is fluid and tiered.

5. Accept that sometimes literary success is political and/or about who you know and that’s not likely to change. Yes, celebrities are going to keep publishing terrible books. Yes, Lisa Rinna’s Starlit is an actual thing. I read the book and… I’m scarred. But. You’re not getting better as a writer, worrying about the system. 

5a. If you’re a woman, writer of color or queer writer, there are probably more barriers. Know that. Be relentless anyway. Strive for excellence. Learn how to kick the shit out of those barriers. Don’t assume every failure is about your identity because such is not the case. 

6. Accept that sometimes cream actually does rise to the top and hard, consistent work will eventually get noticed, maybe not in the way you envisioned, but some way, some how. 

7. Understand the actual odds and learn to love the slush pile. The slush pile is not your enemy. It’s actually one of your best friends.The truth is that a significant percentage of the slush pile, which I prefer to call the submission queue, is absolutely terrible because people are lazy and will submit any old thing. If you can write a good sentence you are already heads and shoulders above most of what is found in submission queues. You’re not competing against 10,000 submissions a year a magazine receives. You’re competing against more like 200.  Those are still intimidating odds but they’re also far more reasonable.

8. Be nice. The community is small and everyone talks. Being nice does not mean eating shit. Being nice does not mean kissing ass. Being nice just means treating others the way you would prefer to be treated. If you’re comfortable being treated like an asshole, then by all means. 

9. Know that more often than not, editors have your best interests at heart. Stand up for your writing but be open to editorial suggestions. A good editor is giving you feedback in service of your writing.

10. Ignore most of the atrocious writing advice that proliferates at such an alarming rate. 

11. Stop listening to conspiracy theories about publishing. 

12. Stop listening to doomsday predictions about publishing. 

13. Don’t talk yourself out of the game by listening to conspiracy theories, doomsday predictions, and bad advice.

14. Make note of the distinction between writing and publishing. They are two very different things.

15. Know that you can get an agent through the mystically fearsome slushpile. It may be hard. It may take more time than you want but it can and does happen. I found my first agent through the slush pile. She’s great. My second agent found me because of essays I wrote. Sometimes people find agents at conferences, or through friends of a friend, or other such connections but you absolutely can go the old fashioned route.

15a. Do your research. Know what agents are interested in. Spell their names correctly. Have a book you give a damn about and make sure it shows. Know how to talk about your book.

15b. If you want to see a sample query letter, just ask a writer who successfully signed with an agent through the slush pile. They will probably share.

15c. This is an interesting take on navigating the business of agents. 

15d. But don’t be so discouraged! 

16. You do not need to live in New York to be a writer, though New York is great (dirty bathrooms aside) and it might be better if you live elsewhere and visit New York for a few days at at time. 

17. Perspective is everything. Someone getting a book deal is not taking yours away. Success is not as finite as it seems–it’s a matter of luck, timing, and hard work. (Or sometimes, yes, who you know).

17a. You are neither as great or terrible a writer as you assume. 

18. Know that sometimes you simply need to work harder and sometimes you’ve done the best you can do and there’s no shame in either.

19. Participate in the literary community in the ways you are comfortable participating. What matters is that you contribute. That could be subscribing to a magazine, attending a reading, volunteering at a literary magazine, and so on. (See #8)

20. Have an online presence or don’t. It’s shocking how much time writers spend stressing over this that could be spent writing. Yes, an online presence helps but only if you actually use it with some regularity. Plenty of writers don’t have a significant online presence and manage to still be writers. If you feel like having an online presence (Twitter, Facebook, Blog, Tumblr, whatever), is a pain in the ass, it’s going to show and it’s not worth having.

21. If you’re going to have a website, don’t have an ugly website. There’s no excuse anymore. If you cannot afford a designer, no problem. Use a content management system like WordPress or Tumblr and a nice template.

22. You will probably need a job unless you’re fine with financial stress. Yes you can have a job and be a writer. It happens all the time. I used to be fine with financial stress because I was young and my fantasies were exciting. I am not anymore because I am old and I love my apartment and health insurance and buying stupid shit. A job facilitates these things so keep it in mind. There are worse things than a job.

23. Learn to deal with rejection. You don’t have to like it. You can sulk and whine and cry. You can blog about it. Just know that publishing involves rejection far more than acceptance. It’s easier if you can process that early on. 

23 a. Maybe don’t write editors who reject you to call them names. That doesn’t ever end well.

24. Have other hobbies. Don’t be one of those people who only writes and can only talk about writing. My hobbies are embarrassing but I do have them and am grateful to have them.

25. Ignore all of this as you see fit.

Author: Cady Vishniac

MFA, Distinguished University Fellowship. Endelman/Gitelman Fellow University of Michigan, English and Judaic Studies, Translation Fellow at Yiddish Book Center. Translation forthcoming in LA Review. Fiction most recently in Glimmer Train and New England Review, contest winner in Ninth Letter, Mid-American Review, and others. Collected in New Stories from the Midwest. Been to Kenyon Review Workshops, Tent: Creative Writing, Vermont Studio Center. Editor for Raleigh Review, Reservoir.

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