My business card says writer – now what?

A little while ago, I got a promotion at my day job, which means that I’m now officially getting paid to write things. Non-fiction, sure, and not even in the area that I did a whole PhD in, but writing nonetheless, that people are reading and hopefully liking. I’m a writer. Or Writer, even. Why don’t I feel any different?

As I’ve written about before, I listen to my fair share of writer podcasts, and read wise words from established fiction writers where I find them, on twitter, in books and on blogs. One of the things they all say – other than warning people never to listen to writing advice – is to write what you love.

I remember one writer, I think it was Tobias Buckell, talking about it like so: if you write what you love, you will start out with 50% satisfaction, which can increase to 100% if you then manage to make money out of it (simply speaking), whereas if you write what you think will sell, you start from 0% satisfaction, and can only get to 50% if you do manage to sell it.

And that’s what I’m doing now. I’m getting paid to write, but that’s just getting me to 50%. The only way for me to move closer to 100% (if that’s even ever possible to achieve) is to write fiction I believe in and finally manage to sell it, or alternatively to move to writing non-fiction in a genre that is closer to my heart, or move into editing in the book/fiction world.

That’s not to say I’m not happy to have the opportunity to write for a living. It’s certainly better than a lot of other things I could be doing, and it’s a step in the right direction for my career. I guess I’m just saying that these lines we draw, these bridges we cross, are a lot more transparent than they look from a distance.

So, as a bridge I have trekked to has dissolved upon approach, so I set my sights onto the next bridge, knowing that it too will dissolve once I reach it, and I am the only one that can make it matter (pun intended). Meanwhile, I think I’ll treat myself to some fancy chocolate to celebrate.

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The importance of mentors

The closer I am getting to some idea of a career, the more I think about what differentiates me from people who already have one. One of the most important things that help people advance in a career, in my opinion, is a mentor.

Mentors are valuable no matter what career you choose to pursue. They can provide not just networking opportunities and advice on how to climb your desired career ladder, but also a glimpse of what a career like theirs leads to, the light at the end of the tunnel (or at least the light a little further down the line). Last year I heard a talk from one of the first female US higher court judges, and she mentioned some of her most important mentors. Not just women, not just judges, but very important to her was the influence of her dad, and later the guidance of the bosses she worked under. Everyone can be a stepping stone if you value their opinion and incorporate the advice that works for you.

Everyone gets some help along the way, and most people are happy to help

Another PhD student from my lab is now in her dream career because one of her supervisors was also her ideal mentor. Her background is medical, a degree system wherein mentors are mandatory, so she started off seeking a strong role model. I have no such background, so I’ve only just started thinking about needing a mentor, and what makes a good mentor. Hence this post.

Ideally, the best mentors are on the career track you want to be on. This might be difficult if (like me) you’re not in that world yet, but people are always happy to talk about themselves and give advice if you approach them in a respectful and open manner (and maybe buy them coffee or something). That doesn’t mean harassing Oprah on social media, but sending a nice, gushy email with a simple question to someone a bit more available can’t hurt.

In the writing world, agents and editors can often be mentors to new writers. This is one of the things that self-published authors may lack, but other, more senior self-published writers may help them along instead. If you look past the surface, most career tracks are full of people who want to help and want you to succeed, even if you may end up being a competitor down the line. Sometimes mentors don’t even need to have jobs directly related to what you want to do. Anyone can be a mentor, often starting with your parents when you’re young, a teacher at school, or a good friend.

The point of this post is to acknowledge that we can’t do everything alone, and its no use reinventing the wheel when there are lots of people out there willing to share their knowledge. So let them. Identify mentors or potential mentors in your own life, and have a talk with them, ask them how they got to where they are today, what their philosophy on life is, whatever you want to know. People generally love to be asked about their accomplishments. Use that to your advantage and listen.

Owls make great mentors

Finally, if any of you more senior bloggers who happen to read this post want to give me some mentorship, please do ^_^.