Forget about expensive workshops, degrees, and friends in publishing. Forget about anyone who tries to tell you there's only one path. Here's what REALLY helped me get published. Hint: It's not all about writing.
1. Get zen.
Accept that in the long haul, you're going to be okay no matter what. If you never get an agent, if you never sell a book, if you never hit list, if they never make an awesome movie. Everyone's going to die, and you can't take it with you. None of it really matters. That's why you have to really love the process of writing, the brainstorming and the first drafting and the painful editing. When you accept that no end result is ever going to be good enough, what's left is love of the work. As Macklemore says, “Make the money, don't let the money make you. Change the game, don't let the game change you.” You can write any time you want about anything you wish, and no one can stop you. You don't need any outside validation whatsoever to tell stories.
2. Take yourself less seriously.
I tried to be a serious writer for a while, and I failed. I'm not a serious person. I laugh too loud and wear bright cowboy boots and don't want to conform to narrow genre expectations. I'm never going to be in a pantsuit with a sensible bob and a briefcase. Some people might not take me seriously, but that helps me figure out who's worth knowing, doesn't it? Having fun and being genuine is the only way to make it as a writer without being miserable. Books aren't about wacky ideas, they're about execution. Once I stopped trying to impress people, I had a lot more fun.
Until you're GRRM or JKR, nobody really gives a shit about you, most of the time.
3. Take the work more seriously.
Note: This does not in any way oppose number 2. I'm wacky, but I've never missed a deadline. I do my work, I finish on time even if it means I have to stay up all night, and I give my pass pages the same attention I give every other part of the process. I don't blow off cover copy or show up late to a panel at a con. In short, I'm professional, and I aim to be someone that editors know they can count on. Part of your work--as a human being and as a writer-- is also helping others and being kind, so take that work seriously, too.
4. Give up what drags you down.
That counts for friends that don't support your writing, family members who make you feel shitty on Facebook, and painting your fingernails. Yeah, that last one took me a while. I used to think I had to file and paint my fingernails before every con and book event, lest someone think less of me as I signed their book. And then I realized that I hate everything about filing and painting my fingernails, and I quit, and I never looked back. To my knowledge, this has not adversely affected my career. You get to shape your reality. And, yeah, you need to work your job and take care of your kids and all, but you don't have to join the HOA or bake 30 cakes for the PTA or blow dry your hair if it doesn't genuinely make your life better. The lighter I am, the better I write.
5. Choose indifference.
Assholes on the internet can really get you down, and I used to snap back some clever retort every time they showed up in my feed. But, honestly, that just gives them validation and makes them double down. Indifference is now my way. Correct me? Nothing. Goad me? Nothing. Tell me I'm wrong? Nothing. Put down my books? Nothing. Just let it float on by like a turd in a stream. You get to choose what touches you. Other people cannot force you to react. And, of course, indifference usually hurts much more than attention. You're not going to change anyone's mind. Let it go. Move on.
6. Accept discomfort.
When I'm first drafting, I get less than 6 hours of sleep a night. When I'm editing, I forget to eat. When I'm on a tight deadline, I forgo social events and wear pajamas for a week. Sometimes, writing is hard. Sometimes, I hate my book. Discomfort is a normal part of life. If you want something, you sacrifice for it. Which doesn't mean that you go bonkers from lack of sleep and get shingles from not eating. It just means that art isn't supposed to be easy and feel great all the time. Once you accept this discomfort, it's easier to lean into it and push through to the other side.
7. Care less.
This is something I learned in Odyssey of the Mind: If you forget that what you're doing is A BIG DEAL, it loosens you up to make more creative choices. If you think THIS IS THE STATE FINALS AND I HAVE TO DO GREAT, you'll choke. If you're thinking, I'M HANGING WITH MY FRIENDS, PLAYING A GAME, you'll do fine. That's why I only got one paragraph into the first book I ever tried to write—I couldn't decide on the heroine's eye color, and I was terrified to get it wrong, and UGHHHH. There is no perfect sentence. There is no perfect first chapter. There is no Platonic ideal of Your Book that will be guaranteed success. There are, at any moment, infinite paths and infinite words to describe them. Your first draft is not set in stone, and neither is your second. Care less. Get the words down. Fix it later. Especially when brain storming pitches, we tend to seek THE PERFECT PITCH. There isn't one. Throw spaghetti at the brain wall and see what sticks.
8. Yoink constantly.
YOINK is the word I use on tumblr when tagging posts that resonated with me. “I could use that in a book,” I think. And when I need inspiration, I search my tumblr for YOINK and start scrolling. Or I rip pages out of magazines, write down random quotes I hear in public, or pay close attention to characters that really worked for me in movies or on TV shows. Great artists steal, constantly. You have to find a way to make it your own, but there's truly nothing new under the sun. Instead of sitting alone, pondering something entirely new, play around with how to flip something that intrigues you. Yoink from the world, the internet, other books and movies. Whatever you want to do, believe me: Shakespeare or Hollywood already did it. What makes it special is how only *you* can do it.
9. Expect failure.
I was terrified of failure as a kid. Scared to get a bad grade. Scared to guess wrong. Scared to speak up if I wasn't quite sure of the answer. That continued through high school and college and plagued me into adulthood. Truth is, great success can't come without great risk. You've got to try and fail before you can succeed. Your first book will probably suck. Your first short story will probably not sell. Your first panel might involve you making a fool of yourself. Point is, every person you see as a success right now is standing on the tip of an iceberg of failure. Fail early, fail often. Try new things. Just yesterday, I tried a new pose in yoga and fell on my ass. Nobody noticed. Nobody cared. They were too busy trying not to fall over.
10. Say no.
The saying goes HELL YES OR NO THANKS. Basically, stop saying yes just to please people and then regretting it later. If you're not enthusiastically interested, say no and move on. Free yourself to pursue what really compels you. The pain of turning down an offer is 1/10 as bad as the pain of dreading the thing you now have to do that you never wanted to do. Trust your gut. Learn to say no, and don't feel guilty about it, no matter what your mom tells you.
11. Know when to leave the party.
Have you ever noticed how there's a point at which the party goes from DUDE, THIS IS FUN to DUDE, I'M TEN MINUTES PAST SICK OF THIS? Find that moment, say your goodbyes, and leave. As a parent, I've come to accept the concept of sunk cost. If I've already paid for my day at the amusement park and can't get my money back, why should I stay when the kids are whiny and sunburned and miserable and I'm exhausted and having no fun? You don't have to stay. Leave. Go back to the hotel room. Unwind. That goes for actual events, like cons or parties, and it also goes for social media. When you're accomplishing nothing on Twitter and Facebook except for consuming rage, shut the damn windows and go outside. The moments of your life are going to pass one way or another, so why commit yourself to unnecessary misery?
If writing does nothing but make you feel worse, why are you doing it? Why did you love it in the first place? Is it worth going on? There's no shame in leaving that party, either. Find a better party. Get into painting or model trains or stand-up paddleboarding. If you can choose something to fulfill you other than writing, then for the love of all that's holy, do. You only get one life. Find what fills your well and do it. Forget the rest.
Oh, and don't forget to read often, floss, and get some sunshine. :)