Building a Writing Career—The Real Secret Handshake

There is one thing you can do to build your career in this field that will help more than anything else, a secret handshake of the writing biz. You know what it is, though it may not occur to you immediately. Who wants to take a swing at it?

*a hand shoots up*

Write the best story you possibly can, every time?


Okay, two things. But really, writing the best story you can is the ante you need to pay just to get into the game. Without that you don’t even get to play. Anyone else want to guess?


I see some hands up and I’m pretty sure some of you know the answer, but since this is a pre-canned essay, I’m going to have to type it myself anyway.

Be professional.

I’m letting that sit out there all alone because it’s really really important. Science fiction and fantasy publishing is a business, and it’s actually a very small one at the professional level. If you were to take every single SFWA eligible writer in the entire world and put them together in one place you’d have a group roughly the size of my wife’s high school student body. Admittedly, it was a large high school, 2,000 plus students, and the group gets bigger when you add in all of the agents and editors, but due to agent-writer and editor-writer ratios that still doesn’t take you outside the large high school range.

Think about that for a moment. A large high school. If you went to a big school think about how fast information moved through the student body. Think about the way that if you did something notable as a freshman it stayed with you for the next four years because everybody knew everybody at least a little. Even if you went to a smaller school (my graduating class was 17) you probably still have a feeling for the scale just from being immersed in pop culture.

So, in terms of community size and reputation building, professional science fiction and fantasy, is basically a large high school. The plus side of this is that everyone knows everyone else, and at its best the community functions like a tight-knit village with lots of mutual support. The minus side of this is that…everyone knows everyone. If you have a public hissy fit (and the internet counts as public) when you get a particularly brutal rejection letter it may hang there in the background of your reputation for the rest of your career.

Fortunately, there’s an easy fix for reputation management. Be professional. Remember that if you want to make writing your career, it’s just that—a career. Remember whenever you post something online about writing that you’re pretty much posting it on the wall labeled “my professional reputation.” Don’t punt deadlines unless you absolutely have to, and then manage the fallout in a professional manner. Tell your editor what’s coming as soon as you can see it. Apologize. If you’ve got a fan base that you interact with online, make sure to keep them as up to date as possible.

Above all, treat people with respect and kindness as much as possible. Personally, I’ve found that this is a good idea in general for managing my life. Your millage may vary there, but it’s really important for your professional interactions because those will have a huge effect on your career over time for a very simple reason. Editors are people, and they buy stories for a lot of reasons.

Primarily editors buy stories because they believe they will sell, but after you get over that basic hurdle (see writing the best story you possibly can every time above) other factors start to come into play and right up at the top of the list is how they feel about the writer as a professional. Does the author produce a reliable product? Do they do so on time? Is the author easy to work with? Can they be trusted not to do anything that will alienate fans? Etc.

Now, I will admit that if you sell 100,000 hard covers every time your name appears on a dust jacket you can get away with all kinds of crappy behavior—though many will think the worse of you. But if you’re underselling and so is captain-difficult-to-work-with, I can tell you who is going to be the first cut from the list and it’s not the writer who acts professionally.

So, yes, Virginia, there really is a secret handshake. It’s called professional behavior, or more simply, being polite and meeting your obligations.

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There are 8 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. LJCohen

    “Above all, treat people with respect and kindness as much as possible. Personally, I’ve found that this is a good idea in general for managing my life.”

    Thank you for this. So well said. A lesson I learned from my parents early on, and one I work hard at getting my kids to follow.

    It’s a small world and with archiving, the internet is forever.

    Keeping it professional in my small corner of it. . .



  2. 2. Kelly McCullough

    Lisa, yep. I try to do this primarily because I believe it’s the right thing to do. But it also turns out to be a really useful tool for getting things done as well. I can’t count the number of times where simply being nice to people and treating them as I would want to be treated has brought good results in places as diverse as dealing with publishing professionals, airline agents, and operators at my local utilities.

  3. 3. Tim S.

    Excellent advice, and well said. You should write professionally. ;)

    “Now, I will admit that if you sell 100,000 hard covers every time your name appears on a dust jacket you can get away with all kinds of crappy behavior—though many will think the worse of you.”

    And it’s worth remembering that at *some point*, your name will not sell 100,000 hard covers. You can’t control the market or people’s tastes, fashions or fads. What you can control is just what you’re pointing out, Kelly, and that’s what the people you deal with think of you.

  4. 4. carolyn crane

    This is just a great, thoughtful post, and so true. I love your emphasis on the career aspect of writing career.

  5. 5. Gretchen Hirsch

    Courtesy, kindness, and common civility are so rare today that working and playing well with others actually makes you stand out. And that includes being kind on the Net. If you have the slightest doubt about what you’re putting online, don’t. It will live–and haunt you–forever. The person you flame today might be in position to buy your book tomorrow. But won’t.

  6. 6. Kelly McCullough

    Tim, thanks, and true dat.

    Carolyn, thank you, I really try to think in terms of the long run.

    Gretchen, yes, I’ve been amazed sometimes at the difference even the most basic courtesy can make because the person I’m dealing with is so used to getting treated badly. And yes, the internet is forever and even anonymity is a lot more fragile than it looks.

  7. 7. Paul Lamb

    I’ve seen quite a few commercial authors who’ve sold 100,000 copies of their novels (enough of them to fill a small high school, maybe) who are no longer writing the best possible novel they could. They are simply phoning it in and trading on their name/reputation. Their editors let them get away with it. So do their agents.

  8. 8. Kelly McCullough

    Paul, I think I covered that here “I will admit that if you sell 100,000 hard covers every time your name appears on a dust jacket you can get away with all kinds of crappy behavior—though many will think the worse of you” as I would characterize that as crappy behavior. There may also be a point where “phoning it in” is the best possible novel someone can write given various constraints in terms of continuing to eat and what people are willing to buy from them. I certainly know of authors who’ve had the choice of writing another novel in a series they’ve grown to hate and making enough money to pay the mortgage, or writing something new that they love knowing that no one will buy it and they’ll up in ugly financial shape.

Author Information

Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough is a fantasy and science fiction author. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series—Penguin/ACE. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Writers of the Future and Weird Tales. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star—part of an NSF-funded science curriculum—and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited—funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Visit site.



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