Well, after a couple of days of good news (writing the way you write naturally is just fine, thank you, and even an assignment without a paycheck might pay off), a reader named Julie left a comment with a very important point. It's a point that I might have been treating as self-evident, and upon reflection I realize that it's probably not--so many thanks to Julie for pointing it out.
You have to do the work.
Making it as a writer first requires writing. I know that sounds silly, but I can't tell you how many people I know walking around with hypothetical books in their heads and big plans for the success of those books and their tours and television interviews and all that but who...um...don't write. You have to write.
And writing isn't enough, either. Writing for a living is a business like any other, and that means parts of it aren't that much fun. It also means that parts of it cut into your writing time. If you want to write and be published you have to research markets. You have to send out tailored queries and submissions. You have to track what you've sent where and what kind of response you've received. You have to think about what rights you're willing to sell and then keep track of that, too, so that you don't end up selling or reprinting something you don't own.
Sometimes, in the beginning, you have to take on assignments that just don't thrill you.
About eight years ago, I had a conversation with another writer. I'd just taken on my first assignments as a newspaper stringer, and was writing a scintillating article about McGruff the Crime Dog. I suggested to her--a recent graduate of a respected writing program--that she might want to contact my editor. She sort of wrinkled up her nose and said that she didn't really care for that kind of writing. She's an excellent writer--far better than I--and she has great contacts, but she's been holding out for her "Oprah's Book Club book" all these years. I've never for a moment doubted that she has the ability to write one. But she didn't. And she didn't accumulate clips, and she didn't use her contacts. Eight years later, I have (without a related degree or any contacts to speak of) published two books, written a third that's out to an agent right now, started a fourth, made my living as a newspaper stringer, a copywriter, a curriculum writer for a national corporation, and now have a full-time, salaried writing job.
It isn't, any of it, Oprah's Book Club. And frankly, I don't care about that--I care about making enough money as a writer that I don't have to eat up writing time earning a living some other way. But what if I did? Somehow, I have a strong suspicion that most best-selling authors have a few regional magazine articles and $50 short stories in their past.