My first advice to anyone who wants to write for a living is to do something else. Something more profitable, certainly more respectable, and less humiliating. There are dozens of choices out there from crack dealer even to being a lawyer.
The second thing I tell them though is this. If you find, like I did, that you really aren’t that good at anything else, when you reach the point when you understand being a writer is really all you can do, then we can talk about the reality of it all. Because frankly, it isn’t easy.
I’m not complaining. Believe me
- You’re probably not going to be rich, but you can do okay for yourself. There is the possibility that you will be very poor. That last bit mostly depends on you (more on that in a moment).
- You’re probably not going to be famous. You might be well known in certain, and probably quite limited, circles. You may be the next George R.R. Martin or Steven King, but the odds are long.
- You will make sacrifices: time with your family and friends, vacations, and the like in exchange for pursuing your passions. The return you get will be the satisfaction of that passion (if you are lucky and keep the right perspective). The only 401K is the one you set up yourself.
You have to understand though that in the end, I did not choose the writing life. The writing life chose me. Although I was good at other things, they never lasted and were never satisfying. If I had not made the choice to pursue my writing passion, I’m not sure where I would be today.
Writing is not just a job, but it is work. It is not just a career, although you can make it one. Writing is a lifestyle, and it chose me. If you are fortunate enough to be one of the ones this harsh mistress has chosen, here are some tips to keep you going.
That movie deal with Amazon or Netflix (Hollywood is so last decade) might just go through. You may have the next bestseller in your brain after all, and if you never let it out and try, you won’t ever know.
At the same time, starting your own freelance writing business to support your creative habit (this is what I did) can be a big dream too. You might get big enough that you can develop an exit strategy and sell your business. You might even be able to help other freelancers with their careers by sharing your work with them.
Want to write the next Great American Novel? You can. Want to be the next Danielle Steel, Clive Cussler, Lee Child, or Erma Bombeck? You can do that too. Choose your genre, what you like to write, and set some lofty goals. There is absolutely nothing wrong with dreaming big.
Get to Work
My biggest obstacle to being a professional writer, i.e. one who gets paid for his work, was figuring out how to work and get paid for it. I started and finished novels, even worked for content mills and other web places that expected high results and paid little. It was frustrating. I send manuscripts and stories everywhere with rejection after rejection.
What changed? Simple. I came to the understanding that writing was not only a business, but a lifestyle. It involves work, every single day. Not only is there the aspect of writing, but the rest of the things you need to do to run any business, including marketing and having a platform to distribute your work and for readers to discover it.
The point was that I needed to treat writing like a job, which means sometimes it is not as fun as when it is just a hobby. When writing is just a sideline, you can do it when you feel like it, when inspiration strikes, or whenever. As it becomes a job, you need to write every day. You will need to set deadlines if none are set for you, and some days it is actually work.
Keep the Joy in Your Writing Life
For a while, unless you are very lucky, your writing will be like having a second job. You will still work your regular job, but you will also sacrifice sleep and time with family and friends to pursue your dreams. Look up the number of times Steven King and J.K. Rowling were rejected before they had a novel that amounted to anything that got accepted and then made them any money.
Also, the likelihood is you my never make it like that. You may write several novels before you make enough money as a mid-list author to quit your day job and just write. You may have to supplement your fiction income with freelance writing, journalism, or some other related job.
During all of that time, your writing cannot become a chore. You must keep the joy of discovering and creating new worlds, otherwise you should probably just stay as a hobby writer, and do it for pleasure when you can. At your best, unless you are one of the lucky few, you will not make enough money to really be compensated generously for the time and labor you put into writing.
Joy, the freedom and mental health you get from writing should be your reward. The money, no matter how much it gets to be, should always be second to that. When your writing becomes just about the money, it will not be as good, and you will not feel fulfilled by writing it.
Know Thyself and Write What Thee Knows
Write what you know? This does not mean that you need a vast store of science knowledge to write sci-fi, or that you must know every dragon legend to write fantasy. Instead, what it means is that you need to know humanity, people. Your characters will almost always mean more than your plot or storyline (another post for another day).
To know others and get to know your characters, you must know yourself. Make no mistake. If you are a true writer, you are not “normal” compared to other people. Your job will not be normal, nor will your way of thinking. You will be a lifelong learner, alone much of the time (and perfectly happy with that) and held in disdain by many who have more noble professions.
You do a unique thing, something not everyone can do and something they are often jealous of. If you manage to eek out a living doing it, you are an even rarer bird. Understand that, hang on to it, use it to your mental advantage, but also realize your lifestyle will not necessarily align with that of those who are in more mainstream professions. Weekends and holidays mean less, your writing time means much more. Writing is not just a profession. It is a lifestyle. It takes a form of dedication and commitment beyond what other “jobs” require. Yet if you find, as I did, that you cannot do anything else and do it as well as you write, embrace that lifestyle. Lean into it and make it your own. You will be at your best when you do, and your life will never be the same again.