My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, June 20, 2016

Writing for Income (Mailbox)

A depiction of exactly how it works.
Image description: Red mailbox with a stack of $100 bills in it.
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week. I have a LOT of backlogged questions right now because my life is a dumpster fire, but I will try to eventually get to all of them.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I am happy to answer questions about the money side of writing and blogging since that aspect is usually treated like a dirty little secret.]  

Sarah asks:

Your Kickstarter looks great, but I'm not sure why you you haven't set up a Patreon. It's totally the latest thing for artists. I would totally give you a couple of dollars a month.

My reply:

EDIT: Now I DO have a Patreon: Come check it out.

Oh I will, precious. Yes, we loveses the Patreon.

My never ending quest to debase myself for Tubmans knows no bounds. Pretty soon it'll be like one of those Klondike commercials gone horribly wrong. I don't mean the sexist "Five Seconds to Glory" ones, but like where they ask me if I'll do things like hang out with rabid chinchillas for another $2 a month, and when I'm taking the money with a broken smile, you can see me timidly petting one that's still hanging by its teeth from my left cheek....and that I've clearly become sensitive to light.

Patreon is coming, but there are two reasons it wasn't here already.

First of all, let's be honest: things were pretty fucking sweet before I was asked to move out. Money was not the problem. I was more than covering my needs and most money was going to retirement funds, a modest advertising budget, and helping out friends and artists (and especially artist friends). All of your donations through Paypal had already let me cut back on teaching hours and pitch in for a housekeeper and apply that time to writing. The problem I had was always time, not money, and unless I wanted to quit my job for the six hours a week that not going to it would provide, the only time left to trim out was watching The Contrarian. We were working on that when we got the diagnosis and the world went pear shaped. And most people who have wanted to schedule a regular contribution until now have had no trouble doing so through Paypal's "monthly contribution" button.

On August 1st it'll be worse than the shattering of the world in Final Fantasy 3 (unless you're an Esper). I will be like a middle aged divorcee housewife who suddenly has a desperate need for Ikea furniture, really cheap vegetable-laden casseroles, and the validation to my self worth that comes from lots of sex. LOTS of it. My need for bill paying cash will suddenly be tremendous, and if I don't want to rent a room into my fifties, I'm really going to need to get my shit together in a way that "Babysitter/Teacher's Assistant/Will Househusband For Food" really can't cover.

The second reason is that I had a very specific project in mind that I wanted to fund (Triexta--you should check it out if you haven't), and it seemed like that was a more focused and specific request for help than a Patreon. Patreon is a great way to get patrons who support an artist's creative endeavor's, across the board, with a few dollars a month. But I really wanted the chance to spend the next year writing a book.

There's also an issue of timing. (It's not just useful in oral sex.) Patreon patrons I can pick up on a long time line, but the Kickstarter has to fund in 30 days. I didn't want people who had signed up for Patreon to pass on the Kickstarter (I really want to write this book) because they just gave me money, and I'm sensitive about being one of those online artists who is just constantly asking for money without really pushing out much content.  I figured the timing would be better if I hit people's enthusiasm when I hadn't passed the hat in a long long time, and then waited a couple of months to start the Patreon for the same reason.

With the Kickstarter going as well as it is, I will probably be able to supplement my teaching and childcare gigs for the year. In a couple of months, when the memory of my Kickstarter and my aggressive self promotion is fading and they're all starting to not hate me for being such a Spammy Sleaze, I'll start up Patreon, and hopefully I will have impressed the shit out of enough people by next summer that Patreon donations will help me keep the momentum of that gap in my income going.

That's the plan anyway. Shouldn't take much more than an hour or two for life to completely fuck it up like Lenny on a bad acid trip. In the meantime, Sarah, if you want to support me, tossing a couple of months worth of what you would have given to a Patreon at that Kickstarter is about the most helpful thing you can do. The more that thing funds, the better I think the next year is going to go across the board. And I promise that I'll let everyone know when the Patreon goes live.

Mark asks: 

I was reading some older articles and I saw you essentially thanking your donors for the fact that you would be able to quit teaching summer school and focus on writing this year. Your latest articles talk about summer school starting up. What happened there?  

My reply: 

This is a very sad story, so don't even attempt to contain your tears.

I have to move out of my house. (I will pause here and let you reassemble yourself from your inevitable loss of composure.) The very cushy situation that I have lived in, which has made it possible to cut the hours of part time jobs out of my life in favor of writing more all while enjoying the finest artisanal vegan aioli, is going away in a mere six weeks. I will have to pay rent and buy my flavored aioli with hard-earned cash the same way everyone else does instead of skating by on a mere forty hours a week of househusband work.

Teaching summer school is a thankless gig, but.....well, actually no it isn't. I am thanked to the tune of $35/hr, which is pretty fucking spectacular for someone like me who has eschewed credentials and masters degrees in favor of foraging my own path. It's only three days a week and four hours a day, but summers for an hourly-paid teacher are usually a long three months without a paycheck. So even though it's not the first thing I would choose to do with my time, and my tween/early teen students make me pull out my hair in clumps most days, once I knew the artisanal vegan aioli gravy train was going to be skipping my station by summer's end, quitting was no longer a luxury I could afford. I will be your study skills instructor for the foreseeable future.

Most writers who don't experience strange, Andy Weir levels of insta-fame* will enter a period where they are making money but not enough money to quit their day job, especially if they haven't married money or are the principle income earner in a household. I've known writers with multiple published novels who don't yet make enough to quit and write exclusively. While tech-savvy writers in the digital age can mitigate this period by not marrying themselves to traditional publishing, it might still be several years before no day job income is needed.

During that time, writers often have to decide if money or their time is more valuable to them. Turn down a promotion? Work four days a week? Take that freelance job? A gig that pays well enough might be too good to pass up, even if it means a few weeks of lower productivity. In my case, summer school was just too much money to ignore.

*FYI: Andy Weir wrote for years before he wrote The Martian.

Alex says:

I follow your Facebook and I saw a status that you're currently making almost a third of your income from writing. I really want to be a writer and I was wondering if you could give me some advice.  

My reply:

You're not going to like this Alex.

You...specifically, Alex, are not going to like this.  You see, I thought your name looked familiar from a few comments on my Writing About Writing page, so I went and looked you up. Sure enough I discovered that you are one of the most outspoken opponents of one of the only pieces of advice I give out consistently to folks who want to improve quickly and make writing into a career.

Okay first let me clear up a factual error. I will be making a third of my income from writing, but I am not now. That's what my Kickstarter is all about. From August to about next June about 30% of my bills will be paid with backer support. This distinction is going to matter in a second, so keep it in mind.

Before we go any further, imagine that writing isn't writing. Imagine that it is dentistry. And imagine you have a dentist who doesn't really go to work except one day a week and that day is usually only a couple of hours. And even then, they might work or might not depending on their mood. They've had months before where they didn't even do so much as a cleaning. This dentist can do an extraction without too much pain and doesn't screw up too bad when filling a cavity, but they aren't particularly fast or efficient. A lot of dentists around them who really practice and learn tricks and hone their skills and learn the latest techniques are quite a bit better.

Now imagine this dentist comes to you and says "Alex, I just really want to make it as a dentist. I'm not even making a third of my income from dentistry. Can you give me some advice?"

What would you tell them?

Most professionals ply their skill "daily." Even if that is more like five or six days a week rather than every single day without exception. Even if life pops up, they generally can't take off work for more than a few days, and the worst circumstances might put them out for a few weeks, unless they hit something just life-shatteringly bad. And if they want to be exceptional in their field, they probably work longer hours, and take particular pains to excel. Artists aren't really remarkable in that regard.

If you are happy writing when the mood strikes, great! If you only want to give a day a week, wonderful. You decide your own level of involvement. But if you want writing to be a job, you have to treat it like a job. If you want writing to be a career, you have to treat it like a career.

Writing is a skill. Like any other skill, it will improve with use and atrophy with disuse. But it is also creates a product through work. And with the few exceptions of folks who win the lottery with a runaway bestseller (and I chose the word "lottery" deliberately), even working writers have to keep right on working like anyone else if they don't want the royalty checks, commissions, and advances to peter out.

The reason I can make 1/3 of my income from writing is because I write every day.

Let me say that again:

The reason I can make 1/3 of my income from writing is because I write every day.

I have donors who love what I've written so far and patrons who want to support my continued efforts. My Kickstarter has backers because I've demonstrated an ability to write with some level of competency at a consistent enough pace that they can be reasonably assured that they're not throwing their money away. (That or I take WAY better selfies than I think I do.) I'm rather certain that if I just assured them I was totally awesome at writing with a Donald Trumpian claim ("I am a great writer. I have the best words, and my writing is going to be fantastic. There will be no problem there, let me tell you. No problem at all."), there would not nearly be the support. All the networking tricks in the world can't take the place of content that people enjoy reading and their memory of you as someone they would like to read more of. Whatever money I've made from writing, past, present, and future, it's almost entirely because I sit down every day whether I feel like it or not and produce at least a couple of pages that entertain. And some days fucking suck and I hate everything I write. But those days pay the price in discipline for the ones where I'm in the zone and it just slides out.

Now here's where the dental analogy breaks down. If you write every day, you won't "make it" right away, or even for sure in the time it takes to become a dentist. It may take many years. It may never happen. This is why it's important to love it and decide if you would do it anyway because I'm pretty sure no fucking dentist would be willing to put up with a three to five year unpaid internship (5-10 in traditional....uh dentistry publishing). It's possible you can do all this work for nothing, so it has to be it's own reward. But what's not really possible achieving all the accolades of success without putting in the sweat equity. That's just not going to happen and there's no shortcut, trick, technique, or scheme that's going to make it otherwise.

Now I've seen you, Alex, go to the mat time and time again that it is stifling to your creativity to try to write every day and that you can't possibly when the inspiration isn't there and how dare I post yet another article that encourages writers to make their enjoyable hobby feel like work. Just about every time one of my posts is about writing daily, you've got something–something that's usually just a little more snippy than I'm being with you right now–to contribute about how that's at least bad advice for the creative soul within you, if not downright damaging to the writing world at large. (Who all apparently will churn out a lot more if they stop writing, I guess.) I've got to wonder at the irony here. Do you think maybe these things might be connected? Maybe?

If you don't want to write every day, that's cool...if a fun hobby that never feels like work is all you want out of writing. Seriously, it's really okay! Enjoy what brings you bliss. Frankly, I think more people could stand to be honest about not wanting to write for a living instead of filling the world with folks who are confused that they're not making career caliber money from weekend warrior effort.

But it's not really a coincidence that all the writers making day job money from writing dispense the same two pieces of advice: "Read like hell. Write every day." If you want writing to be your job, you have to treat it like it is.


  1. Hey Alex,

    I didn't want to be a professional writer because then I'd have to write every day and writing would become a chore. So I quit.

    Big mistake.

    I spent a whole year writing every day. I took 13 total days off due to unforeseen circumstances, but I wrote even on days when I was traveling between countries. And I got better, and it never felt like a chore.

    Creativity comes when you're in the right mindset for it. If you're not in the right mindset, change your mindset. Don't wait for it to descend upon you from On High. It doesn't work that way.

    And here's the other thing: People who write every day still don't make all their money from writing until they've written for years. I've been writing steadily for 2.5 years and have yet to make a cent. Most of the authors I liked had 5-10 year long unpaid "apprenticeships" before they sold their first book, and they weren't able to quit their day jobs until book 8 or 9. If you decide to wait until the muse strikes you, that 5-10 year apprenticeship will be more like 20-30 years. And that's fine if you don't want to make a living as a writer, but if you do ... not so much.

    Now I'm 41 and I'm hoping to hit my stride about the time I'm between 55 and 65 and looking to retire from my day job. I'm doing that because writing, like saving for retirement, is a long-term strategy and one that doesn't always work out.

    Good luck!

  2. Oops!
    "I didn't want to be a professional writer because then I'd have to write every day and writing would become a chore. So I quit." should have started with "When I was in my 20s." And "I spent a whole year writing every day" should have started with "When I was in my late 30s."

    This is what happens when you're still learning how to write and don't bother to edit first. D'oh!

  3. For some reason, that's probably the most depressing thing I've read in a long time.