9- Your purple prose (at least for now)
I get it. You like the classics. You clutch Victorian literature to your breast and weep at the beauty of the prose. You dig the days when writers "could really write." You have a little shrine to Ambrose Bierce. And since the Jane Austen group you follow on FB has thousands of members, clearly there's a market for this stuff and obviously it's okay if you are a little anachronistic in your style, right?
I have some bad news. You're not going to like it.
No one is going to buy that Brontë shit today. (Okay, maybe like five people.) Not unless it's actually written by one of the sisters Brontë.
I'm sorry. I love you. I love that stuff too. My fuck, but those Victorians turn a phrase. And sometimes I pause after a sentence and just sigh. But today, no one is going to buy it. Today we have different conventions for how to make a sentence pop off the page, using prosaic structure that leans on visceral adjectives and punchy verbs instead of lots of languid multi-claused complex sentences and linking verbs. Even daedal writers are not mannered or overwrought.
I could get into some pretty complicated reasons why we've drifted away from that prose. The postmodernism movement demanded a much different kind of voice, even for its omniscient narrators. Instead of vivid, unnuanced characters, we have the opposite. The assumptions reflected in Victorian language (and even the structure, to a lesser degree) were incredibly sexist and racist, even while reflecting fierce moral polemics and an intense interest in the working class. You might as well write in gothic or dark romanticism. (Understand, you can explore these themes and make a mint, but not necessarily emulate the language). Today few readers will give the time and energy needed to parse the anachronistic language of something that isn't already a classic.
Basically we're about half a dozen major literary movements (from realism through existentialism to the emerging movement of the 21st century that is being called transrealism) past that type of writing. And while there is no one single way to write today, and you can still win a Pulitzer prize for literature while writing half your sentences with no subject (oh yeah, I'm looking at you Shipping News), today it takes a practiced hand to learn when and where to slip in those buttery Victorian words and cream-filled sentences that won't make the whole dish far too rich for a modern palatte.
Today that kind of prose won't make money. You can write that way if you really want, of course (you can write ANY way you really want), but get ready to write for a small collection of friends and fans rather than for the sweet song of the Benjamins.
|I didn't say THAT!|
Image description: Framed text: "Talentless is the new talented."
There might be this thing called talent.
My editor and I disagree about "talent" a lot. I think it might exist but worrying about it is wasted spirit. She thinks a life spent in hard work could be frustrating without it. Strangely, I think we're both right to a degree, but too many writers think they have talent and that means they don't have toget to work.
Love of wordplay. Linguistic aptitude. Sense of story. Memory for a massive vocabulary. Maybe some cocktail of attributes and proficiencies and things taught SO early (like a deep-seated love of books, a strong work ethic, artistic ambition) that they can't really be added or extracted to or from a person's alloy by adulthood (even though they may have more to do with a typical middle class upbringing) all adds up to something we look at and refer to as "talent."
But honestly, no one really knows what those things are, and we certainly don't know how much of them is nature vs. nurture. There isn't a thing we don't shuck off to "talent" that can't be learned, practiced, developed like an acquired taste, or essentially cultivated through hard work. It may take someone longer than someone with "talent," but most people given the label of "talented" are just riDONKulously hard workers. Guidelines of writing can be learned. Discipline can be refined. Even creativity can be improved on like a muscle one flexes a few times a day.
If it does exist, it does. If it doesn't, it doesn't. What are you going to do about it?
While there may be something out there called "talent," there's virtually nothing it can do that can't be reproduced by hard work on a long enough timeline. And yes, no two people will achieve the same outcome with the same amount of work, and maybe in a million years with a million studies, you could tease out what was initial brain aptitude (talent) from what was privilege in all its forms and sheer luck. (Right now, the second most important thing after writing a LOT to a book deal is being a cis het white male with a little bit of nepotism going for you.) But there's nothing "talent" will give you that will matter more than hard work 99% of the time.
I, for example, have very little talent. My math aptitudes were always higher than my verbals and I struggle against dyslexia and ADD/ADHD. I wrote daily for hours for nearly 20 years to achieve what little I have and it feels more gutted out of me than natural.
Anything called talent is almost always little more than tremendous effort and an almost obsessive dedication expended over enough time to set someone apart from their peers. No one means "you have that ineffable 'je nais se quoi'" when they call someone talented. They mean "You're good." Yo-Yo Ma might be talented, but he still practices six hours a day and you'll be hard pressed to find a cellist who has practiced six hours a day for decades who isn't accomplished––even if they're not QUITE as accomplished as Yo-Yo Ma.
Certainly there are Shakespeares and Faulkners and Baldwins and Morrisons and Euripideses (Euripidii?) [and Yo-Yo Ma's] who all but one in a billion of us must spend our lives looking up to in awe. And their existence––as well as the existence of people with almost zero aptitude (though often also zero interest)––does suggest that a bell curve exists. But for most of us, in praxis, counting on talent to do anything that hard work won't is a long wait for a train that never comes.
Talent (if it exists at all) will not save you. Get to work.
11- Working for exposure
Just repeat to yourself "Artists die of exposure."
|Sometimes their characters die of exposure too.|
Image description: Jack London's To Build a Fire
What folks are hoping for–that people will come to recognize their name, and perhaps even equate it with quality writing– will take years. (Honestly, the rep of a quality plumber would spread faster.) Not only will it take years, it will take years of doing exactly the writing they want to be doing–not the writing someone else wants them to be doing. Consider how many first time novelists you've taken a chance on because you recognize their name from Huffpo articles? No? Didn't think so.
In the meantime, you are making them money. Your efforts, unpaid, are lining their pockets. Of course they don't want to pay you–apparently they don't need to. And when you start displaying the sense of self-worth that you deserve to be paid, you will be replaced. You are putting everything into their brand and not even getting so much as a McDonald's value meal out of the deal. And all you ever really do is reinforce the belief that people can hire artists without paying them, and that your time isn't actually worth any money.
I know it might seem a little less than epiphanic to say that you won't make money if you write for free, and your freelance rate doesn't have to be $100/hr or anything. But if you want to make money, don't do it for free.
Let me say that again: If you want to make money writing, don't write for free.
12- A bunch of existential bullshit about not being good enough
|Image description: Blue life-sized muppet|
gazing out upon the ocean.
Look, if I wanted to, I could make an entire listicle for every way you've decided to convince yourself you're not good enough. From comparing yourself to others (don't do that) to worrying that you're too old to have a career in writing (you're not) to the idea that you lack talent (the very idea of talent is suspect) to worrying that you have anything to say (you do).
Ego and overconfidence won't actually serve a writer who wants to make money, but here's a little secret for you: we all lie in bed at night, stare at the ceiling and think about this stuff. Even bestselling authors wonder if their best books are behind them and if they'll ever write again like in their halcyon days before the selling-out started. I constantly question my own time management, worry about whether I should have walked away from a steady job to write, wonder if my fiction is going to be any good, fail to live up to my own nearly impossible expectations for output, and think I sure wrote more edgy stuff before my audience was so large and am I self-censoring?
But the next day, when working writers sit down, they let go of that crap and do the work. They have these thoughts, give them space, and maybe even think about how to deal with them, but they don't let themselves be paralyzed with fear about it. It's like in a normal job where you might wonder if your boss likes you or if you're on their shitlist or if you should have gone into real estate. Fine, but you still have to go in and do your job if you want to get paid.
Let your existential questions have a seat at your table because you're not Zapp Brannigan, but if you want to make money writing, don't let them steer the conversation about where you'll be vacationing this year.
|Existential whosit? That sounds like something people have who aren't me.|
Image description: Zapp Brannigan
"Spook Chasers" toy–an obvious knock-off
Are you a professional speed writer who specializes in get-rich-quick schemes by shady gurus who literally advise people to rewrite books, rip off their titles and mimic them as closely as possible and leech off their success? Do you make your living filing off the serial numbers from huge selling items like 50 Shades of Gray or Harry Potter and selling them under titles like 50 Shades of Desire or Harold Potts and the Hogsmeade Magician School? Do you want to be the literary equivalent of a knock-off toy, attaching like a lamprey to the bottom of a successful author and hoping your presence isn't noticed, lest they take the time to swat you with a lawsuit? Is that what you're trying to accomplish? Is that the kind of writer you really want to be? Is that your dream?
Then stop trying to chase trends or write the "next" anything. You don't have the chops for it.
There's a time and a place to consider what sells, and it's not when you're sitting down to the blank page.
Wait a second Chrisaroo, this whole fucking list is about writers making money! Don't give me that artistic integrity shit now!
This isn't even about fucking artistic integrity. It's about getting it done. It might seem counterintuitive, at first, but unless you're literally trying to be the book equivalent of the Spook Chasers toy up above with the character, who is no doubt named Egads Spanglez, chasing trends like that is a fool's errand. I'm not saying you can't write something derivative (lord knows it all is, really). I'm not saying you can't try your own hand at a vampire novel. I'm not saying your wizard school is going to be hella dope compared to Hogwarts.
What I'm saying is that to make money by creative writing, first you have to do an awful lot of creative writing where you won't make anything and even more where you won't make much. So you better love it for its own sake while the not-getting-paid part is going on.
There are a lot of ways to make money writing. Freelance. Content. Tech writing. Speech writing. Blogging. And yes, even bullshit knock-off books can be the source of a paycheck. And you can get your first payday minutes after you smithed some words, depending on the person you've done the writing for. But the creative writing takes a long time to come back around, and if the writing you're doing is sucking your soul out your fingertips, you're never going to make it. You're never going to see that book you aren't really passionate about (but figured might sell) through the three drafts and seven revisions and years of love and toil that it's going to need.
You have to write what you believe in. Whether that's a blog with ridiculous characters or a book that you burn to read, the finish line is TOO. FUCKING. FAR. to try and wing it through something you don't wake up in the morning and look forward to writing.
Of course when you're a big, successful writer making money like woah, you might have to revisit this exact question when it comes to "selling out" (and Stephen King's sixty-page Kindle commercial is perfect evidence of that), but on this side of the Rubicon, there's only one reason to write a book: you really, really want to write that book.
|Image description: dirty fingernails|
I can't really tell you what is going to happen in your paid creative writing career. Maybe you go self-publishing. Maybe you're going to go small presses and personally walk copies of your book to local small bookstores to put on consignment. Maybe you go traditional, and you will tour bookstores and sit for hours behind a table and a stack of your books, watching people glance from you to their companions and back with a "Who's that?" look. Maybe you run a blog and a Facebook page and use those to promote yourself and ask for donations. Maybe you Kickstarter and digitally publish but are hoping to be noticed.
I can't see your path.
However, here is some prescience I can claim. I know what isn't going to happen. I know the path that you will never walk. You will never simply sequester yourself away in your writing space, hand your finished manuscripts to an agent, and let your paychecks roll in. That's not gonna happen.
Not. Gonna. Happen.
In one form or another, you're going to have to promote yourself and basically nudge people to spend money on you. Even if you try to stay above it all in traditional publishing, you may have to fire an agent and hire their replacement, negotiate for a better book deal, do a book tour as a contractual obligation, or renegotiate when your book deal is up for renewal. Hell, even if you're a household name, you'll end up having to work press junkets with publicists and shit.
I know the bourgeois concept of "high art" (as done by the idle rich) promotes a sense that art shouldn't be sullied by money, and that any artist who doesn't want to starve to death in a freezing apartment with a mouth of missing and rotted teeth obviously didn't really love the art for its own sake. And that is just ten kinds of classist bullshit. Artists need to eat. We need to pay rent. We need insurance.
At some point, if you want to make money writing, you're going to have to give up the idea that your work will be so spectacular that it will just speak for itself and people will just throw money at you. At some point, you will have to hold your head high and walk past all the people superciliously sneering at you for "making it all about money." At some point, you will have to promote yourself.
|Image description: snowflake (surely a special one)|
You're going to have to read constantly if you want to be a writer. "Not me. I watch a lot of quality HBO shows and films. I have a good sense of pacing. I don't really like reading that much."
You really do need an agent if you go the traditional publishing route. "Not me. My shit is going to wow a publisher if I solicit directly."
You have to write every day or almost every day or at LEAST every weekday. "Not me. I only write when the inspiration hits. If I write every day, it feels like a chore. No, of course I haven't ever tried it for more than a few days–I just know."
If you do self-publishing you really need to drop the money on a content editor. "Not me. My friends all say it's awesome. Just need some copyediting and I'm good to go."
Okay, but seriously you're never going to publish your Nanowrimo manuscript without a couple of rewrites and major revisions. "No, mine is really good. I need someone to look at the grammar, but it's basically good to go."
This is going to take years of practice to get good. "Not me. I have talent."
As special as people who think these things are, they're all going to have one thing in common: when you check back in on them in a couple of years, they still won't be getting paid for creative writing.
If you want to get paid, it's time to let go of this snowflake crap and assume that the zillion writers who came before you know what they are talking about. Chances are your creativity and discipline have pretty much the same relationship as everyone else's, your prose strength comes from reading linguistic descriptions just like everyone else, you are going to have to revise no matter how good you think your writing is, and when you stop trying to be a special snowflake and just get your ass to work, you're almost certainly going to figure out that you work just about the same way as everyone else who has ever rubbed words together to put food in their belly.
16- Your self-washing hand
I know a number of talented writers and the reason they can't get their shit out there is that they are greedy fucknoodles about how other people can help them.
One of my favorite teachers was almost aggressive about asking for social media signal boosting, but never had a second to return the favor. Ever. To anyone. And surprise surprise, he does quite well getting his signal boosted by current students and young writers and basically a bunch of people he's just encountered who all pretty much know each other, but the folks who have been writing for a while–exactly the ones with the bigger, broader followings who could really point a lot of people his way–aren't in the mood to do so because he's got a reputation for demanding favors without reciprocity.
"Hey, will you proliferate this post?" "Hey, will you share this story?" "Hey, will you pass my name on to your agent friend?" "I'm not going to do anything in return of course. Ever. But please help me to put myself out there for absolutely no mutual benefit."
The same thing happens if you try to read at a literary event without ever coming as a member of the audience.
The same thing happens if you try to get people to critique your work without offering to do any in return.
Pretty soon, no one will deal with you. And then your job gets a whole lot harder.
It's a variation on a theme in any industry where those who consider how people can help them without returning the favor quickly wind up using up all the goodwill around them. One hand washes the other. When you're Donald Trump refusing to pay contractors, there's always another one to take their place (and apparently an entire wing of US politics as well), but when you're a writer, you find out quite quickly that this business is far more small and inscestuous than anybody might realize at first blush. And reputations matter.
If you're really, really good or already famous, it may not ever matter that you leave behind a trail of people's goodwills like squeezed-out toothpaste tubes, but for most starting writers, it can make or break their initial low-paid years to start having doors closed because they were a greedy anal sphincter about reciprocity. If you want to make money, think about how you can pay or trade services for or just do the same in return for those you're hoping to get favors from.
On to Part 3