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

Friday, September 15, 2017

25 Things to Let Go if You Want to Write Creatively for Money (Part 1)

When you write about writing, some days are gentle and inspirational because some days, that creative spark needs to be covered by double cupping hands and coaxed ever-so-kindly into a flame with soft words of encouragement and Maya Angelou's Still I Rise. The fragile dreams are shielded from the harsh world and the artist nurtured who dares to go forth is told "you can do this."

And then some days you put on spiked boots and stomp into the club looking to bust someone's bubble. Not because you don't like bubbles, but because while encouragement is awesome, too much of it is like trying to eat nothing but Lucky Charms Cheesecake. And getting someone to eat their vegetables is tough love, but in the long run it'll keep them from getting scurvy.

That's what this is about. Writer scurvy.

So let's just say that I'm here to use the wifi and bust some bubbles. And there's still no fucking wifi. If you need your delicate flower creativity sprinkled with love and encouragement today, you might want to check out something a little softer, and meet the rest of us at the end of the ride.

Here we fucking go.

There are a lot of ways to approach writing and it's really okay not to do it at all. You don't have to do it when it doesn't feel good. You don't have to do it when you're not inspired. You don't have to do it for money. If you do make money, you don't have to do it to replace your day job. And you don't have to let anyone define what "success" means for you.

But if you want to be read by many.... If you want to be a Writer™ with a capital W.... If you want to pay your rent check with what you've made from writing (particularly your creative writing), there are a few things you're going to have to let go of....

Okay, yes...um....technically that stings and
you might have to thank someone for it. But....um......
(Can we upgrade the image finding from an internship to a paid position?)
Source: Etsy
Image description: BDSM paddle with holes in it.
1a- Your ego
In order for your writing to go beyond an enjoyable hobby and maybe a few friends, you're going to have to learn to take an ego hit...and some of it's going to sting. Bad.

And here's the punchline: for the most part, you have to learn to take it and thank whoever just torpedoed you with a big, sincere smile. Because, for the most part (and with a  few notable exceptions), they just did you the biggest favor anyone can do to an artist.

Most of the rest of the shit on this entire list would burn away to little more than "Check your ego" in a bullshit crucible (but I'm going to write it anyway because one-item listicles are so last week).

So learn to check your goddamned ego or learn to enjoy writing for free. Pick one.

1b- ....but not your self esteem
I know it can be hard to read some shit like: "don't have an ego," but then turn around immediately read: "yet keep your self esteem." They really are different though. One is like the charging rhino that says "I don't need revision, I'll just self publish, fuckeeeeeeerrrrrrrrs!" and the other is the quiet voice that says "It's good that I found out about all these mistakes. Now I can fix them and make it better. But I'm not giving up. I'm going to keep going. This matters."

Call it confidence, call it self-respect, call it self-worth, call it Twizzler Pops, call it about five grand in therapy bills, but whatever you call it, know that without it, you'll last about thirty seconds against your first legitimate onslaught of self doubt, and there are more ways to unconsciously sabotage a burgeoning writing career than you ever thought possible. You can love writing, be a writer, maybe even publish and possibly even get paid a little, but to really make a career of this, it requires a dogged belief that, at the end of the day, your work is worth putting out there.

Ego refuses to learn. Ego makes it all about you. Ego makes you defensive and tells you everyone around you sucks. And if you're keeping score, ego also tells you that your sense of your work being worth nothing is more important than genuine vulnerability and it can protect you by never trying. Self-respect, on the other hand, continues to value its contribution to the world no matter how much improvement it needs to get there. Ego deals by not letting anything in and feeding only on itself. Self-esteem lets it in, but also knows how to digest it and expel waste. Which leads me to.....

There, there, little one. It'll only hurt for a second and then
it'll make you even better.
Image description: scared baby
2- Your fear of criticism
You are not God's gift to the written word, and people are going to tell you exactly where you failed. Get over it.

That part you thought was fucking brilliant? It doesn't work as well as you think it does.

The ending you thought was so fucking cool? It's confusing as fuck.

That death you thought was so heart-wrenching? Overly sentimental and clich├ęd.

All that cleverness. Oh so very much cleverness. Hackneyed.

There are all sorts of circumstances through which you want to act as a filter to criticism: considering the ability of the source, balancing someone's critique against your own vision, remembering that some people think the object of peer review is to show how clever they can make scathing sound like they are an edgy film critic blogger, and of course there's the other side too, where you want to consider if the person is trying to curry favor or wants to dance the Paphian jig. Yes, indeedily doodly, you absolutely have to find yourself the criticism that you trust.

But you need it. Oh holy fuck do you need it so bad.

3- Your need for approval
You know why you're afraid of criticism? Because your ego has a need for approval. It's easy to imagine everyone likes you if you never expose yourself to the possibility that they don't. And artists are no different–they may even be perhaps a bit needier than most–lest we forget how much exhibitionism is fueled by some level of narcissism. Many artists dread the idea that the artistic baring of their soul could lead to rejection.

We all want someone to read our work and look up at us with eyes both shocked and profoundly moved. "This...." they will say, "this is really quite incredible. I've been reading for ten billion years, and I've never seen anything like even remotely this in all that time. It's as if Shakespeare and Morrison's love child were tutored by Faulkner and Hughes and the result was THIS MANUSCRIPT."

But part of you knows that's not how these things work. They won't do that. They'll hand it back and say nothing about how your setting as kinetic landscape reflected the inherent themes of duty vs. desire and instead will say "I don't understand why Billy ate the cheese in the first place."

And that's if you're having a pretty good day.

What is even more likely is that they will raise one eyebrow and purse their lips like they are watching a baby bird jump off a branch and fall straight to the ground. And tell you like they just tried asparagus frozen yogurt: "That's....really......good. I have to go though. Root canal, you see."

Until you learn to snap-kick your ego in the sensitive bits, you'll never be able to handle that criticism your work so desperately needs.

There you go. Now go write.
Image description: Gold star with "well done" written next to it.
There's another reason to stop needing approval.


At this very moment there is some angry internet fuckmuppet blogger who is smashing their F key so hard it's going to break while doing a "takedown piece" of Shakespeare or murdering entire forests writing about how Octavia Butler is "too political" or some bullshit. Gertrude Stein still causes bar fights. It is as important as getting the right kind of criticism to learn that you shrug off the wrong kind, and that can never happen if you're writing for approval. Just go make Hallmark cards if your aim is to please everybody.

One of the most dangerous things an artist can do is to care deeply for what people think*.

Yeah, it may seem like a fucking chore to come up with the right cocktail of self-esteem but not ego, and the right balance of ignoring shitty criticism while slurping up the good crit and licking the drippings off your fingers, but if you want to make money writing, you're going to have to figure it out.

*All but a choice, respected few who understand the vision and work with it.

4- Your excuses
There are so many excuses for why you can't be writing.  And even though I write edgy listicles about them, I'm not here to be your arbiter of the excuses. And you might even have excuses about why you can't revise. Or excuses about why you can't publish. Or whatever.

I'm not here to tell you if your excuses are good or not, worthy or not, reasonable or not.

I'm not here to give you shit if your life really is upside down and you've had some trouble getting to the page. Fuck knows I've had my own issues these last two years.

I'm not here to spout some ableist (and probably classist) bullshit about how if you want it, you'll find a way. There won't be any shaming meme attached here that makes you feel like if you are going through the ninth circle of hell or physically can't write, you must not "want it." We all have to deal with the realities of our situations.

I'm not here to put your excuse on trial in a hula hoop holder prison and have giant heads judge whether it belongs in a floaty glass Phantom Zone prison.

Seriously Chris? A thirty-eight-year-old pop culture reference.
Image description: Superman: Zod and crew glass prison from the Richard Lester Superman 2.

I'm not here for that bullshit.

But here's what I can tell you, and there's no getting around it...

If I had all those excuses–and I mean every single one of them–along with five bucks, I might be able to afford a sandwich. But sadly not from Ike's, and probably not a Reuben though–those are a little extra.

I'm not the elitist, judgmental fucker who's going to tell you that your excuse aren't a perfectly adequate reason to not be writing. Just the cynical, seen-too-much-shit realist who's going to tell you that you're not going to make money by not doing it. And if you want to make money, you're going to have to shove those excuses in the garbage can (not the garbage can't).

5- Your aversion to lots of painful revision
I'm going to yell at you down the list a bit if you're still trying to get out of revision, and I already told you to get your ass some peer criticism, but if you're not ready to A) DO and B) USE both those things in service to the very messy creative process, you're never going to make money.

You're going to have to do the drafting and the second drafting and the peer review and the revision and then more peer review and then more revision. You're going to have to do that if you want to make money.

You're going to have to kill that darling. That doesn't mean your kid's book needs a Joss Whedon body count. Your "darling" could be a scene you imagined fifteen years ago that just isn't gelling with what the story has become. Your "darling" could be a character who no longer fits. Your "darling" could be that shit that every crit reader has said "This isn't working," but you won't get rid of.

"I just came here to have a good time and I'm honestly
feeling so artistically attacked right now."
Image description: disgusted man
You're going to have to hack out that whole first chapter because there's too much exposition at once being jammed down the reader's throat. You're going to have to rethink part 2 because it's actually veers way off the thematic and character arc rails. You're going to have to realize that entire ending is shoehorning the characters and you need to let them have their agency back even though you spent a month writing out that fight scene. You're going to have to rewrite the whole thing, and I don't mean just opening your word document and cleaning up a few sentences. Get ready for massive tectonic upheaval that hits your work like LA in a disaster movie.

I know that a messy, involved process feels like a lot of work: There are multiple drafts; you can't just do a little touch up. You will have to yank out things that aren't working and nix days (maybe even weeks or months) worth of work; it might feel like cutting off your own arm. But if you want someone to say "This was good enough that you should spend money to read it," you're going to have to roll up your sleeves and go elbow deep into the guts and viscera of the process.

6- Your slick ass image of what success looks like

I don't know you. (Well....most of you.)

We've never met.

But let me tell you that there's a pretty good chance this is what your image of success looks like:
"And you particularly found
it brilliant how they were all
vampires??? That's awesome!"
Image description: surprised woman

You finish your book. You give it some polish for a month or two, and then send it to an agent. You've all but forgotten about it because you are monstrously chill like that. But one day, the phone rings. Who could that be? you think, again, because you are so spectacularly zen that you have not been jerking awake thinking "Book news!" at the sound of any phone ringing in a three-block radius. "Hello," a voice says. "Is this [your name]?" "This is [your name,]" you confirm.  "Are you sitting down?" the person who will shortly be your agent says. "Because your Nanowrimo novel was so good I lobbed it out for fun before I even called you back, and now I've literally got HarperCollins on the other line, right now, and their opening bid is low six figures."  

You gasp. You are a writer now.

Got that out of your system? Good.

I know about two hundred or so working writers and I can think of one whose career arc has anything even remotely like this phone call. It's Andy Weir, and he got a phone call one day from Ridley Scott, so it's totally exactly like your fantasy. Except that Andy self-published. So he did all the formatting and galley proofs himself. And Andy wrote for years before working on The Martian. And Andy spent years working ON The Martian. And Andy spent years revising The Martian. And Andy busted his ass promoting his book until it started to take off on its own. And the whole process from self-publication to New York Times bestseller took nearly two years.

But other than that, it was totally exactly like your fantasy of the "are-you-sitting-down" phone call.

Most of the writers I know who are paying the bills work long hours; promote themselves aggressively; cobble together incomes from crowdfunding, short story sales, royalties, freelancing, content writing, and teaching; wouldn't dream of submitting something that wasn't on a fourth or fifth draft; and scrape together juuuuuuuuuust about enough to keep writing tomorrow–possibly with some Lyft driving or a shift a week of bartending or something.

It's fun to have a pipe dream. (Mine involve either sitting in a dark theater watching Viola Davis play the main character in my work in progress when it gets turned into a blockbuster movie, or getting to talk to a room full of people who have read something I wrote and are excited about it.) There's nothing wrong with having that chimerical fantasy. The problem is when you turn your nose up to the baby steps along the way, refuse to feel like a used car salesman because you're self-promoting so hard, turn your nose up at the hard work, rebuff the notion that you might have to quilt together a patchwork of piddling income sources, and reject the parts where you do anything but send your book out once and wait for the cash to roll in.

7- Your laziness

I don't like this word because it comes prepackaged with so much bad bullshit in our culture. But like most languages...our cultural limitations are manifest in our language, and there's not a better word. So just take it with a grain of salt. 

Making money writing is a lot of work. Making money with creative writing is even more work than that.

Okay, stop. Wait just a second. Take a breath.

That amount of work you're thinking about right now: the one with the montage to the eighties power chords where your improvement curve impresses Burgess Meredith?

That's not enough.

It's going to be a lot more than that.

A lot more.

There's going to be effort sticker shock.

Are you ready? Deep breath.

Here we go....

First of all, you have to get to the point where you can write for money–where you literally possess the necessary skill to convey the ideas in your head. Presuming you came out of high school doing pretty well in English and you are not some sort of wunderkind, you probably need about four or five years. Yes, that can be spent in college, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. (Though if you are disdaining formal education in this regard, it might be worth it to take a glance at how many working authors have degrees–just for some perspective. Hint: it's pretty close to all of them.) If you weren't doing pretty well in high school, you might have to add a couple of years.

From that point, conventional wisdom is that you will need about TEN YEARS of work. Not ten years of sitting on your ass and dreaming of that phone call from number six–ten years worth of daily, hours-long effort. Whether it's carving out a name as some other kind of writer (a journalist, for example) or ten years of submitting short stories and getting some accolades on your cover letter or ten years of writing and rewriting that first novel until it's something marketable, or ten years of blogging, that's about how much time you're going to need.

And it's not like you reach this point, slam out one good book and retire on the French Riviera. Unless you are a one-in-a-million success story (or sell a book to Ridley Scott), it's going to take you several books before the royalty flow is an income big enough to live on. Ten years is really only about the point where maybe you can cut back on your day job a little and try just writing.

And if you're looking to "debunk" this ten-years idea, go back and find out how long authors wrote before their big break. Even those fun "are you sitting down" stories like Stephen King and Andy Weir are going to have a decade of work underneath them BEFORE the fateful phone call once you get into the back story.

A lot of laziness shaming is so much ableist bullshit, but in this game, if you don't show up ready to work, you're never going to make money.

8- Your fucking time, like woah
It's like one of those infomercials that throws in a set of steak knives. "NOW how much time would you say writing takes?"

Writing. Rewriting. Revising. Editing. Promoting your work. Handling the business end of making money (or handling your agent and publisher if you go through traditional publishing).  If you want to write for money, you have to learn a truism hard and fast and as soon as it can fucking penetrate your skull: "You can't make day job money on weekend warrior effort." 

You just can't. It's never going to happen. Fuggedaboutit.

Chris just broke the "I'm living off of writing!" barrier (which doesn't account for a car, a cell phone, or any food more interesting than PB&J sandwiches if you're keeping score) and he got here by putting in forty-hour weeks for about five years. Those forty hours used to be on top of forty-hour weeks keeping the bills paid while he essentially worked a five-year unpaid internship. This is the same guy who gets diagnoses of exhaustion, not because of his jet setting social life or overwhelming passion for live action role playing Star Wars vampires, but because he spends too much time....wait for it.....writing.

Ask any other writers how much they write–from freelance writers to novelists–and you'll mostly get the same answer. If they have a day job, it might be 20-40 hours. If they are working authors, it's probably more like fifty to sixty.

And maybe some day, when you've reached the promise land and your writing IS your day job, you can reintroduce a couple things (like maybe a social life), but even then it's not like writing one published book will keep you flush in Benjamins. I know an author who wrote six books that landed on the New York times bestseller list (along with two other books that didn't) who was hoping book nine would give her juuuuuuuuuuuust enough to quit teaching because the sixty hour weeks were really getting to her.

For now, get used to the sultry sound of your own voice saying "I don't have time for that," to all your nearest and dearest. Because unless you married money, have a trust fund, or live in a yurt, you're talking about doing most of this while you work a day job, and you can either treat writing like a hobby or a second job. In the former case, you won't make money. In the later, well....

"Now how much time would you say you have?"

On to Part 2

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