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We already talked about chasing trends.
Yeah, don't do that. Just write what your heart yearns to write.
Your lifeline through all the years of bullshit to that first paycheck for creative writing is going to be doing something you really, truely love and believe in–writing something you truly WANT to see in the world. It's hard enough to reach the finish line when you're excited about the story you want to tell. If you sell your soul trying to write something that's already been written because that might be what's selling, you're more likely to burn out before you finish, end up behind the curve on the whatever trend you were chasing anyway, and never make a dime.
There's a time to learn the business end of your trade. But obsessing about it before you've actually written anything is absurd.
|Image description: Zoolander meme; text: "Dystopian novels in present tense
with strong female characters..... so hot right now"
In addition, there this whole OTHER way to be beholden to commercial fetters that will fuck you up. If you want to struggle all your life in ignominy, you can grouse about the market all you want and complain about "the garbage that sells" and hate everyone who ever gets a book deal.
Go ahead. Believe that the reason you aren't swimming in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck is because all readers everywhere have cheap tastes and all publishers ever publish is crap. They wouldn't know good if it bit them in the ass, amirite? Clearly you are FAR too good to sully yourself by learning things like the advantages of non-traditional publishing, how to make changes that will improve your manuscript's marketability, or the value of social media self-promotion in today's world.
Obviously your cover letter wasn't ignored because it was three pages long. It was because the big five are only interested in money. Obviously you aren't famous, not because you're tossing out manuscripts onto slush piles that still need a final polish instead of hiring an agent, but rather because no one appreciates the sophisticated way your setting worked with your theme as kinetic landscape.
No no. Of COURSE anyone who makes money has simply sold their soul. Except you. You deserved every penny.
On the other hand, if you actually want to MAKE money, you might try learning the basics of the industry in which you work instead of being too good for it, and understanding the major changes that are happening right now. Yes, write what your passion burns to write and don't try to put the cart before the horse, but also be prepared to figure out ways to tweak it to make it more marketable without sacrificing your artistic vision.
|Image description: A box for now (no checkmark)
and a box for later WITH a checkmark
You have a million reasons you can't start today. I mean, of course you want to write, but you can't actually start today. These aren't excuses for not writing because, yes, you're totally going to. Just. Not. TODAY.
Your waiting on your new laptop. You want to get an ergonomic keyboard. You've heard that writing in Scrivener is where it's at–gotta figure out how to get that. Gotta run to Palo Alto to take care of some pit bulls after you take the three year old to the zoo so better to just call today a wash. You've got to dig out the junk room to make way for your office–can't start until that's done. You work today so it would be better to hit it fresh tomorrow.
Much like your excuses (part 1), I'm not here to judge.
But if you want to make money, you find a way, and you start right now. When your boss needs a thing or you have to turn in the paper to pass a class, you find a way. It probably wouldn't even occur to you to come to your boss or your professor the next day and say that you just can't possibly even get started until you dig out the junk room (unless you flunk a lot of classes and get fired a lot). If you want to make money writing, you can't depend on some external force to prevent you from procrastinating. You have to stop the cascade of "tomorrow"s and put your ass in the chair.
When you're writing for your own ambition (rather than under a job's deadline or something), there's nothing there doing a hip check on your bullshit–you can just keep on procrastinating until one day the doctor sits down with you and tells you the news is "really bad." I mean you might have an editor who will call you and ask where the hell your next chapter is, but if you do, you probably are already making money and why are you reading this silly article anyway?
You might not get paid for all the writing you do (which is a cold reality of this gambit), but you're absolutely never ever EVER going to get paid for the writing you don't do, so you might as well start today.
|I submitted my first short story earlier today,
but I still have to go to work! The fuck?
Image description: Man in a suit
looking impatiently at his watch.
Conventional wisdom suggests it's about a 5-10-year slog from the point where you first try in earnest to be a working writer to the moment you make some really real money. And the low end of that basically only counts if you consider paying maybe ONE bill "really real" money. You might start getting paid a little sooner with non-traditional publishing (especially if you are willing to publish snarky listicles on a blog), and you can probably shave some time off of this if you are über-dedicated or live in a rent-free situation and can give it full-time job caliber effort, but between the day you start flinging yourself out there and sharpening your craft on the whetstone of rejection and feedback, to the day you call your day job boss (or hang up your riding crop for that last side gig) there's probably going to be something pretty close to ten years. Exceptions are few, far between, and the ones that might spring to your mind are almost always actually writing non-fiction (memoirs in particular). And that's if it was actually them writing at all.
Take it from someone who has done some ghost writing.
[For the record (and because this blog exists as a real-time demonstration of a career arc in creative writing), Chris has been putting up one article a day on average for six years. He has written somewhere in the neighborhood of five THOUSAND pages (most of it crap), which does not include journaling and side projects (some of which have never seen the light of day) and this month was the very first month he could have covered his bills (with absolutely no frills like brand name peanut butter, and with zero spending money) from just writing.]
So if you want to make money, you can't look around after two months and say "Jesus fuck, I've submitted like a hundred short stories. A HUNDRED!!! Where are the Benjamins??" After revising that novel for a year you can't throw in the towel because, fuck it, you tried. You can't give up at two years because the grand total of all your sold material barely covered your matinee movie budget for a month. Three years in and you're still pulling down $50 a year in blog ad revenue doesn't mean it's time to switch to politics and porn for pageviews. Four years going and you're barely making your cell phone bill flinging out short stories like an octopus on speed. You need to know that you're actually only approaching the halfway point.
|This joke is über funny if you get it.
Image description: Giddeon Graves from Scott Pilgrim saying "Two hours!"
And this might be an aside to this particular article, but this is one of the FUNDAMENTAL reasons that if you're going to try to make it as a writer, you better love writing a lot more than the idea of being a writer. It's an awfully long haul if you're not into it for its own sake.
Because if you do all that, and you read a lot, and you had some ability to write going in, and you've worked hard (and yes, maybe just the tiniest touch of je ne sais quoi––which I hesitate to call "talent"), there's a decent chance that at 5 years, you might get the first kind of money that opens up some options like cutting some hours from that day job or going from four to three side gigs. I can't tell you for sure how fast (or even if) those doors are going to open up to you, but that's about how long you have to keep knocking on them before it's even a possibility.
However I can absolutely for certain tell you how much you will make if you give up before this point.
|Full comic (it's awesome but other comics there are NSFW):
"Yeah but I–" Nope.
"If I'm not feeling inspired –" NOPETY NOPE NOPE WITH NOPE SAUCE!
"It becomes a chore and–" Mr. Worf, arm the nopedos. Mr. Data, get us out of here Nope factor nine!
Look, Chippy, inspiration is awesome. Straight. Up. AWESOME! When it hits, you'll do a fourteen-hour session without noticing you haven't eaten. You'll rock a week solid of those eight-hour days that land like a sledgehammer from start to finish. Even your imposter syndrome will look around, impressed, and say "Holy fuck!" Trust me when I tell you that inspiration is my drug of choice and I would do two lines of it before every session if it came in powdered form. I GET it.
And that is a great guiding philosophy for if and when to write if you want to be a hobbyist. (Which, just so we're clear, is really okay.)
But if you want to write for money (particularly more than just Steam Sale money), there's absolutely no getting around this: Not every fucking day is going to be rainbow unicorn farts. Just like any other job that you do for money, some days you don't want to be there but you have to, and if you call in every time you aren't feeling it, you either have no job or have no paycheck pretty fucking quickly.
Some days are going to suck and you'd rather do just about anything including clean the bathroom with your tongue than punch some words out. And instead of flying high at the end of the day with dilated pupils singing Dancing Queen, you just sort of step away from the computer smelling like swamp ass and disappointment.
But you do it anyway. Because sometimes jobs are like that.
Two people each with a laptop, tablet, and phone
That sound you just heard was ten million people grabbing pitchforks and torches.
(Nah, I'm kidding. I don't have ten million readers. It was just like twelve, but they're right outside my door and EXTRA pissed.)
Jesus Buttlicking Christ, don't worry. I don't mean all screen time ever. And I don't mean you can't write on your computer. You're just going to have to make some tough choice about your priorities.
To be a writer of the caliber that makes money, you pretty unswervingly have to do two things more than a goodly fucking chunk of most other human beings in all the world.
Read. And write.
Now I know math is not the strong suit of most writers (I myself took a class called "Math for Liberal Arts" in which my final was an oral presentation on fractals) but if our sixteen waking hours a day are filled with Netflix binges, video game marathons, and enough Facebook to cause Pema Chödrön to want to play some Candy Crush, we are in trouble.
And while this might feel like it falls into the realm of time management in general, a lot of writers who are pretty good about turning down social events and having no lives to speak of still have a couple of particular problems they need to take a hard, critical look at. Like fucking around on social media when they're on their computers or watching TV and playing video games instead of reading.
Point blank: you're not going to make money from Facebooking, and trying to write well without reading is as absurd as trying to only breathe OUT. Most writers who want to be Writers™ (with a capital W and a little TM symbol) would be a lot closer if they let go of at least 75% of their screen time.
22- Your vague desultory dreams
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous poster
When you dream, there's no specificity. No measurable outcome. No deadline. No realism. You can just yearn to "be a writer" without any concrete sense of what that really even means or how to go about getting there. Maybe you think about how great it would be not to have a day job. Maybe how cool it will be when you're pulling down six figures from your spectacular career. Or maybe you think about how you will tour the talk-show circuit and razzle-dazzle 'em with your writerly charisma (because writers are nothing if not great social extroverts who never make asses of themselves under intense pressure in situations where they can't go back and revise).
If you've got no particular urge to write as anything but a dilettante, dream away, and enjoy. I'll let you borrow a few of my old dreams from the 90's. (There was one where I spent a plane ride next to someone who was reading my book.....) However, if you want to make money writing, you need to trade those dreams in for goals (preferably SMART(S) goals) and get your ass to work on the execution.
First of all, there are some studies showing that too many unrealistic fantasies can actually get in the way of finding the motivation to achieve goals. But even if that weren't the case, consider this in terms of any other career you can think of: If you want to be a doctor, you start taking pre-med classes and/or find a medical school. You don't just sit around and imagine what your life as a doctor will be like. If you want to be a lawyer, you start applying to law schools (or if you're not that far along, you start getting a four-year degree–law schools really like physics and philosophy majors). You don't just daydream about how your objections will bring all the judges to the yard.
23- Your fear
You have to let it all go.
Erm.....hopefully your first book doesn't go quite as badly as Neo's first jump.
Well, letting it go is sort of true. You never really "let it go," when it comes to the fear, but you can kind of learn to turn it into a flea and put it in a box and mail it to yourself and when it shows up, hit it with a hammer. You have to just do it afraid. Yes, some people will hate your writing. Some people will hate YOU. Some of them will pierce you with exactly the horrible gaze that calls out every one of your writing (and even personal) flaws with nightmare precision. They will be absolutely everything you are terrified of.
If you want the scrill, you have to put your work out there anyway.
I'm not going to sit here in my vaunted glass house and tell you that your fear isn't justified or it isn't that bad. Hell, if anything, you're probably low-balling it when it comes to the antipathy that comes from being a known writer. (The folks who want to take someone down a peg or two who's succeeding where they want to be are legion.) But if you can't let go of that fear.... If it holds you and paralyzes you or sends you indefinitely back to the page for "one more revision"..... If it delays forever the moment of truth (either in the form of never taking that first big leap or succumbing to overwhelming doubt with every subsequent project that effectively craters your long term productivity)......
.....You won't make money.
No one is going to pay you for your book that you are afraid to publish. And no one ever quit their day job who published one book every decade.
|Image description: A pickle saying that they're kind of a big dill.
Get it? DILL.
They just won't be into you anymore....and that's okay.
I can't tell you why, but not all of your original fans are going to be there for your first platinum album....er platinum book....cover....whatever the writer equivalent would be.
Maybe they hipster liked your old stuff better. Maybe as you found what worked to a broader audience, you phased out something they originally really liked about you. Maybe they would have grown tired of your voice either way because people just outgrow art and artists sometimes. Maybe they kind of enjoyed supporting you when you were a completely unknown underdog who was kind of "theirs," and now that you're not struggling in obscurity quite so much, they aren't as interested. Maybe they grew as people and now they want to read Proust and sip brandy.
Maybe they'll surge back when you hit something that resonates, or they just need a break and they'll come back with an epic "I knew them when!"
The point is even if you knew why they drifted off (you never will), you have to let these folks go. Tearing yourself apart about what you might be doing to keep your smaller-than-cult following is a tremendous amount of wasted spirit. Understanding that devotees will come and go (and sometimes come back again) is part of being an artist. You don't necessarily have to sell out to the mainstream to make money, but you have to let go of the hope that you will only ever "accumulate" aficionados, and nowhere will that ebb and flow be more apparent than with those original folks (many of whom you probably can name) who liked you when no one else did and who you probably have a great affection for.
25- Some other shit you'd rather keep
Wheel of Fortune is a much different show these days. (I hear they don't even turn the letters anymore. What's up with THAT?) But once upon a time, the winner of a round would then go into the "prize room" and spend their winnings. But even if they bought no vowels and got some epic spins, they couldn't buy everything. If they wanted the $350 dollar barbecue, maybe they couldn't pick the color TV. Or if they couldn't go home without that pig, they were going to have to sacrifice the food dehydrator.
Only you can do you, but your life is like the the prize room in Wheel of Fortune. Or if you prefer, it's like one of those memes where you have a limited budget and you want to build the best superhero team.
Except this is about writing.
So think about it this way: Hobbyist writing is a dollar, writing to be published is like three dollars, and writing for money, let's say five dollars. Make it your only career and you're up to $8. Now you have other things you're going to want to buy. Things like a family. Things like a sex life. Things like peeps. Things like other hobbies. Things like a career that require full-time hours (because even if you spend that $8 on "career," you have to do that for five to ten years before it'll pay the bills). Things like video games. Add three dollars for a toddler. Add a dollar if you are in a raiding guild. I don't know what you're going to choose, but if you're serious about that writing something's got to give.
You have to let go of something. It's up to you what.
But none of us––NONE of us who make money creative writing––gets out unscathed.
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