How Not To Starve And Die As A Writer

Cue sad Sarah McLachlan song such as “Full of Grace.”

Gaze over images of various writers trapped at their desk with their sad faces, quivering lips, and snot-bubble noses. One writer extends a gruel cup in an inky paw. Another is missing an eye, uhh, just because. A third writer wears nothing but a dirty pair of Hawaiian shorts — he feels his very-visible ribs with one hand as he shoves his keyboard into his mouth with the other, gnawing like some kind of squirrel.

“Did you know that fewer than 1% of writers are able to make a living wage, or even scrape together enough money to buy black market Ramen flavor packets from dubious Laotian street merchants? Every minute, three people give up their dreams of being a writer and become inept middle managers. Every hour, seven writers die on the streets of Los Angeles, New York, and for some really weird reason, Sedona, Arizona. But you can help stop the tears. By donating no less than $25,000 a year — less than the cost of 25,000 cups of coffee — you can contribute to and keep afloat our Instruct Writers How Not To Starve And Die In Sedona fund. Only you can keep stories in the world. Only you can stop writers from putting out their eyes with fountain pens.”

Here, then, is how you feed yourself, clothe yourself, and pay rent or a mortgage with naught but the power of your writing. Ready to roll? First, three caveats.

Caveat The First: Am I Really Talking To You?

Let me separate this out by talking first about fishermen.

Let’s assume, however falsely, that two types of fishermen exist in the world. The first identifies as a fisherman when he is asked, “What do you do in your spare time?” The second identifies as a fishermen when he is asked, “What do you do for a living?” Nothing fundamentally wrong with either answer. But each answer says something different about each type of fisherman.

Ask yourself the same question about being a writer. Is it a spare time thing? Or is this an, “I want to do this for a living” thing? Sounds obvious, but if you’re in the hobbyist camp, no harm, no foul to you, but this post probably isn’t for you.

Caveat The Second: Your Dream Of Creative Integrity Is Cute And All

I am a huge fan of creative integrity. I am also a huge fan of unicorns. My Trapper Keeper? Covered in unicorn stickers. And yet, despite my love of unicorns, I also realize that they are not real, or, even if they are, they’re not helping me pay the mortgage. At least not without taking them to the abattoir and selling their precious meats (or making weapons from their horns).

Creative integrity is a good thing to have and it will at times serve you well, but if you steadfastly hold to some kind of lofty notion of your work — say, you fall more on the “artiste” side of things than the “craft” side of things — then it will be more difficult for you to make a living wage. You may create more transcendent, beautiful work; I dunno. But with it you are unlikely to feed your baby (or your unicorn sticker addiction) with it. Once again, I may not be talking to you in this post.

Caveat The Third: This Will Not Happen Overnight

No “Magical Ink Fairy” exists.

You will not get an apprenticeship at the Wordsmithy.

Tomorrow, I am not going to quit being a writer and suddenly transform into a marine biologist. So too are you not going to eject from your job and become a full-time paid writer. Sure, it happens, but only if you take a writer position or writer job. Most writers I know do not have “in-house” writing work. (And those that do: I’m not talking to them because those lucky gits have it covered.)

Self-Evaluate Honestly And Find An Hourly Wage Or Salary That Keeps You Alive

Oh-ho-ho, you might be saying, “Hey, writers don’t make an hourly wage,” which is technically true. You also don’t make an annual salary. But you still need to determine those numbers. You enter into the fray with only a hazy cloud of possibility in your head, then only a hazy cloud will return to you by the end of the year. Which means — yup, back to the street to hit up the Laotian for more Ramen flavor packets. (“Ooh, this one’s called ‘Oriental.’ How exotic! It tastes like soy sauce and boot leather!”)

Let’s say the bare minimum of what you need to be making before taxes is $35k a year. If you’re where I am, that might do you okay — but if you’re in LA or NYC, you’re probably going to have to crank that number up because I think that’s how much the average homeless person makes in the city and they’re, y’know, homeless. So, you take that magic number — $35,000 — and figure out, okay, how much do I need to make per week to live?

Consulting my abacus and these pigeon bones, it looks like you’ll need $650-700 a week.

Second thing to figure out: how much work can you accomplish in an hour? I write about 1000 words an hour on average. Generally speaking, I get paid five cents to $0.25 per word, but let’s look at the bare bottom of five cents. A thousand words at five cents is fifty bucks an hour, which means I’d need to work a total of 14 hours a week to earn out. Kind of awesome, but betrays the reality: first, you have editing time to factor in there (the better you get, the more you’ll cut this down), and second, you may have a hard time constantly scaring up work. Be ready for inconsistent work schedules.

Will You Work Freelance, Or Is It All Creator-Owned?

If you work freelance, you will always be trying to hunt down work and deadlines will be your best friend and worst enemy. But you will earn a steady rate and have contracts that bolster your efforts and you’ll be building up a resume in a professional arena.

Creator-owned is a little more personally satisfying, but also the harder road. (By “creator-owned,” I mean you’re going to rely on putting out and selling your own work, whether that work is short fiction, long fiction, screenplays, comic books, and whether or not that work is self-published or published through traditional channels.) If you were to choose to thrive on short stories alone, let’s say, and you publish short work that is paid the minimum pro-rate of five cents a word, you’d need to write and sell —

*spells BOOBS on a calculator*

— 140 short stories in a year. Which is not impossible, but it’s pretty fucking epic just the same.

Some work pays a helluva lot better than others. Film and TV pay very well, especially compared to novel-writing. The average novel advance these days is, according to Tobias Buckell, $5,000. Now, playing Herr Doktor Pessismist, I’ll assume you won’t ever surpass that advance, which means you’d need to write about seven novels a year (and sell each one of those crazy sumbitches) just to earn out.

What does this tell you?

Always Be Writing, And Diversify That Shit

This is when Alec Baldwin steps to the chalkboard and writes ABW, “Always Be Writing” across it. And then you go to pour some coffee and he tells you to put that coffee down, coffee is for writers only. Then something something, fuck you is my name, something something, set of steak knives.

You need to always be writing. I don’t necessarily mean that you need to fill every hour with word count (screw food, so what if my baby is crying, I can just pee in this Snapple bottle — best stuff on Earth, bitches, hahahaha *sob*), I just mean that you need to peg a daily word count and hit that word count every day you can manage. If you take weekends off, fine, fuck it, but fold that word count into your week.

Also: diversify. Do not rely on one revenue stream. When I asked the question above about freelance versus creator-owned, it’s something of a false dichotomy — I set a trap for you, and you fell right into it. And now I will eat your sweetbreads. Which are not breads at all, but rather, your delicious pancreas. Wait, whuh? I dunno. What I’m saying is, you can and perhaps should do both. Novels and short stories combine together to form part of your Wordmonkey Voltron. Throw in there some freelancing, some scripting, some under-the-table smut writing, whatever, and you start to see the whole package emerge.

And by “whole package,” I do not mean genitals. So calm down.

Have The Right Tools

Tiny point: have the right tools. Have a good computer. Have a good word processing program. You don’t need the best, but you do need what fits you and what works. Writing, like any other self-involved career, is an investment — it costs a lot less than a start-up restaurant, so spend a little bit of money to get the bare minimum of equipment you need. Once you start making money, hey, look, tax deductions!

Wait, Where Do I Find Freelance Work Again?

Ehhh. Uhh.

*knocks over a stack of plates, runs for the exit*

No, seriously? I don’t know. Here’s the thing, though: writers make the world go ’round. You wouldn’t think it looking at some writer pay rates, but it’s true. In nearly everything that exists, some kind of writing went into its making. Somebody has to write menus and placemats and planograms. Somebody has to write technical manuals. We are the word of God. We say “light,” and by Sweet Molly McGoggins, there is light.

Okay, that’s a little overwrought, but the idea is firm: writers are everywhere, and this is true of creative content. Turn on the TV. Pick up a magazine. Check out a website. Writers are there. If not like gods, then like roaches, we’re that ubiquitous. So, the work is out there. You just have to keep your eyes focused on finding it. Gaining work is some mystical combination of knowing the right people, seizing opportunities when they arise, and building up a small portfolio of work in that realm.

(It also involves saying “yes” a lot and nailing the shit out of deadlines.)

You might ask, “But what about sites like eLance?” To that I’d say, I dunno. I’ve never used it. From what I can see, it feels like a race to the bottom in terms of pay, and a lot of the jobs there look a little dubious. It doesn’t seem like a great way to work a living wage, but alternately, it might be a way to get started and get some paid credits under your belt. If anybody has used a site like that, sound off.

Also, those of you out there who are freelancers: share your sordid tales of how you got your work the first time. I tell people that working your way into a full-time freelance life is like digging a tunnel through a mountain and then detonating it behind you — every path in seems to be different.

So, Self-Publishing Is The Future?

Sure, maybe, I dunno. I don’t live in the future, though, I live in the present. (You know how I know it’s the present? No jet packs. No teleporters. No hoverboards.)

I do not think you should jump right in and hope to subsist on a self-publishing revenue stream. Again: diversify. But that does mean it behooves you to try it out. If you self-publish something and it’s good enough to get you $1000 over the course of the year, well, now you’ve only got $34,000 to go.

Slow Like Molasses

I got my first short story published (for $$$) when I was 18 or 19 or something. I started freelancing when I was 23 or 24. I was able to go full-time and earn a living wage when I was 30 or 31. Again: not an overnight sensation. And it’s still a struggle, every year, because it’s not something you can sit back and allow to happen. But that is also part of the joy. To go back to the fisherman, you get money for every fish you sell. It’s an elegant form of commerce: I did this thing, and this thing is worth money. At a desk job, for every spreadsheet you do you get… well, what? You get a check every week no matter how many spreadsheets you do. The commerce is muddy. The reward, uncertain.

Me, I like being a writer. It requires a bundle of sacrifices. And it makes you crazier than a shithouse owl.

But it feels good to go down in the ink mines with my pick-ax and chip away at the word count clustered on the wall like pretty, pretty crystals. *chip chip* *sob*

Final Notes

No, this doesn’t cover the breadth and depth of the topic. It in fact is merely a hangnail — if I start to pick it, a strip of skin will peel back all the way to my elbow and suddenly you’ll be tasked with reading a 5,000 word blog post, and nobody wants that. This is long enough already. I can’t say how useful this post actually is — it ultimately covers the generalities, but it’s a start, at least. Future posts down the line will deal with more specific tidbits (dealing with editors, managing money, and so forth).

Also —

Yes, I had to crawl inside a deer carcass to get that picture at the fore of the post.

I dunno. Shut up.

Drop comments, questions, add-ons, marriage proposals, or hateful screeds in the comments below!