Six Signs You’re Not Ready To Be A Professional Writer

Writing Advice

“I want to be a writer when I grow up.”

Sure you do, kid. Sure you do. I wanted to be an astronaut once upon a time, but then I realized, I’m afraid of outer space. Well, not so much “outer space” as the “space dragons that live in outer space.” Oh, I know. You’re saying, “Chuck, dragons do not live in outer space,” and to that, I scoff. Just because CNN isn’t talking about it doesn’t mean our astrophysicists don’t know the truth. Dragons hide behind moons. And they wait there for unsuspecting astronauts so they can plant their spiky dragon ovum into the moist orifices of our space-walking heroes. This is all true, don’t look at me like that.

Okay, one part of that isn’t true: I never wanted to be an astronaut. I pretty much wanted to be  writer from like, eighth grade on. The point I’m illustrating here is that, were I to desire membership in the great fraternity of astronauts, I would be deemed UNFIT by a big red stamp on my Astronaut Application Papers. Reason: “Unready due to unreasonable fear of space dragons.”

Unreasonable. Uh-huh, NASA. Sure. *wink wink*

We both know what’s up.

Anyway, point is, you’re maybe sitting over there thinking it’s time to hike on the ol’ hip-waders and go slogging through the mire that is the life of the professional writer.

And I’m here to tell you that you might not be ready. You might earn a big red stamp — *fwomp* UNFIT — on your Authorial Acceptance Exam. Not sure if you’ve got what it takes to carry the pens? To churn and burn through barrels of ink? To march forth across the bleached and cracked earth with only your word count on your back?

Let’s check you out, then.

You See Yourself As King Of This Castle

It’s easy to feel like King Shit of Turd Castle when you’re a writer. You sit there in your impenetrable bubble of creativity, banging out masterpiece after masterpiece that nobody ever sees, a Muse in your own right, one of Hell’s own glorious maestros. (Or Heaven’s, but let’s be clear: we probably see ourselves more as diabolical geniuses than as the artificers of God’s own glory.) Time to lance that blister, Sugar-Boobs. Being a writer means lurking far lower on the totem pole than you’d prefer. I don’t mean that to be a good thing or a bad thing: it’s just a thing. A thing you can’t change except by getting better at what you do and earning respect. But even still, you are ever at the feet of clients, publishers, and editors. Check your ego — which has swollen in isolation, like e. coli on an agar plate — at the door.

I Still See That Glint Of Magic And Hope In Your Eye

At a distance, writing is a magical thing: it’s candy-floss made of God-stuff. It’s the weaving of tales, the singing of bard-songs, the creating of characters that will gain life like Frankenstein’s monster with a bolt of lightning shot from your own magnificent mind. A lot of things look nice at a distance. Hell, I flew over Detroit once, and I was like — “Aw, what a nice-looking city.” Once you get up close and personal with the writing life, though, the magic dies on the vine. You rip down the facade and find there a kind of abattoir, the floors thick with the chunky blood you’ve spilled in order to make a deadline. Somewhere you hear the sound of a saw chewing through bones punctuated by the hoarse wails of the broken and deranged.

You cannot maintain the illusion of writing being this precious act when you’re working to make a living wage. I mean, I guess you can if you’re Stephen King. But me? And you? This illusion is dismembered by the reaper’s scythe. Writing is a job. A wake-up-at-the-perineum-of-dawn-and-churn-out-a-fast-two-thousand-words job. The kind of job where, if you don’t write, you don’t get paid, and if you don’t get paid, you will die in a gutter wearing only that one pair of pants you own. (Who am I kidding? We do not wear pants.) If I can tell you a little secret, though, this, to me, is a kind of magic all its own. Er, not the dying pantsless thing, but the “writing as a job” thing. But it’s a real magic — or, rather, a science. And science is hella tits. (Do the kids say that? “Hella tits?” Spread that lingo for me, will you?)

You Still Suffer From Writer’s Block

Living the life of a professional writer will either a) remove your illusion that writer’s block is a real thing (it isn’t) or b) remove your ass from living the life of the professional writer. Writer’s block is not real. It’s just some fake-ass mental shit that writers made up (during the Grandiloquent Penmonkey Council of Dusseldorf in 1456) so they can excuse a day of not-writing. You get writer’s block, you don’t write, and you don’t write, you don’t get paid, and, well — see earlier comment, re: gutters, pants, death. You don’t hear about other professions suffering this kind of nonsense, do you? “I’ve got Spreadsheet Malaise.” “I suffer under the callous yoke of Engineer’s Ennui.” Writer’s block? Pfft. When your actual income depends on the words you produce, you get shut of that shit reaaaal quick, hoss. The only writer’s block that matters is the kind where a horse steps on both hands and breaks all your fingers. That’s all you get.

You Are A Uni-Tasker

Ever hear the term “biodiversity?” An ecosystem thrives when it has greater biodiversity, meaning, a greater variety of life forms. Diversity is also the king of investment: if you don’t have a diverse portfolio, then when that one stock you own goes down the poop-tubes, so does your fortune. Once the public learns that Bobo’s Hot Dog Hut uses cat meat to make its sausages, your stock in that company is done for, son. Life thrives with diversity. Financial portfolios depend on diversity.

The writer survives on diversity, too. If you do one thing really well — “I write snarky articles about Doctor Who!” — then good for you. Your blog appreciates it. But that way is not the way of the pro-writer’s life. You best be ready to write all kinds of shit you didn’t expect to write. Thou shalt not earn a steady living as a single-serving uni-tasker. I’ve written: pen-and-paper roleplaying games, video games, articles about video games, essays, transmedia projects, short stories, novels, films, ad and marketing copy, brochures, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, crime, and so on, and so forth. You need diversity in projects as well as diversity in clients. You will learn that, starting out, the word “YES” is more your friend than “NO.” That changes over time as you become more established, but early on, the word “no” might as well be, “no, I don’t want to eat this week, starvation is awesome.”

Linking Writing And Commerce Makes Your Butthole Itch

Writing is the act of putting words on paper. Professional writing is the act of beating oneself about the head and neck with a tire iron putting words on paper for money. That last part is key: “for money.” Some writers, you bring up money and business in terms of being a writer, they twitch and spasm and make faces like you just jizzed in their milkshake. Pssh. Amateurs. These folks are the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time writers. You wanna go “pro,” you have to embrace what “pro” means — which is to say, this is your livelihood. Going pro means doing all kinds of things that go against that idea that writing is this lordly, artsy profession. It means attending to deadlines. It means reading and understanding contracts. It means pushing past the pain and learning how to create a spreadsheet that shows income, expenses, writing schedules, liters of Bourbon consumed, tears shed. It means knowing how to create and send invoices. There’s a whole seedy sub-layer to being a pro-writer that, for some reason, writers don’t want to deal with. Fuck that. That’s like owning a toilet and not knowing how to unclog it. Elves don’t come and handle it, for Chrissakes. This is your job. Keyword: job. Oh, and for the record, if you’re one of those fuck-hats who sneers whenever anyone puts “art” and “money” in the same sentence, do me a favor: take off your shoe, and smack yourself in the crotch again and again like you’re trying to kill a centipede.

You Love Stability, Loathe Disorder

You know how some people make, like, $50,000 a year? And then next year, they make that again? And the year after, they make, I dunno, $52,000 a year? And that’s their life? And you know how these people get things like health care, vacations, 40-hour-work-weeks, and the respect of their families? Wad all those things up in a ball and feed them to a goat. Those are gone. Done. Kaput. Stability and certainty is not the life of the writer. Even a writer who writes full-time and gets all those benefits is more likely on the chopping block because writers are seen as expendable. (Never mind the fact that we write the world into existence. It’s like nobody appreciates gods anymore.) Still, for the most part, pro-writers are freelance, or hop from job to job. As such, your yearly income? Not steady. Health care? Pay for it yourself or be lucky enough to have a spouse who brings that home. Vacations? I just laughed so hard I threw up. Hell, you don’t even get paid immediately for a job. Sure, you wrote “NET 30″ on your invoice. You might as well have written on there, “And please deliver my check duct-taped to a pink pony.” That money’s still going to take six months to wind its way through the proper channels to get to you. If there was an ad in the paper advertising a freelance writer’s job, it would read, “WRITING WORK AVAILABLE. MUST LOVE CHAOS AND BUDGETS. ALSO: LIQUOR AND SHAME.”

Check Yourself ‘Fore You Wreck Yourself

Pro-writing is not a gig for those with weak constitutions, frail bladders, or creative integrity. Think very seriously before stepping into that arena, because you walk into that battle largely unarmed and unarmored. You’ve got to measure up. You’ve got to ask yourself the hard questions. I’m not saying it’s not satisfying; it is. But you may not be ready for that kind of life. Not yet, at least.

After all, Here There Be Space Dragons.

94 comments

  • Writer’s block…snicker…

    Important distinction…while I am a *published* writer, I am by no means a *professional* witer yet, and have no illusions about my skill at freelancing. I is novelist…

    The being said: When or if people I talk to find out I’m soon to be published, about 50% of them say “I’ve always wanted to write.” Occasionally they will ask me how they, too can become publsihed. I ask them one question to determine my answer.

    “Do you have anything finished?” Guess what? 90% of the time, the answer is “I’m working on something right now!” which I hear as a big whopping “NO!”

    My answer then is usually “Finish something. No author ever sold a million copies of an unfinished story…not while they were still alive.” Like you said, DISCIPLINE!!! That is the difference between a publsihed wirter and an aspiring writer. That, and persistence.

    I’ve had those moments when I asked myself “How the Hell am I going to get past this point?” But instead of stopping I just moved to a different part of the story and came back to my problem area later, sometimes with the answer gleaned from the part I had been working on. I think you have it right. NEVER STOP WRITING. Writer’s block: you do not have it.

  • Love the post. I finished writing my first novel a month ago, and now I’m starting the querying process. Space dragons here I come!

  • Re: I still see that glint of magic and hope in your eye… (and everything that follows) — Some of us still enjoy writing and the magical (well, okay, not ‘magical’ but pretty damn close) feeling it brings. You’d do well to refrain from projecting your own cynicism on others from here on out.

  • I dabble in writing, and work full-time as an Author Account Manager for a self-publishing company. I wish I could show this article to all of my authors. So many people want to simply be capital W “Writers” and go to book signings, but want to skip past that pesky “writing” portion.

  • Chuck, I lurk and I love most of what you write here, and I love most of this post, but I’ve gotta say, anyone who claims writers block doesn’t exist has had the good luck never to experience it, and telling others they are simply lily livered slackers isn’t fair. I’ve had it. Bad. It has causes and cures, which do sometimes amount to banging out awful shit and hating yourself until something happens. Sometimes you need to do something else for awhile, then bang out awful shit and hate yourself until something happens. Telling a blocked writer it’s a character defect is like telling a diabetic they should eat more sugar until they get good at it. It’s a killer.

    And I say this as someone who’s published 10 books, established a pretty good rep, and a decent (if not stable) livlihood, too. :-)

    I’m not a great multi tasker, either.

    • @Lynn —

      Oh, writer’s block isn’t a character defect. I just don’t believe it’s unique to writers — we give it a great deal of weight and myth when in reality, everybody gets blocked. Carpenters, school children, scientists, everybody. It isn’t a special thing, and yet we give it a special name and treat it like it’s a condition. Writer’s block is ultimately this —

      There’s a heavy couch in front of the door. You need to exit through that door.

      The couch will be difficult to move.

      But it won’t move itself.

      Either: move it, or sit there and stare at it. That’s it. There’s no special magic, no special trick. Sure, being blocked has cures and causes, but it’s not really “writer’s” block — it’s just plain ol’ everybody’s block.

      IMHO, YMMV, etc. :)

      — c.

  • Spade dragons sound fun! I am always looking for feedback on my writing and a reality check, I need to know if people will read my stuff. Writer’s block? Nah, just a hard time balancing my inconsistent fashion retail schedule with my life and time to write. I practice and build my fan base with my blog site, I am alwyas loking to know what people think and I am looking for opportunities that have deadlines. I am chaos walking, I think I’m ready. Check out my site and leave feedback please.

  • Let me just add that a lot of people I know who want to write don’t read anything. They don’t think the two go together. One guy I knew said to me “Just because I don’t read doesn’t mean I don’t have a creative mind!” Uh, yeah sure.

  • I’ve been writing about Space Dragons since I was 12!! I just write for the heck of it and I’ve enjoyed shaping my space dragons! Making their history, languages, ships, sub-species, politics, shifter sub species…..gawd I love my space dragon empire.check them out here: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/thedragongod

    Funny article! I suffer from a few things on here.

  • Well, luckily, I fail to have the traits of those not ready to be professionals and in that sense, pass in a negative way. That’s almost as good as a spouse finding out that their spouse didn’t screw the mail man or that other woman after all.

    In truth, I did not consider myself to be ‘a writer’ until after I wrote a novel. Here’s what happened. I was an undergraduate. I decided to try to write a novel. It actually worked. I don’t know that I would say it was easy just that instead of giving up in chapter 3 and turning my mind back to my rock tumbling hobby with more success, I ended up with a book. After that I thought, ‘Oh, well since I really can, then maybe I actually am and really can.’

  • Thanks for this! I know it was long ago now that you wrote this article, but on this morning it helped me! Appreciate the humor too :) if you were curious, probably not, I’ve written purely for myself the last ten years, or twelve, and now all at once I feel inspired and not sure if I should jump into my own story or try for something that, well, will pay…. Lol.good luck to you !

  • Out of work for 6 years I became a writer in 2010. In 2013 my first book was published – BASEBALL TEAM NAMES (McFarland). It’s on 60 websites and was ranked #37 of the Best Sports Books of 2013. It got 6 good reviews. Even so, I only earned a few hundred dollars inroyalties. But I’m undaunted. I ACCEPT instability, uncertainty, deadlines, the need to be diverse. Unable to earn a living doing anything else, this writing of books is now MY JOB. Tom Hanks (actor) said I’ve made 25 movies and 5 of them are good. Nuclear scientist Robert Oppenheimer said “If you want to develop a good idea, you’ve got to have many ideas.” The point is write as many books as you can, sign contracts with a traditional publisher, and market you books as much as you can. The whole world economy is disintegrating, all the jobs are being automated, so if you’re going to be poor then be poor working at WHAT YOU LIKE, And one other thing – my boss is the most demnading SOB boss I’ve ever had me….ME! I really like that and so will you.

  • Writer’s block definitely exists, and it is different than other kinds of “block” you claim other professions get. In writing, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer to moving forward. In other professions, fatigue or stress may literally be the only thing keeping that professional from moving forward in their respective professions. For instance, a mathematician may feel “blocked” on a formula, but there is only one final solution. Reworking the numbers will eventually end in the same conclusion if the mathematician is adequate enough. The same goes for other non-creative professions. A writer gets “blocked” because every single detail of the universe they’re creating, maintaining and keeping consistent is entirely dependent on them. Sure, a writer could ask for help, read other writers’ work, do research, etc to “fix” their block and gain new perspective, but that doesn’t ensure a solution. All creatives get blocked. Perhaps the term “writer’s block” should be changed to “creative’s block” or “artist’s block” to include all professionals who experience the kind of block writers tend to get.

    Writers and other creatives know that “writer’s block” exists, because there’s a very good chance that they’ve been students before, and likely, hold a job as some other professional to pay the bills in between writing and publishing. We simply don’t experience the same block in school, work, etc the way we do in writing. Sure, we could face a problem in other areas of our lives, but those problems are far more linear than the blurry, confusing recesses of the creative mind.

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