Some writers have all the business sense of an oar-whacked snapping turtle — we become so focused on words and pages and the imaginary voodoo of made-up storyworlds that we forget that there’s a whole other side to it, a side where if we’re not careful we’ll end up writing our next bestseller out of the back of a rust-bucket conversion van tucked beneath some god-fucked overpass. It’s easy in the chase for story and the race for readers to accidentally sell our own best interests up the river.
Screw that, cats and kittens.
It’s time to trepan some business sense, meager as it may be, into your brainpans.
Please stare into the whirring drill-bit.
Welcome to the month of no mercy.
1. Deadlines? What Deadlines?
Deadlines are invisible and intangible but no less real than a brick wall — if you’re not paying attention you’ll crash into one lickety-split. How is this a financial fuck-up? Well, beyond the fact that dicking up a deadline is just bad business, it’s also problematic because some contracts stipulate lost revenue if you overshoot your timeline. “Hi, I’m turning in my work a year late.” “Thanks! Here’s your payment.” “This is a jar of buttons.” “Dirty buttons. You’d have a jar of clean buttons if you turned in the work weeks ago.”
2. No Contract Can Contain The Power Of My Art!
The contract is the thing that says, “I give you work, you give me money.” It is the paper-thin bulwark separating the lawful writer from the broke and broken anarchist — yes, a contract pins down a writer but it also pins down the entity to whom that writer is contracted. Without a contract, you’ve no recourse if things go south. Get a contract. Always get a contract. Just ask Ryan Macklin.
3. Hire A Sherpa To Guide You Up The Contractual Mountain
Seriously, I open up most new contracts and I zone out. My eyes cross, I pee a little, and I start dreaming of swaying meadow-grasses and frolicking ponies. Contracts are full of language the average human being cannot parse, cobbled together of Lovecraftian legalese that would drive most men mad. But you need to understand it. I’ve seen some squirrely contracts and heard tell of worse — contracts that if you sign them you’ll catch a whiff of brimstone before you realize your advance for that 15-novel fantasy series is a burlap sack of venomous cottonmouth snakes. Get an agent. Or hire a lawyer. Figure out what you’re signing.
4. Signing That Vicious Throat-Kick Of A Contract
Some writers are so eager to be read they’ll sign a bad contract even after they know how bad it is. “Check out these royalties! For every book I sell, I get one stick of that powdery shit-ass bubble gum you used to get in packs of baseball cards! If I sell 10,000 books, then for every book I sell they send a donkey to my house to cave in my chest with his crap-caked hooves! OH MY GOD I’M A WRITER SQUEE.” Stop bending over the nightstand, spreading your cheeks and asking someone to brandish a bramble-wound broomstick and jam it deep up your boot-hole. Don’t sign your work over to the Devil just for a taste of publication.
5. Repeat After Me: “People Die From Exposure”
If you don’t care about getting paid for your writing, ignore this. (And, in fact, ignore this whole list.) But if you do care about having a go at this writing thing as a proper career, do not write for exposure. Exposure cannot be measured, and you might as well write for any number of invisible things: the dreams of sleeping kittens, perhaps, or mystical unicorn turds. You should always be getting something measurable for your writing. Ideally, that “something” is money, but other rewards — tangible rewards! — do exist.
6. Cheap As Chips Of Lead Paint
“Cheap” isn’t a good thing. “Cheap” is toys made in China that exude radon. “Cheap” is a hot dog whose primary component is rat testicles. “Cheap” is a baggy of black tar heroin that’s been cut with pulverized possum bones and drain cleaner. Don’t value you work as “cheap.” You price yourself too low, you do harm to your future contracts and the contracts of other writers. You don’t have to paint yourself as a Lexus, but for fuck’s sake, you’re not a 1991 Geo Tracker with 100,000 miles and a dead hooker in the boot, either.
7. Didn’t I Just Say You Weren’t A Lexus?
Pricing yourself too high from the outset damages your credibility, too. It’s one thing if you’ve a proven track record and you’ve earned your pay rate, but if you slide an obscene number across the table, that person’s going to politely decline, quietly laugh at you, and never call you again. As Gandalf once said to a young William Shatner: “Don’t get cocky, kid.”
8. Writer: Beware
Scams wait like landmines and pit traps everywhere the writer turns, many seeking to exploit a writer’s desperate desire to be published. The Internet is a treasure trove of warning signs and signal flares, but you have to know where to look. (One place to start: Writer Beware.) If something smells like week-old cod in a dead man’s jockstrap, backpedal and turn to Google or social media. A little suspicion is a lot healthy.
9. Vanity Is A Sin, After All
Vanity publishing is not a scam — but it’s also not in a writer’s financial best interests. First, on a practical level, it’s largely outmoded and tends to be needlessly expensive. The Internet has democritized distribution and has opened many new channels for a writer to get material out there if that’s the way the writer wants to go. Second, it reeks of desperation and violates a core tenet of a professional writing career…
10. Failing To Remember “Money In, Not Money Out”
The writer does not pay but, rather, gets paid. Now, I recognize that self-publishing has changed this old nugget of wisdom a bit — you might, say, pay for an editor or a cover designer. Beyond that, however, the flow of money is always to the writer and never away from the writer. You don’t pay to get published. You don’t let someone else capitalize on your hard work and walk away with a paycheck while you still lick dust from ramen noodle flavor packets in a storm drain.
11. Not Following The Trail Of Financial Breadcrumbs
You need to track income and expenses as robustly as your creative writer’s brain can manage. I know, I know, every time you open up a spreadsheet it’s like someone is shooting holes in your brain with a pellet rifle — OW NUMBERS NOT WORDS WRITER NEED ICE CREAM. I’m just saying, you’re going to be a lot happier knowing where your money is coming in and going out.
12. Floating Lazily Along The Timestream
Track your time. Track your time. Let me say it again, in all caps: TRACK YOUR TIME. Knowing your time — and how much you earn for that time spent — helps a professional writer gain a clearer picture of his abilities as a writer and how those abilities can pay off in terms of hourly, monthly, and annual performance. After all, time is money. And money helps you buy liquor and e-books.
13. Spending Too Much On Liquor And E-Books
Hey, I get it. E-books are so light! So airy! So cheap! And liquor is so — well. It’s liquor. Let’s just go with so necessary and leave it at that? Prudent expenditure of penmonkey funds is essential!
14. Failing To Take Advantage Of Tax Deductions
As a paid writer, you can deduct a wealth of useful things — pens, software, computers. I deducted a goddamn coffee maker because, hey, it’s an office expense. Money you spend in pursuit of your career is not only something to track, but something that should be seen through the “potential tax deduction” lens. For the record, that also means you may want to hire an accountant or tax prep person.
15. You Do Know You Have To Pay Taxes Quarterly, Right?
You do. You really do. Otherwise, you’ll get nut-kicked and teat-slapped by penalties. True story.
16. Ditching The Day Job Before It’s Time
There comes a point when many pro writers think that it’s time to transition from “part-time penmonkey” to “full-time inkslinger,” but do not be hasty. Have savings built up. Rock a budget. Get a cushion going. Stock up the liquor cabinet. Know when the air is clear and it’s safe to step out of your rocketship into this brand new atmosphere. If you do start the ball rolling where you plan to ditch the day-job, consider segueing into a part time job first. Offers an adjustment period.
17. Staying In The Day Job Well Past Its Due
Staying too long at your day job can be just as toxic. Writers are surfers and must know how to take advantage of the right wave — miss it, and the wave passes you by and cascades toward shore. Working a dead-end day-job takes crucial time away from the writing life. You know it’s time because you reach the conclusion, “If I didn’t have this 40-hour-a-week job hanging like a colostomy bag around my hip, I could be earning out with my wordsmithy. And I’d also not have poop in a bag, which is pretty gross.”
18. Self-Publishing When You Should’ve Gone Traditional
Self-publishing is not a magical panacea, nor is it a treasure chest of gold doubloons automagically dumped over your head. Self-publishing strategically and intelligently can provide a significant portion of your writerly gold hoard, yes. To DIY smartly, you need to understand more than just how to upload your book to the Lords of Kindle and have those robots distribute it to the Kindlemaschine masses. Self-publish poorly or choose that path when a better path is available and you give up opportunity. And by “opportunity” I mean, “hard cash, motherfucker.” Kapow, kaching, coo-coo-ka-choo. I dunno. Shut up.
19. Going Traditional When You Should’ve Self-Published
A pro-writer’s life is a tightrope walk and on that side are lions and on that side are bears and you tippy-toe your way between them best as you can. So here the opposite is true of that last thing I just said: choosing to traditionally publish when you’ve got a great possibility for a successful self-published book may indeed be throwing your time and energy into a dank, dark hole — like, say, a golem’s vagina. Yes, all golems have vaginas. And yes, my next self-published book will be either a Dan Brown homage or an epic fantasy novel, but either way, that sonofabitch will be titled, THE GOLEM’S VAGINA. Get on board or get out of the way, because that train is leaving the station. What were we talking about? Ah. Right. Some books suit the self-publishing realm — they fit like a hand in a soft glove. Which books? That’s a post for another time.
20. Negotiation Tactics Of A Sleepy Koala
Sometimes, you have to negotiate. Royalties, advances, rock star riders (“I need seven Junior Mints in a porcelain dish and those Junior Mints must first be suckled gently by Nicholas Sparks and — and — if the chocolate is in any way melted, I get to Taser the aforementioned Mister Sparks in his smiling, choco-smeared mouth”), whatever. And there you are, clinging to your tree, snoozing against the hard bark. If you don’t want to negotiate, once again: find an agent. This is what they do and what they’re good at.
21. Repeat After Me: “Budget. Surplus. Budget. Surplus.”
Unless you’re part of a pre-existing corporate ecosystem, writers are not paid in a steady, measured financial stream. You don’t get a check every week. Your money comes erratically, like random unexpected orgasms separated by long and listless lulls of joyless wondering. That means two things: first, you need to budget. You can’t get your money and blow it all on donkey porn and video games. You’re going to need food at some point. Second, you need to build up a surplus. Line your coffers with pillowy money just in case you need to take a fall. Life is not kind. You’ll be following along your budget with blissful ignorance, and then a jet engine will fall out of the sky onto your car. UH OH SPAGHETTIOS.
22. Do You Really Need That Helper Monkey?
You don’t need a whole lot as a writer. You need a computer (yes, as a professional writer, you do; you can wing it with a notebook and a pen all you like but there will come a time when someone will be like, “Oh, e-mail that to me, motherfucker,” and the best you can do is wad up the paper and throw it at them), you need some kind of word processing software, you need Internet access, whatever. But some writers spend into a big and needless toolbox — expensive computer, huge monitor, a costly software suite, an 8-ball of coke, a robot built around Hemingway’s brain, fingerless typing gloves lined with dodo feathers, and so forth. I’m not saying you can’t buy these things at some point; but you damn sure don’t start out your writing career by tossing yourself into a financial oubliette. Fuck debt.
23. Your Body Needn’t Be A Temple, But Don’t Treat It Like The Bathroom Floor At A New Jersey Arby’s, Am I Right?
Keep healthy, and even better, get health insurance. No, no, I know, health insurance is expensive. And many healthcare providers will work so hard to wriggle out of covering certain things you’d think they have collapsible bones and slime-slick skin that sloughs off any time you grab for them. Do your research. Budget for the cost. What’s expensive now pales in comparison to what you’ll pay without it. “Oh, I have a cold? And to procure this one bottle of Amoxycillin I have to bring you the still-screaming head of the Medusa?”
24. Letting Financial Stress Get A Choke Hold On Your Wordsmithy
Stress — and I don’t mean that good clean motivational stress, I mean the “I can smell my hair burning” stress — does not do a writer well. Sometimes, so-called “writer’s block” is just stress getting to a writer. And one of the greatest sources of stress for the average everyday penmonkey is financial stress. From this, you must insulate yourself. Sometimes protecting yourself means being smart and not fucking up — sometimes it’s just a Zen thing and it means shutting the noise out and forming a plan and realizing that as long as it’s not going to kill you then you just need to breathe and move past it. If stress stops you from writing and you need writing to get past the stress — well. You see how that’s a sticky wicket, don’t you? What the fuck is a sticky wicket, anyway? I picture some kind of giant insect exuding something that looks like strawberry jam from all its exoskeletonic joints. It hugs you and it just won’t let go. Then it injects an ovipositor into your colon and plants its larvae and a healthy dose of toxoplasmosis!
25. Writing And Publishing With Zero Strategy
You need a strategy. Not just a budget, but a full-bore plan for your penmonkey future. You know that bullshit question they ask at interviews, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” It’s not bullshit. You should have an idea, a real idea, of what you’re planning on doing year-after-year. It’ll help you do more than tread water, which is what many professional writers end up doing (or worse, they end up sinking down, their screams lost in a flurry of bubbles). Perhaps the best present a writer can get himself is a strategy for her career going forward. Well, that and a pony. Because ponies make everybody happy.
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Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?
Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY
Or its sequel: REVENGE OF THE PENMONKEY
And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING
Or the newest: 500 WAYS TO BE A BETTER WRITER