This is one of the questions most frequently asked of me.
How do you become a full-time writer?
I am, and have been, a full-time writer (on and off) for the last ten years. The most recent “off” period, many moons ago, was simply because I was trying to get a mortgage on a first home, and the bank was like, “OH YOU’RE A FREELANCE WRITER SURE, SURE, WE KNOW WHAT THAT IS, EXCEPT THERE’S NO BUTTON ON MY COMPUTER THAT SAYS ‘GIVE FREELANCER A MORTGAGE NO MATTER HOW MUCH HE EARNS,’ OH WELL, SO SORRY, GOOD LUCK.” *toilet flushing sound*
This past year, 2013, was my most financially successful year yet.
You want to know how you become me.
In the loosey-goosey full-time sense, of course. To actually become me means cutting clippings of my beard, dipping them in a saucer of my heartsblood, reciting a thousand words of vulgarity that haven’t been heard by human ears since Caligula was prancing about, then eating the bloody beard puffs. With milk. Whole milk, not two percent, c’mon.
And it’s gotta be velociraptor milk.
Point is, full-time writer status: you want it.
But, I want you to slow down, hoss. Ease off the stick, chief.
You want to jump off the ledge and land in the pool 20 floors below. But it doesn’t work like that. I mean, it can — you might get lucky, you might survive the jump. Or, you might crash into some portly lad bobbing about on an inflatable Spongebob raft and kill the both of you.
Do not quit your day job.
I know. Your butthole just clenched hard enough to snap a mop handle. You hate your day job. The fact you call it a “day job” is a sign that you basically despise it as a grim, necessary evil.
But I’ll repeat:
Do not quit your day job.
If you’re going to become a full-time writer Cylon, you need a plan.
Becoming a writer — or I assume any flavor of artist — in a full-time manner is rarely the same thing as hopping to a new job, unless this art-flavored job is working for a company in the same capacity that, say, an accountant or a sex gnome would. (Hey, whatever, writers tend to have a lot of weird jobs, and I was a sex gnome at Merck Sharp & Dohme from the years 2002 and 2005. Trust me, you want some of that high-octane ‘sex gnome money.’) More likely, the job you envision is you sitting around your Art Space, sans pants, possibly sans underpants, creating art in the morning and rolling around in art money in the afternoon.
However, I’ll paint for you a more realistic picture: you, in a destitute hovel, hallucinating because you ate another bowl of ramen noodles with a spoiled flavor packet, and now you’re conversing with the water stains on the wall — and no, you’re not wearing pants, but it’s because the rats ate your last pair and you literally cannot afford any more.
That may sound like I’m echoing the old cry that artists starve and they don’t make any money oh that way lies dragons and ramen but that’s not what I’m saying. Artists starve most often because they didn’t have a goddamn plan in mind when they decided to foolishly disentangle from their old life in order to enter this new one.
They weren’t ready.
Think of yourself like a pugilist. A heavyweight boxer.
You don’t, on day one, step into the ring with Ivan Drago. You train, motherfucker. You punch sides of beef. You run through snow and lava. You let school-children pummel you with cricket bats. You bulk up. You gain new sassy skills. This is five-finger-death-punch time.
You’re probably not yet ready to be a full-time writer.
Here’s what you need to get ready.
First, and this is the most obvious one and yes I will return to this at the end of the post to repeat it as a call to action — but by the sassy miracles of Sweet Saint Fuck, you have to be writing. You. Have. To. Be. Writing. I don’t mean you have to plan to be writing, I don’t mean you have a story envisioned that you fully intend to write. No, I mean: you have to be writing now. Presently. In the midst of a mire of words. And this can’t be fucking new for you, either. You have to have been writing for — well, shit, it’s not like there’s an exact equation, so let’s go with the ambiguously uncertain TEMPORAL SHITLOAD OF TIME. Malcolm Gladwell said something-something 10,000 hours to get practiced at something, and while that number remains wholly arbitrary the truth is seeded deep just the same:
To be a writer, you have to write. To be a good writer, you have to write a whole goddamn lot.
So, that’s your first empty checkbox. Are you writing? Have you been for a long time?
Next up: are you capable of sustaining this writing? Do you have writing discipline? Can you plunk down in front of a computer and eject 2,000 words from your tap-dancing fingertips in a day? Despite a dog scratching at your door? No matter the construction work outside? Regardless of the toddler who’s crawling through your heating vents this very second in order to ambush you in your workspace — oh, and he’s got sticky jam hands and a full diaper and for some reason he’s got a bunch of magnets and he’s totally going to try to erase all your hard drives? Are you prepared?
Do you have one book in you, or a hundred?
Can you write scripts? Comics? Games? Articles?
If you’re going to Art for Money, you need to be willing and able to barf up all manner of words for all manner of money. (Excuse me, I’m now going to change my business cards to read ‘Professional Word-Barfer.’ Hold on. There we go.) If you’re trying to live off novels (*cue laugh track*), you’ll still from time to time probably need to take on other work. That might mean writing dialogue for some clunky online game. It might mean writing an article about the history of artificial bison insemination. It might mean I give you twenty bucks for you to write down really nice things about me and maybe also your social security number and your credit card information.
And speaking of money — do you have some? Like, right now? No, I don’t want any (I totally want some) — my point is that writing money is not steady money. It does not flow to you weekly. You are not afforded the glory of a paycheck. It is erratic, random, sometimes appearing as if out of the mist. If you are not presently holding actual money in an actual bank account, you’ll probably be starving by your third month. And again, not in the romantic “starving artist” way but in the “holy shit starving isn’t romantic this sucks” way.
All the better if the money you have in your account is money you have already earned from writing. Because if you don’t have deals in place, if you don’t have evidence of future effort yielding future greenbacks, once again: you might be fucked. I worked my way to a full-time writing career with freelance wordsmithy — and when I eventually transitioned to writing novels, that transitional year was a tough one financially. Turbulence abounded.
Do you have health care? You’re gonna need that. This is less a problem nowadays, where a year ago I would’ve said: “You need to have a spouse with healthcare.” Thanks to the ACA (aka “OBAMACARE” aka “THE SWEET SOCIALIST KENYAN TERRORIST TEAT”), my family has healthcare that actually covers things and does not cost us in gallons of blood and pain. (Sidenote, if you think this is a good time to rail against the ACA, do not bother. Try that and I promise most sincerely to pepper spray you in the fucking mouth.)
Hell, let’s talk about your spouse. Do you have one? Does said spouse have a job? Hope so. That’s gonna be mighty useful in the coming moons. A steady paycheck, even a small one, can make the unpredictability and uncertainty of Full-Time Arting a far softer sting.
Are you planning on making money off novels? Mm-hmm. This is doable, despite what you’ll hear from the peanut gallery, but it’s not precisely easy, either. Consider: your average advance on a novel might be five, ten grand. Can you live off of that in a year? Nope. That is not full-time money. Okay, maybe you sell a film option, and are able to push some foreign rights deals. Let’s say that’s another… oh, let’s say thirty grand, to be optimistic. Can you live off of $40k a year? If you have a spouse bringing in cash, hey, that’s bad-ass. If you’ve got a family and you’re the only bread winner, then you’re below what most families make. And, let’s remember that those film and foreign rights are value-adds — not guarantees.
Hell, let’s say you just got a six-figure deal. Excitement! Except, that probably means three books. And it probably means ~$33k per book. Which, again, is kind of amazing. But, the reality check is, they might want one of those books a year, and is an annual $33k really the kind of money you can live off of? (If you live in a big city like New York or Los Angeles, that thirty-three thousand is what you’ll spend on groceries, I think. And therein lies another little secret pro-writer tip — if you’re writing full-time, go live in a place where your dollar flies very far.)
Maybe you’re self-publishing. What happens when your book — capably released, well-edited, nicely-reviewed — lands with a turd-splash? What happens when it generates a couple hundred bucks instead of a couple thousand?
Can you write more? Bigger? Faster?
Can you diversify your writing? Can you write in multiple genres? Across multiple formats?
Can you speak to varying age ranges?
Are you willing to say yes more than you say no?
Do you know what income you’ll have coming in for 2015? 2016? Two years down the line? Three?
These are all the checkboxes, penmonkey. These are the signs. You’re able to write a lot. You’ve got deals already cooking. You’re capable of flexibility and you’ve got opportunities made plain. You know what happens when one opportunity suddenly dries up. It’s still not safe. Being a full-time Artmachine is never the safe choice — but hell, you want safe, go work at a fucking bank. (Don’t worry, we’ll always take care of the banks. Poor people? Fuck them. Yay banks!) But if you want to love what you do, go be a full-time creator. I’m just saying, do so as wisely and as pragmatically as you can manage. Protect yourself, protect your loved ones. Don’t just quit your day job. Prepare a slow detachment. Build a parachute. Look for the signs.
And, I told you I’d come back to it:
Write. Write a lot. Write swiftly. Write with your own heart in mind but also the heart of an audience. Find that magic liminal space between what people want to read and what you want to write because that’s where you’ll generate the greatest income. Get better. Write more. Take more shots at the goal. Only the rarest of penmonkeys can build a full-time career off one book or one series. This is chess game time — you have to be writing now and thinking about what you’ll be writing three years down the road.
Good luck, word-birds. Fly free. But fly smart.
(And in the meantime, if you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum and you’re saying, “But I have barely any time to write as it is! Job! Family! Sleep! AHHHH.” Then may I once more point you to my Zero-Fuckery 350-Words-A-Day Writing Plan?)
* * *
The journey to become a successful writer is long, fraught with peril, and filled with difficult questions: How do I write dialogue? How do I build suspense? What should I know about query letters? How do I start? What the hell do I do?
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