So, You Wanna Be A Professional Writer? Some Considerations!
What you write, how you write, what prose comes oozing out of your finger pores — I can offer suggestions there, sure, but craft and art are fiddly, subjective things. Less subjective, though, is what you do with them, and how you make money from them. (Though even there: still football fields of wiggle room.) Just the same, it feels like a good time to talk a bit more about what it means to be a writer who earns money.
THAT’S RIGHT. IT’S TIME TO TALK ABOUT YOUR WRITING CAREER.
I don’t know what flavor of a writing career you have in mind — maybe freelance, maybe game design, maybe you’re going to be one of them fancy novel-writin’ weirdos that haunt the woods at night and commune with possums.
If you’re going to take the plunge and earn gold coins for words, then there exist certain considerations that you may not have, erm, considered. So, I’m here to make you consider them. At gunpoint, if need be. *points gun* *gun shoots whiskey into your mouth* *everybody wins*
1) Where will you write? Seems stupid, but it’s vital to carve out a space. If you don’t have a space to write, you won’t write. You don’t need an isolated palace tower with a view of the sun-gilded horizon, but you need something. Better a space that’s not a public one — meaning, not a coffee shop, and also not a well-trafficked part of your house. If it has to be, then it has to be, but it’s a lot easier to write in some isolation than in a place where you’ve got dickheads talking on their phones or children whizzing past with whirring chainsaws. (What? You don’t let your kids run around with chainsaws? Such a helicopter parent.)
2) When will you write? You’re gonna go pro, you need time. You need a schedule. Territory isn’t merely physical — you have to carve out temporal territory, too. If you will not be able to make time to write, then you will not be able to be an effective professional writer. You need to know when you can write, how much you can write in that time, and how to effectively plan that time to thread the needle of deadlines.
3) You need a plan to deal with writer’s block. And that plan better look at least a little bit like: “I choose to ignore it and write anyway.” My speech on this is not easily distillable to a single paragraph, but here’s the gist: writer’s block isn’t real in the sense that it isn’t unique to writers. Everybody gets blocked. Every job requires one to confront problems that confound and confuzzle and halt your overall progress. It’s normal, but calling it writer’s block makes it sound special, and the act of having it can sometimes be an excuse not to write while still making you sound like An Official Writer with Official Writer Problems. More to the point, writer’s block will be a serious drag on your money-earning word-monkeying ability — it’s like trying to be a NASCAR driver with a flat tire. It is a block you literally cannot afford, so, you will need to know how to get past it. (Please be advised: depression and anxiety are not writer’s block, nor are they related to writer’s block, and they cannot be treated as writer’s block.)
4) You’re gonna need to think about money. I know. I know! Money sucks. We live in a shitty capitalist hellscape where we are forced to toil for pieces of paper that we use to buy things like food and underpants. But it is what it, is and until society collapses and we realize our glorious socialist Star Trek future, you’re going to have to make the words dance for your dinner. But money from writing is tricky. It’s not a paycheck. You don’t get it weekly or monthly. You get it whenever you get it, and then you need to store it in your accounts the way a hamster stores a couple baby carrots in his fuzzy-wuzzy cheeks. You’ll need to budget. You may need a supplemental job, even a full-time job. Over time and with greater success, you’ll also need a proper accountant, maybe even someone who will set up an LLC for you, because taxes as a freelance writer are fun in the way that dental surgery on an angry meth-fueled raccoon is fun.
5) Hey, also, how’s that healthcare coming along? If you wanna know why many artists think and speak out politically, it’s because the political realm has an often direct and not-at-all-inscrutible effect on our daily lives. If you are a 9-to-5 job-haver, the turbulence of conservative politics is softened. But we artists are out on the wing of the fucking plane, and we feel it all. You fuck with healthcare, and we get fucked with directly. You, as a writer, will need to ponder how to get healthcare. (Also, you’ll need to ponder how you remain healthy in general, given that writing is an often sedentary job where most of the exercise is in your head.) Right now, the ACA exists, and it’s a life-saver for us “on-the-wing” writerfolk, though given how vicious mustache-twirling villains are continually champing at the bit to dismantle it, who knows what happens? Point is: have some idea of where your healthcare comes from. ACA? Spouse? A side-job? A doctor you’ve captured and trapped in your attic?
6) Where you gonna live? Good news is, a writing career can take place pretty much… anywhere. Some folks will tell you it is vital to live in NYC, but this is not only wildly false, but also probably a really bad idea. I live in a slightly wealthier part of PA, and my mortgage payment for a many-bedroomed, many-bathroomed house on 7 acres is half the price of a sensible one-bedroom NYC apartment. I work in a writing shed that has as much square footage as some of those sensible apartments. Were I willing to live even deeper into the country, my dollar would go even farther. (Bonus: if I do need to be in NYC, I can be there in two hours.) Point is, writing-for-pay means you need to get some mileage out of your money. If you’re writing film and TV, proximity to LA is more important — though, if you’re working effectively in that realm, you probably make better money than most writers, so.
7) What happens if one of your writing paths is cut off? We’re all taking a trail up the mountain, but one mudslide or angry cougar and we’re forced to find another path up to the peak. What’s yours? What I mean is this: don’t write one thing. Don’t just write novels. Or games. Or comics. You can be versatile by learning different, ahem, writing fighting styles to counter different opponents and yes I realize I’m mixing my metaphors here but let’s pretend you’re fighting that angry cougar I was talking about. If you write one genre novel, and that genre stops selling, what happens? If you diversify to another genre, another medium, or even another publishing avenue, you’re in better shape. (And I should take special note to that “publishing avenues” aspect — if you’re a writer and not at least thinking about things like blogs, social media, Patreon, Kickstarter, self-publishing, etc., then I shall stare askance at you with great dubiousness.) If you don’t want to do that, then again you will require a proper full-time job to give you a place to land when you’re plane blows up in mid-air. And again, I’m mixing metaphors, but let’s assume the mountain lion is flying the plane, I guess?
8) How will you find your community? Writing is an isolated and isolating job when it needs to be, but eventually, you need other humans. I did not know this going in, but I damn well know it now: the community is king. Just having other writers to talk to is important. Having a small network of professionals in your chosen industry — not just writers, but editors, agents, marketers, designers — is huge. It’s huge because it reminds you that you’re not alone. It’s huge because it can also provide you with opportunity going forward. And that’s not to say you’re using other people as springboards to more work. People aren’t ladders, and trying to climb up one usually means you end up stuffing your foot into their crotch and headbutting them on the chin. Just the same, a community is there to help its members, and so you’re going to need one. You can find them online, at conventions and conferences, in their varying hubs of industry. Glom onto them. Treat them well and demand to be treated well in return. (Note: some community niches can be toxic, too, so remain vigilant.)
9) Set achievable goals. Humans, and artists in particular, do this thing where they tie achievement and satisfaction to uncertain goals. Look at it this way: there are aspects to your career that you control, and there are aspects that are outside your control. You can control what you write, for instance, but not if it will be published. You can control your writing output, but you can’t control what the audience does once they have that output in their hands. You can control each word you put on the page, but you cannot control bees with your mind. A writing career is very much about focusing on the things that are yours to command. You control what you control. The rest you can influence, at best. Know the differences between control and influence. This will be vital not only in terms of moving your career forward, but also not feeling like a shitty shitbutt failure-person. It’s also wise to set scaleable goals. Don’t start big. Find the gradual way forward. Find an upward slope with a steady geometric, not exponential, progression. Oh! Also, writing for free should not be part of your gameplan. Now, let’s be clear: you will at times write for free, but as I have said long and loud, if you’re going to be exposed, expose yourself. (Ahem.) Point is, writing for free is something you do when you control it, not when someone else controls it. Control over your goals and your writing is key.
10) What kind of writer are you going to be?
This is a big question.
This is the biggest question.
So I’m breaking out of that paragraph format a little bit to talk about it.
Who are you?
What do you want?
Why do you want to do this thing?
There exist those who will tell you that you can’t make money off a writing career, who treat it like it’s a basically an alleyway littered with the bodies of starved and starving artists, but that’s not true at all. Writing is a sought-after skill, because as it turns out, the written word still matters, whether it’s in novels or tweets or advertising or corporate memos. Even on the fringiest side of things — the rare author of novels, again out there in the woods dancing with possums — there is a career to be made. But a career isn’t made just of money. If you are only interested in money, there are probably better careers for you (or at least more direct ones). Presumably you want to be a writer because you love it.
So, what do you love about it?
And how will you translate that love to a career?
Can you stomach writing things that aren’t really from your heart? You’ll probably have to, at times, but how far outside your heart can you wander before what you’re doing is really no better than digging ditches or putting numbers in spreadsheets? I knew early on I could stomach some of that — but I also knew I didn’t want to spend my day job spending my Intellectual Energy Points (IEP) on corporate memos. I knew the end goal was to write novels, but I could stray from that realm as long as what I was doing felt rewarding in a way beyond just monetarily. Writing games was never “the goal,” but it was a way for me to still write creatively in an industry that needed writers and it paid me to do so. A writing career is about sticking and moving, but also about knowing your limitations, and most importantly, knowing your heart.
You will not always write to your heart. That will sometimes be a luxury and sometimes you will pay the bills however you have to pay the bills because no matter how romantic the myth of the starving artist, it is very difficult to create good art while you’re fucking starving. Just the same, you must still aim to write your heart. To make time and to find space in your career to still try to make something crafty, something artful, to find ways to put your heart onto the page in whatever manifestation that demands. But you can only do that when you crystallize for yourself who you are as a writer, and what speaks to you in the work you want to do. That means realizing goals and giving yourself the ability to complete them. If you wanna write a novel, you’re going to have to BEND REALITY TO YOUR WILL so you can write a novel. Same with a comic, or a game, or whatfuckingever it shall be. Then you’ll have to do it again.
A writing career in many ways is like herding animals, sometimes cows, sometimes cats, sometimes angry wasps. You can’t move them individually. You don’t control each cow-cat-wasp like a chess piece. But you can place yourself in a way that moves the herd this way, over there, over here, in the general direction of where you want them to go. You always have to place yourself behind the herd so you can move them gently but ineluctably in the direction you desire.
Let your heart be your guide.
But don’t forget to fill your belly, pay your rent, and go to the damn doctor when you need to.
Now go write.
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Hey, $20 gets you eight of my writing e-books and two novels in the new Mega Ultra Big Book Bundle. Check it out if you’re so inclined.
(Or, if you want something in print: hey, look, The Kick-Ass Writer.)