“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.