Writing What You Love and Earning What You’re Worth

Many folks, including your humble correspondent, feel that this is by far the best time on earth to be a writer. In the distant past (you know, before 2007) precious few scribes were ever able to eke out a reasonable living from scribbling alone.
That’s all changed.
Every month more writers are added to the roster of those making enough lettuce to consider leaving their day jobs. But even short of that, many more are making a side income that is significant and steadily growing.
I love this! I love it that more writers can now earn a fair, merit–based return on what they write.
Today, let’s forget about the prognostications, vitriol, cries of doom, and hand-wringing over the future of culture in general and publishing in particular. Today I want to talk about being a professional writer.
For two decades now I’ve studied, analyzed, and practiced what works in this arena. I have determined that writers who make it almost always share these seven characteristics:
1. Love
An inner fire to make it as a writer will get you through years of cold reality. I suspect that the majority of writers who make it to full-time status love what they do. Writing is a part of them, a calling as well as a vocation.
It’s certainly possible to write out of sheer business-mindedness (I think, however, that this is much easier when you write non-fiction). Yet there’s a certain something that gets translated to the page by the writer who loves the work. I believe you can write what you love and, if you do so with the other characteristics listed below, earn a fair return.
2. Discipline
“One of the big lessons of sports for dedicated individuals and teams is that it shows us how hard work, and I mean hard work, does pay dividends.” – John Wooden, legendary UCLA basketball coach
Love is not enough. Ask anyone who’s married.
Work puts legs on the dream.
3. Perseverance
“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” – Randy Pausch, “The Last Lecture”
The true writer puts this thought in mind: I am going to write and never stop because that’s what I want to do. I will keep learning and growing and producing the words. I’ll keep carving out time to write, even if it means giving some things up. And it will always be too soon to quit.
4. A Sound Mind
By which I mean the ability to overcome emotions and see things objectively. To take some of the hard knocks that are part of the writer’s life and turn them into opportunities to grow. To keep yourself from exploding in a stupid or vainglorious way on social media and thereby harming your reputation.
5. Business Savvy
If you want to earn what you’re worth you have to approach writing and publishing as a business. A successful business makes a profit. To make a profit you need a plan.
Many writers and other artists shudder at this notion. Some even rebel against it. For them writing success is usually an accident.
I don’t want you to be an accident. I want you to think like an entrepreneur. Fortunately, the business principles you need are not that difficult to acquire.
6. A Support System
As author Peter Straub once put it: “Every writer must acknowledge and be able to handle the unalterable fact that he has, in effect, given himself a life sentence in solitary confinement.”
Every writer needs support from other people. Nurture relationships with fellow writers and communities of writers. Hang out with positive folks. Be kind to your family, even Aunt Betty who thinks you’re nuts for trying to be a writer.
7. Talent
This is the least important item.
First of all, it’s a subjective judgment. There is no final arbiter of what constitutes talent. It’s a little like what a Supreme Court justice once said about obscenity: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.
You do have to have some ability to string sentences together in a coherent fashion. This is a matter of education and the habit of reading.
Having that, you can now put the other six items on the list into practice. This is how you make it in this game, and why I have just released a book called How to Make a Living as a Writer.
We all know that digital self-publishing has opened up a vast universe of possibilities for the writer. But this book is not about self–publishing alone. It also talks about how to approach traditional publishing. I advocate multiple streams of income, so I also discuss the best practices for writing both fiction and non-fiction. I cover what a publishing business actually looks like, and how any writer can create an enterprise based on quality and production. There are sections on how to become relentless, how to set and meet goals, unlocking your creativity, how to write better and faster, how to choose the right ideas for projects, and a whole lot more.
In short, I am attempting to give writers the skills that will greatly increase their odds of making a good return on what they write.
For the ebook:
If you like your writing books in print, HERE YOU GO.
Carpe Typem!

25 thoughts on “Writing What You Love and Earning What You’re Worth

  1. Regarding a sound mind and love for the work: I never cease to be amazed that you have an endless enthusiasm for the craft. I’m sure there must be days that are better than others, but overall, you represent the sound mind well.

    To me, writing is much more of a roller coaster. I love it, but I love a lot of other things too. That makes staying focused very difficult.

    • I think part of it may be my sports background, BK. I loved playing, but there were days when I did lousy or the team lost big. You naturally feel down.

      But then you get up the next day and look at what you did, what you can learn, and you get out there and practice some more.

      The focus part also comes with practice. Start with small stints where you make yourself tune everything out. Then work your way up…I advocate writing in 25-minute blocks, taking a short break, then 25 more, and so on.

      Roller coaster is a good metaphor. Remember the grandma in Parenthood?

  2. Jim, thanks for writing HOW TO MAKE A LIVING AS A WRITER. I bought it last night and am enjoying it already.

    I appreciate your faithful participation in this blog and the many pages of advice you’ve already given.

    • Thanks, Steve. It does help to love what you do, so writing about it is never unpleasant. Work, yes, but enjoyable.

      And I’ve decided to break out the pen and fresh Moleskin at the first of the year. Seems fitting to start then.

  3. Jim, when I saw your latest newsletter yesterday I snapped up “How To Make a Living As a Writer.” Your books have helped me improve my writing craft; this one has some great advice on improving your craft but the business focus is what I doubly need now.

    Back in early 2012 I intended to do “the full indie” (apologies to a certain movie), spent months learning how to build my website, blog, guest blog, use twitter etc. You guessed it–I wasn’t writing much fiction during that time. That fall I began working on a serial fiction project, but ran out of steam about 40K into it. I realized I needed to improve my craft. In addition to your books, I took several workshops, including one from your agent and friend Don Maass, an epic two week one at KU on outlining a novel, as well as participated in a three day small critique group with a NYC editor, which showed what I needed to improve. I’ve since written the novel workshopped at KU as well as sold some more short stories. I’m outlining a new novel now. I’ve moved from being a pantser to an outliner, learning how to outline a novel has taken me a fair amount of time.

    Publishing is calling, but I want to be ready. Self-publishing still appeals, but frankly I haven’t produced at anywhere near the speed it sounds like I need to. I’ve “won” NaNo three times before, but none of those attempts produced anything like a publishable novel-coming up with a solid outline will make a huge difference, it just takes time. I think in someways the hardest challenge is being patient.

    Your book is going to make a huge difference, I’ve already read the first five chapters–it looks to be exactly what the doctor ordered. I’ll be doubling down on my writing committment. I have a support/brainstorm writers group of professional writers (what Dale Carnegie called a master mind group), some great beta readers waiting in the wings.

    The big challenge I face is not taking forever on the pre-writing and outlining. How do you impose deadlines on yourself for outlining and still create a solid, damn good novel outline? My fear of drafting a bad story has to a big extent been replaced with the fear of outlining a bad one 😉

    You’ve given us a great roadmap to building our careers. If I can get my production speed up while making each novel and story the best I can, I’ll have a great shot at the game of publishing, thanks in no small part to you. Thank you!

    • Dale, you’ve asked a great question. I think it really comes down to fear.

      It’s not the outlining that’s the problem, it’s the need to feel secure that what you set out to write will actually be worth something. I know agents dread December because all those non-publishable NaNo manuscripts start coming in.

      Part of it is defining what an outline is. James Patterson is famously known for these eighty-page, single-spaced documents that he call an “outline.” They essentially lay out every scene in detail.

      I’ve never been able to do that. My idea of “plotting” is much more fluid, and uses the signposts of structure to free and guide the author into a story that works for the most important people—the readers.

      What is really happening in NaNo, and in that playground where pantsers happily dance, is something ironic. While they enjoy the “freedom” and “discovery” process, they always end up with a MESS that has to be streamlined, focused and, gasp, structured for publication. All they are doing (and this is perfectly legit way to go if you understand it) is FINDING the real story they want to tell. But then they have to cut away what doesn’t work and reshape what does.

      The irony is that this first draft is very much like a Patterson outline! Patterson shapes and shapes his outlines just like these pantsed first drafts need to be shaped.

      There’s an easier and better way to find story, IMO: it’s to play BEFORE you write. Play on the monkey bars built of structural signposts. You actually can be more creative this way because you’re not drafting. Thus, it’s much faster, too.

      You can also play in the actual writing. But you’ll be playing a game that readers can make sense of.

      It’s the best of both worlds. Freedom AND focus, and a lot less frustration. The people who’ve been writing to me about Write Your Novel From the Middle have been having epiphanies on this. Which is cool. I’ll have more to say on writing this way in the months ahead.

      So don’t try the Patterson “outline” (which, again, I wouldn’t call an outline but a laborious first, second and third draft). Have a look at a post I did on structure some time ago. Give yourself a time limit on the plotting phase up front. You’ll keep getting better, Dale.

      And thanks for the kind words.

  4. I saw this in your email last night and snatched it up as quickly as Kindle could process my payment. I am now 75% of the way through and I am happily surprised! I expected it to be awesome (because, c’mon, it’s you), but I was really pleased with the extra writing instruction. It’s great for the business side of things, but it also has the “I am a writer in this business” built into the plan of it that you don’t see in most business books.

    I have a slightly off topic question: You mentioned using your Alphasmart…which version do you have?

    I have a toddler, and right now, I spend the morning writing longhand, and typing during nap time. I’d like type in the morning, but my lap top likes to commit seppuku, and my toddler likes trying to jump on it. I thought having an Alphasmart would be a great way to bang out some rough draft material, but there seems to be several options.

  5. I can speak to the fear you mention in response to Dale Ivan Smith.

    I am always afraid. I suffer from visions of some executioner hovering over me with his enormous ax.

    I was thinking about this feeling a couple weeks back after listening to a chapter or two of your book, Fiction Attack!

    *laughs* I almost said “suddenly” just now. But that’s against the rules!

    I had a moment of clarity concerning a woman who I much admire. Shaharazhad was the mistress of storytelling; she told tales so enthralling, each night the king spared her life.

    I decided that would be my motto. Every time I feel that fear rising I say. “If I don’t tell the tale, by morning I will be dead.” Each evening, I fill a page, even if I have not managed to get writing done during the day.

    It doesn’t take long with my formatting set to the standards shared earlier this week. One page, and I live to see the morning.

  6. Thanks for the tips and pep talk, Jim! I bought this book and am sure I’ll find it as useful as all of your other great craft books, of which I own dog-eared copies and am constantly recommending to my clients!

  7. James, love this post. And I’ll check out your book. I recently finished your “write from the middle” book and found it really helpful.

    I appreciate how you listed talent last. Talent doesn’t matter much if we don’t love to write, and aren’t willing to persevere and do the hard work.

  8. Hi! *waves madly* Thank you for this – I’ve been in writing hell and under deadline and and and – I realized from reading your column that I DO love it and I’d better just get the hell out of my own way and WRITE. Thank you.

    Hope you’re having an AWESOME week!

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