Top Ten Things You Need to Know About the Writing Life

Jean Arthur

10. You have to love it

If you don’t love to write, if it’s not something you are virtually compelled to do, you’re not truly living a writing life. You could be a business person who wants to use writing as a vehicle for making some extra cash. You could be someone who journals as a form of therapy. That’s all legit. It’s just not a love for telling stories.

But if you have some inner compulsion to write, embrace it, because that will show in the writing itself. And you’re also going to need some love when you get hit with disappointment. Thus:

9. You have to learn to handle discouragement

If you’re going to do this, write for your life, you have to become a bit of a Sherman tank (as opposed to buying a fifth and getting tanked). You need a tough hide and forward drive. Because there are plenty of things to get you down.

Like the sound of crickets when your book launches. Or the screech of a hater leaving an unfair review. Or you looking at your work and thinking, This stinks. Who am I kidding?

Just know that all writers have gone through similar discouragement, it’s part of the life, it’s even part of the training. Those scars on the soul make you human, and humanity is what you need in your fiction.

8. It’s hard work

If your writing is going to be any good, that is. The best writers sweat over their labors, always trying to get better. They produce the words on a scheduled basis. This is called a quota.

By the way, I don’t want to hear any whining about a quota. There were times I didn’t want to go to court to defend a man so guilty his dog left him. But that was my job. I went and did it.

Show up. Write. Do your best. Take a break now and then—I take Sundays off completely—and then get back to the keyboard.

7. It’s a craft

The writing life is also about skills. Painters have paint, musicians have notes, surgeons have scalpels and forceps and malpractice insurance. And they all have mentors and journals and long periods of study.

Super Structure blueprint coverWho would tell a young golfer just to grab a club and start hacking balls around? All that produces is a menace to gophers. Sure, every now and then one might succeed, like a Bubba Watson. But you can count those guys on one foot with a toe missing.

Write and learn. Learn and practice.

(This seems an apt place to tell you that my new book, Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story is now available in print as well as E.)

6. It’s about steady growth

Forget the million-dollar advance on your debut novel. Or the viral downloading of your first e-novella. Not going to happen.

If you want to lead a writer’s life and even make some money at it, be prepared for an apprenticeship of years. I’ve been at this business for over two decades. The first five years brought me nothing, but all that time I was studying the craft like a madman and writing and writing.

I eventually landed a five-book contract, but did not quit my day job. I still had to get better, and that was my goal. It was only after ten years of steady production that I felt I could call myself a professional writer.

Even if you self-publish fast, it’s going to take time to grow a readership, and that’s only if you’ve followed all the above steps consistently.

5. It’s a fellowship

No, we don’t have a ring. Or even a secret sign. But writers do have each other, and we are, in large part, supportive. Every now and then a sour apple slips in––some egomaniacal writing brat, a sock puppet who tears down his rivals under a false name, or (worst of all) an odious plagiarizer.

But at conferences and local gatherings, online or in person, wherever authors congregate you’ll find fellow travelers willing to give you a tip or some encouragement. It’s good to remember that while we write alone, we are also “social people who can greatly benefit from balancing solitude and community.”

4. Don’t get hooked on the ups

It’s fun to land on a bestseller list, or making it to #1 in an Amazon category, or getting an email from a true fan who loved your book, or finding your bank account unexpectedly and substantially expanded one month. All these are nice, and to be enjoyed for what they are.

Just remember one thing: Don’t let them go to your head. Don’t expect that they will be easily repeated. Don’t let them inflate your ego. And especially don’t let them keep you from continuing to work and grow. The literary landscape is littered with the dry husks of careers that flowered briefly but were not sustained because of hubris, ego, fear, booze, or simple neglect.

Enjoy a victory for a day or two, then concentrate on your current project.

3. Now is the best time to live the writing life

We’re in year number eight of the digital era in publishing. Since the introduction of the Kindle at the end of 2007 more writers are making more money than at any time in history. Some are killing it, many are making a living, scores more are realizing a nice side income, and almost anyone who is serious is making enough to support at least a Starbucks habit.

This was never possible before. Ever since old Gutenberg set movable type, the power to publish belonged to those who owned the presses and dealt with bookstores selling paper copies. Writers were at the mercy of commercial interests. If those interests ever felt your value had diminished, they could end your participation––and maybe your career––by not offering you another contract (or, worse, canceling the current one).

The landscape has changed forever. There are new challenges to face, of course (*cough* discoverability *cough*). But writers have always had challenges. What’s new and life-altering is that they now have options.

2.  It’s a business life, too

A writing life, as opposed to a writing hobby, must include plans based upon sound business principles. I’ve written a whole book about those principles, but suffice to say here that you only grow a business in two ways: First, by finding new customers. Second, by selling more products to your existing customers.

Learn how to do both and keep on doing it, and you’ll be living the writer’s dream.

1. It’s a great way to live, period

A life that nurtures your creative side is a great life, an expanded life. As long as you don’t forget the other things that matter—your loved ones, friendship, community—being a working writer is about the best thing there is to be.

Why? Because you see things deeply. You vibrate with emotion. You are not a mushroom stuck in the bog of existence. You have feeling, will, verve, and even joy if you’ll allow it to happen. As a writer who cares, works, trusts, produces, and keeps on trying you will be living proof of the credo of one of my favorite writers of all time, Jack London:

I would rather be ashes than dust!

I would rather that my spark should burn out

    in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.

I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom

    of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.

The function of man is to live, not to exist.

I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.

I shall use my time.

So what about you, writing friends? Anything you’d like to add to the list?

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46 thoughts on “Top Ten Things You Need to Know About the Writing Life

  1. Jim, thanks for the great words of wisdom.

    I agree with Amanda, you’ve covered it completely.

    I would just like to “vote” for my favorite reason – #1. Nurturing the creative side…expanded life…wow. There is something so freeing, so soaring, so being alive that comes with the writing. Is it a high, is it an addiction? It is certainly the JOY you described.

    And I start each morning here at TKZ…just to add that little boost.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. You touched on this a little bit in several of your points, but I wanted to add “Nurture Your Creativity” to this wonderful list.

    The creative life is wonderful, but we’re not machines. We have to recognize the waxing and waning of our creative fuel and fill up the tank every now and then. You have some great ideas for this in “Plot and Structure” and scattered throughout your other writing instruction books.

    I’m also reading/doing the exercises in “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron and finding myself in love with her idea of an artist’s date. Go to the park and find some cool leaves. Go to the record store and pick out a new CD. Whatever inspires you.

    I’m printing this list out and taping it to the wall. Thanks!

  3. This is excellent, and every one of your points is true. So many people think they can become a writer or that there’s a secret handshake to becoming a bestseller. Most of them will fall off the track when they realize there’s hard work to be done, and writing is a long term career choice.

    • You mean there isn’t a secret handshake? Dang! I’ve been looking for it all these years…

      Of course you’re right. There are people who love the IDEA of being a writer more than actually BEING a writer.

  4. Bravo! This is the sort of centering list I need every once in a while to read, especially when I look at what I’m writing now and think “This stinks. Who am I kidding?” I easily forget I thought that at some point about every novel I’ve ever written and somehow worked through it.

    PS: so glad the site is no longer white on black. Thanks for the new look!

    • Lori, I’m friends with a number of traditional, bestselling writers, and we have all confessed that we get that feeling at some point in every project: I stink! How did I ever manage to fool so many people?

      I think part of it is that our standards keep going up. We know more about the craft, and therefore can see more of what we need to do better. That’s actually a good think in the long run.

      Glad you like the new look.

      • It’s surprising (and encouraging) to hear that even best-sellers also have bouts of self-doubt. Hope abounds! Even when my Beta readers and early editors tell me I’ve got a good story, a creative voice, I keep going back and finding steaming piles of crap. Will the writing Gods ever let this impulse pass? I’m not looking for perfection, just story craft that generates pride instead of embarrassment as my obliged friends walk away, signed book in hand, muttering something unintelligible.

  5. Jim,

    Excellent list! I agree with all of it, a great roadmap for we writers to follow. This is a great way to live. I have to remind myself when I’m down that I’m free to write with my passion and heart, creating the kind of experiences I crave as a reader.

    As to what I would add, you and I have talked online before about the importance of managing writerly expectations. I’d add the importance of “passionate play” (to crib from my own comment above), let yourself write as you would be absorbed in an engrossing game or an engrossing book by another writer. Finally, understand your mindset regarding what you wrote on a particular day as well as the particular story or novel you are working on in general is going to oscilliate between “this is the most brilliant thing ever” and “this stinks worse than rancid cheese,” and bear in mind other writers experience the same swing in perception about their own work and talents.

    • Yes, Dale, managing those expectations is essential. I’ve been reading a good deal of Stoic philosophy lately, and those guys had it nailed. Epictetus never wrote a novel, and Seneca never sold a screenplay, but it would have been nice to share a bowl of wine with them and talk about the mind.

  6. I’d add somewhere in the list ( if I may) the general idea from Steven Pressfield’s TGE WAR OF ART: i.e. Resist resistance ~

    And I believe that contemporary musucal sage, Neil Young paraphrased London in a song from Young’s album, RUST NEVER SLEEPS (and there’s more to THAT than just an ad-line from Rust-o-leum, if you feel like cogitating a sec or so…)
    “It’s better to burn out,
    Than to fade away…”

    Just my pair-o’-pennies…

    g

  7. Perseverance in the face of obstacles which are ever present. I think your numbers 6 & 8 are all about this, Jim, but it’s really hard to do in time of difficulty. However, if we look toward improvement it really doesn’t take much to persist. So often I think we burn ourselves out if we succumb to pressure that says get a book out there. We may not be actively publishing but if we’re writing and working to improve our craft then I believe publication will come. But then you have to measure your personal belief about success against the D word, discoverability. So I wouldn’t rush to publish until you’ve defined just that, your belief about what success means to you.

    • You’re right, Jillian, about the difficulty of persevering in times of trouble–artistic, financial, personal. That has ever been the lot of the artist. The true professional is the one who manages to get the work done even when other things are pressing in.

      Again, it’s like the lawyer. He can’t put a trial on hold while he works things out in his personal life. Finding the right balance is the true art in the writing life.

  8. Thank you for this superb, realistic list.

    If I were to add anything–and my suggestion is something that shouldn’t have to be said, I blush to suggest it–it would be to No. 4, “Don’t get hooked on the ups.” Namely, “Lick your wounds in private.”

    I have been horrified to see an increasing number of authors whining, in public, on social media, about bad reviews. And rallying their fans to go to Amazon and mark bad reviews as unhelpful. Or even arguing with readers on message boards about comments made about their book. Arguing. How petty is that?

    Not to mention impolitic. “The Internet is forever” is not just a line from Nottinghill.

    Just because we have access to our readers doesn’t mean we can act like one of them. I have had to learn this in my job as a teacher. I cannot get chummy with parents, or talk my colleagues, or name students who are acting stupidly (even to my family), or complain (other than with very general, self-deprecating humor). Not only is complaining in bad taste, but as a teacher my complaints carry weight. People remember them. I am not a private citizen as a teacher or as an author.

    And while I’m waxing eloquent on the topic, here’s another tacky practice I’m seeing: authors comparing their work to that of other authors.

    I wish I were making this up. To illustrate: On a recent thread where a reader expressed her disappointment with the late PD James’ Death Comes to Pemberly (audio version), an author chimed in. And I quote:

    “I know! And I still have to work a soul-sucking day job even though my novels are far superior! (Or so I am told…)”

    My mouth fell open. Seriously? Has this woman even read PD James? Although I itched to respond, I kept silent. What can you say to someone like this? (She writes Jane Austen-based erotic romance. I know, right?)

    So if you’re wondering if you should share what you’re learning about the Stoics, my answer is please do.

  9. Another fantastic read, Jim!

    #4 stood out for me in particular today. I’ll be publishing book #2 of a series later this year, and I keep telling myself the success of book #1 is no guarantee of success for book #2. Regardless of what happens, I have to keep writing and growing as a writer!

  10. Excellent list, Jim! Serious writers need to continue working on their craft and be open to feedback. I occasionally get newbie writers contacting me for an edit who don’t really want any advice, or want to argue with every little point made. Of course, the writer always has the final say, but why contact a professional editor if you think your story is already perfect as it is and you really don’t want to consider any suggestions for improvement. Needless to say, I decline to edit those manuscripts. And fortunately, the vast majority of writers who contact me, the most successful ones, are open to suggestions for ways to engage the readers, pick up the pace and make the characters and story come alive more for the readers.

  11. Jim, the list is pretty complete.
    Sorry to say, although I vaguely remember something about changing URLs, it wasn’t until I missed your Sunday post that I went looking for this blog. See how important you are? (I presume the check is in the mail).

    • It is. It looks like this: √

      We are, I think, finally getting everything switched over to the new site and not leaving anyone behind. Thanks for tracking us, Doc.

  12. Thanks for sharing your hard-earned wisdom.
    Not an addition to the list as much as an emphasis:
    *** It’s all about the reader***

    We put the words on the page but the outcome is determined in the reader’s mind. With time, effort, craft, and creativity one’s story (hopefully) comes alive for a reader. IMO if successfully making that magic happen gives you a genuine thrill you might end up a writer.

    • Great point, Tom! Or maybe, for fiction, we could say, “It’s all about connecting the characters with the reader.” Back off, author, and let the readers connect directly with the characters without butting in to insert extra info or asides from an authorial point of view. (More on that in my upcoming book. 😉 )

  13. I needed this today. Thank you! The deadline is looming, and my characters are all over the road. This is the toughest story I’ve every tried to tell. But yes, I love this. It’s work, but I’m learning all the time. Now if I can just patch the plot holes with something other than chewing gum and duct tape.

  14. You certainly had me at Jack London’s credo, which I love so much, and have been trying to live by every since I first saw it mentioned in a Criminal Minds episode. Having a quota is extremely important. It’s so easy to be lazy and put off writing for another day or when “inspiration” kicks in. It’s more difficult to force yourself to write every day, even if you feel like watching Spongebob, so power to the QUOTA!

    • Thanks, Jee Ann. My temptation is not Spongebob, but TCM. Same difference…So I always try to to get at least 500 words done first thing. It makes the rest of the writing day seem much less onerous.

  15. Pingback: Best Fiction and Writing Blogs | M.C. Tuggle, Writer

  16. James,

    Sound advice, as always. I admire your willingness to share what you’ve learned with others. Thanks for all you’ve done.

  17. As a new writer this gave me such encouragement. It is so difficult to write and write well. I have been blessed by my writing family who have supported me and given me much encouragement and knowledge. Growth in possible with blogs like this and great conferences to attend.

  18. This was a great list, JSB. I want to completely raise a pint to #4, the one the Lord used to really speak to me today to reinforce not to stay too long at the feast and get back in the field. Many thanks.

  19. Thanks JSB for sharing this list. I think #8 and #5 are the two strongest points. Writing is hard work. and without out the support and encouragement of others to improve your craft and peruse it, many of us would fall to #9.

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