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.
Who 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?