7 Hard Truths of Working as a Professional Writer

By SUE COLETTA

When we first begin our writing journey, our dreams often overshadow the realities of working as a professional writer.

Which publishing path we chose (self-publishing or traditional) doesn’t make a difference. The products we produce do.

For those of you who are at the early stages of your career, let’s take a look at 7 Hard Truths of Working as a Professional Writer.

For the professional writers in our TKZ family, please add your truths.

Truth #1:

Writing consumes us. We decline more offers for lunch than we accept. We could analyze one sentence ad nauseum, and still not be happy with it. To an outsider, at times we may look like we’re staring into space, but our mind is whirling with ten different scenarios after a character did something unexpected or our storyline banged a hard right instead of a left, even though we’d planned the milestones in advance.

Truth #2:

When you work from home, friends and family assume you have time to chitchat. No matter how many times you mention your deadline, book launch, or any “author” subject, many will breeze right over it with, “Yeah, so, anyway …”

I’ve tried using signs or mugs as a clear signal not to interrupt me (see above pic), but there are those who still barge right in, whether by phone, text, or (gasp!) in person. Not in a callous way; it’s because they don’t understand the amount of brain-power required to plot and successfully execute a novel.

Writers always have multiple balls in the air at once. Yet, from the intruder’s perspective, they think there’s no harm in breaking our concentration for a minute or two (or five or ten), that we can simply return to where we left off as though the disruption never took place.

Easy-peasy, right? Wrong. Interrupting a writer should be punishable by death! At least fictionally. 😉

Truth #3:

Writers spend hours alone in our fictional worlds, and we like it that way. To write professionally, we must be comfortable behind the keyboard. Buy a nice comfy chair; you’re gonna need it. Many professional writers work six or seven days per week, and some hold down full-time day jobs as well. Not everyone has a supportive spouse or makes enough money to write full-time yet.

Truth #4:

Our writing process won’t make sense to anyone but other writers. Don’t even try to explain how a certain song transports you to fictional place or why you have two tiny squares (no more, no less) of chocolate every day as your reward while you read your new favorite thriller.

Writers, did you know daily chocolate* is good for your health? It certainly is, and here’s why:

  • Flavonoids, found in many plant-based foods, including cocoa, can lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain, and make blood platelets less sticky and less likely to clot and cause a stroke.
  • Flavonoids can lower cholesterol.
  • Quality dark chocolate with a high-cocoa content is nutritious, contains a decent amount of soluble fiber, and is loaded with minerals.
  • The fatty acids profile of cocoa and dark chocolate is excellent. The fats are mostly saturated and monounsaturated, with small amounts of polyunsaturated fat.
  • Chocolate contains a stimulant like caffeine and theobromine but is unlikely to keep you awake at night.
  • Chocolate is a powerful antioxidant. One study showed that cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity, polyphenols, and flavonoids than any other fruits tested, including blueberries!
  • Consuming dark chocolate can improve several important risk factors for heart disease by significantly decreasing oxidized LDL cholesterol in men. It also increased HDL and lowered total LDL for those with high cholesterol.
  • Dark chocolate can also reduce insulin resistance, which is another common risk factor for many diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
  • A study showed that eating dark chocolate more than 5 times per week lowered the risk of heart disease by 57%.

*I’m referring to a small amount of daily chocolate. Everything in moderation. Too much of anything is never a good idea.

Truth #5:

Our debut is just that, a starting point. It’s where our publishing journey begins. For the first time, the public will read our words, and it’s a terrifying experience akin to standing naked for all to judge. I’d love to say it gets easier, but it doesn’t. I’m as nervous for my thirteenth book to release as I was for my debut. Maybe more so, because the dream of becoming the next “overnight success” isn’t still obscuring reality.

Truth #6:

Many professional writers have health problems. Our bodies weren’t meant to hunch over a keyboard all day, every day. This position can lead to slipped discs, narrowing of nerves in the neck and back, joint issues, carpel tunnel … the list goes on and on.

Remember to take good of yourself! Buy the proper tools of the trade, like an ergonomic chair, a keyboard and/or mouse with wrist support, a sit/stand desk or have the option of switching from the desktop computer to a laptop. Exercise breaks help, too.

Truth #7:

Write for love, not money. The sad truth is, until we build a backlist, writers can’t survive on royalties alone. We can supplement our income in a variety of ways. Some writers coach, some appear on panels or do guest speaking, others offer online courses or webinars. My favorite is mingling with readers at book signings. I make most of my income from May to December. Memorial Day through Labor Day are my busiest time of year, with book signings every weekend.

By studying my area, which is a hotspot for vacationers, I’ve learned where I should appear and when. Year after year, I return to the same venues around the same date. Gone are days of sitting around an empty library, hoping for reader to approach my table, but it took time, consistency, and patience.

There are no shortcuts. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying to you.

***

I haven’t even broached the subject of marketing, piracy, or endless “buy my book!” emails from total strangers who expect you to promote “the book that’ll change the world!” to your audience. You might be surprised by how many new writers believe that, and I seem to attract all of them.

All that said, I love this profession. There’s nothing else I’d rather do.

What are some other hard truths of working as a professional writer? If you’re beginning your writing journey, is there something you’ve wondered about but never had the chance to ask? Now’s the time.

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61 thoughts on “7 Hard Truths of Working as a Professional Writer

  1. Thankyou for more excellent reasons to consume chocolate!
    All of your points hit home, but I suggest these are true for any writer, professional or not, if they are seriously learning and practising their craft.
    One question I have is around public appearances – any tips for a nervous public speaker? Does this become easier?

    • In one year during my heyday of speaking at writers’ conferences, I hit 18 different cities and venues from Toronto to Biloxi and from North Carolina to San Diego. If I may offer a couple of tips on public speaking…
      1. Whenever possible, arrive early and check out the actual room where you’ll be speaking. Walk in and look it over from all perspectives, back, front and sides. Get comfortable with it.
      2. Realize that the folks who will fill the room are there to see You. In other words, you are not the “guest”; they are. For the duration of your talk, you own the room.

    • Agreed, Linda. Even while we’re honing our craft, many of these hold true.

      Like you, I dreaded standing in front of an audience and speaking, so at my first solo book signing I admitted how nervous I was, and the audience couldn’t have been nicer. It also made me relatable. But I did it in a way that made them chuckle. “Writers spend so much time alone with our characters, real flesh-and-bone people threw me for a minute.”

      It does get easier. I invented the game “Name That Serial Killer” to warm up the audience (and dispel my initial jitters), with gummy body parts as prizes. It’s a blast!

      For other speaking gigs, see Harvey’s response. He nailed it.

  2. Sue, yet another great post, and a great pic, by the way. My own “hard truths” about being a professional fiction writer are few:

    1. There will come days off, or Life Happens.

    At times, no matter how much you long (jones) to write, there will be life rolls that keep you from writing. These might be good (visiting family or friends) or they might be bad (turmoil, illness, etc.).

    I’m often seen staring at visitors with a stupid grin on my face as I pretend to listen. In actuality, I’m with my characters romping through a field of clover or scraping grit off my lips as I burrow deeper into a mud pit while avoiding incoming gunfire.

    2. There is a necessary but evil business side.

    a. You have to take out time to publish your work or submit it for publication.
    b. You have to take out time to create covers, a promo document (title, description, internet search words, categories, etc.) and blurbs or have those things created for you or discuss those things with your publisher.
    c. You have to take out time to market your work in whatever way you choose to do that (social media, physical appearances, etc.) and
    d. Just as you learn what works for one book or series, you also learn the same thing doesn’t work for another book or series. (grin)

    As an aside, I often wish Heinlein’s Rules stopped with Rule 3. (grin) The first three rules are easy for me and a sheer joy. Rule 4 (“You must put it on the market”), not so much.

    3. Things break.

    Redundancy is your friend. Save (and auto-save) your work often. Back it up to the cloud, your other computer or external hard drive, and a thumb drive at least at the end of every day if not every time you hit Save.

    I think that’s about it. (grin) And wow, am I glad.

    • Love your truths, Harvey! I nodded the whole way through. Thanks for adding the marketing side of things, and life’s interruptions. I didn’t know where to draw the line before the post morphed into a book. 😉 Excellent tip about backing-up your work to the cloud. I dealt with a computer crash last year, and learned that little joy the hard way.

  3. Oh, Sue, one more:

    4. There will be naysayers.

    Years ago, when I mentioned to a writer friend (!) that I’d written a novel in 20-some days and was about to begin writing my second, he said (and I quote), “Don’t do it. If you keep up that pace, you’ll burn out.”

    Yeah. I’ll burn out if I keep working at my “job” on average three hours a day. I admit I also “work” on weekends. Still, devoting 21 hours per week to a day job that brings me sheer joy isn’t such a bad gig. (grin)

    I’m pleased to report I’m still here, still writing, and (thus far) still barely able to keep up with my characters as they bring me ideas and invite me along as their recorder.

  4. Number 2 applies even when you’re just starting out. I think folks see my writing as “just a little hobby” because I haven’t sold anything yet. I’m getting good at hiding in order to get work done: an empty study cube at the library, turning off EVERYthing except the keyboard . . . I even wrote one afternoon while sitting in the parking lot of a little church.

    Chocolate, yes, chocolate.

    • True, Priscilla! Ugh. Don’t you hate it when people call it a hobby just because your book isn’t out yet? Nothing frustrated me more. Good for you! Steal every moment you can.

  5. Thanks for another reason to justify chocolate, like I needed one.

    Great post, Sue. My contribution runs similar to Wise Harvey’s “days off” idea.

    Take time to explore this world & stay in touch with the people you love to truly enjoy the fruits of your labor.

    I’ve decided to replenish my life”s well by infusing time away from writing and replacing that time with family, friends and TRAVEL. I’ve worked hard but I need fun too. In the next few years I’m planning some adventures abroad with friends. Europe & Asia. My first trip will be this fall. I’ll travel solo to northern Italy this first time. I’m so excited. Who knows how my new goals will inspire my writing but I hope to find out.

  6. It took a long time to train my then recently-retired Hubster that just because the keyboard keys were clattering didn’t mean I wasn’t “writing.”

    • I dealt with that, too, Terry. Most days he’s pretty good, especially after I moved my office into the loft. And yet, there are still times when he comes into the house yammering on and on about nothing. The worst offenders are my neighbors, though. They don’t have the first clue about writing. I hate to be rude, but sometimes, I keep the headphones on, music blaring. I can’t miss deadlines because they want to chitchat.

  7. Great post Sue! Thanks 😁

    I’m learning to turn my phone off during writing time. It never fails as soon as I get a good flow going, someone calls or texts with a “problem” only I can solve.

    I’m hanging up my consulting cap for a while and focusing on finishing what I’ve started.

    I’ve discovered a chocolate supplement that’s awesome btw. I put a tablespoon in my protein shake in the morning and it gives me an excellent energy boost for the day. Better than coffee 😉

    • Wow. Great tip, Cindy! But I’d miss my two squares. 😉

      Earlier in the week, my publisher asked me to record the opening chapter of each of my books for their website. After finding a decent app, uploading, testing the mic, etc., I sat down to read aloud. Every time I reached the halfway point, the phone rang and ruined the recording. With some, I was reading the very last sentence! I got so aggravated, I only completed three opening chapters in a whole afternoon. Before I do the others, I need to figure out how to shut off the ringer on my landline.

      Ugh, don’t get me started on “emergency” texts.

      Good for you! Hanging up your consultant cap and concentrating on your own work sounds like a great move, as long as you can afford it. 🙂

      • I would think you could just pull the plug. I think it was a long time since land lines were hard wired in. Maybe just leave the answering machine in with the vol off (and buried three rooms away)?

        • Eric, if I pulled the plug, I don’t think people would reach my voicemail. Would they? Hmm, need to look into that. Burying it in the backyard with a bullet to its head sounds better, but my husband might veto that idea. 😉

          • Let us know what you find out. Should be easy to experiment. There was a discussion (here or SinC?) about needing land-line for 9-1-1. Other than that, I don’t see point in having a land-line these days if you also have a cell phone.

  8. Interesting post, Sue. You present a writer’s life as a pretty bleak and dreary one. A number of your truths are, to me, avoidable things that we allow. Or don’t allow.

    My wife and I both work out of the house, and we often choose to break for lunch together, or to wander out on a shopping trip in the middle of the day. I do most of the grocery shopping and cooking, but that’s my choice. That said, we’ve developed a hard rule: If my office door is closed, I’m in cloister mode, not to be disturbed.

    I rarely answer the phone during the day–never, if I’m in The Zone. I make exceptions for my wife, my son, my editor and my agents, whose calls I always answer. Family always comes first. Always.

    I’m a Type-A extrovert. ENTP on the Myers-Briggs scale. I don’t get enough lunch offers to turn any down, but at least once a month I try to get out and see a matinee movie with my buddy from high school and college. I take time to go to the shooting range and poke holes in targets. I love promoting my books and speaking to groups. I have YouTube channel that needs to be tended, I contribute here to TKZ, and I poke around on Facebook because I have to.

    I’m the president of John Gilstrap, Inc. I am the creative group and the marketing department and the consumer relations department. It’s a full-time job, but it’s *just* my job, it is not my life. It’s the best job in the world, but I don’t let it consume me.

    • Wow. Really, John? I didn’t mean to portray a writer’s life as bleak and dreary. That’s not at all how I feel about it. I love my job. I also didn’t mean to insinuate that writers needed to give up their lives. In fact, we have a fun day planned for Friday and on Saturday, the grandkids are coming for a visit … but I’ll be at the keyboard all day Sunday to make up for the lost time, and that’s cool with me.

      With my office in the open loft, I have no door to close. 😉

      This year, I have a killer writing schedule, so I’ve been tied to the keyboard for months. But that’s because I’m making up for last year, when I only wrote two novels. You’re right. I could “choose” to write less, but that’s not my goal for 2019. I also could have chosen not to sign the contracts or agreed to the deadlines. I didn’t surrender my free will. It’s a choice I made to further my career.

      Of course, family comes first. Did I insinuate otherwise?

      • HI, Sue. Clearly, I misinterpreted your piece, but yes, it read to me as angsty. Writing consumes us. No one but writers can understand our process. We develop health problems. Conversation annoys us (we don’t want to chit-chat with neighbors).

        The piece reads to me as if writers are somehow isolated from the non-writing world, and that’s not at all my experience.

        And I might have brought outside baggage with me to my reply. I can’t count the number of times when I have been on panels or other discussions where some writer proclaims to the audience that writing has to be number one in a writer’s life. In the comments here, there’s a recurring theme that people don’t take writing seriously as a vocation, that is more of a hobby–especially during the pre-pub days.

        My instinct is to say, so what? I can’t imagine how that can possibly matter. I got in front of that in my pre-pub days by not telling anyone that I was writing a book. I didn’t want to deal with daily updates in the face of presumed failure.

        As for family coming first, no there was nothing in your piece to imply that you thought otherwise. Again, that was probably baggage from countless interactions with “arteests” and hungry executive wannabes who have their priorities completely scrambled.

        In any case, I certainly did not mean to offend. If I did, I apologize.

        • We all carry baggage, John. When I wrote this piece, I was probably at the keyboard for too many hours that day, and you sensed my exhaustion. It’s all good. 🙂

    • I had my daughter make a sign in “ransom note” letters that says: Writer At Work. I hang that on my office door to created “the zone,” which shall not be violated! (Emergency exception does apply, of course. If there’s a fire, I want to know about it.) If the office door is closed but without the sign up, and there’s a friendly knock, I will allow a visitor.

  9. Good stuff. The phone calls and the texts…ugh. I keep the phone away from me so that when a text sound occurs I can’t reach for it to see who it is or whether it’s important. I tell folks my working hours–if I were with a company working in an office, they wouldn’t dare call me there, but because I’m at home, they don’t think that counts. A simple, well-intentioned “hi there” snaps us out of a zone, and we can’t just bounce back into it. I’m going to copy the others who’ve said they won’t answer the phone. Good idea. Half the time it’s a telemarketer, anyway.

    • Right? I say the same thing, Rick, yet some people still don’t get it. I never answer the phone, but text messages pop up on my Mac. Even with headphones on, the notification jars me right out of the zone. Ugh. Telemarketers are the worst offenders!

      • Do you have an old laptop gathering dust that could serve as a dedicated writing machine with phone and internet turned completely off? You don’t need modern speed and RAM to run just Word or Scrivener or LibreOffice Writer.

        • I do, but I love writing on my iMac. When I sit in front of the screen, my brain automatically knows it’s time to write. Plus, I wear headphones when I write, so I need the internet for music. It’s all good. The majority knows better than to interrupt me during work hours. The others, well, they are who they are. I’ve been dealing with it for years. *shrug*

          • It’d be neat if one could program an auto-response, “Working now; will get back to you,” for the text client on Mac. And then somehow turn off the notification.

  10. Sue, thanks for this great blog post.

    As a natural introvert (and pretty OCD to boot), I love the process of writing. Sitting alone at the keyboard and figuring out how to write down the scenes I see in my mind is very exciting. But interruptions are frustrating.

    My husband and I have separate offices in our home and the rule for each of us is “if the door is closed, don’t come in. The exception is if you’re bleeding profusely and need to go the emergency room, it’s okay to enter — but knock first.” 😊

    As a novice writer, there’s another thing I’d add to your list: Study the craft. Unless your educational background is in creative writing or journalism or some other writing-related field, there is a very big learning curve. If you think (as I did) that you will sit down one day and whip out a fascinating work of prose, think again. But learning the craft is part of the fun. (And blogs like this one are so helpful!)

    Besides the advice about chocolate, my favorite “truth” is #7. I have the good fortune to have the time and resources to write. I am in awe of those who write for a living and still manage to write what they love.

    On my way to zazzle.com!

    • “The exception is if you’re bleeding profusely and need to go the emergency room, it’s okay to enter — but knock first.”

      Hahaha. Love that, Kay!

      Excellent addition. Amen, sister. Have fun on zazzle!

  11. I agree with everything you said. Here are a few more truth:

    Never expect validation or approval from those around you, once you succeed. Those who didn’t approve or understand unpublished you and what you were doing won’t suddenly approve. Unless, you make a boatload of money, they won’t change their minds.

    Writing is a hobby, an avocation, or a career, but it is not a life. Real life is what matters most. You will regret it if you look up from your keyboard one day to discover life has passed you by, and the writing wasn’t worth the cost.

  12. My debut releases the end of April so I don’t have much experience yet. But #2 and #5 diid hit bullseyes for me. I have to physically leave my house if I need to avoid people distracting me. I love that coffee mug and need to buy one for myself. Also, dark chocolate is my love language.
    Thanks for another great post.

    • Super congratulations on your debut, Kelly!!!!

      My love affair with chocolate didn’t form till I hit my 50’s. Before then, I rarely touched it. Now? We speak the same love language. 😀

  13. Hey my friend – not trying to annoy you by any means but I thought I’d drop in uninvited. This might be a bit outside the thread, however, I want to share this quote of wisdom that can turn part-time writers into professionals. Goes like this:

    “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to drawback – Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamed would have come their way.”

    This is from a guy named Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. I keep this framed and front on my desk because it’s truth. Come to think… you’re living proof like being here blogging on Kill Zone 🙂

    • You could never annoy me, Garry! And you’re welcomed here anytime! Love the piece. Inspirational and true. Thanks for sharing. Hugs to you, my friend. 😘

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