Getting Serious About Your Writing Career

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Kris had some great advice this week on becoming a smarter writer. I thought I’d weigh in (oops, wrong post-holiday idiom, but so it goes) with a few thoughts on how to get serious about making writing a career, be it full or part time.

Because everybody wants to be a writer. Your ficus tree wants to be a writer. I’ve lost count of the times someone has uttered to me a variation on “I think I have a book inside me” and I choke back the urge to say, “That’s a great place to keep it.”

Then there are those who take a real step. They actually write a novel. Huzzah! I’m all for it, though most first novels are like first waffles. A good beginning, a great learning experience, but not yet ready to be served. Many writers drop out at this point, disappointed that their initial effort was not met with universal acclaim.

The serious writer makes a second attempt, and a third, and determines to keep on going. This writer wants to make a legit run at a) getting signed by an agent and gaining entry into the Forbidden City of traditional publishing; or b) going indie and creating a real income stream (for more on such choices, see this post).

If you have made the decision to be this kind of writer, let me give you ten pieces of advice forged over a quarter century of getting paid for my work.

  1. Make production your priority

I’ve long advised the following: Figure out how many words you can comfortably write in a week, considering your “real life” situation. Then up that number by 10% and divide that number into the writing days available to you. I write six days a week, and take one day off to recharge. If I have to miss a day, I don’t beat myself up. I simply try to make up the word count by doing a little extra on the other days.

And if I botch a week, or have something interrupt it—sickness, crisis, the running of the bulls in Pamplona—I forget it and start the next week afresh.

Now, I know there are some writers who find a quota onerous and claim it’s a hindrance to creativity. I don’t buy it. Creativity is a muscle that gets stronger when it works out. Try my method for six months and see for yourself.

If, after that time, you feel stifled by your quota, don’t give it up. Just reduce the number to something easy. Like 250 words. Your ficus tree can write 250 words in a day. Don’t be shown up by your ficus tree.

  1. Be intentional about learning your craft

A guy who wants to play golf doesn’t get better by going out with a bad grip, terrible stance, and an ugly swing, and chopping holes in perfectly fine grass. At some point he’s got to learn fundamentals and practice to embed them in his muscle memory.

Same for writers. You can keep writing and writing and chopping holes in your stories. You can repeat things that put readers off or don’t allow them to fully engage with what’s in your imagination.

Or you can determine to learn techniques that make your writing better. 

Dedicate some time each week to studying the craft, and putting into practice what you learn. At least once, go to a good writers conference. Invest in a great course.

  1. Set up a system of quality feedback

When I was under contract with a publishing house, I was answerable to an editor. I was lucky to work with some good ones. One in particular would send his authors multi-page, single-spaced letters. When I got one of these in the mail I’d set it on my desk and pace around it for a couple of days before opening it, because I knew there was going to be a lot of work involved.

Which was good, because it made me a better writer.

Hiring a freelance developmental editor can be expensive, though if you connect with the right one it becomes a good investment rather than an expense.

An alternative is a trusted set of beta readers. Here are some tips from TKZ emeritus Joe Moore in that regard.

You might also benefit from a good critique group, with good as the operative word. Here are some tips from Jordan.

Every serious writer needs other sets of eyes on their work. Which reminds me: you do need to pay a good proofreader if you’re publishing on your own. Nothing screams amateur to a reader like a stream of typos.

  1. Set aside time for pure creativity

As I mentioned above, creativity is a muscle that gets stronger with use. I try to take an hour a week just to do wild, creative exercises.

Two of my favorites:

The What If? Game — Write down as many one line premises as you can. Base it on what you observe around you. What if that woman sipping a latte by the window is a serial killer? What if my phone is actually an alien taking notes on everything I do and say?

The First-Line Game — Just make up first lines, not knowing how any of them will turn out! I once wrote: It’s not every day you bleed to death. I came back to it and the plot for Framed started to come to me. I have a ton of these in a file. Do the same and you’ll never run out of story sparkers.

  1. Detox from social media

Everybody knows that social media addiction is real. Hopping onto Twitter or Facebook or Instagram gives your brain an instant dopamine hit. It’s like digital crack. And it’s really doing damage our ability to concentrate and focus.

I find this “drug” calling to me whenever I’m struggling with a scene. Rather than stick it out, I’m tempted to do a little traipsing through Twitter. It’s a cop out, and I have to tell myself—sometimes out loud—to keep writing. Deciding how much time to spend on social media and creating an actual schedule for it (as opposed to haphazard hopping) is a very wise thing to do.

And when you do engage socially, follow Clare’s sage advice by sticking to positive and kind give-and-take.

  1. Be thinking two projects ahead

One of the worst things you can do is work, re-work, and keep re-working a book without getting ready to write the next … and the next. I’ve been to writers conferences several years in a row where I’ve seen conferees returning with the exact same manuscript.

Think like a movie studio. You have a project that is in production, one that is “green lit” as your next, and at least one “in development.” Spend part of your creativity time jotting ideas and scenes for these works to come.

  1. Write when you’re not writing

Keep training your mind to be observant and curious when you’re away from the keyboard. Carry a notebook, or use your phone, to record things that occur to you. If you overhear some intriguing dialogue in a coffee house or other venue, write it down.

The benefit of this practice is that the “boys in the basement” will work for you, even as you sleep. I’m slogging through a first draft right now, and over the last few weeks I’ve awakened several times with an insight that’s helped me, or a reminder about something I’d written a month ago that needs revisiting. Love those boys. I send them extra donuts.

  1. Read widely

Of course you should read authors you admire and can learn from. Copy passages that move you (the best way is by using a pen and paper, to really capture the rhythm). You’re not doing this to use the words in your own work—that’s called plagiarism. You’re doing this to stretch your writing muscles and expand your style.

When I read a page or paragraph I love, I sticky note it, or highlight it on my Kindle. I go back to these and read them out loud from time to time.

Don’t neglect non-fiction. Learn more about the world, dig into areas you might use someday in your fiction. Become the kind of autodidact who is welcome at social gatherings.

  1. Nurture your motivation

All writers face moments when they think, Sheesh, should I still be doing this? Why keep beating my head against the door of the Forbidden City? Why self-publish books that languish in the Amazon basement?

The answer, of course, is that you’re a writer. There’s something in you that wants—needs—to put words on paper (or screen) and transfer a story you feel deeply to readers, so they will feel it, too.

That’s your motivation, and you should nurture it regularly, not just when you want to drown your sorrows.

Make a shelf of your ultra-favorite novels and novelists. I’ve found that reading some pages from a book that has moved me gets my writing juices flowing again.

Collect some quotations for reflection. Here are two of my favorites:

“If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid.” – Leonard Bishop, Dare to be a Great Writer

“For me, that is the secret to a successful, prolific career as a writer: Have fun, entertain yourself with your work, make yourself laugh and cry with your own stories, make yourself shiver in suspense along with your characters. If you can do that, then you’ll most likely find a large audience; but even if a large audience is never found, you’ll have a happy life.” — Dean Koontz, Strange Highways

  1. Be businesslike

This could also be #1 for the serious writer. In a way, everything else in this post can be viewed as “best practices for writers” advice. If you do such things regularly, you are systematizing, which is what good businesses do.

A good businessperson also looks at the world through clear (not rose-colored) lenses.

Clear lenses recognize that a publisher is not your friend or your mama; it is a money-making enterprise. Make them money and they will keep you around. Cost them money and they won’t. So you’d better understand publishing contracts, the concept of leverage, and what you are prepared to give up in order to have a shot at traditional success.

For indies, clear lenses see that this is not a get-rich-quick pathway. It’s going to take years of production and quality control to build a readership. You’ll need to make informed judgments about things like “going wide” or being exclusive with Amazon; about producing audio versions; about where to concentrate your marketing; and much more.

This is a lot to take in, I know, but then again getting serious about anything takes time and effort. Your brain surgeon doesn’t say, “I think I have a brain surgery inside me!”

So don’t ask if you have a book inside you. Ask if you have a writer inside you. Then get to work.

So where are you on your writing journey?

12+

35 thoughts on “Getting Serious About Your Writing Career

  1. “If, after that time, you feel stifled by your quota, don’t give it up. Just reduce the number to something easy. Like 250 words. Your ficus tree can write 250 words in a day. Don’t be shown up by your ficus tree.” One of the best quotes I’ve ever heard. And funny. 🙂

    Still writing 1000-1200 wph (17 wpm), allowing the characters to tell the story that they, not I, are living, and following Heinlein’s Rules. Never had more fun writing and indie publishing. Still selling well.

    Just finished my 45th novel and 198th short story (I’m keeping an inventory now). I agree with you 100% re the importance of exercising the idea/creativity muscle and setting goals that make you reach a little.

    For 2020 through June 2021, I have two: a new novel finished by the last day of every month, a new short story finished by Saturday midnight every week. And to achieve those, my daily word-count goal is 3000 words (3 hours) per day. I’ve gone over a few times and missed it a couple of times, but it resets to 0 every morning anyway, so it’s all good. 🙂

    Here’s wishing you and all TKZers a happy and productive 2020 and beyond.

  2. Where am I? Getting started on a new novel. My current one, my 9th Mapleton mystery, is with my editor; I’m working with my cover designer. I have to confess this next project will be a bit of a departure for me because I’m trying to set the book outside the US. Why? Pure greed. I want to be able to write off a portion of a very expensive 50th anniversary trip I took last September. But given the trip did not include visits to police stations (I do have a picture of an Irish Garde car, though), I’m going to be avoiding writing my usual police procedurals. I’m also looking at it as a stand alone, which I know won’t sell as well as my series, but none of my series would lend themselves to my travel settings–not if I stick to my guns about wanting my books to be grounded in reality.
    Wish me luck.

  3. I’m editing stuff I’ve written over the past several years (a novel, a novella, and a bunch of linked short stories). I’m hoping to start self-publishing sometime in 2020 with enough in the pipeline to keep readers connected. But I also have to keep in mind Jim’s point about thinking two projects ahead.

    I’ve created a little aphorism, in the form of a question to myself: “Are you in love with ‘being a writer’ or in love with writing?” It’s not a strict dichotomy, of course, because being in love with writing can become solipsistic.

  4. I’ve made my first batch of waffles. Working on a full breakfast now.:-)

    On the social media thing, I’ve found it best to completely turn off the phone and every computer window/bing/ding/flash notification so I can concentrate better. It’s not enough to ignore those distractions. I must remove them.

    Good post!

    • It’s an ongoing battle, Priscilla. There are apps out there that keep you from net access for periods of time that you set, etc. If I take my laptop to a coffee joint I usually turn off wifi. Helps extend battery, too.

  5. I can’t emphasize enough the power of non-fiction to aid a fiction writer. Non-fiction has been instrumental not only in
    providing tons of story starter ideas, but in helping me with story problems. Yesterday while reading a historical non-fic I had an AHA! moment for one of my novels in progress.

    Of particular focus for me for 2020 is having different books at various stages of development—keeping that productivity moving forward.

    And two big realizations that recently occurred for me:
    1. I realized I don’t give myself enough credit for all I HAVE learned about writing already (not to say that I don’t still have much to learn).
    2. Though time is my biggest problem because the boring day job consumes most of my life, I recently took the Clifton Strengths finder tool & it confirmed what I knew innately–that the passions I pursue outside of work (writing & research, visual art, trying to find back-door education in health & fitness) feed ALL FIVE of my top strengths, whereas my job feeds NONE of them.

    That gives me a huge incentive to keep working to carve out time for my writing career.

    Scariest thing for 2020: learning the business side of being an indie. When I think of all the years I’ve invested in learning craft, & now I have to invest heavily in learning business, it seems overwhelming. But indies love to help each other & there are a lot of resources out there. Just need to take deep breaths & plow on. I’ve come this far, I can make it the rest of the way.

    • Scariest thing for 2020: learning the business side of being an indie. When I think of all the years I’ve invested in learning craft, & now I have to invest heavily in learning business, it seems overwhelming.

      Don’t be scared or overwhelmed, BK. In my book on making a living as a writer I teach the basic business principles an indie needs, and they are not complicated. Good thing to know is that the quality of the writing and the production thereof is still fully 90% of the “secret.” So your craft knowledge is your key asset!

  6. Coming up for air after three weeks with this doggone flu thing. Meantime, have pecked away at three of the five books in a crime series. I have 12 books in various stages of completion, having published another two (and a third that stays in the trunk). Using at least two pseudonyms to avoid reader confusion.

    I’m really good at cover design, using Affinity Photo. Both problem and creative outlet, but doing it provides inspiration to get the dang thing done. Those I’ve completed will at least get me into publication, then I can see if they sell books. I used Damonza for the first.

    I can do 5,000 words a day, but 3,000 is more realistic. The larger number comes from getting into my characters and letting them come up with surprise conflict. If it moves the story along, I chuck the outline and go with it. This has proven to work for me as long as I keep Story Structure in mind.

    Plans for 2020 are five books in a single new series about a street rod builder who solves crimes (because I love old timey street rods). If I can do that, I’ll jump over to the other crime series, with first draft half done in #1. My plan is to not publish until three books are finished, then push them out 30 days apart.

    My historical series hit a chord with one beta reader who clamored for more about empowered matriarchical societies. I have the blurbs in place for four standalone historicals–down the road.

    I flesh out a JSB SuperStructure template for each book idea. That approach really helps me see where the book is going, and forces me to ask the hard questions about character and plot arcs.

    All this comes from keeping a notepad handy when I wake up inspired (or perspired, depending on the thought).

    In two weeks I reach 79. Yes, I’ve been at this too long, but I love it and I’ve still got my health. I think I can maybe do the 20booksTo50K thing before I croak. Who knows? It’s only a life.

  7. Great post, Jim. Thanks for the advice, and for the links to Kris’s, Joe’s, Jordan’s, and Clare’s posts.

    Where am I on my writing journey? 1 and 1/2 books written and not published, seven short stories published in four anthologies, and now working on leaving a legacy with a middle-grade fantasy series for my grandchildren. I just published #2 and have a good start on #3. It’s a blast.

    I looking forward to getting into speaking at author events. Thanks for your suggestion of Dale Carnegie’s book. I look forward to TKZ doing a two-week special (all hands on deck) on “public speaking for writers.” That would make a great book. I’ll pre-order as soon as you put it on sale.

    On beta reading, I discovered a wonderful site – http://www.BetaBooks.co – for getting feedback at a very reasonable price. With my last book, I had a delightful reviewer, whom I thought was British (loved her choice of words), only to find out when I had a book to send her, that she was from South Africa. What a great way to find a wide variety of reviewers.

  8. Based on a sixteen year education cycle (kindergarten through college graduation), I’m in third grade. I know I’m in third grade because of my third grade teacher, Mrs. Snow. Which describes her personality to a “T”. To my eight-year-old self, she was a giant with brown hair, big feet, and glasses in perpetual danger of falling off her nose. (Actually, she was short, but I was shorter…)

    But, I do remember something else about her. She read to us. And she always asked us at the end of the story if we liked it. If we did, she’d say, “So go write your own.” I never forgot that.

    I’ve indie-published three creative non-fiction books. My first novel is in second round edits with my editor-she says we’re going to talk agents at some point. As I write that, I’m a deer in the headlights. While I await my MS’s return for more revisions, I’m about 120 pages into the first draft of another novel. Two other novels are simmering on a back burner, one at 122 pages, the other with a mere fifty or so. And I have a collection of titles and story ideas on another burner, which occasionally flames up and then I have to attend to it.

    JSB, this was a great post. I liked the links you provided. I’ll take some time to avail myself of the nuggets in those posts. But by far and away, the practical tips are the best. Setting word count goals, creative games, and the down-and-dirty “Because everybody wants to be a writer. Your ficus tree wants to be a writer. I’ve lost count of the times someone has uttered to me a variation on ‘I think I have a book inside me’ and I choke back the urge to say, ‘That’s a great place to keep it.'”

    Thank God I don’t have a ficus tree. But I do have a German Shepherd named Hoka, who looks askance at me when I get up from my chair before the word count hits my goal.

    Okay, got my TKZ fix for the day…on with the show I go. (TKZ holiday break was hard for me.) 🙂

  9. Happy 2020, Jim!

    Ten great pieces of advice in this post! I’m well on the road, on my never ending journey as a writer. Working on my 13th novel, which will be the 7th I’ll publish. The most important thing, to me, is to keep writing and learning. Writing, reading, and studying craft are the keystones for me of a writing career. The rest of your advice is essential to running a business and to keeping oneself motivated and always moving forward.

    Here’s the new year and all the writing, reading and learning that will take place during it.

  10. Thanks for the sage advice and more importantly the motivation. Where am I? Starting again. Each time I fail, I quit, swear I won’t waste time on this stupid writing stuff, and start again better.
    As a writer, my biggest problem isn’t time or distractions, it’s who I am. I wonder if that’s true of a lot of us? I think that’s why I write, to find out who I really am.
    Fortunately, I can’t not write.
    By the way, my ficus tree has finished his novel. It’s called THE FICUS IN THE RYE. It begins: It was a dark and stormy night. I sat shivering in my pot.,
    He’s starting on a new one called LIFE IN A CLAY POT.
    Thanks again.

    • Fortunately, I can’t not write.

      Which is what a real writer knows.

      Good for your ficus tree for actually finishing a novel! Now buy it one of my writing books.

  11. I’m just over the starting line on my writing journey. One published novel in 2019 and a second ms completed and in the editor’s hands. Hoping it will be published in 2020. Just beginning a third novel in the series, and taking notes for several projects that I’d like to do. (My ficus tree is turning green with envy.)

    I have been greatly influenced by JSB’s books on the craft of writing, and more recently his “How to Make a Living as a Writer.” I’ve tossed away my rose-colored glasses (they never worked anyway), and I track my word quotas like a lion on the prowl.

    Here is one of my favorite writer quotes:

    “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” — Richard Bach

  12. Thankyou for your generous advice! We are so fortunate to have experienced authors share what they have learned over their writing journeys.
    Where am I on my journey? I have finished a novel, which I completely rewrote and then improved over 7 more drafts. An agent liked the first 50 pages enough to want to see the full manuscript. Although she eventually passed on it, she gave me a few pages of written feedback and encouraged me to start a 2nd. I am 18,000 words into the 2nd novel and have established a solid routine of 4,000 words p/w. I learned a lot with the first novel and I’m proud that I have finished a novel-length work.
    Your words give me encouragement to persist and confidence that I am on the right track. Thanks again.

    • Great to hear, Linda. You DO learn a lot by finishing a first novel. I know I did (it was not published). Now you’re on your way to the second…and beyond. Happy writing!

  13. Coming out of lurking for a bit. I released my second book (finally) and have some anthology entries lined up. I’m also embarking on a 4th career of being a high school teacher. I feel like I’m in a windstorm. The word for 2020 is “balance.” Not. There. Yet.

    Terri

    • Great to hear from you again, Terri. Wow, high school? God bless you teachers. I had a beloved English teacher in HS who thought I had some writing talent. I still think of her.

      • I’m in a 5-week substitute position right now. Next week there is a small unit on characters. I’m going freestyle and having them do an assignment to create their own character. I’m using one of the character inventory sheets floating around. My own little rage against the standardized machine.

        And I love telling students when they do well, whether it be on the mid-terms or their standardized testing or even just a clever answer to a study question.

  14. Great post! One question though: do I need to find a competitive ficus tree to achieve maximum productivity this year :P?

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