The thick, familiar odor frying bacon, onions, and the sounds of clanking utensils against cheap plates filled the small country café. I’d been lamenting a temporary stall in my writing career while we had our weekly appointment with eggs over easy.
Across the booth, my former boss and friend of over forty years, the Cap’n, raised an eyebrow and sipped from a steaming cup of coffee. “You hear yourself, right? You remember what you said back in the old days when we were taking those education courses?”
The Cap’n doesn’t have an eidetic memory, but he comes pretty close and I had to flip through several cases of dusty mental files to dredge up a nearly forgotten conversation between two young men in the teacher’s lounge. I finally found the memory and blew it off. “I said I wanted to get just one book published.”
“Right. It was back in ’81. You wanted to get just one book published and then you said you’d be finished. Let me see, ‘I just want one book on shelf and I’ll be through.’ That about what you said?”
I thought I had one book in me, and had never considered writing another. As a teacher working in the classroom during the day, taking Masters level courses in the evenings two days a week, and sitting behind an old IBM Selectric in a bedroom/office, I wanted to leave something behind that would outlast me.
“Well, that was a long time ago, but I never expected to get a series.”
“Yeah, and now you have a dozen books on that shelf and you’re bitching about how you’re not on the best seller list.”
“You realize you’ve already achieved what others dream about? You’re published.” He raised an eyebrow and held the nearly empty cup like a smoker with a cigarette. “Ever thought you’d be here, with two series going at the same time?”
“My manuscript is still in the drawer and I piddle with it only every now and then. You did it your way, now shut up and keep writing and you’ll make it one of these days. Breakfast is on you by the way, big shot writer.”
That conversation somewhere around 1980 came after I’d already been struggling for years, trying to get at least something published. With a stack of rejection notices that reached from the floor to the top of the table I used as a desk, I needed to find a way to break in. Eight years later, I achieved that dream that most budding writers only talk about, but it didn’t come easy.
I was reading a book by the author who inspired my style, Robert C. Ruark, when an idea clicked. Ruark launched his writing career by getting published in a newspaper.
Hey, I can write a newspaper column.
And like Ruark, I used newspapers to establish a foundation by writing outdoor humor, a niche that, in my mind, needed to be filled.
Of course we all want to explode on the writing scene with a massive bestseller, and that occasionally happens, but the cold hard truth is that we need to build that solid foundation by finding our voice, and most often that comes from practice and a lot of work.
But you have to get that voice out there, and one way is my suggestion for beginning writers who come to me for advice. Here it is, but you might not like it.
Write for free.
So let’s examine this suspicious piece of advice. How do you write for free?
Try small publications. My first column was published in The Paris News back in 1988, and they paid me. My work caught the attention of another paper about an hour away, and a year later I was writing for them, too. Then another, and before long, I was in 50+ papers in Texas and Oklahoma. They paid me, too, but that was then.
When the Internet became a Thing, papers dropped me like falling snowflakes as their income dwindled and readers turned to finding their news online. The first thing to go were the columnists. But that was an excellent place to cut my teeth.
There are still small town papers and independent publications that need content. They may not be able to pay, or pay much, say $5 a column, or they may only offer space for your work, but that space results in tear sheets that can be used to establish your writing reputation.
Online magazines and organizations need writers, and through I have no experience in that world, I’m sure there are online entities that are looking for good writing. Contact them and offer to write for free. It’s the perfect place to polish your craft, and is an excellent way to gain exposure.
“But I can do the same on my blog.”
Yes, mysterious, figment of my imagination. You can, and keep doing it that way, but one outlet these days isn’t enough. You need to expand that foundation and create a name for yourself. Write online, in local magazines and papers, in those small community publications that appear in your mailbox, and anywhere else you can find. Build name recognition, assemble a collection of tear sheets both physical and electronically, and use them to get noticed.
Get it? Reach into a new box of spaghetti and pull out one strand. Yep, there it is, one piece of dried noodle that you can boil and consume. Small. Unimpressive.
Now, shake the whole box into onto the table and watch them scatter like pick-up sticks. Look at all of them. That single stick might be difficult to see, but the contents of the entire box is right there, impossible to miss.
Get your name out there, and eventually, someone will offer a few bucks for your work.
Then build on that momentum. One…step…at…a…time.
Try it my way and someday maybe you’ll have that one book on a shelf, then you can start complaining about not being further along.
In the meantime, Happy New Year and good luck with your writing!
I started out writing guest columns for The Orlando Sentinel and wherever before that we were living at the time. It was fun. They never paid me but they did invite me to their banquet every year, gave me a lovely certificate, and invited me to their writing intensive weekend, which was a blast.
My blog got me going again when my friends and family nagged me into it “Why aren’t you writing any more? What’s wrong with you?” It started out as “There. I did it. Are you happy?” It ended up being fun.
I’m just coming off of an 11-day stretch of no days off. First day writing since January 1. 14-hour days don’t leave much energy available for other things. But today I’m off (hallelujah!). My dog won’t let me out of her sight. We are curled up on the couch with my lap desk working on a new screenplay. Feels good. I have a screenplay and a short story out to see what happens. Feels good.
In my dreams I get paid enough to stop these 14-hour days (or at least spend them writing in shorts and flip flops in my garden.) Time will tell.
Congratulations on your series (both of them) and thank you for your wisdom. Wishing everyone a happy and prosperous new year.
We write because we have to. I think when you reach that point, you’ve made that first bounce in the end of a diving board. After that, it’s just building impetus. You did it my way, and that feels good, don’t it?
Thanks for reading and responding.
Rev. I mean…I’m gonna print this morning’s piece from you out and staple it (well, maybe tape it) to my forehead so that I can read it whenever I want. It’s a sterling example of how the job is properly done, from setting the scene in the diner to the spaghetti box metaphor. The advice is perfect as well. Thank you. And Happy New Year.
Many thanks, Joe. I hoped to entertain and provide a little jolt to those who need it at the start of this new year. Glad and honored that you found worth in my words. Happy right back atcha!
Nope. Good post, but we’ll have to part ways on the advice, Rev. Would you expect your plumber or lawyer or doctor or carpenter or cleaning person to provide their services free of charge? We even tip the waiter or waitress or roller-blade-poised carhop who brings our food.
“Write for free” (including writing for “copies”) is exactly why so many readers believe writing has no value and they shouldn’t have to pay for it. On the other side, it also reinforces the common and collective inferiority complex that drives beginning writers to not believe in themselves, that what they write can’t possibly have value. Writing is no different than any other art or trade—it has value—and writers deserve to be paid.
To paraphrase what the late Harlan Ellison famously told someone who’d called him from a studio asking that he contribute (free) some writing to a production, “No. Cross my palm with silver. Would you expect the director or the other writers or your cameraman or your stage hands to work for free?”
If anyone out there hasn’t seen the video, it’s at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuLr9HG2ASs. By the way, this is a “short video abundant with profanity.”
I’m afraid you might have misinterpreted my post. My point was directed at those trying to find their writing voice and get started. I have a background in carpentry and architecture. When I was a shave-tail kid, I worked for free to learn the basics, and did that until I’d proven my worth. Once I considered myself experienced, I asked for compensation, and got it.
Even today, I’ll volunteer articles to small publications struggling to get started. I wrote half a dozen articles for a good looking East Texas magazine trying to gain traction. They folded, but I tried to help.
Hope her clarifies my point.
My two cents — It’s those unexpected freebies that help people and creates value for them and you. While it may not put money in your pocket at that moment, they won’t forget you and remember when it’s time to buy. We own a successful small electronics repair shop and provide plenty of free advice, sometimes won’t charge for a very simple repair which in turn creates return business.
Interesting post, Rev. On one hand I agree with Harvey. Writers (like anyone else) deserve to be paid. But, on the other hand, when we’re starting out, we struggle to be discovered in the vast sea of writers.
I currently happen to be reading about “reader magnets” – writing we give away in exchange for people signing up for our newsletters. Could this charity work be a reader magnet? Would most publications permit the charity writer to post a link to the writer’s newsletter sign-up page?
I’d love to hear responses to that question from any of you who are or have been a writer for a print or online publication.
Happy New Year, Rev. And keep adding books to that shelf.
Great question, for which I have no answer. Hope the hive mind can bring forward their thoughts. Thanks for responding!
Rev, great advice.
“You need to expand that foundation and create a name for yourself.”
While I agree with Harvey in theory, the cold, hard reality is an unknown writer can’t command payment until they establish a good reputation. The good reputation is built by meeting deadlines, turning in excellent writing, and reaching out to other markets to broaden name recognition.
Another aspect of writing for free is giving back to the community that helped you grow in knowledge and experience to the point where your writing is worth paying for.
As you say, “One step at a time.”
Totally agree about giving back to the community, Debbie.
There you go. You and Sue get my point, as well as the fact that we have to polish to excess. I reckon once I reach a Harlan Ellison level of writing, I can bat away requests for free help, but I wasn’t raised like that. We donate money to worthy entities, so why not some time and a few words. It’ll sure get that name out there for budding authors.
Good advice, Rev, for the new writers out there. Seasoned writers still need visibility but we also need to eat. 😉 If we’re stepping into a new arena, like speaking gigs or teaching, we might be expected to do it for free till we make our bones. For example, when Zoom was the new thing, I did a ton of free Zoom events, even though organizers asked for my fee. Since I didn’t feel comfortable on the platform yet, I didn’t feel right about accepting cash. Instead, I asked them to stock my books. Worked great.
There you go!
Another fine story and post, Rev. I’m with Steve in that I agree with Harvey, but I also see the value of giving away things for free.
I didn’t start out that way. I started out taking the short story sale road to publication as an aspiring fantasy and science fiction writer. It was old advice when 22 year old me started out submitting to the SFF magazines in 1983. I scored a personal letter of rejection from OMNI (which paid a dollar a word back then) in 1986. I was hired at the library in 1987, switched to novels for a time, but kept going back to short stories over the next fifteen years, but my submissions dropped to occasional. The thing was, I’d been in three writers groups by 2002. My first writing for pay happened in 2001 when I wrote a piece for a roleplaying supplement (I’m a long time tabletop role-player and board gamer).
I finally sat down in mid-2002 and began pantsing a novel that had been rattling around in my head for years and finished a draft in mid-2003, just before my father passed away. Running his estate while holding down a day job took up the next year. I came back to fiction in 2005, wrote a bunch of short stories, two more novels, but no sale, literally. In 2008, I went to my first writers conference, and began my journey on the path of writing craft. Workshops, classes, and books by our own James Scott Bell and others followed, and late the next year, I made my first short story sale to an online magazine, for $20. More sales followed, and a collaboration that lead to a nomination for a Pushcart prize for Small press published short fiction.
Then, in late 2015, after having written two more novels, I finally got “serious” about self-publishing, and wrote my modern fantasy series, “The Empowered.” Five books in that series and two other novels and two anthology appearances later, I’ve moved into mystery. My indie publishing has shown the value of giving away books for free. “Empowered: Agent,” the first book in my series, is permanently free, as is the prequel novella “Renegade.” “Agent” also appears in a “perma-free” box set of first-in-series-novels, “Shadow Magic. Free helped my indie fantasy publishing a great deal. I’ve given away many tens of thousands of eBook copies of “Agent” and “Renegade,” which has lead to thousands of sales of my other books. Free has been good to me. I’m far from a best-selling writer, I’ve averaged in the mid four figures for the past five years. But, my publishing business pays for itself, I’ve been able to take trips, buy a few “toys,” and have a publishing “war chest” in the bank to fun my mystery publishing.
My view is that each of us takes our own journey as writers and publishers. We can walk the same path for a while, but then we might take a side path, switch to a different trail, or even begin forging our own.
Thanks for posting another fun, informative read, Rev. I look forward to many more in 2022
Beautiful! I have nothing to add to such a great story!
Venture out into new venues. That’s a worthy resolution for 2022.
As a writer and a writing teacher, I’ve read years of blog posts from agents and editors, and none of them agree with your advice about writing nonfiction columns as a means to get a novel published or even get the attention of an agent. They don’t care if you are an established columnist for the local paper, or publish poetry, or anything else that doesn’t directly impact your novels and the possibility of building an audience. It’s ultimately the book, not the other stuff.
Nonfiction has its value by honing your language skills and teaching you deadlines, and money is good, but you shouldn’t expect it to help you with selling a novel or marketing it. Surprise alert. Fans of your columns will rarely buy your fiction because it’s not the subject matter of your column.
I didn’t specifically mention nonfiction. In fact, I was taking about fiction. Maybe I should have been clearer.
I completely disagree about fans of my columns. Fans read me for years and enjoyed my entertaining stories, and learned about my work. Niels when I sign novels in Paris, Texas, where my column began, nearly every person was already a fan. I already had that base established before my first book came out.
I think our blog readers should understand there are no absolutes in this business, except for quality writing. This worked fir me, and I hope it helps others. What I did might not be the path for others, but that’s what we do here.
I respectfully disagree. I’ve discovered many new to me authors through nonfiction news articles, both physical and online, blogs, websites. If I like what an author has to say in a column or where ever, I will look them up and check out their books. I’ve found some of my favorite authors that way. It’s how I ended up reading books written by the majority of previous authors who wrote for this site.
I discovered JSB and a host of other TKZ authors through their nonfiction work on this and other sites.
To free or not to free, that is the question. For me, it’s more like the answer and I’ll tell ya, ya gotta put something out there to get something back. That’s pretty much a universal law – I think Emerson covered it in Compensation. Like Sue says, it’s giving back to the writing community that compensates a writer in many more ways than just money.
But for money, I’ll share my system that I didn’t invent. I just follow what many indies do that works. That’s write ebooks in a series, build a backlist, give the first in the series away as a lead magnet with links to the remaining for-sale products. Then do what you can to promote the perma-free. Slowly and surely (as long as the product is marketable which entails a lot of details), readers will discover you… and begin to follow you… and pay you.
I’d like to say, “Try it my way” but I can’t take credit for figuring out this time-consuming, but time-proven, system. Happy ’22 Kill Zoners!
Well, as an practicing writer who hasn’t published anything yet, it made sense to me. If you look at all the book bloggers out there who started off writing book reviews for themselves, which turned into the business of free reviews of ARC’s for all the publishers, some bloggers who are bloggers made names for themselves. I know quite a few writers who started out that way, branched out to from books to writing for other blogs about writing or other subjects. then eventually online websites who now have published books, both traditionally and independently. All for free. Look at all the youtubers who started out doing what they loved for free and it’s now turned into a rather profitable past time.
The reason I started my blog years ago was to find my voice, my writing style, and my confidence to put myself out there. Which lead to writing short stories, flash non fiction, poetry, and now novel length stories. I’ll finish the darn book one of these days.
So yes, your words made sense to me. Thank you.