It’s Crucial to Know Who You Are as a Writer

by James Scott Bell

Brandon Sanderson

Have you heard about what Brandon Freaking Sanderson is doing? As they used to say in the 60s, “It’ll blow your mind, man.”

Last Tuesday Sanderson made a “surprise announcement” via YouTube, telling his fans that over the course of the last two years he has produced four—count ’em, four—“secret” novels. Instead of releasing these books through a traditional publisher, Sanderson is running a Kickstarter campaign to sell directly to his readers. The books will be delivered each quarter in 2023. And not just books. At certain levels supporters receive a box of Sanderson swag in each of the other eight months.

When you run a Kickstarter, you choose a minimum goal for your campaign. If you don’t hit it, the pledges aren’t collected. Sanderson set his goal at $1 million.

In one day his pledges hit $15 million

In three days he raised over $20 million (from 84,600 backers) and officially became the most successful Kickstarter in history. And the campaign is open until the end of the month!

It doesn’t stop there. After the books are delivered, Sanderson will turn around and license those rights to a traditional publishing company and reap those royalties, too. 

This is, in short, an awesome display of how to exploit intellectual property. 

However, some things to keep in mind at this stage of my post.

  1. You are not going to make millions via Kickstarter. 
  2. Kickstarter campaigns are notoriously difficult to run successfully. The time and effort do not, in my opinion, offer enough Return on Investment (ROI). Sanderson is an exception because of his enormous popularity and the fact that he has a “team” to help him. Just thinking about the fulfillment aspect of this project makes my head explode. But if anyone can pull it off, he can.
  3. Forget about Kickstarter.

If that is so, why am I bothering to write about this? First of all, it’s publishing news. It’s viral. And it’s amazing. Just thought you’d like to hear about it if you haven’t already.

Second, to get to the basic reasons why Brandon Sanderson is able to do this, note that he is: a) a very good writer; b) prolific; and c) nurturing of his fans.

Thus, while very few writers ever get to the Sanderson level, we can do the same three things within our own sphere. To wit:

Be Good

You know me. I believe in a never-ending self-improvement program for writers. We expect that from doctors and plumbers; why should we not expect it from artists who ask us to spend money on them? 

Write, study, write, get feedback, improve. Write. That’s how you get to be good.

Be Prolific

Brandon Sanderson is a writing monster. I mean, not only has he written his own epics, he hired on to complete another massive series after the original author died! (The Wheel of Time books). 

Not many of us have the time to produce on that scale. But we can all produce with the time we have. I’ve said it often here and in my workshops, and I still consider it the best piece of advice I got as a new writer—write to a quota. I put it this way: figure out how many words a week you can comfortably produce. That means what you can write without turning the rest of your world—family, friends, day job—into a maelstrom of stress, anxiety, recrimination, illness or the desire to overeat. 

Be easy on yourself. Find your comfort zone, then up that total by 10% as a stretch goal. Make this a weekly quota divided into six days. That way, if you miss a day, you can make it up by writing a little more on the other days. Take one day off to recharge.

If you miss your weekly number, forget about it. Start your new writing week fresh. 

Be Nurturing

As your readership grows, find ways to connect with your audience. You can do this by:

  1. Growing an email list. Give away free content in exchange for signing up (I offer a free novella). Put a link to this in the back matter of all your books. 
  2. Communicate with your list regularly. Once a month is good. Every other month minimum.
  3. Make your communications fun to read. You don’t want readers to think you’re just more spam. If they like the content of your communication they’re much more likely to buy what you pitch to them.
  4. When readers contact you, answer them, and soon.
  5. Have a minimum social media presence. I say minimum because the key, in my opinion, is to pick the few that you enjoy and don’t try to spread out everywhere. My social media is:
    1. TKZ, because I love it here.
    2. A Twitter profile that I guard carefully from controversy (there is no benefit in that. Twitter is not the place for nuanced discussion). 
    3. A mini-social media site of my own, via Patreon, which I enjoy immensely because I can write short fiction for fans and interact with them there.

Could I do more? Yes, but I’ve calculated the cost/benefit for me is ultimately negative. I want to spend most of my creative capital writing more books.

As a final thought, I’m sure many writers look at the Sanderson numbers—and the numbers of many others in a higher income level—and feel some variation of envy over the money being made. Don’t let that happen. Every writer wants to make good dough and therefore has to utilize business thinking to one degree or another. But that degree depends on your personality and what kind of life you want to live.

For example, the quest for success can wreak havoc on personal relationships (you could have asked any one of Norman Mailer’s six wives about that). Money is a powerful motivator but can also be a menacing siren. As a wise Nazarene carpenter once observed, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed—life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

On the other hand, a writer who creates without even a sideward glance at the market should not later howl at the moon because his stuff doesn’t sell.

Balance is the key. It’s different for each of us. I feel, after over 25 years in this game, that I’ve found my sweet spot. That doesn’t mean I don’t continue to learn and explore ways to increase my revenue. But I don’t run after every money-making morsel like a hungry ferret. Thus, don’t look for me on Kickstarter or doing dance videos on TikTok (my daughter is greatly relieved). 

And whenever doubts or disappointments start to creep in—Am I doing enough? Am I fooling myself? Will I ever be as successful as ____? Or even ____?—determine to write just one more sentence…and write it!  Then write the one after that. Get lost again in the joy of making stuff up. That is your safe haven, your home sweet home.

In short: Carpe Typem. Seize the Keyboard!

The questions for the day are as follows: Do you have an idea of what kind of balance you want from your writing life? Do you feel stress about any aspect of it? How would you describe your ideal writing profile?

49 thoughts on “It’s Crucial to Know Who You Are as a Writer

  1. I would definitely like to write more. My schedule at work just changed with our new big boss (more days, fewer hours per day). I kept my old getting up time so have been writing Monday-Friday but it’s frustrating because I like to write til I’m done and I can’t do that on this schedule (except today – wahoo!). But I’m producing more pages so I’ll just be frustrated for a while and see how it goes.

    My day job definitely hampers my writing job but I’m too young to retire quite yet so my aim is to submit my stuff (a screenplay and a short story so far this year) and finish more stuff (another screenplay almost done and working on the novel versions of both screenplays) and submit those.

    My ideal writing profile would be writing from my beach house overlooking the water with a beautiful sunset view. Marking potential houses on Zillow just in case.

  2. Thanks, Jim. I hadn’t even heard of Sanderson until reading about this last week. He’s way out of my field of interest. I’m glad he’s doing so well. He took the forced isolation of the last two years and made lemonade, for sure.

    I love your coal car of wisdom nuggets here today, particularly under the heading of “Be Prolific.” Words to live by.

  3. Balance: brain-heavy writing stuff early in the day and social media later. Family time (after the hubster gets off work) even later. My balance is all askew right now with a baby (grandbaby) in the house, but that’s only temporary. (But seriously, how do single parents write?!)

  4. RE: Sanderson kickstarter approach: I must be vastly different as a reading consumer then the majority of people. While as a writer I admire people trying different things to market their book, as a reader, I would want no part of that. 1) Being the skeptic of human motivation that I am, I would think such an approach was a gateway to some type of scam/fraud, 2) I simply want to be able to go to typical outlets & purchase my books in print or as ebooks, 3) I don’t give a flip about receiving swag. I have enough ‘stuff’.

    I’m a low maintenance recurring reader of authors. Just make your books available in the standard outlets and drop me an email no more than once a month. That’s it.

    RE: Balance: Lack of life balance is always a stressor. Reality is that work & chores take up most of life. That’s just how it is. So I write in snatches whenever I can find the time. Even if I didn’t have to work a day job, I would not write full-time–I would burn out quickly. My day would be balanced between writing, doing art, something like learning banjo, & other things. I admire people who can spend umpteen hours a day writing, every day, but that’s just not me.

    I’m not sure I understand specifically what is meant by “ideal writing profile.”

    • BK, one of the big reasons, IMO, that Sanderson can pull this off is that SF/Fantasy fans are big into things like special hardcover editions and swag from their favorite authors (and the universes they have created).

      Also, Sanderson has spend a decade and a half building up trust, so the scam risk is nil.

      As to ideal profile, I mean how would you hope to be described as a writer? What adjectives would you like to hear about yourself?

      • Good question about the profile–and one I will need to think about–because it seems like the answer to that question would evolve into whatever my tag line might turn out to be.

  5. Words of wisdom, JSB.
    I’m a retired, reclusive, rural-dwelling empty-nester who prefers hanging out with imaginary characters to real people. I think I’ve reached my comfort zone of putting out two novels a year, but there are days when I think one might be enough to satisfy my creative outlets.
    My ‘balance’ is the reverse of Priscilla’s. Brain and fingers don’t connect until mid-day, so I get all my “playtime” over in the morning. I had to retype the first sentence of this comment four times, so trying to produce anything meaningful first thing would be a frustrating exercise in futility.
    I agree with your quota system. I keep a simple Excel spreadsheet to track daily writing numbers. Bottom line for me is hitting “The End” before the date I have to turn the manuscript in to my editor.

    • Thanks, Terry. I have annual Excel sheets going back to 2000.

      Since I answer to no editor, I sometimes have to write a scathing letter to myself when I miss a SID–self-imposed deadline. Indeed, I’m going to have to call myself into my office and give myself a stern talking-to.

      • You’re one of those guys who say, I’m self-employed. If you see me talking to myself, move on. I’m having a staff meeting.


  6. Good morning, Jim. Your posts often so timely for me personally, and this one is so exception. As it so happens, I’ve been the spending the past three days at the Rainforest Writers Retreat at Lake Quinault in the Olympic Rainforest writing up a storm and attending presentations, including an excellent one on being a happy writer (all about the science of happiness, with a few scoops of stoic wisdom). Finding my balance has been a goal.

    Rainforest has a whiteboard where you can write your word count. There are some blazingly fast writers here. This is the third time I’ve attended, after 2019 and 2020. The first year, my word count for the retreat (which begins Wednesday evening and ends late morning on Sunday) was 25K. The following year, it was 19.5K.

    This year, so far, it’s been 12.2K so far. (I’m writing short fiction this year—the first two years I worked on novels). I’ve also taken two long hikes into the forest, as well as spent an hour on Friday and Saturday evenings out stargazing with two writer friends (the skies here are incredible, with very little light pollution). And getting in some reading, and just soaking up the epic scenery and visiting with writers I’ve not seen in two years, attending a few breakfasts, and dinner, and morning yoga sessions.

    In short, re-balancing and finding my balance. Obviously, when I return home, I won’t be immersed in writing 24-7, nor would I want to be, but this reminds me how to spend some time focused on writing. I really like your “Rule of Three” Be Good, Be Prolific (for yourself) and Be Nurturing. I couldn’t agree more.

    As for Sanderson, that’s been quite the news here, since most of the 30 odd writers here writing science fiction and fantasy and he is well known in the community. I first encountered Brandon way back in 2008 listening to his podcast, Writing Excuseswhich is on the craft of fiction writing, and is still going strong, though Brandon doesn’t seem to be nearly as involved these days with it (and who can blame him, with everything else he’s been doing). He’s the real deal—a passionate fan as well as writer of epic fantasy, having produced his first novel in his late teens, in the early 1990s, and keeping at it, book after book, until he finally sold his first novel around 2004 or 5.

    BTW, I keep intending to return to a weekly writing quota, and your latest post plus the Rainforest experience is motivating me to resume after a very long absence. One question, which I may have asked you before—how do you track your words when you are revising a book? Or is the quota only for drafted words?

    Thanks for another terrific post. Have a great Sunday! I’m going to try and get one more short story in now, using Storymatic 🙂

    • Hadn’t heard of the Rainforest Retreat, Dale, but it sounds great. I’ve done my own “retreats” at a beach house up the coast a ways, but that’s been by myself…it would be nice to have other writers around.

      As to word count, I always include “new words” in the count, so when I revise and add, I include those. And I don’t “subtract” words when I cut. Meeting the quota is always a one-way street.

  7. Jim, thanks for addressing balance. When life is too far out of balance, you’re guaranteed to crash–physically, creatively, professionally, personally, and/or psychologically.

    Years ago, I read good advice here at TKZ and in your book, Marketing for Writers Who Hate Marketing: choose one or two SM platforms and focus on them. Don’t spread yourself too thin trying to catch every trend.

    Overall, I’ve hit a pretty good balance between writing fiction, nonfiction, and real life. Marketing is the bastard stepchild that gets ignored but I’m slowly working to improve. Putting up a free short story soon on my website that I hope will build my email list.

    One personal priority has become much more important in the past few years–contact with friends. Lost several last year and another a week ago. When a friend calls/texts/emails, I drop what I’m doing to spend a few minutes with them, even when it cuts into writing time. It slows my production but that’s the priority I’ve chosen.

    • And that’s a good priority, Debbie. Those relationships are crucial to a truly balanced life.

      Marketing as a “bastard stepchild”? How Dickensian of you!

  8. Your comment about twitter reminded me of an author who experienced a twitter pile-on and commented: “social media — the place where complex and nuanced ideas go to die.”

    Though I have a pubbed non-fic (since 2007, where did the years go?), I am a wannabe novel writer for the past 10 years. jeesh. I wish I could learn the craft more quickly, but I have family and friends and another career I appreciate having.

    It’s the being prolific that gets a backseat. Especially since I need to revise so much. Somedays I’m impatient about that, others I’m ok with it.

    • Lisa, as I said in the post, find the comfort zone…and just be consistent with it. Consistency is the real secret. Be patient with that. The pages add up faster than you imagine.

  9. Ooo, I’m so glad you unpacked what Sanderson has done right and how to emulate him! We were talking about this on my discord, wondering how to get to that level of popularity. I’m not worried about being prolific, myself–I sneeze and out comes 3k words. It’s making those words any good that is my weakness, haha! My beta readers complain that my prose is “thin”, with not enough description and emotional meat. I have to make several passes to flesh things out enough. My newest book has been in the oven for almost two years as I made pass after pass after pass. Not exactly Sanderson levels of productive. :-p

    • I sneeze and out comes 3k words. It’s making those words any good that is my weakness

      Those are wise and insightful words, Kessie! Yes, you can pour words on a page at a rapid clip. But shaping them into a meaningful form is real key.

      As to “thin” drafts. Your beta readers are onto something. But so are you. Once you’re done with a draft, look for those scenes and beats where emotion should dwell (you will find them) and begin to flesh those out with inner thoughts and reactions. Spend time free writing about these moments, find new and surprising ways to describe them (metaphors, sights, sounds) and use the best stuff. That’ll blow your betas away!

  10. Back in early 2020 I stumbled onto a Kickstarter campaign by Kristine Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, who together have made KS a regular well from which to draw. DWS topped $6,700 that campaign, a neat sum any of us would welcome. As you pointed out with Sanderson, they each have nigh on 100 books in print and digital, plus a huge fan base. Concurrent with that, Brandon Sanderson was wrapping up a massive $80,000 campaign, including incredible swag and gorgeous leather-bound hardbacks. He did another last year that grossed $6.7M. Eek.

    I’m with you, it’s fun to watch, but as rare as Stephen King knocking on my door. And the readers are all fans of Sci-Fi/Fantasy, not crime.

    I’m breaking your rule about swallowing camels. I’ve targeted to release books 1-3 of a new 6-book crime series all at once by…a certain near date. It means 3,500 words/day, which, the way I write, demands six hours of intense effort, or more. I’d be better off aiming for half that, but I’ve done it enough to know it’s possible without major surgery afterward.

    However, that %#@! due date keeps slipping…

  11. Thanks for a great post, Jim, and a needed reminder that the writing life has to have priorities. Good, prolific, and nurturing…great advice.

    The balance I want? Writing in the mornings and producing two books a year. Spending afternoons – for sanity and health – doing physical work (with the benefit of brain-storming creativity time).

    Stress? Marketing. I hate it. I’m gradually learning what I should be doing. I don’t want to “steal” time from my writing time. And I’m determined to find some creative ways to accomplish it.

    Ideal writing profile? I hope to be known as a steady producer of “clean” teen fantasy with a wild imagination and endless creative ideas who left a legacy of wholesome entertainment for his grandchildren.

    Thanks for the advice. Have a great weekend.

    • Great response, Steve. And I love your profile. I always wrote with the thought in mind that someday my kids would grow up and read some of my books…and would I be embarrassed or, gasp, seen as a hypocrite…

      Legacy is priceless.

    • BTW, Steve, I tried changing my gravatar author photo, and it worked, but for some reason not here.

      Anyone else know how to change the photo at TKZ?

  12. It definitely takes time to grow into the writer you want to become. This is my tenth year and I finally wrote out a schedule I can maintain. There’s something about seeing your production schedule in print that eases stress, as long as you look day by day and not the whole year at once (that would make me crazy). Right now is a little more hectic because I’m creating and teaching an online course, but once I finish I’ll re-package the course in different ways. Sisters in Crime already booked a condensed version for May. 🙂 How to Make a Living as a Writer was instrumental in this “new me,” and I can’t thank you enough. Top-notch advise for writers at every level.

    • There’s something about seeing your production schedule in print that eases stress, as long as you look day by day

      Words of wisdom, Sue! I make it a practice to have a daily to-do list, in priority order (using the A, B, C method–A = must do; B = would like to do; C = can wait) and with a time estimate by each.

      Thanks for the kind words about my book. Love that you’re developing a course to market in “different ways.” Smart!

  13. Chekhov: “if you want to work on your art, first work on yourself.”
    Flaubert on Madame Bovary: “ It is me!”
    Be kind to yourself and your writing will show it.

  14. Ironic, I was literally just thinking I should read a Sanderson book. I love epic fantasy, but the size of his books are intimidating. Same with Stephen King’s books. I also listen to writing excuses, and Brandon is the humblest famous author you could come across. Last week I was listening to his other podcast, Intentionally Blank, where he said that he doesn’t invest in bitcoin or make do anything buzzworthy because he doesn’t want to manipulate his fans. So, I can only guess he’s doing this kickstarter for a good cause.

    As for my routine, my schedule gets disrupted pretty often since finding a job is really hard, but when I do have stability, I like to write in the evenings. This way, I’ve either done everything I need to or decided to push it off until tomorrow.

    The kind of writer I want to be literally depends on what gets published first. I’ve been writing for over ten years, and every year I write something different. A few years ago, I would have said I’d be a YA author with cool magic systems. Now, I might be an aadult crossover author who creates deep emotions and characters. One thing I do dream of is working on a movie or TV show… but who knows.

    • I hope you land on a firm writing spot soon, and build upon it. Maybe test your waters with short fiction on sites like Wattpad. But find what you like to do most and concentrate there…if you can choose!

  15. Balance – I’d like several hours of uninterrupted writing time each day. You’d think this would be simple since we’re empty-nesters and my husband is very supportive, but other obligations tend to pop up all the time. I’m not a prolific writer. I seem to need lots of time to read and think. This year I’m trying to push that envelope a little bit.

    Stress – I enjoy juggling multiple tasks, but sometimes it does get to be headache. Marketing is the boogeyman. I keep hearing my mother’s voice. “Let others praise you and not you yourself.”

    Ideal profile – producing novels that are both entertaining and thought-provoking that my family will be proud of. Also, continuing to cultivate the wonderful friendships I have found in the writing community.

    • Ideal profile – producing novels that are both entertaining and thought-provoking that my family will be proud of. Also, continuing to cultivate the wonderful friendships I have found in the writing community.

      Hear, hear to both of these sentiments, Kay!

  16. Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, Dean Wesley Smith and Loren L. Coleman put up a FREE course on Teachable. It’s called Kickstarter Best Practices for Fiction Writers, and you can view it at

    There is also an accompanying book titled, Crowdfunding Your Fiction: A Best Practices Guide by Loren L. Coleman. Thus far, the only place I’ve found the book available is through the course. But again, the course is free.

    Also, for a more positive take on what Sanderson did, I also recommend reading the post and the comments at

    What Loren did with his campaign, which was 20 years in the making, was blow the doors off Kickstarter and open a new way for fiction writers—all fiction writers—to earn money from their writing. I’ve already had several friends run successful small and mid-range Kickstarter campaigns, earning from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.

    In full disclosure, this doesn’t matter at all to me personally as a writer. I myself have neither designed nor run a Kickstarter campaign, nor, more than likely, will I do so. But I enjoy spreading the word just in case some other writer might benefit from it. There is absolutely no good reason not to try. Unless, like me, you completely suck at business and couldn’t care less about it.

    I love conveying my characters’ stories so that others may enjoy them as much as I do. But although I’m an extremely successful fiction writer (66 novels, 8 novellas, over 200 short stories, hundreds of poems, nominations for major awards), my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren—should there be a business mind among them—will be the ones who profit from my writing. And that’s more than fine with me.

    • A devil’s advocate is fine here, Harvey, so long as they’ve passed the bar (i.e., not gone inside for drinks). However, I am not convinced that Kickstarter has enough ROI to be a consistent revenue stream for authors. How many times before readers start to get tired of it, thinking, Why don’t you just write another book and let me decide to buy it or not?.

      Earning a few hundred or a few thousand is not enough of an incentive for me in view of the effort. But others may calculate differently…and they can sup with you and the other advocates. Ha!

      • I appreciate your POV. I only wanted to point out that there are other valid opinions out there.

        I don’t do Kickstarter for reasons I explained earlier. But if I did, for me the ROI would depend on how much I earned from the campaign compared with the hours/effort I put into it. If that calc fell short, I wouldn’t do it. If it looked good, I would. Either way, though, wouldn’t consider it a “consistent” revenue stream.

      • Dean earns six figures a year from Kickstarter but a key to his success is that he offers higher-end rewards for writers in terms of courses and workshops. I’ve supported a couple of his campaigns before for that reason. That’s different than someone who’s only offering rewards for their fiction fans.

        • Philip, good point. Kickstarter used as a business for courses and the like seems workable. But not for just books. Even Sanderson is producing swag.

  17. Great post, Jim!

    However, I can’t answer your questions until I think about it a bit.

    I can say, however, that I’m settling into 5 days a week “working” in my office, but not nearly enough of the average 7-8 hours per day is spent writing a new book. Much of it right now is spent listening to podcasts, networking, scheduling SM posts, yada yada.

    I’d like to spend about 80% of my time making stuff up because that’s what’s fun.


  18. Dropping in again because I see so many people having trouble with marketing. Two thoughts I have gleaned:
    In one of his newsletters, Dave Farland talked about commissioning a ton of art for a Runelords book. He had it made into a calendar, and some of the art became book covers. People loved the art and it really boosted his sales. In our era of visual-based social media, this struck me as brilliant.
    Second: I follow a videogame developer. Every day they tweet or post about some aspect of their game. Look at this cool item, look at this cool level, here is cool art, here is something mysterious the villain is saying. They always give the fans a hook, or a cool thing. They don’t endlessly tweet “buy our game”. They share the stuff about it that is cool and exciting.
    So I’m drawing art based on my upcoming book and releasing it in an art blitz leading up to it’s release on the 11th. So far, I’m getting a pretty good response on various social media. People have to hear about a thing six times before they think of buying … So how many car commercials have you seen in your life? Exactly. Just something to think about, sharing visuals and cool quotes from your books to entertain and hook people.

    • Kessie, what you say here I would apply to author “newsletters” (a term I dislike because of the “newsletter fatigue” out there). Don’t just make your communications a variation on “buy my book.” Give out real content.

  19. Pingback: Pimples That Invade Our Writing by Traci Kenworth – Where Genres Collide Traci Kenworth YA Author

  20. Thanks for the words of wisdom, Jim. “It’s crucial to know who you are” is good advice for a writer like me. Am I a children’s writer… who writes devotionals, and dabbles in grown-up fiction? Uh… I’m going to print out this column and try my best to follow your advice!

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