How to Earn Short-Term Rewards During the Long Haul

Author Debbie Burke and Buffy

No, this picture is not Photoshopped clickbait. It’s me and a real bear. Details below. 


By Debbie Burke



In your real-world job, would you be willing to work for two or more years before receiving a paycheck? Probably not.

Yet, as authors writing books, that’s exactly what we do.

Writing a novel is often likened to a marathon. It takes months, if not years, to complete a book. Traditional publishing tacks on another one or two years before you see your book for sale. Indie-pubbing speeds up the process but it still doesn’t happen overnight.

Thirty-plus years ago, I was stuck in the endless loop of writing novels, submitting them, and being rejected. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Because fiction was my passion, I didn’t really consider writing nonfiction until a couple of journalist friends offered their help and encouragement. I dipped my toe into article writing and made the happy discovery that nonfiction was much easier to publish than fiction (not to mention it paid better).

At last, I had the satisfaction of seeing my words in print.

One magazine gig led to another. As my file of published clips expanded, editors began to call me. Article assignments took a little sting out of the rejections that my novels continued to collect.

Many more years would pass before I reached the ultimate reward of a published novel but, along the way, articles were small consolation prizes. They encouraged me to keep moving toward my goal.

My journalist friends taught me another neat trick—take the same article but re-slant it for different markets. Do research once and get paid several times.

For instance, a story about how to run a successful garage sale could be pitched to community newsletters, antique/collectible magazines, and senior-interest markets as tips for retirees to earn extra money.

An article about gold mines might fit in a travel magazine, a state historic journal, and a niche publication for hobbyist prospectors.

Often, during research, I ran across interesting people and wrote personality profiles about them.

One in particular led to a number of offshoot articles plus a memorable experience with the stunning bear in the above photo.

At the Flathead River Writers Conference in the 1990s, I met Ben Mikaelsen, a kid-lit author who had his own bear. Buffy had been a research cub that couldn’t survive in the wild. To save him from being euthanized, Ben adopted him. Life with Buffy inspired Ben’s award-winning novel Rescue Josh McGuire and several other books.

Side note: Ben does not advocate keeping wild animals as pets. He went to great effort and expense to build a suitable home for Buffy that was approved by state and federal authorities.

The unique friendship between an author and a bear was a story idea that begged to be written. Ben graciously invited me to his home near Bozeman, Montana, for an interview and to meet Buffy

Yes, that really is me feeding Wheat Thins to the 700-pound black bear. Fun fact: He didn’t use his teeth or tongue to take the treat but rather his prehensile lower lip, similar to an elephant’s trunk. I watched in awe as his bottom lip gently folded around the cracker in my hand.

The amazing encounter resulted in multiple articles that were published in Writer’s Digest (including a reprint in their annual children’s writing guide), several Montana general interest magazines, and international nature and wildlife magazines.

This experience was definitely not a consolation prize but rather a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which I’ll always be grateful.

Back to the marathon. While I wondered if I’d EVER have a novel accepted, articles were like short sprints where the rewards of publication and payment were only months away rather than years. Those helped sustain me through decades of discouragement.

In addition, writing nonfiction helped hone my craft.

Here are a few things I learned:

Write concisely and clearly. If an editor said 500 words, that’s what has to be turned in.

Choose what’s necessary and what should be cut. No matter how fascinating the research might be, it can’t all be crammed into the allotted space.

Always meet deadlines.  

Most important, I learned about storytelling and pacing to keep the reader engaged.

The 21st century changed the market for short nonfiction from print to online. As the internet expanded, magazines went out of business.

Nowadays my articles are mostly digital content. Fewer trees give their lives. I no longer have to buy sample print copies to study magazines’ style and focus. Finding outlets to write for is as easy as asking Mr. Google.

The downside is online markets often pay little to nothing because there is so much free content on the net. To make significant money, one needs to find particular niches that pay for specialized content.

However, there’s a different kind of reward: Publication is fast. As soon as authors hit submit, their writing is available to an audience of millions. 

On top of that comes the gratification of immediate feedback. I really enjoy reader comments on my posts for TKZ.

Steve Hooley recently asked me if research for an article had even sparked an idea for a novel. Not yet. But the research I do for articles often finds its way into my plots.

The second book in my series, Stalking Midas, concerns elder fraud. I attended seminars presented by local and state watchdogs to learn about that growing, insidious crime. Unfortunately, research turned personal when my adopted mother was victimized by a caregiver. Her experience became a True Crime Thursday post.

Several newspapers published my elder fraud article. It also formed the basis for a talk that I give to senior groups. Additionally, I revamped parts of Stalking Midas to incorporate what I’d learned.

I started writing articles to counteract discouragement during the long marathon of trying to get novels published. Articles became short sprints refreshed by water breaks of publication. They helped keep me going toward the ultimate finish line.

In 2017, my thriller Instrument of the Devil was published.

Seven novels later, I’m writing more articles than ever because…

A funny thing happened during that decades-long marathon. I discovered I like writing nonfiction as much as fiction.

Especially when I get to meet a bear.


TKZers: Do you write fiction, nonfiction, or both? How important is getting published to you? What sustains you during the long haul of writing a book?




DNA is supposed to prove guilt or innocence. Instead, it reveals deception and betrayal in my new thriller, UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY. Please check it out at these online booksellers.

36 thoughts on “How to Earn Short-Term Rewards During the Long Haul

  1. Great post, thank you Debbie!
    I enter short story competitions. They are fantastic to hone my craft, make me meet deadlines and making a shortlist gives me a real boost. Plus any achievements are good when querying agents or publishers.

  2. Debbie…terrific post! I love the picture.

    There is lots of great advice here, but in my opinion the best are 1) following directions (if they want 500 words, that is what they should get) and 2) meeting deadlines, even if you have to crawl through glass to do it.

  3. Good morning, Debbie. Fantastic post! Thanks for doing it. When reading your books, I’ve been impressed with the depth of information they contain, and realized that a significant amount of research had been required. (Ex. Instrument of the Devil and Stalking Midas)

    Your question about what we write made me realize that I started this writing journey with plans to write articles for the woodworking community. When I took a course from Long Ridge Writers Group (now Institute for Writers), there was a section on writing fiction. I’d paid for it, so I completed that section, and I was hooked on fiction. Your article today makes me think I should relook at nonfiction.

    Thanks for the tips and advice on writing nonfiction!

    • Thanks, Steve. Your suggestion inspired this post.

      Why not write both? I know, b/c there aren’t enough hours in the day!

      Although many print publications are gone, I still see woodworking magazines on store shelves. You could easily whip out some quick and dirty articles. Bet they’d be snapped up.

  4. Debbie, love this post. While I have not yet written non-fiction, I have several non-fiction ideas, though I had been thinking book form rather than articles (just never gave articles any thought). Considering that I read far more nonfic than fic, it would seem natural to branch into nonfic at some point.

    Question: Fiction writers can find many sources of community and online resources, such as this great spot at TKZ. But I have not seen that for non-fiction. I find that strange. Just as we feel overwhelmed when we start writing fiction, I can’t believe I’m the only one who gets that feeling when thinking of producing non-fiction works. Do you have any organizations or websites that you recommend specifically with regard to nonfic? A starting point to look?

    • BK, great questions!

      The Authors Guild has a daily discussion board where I’ve learned a lot. Its membership encompasses both nonfic and fiction but skews more toward nonfic. Dues are $135/year.

      The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) is another major group. Dues are $310 (less for renewals) and require you meet eligibility standards.

      Here’s a link to a number of nonfic organizations:

      If there’s a particular topic you’re interested in writing about, you might Google organizations or clubs about that subject.

      Like articles, book-length nonfic is generally easier to publish than fiction. The ratio of published nonfic to fiction used to be 80/20. I don’t know if that percentage still holds but nonfic remains a significantly larger market. Therefore, your chances of publication are better.

      If you have a book in mind, you might test the market by seeing if you can publish excerpts as articles. I personally know several authors whose short articles were springboards into books.

      Go for it and let us know what happens. Good luck!

  5. What an amazing experience, Debbie! The article that followed is pure gold. As you know, I write narrative nonfiction/true crime books and nonfiction articles for my blog. Why I haven’t considered other markets, I have no idea. If only we had more hours in the day…

    • Thanks so much, Sue! You’re a terrific example of an author who does both well and successfully.

      Why not try submitting some posts from your Murder Blog to other publications?

      I envy your ability to cram 30 hours of work into a 24-hour day. 😉

  6. Debbie, good nonfiction, for me, is a) on a topic I’m interested in, or written in such a way that I get interested in the topic; and b) written with grammatical precision and a bit of flair. I strive for that with my TKZ posts, which is my primary NF output. My essential guide is the classic On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

    It takes years to learn to write well, and it helps enormously to have teachers along the way who know how to teach it (such as my beloved high school English teacher Mrs. Marjorie Bruce). But I fear fewer teachers are so trained, and as there is less emphasis on writing skills in public education, where will the good teachers (and editors) come from?

    • Jim, how right you are about good teachers. My eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Shore, drummed grammar and spelling into me so well that it became second nature.

      Yesterday on TV, I heard a writing teacher who could not put together a clear, grammatical sentence for her 15-second sound byte. Feel sorry for her students.

  7. Wonderful information, Debbie. Your description of researching and writing non-fiction articles sounds like great experience for writing and for life. And I love the picture with Buffy — you’re a lot braver than I am.

    I also love the analogy with marathon running. Most people don’t realize that the marathon itself is just the last step in a months-long journey of training that includes running in bad weather, enduring pain, and possibly dealing with injury. It’s pretty much giving up your life to prepare for a race. And that’s just to get to the starting line! It’s a great analogy for writing a novel.

    Say hello to Buffy for me.

    • Buffy was so well-behaved that Ben used to take him to school visits. Buffy also had a couple of cat pals that wandered in and out of the enclosure w/o a second thought. Sadly, at age 27, Buffy passed on–hopefully to a big meadow full of spring dandelions.

      “And that’s just to get to the starting line!” You are one tough runner, my friend!

  8. I had a group of really close writing friends online for years. Many of them improved their bottom line doing everything from writing for “True Confessions” to CHICKEN SOUP submissions. Our mantra was always “Money is good.” Because it is.

    I’ve always written nonfiction although I’ve never done it “officially” like you do, Debbie. My articles in national magazines and books were them coming to me, not the other way around, because of my expertise in certain subjects and my large profile in the online writing community. Some came from someone reading one of my writing blog articles and asking to reprint.

    In one case, a public school educator working on a book of teaching ideas thought my article on writing back cover copy could be turned into a fun way to writing book reviews. Since the original article was aimed toward adults writing popular genre like romance, I did some rewriting to make it more suitable for middle grade and high school students. The same article became part of the curriculum of a university publishing degree. Did they ask my permission or pay me? Of course not.

    Extremely low profile and retired from fiction these days, I write craft and writing business articles for my own amusement for my blog.

  9. Marilynn, when editors seek you out, rather than the other way around, that’s a testament to your expertise (which we here at TKZ already know!).

    “The same article became part of the curriculum of a university publishing degree. Did they ask my permission or pay me? Of course not.”

    How tacky and unprofessional. Pretty pitiful that a university publishing degree ignores basic ethics of journalism.

  10. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Debbie. My writing journey has ranged from writing legal documents to flaunting far-fetched fiction. Perhaps the two are closely related. The best experience I had that took me to a new level was two-plus years spent writing web content for my daughter’s agency. I learned what it’s like to write-for-hire and work-to-deadlines. I wrote a post about my web content experience and shared it on TKZ a few years ago. BTW, luv the bear and I did not know their lips worked like that 🙂

    • Garry, I remember your post about writing web content very well. What a fantastic training ground. You really have to learn what your readers want and write that. Valuable education and you made the most of it.

  11. Late to the party today, Debbie, in commenting on your wonderful post. I love your story. While I’ve only written a little nonfiction, I did write short stories for years. What I found was that short stories proportionately took me more time than novels, so, for me, focusing mainly on novels was the way to go, with the occasional short story in between.

    I’ve toyed again with the idea of non-fiction, but haven’t found an approach like you, Jim, and Garry, in terms of market or venue. Not yet, at any rate.

    So glad to see that you have!

  12. I liked what you have noted about writing with clarity and precision, Debbie. Well presented and crafted work has a better chance of being picked up by agents or editors methinks.

    With the avalanche of formulaic potboilers that KDP is overrun with, well crafted work would be easily lost in the background noise.

    I also liked the angle on reworking material for different markets from your journalist friends-research once and make it work for its pay. One of my professors once told me the essence of scholarship is synthesis. My mentor in law school Professor Neil Hamilton has written a number of law review pieces and when I asked him about how he developed his ideas he said more or less “Take a look at the relevant literature. Find something that hasn’t been written about in a while. Take another run at it from an up to date slant and see if there’s anything to it or recent developments in law. Develop your own unique approach. Recycle some of your existing material you haven’t used.”

    • Glad to see you whenever you show up, Dale. Thanks!

      For a time, I also wrote short fiction but “little” literary journals were closing even faster than regular magazines so I gave up and focused on articles.

      Glad to see short stories making a resurgence b/c they’re handy to read on phones.

    • You had a wise professor, Robert.

      Smart journalists gave me the same advice for articles outside the field of law.

      Recently I recycled an article on historic brothels in the same newspaper where it originally appeared 25 years ago. Different editor now and she wasn’t worried about repeating it.

  13. Through a friend’s agent, I got started writing third-party computer software manuals. Eventually, the agent requested we finish another author’s contract for 1/4 of the advance, even though our contract with McGraw Hill didn’t permit us to do so. The other author had never written a book, but had received twice our advance for an identical project. We began to suspect our agent was influenced by some personal factor. He also started giving courses in writing, something that (a) we did not need, and (b) seemed to set up a conflict of interest. I moved on to fiction about then. I’m now writing monographs on mind structure and uploading them to ResearchGate just for fun.

  14. I do write nonfiction articles, but since I’m a fiction (horror) author, my articles tend to be dramatized descriptions of real life events. First person recollections, stuff like that. You are so right about learning to write efficiently for the word count limit!

    • Priscilla, sounds like your articles and novels complement each other well and would tend to build up your readership. Do you find your readers overlap in fiction and nonfic?

  15. Excellent post, Debbie. I have my own wrinkle on the Fic/Non-Fic divide…

    After I co-founded a specialty sports magazine company in the late ’70s, I started contributing short articles and then feature stories. And the more I did it, the more I noticed that I was including narrative devices like dialogue. It jazzed up the articles, and it gave me a buzz of excitement. And that ultimately led me to go all-in on fiction. I’m now working on my fifth novel.

    • Wonderful example, Harald. Fiction techniques improve storytelling skills that help your nonfic come to life. Plus you had the added perspective of running a magazine that helped you learn what readers were looking for.

      Thanks for adding your wrinkle!

  16. Sorry to be so late! I’ve written a few magazine articles, one on a guy who made Windsor chairs using tools from the early 1800s and then a few on crafts like yarn dolls and making silk flowers. Now my nonfiction is usually my blog posts. I find nonfiction easier to write, maybe because the articles are that long, but I don’t enjoy it as much as fiction. 🙂

    • Never too late, Patricia. Glad you’re here.

      That’s the same feeling I have–nonfic is easier and faster but fiction gets the old blood running hot.

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