So You Want to be a Writer…
Sitting in your underwear, hearing voices, talking to people who are not there, mumbling to yourself, Googling how to dispose of bodies and the firing rate of an uzi submachine gun. Assuming this sounds like the ideal life for you—and you don’t want to be certifiably crazy but only a little crazy—then the life of the professional writer is what you’re after. And I’m going to tell you how to make it happen.
Right now, some people reading this are already raising objections. Sure, it’s easy for me to say post hoc what worked and didn’t. I’m suffering from bias confirmation and the self-selecting nature of successful people telling others how to be successful. These same people will say that success is completely out of our control, that it only happens to a fraction of a percent, that you shouldn’t even try. This is good. This is awesome. The more people you hear this from, the better. It means they’ve given up and you now have less competition.
Because make no mistake, you are competing. That doesn’t make authordom a zero-sum game. It’s more complex than that. A great book by another author can cause a reader to read a lot more (rather than spending their time playing videogames or watching TV). Authors can cross-promote and join box sets and anthologies. You network, share what works, read each others drafts, and so on. I’ve never been a part of an industry where “help your colleague” is so paramount, and that includes an industry (yachting) where rescuing your colleague at sea is practically the law.
But before you have works moving the needle, which is where the cooperative effects really take place, you are competing with your fellow aspiring writers. So here’s the #1 secret to success and a career of working in your underwear: You have to work harder than anyone else. Period.
Look around. What are other aspiring writers doing? That’s your ground floor. Your minimum. That’s where you begin. Double that. I promise you, this is the easiest path to success. What follows is specifics. But this is the general rule: Work harder than anyone else. If you don’t have this as your benchmark, you are going to have to rely on too much luck. And this blog post isn’t about the luck, it’s about how to minimize your required dosage.
Let me tell you about my luck. I was lucky in that I started writing when a whole lot of people were working a whole let less. The amount of effort required to make it as a writer today is in some ways greater, even as the tools of access have lowered the barriers to entry. Yes, barriers are down. And yes, the castle courtyard is now more crowded. So you’ve got to do more than your neighbor. Below, I’ve ranked the priorities I believe you should have and how to approach them. Anyone who follows this list has a great chance of making a living as a writer. I don’t say this as someone who saw it work for me; I say this as someone who has studied the hell out of this industry and profession, who has taken a very large sample of those trying to make it and those who are making it, and finding out what the latter group has in common and what separates them from the former.
1) Make a long-term plan. My plan was to write two novels a year for ten years before I ascertained whether or not I had a chance of making this work. You don’t get into the NBA without at least ten years of shooting drills and pickup games. If you set a longterm plan like this, and stick with it, you will succeed. Because you’ll find yourself in the top 0.1% of aspiring writers. 99.9% of your colleagues will drop out before they finish their plan. But you’ll outwork them. And yes, even if a thousand of you read this blog post, and all thousand of you implement the plan, all thousand of you will earn a living with your writing, leaving not much room for everyone else. Tough shit. There are more seats on this bus than there are people willing to put in what it takes to make it. Keep in mind that the videogame and TV busses are packed. We can lure more and more of them over if you implement your plan. And that plan all starts with:
2) Reading. I assume this is a given, but you never know. I’ve met people who don’t read at all but want to become writers because they think it sounds like an easy gig. The underwear! The mumbling! The Googling! The thing about writing that’s different than playing a guitar for a living, or acting on stage, or painting, is that we all do some writing. In fact, we do a lot of writing. We write emails. Blog posts. Facebook updates. A novel is just more of that, right? Wrong. The writing is the easy bit compared to the crafting of engaging plots and characters. There are some things you only gain through absorption. Read a lot, read the greats, and read outside your comfort zone. Want to write science fiction? Read crime thrillers and romance novels. Learn how to unspool a mystery and how to inject love into your stories.
3) Practice. Everyone wants to write a novel, and they want to do it without stretching. You don’t lace up and run a marathon without first learning to run a mile, two miles, five miles. The day you implement your plan is the day you start reading and the day you start writing. Start a blog and post to it every day. It might be a single line from a story that doesn’t yet exist. Or a scene—maybe a first kiss or a bar fight. Maybe you write a different first kiss scene every day for a month. This is like practicing your layups. So when you have to nail one in a game, you don’t freak out and go flying into the stands. The importance of a blog is that your posts remain up and visible forever. Facebook will hide and destory your content. Cross-post to Twitter and Facebook if you like, but the blog is your hub. This is your street corner. This is where you strum your instrument and improve.
After you start blogging, start writing a few short stories. Work on completing what you start. Set goals. A new short story every month for the first year. That’s twelve publishable works. Maybe they go up on your blog for free to get feedback. See what friends and family think. You aren’t trying to sell a million books right now; you are seeing if you can make someone your fan. My first cousin Lisa was my first fan. She was the first person who didn’t have to tell me my book was great but said so anyway. The first person to beg me for the sequel. You want one fan like this. The rest will come.
4) Daydream. Most of the writing takes place away from the keyboard. I did most of my writing as a yacht captain, roofer, and bookseller. I also got in the habit of driving with the radio off, in silence, with just my thoughts. Tune out the distractions and live in the world of your creation. Know your characters, your plot, all the twists, the larger world, before you start writing. And then keep most of that shit to yourself. The reader doesn’t care. Most of what you think is interesting is boring. Your novel is going to be a greatest hits collection, every one of your best ideas packed into a single volume. Hold nothing back. You’ll have more great ideas.
5) Learn to fail. Your first book will not be your best. The elation of completing that first draft is awesome; soak that up; remember it; get addicted to it. Because you’ll want to do this ten or twenty times before you write your best work. We’ll get to the craft stuff in a bit, but for now, just know that you should revise, revise, revise, edit, publish, and then get started on your next book. This was the best thing I ever did: I didn’t waste time promoting my works until they were already selling. I kept writing. So when things did heat up, I had seven or eight works out there. All those works are brand new as long as they stay undiscovered. You aren’t in a rush. Remember the plan.
Learning to fail also includes learning to write like crap and not care. Push through. We all write like crap, some of us by the steaming, fly-buzzing bucketload. The reader will never see it. You’ll revise it to perfection and delete the bad parts. The key is to have something down to work with. So learn to fail. Keep going. Ignore the sales of existing works. Ignore the bad reviews. Keep reading, writing, practicing, and daydreaming.
The top five on this list will get you there. If the time and effort you put in are greater than your peers, you’ll make it. I personally know many of the top-selling indie writers working today, and they make me feel lazy by comparison. And I make most of the people I know feel lazy. We’re talking forty hours a week on top of day jobs and taking care of families and households. While writing and working in a bookstore, I did all the grocery shopping, cooking, and most of the cleaning. All the household repairs. Took care of the dog. And found time to spend with my girlfriend and my family. I cut out videogames, mindless web-surfing, and TV, and I was amazed at how much time this freed up. I also didn’t own a smartphone and didn’t use social media for anything other than to share my writing and my blog posts. Cut out everything that isn’t helping make you a writer. How badly do you want this? More than your peers? Good. Less than your peers? You won’t make it. Look at any professional athlete and all the sacrifices they made, all the mornings getting up early to hit the gym. That has to be you. No excuses.
Now for the more craft-oriented bits:
6) Plot trumps prose. The thing you absolutely should not do if you want to make a living as a writer is go to school to learn how to write. MFA programs churn out editors and waiters. Sure, you can craft a perfect sentence, but you’ve got nothing to write about, because you’ve been in school your whole life. Readers prefer the clear and concise delivery of an exciting story more than the flowery and sublime delivery of utter ennui. Hell, they’ll even take the horrible delivery of a great story over the absolute perfection of dullness. Some of the bestselling novels of my lifetime have been lampooned for the writing style therein. Granted, if you can do both, please do. But first learn to craft a story and tell it in the clearest manner possible. That means studying story. Read Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces ($13 for the hardback!). Watch great films and TV shows to see how they pull it off. Read what’s selling and ask yourself why it’s selling.
7) Live fully and cheaply. Yes, this goes with the craft of writing. Writing is much more than putting your butt in a seat. It’s making sure you have the time and financial freedom to write, and it’s ensuring that you have something to write about when you do plant that butt. There’s some truth to the starving artist cliche. You need to make sacrifices. Control your spending. Avoid debt. Live a small or shared lifestyle. The less you spend, the less you need to earn, the more time you can spend on your craft. Not everyone has the same good fortune here. That sucks. But Muggsy Bogues was too short for the NBA, and he made a career of it anyway. You already have five kids before you decide to make it as a writer? Crushing debt? Medical bills? You’ll have to work as hard as Muggsy did. I wish I could sugarcoat it or tell you what I wish were true, but this is the reality. Live cheaply.
Living more fully is easier, because it’s a choice. Talk to strangers, everywhere. Waiting in a line? Talk to the people around you. See someone interesting on the street? Stop them and strike up a conversation. Memorize what they look like, what they sound like. This is the foundation of your craft. Park your car and walk for miles and miles through your hometown. Do it again one town over. Volunteer at soup kitchens and for Habitat for Humanity. If you’re in college, go on Alternative Spring Break. If you’re not in college, see if you can chaperone the same. Get out of your comfort zone. Read magazines about hobbies you never hope to have. Browse websites you never go to. Your books need to be full of characters you’ll never be and places you’ll never see. Meet them. Find them. Study them.
8) Network. Surround yourself with other aspiring writers. One of the best things I did for my career is attend bi-weekly meetings of the Highcountry Writers group in Boone, NC. Your hometown doesn’t have a writing group? Form one. Or join an online crit group. Nothing is better for your craft than reading and critiquing the rough draft of others and having the same done with your writing. And nothing will cement in your brain that you are going to make it as a writer quite like being in a writing group. It reenergizes you. It reminds you of your goal. Dress the part. Live the part.
You should also go to writing conferences that are nearby or affordable. There’s one every weekend somewhere in the States. There are a few that are better than others, especially in certain genres. But don’t break the bank to go to these. There is a lot of networking you can do for free. I’ve watched Hank Garner put together an amazing podcast of writer interviews. And Eamon Ambrose make a reputation for himself first as an indie reader / reviewer / promoter, and then as a writer. And Jason Gurley became one of the most popular indie authors in the land by volunteering to amp up our cover art. There are anthologists like Samuel Peralta and editors like David Gatewood who can call on hundreds of heavy hitters because of how they’ve given back to the community. You can do the same by beta reading for your favorite authors and providing quality feedback. Or any of a dozen other ways. Leverage your talents. Do web development, or SEO, or handmade crafts.
9) Write Great Shit. This seems obvious, right? But here is what separates failed works from those that succeed. I think a lot of craft writing advice is outdated. Times are different. Attention spans are shorter. You can coax a reader along, and give them a slow build, but only if you hook them first. So start your story at the most tension-filled moment, even if that’s in the middle or at the end. Introduce a likable, flawed character in the first paragraph. In that same paragraph, name the stakes. It used to be that we had to distill our novel down to an elevator pitch for prospective agents. Now we need to do the same for readers, and your book should open that way.
I recently watched The Maze Runner, and that story opens in a way that requires you to stick through to the end. The concept is brilliant. An amnesiac rides up an elevator and is deposited in a glade in the center of a giant maze. I empathize with the character; I understand his plight; I want to read until his challenge is resolved. Back to the plot/prose point above, stop stressing over the flowery sentences and trying to sound like a writer and come up with a story that, even told simply, is riveting.
10) Find your voice. I put this last because it’s the hardest, will take the longest, but may be the most important thing you ever do as a writer. What the hell is your voice? It’s how you write when you aren’t aware that you’re writing. Everything else you do is mimicry. Self-awareness is the enemy of voice. When you fire off an email to your mom or best friend, you are writing in your voice. When you blog, you will begin to find your voice. Your voice will change the more you read and the more you write. That’s normal. It’s still your voice.
Why is voice important? Not because it will land you an agent. Or because your works will win literary awards. No, screw that. Your voice is important because you can’t enter a flow state without it. When you find your voice, your fingers won’t be able to keep up with your writing. You won’t stumble. You won’t flail. You won’t sit there wondering what the next best word is. You’ll have an idea or a concept, a visual image, a conversation that you want to convey, and you’ll know immediately how to convey it.
Your voice will get easier to find the broader your vocabulary becomes. You’ll have more pieces to slot into the jigsaw puzzle of your prose. Your voice will improve as you study your own writing to see what works and what doesn’t. My voice is sing-song. I fell in love with Shakespeare’s sonnets and read so much iambic pentameter that I can’t help but have my syllabic stresses rise and fall to a beat. I like the way it feels. It feels like me. I also discovered that I love run-on sentences, with lots of comma clauses, but only if I intersperse those sentences with a bunch of choppy, short, incomplete clauses. My mother pointed this out to me. She was right. Nailed it. And I learned to embrace this.
Getting comfortable with your voice means becoming less self-conscious about your writing. When this happens, you can tell the story in your mind without getting in your own way. Stop reading what you’re writing as you write it. See the world in your head. Visualize it. Smell it. Hear it. Sprinkle in details from the periphery of your character’s senses. Make the world real. Then just tell it as naturally as you can. I promise this will go better than trying to impress yourself or anyone else. I promise.
Whether or not you succeed as a writer is almost entirely up to you. How much do you want it? Are you willing to fail for years and years and not give up? Are you able to network, get along with others, be helpful to your community, without feeling any pettiness or envy as others get where you want to go? Can you handle critique? Does it make you want to work harder? Can you read across a broad spectrum? Can you stick to your goals and put in effort every single day? Can you work harder than anyone else striving for the same goals? Can you help lift others up, even if that means them taking a seat on the bus in front of you? Can you live simply and fully?
If you can do these things, you can someday work in your underwear and Google how to dispose of a body. Or you can be like me and realize the underwear was a crutch and forgo even that.