January 4, 2016

Some advice to aspiring writers who wish to make a living off of writing

I finished CITY OF MIRACLES last night, the third and last installment in the DIVINE CITIES series – preceded, as I’m sure (or at least hope) you’re aware, by CITY OF STAIRS and CITY OF BLADES (which I am legally obligated to say will be out January 26).

It’s a weird feeling. Finishing a book is one thing, but finishing a series is another. It’s a little like moving out of a house you’ve lived in for a long time. One book is a house you build. A series is one you have to stay inside for a long time, continually working on it.

And you’re not alone in there, either. There are people in the house with you. As THE DIVINE CITIES takes place over the course of about twenty years, that’s a lot of living for them to do – you get to see their triumphs and their tragedies, their children and their losses. You get to see their dreams and hopes get adjusted, sometimes brutally, to the necessities of reality. It’s an odd thing to wrap up with a ribbon and walk away from.

Anyways, while I’m at this odd reflective period (my son also starts Pre-K tomorrow, that probably has something to do with it), I thought I’d write a short bit of advice for aspiring writers who want to be full-time writers.

I usually do not have much advice for How to Be a Writer. I think most of the learning is done on the job. It is a bit like running an obstacle course in the dark – I can try and describe to you what it’s going to be like, but all my advice and words won’t educate you nearly as much as the first time you catch a metal pole in the face.

However, there is some general career advice I can give to you. Specifically to those wishing to make a sufficient living off of writing.

As I get older – and I know I’m not old, but I am approaching middle age – I’m growing increasingly aware that so much of your future career rests upon the decisions you make in your twenties, when you are likely at your stupidest and horniest. When I was in my twenties, I thought I would just work crappy jobs and keep writing until I was successful.

I made that decision a decade ago. I moved from job to job based on whether or not it paid a dollar an hour more. There were a lot of call centers. I wasn’t on the fast track to big career success by a long shot.

Then I got lucky. I met the right person, who helped me get a decent job that made me actually think and work. If I had not known that person, I would not have gotten that job.

To my surprise, I found it stimulating. I found it meaningful. And I did well at it. A good job, I found, made me feel better and write better. It’s like exercise – the more your blood’s moving, the better everything works.

But as I did this and settled down into the career path before me, I started wondering what else I could have been. What else I could have done.

Publishing tends to be, I think, a weirdly unsatisfying career. I’ve written about why. The entire structure of publishing, even for successful writers, starts and ends with the writer alone in a room. It’s not like music or performance, where you can have an audience or bandmates or other stage players. You’re alone.

This is one reason why I think it’s unwise to begin your young life with writing as the sole goal for your career. It is smart to diversify, for a number of reasons.

As I said above, it’s nice to have a job or a focus or some kind of life goal that you can invest yourself in besides writing. It’s energizing, educational, gives you value, and helps you keep perspective. Staying around other people and working with them is probably good for you, and good for your writing. It can be volunteer work or family or gardening, perhaps, but it helps if it’s a job – because writing, on its own, will almost certainly not be able to comfortably sustain you. Certainly not if you also have a spouse and a child or two.

And this is one reason why it really is very helpful to have marketable skills. Because someone who has always been Just a Writer will likely have very few of these.

Proficiency with Word and Excel and basic online marketing (social media et al) are things nearly any college graduate can do. And the ability to articulate complicated, abstract ideas, surprisingly, is not a terribly marketable skill on its own.

Combined with other things, this ability might go a long way – if you can articulate complicated, abstract ideas as well as write software, design buildings or machines, create market forecasts, file a lawsuit, or negotiate loans, that can be quite valuable. But simply being able to articulate complicated, abstract ideas, and only being able to do that, means that your resume will be rather sparse.

And some will say – I don’t need to worry about that! My ideas are good and great! My ideas are phenomenal! My writing will be successful enough that I’ll be more than able to provide for myself and those I love!

This was me about ten years ago. I was wrong.

I got lucky, and dodged those consequences – but not everyone will.

Here is the truth of Writing as a Career:

Writing is a longterm investment. It is not one big idea, and then payday for life. It’s countless, countless big and little ideas, all carefully crafted and positioned, like investments made in a 401k. (Or at least, that’s what I hope 401ks are like. Probably not today.)

This is not going to be you leaping on a stage with the audience in wonder. This is going to be you carefully building the audience and the stage over years, if not decades, and then, if you’re lucky, climbing on top.

If you are looking for a career in writing, you are not looking for that one big payday, because even if you do find it, it’s deeply unlikely that this will last you for the rest of your life. A bestseller, by itself, won’t be there when you’re fifty, or when your kids are off to college, unless it’s a mega huge super blockbuster bestseller – and if this is what you’re waiting on, then you are essentially playing the lottery for a career.

If you are looking for a career in writing, what you want is a nice backlist of books that have earned out their advances and are making royalties. This gives you moderately steady, dependable income. A goodish amount every two or three months or so. That is, for most writers, a very good situation.

Is it enough to retire on comfortably for the rest of your life? Probably not. Almost certainly not. Will it be something you can achieve in 2-3 years? No. It will probably take a decade or more.

So you will almost certainly need something else. Some other way to get affordable healthcare, some other way to make your mortgage or car payments, some other way to pay for preschool or a college fund. Some other way, in other words, to finance the grand adventure that is Being a Fucking Adult.

Most young people might not want to do this. There is a vast preponderance of art and literature and pop culture that casts the twenty-something wandering artist as figure to aspire to, perhaps not so much a career as a lifestyle choice. It seems like a lot of these figures, when I see them in movies or in commercials (mostly clothes commercials, it seems), are pretty well-off, in good health, and with good teeth. I suspect they have someone bankrolling them. (Perhaps Patreon and the like is a solution to this – but what are the odds that Patreon will be around in 2025, or 2030?)

And then there is the response that doing this, Being an Adult and finding a Real Job, would compromise your dream of being a writer.

To which I say – if having a real job is going to keep you from writing, odds are you were never going to be a real writer – by which I mean someone who finishes work, edits it, and submits it for publication, and does so ad infinitum.

If you want to write, you’re going to write. Writing is actually an incredibly easy thing to do. You just sit down at a computer and hit keys for a while. People do it all day long without even thinking about it. (Fun fact: I’m doing it right now.)

If your ideas are compelling enough, if the work is compelling enough for you, then you can do it an hour or two a day or even every other day, even with a real job, or a spouse and kids. And even if you fail, if you really want to do this, you will keep trying to do it. Over and over and over again.

If you want to do this, you will make time to do it. You can make time while you work and sustain yourself comfortably, along with those you love. It is mostly a matter of you wanting to do it.

So, while you are young and fresh and have money and time to spend, while you are dreaming of your future as a writer or artist or whatever you’d like to be – also spare a thought for, say, taking those software or design classes, or getting that accounting or business degree, or maybe even that law degree.

Your twenties are the best opportunity to do this. And though it pains me to say this, since it makes me sound like a god damned college pamphlet, it’s a good investment in your future.

The fact of the matter is, you are almost definitely going to have to have a dayjob. The word “dayjob” implies drudgery and boredom, an obligation one has to go through while secretly pursuing the life of a writer. But if you’re going to have to have one of these, why not try and make it one you actually like doing, keeps you fed, and is good for your brain?

Writing, as a career, as a business, is an investment. To steal unrepentantly from business lingo – diversify your portfolio. Who knows what the future will hold?