This post is a result of a couple different questions that have popped up, and it is also related to that interview I did with Eric James Stone that was posted a few days ago. I got into a discussion on the comments there, ended up typing a bunch, and figured I might as well turn it into a blog post.
This one is aimed at the aspiring authors or the new authors who want to make a living at being a professional author. This isn’t aimed at hobbyists or people who want to be college lecturers who write an award winning book once a decade. If that’s your thing, awesome. Good for you.
Compared to many authors, I’ve really not been doing this for that long. My first self published novel came out in ’08, was picked up and professionally released by Baen in ’09, and my 10th novel will be out by the end of 2013. Not counting short stories and novellas, that’s only five years at an average of two books a year. I only quit my Military Industrial Complex day job a few months ago to write full time.
So I am by no means an expert on this topic, but I do think I can pass on some things that I’ve learned that have really helped me in my career. I’ve learned a lot of things from more experienced, seasoned authors as well. And above all, I was in business for fifteen years before this (money and guns!) and really, being a writer is just another form of business.
I wrote this blog post back in 2010 about time management for writers and I’ll probably be touching on a bunch of the same points. http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2010/12/21/ask-correia-11-time-management-for-writers/ At the time I was squeezing in 10,000 words a week with a high stress day job, a wife, and 3 kids. Fast forward to now, I don’t have the job, have one more kid, and I’m getting more writing done, but the points remain the same.
So here we go.
Writing isn’t Mystical Bullshit. It is your Job.
I know this sounds blasphemous to many of you, but writers aren’t special snowflakes born with magical powers of storytelling. The Fortune of Writing didn’t come down from the celestial heavens and gift an author with a blessing of good pacing and characterization. If you know a really good writer they got that way because they worked hard, practiced, honed their skills, tried, failed, and tried some more.
The thing is, everybody wants to feel like they are doing something special and super important, and writers are no different. So when you are standing in front of a crowd at a convention, signing, or conference trying to explain that most of what you do consists of sitting in front of a computer staring at the screen while you eat chippos and drink Coke Zero, and in the audience are soldiers, firemen, brain surgeons, and astronauts, it becomes really easy for the writer to want to puff up our job to make it sound cooler.
So then writers, wanting to be awesome too, talk about their great artistic struggles, the epic battle against writer’s block, their strokes of creative brilliance, being saved by their magical muse, and everybody claps and tells them how brilliant they are. (because hey, when your job is to be good with words, you can make anything sound rad) The writer’s ego is stroked, he comes back from tour, sits in front of the computer drinking Coke Zero and grinds through another book. Everybody wins.
Except for the aspiring writers who listens to this stuff or reads it on the internet, because they go home and sit in front of their computer, staring at the blinking cursor, feeling frustrated because they aren’t feeling magical strokes of creative brilliance like they are supposed to. Then the aspiring author feels stupid, diagnoses himself with the deadly medical condition known as Writer’s Block, and futzes around, typing a couple hundred words every other week “when inspiration strikes”.
The thing is, it is really hard to make a living if you only work when you are feeling inspired.
The ugly reality for most writers is that writing is our job. It is our chosen profession, and the only reason writers are so good at writing is because it is what we do all day. Think about whatever it is you do for a living. Are you good at it? More than likely. I’m not talking about the low end scut work that you do to survive, because I was good a punching cows didn’t mean I wanted to do it the rest of my life, but I’m talking about your chosen career field that you’ve gone into and the jobs you’ve pursued. You’re probably really good at whatever it is you’ve chosen to do with your life.
Writing is exactly the same. Writers aren’t any more special than accountants. Trust me. I’ve done both. Accounting is harder. Some people are more naturally inclined to be writers and some people are more naturally inclined to be accountants or whatever floats your boat. Nobody in any of those other careers was born with an accounting muse or a medical muse or a welder’s muse. You gravitated toward a trade that you liked and you learned the skills to pay the bills.
Writers want to write, but you’re not born knowing how to write. Some of us are compulsive story tellers. You can go back to when we were little kids and our crayon drawings were telling stories. We’re drawn to it. We’re compelled to do it. But that doesn’t mean that we’re good at it. Just like any other career, you’ve got to learn and work and try and fail and try some more.
You might have natural gifts. Somebody really tall and naturally athletic is going to have a much easier time becoming a professional basketball player than a short, uncoordinated guy, but just being tall doesn’t mean you can dunk a basketball (as I can attest!). Just like some of us are more naturally inclined to be storytellers, that doesn’t mean crap if you haven’t put in the effort to learn how to actually do it well.
If you want writing to be your career, treat it like a career. See my other link above about managing your time against your day job, because believe me, most of us are going to have day jobs for a bit, but more on that later.
Writer’s Block is a Filthy Lie
I despise the very concept of writer’s block. It annoys me to no end.
First off, it is a huge, unnecessary stumbling block that aspiring writer’s put in their way. They’ve bought into the nonsense of looking for that perfect lightning strike of creativity, and when they aren’t getting it, then feel dumb, deflated, and unworthy. They get stuck, and then they hate themselves. They think they are failures as writers because they are having to grind through all this difficult work, and art should never feel like work!
That’s all nonsense, but I’ll talk about “art“ later.
Second off, writer’s block is a myth.
If you are working on a story and you feel stuck, you don’t know what to do, you’re not feeling brilliant, the answers aren’t coming, or you are just plain bored, that’s not writer’s block. That’s life. If you lump any of those feelings together under the mystical umbrella of writer’s block you are giving it more power than it actually has.
Now that you know the ugly secret that writing books is actually work, surprise! Sometimes work is hard, if it was always easy any sucker would be able to do it.
If you get stuck and you’re beating your head against the wall, go work on something else. Skip ahead to the next scene that you want to write and do it instead. If you’re bored of this project, go work on another project that you are super enthusiastic about. You don’t know how to wrap this part up? Leave it for now and go for a walk. You’re really super bored and secretly want to play some video games? Go play some Call of Duty. Don’t sit there sulking because the writing gods haven’t blessed you with muses or whatever.
If a scene is really super boring for you, so boring that you are stuck, then it is probably boring for the reader too, so you might even be able to leave it out! Skip ahead. This story got you down? Go write another one. If you’ve scheduled productive time, make it productive. Maybe you need to get away from the computer and brainstorm another project.
It is only because of the aura of mysticism that has grown up around writing that we can get away with being lazy, bored , or stuck and calling it writer’s block. Accountants don’t get to claim accountant’s block when they are having a hard time finishing an audit. If you get into an accident, you wouldn’t accept your paramedic leaving you to bleed to death, because “they just weren’t feeling it”. They aren’t allowed to have paramedic’s block.
Every person in career field X isn’t allowed to have X Block because they would get fired. Of course, when you’re a professional author and you’ve got contractual deadlines looming, try telling your editor that you’ve got writer’s block and see how that works out for you.
Somebody took issue with this comparison over in the comments on that interview because other careers aren’t as “creative” as writing. Tell that to an engineer or a scientist or a businessman. Writers aren’t exactly special snowflakes. Lots of careers depend on creativity. We just get more leeway because our subject matter is imaginary things as opposed to come up with a way to cure this real disease or make sure this real building doesn’t fall down and squish real people. The most (maliciously) creative guys I’ve ever worked with were Army Special Forces soldiers. Their imagination can come up with a million fantastic ways to ruin someone’s day. They make authors look like pikers.
Now some professional authors do say they experience writer’s block. I can’t speak for everyone. (believe me, there are plenty of other authors that hate my guts!) Some smart people also believe in the healing powers of crystals, Atlantis, and Obamacare. I think if you were to actually delve into what makes up this author’s writer’s block, it is usually going to be something like I listed above—stuck, bored, distracted, etc—and writer’s block is just their short hand way of saying “this bit sucks and I don’t want to be doing it right now”.
Everybody has a “Muse”
I know a lot of writer’s that say they have a muse. Good for them. Just don’t get frustrated and quit if you don’t.
The actual definition of muse is to ponder or contemplate. The term floats around the writing world because of the reference to the daughters of Zeus that were in charge of the arts. The thing is I don’t worship giant horny swan gods, so I’m not going to get hung up on the concept. I’m a professional in the year 2013. I’m going to do whatever I have to do to get my creative juices flowing so that I can produce good stories, and thus get paid.
Back when I was in competitive shooting I found that there was a zone, a sort of zen state that you get into where you are not consciously thinking about what you are doing, but you are just doing what you’ve practiced a million times. You’ve trained your brain to do what needs to be done, and you’re not slowing it down or gumming it up with conscious thought. And when you get into the zone, you are scary fast and you don’t miss. It is the bullet’s destiny to hit the target, the shooter is the only thing stopping it from doing so.
For me, when I have a 10,000 word writing day, it is sort of like that. I’m in the zone. I’ve practiced, I’ve thought the story through, the characters are so real to me that I don’t have to think about what they’d do, think, or say, they just are, and my only job is to put the words on the page. The story wants to be told, the author is the only thing stopping it from doing so.
Usually the first act of a book will go fairly slow, 2-3k a day, then as the book speeds up, so does my writing, and usually the final act is written 5, 8, or 10 thousand words in a day, because by that point I’ve reached the zone.
So that’s how it works for me. You are going to be different. And it really doesn’t matter, as long as it works.
I’ve got a ton of respect for John Ringo. The dude is an amazing author, and I’ve seen him talk about his muse. John also produces like a beast. His writing habits are far different than mine, as I’m a daily grind kind of guy, whereas John will not write anything for a while, and then pound out four excellent novels so fast your head will spin. He’ll go and write something totally different than what he thinks he should be writing, because he is spun up on that particular topic. That is what works for him, and he’s written something like 40 novels now.
Kevin J. Anderson is different too. He goes on long hikes and narrates his stories out loud. He climbs mountains and speaks into a tape recorder while he goes. Then he has somebody type it all up as a rough draft for him to work on. That’s a totally different methodology from anybody else I’ve ever heard of, but it works for Kevin. And he’s got 23 MILLION books in print. That’s not a typo. That’s badass.
I know authors that struggle with all sorts of mental issues, health problems, family drama, you name it, but the professionals still treat it like a job, and do whatever they have to do to produce their product and get paid.
Every author is different. There’s no right answer. So if you aren’t feeling creative but you really want to write, then find whatever it is that makes you feel creative and do it. I know authors who have to watch movies, doodle, shoot guns, work on cars, play games, paint minis, whatever… It doesn’t matter. You do whatever you need to do charge up the creative powers of your brain, and then you write the book. There’s no right answer.
But if you’re sitting in a chair, feeling stupid, watching a blinking cursor and waiting for mythical ancient Greek goddesses to swoop down from Mount Olympus to save your ass… good luck with that.
Don’t Listen to Artsy-Fartsy Chumps
Some of you may remember a troll that frequented my comments for a while named Clamps. He has the distinctive honor of being one of the only IPs I’ve ever actually banned from this blog, and that’s saying something, because of the thousands of commenters on here, I’ve got tons who disagree and argue with me, and I’ve got no problem with them. (for the record, of the 20 IPs I’ve blocked from posting, 17 are from the same nut ball, but that’s a different story). I finally banned Clamps simply because he was so incredibly pretentious and boring that if I had to listen to him any more I was going to suck start my .45.
Clamps was hung up on “art” and being an “artist”. He’d drunk the Kool-Aid and thought that to be a real author you had to be into word smithing perfection, and he also had this weird hatred/fascination against Tom Kratman, because Tom Kratman wasn’t a “real” author. Now those of you who know me know how much I hate that “real” author bullshit, and to Clamp’s real authors were tormented literary geniuses agonizing over every single turn of phrase and long complex metaphors. Of course, then we found a sample of Clamps’ writing to critique and all died laughing because it was undecipherable nonsense. Of course, Clamps got all mad at us because he was a great artist and we just didn’t “get” him. That’s awesome. Yes. I would like fries with that.
In the meantime, Tom Kratman is a professional who writes sci-fi for a publishing house and gets paid lots of money in royalties because lots of people like his books and purchase them in stores. I’m fairly certain that makes him a “real” writer.
So how do you end up more like Tom and less like Clamps?
Don’t get hung up on creating art. Tell a story. Don’t agonize on every word and turn of phrase. Publishers don’t buy paragraphs. They buy stories. Clamps, after sharing some convoluted metaphor with us about globes of light floating in space like fish semen (no, I shit you not), got all belligerent and asked me what was the best line I’d ever written. I said that the best line I’d ever written was the last one, because that was the one I was going to get paid for next.
(of course, then Clamps said that Dan Simmons was a terrible author, so I banned his ass, because you can talk shit about me, but if you talk shit about Hyperion I will TAKE YOU DOWN)
Be a professional. Don’t try and be a stuck up artist. Art will happen. You will create wonderful things, and the best part, the more you write, the more opportunity you will have for wonderful things to happen. And best of all, if you are doing this for a living, then people will actually SEE it!
There’s this weird thing in the writing community, where people think that if you are actually getting paid for your work, you’ve “sold out” and you’re not a real artist. Don’t be that guy. Nobody likes that guy. This is the same beret wearing jackass you find at parties talking about how he totally was into some band before they “sold out”. Just do us all a favor, unpop your collar, and shut your stupid beatnik mouth.
Recently there was a discussion on an author’s forum on Facebook. Somebody posted a blog about how publishing has changed, and publishers are expecting their authors to write at least a book a year (gasp!). Of course there was some debate. With my side of the argument being that if you want to actually have a career, then obviously you need to produce work consistently, so that your brand will expand, so that more people will find your work, so that you can sell more books, repeat, and get paid. (you’ll notice that Get Paid comes up a lot with me. Get Paid is in my mission statement).
On the other side, lots of aspiring authors were offended, because how DARE the publisher try to rush art! And, I quote “quantity is never synonymous with quality.”
Uh, yeah… Leonardo da Vinci and William Shakespeare were unavailable for comment.
Not only wrong, oh person who has never actually written anything ever, but actually that is the opposite of true. In reality what happens is that the more you write, the better you get. So the more you produce, the better the quality will become because of practice. My first book was good, but I’ve learned tricks, skills, and got lots of practice, so I know a lot more about the craft of writing when I wrote my tenth book. Plus, for most writers, the more you write, the more constant your practice, the easier it is to find that “muse” or get into the zone.
So quantity has a quality all its own. The more you work, the more you learn to work effectively and efficiently. The more you work the more you learn the traps to avoid. The more you work, the more you create, and the more you create, the more chances you have to create something truly brilliant and memorable.
Sure, some writer’s quality will start to decline, but that’s more because they got successful, lazy, complacent, and started phoning it in. Once again, writing is like any other job, and you can see this in any career field, like senators.
Think about this. How many times have you read a book from a new author, and it was good. Then the sequel came out, and it was just okay. And then the last book of the trilogy came out, and it sucked. And then you never hear of that author ever again. That’s fairly common.
The reason is that the author slaved and toiled and worried and worked and fought with every line of that first book, and they spent years polishing it. They sold it. It blew up huge. It may even win some prestigious awards. And the publisher came back and said great, here’s a check full of money, you’ve got six months to write the sequel. They panic and rush, because they spent so much time fretting over the first book that they never learned the habits of how to actually produce. It wasn’t a job, it was a labor of love. Then they got 6 months to produce the third. It is crap. Then they sulk away, never to be seen again.
That’s because there is a difference between a labor of love and a job. If you want to keep doing this stuff for a long time, you need to be a pro and treat it like a job. You can love your job, but you still need to treat it like a job.
Education versus Paying Rent
So if writing is actually a job, should I get an English degree to prepare me for this career?
That depends on how much you really want to work at Starbucks.
Okay, serious answer, and apologies to any English majors reading, but come on… Of the successful writers I know, I can think of a handful that have degrees in English off the top of my head (including one English professor, Chuck Gannon), and tons that don’t. And of the ones that I can think of who got English degrees, Brandon Sanderson is the only person I know of who graduated, got a publishing contract, and went right into being a professional. Everybody else needed to get another job to live on while they broke into writing.
College English education doesn’t necessarily correlate to the skills needed to be a genre fiction writer. There are a handful of good creative writing programs out there in colleges (like Dave Wolverton’s before he retired) but usually the regular stuffy literati English department treats those guys like crap anyway, because they’re not “real” writers producing paragraphs about fish semen floating like globs of light or whatever. English 101 covers all the grammar and rules you’ll ever need to know, and then read lots and lots and lots of books.
Basically, it is really hard to make it as a professional writer, indy or traditional, there is a ton of competition and you are part of a vast herd of people who want to make a living telling stories, and we’ve got like a 99.9% failure rate (don’t let you get you down, because remember that most of those people aren’t as awesome as you are), so while you are trying to make a go of it, you are going to need to pay the bills.
Like I always say, there are only two simple steps to being a professional writer:
- Practice until you are good enough that people will give you money for your stuff.
- Find the people who will give you money for your stuff.
That’s really all there is to it. How you do it doesn’t matter, but that’s it. The main problem is that it might take several years (or decades in some cases) before you really accomplish those two steps. In the meantime you need to do stuff like eat food, and that means getting a job. Now look at what English majors make and ask yourself if it is worth it… Yeah, business department is that way. Tell them I sent you.
Also, like I talked about in that link above, just because you start selling books doesn’t mean you are going to be rich overnight. There are some huge first book successes, but those are rare. The average midlist author is only going to sell 15,000 copies of a book over its life span. That’s not enough royalties to live on, so most authors don’t quit their day jobs until they’ve got several books out (so the royalties build up) and more under contract for the future.
I was making enough off of my royalties to live off of a couple of years ago, but because I was lucky enough to have an awesome day job getting yelled at by the Air Force, I stuck around. You don’t want to be trapped in a crappy job waiting for your “big break”.
Basically what I’m getting at in this section is that if somebody asks you what your plans are and you say “I’m going to go be a wealthy bestselling author!” you sound a lot like those little kids who say “I’m going to be a rock star when I grow up!” or “I’m going to be in the NFL!” Yeah, that’s awesome, and everybody needs dreams, and I’m not trying to discourage anybody from following their goals, (otherwise I wouldn’t have just written 4,000 words of advice for aspiring authors) but what are you going to do in order to actually eat food and wear clothes until then?
So set your sights high, but don’t be a sucker.
And in closing, this is the single best song ever written about how to make it in any business, writing included: Rock Superstar by Cypress Hill.
And no, I’m not kidding. Listen to the lyrics. I bet you never thought Cypress Hill would give you the secrets to being a successful fiction author.