ASK MJ: HOW CAN ONE AFFORD TO BE A WRITER?
aMissingSignal asks: How can one afford to be a writer?
I’m not trying to be twee here, I promise, or give that greeting-card-sweet writing advice that causes me to twitch and strike my teeth together, but I honestly believe that you should go “into” writing only if you feel you have no choice—like you can’t afford to be anything else.
I’m also sort of assuming that by “writer” you mean novelist. Because there are many types of writing that one can very much afford to be, because they pay pretty decently. Many corporations, for example, employ technical writers. That’s a skilled, salaried profession. There are copywriters and news writers and educational writers and various other kinds of writer that are all writers, and you can make your living there.
But if you do mean novelist (or let’s say “book writer” to encompass non-fiction writers and graphic novel writers, etc.), then making a living becomes a lot trickier. This is where one conjures up the mental image of two hobos sharing one bean.
The reality is that the VAST MAJORITY of book writers do not make their living solely from writing books. The reality is that many advances are small, and you only write so many books in a lifetime (with the possible exception of V.C. Andrews, who has written over sixty books since her death as opposed to the six or so she wrote while alive, which is VERY IMPRESSIVE WORK). The reality is that a lot of books never earn back those advances.
Should this cause you despair? No. Not really. Why no despair? Because the world is full of good things to do, and not even writers write all the time. Full disclosure: I do, as of this writing, make my money from writing books. I’m very lucky. But it also took a quite a few years to get to this point. And once you hit that point, a certain amount of your day is spent in the business of writing. My inbox is full of the businessy type emails that I used to get when I had a job at an office. It’s still cool and awesome and all of that, but I don’t want you to get the impression that we just sit around in colorful floppy hats, reciting poetry all day long. That is only on Thursdays.
So, how do you afford to be a writer? Here is how I did it for a long time:
1. FREELANCE WORK: Freelance work is your friend. I used to pick up freelance jobs in the same careless way that some people pick nuts out of a bowl. “Oh, I can take on all of these,” you think, scooping up the cashews. Why freelance? Well, freelancers are often paid more, can work completely weird hours, and can work from home. And if you work REALLY HARD, you can, for example, do a project that should take ten hours in two hours. You get the same money, but you don’t have to sit and spin in a desk chair all day, and you can be WRITING instead. Be warned, though. Freelance jobs can be INTENSE sometimes, but you can get good stories out of some of them. I offer this example from my life.
2. OFFICE JOBS: Also these. I did a lot of these. I answered a lot of phones and did a lot of filing and wrote up a lot of notes for some very understanding employers who seemed to know that I was actually spending all of the time at my desk WRITING. On a good day, they got about an hour’s worth of work out of me. My most understanding employer actively encouraged me, in fact. This does not normally happen, and usually you have to write on the down-low. (TIP: If you firm has templates for memos and things like that, open one of these and write your story in it. That way it looks like work from a distance.)
It looks like work from a distance.
That was the same firm where we had all these fancily framed collages on the wall of manila folders and black lace. I used to have to stare at these while at the copier. They drove me nuts. So one day I said, very loudly, “What are these? It looks like someone ran over Stevie Nicks with a file cabinet.” I was then informed that the works were VERY EXPENSIVE PIECES OF ART created by one of the partner’s wives, who was currently having a art show in Belgium. That was ALSO the same firm where I was working the front desk one day while wearing a very long sundress that had buttons all the way up the front, and the president of the firm walked in, and I quickly wheeled my chair over to reach for a fax to give him and the hem of the dress got stuck under the wheel and THE ENTIRE DRESS CAME OPEN AND BASICALLY FELL OFF as he approached me.
So my two major points of advice on office jobs are: don’t comment on the artwork and don’t wear clothing that can fall off.
3. HAVE ANOTHER SKILL: This applies to every type of creative person I know. Develop another skill. One that pays some cash money. Because you can’t reply on sandwiches left over from status meetings as the main source of your nutrition.
4. KEEP WRITING: This is the key. Write whenever there is time. Make the time. Commutes, lunches, evenings, mornings, weekends . . . hand it over. It belongs to the writings. If you don’t feel like doing this, the writings may not be for you AND THAT IS FINE. But if you do want to write, you will make the time. You will do what you need to do.
erin_bowman asks: How do you tackle editing? What approaches do you find work best? (I always end up getting overwhelmed by this process)
I am not a military commander. I just want to make that clear up front. But I imagine that, say, Napoleon, when looking at campaigns to take on, didn’t use the same strategy every single time. He probably looked at the terrain, the situation, the people he was fighting and developed his plan based on those facts. Or Churchill, when fighting back the Nazis . . . he was constantly surveying the situation, getting creative.
This is how I think of editing. I have heard of people who have ways of going about their edits, methods they use over and over. I admire this, but I can’t do it. To me, each campaign is different. Sometimes I am going over mountains, and sometimes I am crossing seas.
The first question I ask myself is: HOW MUCH TIME DO I HAVE? This is the key factor in my planning. If you have no deadline, I suggest you impose one on yourself. It helps. That gives you a goal and a boundary.
The next question is: WHAT IS THE MOST BROKEN THING ABOUT THIS BOOK? Because they are always broken. Never worry about that. Don’t think that your situation is hopeless because your book is dragging ass and coughing up smoke and barfing fire. That’s all fine. Get in there, dismantle it, and find out what’s burning. I hack my books apart with chainsaws in drafts two and three and four. The scalpels come much later. Don’t be afraid to EDIT BIG.
Remember: THINGS ARE NEVER AS HOPELESS AS YOU THINK. Despair over a draft is healthy and normal. I worry about people who walk around saying, “My draft is amazing!” I’ve never met anyone who did that, and if I ever do, I am going to capture that person and hand them over to SCIENCE. Because either they are on to something HUGE, or they are a clueless egomaniac.
At the same time, realize that you may never be 100% satisfied. At some point, you must let go. It takes time and practice to know when. It also helps considerably to have an editor just take it from you. If you don’t have an editor, maybe you can arrange to have a friend STEAL the book from you on a certain date? I think that would work as well.
Also, DON’T TAKE ADVICE. Ignore everything I’ve said. Find your own way, and it will be right. Probably.
Posted: Friday, October 8th, 2010 @ 11:59 am
Categories: The Tiger Diaries, advice, publishing, services to literature, unpredictable behavior.
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