How I became a professional writer, or whatever
This is my November Fifth Check-in. I do one every year.
Five years ago, I embarked on a mission. I determined that after five years I would support myself by my writing. I did an inventory of the resources I had at my disposal, and I decided that I would wield every tool I had in my toolbox to make it so I could put “Writer” on my business cards and mean it.
It has been a journey.
The time has passed.
Today, I can say that all the income I had this year was earned from writing. So I am a professional now.
How I did it…
There are a lot of tools I have used, and I will mention some of them. I showed up, though. That was the biggest lesson I learned in the last five years. I feel like I give up easily; I have strewn my works in progress behind me like breadcrumbs made of paper pulp and poorly placed punctuation. I left a trail as long as my life of half-finished sentences and stories nursing abandonment complexes. I occasionally think that if I were a truly GOOD writer, I’d have written “the end” more times.
You know what, though? That’s not the only measure of a writer. It’s an important one, and I have finished a few things over the years. Finishing, though, ain’t the only measure. A writer’s got more demons than that.
Showing up every day. Doing the work, even if nobody thanks you and especially if people tell you not to. That’s the hardest fight a writer’s got. Every morning’s full of a million reasons not to write, and sometimes only one reason to do it. Because when there aren’t assignments — when there aren’t deadlines — when the words don’t necessarily equate to a paycheck — those days fill up with temptations to do anything but pound out a few words.
I haven’t won that fight yet. Never will. But it gets a little easier every day I struggle with it.
Show up. Do the work. Write.
Making friends and saying yes.
I don’t like talking to people. I get confused and my tongue trips over my teeth. It’s everything to do with a lack of practice, I’m sure, and everything else to do with a mind that’s occupied elsewhere all the time.
That said, I love people. I admire many individual people, and I want to be their friends.
Plus, people have the keys to opportunities.
Over the past few years, I’ve practiced a policy of saying yes to frightening things. Frightening things are usually standing in the way of treasure, you see.
People have always been the most frightening thing to me. Every so often the last few years, though, I made a point of saying hello to some stranger or other who I liked.
I didn’t try often, but when I did it turned out really well. A few examples:
- Todd was a dude who used to lurk on Medium. He moved on to bigger things, but when he was on Medium he had determined that he needed to create a world where writers get paid. He didn’t know me from Adam, but it was such a charming idea that I reached out to him — I sent him a vintage Little Rascals video — and then he gave me some work on his super secret project to put money towards art and writers. It was rewarding and educational, and if I’d submitted to my natural instinct, (Leave that stranger alone! He doesn’t want to hear from you!) I would never have had it.
- There’s this band called Mississippi Bones, and they are amazing. They’re what happens when a bunch of metalheads completely give into their nerd roots. Their music shreds, and it’s also about D&D and vampires and Lovecraftian type fiction. And one day I decided to write something about how much I liked their music. I shared it to their Facebook page on a whim, and now I’m friends with two of the band members because they’re cool dudes and, like, most people just want to be friends, it turns out. So reach out to people and say hi: what do you have to lose? Now, it turns out that one of the two founding members of Mississippi Bones, Jared, is a writer too, and he likes weird marketing schemes. He’s putting out a collection of short stories to promote the band, and he asked me to contribute. Pretty sweet journey.
- Kristina is a super wicked…multi-talented black magic wizard, I guess? Partly because of that thing I was working on with Todd above where I was kind of acting as a talent scout, I reached out to Kristina through Medium because of a really cool thing about cooking that she wrote. There’s no clear and precise narrative of what followed, but the upshot of it is that she’s become a mentor and a friend since then, and she’s helped me to feel more confident about what I can do and she’s given me a bunch of writing opportunities.
That’s only a few of the whole mess of cool people I’ve met and worked with the last five years.
The punchline is, say yes to things. Not everything, obviously. Don’t say yes to that weird necrotic narcotic from Russia. That would be awful. But if you have an instinct to do something where the possible results are “something pretty cool” or “not much at all,” then say yes to that thing.
One of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a writer is to look someone in the eye and say, “I wrote something good.”
To be successful as a writer in the world as it is today, it is necessary to do that more than once. In some cases, it’s necessary to do it several times a day. I don’t usually indulge in scatological humor, but this is too right: it’s a little like taking a piss. It’s discomfiting to think about, it makes you uncomfortable if you don’t, and if the context feels wrong it makes you REALLY uncomfortable if you do. But if the context feels right, it can be a huge relief.
I’m talking about marketing generally. I’ve been learning a lot more about marketing. It’s a strange science. Marketing yourself is an uncomfortably strange science.
It takes a lot of courage to do it. Because yes, I do believe I wrote a damn fine story, and I think it would improve your life if you read it.
And that’s a nervous thing to say.
Never give up! Never surrender!
It’s easy to get tired of this job. Ninety percent of it is fighting with myself, and I have to be ninety percent of my own fan club, because ninety percent of the work is invisible and needs to be invisible.
The few explosions of reinforcement from the outside world are big and beautiful things, and I cherish them.
There’s a lot more of the world designed to discourage a writer. Writers will know this. A lot of creatives will. We’re all painfully familiar with that ultimate expression of the world having trouble being encouraging, which is any variation on the phrase, “What are you spending your time on anyway?”
Writers make jokes about how it might LOOK like we’re eating Cheetos and binge watching documentaries about astronomy, but we’re actually working. We make jokes, but sometimes that IS work. And sometimes work is writing a thousand terrible paragraphs to find one good sentence. And sometimes work is answering your questions. And sometimes work is having a gin and tonic and watching a sunset, because for the next ten minutes the rest of the world has agreed that I have, in fact, done some work, and that feels good.
Then it’s back to those Cheetos and astronomy documentaries. Those metaphors based on the secrets of the universe won’t construct themselves.
If you’re a writer, or a creative of any kind, I am going to add my little voice to the thousands in your head: you can do it. So do it. If you do nothing else, do a little bit today. A little bit every day will get you there.
That’s it, really.
There is no formula. Some other writers will sell you theirs. Their formulae might work for them, and they might work for some people, but every formula reduces to this:
- Show up
- Embrace opportunities, which are guarded by people, so meet people — and show up so you’re prepared for opportunities
- Be brave
- Don’t give up
I’m not a raging success, because any raging success is a black swan event of some kind, i.e., you can’t force it to happen. I’m working, though. I didn’t do anything magical or impossible. I showed up. I kept working. I said yes a lot.
It’s been a cool five years.
I’m a writer. You can be too.
The next plan.
The last plan worked. So it’s time to get started on the next plan.
When I embarked on the last plan, I used as my watchwords this suggestion: we tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in one year and underestimate what we can accomplish in five. In other words, we try and get too much done in one year and then overwhelm ourselves. But if we stretch big goals out to be five-year goals we’re giving ourselves a better chance for success.
I expressed my five-year goal like this:
- At the end of five years, I will be making a living by my writing.
Then at the beginning of every new year, I’d set myself some smaller goal that built toward the bigger goal. Usually, though, the smaller goal consisted of some language like, “Make measurable progress.” Sometimes that consisted of things like increasing my social media presence. Sometimes it consisted of getting back rejection letters about my novel. I was a little vague, because I had a vague goal.
That was okay for THAT mission.
I’m better educated now.
Now it’s time to start a new mission.
I shall express the new mission like this:
- At the end of five years, I will be making a living off of my fiction writing.
It’s a big goal. So I must be brave.
I’ve started already, though. You can find my collection of short stories, Ragged Museum, on Amazon (or you can drop me a note here and ask for a signed copy and I can send you a link to my shop). And I’ve all but published my first novel — City Song. It’ll be out in the world pretty soon.
I’m a writer, guys. And if I can do it, you definitely can. I work hard, but not half so hard as I could.
(or…is it?…dun, dun, DUN!)
More from me over here and here and here…
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