This post-song goes out to you beautiful writers who dream of going pro someday, selling your books for actual money . . . a-one, and a-two, and a-one-two-three-four!
Springtime 2000. I am in my seventh year as a high school English teacher, and I realize I am doing all of the creative writing assignments I give my students, not because I’m a good role model, but because an itchy seed of something is growing in me, and writing is my Calamine-soaked backscratcher.
“I don’t get it,” I tell my friend, Paul. “Suddenly, I need to write. Need to.”
I can hear the shrug in his voice. “So write,” Paul says. “No one’s stopping you.”
The need doesn’t go away, and the constant essay grading and lesson planning doesn’t afford me time to write. After much deliberation, I leave teaching and launch myself into what I call my Silly Job. It is deliciously silly. Boring too. But I work only from 7:30-4:30, earn the same salary I did as a teacher, and have afternoons, evenings and weekends to write.
December 2015. At a New Year’s Eve soiree, when other party-goers ask what I do for work, I say, without even a bit of clumsy bashfulness or self-deprecation, “I write fiction. I’m also an editor and tutor, but that’s just for money. My real gig is writing.” On the way home it hits me: After fifteen years, I am finally comfortable with the sentence, “I write fiction.”
Yikes o’frighty! What took me so long? We are artists, yes; aren’t we also entrepreneurs? Is it possible for us to assume the posture of a professional even before we earn a dime? Yes. It is possible.
Professionals Set Expectations and Boundaries
As a fiction writer, I have no boss or salary or bonus goals. I can write in my pajamas. I can take the afternoon off. I can take every afternoon off. What freedom!
But no one’s going to write my book for me. I need to take advantage of my time to write, and I need to protect it. If I use my lunch hour to write, I should let my colleagues know I’m not interruptable. It’s my writing time, I might say. I’ll talk to you in an hour. I may have to tell my teenager, I have a big project at the office, but I still need to hit my daily word count for my book. I’ll need your help with some housework over the next few months. Or I may have to tell a friend, I’d love to have coffee, but I work from home, and I need to work while my kids are at school.
Our colleagues, teenagers or friends might roll their eyes or have hurt feelings, but that kind of discipline writes novels.
Professionals Find a Solid Source of Faith
My dermatologist doesn’t do Skin Thickening Procedures, and noise-cancelling headphones can’t block out the nasty voice that says, Hey dummy! You’re wasting your time. Get a real job! Therefore, we need to place our faith in something bigger than we are, knowing that the going will get rough. Then rougher. Then roughest. In fact, the closer we come to getting published, the more rejection, critical reviews and unsolicited feedback we will receive. The good news? Faith can be bigger and stronger than reviews and rejection.
Some of us place our faith in God, but faith can also come from belief in a simple fact: Even when I am writing crappily, I feel better than when I am not writing. I will keep going. Or maybe: If I weren’t supposed to be a writer, it never would have occurred to me to start writing. I will keep going. Or this truth: Story matters. My stories matter. I will keep going.
Professionals Know Where and When to Seek Advice
If I told Picasso to knock it off with all the blue for crying out loud, he would (and should) ignore me. If I told my fire-fighter friend, Pete, that during his next fire, he might consider aiming the hose a little more to the left, he’d ignore me. Likewise, we writers need to develop our gut-trusting muscles to humbly, thoughtfully determine who has good advice and who does not.
I have made a list and titled it People Whose Opinions Matter. It looks like this:
- My husband and children
- My writing partners
Nowhere on that list is Unnecessarily-Unkind Editor or Nasty Amazon Reviewer Who Doesn’t Know the There/Their/They’re rule. No one on your list should ever write you a rejection letter or give you a one-star Goodreads rating because he didn’t like the name of your protagonist. Your list should include those who are encouraging but honest, those who will love and tough-love you unconditionally.
I had an agent offer representation for my first book if I changed X, Y and Z. Also A through W. It is difficult not to take an agent’s advice as gospel, equally difficult not to be wooed by an agent’s interest. His advice may have been great, or it may have been the opposite. But I knew with certainty that had I written his book, it would not have been my book.
That said, true professionals are humble enough to seek advice, help and encouragement. We must lean in to the camaraderie and wisdom of WU’ers. We should find a mentor or critique partner who is encouraging and committed to our growth. If we need help with the business of writing–an area where many of us lack passion and interest, we should seek out WU’s Dan Blank or Jane Friedman. As entrepreneurs, we need to commit ourselves to understanding how to build our platform and increase our online presence even when terms like platform and online presence, make us queasy. If I want my start-up company to soar, I need to pop a Dramamine and get to the work of learning the biz.
Professionals Properly Value Their Time and Skill
A few weeks back I was chatting with another writer who was generously editing an acquaintance’s novel. “I feel like I should be getting paid,” he said. “It’s taking up a lot of my time.”
I got a little bossy. “You’re dang right you should get paid.” I directed him to this website created by the Editorial Freelancer’s Association. “You have a skill. That skill warrants fair payment. Don’t you dare charge anything below the going rate.”
Right or wrong, we esteem certain professions because of their high salaries and billable hourly rates. When we writers agree to work for piddly fees, we are suggesting our time and skill aren’t valuable. Plus, too much pro bono work means our stories are no gono get written.
Should Professionals Ditch Their Pajamas?
Not at all. Being a writer is hardly glamorous and rarely lucrative; we should take advantage of the perks of being writers. I love the bosslessness of being a freelance editor, tutor and writer. I love working in my jammies. My husband doesn’t love me working in my jammies because they are an odd and unattractive assortment of fashion genres spanning two decades.
If, however, we want to have the perk of some income, we need to be savvy about when it’s OK to wear pajamas to the office versus when we need to don a mental (or literal) business suit, sticky-roller the cat hair off our laps, and build ourselves a platform, an online presence, and a million-person gaggle of readers that’s eager to buy our product.
I’m curious: Do you chafe at the suggestion that your writing is a product? How have you assumed the role of a pro fiction writer even before you earn money? What has been your greatest challenge in going pro? Anyone up for a weird pajamas contest? Thanks, friends, for sharing.