I typically avoid talking about the craft or business of writing because I’m not wildly famous or successful. But I have been a freelance writer for almost 20 years now with consistent publications in multiple media. So while I’m not a Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, I do know about this topic.
Then again, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling aren’t really Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, either. Both are outstanding writers and deserve all the success they’ve received, but getting where they are took no small amount of luck. The true secret to their success is that they took a one in a million chance and worked their butts off to continue improving and grow that luck into something big.
I’m not a celebrity author. Instead, I’m the guy that most freelancers can expect to become if they stick to writing long enough and get a few lucky breaks along the way. Writing doesn’t pay my bills, but it does provide enough supplemental income that I can support a family of four on a single moderate salary. You won’t find my name on many best-seller lists (though my novel Greystone Valley was there for about five minutes), but I’ve now spent a couple of decades sharing my stories with people. And here’s a few things I’ve learned during that time.
You can make a living writing…but probably not on your dream project.
After the birth of my first son, I realized that my existing budget would end with my household bankrupt in about six months. At that point, I had done a lot of fiction writing, but not a lot of writing that paid my bills. So I started spreading my nets and found a few jobs that would keep my family afloat.
Some of these jobs were great fun – I got paid to review the entirety of Greg Pak’s original run on The Incredible Hulk, which happens to be one of my favorite comic book stories ever. (Bonus: he gave me a shout out on Twitter for one of my reviews.) I also became a Dad blogger at BabyCenter.com, which not only paid for a while but got me in touch with an excellent community.
Most of the jobs didn’t sing to me, though. There’s a lot of guest blogging, ghost writing, and marketing in there where I worried more about keyword usage than proper sentence structure. But they paid the bills and allowed me to work on other projects.
There are a lot of interesting jobs for authors out there, ranging from the anonymous mercenary work that I do to something steadier like technical writing. But if you’ve got a passion project about a transsexual vampire private eye that you’re just dying to get published, you’ll probably want to have another career to fall back on.
Writing is exercise, and your creative muscles can atrophy.
I don’t think you need to write every day to get great, but I certainly see the benefit of it. Creative writing is basically like exercise – the more you make a habit of it, the more effective you become. Conversely, the more you neglect your creative muscles, the more out of shape they get.
I’ve been through long periods where I didn’t feel like writing and decided I’d pick up a pen when inspiration finally struck. The end result was that my brain didn’t focus on coming up with new stories anymore. It took a metaphorical kick in the butt to get me motivated again, and when I started working my technique was sloppy as hell.
Writer’s block sucks, but it’s definitely worthwhile to push through it and put something down on paper, even if it’s garbage. If you write 100 pages of gibberish, you’ve at least put yourself through 100 pages of exercise. When you don’t write, your brain starts to wander to other places. You can whip it back into shape later, but it’s a pain in the butt.
Rejections suck, but still have value.
I used to save every rejection letter I received. I stopped doing this because my house has a finite amount of space in it. Any writer, even especially the very successful ones, gets a lot of rejections. In my experience, a rejection usually comes in one of four forms.
No response at all. This is becoming increasingly common. A lot of publishers just don’t have time to answer every query that comes their way. I personally wish they would provide at least a form letter, but it is what it is. If you submitted something six months ago and never heard back, it’s probably slipped into the abyss of rejection.
Generic form letter. On the surface, these don’t seem to tell you much. However, they’re worth reading before you toss them out. Some publishers have multiple form letters that they send out. If you get something saying your work was impressive but not the right fit for the publisher you queried, that might be more than just flattery. If the form rejection sounds encouraging, it’s worth sending something else out to that group.
Form letter with a hand-written note. If you get one of these, it means your work didn’t make the cut, but it was notable enough for a busy editor to take the time to personalize it. Take special note of the personalization – if it says, “Keep submitting,” then definitely send something else. If it gives advice, follow that advice.
Personalized rejection. If publication is like water in a desert, these are like muddy little pools that won’t refresh you but will keep your going just a little longer. If somebody takes the time to tell you why you’re being rejected, listen carefully and make changes as needed. Several of my magazine articles and at least two of my novels would never have happened had it not been for an editor or agent coaching me up through the rejection process.
Even a calloused soul can feel pain.
An agent once sent me a rejection letter telling me to, “Stop wasting your time and ours.” Publisher’s Weekly reviewed one of my novels as, “A boring slacker story with no redeeming qualities.”
Having dealt with a lot of rejection letters, it’s usually easy to shrug comments like that off – especially since the former is very unprofessional behavior from an agent. However, even somebody hardened by the publishing process can feel a sting now and then.
When I get really down in the dumps, I’m willing to let myself stay depressed about things for a maximum of one week. After that, it dawns on me that the only way to productively move past the funk is to start writing again. You don’t want your last interaction with the publishing process to be an embarrassing rejection.
That’s my freelance writing primer in a nutshell. The publishing process is a bit of a grind, but it’s worth going through if you love writing. The important thing is to do what you love, keep improving, and be ready to get up off the map after you get the inevitable rejection.