Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me, Part 1: Making a Living

Over the last year, I’ve had a lot of major changes in my life — mostly good ones, but even those are challenging. Now I’m working on building up my writing career and following through on some other projects that are important to me. That got me to thinking about some things I’ve learned over the years that I wish I had known much earlier.

When I was young and dared to express the thought that maybe I might want to write fiction, everybody said the same thing to me: “You can’t make a living writing fiction.” Those who were sympathetic with my urge added: “Get a good job skill and write fiction on the side.”

The conventional wisdom was — and is — that only a few lucky people make a living in this game. But Kris Rusch, who makes her living writing fiction, begs to differ in a blog post entitled “A Career Versus Publication.”

How I wish someone had explained things like that when I was just starting to write!

I don’t agree with everything she said — the day I agree with everything somebody says is the day I’ll be able to quit writing because there will be nothing for me to say — but that essay is chock-full of valuable information for anyone serious about a writing career.

Here’s her most important observation:

[B]usiness, not craft, destroys a writer’s career.”

Kris goes on to point out the importance of negotiating good contracts — and not giving away the store — and understanding copyright law. And her advice is up-to-date: she questions whether agents are of much value in these days when publishing has changed dramatically.

One of the reasons I find this particularly compelling is that it’s similar to the advice I’ve given to a lot of co-ops and nonprofit groups over the years, which is make sure you take care of the business details while you’re saving the world. If you’re too idealistic to pay attention to keeping the books and making sure you’re in good standing with the government, your business isn’t going to make it.

The other reason I find it compelling is because she distinguishes between what she calls the “one-book writer” and the “career writer.” While this is also where I disagree with her — for reasons I’ll get to — this made clear something that it took me a lot of years to figure out: There are lots of ways of being a writer and it’s important to figure out what you want from your career.

If I had seen this kind of advice when I was young, I would have made more conscious decisions about how to be a fiction writer.

The main place where I disagree with Kris’s piece is her either/or distinction between the “one-book writer” and the “career writer.” It’s an excellent description of the difference between the writer who ignores the business side and the one who takes it seriously, and it’s why the piece provides valuable information, but it does leave some writers out.

For example, she says that career writers should be “prolific.” I know a lot of writers — some of them with big reputations — who just can’t do that. They agonize over word choice. They spend one day writing and the next day deleting. They’re slow.

But some of them have good careers nonetheless because they also pay close attention to the business details. Some of them make a good living despite only publishing a book every few years; others have to supplement their fiction writing with other kinds of work. But they’re making a conscious choice to do things that way and they are being businesslike.

That’s why I think the key advice in Kris’s post is that part about approaching your writing career as a business. Don’t take the bad deals; don’t give away any rights you can hold onto. And don’t stay stuck in the past when the business is changing.

And the next time someone tells you that it’s impossible to make a living writing fiction, point them to Kris. She does it.

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Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me, Part 1: Making a Living — 6 Comments

  1. I don’t like her generalizations and over-simplifications. Too much either/or: “One-book writers can play that silly game of going into an agent’s slush pile, hoping that the agent will eventually read the book…Career writers know that an agent must…” What about the career writer who is just starting and doesn’t have an agent? Don’t they have to play that “silly game” first, before they get to the point of “If an agent brings nothing to the table except “expertise,” then the career writer gets rid of that agent”?

    And, what about the writer who is more artistic in their approach and isn’t going to sell in the numbers that she would signify as a career writer? It’s hard for me to get something out of her posts when they’re directed at what I assume is her ideal and discount anything else.

    • Robert, I agree about the either/or. I think there are a lot more variations on this business than she allows for. But I still like it that someone is saying there are ways to make a living while doing the work you want to do (at least a good percentage of the time). I’m tired of the constant drumbeat of discouraging people who want a creative career.

      • A case could be made that the discouragement is useful. It is said that if anything can deter you from a career in theater/acting/poetry/fiction, you should let it.

  2. I saw the same post, and it really sang for me. Ever since I started writing when I was eight, I wanted to do it full-time. Over the years, I read everything on writing, visited writing message boards, took writing classes, and I kept feeling like there was something missing, or that it wasn’t quite for me, though I couldn’t explain why. I’ve been frustrated for a long time because I was picking up on this stuff, because it was so wrong for me.