The biggest problem publishers face with writers is that writers expect overnight success and often don’t have a realistic view of the kind of time frame they should be looking at if they want to reach viability. They are not 'wrong' to have such expectations: they have worked hard and of course want some results. It just doesn't happen that fast in most cases. There is no 'magic marketing bullet' - but there is a working methodology which will succeed over time.
We’ve examined the first four years of a projected writing career and seen things grow artistically as they declined financially over that period. By the time we reach Year Four, the average writer is usually in huge debt but has finally established who his or her readers are and what it is about how or her own writing that works and doesn’t work. They have built a world or worlds and set up a support network of some kind. Now, like any small business that has formulated a brand, acquired a customer base and grown some organisation, they can begin to grow. This might all happen sooner - but extensive experience in the commercial world suggests otherwise.
But it’s a pretty exhausting journey. Just as 9 out of 10 small businesses fold within the first year, many writers don’t have the confidence or stamina to persist for this long. They lose heart; their morale drops; their financial resources dry up. Setting out to build a career as a writer is no different to setting up a shop selling something else, in this regard.
How can this whole process be made easier?
1. Well, first of all, I’m going to recommend my book Your Biggest Challenge as a Writer, which contains an analysis of the two common problems that new writers often face and a strategy for building the beginnings of a writer career in terms of time and attitude. The book walks you through some early problems and points you in the direction of success. And it’s free.
2. That should lay the groundwork for you to actually write. But when it comes to sitting down and creating fiction, I am going to strongly urge that you read my book How Stories Really Work so that you waste the least possible time writing material which is simply not going to appeal to anyone, even yourself. Mastering the principles outlined in that book (it’s not free, but only costs £10.00) virtually guarantees that from the first day you sit at your keyboard you will start creating characters and plots that you will find admirable yourself, and which will naturally attract and grip readers. That’s without getting formulaic or derivative, but simply by knowing the basic building blocks of storytelling.
3. You can take the pressure off yourself immensely by sorting out your finances to some degree so that they don’t act as a major distraction. Your Biggest Challenge goes into this to some extent, but it’s worth mentioning here that you do need to put attention on this as an early priority. It doesn’t mean that a) you should aim to have zero financial pressure (as this is likely to be impossible) or that b) you should aim to write full-time and not have other income coming in (as this is unrealistic). Somewhere in the middle there’s a path to walk which gives you enough time to progress with your writing and enough money to not be in a desperate panic all the time. Remember, you’re looking at about three or four years in which income from writing will probably range from zero to minimal. You will probably generate SOME income - it just won't be enough to live on.
Broad tips on this last point include:
minimise your outgoings
sell off any unwanted or unused assets and bank the cash
if possible, establish income streams which are not time-dependent - i.e. from investments or savings or retirement pensions and the like
find a patron - someone willing to help you until your career can support you.
4. It would be wise to disassociate yourself from those who would be overly critical of you or what you’re doing over this period (and indeed, forevermore). Instead, surround yourself with positive but sensible people. It’s possible to err either way: you can have too many negative people around on the argument that they will ‘tell you the truth’ and ‘keep you grounded’ when actually they are burying you in their own bitterness; and you can have too many airy-fairy types around who will believe anything you say and not be any real use to you at all. You want sanity and support, not ‘grimness’ or ‘unreality’. You want long-term, pragmatic and comforting friends who have faith in you and your abilities.
Ideally, you want to find a good publisher who is supportive and encouraging. Even better if you can find one with huge resources for massive marketing campaigns - but at least find one who is on your side and has some idea of your worth as a writer. He or she will be an important ally.
5. Get rid of your television. I know that’s blunt and controversial, but it’s a basic fact that the TV is designed to hook in your attention and suck time out of your life. ‘But I’ll miss all my favourite shows! And all those shows that everyone watches — I won’t know what people are talking about!’ So what? You can be very selective and still watch your very best shows on another device from time to time, and as for the chatter about the latest craze, what you’re aiming for is to BE the next craze, the next writer people love, the next author that studios want to snap up — and you’ll never get there if you waste hours sitting in front of an electronic puppet show.
Most people in the UK watch 27 hours of television a week. That adds up to about ten years of your life. You can work out the figures yourself: if you spent the same time writing, and got up to a speed of 500 words an hour (a conservative figure), that’s 13,500 words a week, which adds up to about a novel or several dozen short stories every two to three months, including re-writes. That’s feasible within a framework of working full time at another job - but only if you resist being a TV zombie.
If you do steps 1 to 5 above, the grim years ahead of you will seem less grim, but there is another thing you should do which lies behind these things and is very much aligned with the overall goal. It's going to sound too simplistic and obvious, but here it is:
6. Write. I know, it’s obvious. But when you begin this journey as a writer, it’s very easy to do anything but write.
You can get distracted by ‘sorting out finances’; you can get immersed in ‘sorting out relationships’; you can get drawn into reading and ‘research’ which is actually procrastination and time-wasting. Setting yourself daily or weekly writing targets means that a) you won’t lose sight of what this is all about, b) your writing will be growing and developing all the time and c) your morale will be boosted. Churning out 13,500 words a week (for example) is no mean feat. Not even your darkest self-doubting inner voice can say much if you have produced 54,000 words in a month. And the process of self-growth which is supposed to occur over the first three years will have accelerated, meaning that perhaps Year Four will turn up a year early.
In the end, all of this is up to you. It can appear that it is very much NOT up to you for a number of years - it will seem like luck, a lottery, a case of not having enough money to do marketing 'properly' and all manner of things - but, like anyone trying to learn anything or develop anything, over time you will come to see that you have been at cause all along.
Please let me know if you need any help. If you’ve read this far, I may well be that mentor guy I mentioned a short while ago who is ready to encourage you to persist because I see value in what you’re doing.
Next, we'll look at some of the phases that you will probably go through during all this, and what to do in each of them.