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4 Essentials of Success as a Writer

If you’ve launched a career as a writer and are hoping to survive from the income you generate from writing stories, then your main aim is probably at first going to be trying just to stay afloat financially without having to work anywhere else.

If you have taken this approach you are probably expecting that you are not only going to have to work very long hours all the time as a writer, you are most likely not going to have the luxury of time to care much about the quality of what you produce. You’ll be happy if you can just make enough money to avoid going back to a ‘regular job’.

As a fledgeling writer with this kind of game plan, you will most likely believe that you'll have to take whatever you can get.

Inevitably, if you make that assumption and take that approach, you will be over-worked and underpaid for quite a while. ‘Getting by’ will become your norm. Forget about quality of life or obtaining the kind of work you would prefer — you won’t feel like you can define the kinds of writing job you want because you’re the ‘beggar’ in the scenario and can’t therefore be the ‘chooser’.

That’s how it seems, anyway.

If you’re in this position, what you may not realise is that you are creating your own problems and hindering your own success.

Chances are that you will end up in debt and overworked in a very short time. That’s exactly when you have the opportunity to learn two things that are fundamentally important:

Defining your own success makes it more achievable


You already have all the riches you need.

Writers (or anyone else for that matter) who launch themselves into work and hope to survive purely on the energy generated by that work often don’t define exactly what they are hoping to achieve and therefore drown in overwork and lack of money before they get a chance to make it. They also overlook their primary resources.

What does ‘success’ look like for a writer?

You have to define it for yourself, but here are a few considerations:

1. You probably wanted to be a writer because you didn’t want a boss.

You wanted freedom, space, time. But a few weeks into the game and you realise that you’ve exchanged bosses for editors and readers, who have taken on many of the same characteristics of the bosses you wanted to avoid: they want more and more from you, with the added disadvantage that they don’t pay you at all, or certainly not enough to survive on. Sure, you don’t have to ‘take anyone’s orders’ in quite the same way as you did in your old job — but in another way, it’s much worse, because not only do these new bosses not pay you, you’re not even sure exactly what they want you to produce. You’ve dropped down a scale from ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day's pay’ (more or less) to ‘a full day and night’s work for no pay’.

Slave labour, in other words, where your masters are the editors and readers who seem to hold all the power.

2. You probably wanted to 'explore your inner self’.

In all likelihood, you had the notion that you would be able to take time off for yourself and just 'think about things'. You perhaps imagined acres of time in which to explore other interests and ideas. Instead, you find yourself desperate to know what editors and readers are thinking and feeling: outer selves, not inner self, in other words. ‘Thinking about things’ has become ‘worrying about how to pay the next bill’. Your inner self isn’t free at all, but seems locked up in an empty cell.

3. You probably wanted to feel excited and invigorated by what you did each day.

You perhaps imagined churning out high quality literature, exciting stories, cutting edge fiction, as opposed to doing whatever was boring in your last paying job. But you find yourself clutching at submission straws in an urgent need to become known and valued by others.

For new writers taking this approach, the three pillars of freedom, inner exploration and new energy somehow drown in the ocean of demands from the outside world, and are replaced with the chains of reader needs, understanding target markets and working on others’ agendas for no pay.

It quickly becomes clear, in all likelihood, that the business model you had of the free, happy and rewarded writer is NOT going to get you the success you were looking for— no matter how much work you generate.

Here’s the thing: you had the right idea (even the ‘write’ idea) — just the wrong model. Working to the above guidelines means that it’s very difficult for writing to become more than a hobby: you simply have to make your money elsewhere.

So what’s the workable model?

Well, it’s been discussed at length in earlier articles on this blog, but let’s suggest some essentials right here:

A. Don’t plunge into the deep end.

This means not ‘launching a writing career’ with the expectation of making money from it from Day One. It’s more likely that you will need another source or sources of income for a while until your career has reached the critical point at which it becomes self-sustaining. This varies wildly from individual to individual, but I’d recommend at least six months during which all your bills are covered by other means before you will see any money coming in, probably much longer.

B. Build ‘brand recognition’.

What does that mean for a writer? It means something you will enjoy: working on developing your own voice, viewpoint, message. Carve out consistent themes and motifs in your work; imagine that you are building a cathedral in which each piece of fiction you write is another stone, all adding up to an indefinable but unmistakeable ‘Youness’ throughout your work.

Your greatest asset by far is something that you already possess: your identity and uniqueness as an individual creator.

Cut yourself loose.

C. Discover and consolidate channels for your work to reach readers.

This will probably start small. Find those publishers who will take your work, paid or not. Focus on them, achieving small success after small success, until your work becomes known and out there, in readers’ hands. Find more such opportunities; pursue paid opportunities where feasible. Keep going, one small step at a time. This will take time and persistence.

D. Work backwards from realistic income goals over time.

Set a low income target and work back to how much work you would need to sell to make that target. Then work out, based on rejection rates, how much work you would need to create to get there. Then do the work.

Writing is both like and unlike any other job in the world: it’s different because it depends entirely on the ‘capital’ you have in your head and how that is translated so that it means enough to readers for them to pay for it; it’s similar in that you still have to do the work.

Sometimes it seems that writers are subconsciously aware of the difference — in other words, they know that they are walking around with tremendous assets buried safely inside their own imaginations — but then they mistakenly conclude from that that they don’t have to do much. They’re wrong: those motherlodes of creative material deep in their imaginations have to be mined, and mining is hard work. A writer who wants to be successful realises that he or she must spend most of his or her time at the coalface, hacking out the raw stuff which they then have to labour to turn into products that readers want.

Stay at the coalface and do the work and word by word, scene by scene, story by story, your ‘cathedral’ will get built; you will find channels for your work and bit by bit a readership will develop. Do it this way and you won’t drown by trying to follow others’ agendas, they will begin to follow yours.


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