What steps should I take to become a full time writer? I’m graduating uni soon & plan to take a year off to write and then I’ll get qualified in teaching the year after but I really hope I can earn a living through my writing. The future scares me :(
This is a tough question because no two writers follow the same path to publication or to full-time writer-dom. And there are so many sub-categories to this answer, so I’m just going to give the broad strokes here. Feel free to follow up with specifics if I don’t address your question! Warning: this is also really long. I apologize in advance. But it’s a BIG question. More under the cut, to spare people just scrolling past from getting a huge block of text. 😉
READ ON FOR ADVICE ON BECOMING A FULL TIME WRITER…
The first thing you should know is that very few writers (statistically speaking) support themselves entirely on their writing work as full-time writers. Many very successful authors I know have other jobs and/or spouses to support the writing career, especially because being a self-employed artist comes with zero benefits of the financial kind.
Someone out there is going to disagree with me, I’m sure, but I strongly believe that you should never, ever become an artist of any kind for the money. For one thing, it’s way too easy to be disappointed if you never make it big, and for that disappointment to taint your love of creating art. I always tell people to ask themselves this question: If I never get paid a dime for my work, and I knew RIGHT NOW that I’d never get paid a dime for it, would I still do it? It’s okay for the answer to that question to be no! But it’s something worth knowing about yourself and your work, so that you can continue to reevaluate your goals as you move forward.
Now, I’m NOT telling all this to scare you. Far from it. I love being a writer, and I wouldn’t exchange it for any other job in the world. I’m also not trying to discourage you. But others WILL try to discourage you (every single writer out there can tell you about some naysayer who told him or her to study accounting instead) so I’m just laying out the realities so you’ll be prepared when others throw them at you.
SO. First of all, be prepared to work another job while you write (which it sounds like you are: teaching!). You may have to spend many years cramming your writing into lunch breaks and late night or early morning sessions. This can, strangely, help productivity. If you know you’ve only got an hour to write before you’ve got to go back to your job, you’ll end up writing like the wind.
Secondly, if you can afford to take a year to write before starting at another job, that’s fantastic. SEIZE THAT OPPORTUNITY, because it’s invaluable. Make the most of it. Just don’t bank on having a steady writing income by the time the year’s up. While it might happen, there’s no guarantee, so be prepared for what you’ll do if you’re not published by then.
Some advice on what to do to prepare for being a professional writer:
- Read a lot. And not just for entertainment, though I’m a firm believer that life is short, so read what you want. 😉 But read critically. If you read something you really love, go back and try to figure out how the author did what he or she did. What about this character made you fall in love? What about that plot twist made it so satisfying?
- Write a lot. A lot of people disparage the idea of writing every day. I used to be one of them. I also never finished a novel until I tried it, and that experience made me a convert. But whatever it is, come up with a system for making yourself write regularly. The point is to start making the conversion in your head from “hobby” to “job.” This doesn’t mean it has to stop being fun, though your relationship with writing may change, which is okay.
- Share your work. Find someone to read your work critically. There are a lot of great blog posts out there about how to find a critique partner, so I won’t go into it here. But getting used to both sharing your work and receiving both positive and negative feedback on it is invaluable. It gets easier the more you do it. It never gets EASY (at least it hasn’t for me!) but it gets easier.
- Study the business. Follow writers on social media. Follow their agents. Follow their publishers. Read articles about how to get published, and read them from a variety of sources, because there are differing opinions that are all still valid. Read Publisher’s Marketplace and get a feel for what sort of books are selling right now, and how they’re pitched. When I began writing my first full novel (which ended up being Skylark) I started studying how one gets published, entirely via the internet. It helped motivate me to keep going, and by the time I’d finished writing the novel, I knew my plan of action when it came to querying agents.
- And yes. Get an agent. Some writers do work without them, but personally, I am so grateful for mine and absolutely believe it’s worth the 15% commission. Not only do I think I would’ve struggled to get published at all without one, I KNOW I wouldn’t be making enough money to be full-time. All that aside, agents handle so much of the day-to-day junk that comes with writing—dealing with your publisher, fighting your fights for you, keeping track of income for tax purposes, selling to foreign publishers you’ve never even heard of, and a million other things. If you want to be traditionally published (as opposed to self-published) get an agent.
- Set goals you can control. Don’t fall into the trap of “If I can just ________, I’ll be happy.” Because that bar keeps moving. You might think that getting an agent will make you happy, but then once you get one, you realize that now you’ve got to go on submission to publishers. Then it might be just selling your book that’ll make you happy, but then you have to see how it actually does in the market. Getting fans and followers. Selling another book. Getting to go on tour. Getting good critical reviews. Hitting various bestseller lists. Selling movie rights. These are all things over which you have next to no control, and if you make these things your goals, you’re going to be disappointed sooner or later. They can be dreams (because you should never stop dreaming) but don’t make them goals you HAVE to achieve to find satisfaction in your work. Set long term goals like “I’m going to finish my novel this year” and short term goals like “each week I’m going to research one new agent.” The rest will happen, or not happen, by itself.
The future IS scary. Trust me, it doesn’t stop being scary as far as I know. And if you’re looking for security, a career as a writer is not likely to provide a fear-free life. But in my experience, facing that fear gets easier with time. The first few years after publication are fraught with ups and downs as the reality of the business sets in. I’m still afraid, all the time, that my own career is a soap bubble dream that’ll burst if I look at it too hard. But fear doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I choose consciously to make that fear a positive, because it motivates me. (Sometimes I’m better at this conscious choice than other times.) I work hard because I love my work and don’t ever want it taken away from me, because what on earth else would I do for a living? I use my fear to drive me.
So it’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to acknowledge that you’re scared. Just don’t let your fear immobilize you. Bravery is going ahead despite being afraid, and art, ANY kind of art, is bravery. Every single one of us was scared too. You’re going to pour your heart onto a page and then ask someone you’ve never met to love it. It’s scary. But you can do it.
You can do it.
So this is a question I got several days ago from a nice reader from France who thanked me for making her cry. (This is the best kind of email.) Then she went on to ask this:
Sometimes do you feel bad when you give sorrow to your readers?
I was going to toss off a quick “No! MUAHAHAHA!” in response, but it was late and I was tired and I went to bed instead. And then I woke up the next morning thinking about the question. Because it’s one I’ve gotten before, and one I’ve seen other authors get all the time, but I’ve never examined much beyond “Nope, it’s all good.”
So here’s the deal. No, I don’t feel sorry for my readers when I write a sad thing. If only good, predictable things happened in stories, they’d be pretty boring. To me, fiction is a way to rehearse life from the safety of your own room. You can experience tragedy and terror and triumph, all the while able to close the book and walk away from the emotions any time they get too difficult. It’s the wonderful thing about fiction—it’s why books never get old. We humans have a lot of feels. They take a lot of rehearsing.
But I do feel for my readers. Yes, I end up a bit gleeful whenever a reader reports feeling what I wanted them to feel, even if it’s sadness or fear, because that means I’m doing my job. But I also get this pang of sympathetic emotion, too, as if I can feel exactly what they’re feeling—usually because I HAVE, while I was writing whatever the sad thing was.
To me, it’s one of the best parts about being a writer. That sense of connection, of being able to share something as intangible and indescribable as an emotion directly from your heart to a stranger’s halfway around the world.
Because it doesn’t always happen—not every reader loves every book, after all. But when it does, it’s like finding a friend, someone whose mind works like yours and feels the same things. My memories of beloved books rarely involve specific events in the plot or lines of dialogue. They’re almost always memories of emotion, of how the book made me feel, and how they made me feel connected to the person who wrote it.
So do I feel bad for giving sorrow to my readers? Not really… because my fondest memories of fiction are of authors giving sorrow—and joy, and fear, and love, and wonder—to me. That experience, that connection, was what made me want to be a writer too. And this experience is what makes me want to stay a writer.
So I got a question in my inbox that is chock full of spoilers, so I can’t answer it the traditional way. I’d still like to address the sentiment, though, so I’m going to block out the spoilery sections to make it safe for general consumption.
Why didn’t you explain what happened to [character] more? Now we don’t … even know if it’s a happy ending or not! I loved this book up until you did that. Tell me whether I’m suposed to be happy or sad!!
Well, first of all, I will say this: the thing, the event, the twist to which you are referring, is something that definitely divides our audience. Mostly we’ve had great feedback about it, which is lovely, to see people experiencing reading what we experienced writing it. We do occasionally get readers with your reaction, and that’s fine too. You’re allowed to feel however you feel about a book, just as authors are allowed to make whatever choices about their books that feel right to them as artists.
But secondly, and most importantly, this is science fiction. True science fiction asks questions of its readers. What does it mean to be human? How do we fit within this universe? What makes us different? What makes us the same? And while sometimes SF answers those questions, more often than not it leaves it up to you, the reader.
Science fiction WANTS you to struggle, and to ask questions, and to think about what you’re reading. If all books were easy, we’d never learn anything or change or be affected by what we read. We wanted people to ask the very questions you’re asking about [character]. It’s part of the experience.
Science fiction is very rarely black and white. If you want books that are easily categorized as “happily ever after” or not, if you want a book that spells out exactly how you’re “supposed” to feel, you might be reading the wrong genre.
So I’ll leave you with this: what do YOU think it means for [character]? Forget the words on the page, the black and white… does it feel like a happy ending to you? Because whatever you’re feeling… that’s what you’re supposed to feel. There’s no right or wrong response to a book, there’s only what you feel.