Tuesday, April 2, 2013
You're a writer? I've always wanted to write. Can you help me?
Note to aspiring writers:
Once in a while people ask me what I do for a living. When I say "I'm a writer," the next thing out of their mouths is "Oh. Have you ever been published?" When I say "yes," almost without exception, the next question is "I've written (or am writing, or want to write) a book. Can you help me get published?" Either that, or they look at me sideways and think I'm delusional.
It's gotten to the point where sometimes, when people I meet ask what I do, I feel like telling them I'm a plumber--except then they'll want me to come and unstop their toilets or something--for free.
Don't be fooled! Writing is hard work. Writing for a living is even harder. Just because I work at home, sometimes in my bathrobe, doesn't mean I've got it easy. My commute is easy (20 feet from the bed to the office), lunch is easy (a short walk to the fridge), but that's where the easy stops.
The odds are something like this: one out of every 25,000 manuscripts submitted to publishing houses is actually published. Of those books published, less than half ever earn out the advances paid. And only a minuscule fraction of books that break even and/or earn royalties ever become best-sellers.
I'm a freelance writer. I don't just write fiction (though it's my first love and I do it as often as possible)--I'm a write-for-hire guy who will do anything from a short article for a web page to ghostwriting books for people who have a great idea but can't write worth diddly. In this business you only eat what you kill, and that might mean a 60-hour week to do a job that you thought would only take twenty (goodbye expected profit margin). It means prospecting for new clients every day, even if you already have more projects than you think you can handle. It means laying awake at night wondering if next week will be as good as this week, or if it was a bad week, wondering if it's a harbinger of things to come. I'm motivated less by the creative muse than by the fact that I have a family to support, wondering if I can keep this up indefinitely or if I will have to return to being a corporate drone and only moonlight as a writer.
Contrary to your romantic notions about writers, multimillionaire "overnight success" authors are a very small minority. There are probably more people who make a living as professional athletes than there are people who actually make a decent living from writing--and there are even less who survive writing only what they want to write, like novels or short stories.
Most of us are more like freelance musicians. Few musicians make a full-time living just playing jazz or symphonies. As a young man I tried to make a living in music--and found that the only way I could eat and pay the bills was to play dance jobs, community theatre shows, weddings, recordings, ballets, park bands, cheesy swing bands with deaf accordion players, arranging, and mostly teaching lessons to school band kids. And I had to learn to play more than one instrument. I had very little opportunity to ever get paid doing what I had trained myself to do--play jazz. Now, as a writer, I don't just write fiction--though that's my favorite thing to do and I've had a certain degree of success with it. I've had to broaden my skill set--ghostwriting, copywriting, editing, proofreading, and just about anything else involving written words that someone will pay me to do (including writing ludicrous poetry--see http://bardofthenuthouse.com ).
It's not always easy, but I'm learning and getting better at it. And the cool thing is, for the moment at least, I'm making a living at it. Despite the frequent struggles, it gives me enough satisfaction that I can resist the temptation to tell people I'm a plumber!