Cold Hard Facts About the Writing Life & WFMAD Day 18

This question came into my Facebook page earlier in the week: I am sure you are asked this question constantly, but do you have any advice for aspiring authors? i am so passionate about writing, i read often, and i hope to publish a novel one day and share my writing with others. it’s funny, i feel like saying i write constantly, because i always have ideas and stories in my head, but life is so busy that i seldom find time to write it all down! any suggestions would be very much appreciated! =]

Writers get this question a lot. It is second only to “Where do you get your ideas?”

I’m going to start my answer by posing a question: how far do you want to go with your writing?

It’s OK to recognize that you enjoy writing, that it’s important to you, and that you want to get better, but also knowing, deep down, that you’ll probably never make a living at it. But if you want to make your writing your career, if you expect it to pay your bills….

Warning: cold financial realities ahead…

….There is no nice way to say this. It is almost impossible to make a living as a writer.

Please don’t throw that tomato at me. Do not harm the messenger. I’m just saying what’s true.

I think the average advance for a novel might be up to $20,000 these days. (That is an optimistic number.) Your agent gets $3,000, and then you have to throw at least 30% of what’s left at the federal government for both halves of your Social Security and your income taxes, more if your spouse’s income or your other job boosts your tax bracket.

Let’s say it took you a year to write that novel. That means your take-home pay is around $12,5000…. for a year’s worth of work. And remember: it’s an advance against your royalties. Your book has to sell around 10,000 copies to pay your publisher back. (Last number I heard was that the average middle grade or YA novel in America sells 5000 copies a year. If I have that number wrong, someone please correct me.)

Using that average, it will take two years to earn out the advance. If the publisher hasn’t taken the book out of print, you’ll start to see royalties in Year 3. (This assumes a 10% royalty, which not every one gets. If your book mostly sells in chain stores, it will probably be subject to the deep-discount clause in your contract and you see a considerably smaller royalty.)

Of course you’re not just sitting at home, waiting for the mail to arrive with your check. You’re hard at work on the next novel. Excellent! That’s the approach that works. If you can write a solid novel every one to two years, if you can live frugally, if you can balance family and life and publicity efforts with writing, after about third or fourth novel (so Year 6-8 of this effort), you should be able to quit your day job and make a living from your writing.

There is no glamor in the writing life, no fame in the mode of Hollywood. It’s a life of quiet dedication. It’s a life of writing every single day, like we’re doing here this month. You don’t have to become a monk, or live in a cave (though that helps sometimes). But you’re probably going to have to prioritize how you spend your time in order to make a good chunk of writing time available daily.

It’s almost impossible to make a living as a singer, too, and a dancer, and an artist, and a film maker. The course of a creative life is littered with lots of crappy temp jobs. It’s nice to get paid for living your dream, but the truth is, the real benefit of an artistic life comes in the joy and excitement of the work itself, the moments that no one else can experience; when you are in the story and you are surrounded by magic.

So it’s OK to decide to have a paying job (with health insurance!) and to write on the side. In fact, many successful writers do this. They are smarter than me (and they have affordable heath insurance!) and I think about joining their ranks about once a week.

If you’re still with me, and you didn’t throw a tomato at the computer, here’s my advice:

1. Learn how to live inexpensively.
2. Focus on the quality of your writing, not the publication process.
3. Turn off the television and step away from the Internet. You’ll be shocked at how much free time you have to write if you cut back on those activites.
4. Surround yourself with all kinds of art and people who enjoy it as much as you do.
5. Make time to write every single day, if only for fifteen minutes.

Any thoughts about this? Am I being overly harsh? Am I being too optimistic? What is your experience with trying to make the writing dream your reality?

Today’s goal: Write for 15 minutes.

Today’s mindset: silly-creative

Today’s prompt: Today’s prompt is a riff on the Poetry Friday that so many folks enjoy. Start with an idea. I’ll give you a few to choose from in case you’re feeling stuck:
1. the love of your life
2. the battle over the whether the toilet seat should be left up or down
3. one hundred things you can put on a peanut butter sandwich
4. the presidential election
5. fish

Now take your idea and shape it into a song. Feel free to borrow a tune (I cannot teach you how to write music) and turn your lyrics into something fun and loud. The style choice is yours; opera, country, scat, Broadway musical, blues, you-name-it. Write and sing!


27 Replies to “Cold Hard Facts About the Writing Life & WFMAD Day 18”

  1. Making the Writing Dream a Reality

    You’re close to right on the money.
    I’d add:
    Make those 15 minutes a priority. Don’t do it after you wash dishes/clothes, clean, and the like. Those things will still be there when your writing is done.

    And if that job can somehow complement your writing, either by providing inspiration or by working a different part of your brain, then good for you.

    Gotta get my 15 in.

  2. Love this entry.

    I sold my first book this year, and faced cold hard reality a couple of months ago when I met with an accountant. I never realized that, as a writer, I am my own employee, so I have to pay taxes as an employee and employer!!

    I’m still thrilled to have my dream of being a published author come true … but I won’t be quitting my day job. The writing will always be a labor of love.

  3. Got in full writing days these past two days, but didn’t get the chance to stop by. Am settled in for another full day today, but probably won’t get the chance to stop by this evening.

    I haven’t sold a book (yet) so I don’t know from experience that what you say is true. However, I’ve spoken to many authors, and they all say pretty much what you just said. 🙂

  4. I quit my job this year, nine years after my first book was published. It’s touch and go financially, but having my life back is a joy. It helps a lot that my husband has health insurance at his job. But I still wake up knowing I had better continue to write and sell steadily.

    In the mystery field, I think the average advance for a first novel is under $7,500.

  5. And yet, if I go back to teaching to boost my paycheck, I won’t have time to write since I don’t watch TV as it is, and I have 3 young kids. Sigh. Why do I do this again? Oh, yeah. False hope. I forgot.

  6. Focus on the quality of your writing, not the publication process.

    This one is so, so important.

    It took me years to work out that if I focus on the writing first, my book may or may not sell, but I’ll have had the process of writing a book I love, and the book that results from same.

    If I focus on the other stuff … the resulting book still may or may not sell, but I won’t have that process, so if it doesn’t sell, I’m not left with anything at all.

  7. You get an amen from this corner. I kinda think it’s true of any job. If you don’t like/love/find satisfaction in the day to day piece of it, then maybe it’s time to look elsewhere.

    Me–very happy with the day to day piece.

  8. You are absolutely correct with your figures.
    I make about $ 20,000 a year but thats all from a day job.

    I have tried children’s books. Wound up with about three really good ideas that got nothing but rejections, although SEVERAL of the rejections had handwritten notes of encouragement, which I found out was rare when they take the time to add a little note.

    So okay, that didn’t work so I tried my hand at literary short stories. I sweated and bled all over the pages and sent them out and waited and waited and waited for the response and got reject letters (again) for my trouble.

    So okay, let’s try a novel.

    So I wrote one.

    This time I got as far as ONE agent in New York called and asked to have a week to consider it.
    I gave him the week.

    He finally turned it down but again,like other kindly folks who thought enough of my work, he sent a letter suggesting one or two minor changes I might try to improve the story.

    Part of the problem here is that it’s more novella sized than novel sized. (Though I even went through the trouble of throwing in a cover letter that clicked off the stats of several other published books that had less pages (such as Sarah, Plain and Tall).

    Still, nothing. Which of course meant, still, no cash flow.

    And yet my eyes kept zeroeing in on the occassional news item about some first time author getting a six figure advance. I know I had a better chance of winning the lotto and yet, a part of my mind kept insisting that “well, if THEY did it, that means it’s POSSIBLE”

    And so I continued.

    Now, almost ten years later- I finally have a couple little horror stories online with a little series I have created about a cop who encounters ghosts and things that go bump in the night in between doing his ‘day job’ as a police officer.
    (And yet, STILL no cashflow–but despite the looks of all my friends– I knew that the opportunity and possibilities that someone might see my stuff and contact me is greater than before since I am online now)
    Plus the fact that since more and more work is being ‘published’ online I figure it’s at least worth half a credit as a published work for the resume.

    I am now hard at work on a fantasy novel that I hope to send out to agents in 2009.

    And (sigh), I dream and I hope and I keep at it. Late nights and early mornings and my dear supporting wife understands as best she can.

    Even Stephen King got rejections I tell myself.

    If anything- there is the thrill of creating a world on the page and seeing the faces of friends who look forward to each new couple of pages I hand them.

    The job gets on my nerves as does the current econonomic mess our country is in so if nothing else (until I get that $ 20,000.00 “optimistic” advance in the mail) the writing keeps my morale up.

    Besides, I can’t sing or dance so what the heck-

    But, reading your own literary journey here, Lautie, is also encouraging and enjoyable and helpful (for me it is at least). Thanks so much for taking time to communicate with all of us here, wether we write or not.


  9. thank you for this entry…I have been wondering alot about making writing my career. But I have been planning on having another job and writing too…I don’t want to be totally broke. I’ll figure it out eventually…

  10. Actually, I may as well share just a little more.

    One of the hardest lessons for me to learn (and still learn) is to stick to my guns when it comes to what I want. Don’t let the desire to get published overshadow the things you need for yourself. Get yourself a lawyer to look over those contracts, and only publish something you’re really passionate about. With financial realities like the ones Laurie mentioned above, it’s not worth it otherwise.

    The story I’m working on now is one that’s been swimming in my head for years, but I was so desperate to get published I ended up writing/drawing a book I wasn’t 100% enjoying just to fill the needs of an interested publisher. The result was an average book that fit pretty much firmly into the financial bracket mentioned above (minus the royalties. Always get RETAIL royalties, never NET. I don’t think proper book publishers try to pull that… but comic book publishers do and I signed away my rights out without knowing what I was getting into). I learned so much working with them and getting that book published, but I knew deep down inside I’d never be satisfied unless I was able to write that one story that kept nagging at me.

    And so, now, I’m writing full time every day like a mad person. It’s been a year and half now, and the words have been flowing out of my hands like waterfalls. I love writing prose so much, I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it for a living, and will be forced to fall back on comics again. Then I think about my characters, and the lush world they’re living in. I dream about them, I miss spending time with them when I’m away from the laptop. I never felt that way about the graphic novel I did, and that gives me hope. It tells me I’m doing the right thing, and whether I make money or not doesn’t matter anymore, because when you’re in the middle of writing, money and publishing should not be a part of the equation.

    I know I’ve said it many times, but having author blogs like yours, Laurie, where I can read and discuss the ups and downs of writing/publishing has been a great facet of my working day. Thank you again for keeping such an awesome blog!

  11. This is all too true, or even worse is true. I published my first novel in 1985, and I have never made more than a $10,000 advance for any book. For most of them, it was less. Advances for science fiction and fantasy still start at around $5,000 if they don’t think you’re anything special, which will be the case for most writers. That $20,000 is unusually good.


  12. THANK YOU for your post!!! I’ve been wanting to hear the “cold hard reality” for the longest time, so I can know exactly what I’m getting into 🙂 I hope one day in the future to join the writer ranks, but I did want to know exactly how long it might take to break in and actually make a decent living. I understand that was only a general outline, but I really appreciate the info.

  13. When I was in high school, and wavering between writing and another field in which I had some talent, the advice I got was, “If you can be anything besides a writer, do it. Don’t be a writer unless you can’t be anything else.”
    I suppose this was meant to be a test of one’s dedication to writing.
    But I could do something else, so I did. I went to school and studied that other subject, and I have a day job that pays the bills and provides health insurance. (And also does some good for humanity.)
    I never stopped writing, though; I couldn’t. I’ve published some short stories over the years, and my first book is due out next year.
    I guess my advice would be: Don’t expect it to be easy. The apprenticeship for successful writing is longer than you can imagine. But read a lot, and write a lot, and persist.

  14. I had just had to stop by and say that my independent trade book store received the ARC for CHAINS and I am so excited to read it! I’ll let you know what I think when I’m done!

  15. I really have high hopes for you. You are quite obviously passionate about your dream, as am I, and I wish you all the luck in the world!

  16. OMG, I can’t believe you think about finding a day job that often! Seriously? I guess the health insurance is the big thing for you.

    My 2nd YA will be out in January, and I’m working on a third that I hope S&S will want too. I work 32 hours a week at a hospital, and I have two kids 11 and 14. I walk around tired and with a long list of things to do ALL the time. It’s so freaking hard. Still, at this point, I don’t want to give any of it up. I just take it one day at a time and I figure I’ll adjust in the future as I need to.

  17. Hmm, I’ve been faithfully scribbling for almost ten years and still haven’t had the courage to submit anything more than a few magazine articles. However, my husband and I are some of those rare people who DO make a decent living as musicians, and I’m curious. Professional musicians, (and by that, I mean ordinary people who make their living in music, not, like, Bon Jovi,) generally have to do several different sorts of things to buy their bread–teach lessons, play gigs, produce and sell albums, etc. Is it possible the same holds true for writing–you sell the novel, you freelance for magazines, you teach a creative writing class for community ed?

    Just a thought.

    Another thing I’ve noticed is that most full-time musicians are pretty entreprenurial. It’s not the most talented people who make it, it’s the ones who know how to promote themselves.

    But, alas, we still have no health insurance.:-(

  18. Yep – I used to have a business card that said “pen for hire.”

    Health insurance is the biggest expense we have, by far.

    Please register and vote in November!!

  19. Eating my tomato

    Thanks for the reality check! I needed the reminder to keep writing as profusely as possible. I think it’s good that you posted this. Perhaps you muffled the number of pipe dreams in the world. You’re not being overly harsh or optimistic. It’s good advice. That’s why we young aspiring authors ask you questions. If we’re brave enough to ask, we probably really do want the honesty. I love it! Thanks, Ms. Anderson!

  20. Marketing

    Yes, and once you get your book published (mine comes out Sept. 1), you must devote hours and hours and hours to promoting said book and getting it into the world..kinda like the whole process of conception-to-birth. Think about it– you’re going to the hospital, your child’s birth day has finally arrived, but there’s all that labor to get that child out into the world, into the light. My publisher (Kunati,an indy publisher which Quill and Quire described as “what a publishing house looks like if the marketing department is running it”– which is very cool, I must say) takes care of national stuff and we as authors take care of local stuff as far as promoting ourselves, and we blog, blog, blog.
    I’m a teacher in my day job, I carry the health insurance for my family, and I expect that to remain so. I’m using my summer to work full-time on my second book and marketing the first book, and of course I know my life is going to be busy busy busy after school starts up again. But I worked so hard to get here, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
    Chapter 1 is online!

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