Hard truth about writing for a living

I inherited a lot of suspicion, negativity and pessimism from my family. Until this week, I’ve never considered any upside to this. However, I’ve recently come to appreciate a lot of things from my past that I’ve always thought were disadvantages.

Let me be frank. There are many purveyors of snake oil and magic beans out there, especially among creatives and writers. Thanks to the hefty dose of skepticism passed down from my parents and grandparents, I’ve never lost my shirt and become permanently poisoned on the creative life. At 40, I’m still relatively optimistic about the whole affair.

Of course, that same skepticism is probably also why I was nearly 40 before I submitted my first query. Still, I’m increasingly convinced that waiting to pursue my writing dreams till now was for the best. My spirit would possibly have been crushed, and not just from the necessary rejection that goes along with getting published. The beta version of me, the one who didn’t have the guts to follow her creative dreams, also lacked the wisdom to avoid getting suckered.

My default position is to assume you’re full of [insert expletive here] when you promise I can get rich and famous by just writing stories. This is actually a good thing. Most of the time, you are full of [expletive], and looking to sell something: a master plan, a writing course, or the “secrets” of cracking the publishing industry. I’m interested in selling my stories, period. Not the super-secret key to creating a “lifestyle business” or a blueprint to becoming a “digital nomad.”

Earning a living from writing is not fairy dust and magic. It’s also not just a matter of working harder, or having a map to the maze that is the publishing industry. I’m sure both a good work ethic and an understanding of the industry are helpful, but ultimately, you have to be able to write well.

Some people just aren’t good writers. There are people who will tell you that if you just keep pushing crap out onto a blog, and squeezing that crap through an email and social media sausage grinder, eventually you’ll earn a living writing. They’re either lying, or assuming you’ve already done the due diligence to figure out if you’ve the potential to be a good writer. But it’s a lie to say everyone has that potential, just like not everyone has the potential to be a professional ice skater or fashion designer or global financier.

That’s not me being an elitist killjoy. I don’t think you need an Ivy League education or to come from a family of poet laureates. I subscribe to the Ratatouille school of thought when it comes to writing: not everyone can write, but a great writer can come from anywhere.

Even if you are a good writer, pursuing a writing career often means working a sometimes-secret unpaid side job until you get good enough that you get paid for it. Even when you start getting paid for it, it’s not a bad idea to keep your day job till the opportunity cost of staying in your day job is greater than your paycheck. I know “don’t quit your day job” has become synonymous with “you kind of suck,” but seriously–“don’t quit your day job” is often great advice, even for people who are really good writers.

For what it’s worth, my writing output has been substantially higher this last year, working full time, than at times when I wasn’t. The quality of my writing is also better. So taking a day job, or keeping one, is not the same thing as giving up your dream of being a writer. In fact it may be the thing that gives you the stability and structure you need to succeed. Or it may just be that you’re not in the right season yet to have all the character tools you need. And by “character tools,” I’m not talking about tools for building well-developed fictional characters. I’m talking about your character; tools like patience, maturity and perseverance. Yes, a lot of great writers were immature jackasses. That doesn’t make serious character defects an asset.

At this point, I’m probably rambling and sounding all curmudgeonly. Admittedly, I like my day job. I’m not stuck drudging away in a job whose misery quotient makes escapist writer fantasies a survival skill. I’m also in a marriage with a partner who supports my writing, both emotionally through encouragement, and practically by sharing the domestic and financial load. Not everyone has that. YMMV.

I guess my main point is, it’s important to stay grounded in reality. Learn to tell the difference between people encouraging you and people humoring you. Keep a few pessimistic curmudgeons around just to keep things real. And keep the wild speculative fiction in your first drafts, not in your five year plan.


  1. ·

    –and also, contracts are a good thing for freelancers. I guess that’s keeping it real. πŸ˜‰

    I have also found that phrases like “I just don’t think we would make a good fit” also worked when turning down a writing job in the past that didn’t do it for me (either for subject matter or personality of potential employer)! It helps to have the ability to “smell a rat.”

  2. Kat French

    Yes. I always forget about things like contracts. I’ve gotten through a shocking amount of freelance work on verbal agreements without getting completely screwed. I should probably fix that.

    “I just don’t think we’d make a good fit” = “It’s not you, it’s me” in business relationships. πŸ˜‰


  3. ·

    Sounds like a smart attitude to have. I’m in a similar boat, getting started on my writing career later than a lot of people … but I was kind of an idiot when I was younger, so it’s totally for the best. Also, yay for Ratatouille!

  4. Kat French

    Well, better late (and smarter!) than never, Kat. πŸ™‚


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