How To Make a Living Writing

How To Make a Living Writing January 29, 2014


When I first started blogging, I had come off of about ten years of writing and editing for magazines and newspapers; I’d also done some pretty significant book ghostwriting and editing (two of the books I worked on—one a novel, the other non-fiction—became #1 New York Times bestsellers: both were on the bestsellers lists for over a year). Writing was pretty much all I knew about, so pretty early on I wrote some posts on how to make a living writing. Those posts are below (and, as you’ll see, make for one humongous single blog post). This was before anyone had thought to make a living online, so you won’t find anything here about that. (I can write new stuff on that topic if anyone wants that.) Three years ago I would have deemed much of what I say here too irrelevant to republish. But for a bunch of reasons I think print magazines and books are back on the rise, so a lot of that stuff is, or will be again relevant. Either way, if you’re a writer you might find some of the below helpful.

Again, they were just blog posts when I first published them. They were titled—and so the text below is divided into sections—as follows:

How To Make a Living Writing
Some General Writing Advice
A Few Big Deal Writing Points
How To Become a Factory of Story and Article Ideas
A Bit About Book Proposals
The Ever-Important “Platform”
A Would-Be Writer Asks: “Must I Go to College?”
The Book Doctor Will Needle You Now
How To Write in Tandem with God
My Last, Best 10 Tips on How To Make It As A Writer

How To Make a Living Writing

Decide if you really want to make a living writing. If your primary interest in writing is to give expression to your innermost thoughts and feelings, and you don’t really care if anyone reads your stuff or not, that’s a beautiful thing. But if your goal is to have great numbers of people pay money in order to read what you write, that’s a whole other universe. Most people would say they only want to write for themselves, when what they really want is to be famous for the quality of their thoughts and the charm with which they’re expressed. Decide whether or not you want to be someone who writes personal journals, or someone who writes bestsellers. Because they’re not even close to the same thing. One is fun; one can be fun, but definitely involves insane amounts of pain. Be clear on your goal going in. You don’t want to pack for a day trip and then start up Mt. Everest.

Learn punctuation. It’s weird how many people want to become writers who haven’t yet mastered punctuation. And mastered is the word, too: you have to know that stuff cold. If you aren’t absolutely positive when you can and can’t use a semicolon, for instance, then you need to keep studying punctuation until you are. You can’t fake knowing punctuation. And you definitely can’t write to your full potential without the creative freedom that comes from understanding the most fundamental tool of your trade. (And here’s something huge: Learn the rules of punctuation so thoroughly that you know the difference between a punctuation “rule” and a style choice. That’ll be a fight you’ll fight one day; publishing is filled with people who think the “rules” of punctuation are whatever they happened to learn in the Editing 101 class they took in college twenty years ago. People think there are all kinds of punctuation rules that are really just style choices. I once had an editor—for a big publishing house, too—who, she declared, “hated commas.” So she just stripped them out of my text. Lesson from that? Always include in your book contracts a stipulation that you get the final say on your manuscript before it goes to the printer.)

Work for free. If you’re just starting out, write for free. Lots of beginning writers think it’s beneath them to write for free; don’t be one of them. You need a portfolio, and doing quality work for free is the fastest way to get a good one. Pick your favorite of one of those little free publications in your area — the kind of neighborhood newspapers and entertainment tabloids ubiquitous in coffee shops and markets — and study it. See what kinds of articles it runs; learn the word counts of those articles; become familiar with the general tone and style of the publication. Pick one of the shorter types of things the publication regularly features (usually a review of some sort: albums, restaurants, art show openings, whatever) and then write two or three pieces exactly like those. (I started out my professional writing career penning 250-word album reviews for a local free music tabloid.) Send those pieces to the editor of the publication, accompanied by a short, friendly letter introducing yourself. Keep the stuff about yourself to a minimum: editors are too busy to care. Just say you wrote the enclosed or attached pieces in the hope that they’d use it in their publication (which, of course, you think the world of). Be sure to tell them that you’re perfectly okay with them at will cutting or in any way editing the pieces you’ve submitted. Just the fact that you’re flexible that way puts you in the upper .001% of newbie would-be freelancers, who tend to think their every word is sacrosanct. Letting an editor know you’re not crazy that way is huge.

Understand publishing. Every publication, from your free local rag to Vanity Fair magazine, exists on its advertising. First publications sell ads, then they flow editorial material around those ads. In a real sense, editorial content is basically filler between ads. The thing about advertisers is that they tend to be unbelievably flaky, which they can do because they know that in the relationship between themselves and the publisher, they have all the power — which is especially true down at the local level where you’ll be starting out. So advertisers come in late with their ads; they suddenly don’t like the proof of their ads; they don’t pay for their ads; at the last minute they pull their ads. For all those kinds of reasons and more, publications are forever left scrambling minutes before deadline to fill space with editorial content that they thought was going to be filled with an ad. This universal publishing dysfunction can definitely work to your advantage. If I’m an editor (and I have been, a lot), and I suddenly find out that I’ve got to fill space in my magazine or paper, you better believe I’m going to remember that piece you just sent me. If it’s clean, and useable — and especially if it has a decent picture with it — I’ll use it. And I’ll be grateful to you, too, because you just became an asset to me. Which means I will be contacting you about future work.

If you really want to maximize your chances of getting published in a particular publication, find out that publication’s production schedule. Find out, in other words, what day of every week or month that publication needs to be finalized so that it can be sent to the printer. Advertisers tend to drop out right before a publication’s deadline. Make sure that your stuff gets to the editor a day or so before it’s a sure bet that he or she is suddenly going to be scrambling to fill the space just vacated by an advertiser. That way, when they’re panicking to fill that suddenly blank space, your submission, having just come in, will be fresh on their mind, and at the top of their stacked inbox, where they can get to it most easily. In publishing, as in life, timing is everything. Submit your stuff two days before your publication of choice gets put to bed, and rest assured that you couldn’t have timed it any better.

Learn about word count. Everything about an article — being mainly its angle, tone, and pace — is determined by how many words it’s supposed to be. When you structure a piece, you have to begin by knowing its intended word count. What you’d say if you had five minutes to tell someone your life story is radically different from what you’d say if you have two hours. Or two days. Word count—which is to say physical context of the presented material—is core to understanding what and how a piece needs to be.

About magazine writing specifically. Writing for magazines is a real particular discipline. There’s all kinds of writing, of course: poetry, mainstream journalism, magazine writing, short stories, plays, novels, book-length nonfiction. But most newbie writers, it seems, want to write for magazines. Cool! It’s an insanely voracious, wide-open market. I am a freak for magazine journalism; I can’t express how much I love writing in that style (um, which I’m pretty much doing right now). I quit working in magazines because there’s a lot more money in books, and I also wanted something beyond the temporal nature of magazine publishing. But magazine writing is still, to me, Le Bomb Deluxe.

Doing well as a magazine writer opens doors to just about any other kind of writing you would ever want to do. If you want to write books, for instance, magazine credits will automatically separate you (in the eyes of literary agents, and then publishers) from the umpteen zillion people who want to write books who haven’t ever been published magazines. Plus, the great thing about magazine publishing is that it lives on ideas. It needs ideas like elephants need food. In the world of magazine publishing, article ideas are the currency.

The important thing to know and remember about the magazine business is that nobody in it cares about you as a writer. Nobody. They can’t afford to. Magazines rip through writers like elephants rip through hay. And if you want to write for magazines, then you don’t want to care about yourself as a writer, either. The only thing you want to care about is the editor of whatever magazine you want to publish in (or, in a larger magazine, the editorial head of whichever department in that magazine you’d like to publish in). That’s the person you care about.

Your job — your goal, if you’re starting from the outside — is to make that person’s job easier. Because everything about an editor’s life is working against his job being easier. Freelancers are late with their stuff. Photographers send in shots of their feet. The graphics department decides the next cover would look good with everyone’s face bright red. The PR rep for the star about whom you were going to run a feature is suddenly insisting that their client be on the cover of the magazine. At the last minute the people running the ad on your back cover want their ad changed. Your rep at the printer’s quit and her replacement is color blind. The publisher — your boss — decides at the last minute that you need to switch out a story you’d planned on running with a story about his wife’s yoga instructor. And that’s just what happened to him or her today.

For a magazine (or newspaper) editor, life is an endless series of issue-swallowing holes forever opening up around him/her.

But you! You, with your tight writing style; your  timeliness, your outstanding story ideas; your flawless execution; your blessedly low-maintenance personality; your flexibility; your plain, good ol’ fashion, bizarrely rare professionalism.

You’re someone who’s actually helping that editor for a change!

Thus do you in very short order become invaluable to that editor. You become one of the editor’s go-to people.

And staying dependable and reliable is how you develop a portfolio. It’s how you earn steady income as a writer. Then you have a book idea. Then you write a proposal for that book. Then you send it to an agent; that agent takes you on; your new agent sells your book to a publisher for Humongous Smackers; and voila: you’ve got yourself a whole new world.


Some General Writing Advice

This is the best writing advice I know how to give: It’s not about you.

Without question, a monumental part of being an artist is identifying, corralling, and ultimately allowing the very essence of who you are to dominate the process by which you express that essence. An writer must find and learn to express his own voice, period.

But another massive, indispensable part of being an artist — of being a writer — is understanding that everything in the world has its own truth, a truth that doesn’t have anything whatsoever  to do with you. People who want to write are often so wrapped up in what they think about a thing that they never let that thing tell them what to think about it. Things — people, relationships, experiences, virtually everything — have their own integrity, their own dynamic, their own process, context, purpose, rhythm, reason. If you really want to be a writer, you have to learn to wipe out all your ideas and preconceptions about as much stuff as you possibly can, and let whatever it is that has your attention tell and show you what it is. That’s why journalism is such fine, fine training for a writer: it teaches you how to get out of the way of the story at hand.

Bottom line: someone who is more interested in themselves than they are the world at large probably won’t make it as a writer. You have to be insanely empathetic to be a writer. To be a writer you have to think just about everything is more interesting than you. It’s a kind of … weird dysfunction, in a way.

Writing isn’t about exercising your ego. It’s about erasing your ego. It’s about getting out of the way of whatever needs to be said, so that it can be said in a way that does justice to the thing that’s telling you what needs to be, or what should be, said about it.

Would-be writers are forever wanting to share themselves with the world. Fair enough; that’s a big part of writing, for sure. But if, in being totally honest with yourself, you find that what you are really most interested in sharing with the world is yourself, then save yourself the trouble and stop imagining you’re a writer. You’re not.

Lucky you! For you are normal.


A Few Big Deal Writing Points

Publishers and agents need you more than you need them. Writers tend to have this attitude that book agents and publishers are high above them, and have all the power relative to themselves. That’s exactly backwards. Book publishers and agents are useless without writers, and they know it. They need writers to do what they do; they have zero income without writers. Go into your every interaction with a publisher or agent as if you, and not they, have the power. Then in your dealings with them you’ll present yourself with clarity and confidence — which, were both colognes, would smell infinitely better than one called “Need” or “Desperation.”

Exploit your relationships. “Exploit” isn’t really the right word (oh: and as a writer, be sure to always use the right word), but never fail to respectfully explore the possibilities inherent in every relationship you think could be of value to you in your career. A basic Fact Combo about people you should use to your advantage is that: 1. People like helping other people, and 2. Few people actually ask other people to help them. That, combined with the truth that no one is above feeling flattered when another person shows respect for them and asks for their Expert Input, means that you should never be afraid to honestly ask someone who has shown any kind of interest in you at all to keep showing interest in you until they’re done (for now!) being interested in you. You can go a long way down that lovely road with a lot more people than you probably think — and, once you have, you’ve got yourself a little network! Reaching out to and maintaining relationships with people further along in the business than you is a beautiful thing; it’s a wonderful way to make friends and develop mentors. And you have to have that; without a network, you’ll end up talking to pretty much nobody. Be likeable, be humble, be appropriately responsive, be succinct — but do  be in the conversation.

Remember that the most valuable commodity anywhere in media is ideas. In publishing, ideas are pure gold. Everything depends on The Idea. Books are sold to publishers every day on nothing but an idea and a title. The quickest way to become someone with whom others in the creative field of your choice want to be aligned is to be known as someone who consistently comes up with quality ideas. Think creatively! All the time! That’s how you make friends, influence people, and turn your brain into a cash cow. (For tips on how to come up with tons of good ideas, see the next section below.)

Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. New writers are always worried about an agent, publisher or writer stealing their ideas. Don’t worry about that. Such people are going to steal your ideas, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Part of the cost of being a new writer is that people who are further up the food chain than you are get to steal your ideas. Your attitude about that awful truth simply has to be, “Go ahead, take that idea. There’s a million more equally good ideas where that one came from.” Let ’em have your ideas. If you’re not pretty much an idea factory, you’re never going to make it anyway. The universe is full of ideas just waiting to be grasped and formulated. So what if someone takes one of yours? They’re likely to fail with it anyway, because no one can execute your idea like you can. Jerry Seinfeld has a great line, where he says, “So what if someone steals my material? What’s someone else going to do with my material?” If someone steals your material, be flattered, know you must be doing something right, and move on.

Rejection can’t mean anything to you emotionally. Your stuff is always going to get rejected for perfectly good reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of your work. Forget rejections; they mean nothing. Keep going; there’s always another venue, always a new place or person to submit to. If you let rejections affect you emotionally you’ll never make it. Of course every rejection will hurt — but feel that pang, give it its proper acknowledgment, and then lose it like the useless weight it is. Writing’s a weird business: you have to be sensitive enough to be open and vulnerable and creative — and yet be The Terminator when it comes to rejection. No problem. You can do that. Life hurts sometimes. So what? Remember to keep your eye on the prize, which is to be so successful writing that you never again have to get a real job. That is worth a few lumps, isn’t it?


How To Become a Factory of Story and Article Ideas

Being an Idea Factory, is the key to being a successful writer, and no two ways about it. If you wait to get assigned a story, you die waiting; if you come up with a good story of your own, though, you’re golden. From fiction to poetry to nonfiction, idea is king.

Let’s first consider whether or not there’s such a thing as an original idea. Of course there is; if there weren’t then today we’d still be trying to open up cans with our teeth. Luckily, in 1947 Barnabas “Big Collar” Canopener invented the gadget that still bears his name, and dentists everywhere were forced to become brick layers and make-up artists.

Har! No, but there are definitely new and original ideas. The whole point of good ideas is that they’re new. They of course exist in symbiotic relationship with their contexts: the cuff link, for instance, was just stupid until someone finally invented the French cuff. I feel safe in saying that each and every one of our brains is veritably abuzz with new ideas just waiting to coalesce, spark to life, and then burst out in such a way as to hopefully not embarrass us in public.

The reasons I personally have always had pretty good luck coming up with ideas that editors want boil down to two: I’d rather burn alive for an hour than be bored for ten seconds, and I loathe work.

Seriously: I think the two most important qualities a writer can have are an actual fear of boredom, and a deep and abiding drive to be lazy.

Here’s what I mean: One time when I was working as the managing editor of a monthly magazine, we got in a press release about how the performance season for this local circus troupe was about to begin.

“Why don’t you write a story about this local circus troupe?” my boss asked me.

“Why don’t you quit so I can have your job, you dribbling moron,” I replied. Kidding! What I really did was smile, say, “Sure thing!” and go into my office to wonder what it would be like to work for someone with an imagination.

Then my brain went like this: “I can’t believe I have to write a story about those stupid local circus performers. I do respect them, though; I can barely sit in a chair without toppling off it. Hmm. Lemme look at their press release.” Therein I learned that one of the circus’s featured performers was “Ivan, The World’s Strongest Man.”

“Hmmm,” I thought, staring at a photo of brutish-looking Ivan. “Must be weird being the world’s strongest man. Guy definitely needs to update his wardrobe. No one wears sleeveless leopard-print unitards anymore. How does he not know that? Then again, if you’re the world’s strongest man, making astute fashion statements probably isn’t your main concern in life. Your main concern in life is that you keep breaking things. You try to open a door, and suddenly you’re holding the door you accidentally tore from its hinges. You go to apply your car brakes, and your foot goes through the floorboard. You scratch your head, and you almost bleed to death. It must be horrible being the world’s strongest man.”

So then I contacted the guy who played Ivan in the circus, and asked if he’d be down for doing a profile piece about him based on the idea that he actually is the strongest human male currently alive on the planet. He thought it was a great idea—and bingo, I had my piece. And that story was fun to write: I got to talk about how as a baby Ivan used a lawn mower for a rattler, and how as a schoolboy he had to use special steel pencils, and was not  fun to play with at recess, and how his dad had to run away from home from the shame of having a three-year-old son who could totally pound him into the ground.

Point being: Writing that story didn’t bore me to death—and  I didn’t have to work, as I would have if I’d done the normal kind of story, where you have to take notes and get all the facts right and learn stuff.

Another time, when I was the editor of a tabloid newspaper about downtown San Diego, I noticed the city had put up all around downtown these round signs with nothing but the letter P on them. I thought, “What the heck are those signs for? What’s the P stand for?” But right away I sensed that finding that outwould involve doing some research. So instead I simply went outside, stood underneath one of the signs, and when people walked by told them that I was a reporter doing a story on what people thought the P stood for on all the new downtown signs.

“I think it stands for Padres,” said one guy seriously. “You know. Baseball. San Diego Padres.”

A portly chap guessed, “Pizza? That’d be cool. It is hard to find some of the pizza places downtown.”

A hippie girl mused with what I suspected was organically generated mellowness, “You know what? I think it stands for peace.”

A wino said, “There’s a bathroom nearby?” I made a questioning face, and he goes, “You know. Pee?!”

That whole half hour was about the most fun I ever had in my life. I took a couple of Pictures of People Pondering the P—and just like that, I had half a page of usable material for my paper. (The sign, by the way, stands for “Parking.”)

One time one of my favorite writers — a guy named J. R. Griffin, for whom I used to freelance back when he was running a music rag in Los Angeles called “Mean Streets” — was interviewing a musician when he noticed that the batteries on his tape recorder were running low. So part of his story became about how he didn’t stop the interview and say his batteries were low, because he was embarrassed about making such an amateur mistake and didn’t have any extra batteries anyway. So in the profile itself, J.R. wrote things like, “When I asked Bob about how he writes his music, he said that when composing he liked to hurt his hubble, or hug his stubble, or something like that. (My recorder was running so slow by then that’s all I got.)” Throughout the piece J.R. wrote stuff like, “And that’s when I’m pretty sure Bob said something about being inspired by his cat.” Or, “‘I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a musician,’ I’m pretty sure I remember Bob saying.”

I died. I still count it as one of the funniest thing I’ve ever read.

My point is: If you really want to be a creative idea machine, think, basically, lazy.

What I’m really saying, of course, is think about things not so much as what they’re supposed to be, but what they actually are. It’s all about pointed, ingenuous honesty. I really do think the secret to consistently producing quality creative ideas — whether it be for local, regional, or national magazine or newspaper work, or for fiction, or poetry, or play writing — is to never fail to be brutally, crazily, viciously, obsessively (and always politely) honest  about whatever it is you’re writing about. That’s it. Say what you see. Never force things to be what you or anyone else most typically wants or expects them to be. Let things and people tell you who and what they are: let the real truth of whatever you’re considering unfold itself before you — and then just hang on, and see what happens.

Watch and ride: that’s my motto.

The other Truly Excellent Way to find as many great stories as you can possibly write is to go out into the world secure in the knowledge that people are absolutely fascinating: that they do fascinating things, have fascinating histories, are involved in fascinating dynamics. Move around in life assuming that everyone you meet is astoundingly original and infinitely interesting—and sure enough, their stories will rarely disappoint you.


A Bit About Book Proposals

Would-be book authors often know nothing about book proposals. But that’s like trying to be a dentist when you know nothing about teeth.

If you’re wanting a publisher to buy your non-fiction book, you have to write a book proposal for that book. You have absolutely no choice about that. None. Zero. Trying to sell a book without a book proposal is like trying to stage a production of Hamlet without actors.

Important note: Book proposals are only for non-fiction books. If you want to write a book of fiction, you’re going to have to finish that whole book and then submit it for publication, unless you’re already such a famous fiction writer that there’s no way you’d be reading this. If you’re not sure about the difference between fiction and non-fiction, then you are … well, James Frey, and I want to tell you that, honestly, I only read three pages of your book A Million Little Pieces before I literally threw it away, because it was that obvious you were lying.

Anyway, a book proposal is a document that, though Mondo Hefto indeed, is still a lot smaller than a whole book, which no one in publishing is going to want to take the time to read. Your proposal is a blueprint of your book, a comprehensive overview of it. It’s everything a publisher would need to know about your book in order to decide if they want to risk their money publishing it.

It really is a proposal. It’s something you (through your agent) give to a publisher, by way of saying, “Will you marry this book?”

There are three Major Reasons for which you have to write and submit to your literary agent or publisher a book proposal instead of a finished manuscript. First, publishers don’t have time to read a 40,000-plus word manuscript. They don’t even have time to read anywhere near all the proposals that every agent in the world is sending them. (Which is why, as you climb up the publishing ladder, you want representing you an agent with whom publishers know, respect, and have previously worked, since a submission from such an agent automatically goes atop publishers’ Must Read stack.)

Proposal? 15,000 words. Whole manuscript? 45,000 words. Publishers’ time? Priceless.

A proposal it is, then.

Secondly, the quality of your book idea and the facility with which you write is one thing. But what really matters to a publisher — who after all has to make a living selling books — is how sellable your book is. Before a publisher commits the kind of money it takes to bring a book to market, it has to be as sure as it possibly can be that that book will sell. Determining that — figuring out how many people can reasonably be expected to buy your book, and why — entails considerable thought. That’s where you come in. That’s largely what a proposal is: your summation of all the reasons a publisher can be safe betting that once your book is published the world will flock to it.

A proposal is a sales document. It’s a pitch. It’s everything an editor would need to know in order to boldly throw your proposal down on the table before the collected editorial, sales, and marketing people at his publishing house, and say with ringing confidence, “Here. I’ve got a winner. Praise me, ye underlings! Marvel yet again at my awesome perspicacity!”

Or, you know, whatever they might say.

Point is: Books are art. Art isn’t quantifiable. Money is. Publishers want to make money. A proposal is your best effort to show publishers that, artistic wonder or not, your book will result in Much Incoming Cash.

Thirdly, publishers don’t want you to have already finished your book before they get it. You know why? Because if there’s one thing of which publishers are confident, it’s that they know what makes for a good, sellable book. They want to participate with you in the writing of your book. They want to help you make it the best book it can be.

You are, after all, just a writer. What in the world can you be expected to know about writing a book?

It’s easy enough to be offended and/or disparaging about the degree to which publishers tend to assume a real kind of ownership of the text of the books they publish. And a lot of what they do in that regard is grounded in nothing more interesting than grunt arrogance: editors and publishers are, after all, the gatekeepers to fame and fortune, and they know it, and … well, you know how people are. But it’s also more than fair to say that through long and hard experience, editors and publishers have learned that the most efficient way to create the best possible books is by working hand-in-hand with their authors. Especially given that most nonfiction authors aren’t primarily writers; they’re primarily experts in whatever it is they’re writing about. Most often nonfiction authors are glad to benefit from the knowledge and expertise of their editor; they understand the value of that kind of input. So it’s all good. It’s just that if you’re new you want to be aware, going in, that you’d do well to hold lightly the sense of proprietorship that most authors naturally feel about their work. It’s your book until you sell it; after that, it belongs to you and the publisher, and no two ways about it. And mostly it belongs to the publisher.


The Ever-Important “Platform”

It’s a terrible truth, but the bottom line is that what publishers care most about when considering whether or not they should take on a new author is whether or not that author has a “platform.”

If you’ve got a solid platform, all the other problems with publishing — securing an agent, needing ideas, needing marketing savvy, needing to know how to write — pretty wholly disappear.

A “platform” is the means by which you personally, without any help from its publisher, can sell a minimum of 30,000-50,000 copies of your own book. Your platform is the nationwide radio show you host, the nationally-broadcast television show you star or regularly guest on, the seminars or conferences that have you speaking before tens of thousands of rapt listeners a year. Your platform can even be the blog you write or the podcast you do, if either is insanely popular. But it’s got to be something you do that makes thousands and thousands of people want whatever else you might do, such as the book you might write.

Publishers need to make money off their books. That means they need to sell their books. And that’s reallydifficult to do, because there are some 200,000 books published in America published every twelve months. That’s a lot of noise to get heard through.

Publishers don’t want to market your book. That costs them way too much money; it takes mad cash to run even the most modest ad campaign. What a publisher wants is an author who shows up with their own advertising campaign, their own marketing clout, their own known brand. They want don’t want to make noise for an author; they want an author who comes in already loud.

Publishers aren’t risk takers. They can’t afford to be: some ninety percent of all books published lose their publishers money. What publishers are — or certainly what those holding the Publishing Purse Strings are — are business people. And — and this is everything — they’re business people trying to make money selling art.

Business and art: that’s the ancient dichotomy. The people in publishing who cut the checks that keep the rest of us in publishing aren’t artists. They’re not aesthetic visionaries. They’re just everyday people trying to make a living. They’re people trying to keep their jobs.

Just like every other company that interrupts your television viewing for twelve out of every thirty-minutes, book publishers are people with products they need to sell.

But how do you sell a book? Books are based on writing—and writing is, still (and ever, of course) an art. Business people don’t understand art. Or, rather, what they do understand about art is that it can’t be quantified. They can’t predict it. They can’t turn it into a formula. They can’t anticipate who’s going to like it, or why, or when. Business people don’t like that. They want numbers they can count on, formulas they can depend upon, market analytics they can apply. They need stuff that, as much as possible, they know will work.

The answer? Publish a book with the name of someone on its cover who, all by themselves, can effectively promote and sell that book.

Bottom line: if you’re a writer going into publishing without a platform, you’re going in without much of a chance at all.

Now,that is true. But ultimately it’s not the whole story. Look at me! Not that long ago at all, the only platform I had was on the forklift I maniacally drove around in a warehouse all day. I had zero connections in the business. And now I’m doing just fine writing pretty much anything I want to. It took me a while to get where I am, but I did it. And you can too.

Start small, work hard, keep you address book current. If you want it bad enough, you’ll make it.


A Would-Be Writer Asks: “MUST I Go to College?”

This morning I received the below e-mail from an aspiring author. My answer follows it.

I am currently paying the bills with a job in telecommunications,” he wrote, “but ultimately would love to make the transition to being a full-time writer. From your experience, how much would a formal education/bachelor’s degree help me to make this transition? Having been to college for two years already (even though that was over 10 years ago), I can certainly understand the benefit of formal instruction. But I’m wondering if the benefits of that formal education would justify its cost. Any professional writer thoughts or wisdom you’d care to share?

Bend your life as far as you can in order to enable yourself to go to the best college you can afford. You’re unlikely to make it as a writer without a college education. You can, of course—anything’s possible!—but (and especially these days) trying to make it as a writer without a college education is like trying to become known for your violin playing without ever having taken lessons. It’s possible that you’ll become a great violin player, but it’s way more probable that you’ll spend some time making noises no one cares to hear, and then quit.

The main reason college is so critical for a writer is because it’s hard to have anything interesting to say about the world if you don’t know anything about the world—about history, culture, literature, science, etc. Generally speaking, the broader the context, the richer the thought. College is also good for writing insofar as you have to do so much writing in college, all of which gets read and evaluated by professors who have spent their lives engaging with the written word. College also has humongous value in a purely utilitarian sense, because those same professors know people out in the publishing world who can help jump-start your career. The publishing business is just like any other: whom you know seriously helps. College professors know people.

All that said, though, it’s also true that creative writing is just that: creative. It’s an art form. And while you can certainly nurture and train an artist, you cannot make an artist out of someone who’s not born one. Journalism, you can teach (though I doubt whether you can teach the qualities of personality good journalism demands). But you can no sooner teach or instill the kind of artistic vision it takes to be a successful creative writer than you can teach a cow how to play canasta.


The Book Doctor Will Needle You Now

Not long ago I took a job doctoring a novel. “Doctoring” a novel means taking someone’s novel and either outright fixing it yourself, or directing its author on what he or she needs to do in order to fix it themselves. It’s the most intrusive and inclusive kind of editing; it covers every aspect of the book at hand: pace, setting, characters, dialogue, wardrobe malfunctions, etc. I sometimes take on this sort of work if I believe in the author, or think the book has the potential to be great.

Below are excerpts from the last summary report I wrote for a would-be novelist (a fellow whom I’m proud to say took my advice, returned to college, and is now well on his way to making it as a writer of literary fiction). I use it with his permission. It covers a few pretty key points about writing fiction:

Back to basics
Just like a physicist must first master basic math skills, so a writer must first master punctuation, grammar, syntax and usage. You simply have to know this stuff, cold. I don’t know how you’re going to learn it as thoroughly as you need to—if you’re going to take an adult ed class in English composition, or buy some style or usage guides and study them, or what. I can tell you what I did—though I wouldn’t recommend it. I taught that stuff to myself. I spent about three years with my nose buried in “The Chicago Manual of Style,” and Kate Turabian’s classic style manual, and the “Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage,” and the AP Style Guide, and about a zillion other such titles. (One of the best, most comprehensive books of this sort available today is “Quick Access” by Lynn Quitman Troyka. It’s awesome. If you’re only gonna have one such book—and don’t, of course—make it this one.)

I would not recommend trying to teach yourself this material, because the best way to learn anything so vast and complex is systematically, which is pretty much the whole purpose of school. I think you want to take some classes in English composition. You need to know what constitutes a complete sentence; the basic rules of punctuation; the pitfalls and earmarks of sloppy syntax. However you go about it, do not try to short cut around learning this stuff, because without it I guarantee you will never get off the ground as a writer.

Reading is really the best way to learn the basics of writing. If you read enough, for long enough, after awhile you just know what does and doesn’t make for a sound, clean sentence; you understand the functions of punctuation; you come to have a solid feel for syntax and usage. Read any modern master: Updike, Vonnegut, Hemingway, John Irving, Steinbeck. Read it hard. Study it. Take a class or two (or ten) on English literature. Give it all some time. In the end it’ll be worth it, because once you know grammar and syntax you’ll be in possession of all the bricks necessary to build yourself virtually any building you want.

Show and (not) tell
If I say to you, “Bob was angry at Tom,” that’s one thing. But if I create a scene in which the living, breathing Bob is railing violently against a cowering Tom, then I’ve given you something you can really get into; then I’ve made the fact of Bob’s anger come alive for you. If I just tell you that Bob was angry at Tom, you kind of … don’t care that much. It’s the difference between reading about being on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and actually being on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

One very definite thing about telling rather than showing something is that it’s soooooo much easier. You can see the difference between just saying, “My father was a difficult person,” and actually taking the trouble to construct a scene in which you not only show an example of your father being difficult, but also convey how typical that behavior is or isn’t for him. “My father was a difficult person” is six words. A scene showing your father being a difficult person will cost you many, many times that. Directly telling and artfully showing represent radically different orders of endeavor. And because properly/effectively showing something takes up so much more room than does essentially reporting it, in a novel you have to be very careful about what scenes you choose to focus on, to present in their fullness to the reader. Everything that happens in a novel must have an extremely good reason to be there; you’ve no time—you lack the raw available word count—to present anything that’s not critical to moving the story forward or helping us understand or empathize with a character.

Read ’em and weep
I would hazard too suggest that you need to read a lot more great novels. Read “The World According to Garp” by John Irving. “The Fixer” by Bernard Malumud. Definitely “Huckleberry Finn.” Definitely Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” The classic first person American novel is J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” Any modern classic of this sort—anything by John Updike, for instance—is golden. You need to read a lot of great books, so that the style of such writing sort of sinks into you, becomes part of your subconscious bedrock of knowledge, power, and aesthetic understanding into which you can then dig as a source and even inspiration for your own work. You need to ask yourself the degree to which you’re familiar with the basic cannon of Western literature—at the very least, of modern Western literature. If you can’t say that you’re truly familiar with our best literature—that you really have read at least as much as any student with a Master’s degree in English Literature—then I’m afraid there’s no getting around your need to change that. Get a library card. Start hitting used book stores. (And thrift shops! The best book deals are at thrift shops!) I would even recommend you take a year or two off from writing, and just read. In the end, there’s nothing better you can do to improve your writing skills. And there’s no question but that you will never improve as a writer without that kind of reading under your belt. Every writer knows he owes everything he writes to the authors he’s read and loved, to the writers before him who inspired him. Find out who those authors are for you. (For what it’s worth, my personal favorites are Twain, Chekhov, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, John Irving, Jane Austen, and John Kennedy Toole, the guy who wrote one of my very favorite novels, the unbearably hilarious “A Confederacy of Dunces.”)

And in conclusion…

What I hope you’ll be left with coming out of this is what I know you had coming into it: your desire to be a great writer. Believe me it’s possible for you to achieve that goal. You’ve got the brains. All you lack is foundation; all you need to do is take the time to establish that foundation. If you have a community college near you, enroll in it, and get an A.A. in English Literature. My personal opinion is that that, right there, would give you everything you need to start a serious career as a real writer. You’d learn mechanics: grammar, punctuation, syntax. And two years of study would give you a good sense of Western Literature—the same body of work of which you’d like your own work to one day be part. Take some creative writing classes; get involved with some writers groups. Start writing short stories, which of course constitute their own art form, but also prepare you for novel writing. Share your stories with readers you respect, inside or outside your writers group. Get your critiqued. Have people talk to you about your work, and talk to others about theirs.

This is how you learn to write. It’s the only  way to learn to write. And we’re talking about a total of three years here. You do that stuff—go to school for two years; join a good writer’s group; start writing short stories–and you’ll be ready to write your first real novel.

How To Write in Tandem with God

I get a fair amount of questions/input around the dynamic of writing in conjunction with God. So I thought I’d burble out a little sumpin’ sumpin’ about that particular phenomenon.

First of all, if you’re trying to do any sort of creative work, do you have any choice but to access and stay with the divine within you? All creativity is born of the Great Power, however you personally understand or conceive of that. Being Christian, I say that in order to do my best creative work I must tap into and let flow through me the Holy Spirit; I assume if I were a Muslim I’d say the same thing about the spirit of Allah, or maybe Mohammad. However you personally understand The Great Being, Universal Force, or Divine Power Within, you’d better connect to it and let it work through you if you hope to write anything more interesting or substantial than whatever you could scrape together with your normal, everyday brain.

Your normal everyday brain is great for doing taxes, returning videos on time, and remembering why you shouldn’t attack your boss in an elevator with a stapler. It’s generally useless, though, when it comes to creative work. For creative work, you’ve got to get down and give it up for the source of all creativity.

The key to successfully doing that — to truly divesting yourself of what really does amount to all control over your writing — is trust. You have to trust in the quality of whatever God/The Universe produces through you. The thing that most often causes writers to choke is thinking too much about the end result of their work: they wonder if it will be good enough, smart enough, clever enough, engaging enough. But thinking about all that sort of stuff is like taking a boat out into the water and then shooting a hole through its floor. You’re sunk before any of the fun and/or real stuff can even begin.

Writing has to be about the means, not the end. And the key to experiencing creatively rewarding means is not worrying at all. You can’t create if you’re worrying about being creative. You aren’t creative, is why. God is creative. The creative spirit residing within you is creative. You aren’t: you can barely tie your shoes without accidentally snagging your thumb in a tourniquet. So let The Great Creative Power use you to do his/her/its creative thing. All you have to do is ride the train of  that blessed phenomenon to wherever in the heck it takes you.

The key is to trust that train will  take you somewhere new, good, and exciting. Don’t worry about the results of what you write: that kind of evaluation is for uptight teachers, crappy work supervisors, pursed-lipped Church Lady types. Worrying about the quality of your creative work is the mortal enemy of your creative work. So don’t. Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t do it to the creative spirit within you.

When you want to write, poise yourself with your pen in hand or keyboard beneath your fingers, close your eyes, open your heart and spirit, keep them open, and then wait.

Pretty soon you hear that distant train whistle blow. Then you hear the train coming closer.

Then it’s upon you, and you jump aboard it — and then you go, cat, go.

My Last, Best 10 Tips on How To Make It As A Writer

Take it seriously. It’s just about impossible to make a living writing, so doing so means Fanatical Focus. When I decided to start making a living a writing, I wrote (for free, for all kinds of local publications) every night after work for four to six hours, and throughout every weekend. Six months into that I was offered my first job as an editor; three months after that, I was making a great living as the main entertainment features writer for (then) new $4 million website of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Lesson being: Sweat pays.

Decide right off what kind of writing you want to do. Journalism? Fiction? Nonfiction? Magazine articles? Plays? Poetry/song lyrics? Each of these fields has its own rules, outlets, primary players, processes — and each is filled with talented people who are totally dedicated to only that form of writing. Decide what you want to write, and immerse yourself in that kind of writing. You can only swim in one pool at a time.

Learn to think before you write. So many writers think that beautiful thoughts come from beautiful words. Wrong. First have the clear, beautiful thought, and then let the only words that can express that thought naturally attach themselves to it. That’s how you get a style. Put developing a style first, and at best you’ll end up as a writer with a nice enough technique, but nothing to say. The world has plenty of those. Never forget that the only point of writing is to serve thought worthy of articulating.

Cultivate relationships. People in publishing are just like everyone else in the world, and everyone prefers to do business with people they know, or at least people who know people they know. Buy a Rolodex. Get busy emailing, phoning, writing, networking. Be proud; never act like you need anyone more than they need you. To the extent that you can, in fact, make it so that when people in your network do need someone, they think of you.

Believe in your lack of competition. It’s true there are a zillion writers out there. But 99.99% of them have no idea what they’re doing. A decent writer (let alone a great one) is as rare as rare gets. You know all that great writing you see in magazines? That was all done by editors who shaped whatever they got from their freelancers into whatever you read. Writing is freakishly difficult (for the reason that it’s so intellectually and emotionally difficult/tricky to make what’s subjective objective). Very few people are good at it. Become one of those few, and within a very short time you’ll have more work than you can handle.

Start where you are. You’ve got to work your way up. You’d think that you could write stuff so great that an editor will see it and basically pluck you from obscurity and publish it — but boy, would you be wrong. Everyone along the food chain of publishing is already swamped with people and material appropriate to their level of publishing. You can’t just step into an arena you don’t naturally belong in. Start where it’s not at unreasonable to expect you could get a foothold. Get that foothold — and then take the next step. Try to go around, or take a short cut to where you want to go, and you’ll end up nowhere.

Don’t sweat rejection. There are an infinite number of perfectly good reasons why anything you write might get rejected that have nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the rejected work. If someone bounces your work back to you, forget it, and move on. It means nothing. Keep submitting. There’s always another outlet you can approach. And it only takes one to publish you.

Get an agent. Trying to publish a book with one of the larger, mainstream book publishers without an agent is like trying to fly without wings. It can’t happen. Publishers depend upon agents to bring them stuff to publish. If you take your writing career seriously, know that you do need an agent. And as is true in every field, agents are aligned along a power hierarchy. About 5% of them sell 90% of the books. You want an agent in that 5% club. And that means you’ve got to have a body of work behind you that makes at least one of them want to participate in your future. (And forget whatever nonsense you’ve ever heard about agents not being worth their 15% of your money. A good agent is worth at least twice that.)

Believe you’re a genius. Hey, someone’s gotta be. Why not you? And it’s surely not your goal to be a mediocre writer, is it? Believe you’ve got a unique, valuable, indispensable, irreplaceable voice. Because you do. (That said, though, let me cram this in here: Do not think that just because you can talk you can write. They’re not the same thing at all. They’re exact opposite uses of language, actually. Which is a whole other truth I’ll be happy to expound upon if anyone wants me to.)

Write a lot. A lot. For years and years and years and years. And not for yourself, either: for others. For publication. Subject your work to the brutality of the marketplace. Learn to hone it, trim it, shape it, toss it, bend it, maul it, polish it, lose it. Write for so long, and so consistently, for so many different kinds of outlets and editors, that eventually you come to know, without reference to what anyone else thinks, what’s good. That knowledge is your ticket. Costs a lot. Worth a fortune.

Quit Trying. If you are struggling to write but failing to, it doesn’t mean that you lack discipline or inspiration. It means that you’re not writing the right thing for you. It means (most likely) that you’re trying to write what you think “writers” write. You need to forget that noise; trying to be a “writer” guarantees that your authentic creative self, instead of cooperating with you, will shut down the whole writing operation before you’ve even sharpened your pencil.

It’s not about making yourself write. It’s about discovering what, for you, writes itself.

“Writer’s block” is just your heart refusing to go where your brain is insisting it should. Start with the heart, and let the words flow.

I hope any of the above helps you in your writing journey.

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  • Greg Owens

    “I’d also some pretty significant book ghostwriting and editing” Not a great way to start off a post about writing. 🙂

  • Ha! Yes, I’d best go fix that!

  • Wow! So much great stuff here! Thanks…

  • Matt

    I’ve never wanted to make a living through writing. It just never appealed to me. But this is very, very fascinating regardless.

  • Alliecat04

    Great stuff! I definitely know some people I’ll be directing to this post. The only thing I can think of that you haven’t already said is to read trade publications. That’s how you learn who wants what. In every field, not just writing, if you don’t read your trade publications you are handicapping yourself.