There are not too many careers that most everyone thinks they can do just as well as the “professionals.” Theology is one. How many self-proclaimed theologians are out there who have never studied theologians of the past to know what mistakes to avoid, what downsides there are to any one position, etc.? And yet, someone who has read their Bible a couple of times will decide they know as much as someone who has studied it all their life.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times when the professionals get it dead wrong. They can end up relying upon their creative thinking ability more than the facts, and come up with some really harebrained ideas. But I can guarantee you that the number of harebrained ideas among amateur theologians is much, much bigger.
Being an author tends to be one of those career choices. We see someone rise to stardom among authors and what is the general consensus? They got lucky. Fate smiled upon them. And it seems even more that way when you look at some bestsellers who are generally lambasted for their poor writing skills. People read it and think, “I could do better.”
Lester Del Ray also said that, many times. And his girlfriend at the time grew tired of him saying that, and challenged him to write a story and send it in. If it got published, he could keep saying that, if it didn’t, then he had to shut up. So he took the challenge and wrote his first short story, and sent it to a magazine. Even he didn’t really expect it to get published, but one day a check arrived in the mail for $40.00 (my first sale was for $10.00 over 50 years later…where’s that inflation everyone talks about?) Thus launched his career. But it wasn’t a straight shot upwards. He struggled to get another one published for some time, and at one point quit writing, coming back to it after a period of time. But at some point, he began selling his work and it grew from there.
While you may get lucky and sell the first time out, or you may have a voice that is compelling on the first novel, the odds of that happening to any one writer is worse than most state lotteries. People tend to think they can one day say to themselves, “Hey, I know enough grammar that I can sit down and write out a story people will be begging me to read, and I’ll be rich.” Why they think this about writing and not about playing the piano is beyond me. Even after a year of learning to play that instrument, or any instrument, unless there is an artistic prodigy hidden in you, you don’t expect to go out on a concert stage and expect people to pay their hard earned money to hear you play. It is the same for being a writer.
So, if you are thinking of being a writer, here are some reality checks for you to consider as you dream of your name on the best seller’s list.
1. Expect it to take around a million words of writing before you are writing to a professional level and getting regularly published. And no, rewriting/editing a novel doesn’t count. A total rewrite from scratch would. The idea is that for the creative side of your brain to be trained for good story-telling, it has to practice the art of telling a good story. Some get the hang of it earlier, some later. But there are many elements to a good story that a new writer has to master. Elements of a plot, story pacing, characterization, scene setting, weaving in sub-plots, poetic language vs. cliches, and more could be added into the finer points. And we’re not even looking at the business end of things, which way too often writers will neglect, thinking their agent will handle everything.
What this means is your first novel is not likely to be good. My first novel is still sitting on my hard drive. I started a total rewrite from scratch because I think the concept is good, but the execution on that first novel, despite the praise from my wife and kids, was very lacking. So it is a waste? No, not at all. It started me on my career path and put in my first 94,000 words of practice. I discovered I could tell a story decently well, but my dialog sucked, and my character motivations and reactions weren’t realistic. And I had a lot to learn about point of view. But at the time, my wife had me becoming rich the next year. I was a little more realistic. I figured it would take an additional year at the earliest. But the truth was I had put in the first practice session toward learning how to be a professional writer.
2. It will take for most of us, anywhere from 3 to 7 years to start making any significant money from writing. If you do it right. And that is no guarantee. Many don’t ever make much at all. There are many reasons for this. For most, you aren’t going to get a lot published until you’ve practiced enough to write well enough to be published. And once you get published, the amount of money isn’t likely to be anything you can live off of, at least at first. It may take a while to build a following, to stand out from the crowd enough to reach the point you can pay some bills from the money that comes in.
3. Be prepared to endure a lot of rejection, criticism, and failure. The only way to learn is to have someone more experienced tell you what you did right and what needs improvement. If you’ve convinced yourself, like many of the contestants on American Idol, that just because you can put down words on a page they must be genius, and everyone will surely recognize that, you’ll feel hurt and defeated or angry that they criticize the pure literary brilliance displayed right before their eyes. They must be jealous of you! Yeah…that’s it!
The truth is, for every acceptance you work for, you’re likely to have many more rejections. For every novel you self-publish, be prepared for lackluster sales and reviews, if you get any, to lay out your flaws (real or perceived) for the world to see. If you’re in this gig for praise, pats on the back, and glory, be aware to get that requires running the gauntlet of scorn and snarkiness first whether from publishers, agents, or readers.
4. On a positive note, you can make a living at this job. Too often, people pain a picture that makes it sound like only a handful of lucky authors can live on writing fiction. By far, the majority of people will not. That’s true for anything when it comes to entertainment. The majority of football players don’t earn the big dollars or become famous. The majority of actors never make it to the big time. For everyone who has made it, there are multiple people who have tried and given up, often for many of the reasons listed above. They didn’t realize what they’d have to do to make a living at this job. It’s a competitive field, vying for the attention of readers that your book is worth their time and money.
But, that doesn’t mean only a handful of people are able to make a living at this. There are many midlist writers who only write speculative fiction and do quite nicely, up in the realm of 100K a year or more. And I can tell you, they don’t do it by putting out one book a year unless they are on the level of J. K. Rowling or Stephen King.
The idea that very few could make a living at this had a little more truth to it in the older days. Days when publishers and agents said you should only put out one book a year, and offered you two to three thousand advance on it. Then you get that sent to you over a three year period, which means you get one thousand a year. If you get another book published the next year, you’ll get two thousand. The next, three, and from there, assuming everything stayed the same, you’d be getting a whopping three thousand dollars a year salary! Divide that by the number of hours it took to write and edit three books and you’re likely to go get a job at McDonalds, because at least you’ll be making minimum wage.
But what if each book wasn’t taken out of print but stayed up online forever? What if that book earned around one thousand in royalties a year, and what if you had thirty such books built up over time, by putting out four books a year instead of one? In six year’s you’d be earning $24,000. Another six years and you’d have 48,000. And it grows from there. I know not all books are going to sell the same, and all books are not going to earn the same over the life of the book, but you get the point. Traditional publishing sells a book for three to four months, then it goes out of print after several months, means a book doesn’t stay on the list making money year after year. Without that buildup of backlist selling regularly, it is very hard to make a living unless you hit it big.
Persistence and producing good stories people will want to read can eventually create a good income one can live on. But it takes a few years of publishing novels. But with persistence, it can be done, and if readers really like what you read and a book catches on, it will speed up the process. But don’t expect to be rich overnight. It takes years of hard work, persistence, and love of the craft to reach that point. But it can be reached. Don’t let anyone let you think it is pure luck for a select few.
But you may be happy doing it as a side job, earning a little spending cash here and there. That’s great. You’ll still need to go through the hard work if you want to rise to professional standards, even if you don’t expect to live on the money.
But again, the love of telling a story is what carries professional writers onward, despite the obstacles, rejections, delayed gratifications, and hardships. If you jump into the profession aware of these things, there will be less chance for discouragement and giving up down the road.
So, still want to be a writer? Good! May the muse be with you!