Well, admitting you have a problem is the first step toward
recovery a writing career.
To be fair, a writing career can be a bit of a gamble. It is certainly not the path of least resistance; it’s full of hills and valleys, rocks that will make you stumble like a drunk, and holes that might possibly break your ankle. Also, there is poison ivy. And bears.
Lots and lots of angry bears. And they want to bite your face in your face.
I’m mostly kidding. Editors can be a scary lot but most of us are not so bad.
Establishing a writing career feels daunting in the beginning because you’re plagued with so many questions. Where do I start? What do I do? What should I write about? What if I suck at this? What if I never make any money? Is it too late to go back to clown school?
I wish I had all of the answers. Truth be told, you’re going to have to forge your own way and the winding path you take will depend on the field(s) of writing you intend to pursue.
Unless you’re hired as a full-time staff writer for a publication, you’re most likely going to need some other source of revenue while you’re working on Your Big Writing Project. I have a few books currently in the works: a full-length fantasy novel, a conceptual humor book, and a couple of children’s books. The thing is, none of those projects are paying me squat right now, so I’m holding down other full-time work.
My dream of working solely on my own writing projects is one that I hope to achieve one day, but for the time being, a girl's gotta eat. A girl's also gotta keep the lights and internet turned on.
THE SEARCH FOR PAID WRITING WORK
And that’s the trick. Freelancing – particularly writing gigs – will help build experience while also paying the bills. I got my initial start (what feels like a thousand years ago) working (on a very short-term basis) in a field I swore I would never sink to:
A content mill.
Most content writing mills pay shit. They do. They make bank on what they charge companies for “professionally written content” while paying the writers dirt-cheap, pennies on the word wages. That said, they can actually be a good first step because you can write what you want to write about, given the pool of assignments and clients, and you can walk away when you don’t want to do it anymore – no hard feelings, and no obligations.
A content mill, if used wisely to test the waters, can give you a little bit of experience writing in various styles and for different industries, while also adding valuable writing samples to your portfolio.
Again, you’re not going to get rich while writing for a content mill. Make no mistake about that. But you’ll earn a wee bit of extra cash while getting your feet wet in the world of content writing, which is a good thing if you intend to seek more freelance writing jobs in the future. Because at that point, you can charge a fee that’s on par with what a content mill charges (or more) while working directly with clients. (Most content mills do not allow you to engage with clients directly.)
Writing job boards like writejobs.info can provide you with tools for seeking more freelance writing work. I’ve successfully nailed decent gigs that way, and only one of them didn’t work out in the long term. It’s free to use, but you can also pay a small monthly fee to access their premium job listings. There are other free job boards online, and PLENTY of free-to-join writing-related groups on Facebook that’ll help you keep your ear to the ground for paid writing opportunities and jobs. Writers' groups on Facebook can open doors to all sorts of opportunities for guest posts, anthology submissions, and longer-term writing gigs. And they’re free for the joining.
WORKING FOR FREE IS NOT NECESSARILY WITHOUT PAYMENT
Speaking of free… there is value in writing for free.
When you’re building a name for yourself in the very beginning, guest posts on blogs or websites, or anthology submissions that may or may not be paid, can be great opportunities to set your work in front of a larger audience. With any luck, you’ll slowly build a fan base and your name will be kept in mind for other opportunities that arise with the folks involved in those publications.
On top of that, those guest posts and anthologies can offer a vital career boost by providing you with author credentials. These look great on writing job applications, and they make you appear more established in your career when you set out to seek potential agents/publishers if you’re going the book route.
WELL, WHAT IF I JUST WANNA BE PUBLISHED SOMEWHERE?
If you’re the type who’s really only looking to get published by certain media outlets and you’re not afraid to pitch articles or ideas, you might compile your “bucket list” of publications and start there.
Familiarize yourself with their topics of interest and preferred writing styles, and study their submission policies. When you submit anything for publication, follow their guidelines to the letter. Some prefer email attachments, some do not. Some prefer single-spaced 12-point Times New Roman, while others might prefer double-spaced 11-point Helvetica with a side of bolded italics.
You might think their requests are ridiculous but there’s a method to their perceived madness. You’d be surprised at just how easily editors will toss submissions that don’t conform to their guidelines — I do it, myself, without even blinking (or responding).
Following guidelines shows that you’re taking their work and their time seriously, that you’re paying attention to detail (which more often than not, is a requirement for the gig), and that you care enough to do so.
That’s a big deal.
Additionally, many if not most editors have filtering set up in their email clients to help manage the onslaught of applications that roll into their inboxes each day.
If we ask you to specifically put the words "I love Skit-skit-skittles" in the subject line when submitting something, it's likely because there's a filter set up to move all of the correctly-submitted applications into a dedicated folder for review later on.
By not following directions, your email is likely to be passed over entirely.
OH GODS, WHAT IF MY HARD WORK IS REJECTED?
Don’t be afraid to submit your work to an editor or publisher. The absolute worst thing that will happen is that you’ll get a “Thanks, but no thanks,” in response.
That’s it. They won’t hunt you down, they won’t kill your dog, they won’t blow up your life or make you eat canned beets.
They’ll just… say no.
And in the grand scheme of things, that’s really not so bad, is it?
So be brave; submit your work and hope for the best. Just know that if it isn’t accepted, it certainly isn’t the end of the world.
Understand that rejection is a part of the game. It’s a sucky part of the game, I’ll give you that much, but it’s actually a very important part.
Rejection might make you feel bad about yourself or your work for a short bit, and that’s okay – wallow for a few minutes or hours if you must, but don’t allow it to end your career.
Ultimately, rejection can make you a stronger writer if you let it. It will push you to keep trying, to not give up. Hell, I’ve been trying to get published by McSweeney’s for a while now, and every new rejection I receive is just one more reason to keep trying.
If you’re lucky and they have the time to do so, an editor will provide you with feedback about why the piece wasn’t accepted. Learn from any critiques you receive and grow from them. Not every editor will provide a reason other than “this just wasn’t a good fit” or “we’re not interested right now,” but if they offer you any advice, listen to it and take from it anything useful. Tweak the piece and/or take it elsewhere because that rejection does not mark the end of the line.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that there is a home for everything you write. Somewhere. You might not necessarily find it right away, but everything you write is valuable to some degree.
If you can’t find a place to publish what you’ve written, put it on your own website/blog, or keep it as a portfolio piece. Nothing is ever truly wasted, not your time, and not your writing.
THE TRASH CAN IS FOR TRASH ONLY: DON’T SHITCAN (ALL OF) YOUR WORDS
Along that same vein, don’t throw your work away. Ever.
Your words have worth, even when you’re mad about that really stupid thing you just wrote. Because the thing is, you might go back and re-read that awful manuscript or terrible poem months or even years after you wrote it and decide that, yeah, this totally sucks and I can’t believe I wrote this steaming pile of word-turds, but there’s a nugget of inspiration to work with.
You’ll look at this horrible, no-good piece of shit that you wrote, read it with fresh and far more experienced eyes, only to discover that there’s an idea within that’s actually salvageable, something you can run with.
SPEAKING OF RUNNING... WHAT IF I RUN OUT OF IDEAS?
This is every writer’s worst fear in life: running out of things to write about.
Inspiration is everywhere and usually shows up when you least expect it. I keep a text file on my laptop and a notepad entry on my phone that’s filled with random ideas that pop into my head. Might be an idea for an article or story, might be a funny thought I had about potholes in the road, whatever.
Jot that stuff down because 1) you’ll forget that awesome sentence you just came up with a minute ago, and 2) you might be able to use that idea for something one day.
You will find inspiration in the weirdest of places, but that’s how it works. It’s like lightning; keep a bottle handy so you can catch it before it disappears like a fart in the wind. When you’re feeling less than inspired, go check out the stuff you threw into that file of random thoughts and notes. Something might strike a chord with you and lead you to write something amazing on a day when you felt that task was otherwise impossible.
HEY, LADY… YOU DIDN’T ANSWER ANY OF MY QUESTIONS ABOUT PUBLISHING A BOOK
There is a load of useful advice to be found online regarding book publishing and the path you choose to take is ultimately up to you, your level of patience, and the amount of work you want (or don't want) to do.
You might consider seeking an agent or publisher if:
- You are not in a hurry to have your work published (this route can take years from securing an agent to getting a publisher to seeing your book on a shelf)
- You aren't into doing the lion's share of the work involved in the publishing process (cover design, hiring editors/proofreaders, formatting, marketing, etc.)
- You don't want (or can't afford) to cover the costs of the work you're unable to do yourself (such as cover design, unbiased edits/proofing, and formatting)
- You feel out of your depth regarding the industry and would rather let an expert handle everything
- You prefer to have people in your corner to help you every step of the way — most of whom will have existing connections in the industry
- You want wider print distribution (bookstores/chains)
- You feel it's the more credible way to get published
You might consider self-publishing if:
- You are not comfortable giving up the rights to your work (this includes any non-compete clauses that might come with a publisher contract — meaning you're not able to publish anything else for X amount of time)
- You are not willing to give up creative control to another person or company (including the cover design, story progression, or characters)
- You seek a faster route to publishing
- You are okay with the overhead costs necessary for the things you can't do yourself (cover design, unbiased edits, proofing)
- You are publishing e-books or POD (print on demand) and not necessarily seeking bookstore chain distribution — although you can potentially land it this way depending on the platform you use for distribution
- You prefer to have a higher cut of the royalties (traditional publishing will yield you a ballpark of 10-15% on each sale; self-publishing royalties can go as high as 70% to 100%, depending on how the book is produced)
- You don't mind going it "alone"
Look, traditional publishing DOES have its benefits, which include more opportunities for distribution in bookstore chains and an advance on royalties (payment, typically a lump sum near the time of publishing — but you won't earn anything further until the book has earned that amount back).
It's enticing, particularly when you consider that traditional publishers have connections and know how to effectively market a book for optimal sales.
That said, they're not going to market as much (or for as long) as you think they will.
Most publishing companies earn their money from the best-selling authors they represent — and those are the folks that get the red-carpet marketing treatment. Lead titles are guaranteed earners, essentially. As a new author, you're still going to be doing the heaviest lifting when it comes to marketing your work until you have a proven track record of success.
If you write a lot or have plans to publish multiple books (in series or not) over a short amount of time, it's worth noting that many publishing contracts come with non-compete clauses, essentially barring you from publishing anything else for a set period unless you're cutting a deal for a series.
I know someone who had to put entire book projects on hold because of this — after signing a contract, she wasn't able to release another full-length work independently for 18 months.
Unless an advance is going to cover your living wage for that amount of time and you're not in a hurry to get other work out in front of readers, that can be a real pisser.
On the flip side, self-publishing comes with its own benefits and drawbacks, too. You maintain complete control and receive a larger part (or potentially all) of the royalties, but you're also doing all the things.
There is no right answer — only what's right for you.
The one thing I do know for certain is that no publisher worth their salt will EVER ask you for money upfront. “Vanity” presses, as they are known, are notorious for targeting inexperienced authors with promises of publication, but only after you foot the bill for it.
Do not go there. You’ll never earn back the money you put into it.
JUST FREAKING DO IT — WRITE THAT BOOK
Above all things, you have to believe in yourself to make it anywhere in this field.
You can do this thing. You really can. Get up every morning, look yourself in the mirror, and say so, directly to your own face.
“I can fucking DO THIS THING.”
And then… go write something.
We live in an age when writers have more power over their words than ever before. You just have to be resourceful and willing to head into the enchanted forest with your machete firmly in hand.
After all, there are bears out there.