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Getting By on a Writer’s Income

April 5, 2012

Recently, to give you all a taste of one of the new books for writers I ePublished in 2011, I posted a Writer’s Digest column of mine (“Writing, Always Writing”) from The Liar’s Companion. Enough of you responded enthusiastically to prompt me to Do It Again.

So here’s a piece that originally appeared in 1981 in an annual publication, Writer’s Yearbook. Dated references notwithstanding, I’d have to say it’s held up well. The points it makes seem as valid as ever, and the concerns it addresses have certainly not gone away.

I was grateful for the opportunity to include it in The Liar’s Bible, and I’m happy to share it here…

GETTING BY ON A WRITER’S INCOME

A writer, James Michener has said, can make a fortune in America. But he can’t make a living.

I think the point is good. It’s hardly a secret that a few people get rich every year at their typewriters. The same media attention that 50 years ago lionized a handful of writers as important cultural leaders now trumpets the income of a comparable handful. The tabloid reader knows nowadays about paperback auctions and movie tie-ins and multi-volume book contracts with sky-high advances and elevator clauses.

Balanced against this image of the writer as fortune’s darling is a similarly glamorous picture of the unsuccessful writer starving in an airless garret, eating baked beans out of the can and pawning his overcoat to buy carbon paper. The poor blighter’s starving for his art, and he’ll either go on starving in pursuit of his pure artistic vision until they lay his bones in potter’s field, or else he’ll suddenly break through to literary superstardom, and the next we’ll see of him he’ll be at poolside sipping champagne and snorting lines with the Beautiful People.

The validity of both of these images notwithstanding, most of the writers I know have never gotten rich but have always gotten by. This has certainly been the case with me. I have, to be sure, had good years and bad years. I had a couple of years when I made more money than I knew what to do with—although I always thought of something—and I had other years, and rather more of them, when I might have switched to another line of work had there been anything else for which I was qualified.

I did live in a garret once, in a rather pleasant area under a sloping roof atop a barbershop in Hyannis, Massachusetts. For a couple of weeks I subsisted solely on peanut butter sandwiches and Maine sardines, and I wrote a short story every day, one of which ultimately became my first sale. (The room was $8 a week, the sardines were 15¢ a can, and I got a hundred bucks for the story.)

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor,” Sophie Tucker said, “and believe me, rich is better.” I suppose I believe her, but I also believed showman Mike Todd when he said he’d been broke innumerable times, but he’d never been poor.

I think the distinction is useful. The writing life has had me broke any number of times, and I suspect it will continue to do so as long as I pursue it. I won’t be poor, though, not so long as I’m able to recognize that being broke is a temporary thing, that it’s part of the business, and that it doesn’t have to interfere with either my writing or my living.

There are several reasons why being broke is inevitable now and then. Sometimes the fault is my own. My ability to produce marketable material varies with the ups and downs of my own emotional life. Writers are not machines, and even machines do break down from time to time. Like most writers I’ve known and known of, I have occasional periods when I can’t get anything written and other stretches when what I write just doesn’t work.

Other times my writing goes along just fine, but I can’t seem to be able to get money to come into my house. Sometimes changes in the market leave me in the position of a dress manufacturer with a warehouse full of mini skirts. Other times the entire publishing industry seems to have gone on hold, and manuscripts sit on editors’ desks for months without being either accepted or rejected. Sometimes I get slow-paid by publishers intent on solving their entire cash flow problems at my personal expense. Sometimes a publisher decides his inventory is too large and elects not to publish dozens of books he’s already bought and paid for; I get to keep the advance, but I can forget about royalties, foreign sales, and all of the subsidiary income that make the difference between profit and loss.

Any number of things can happen to render a freelance writer insolvent, and if you stay in the game long enough, all of them will happen to you sooner or later. But the point of this piece is not that dire events will occur, but that you can survive them. You may decide it’s not worth it—some of us are not temperamentally suited to the financial ups and downs of fulltime freelancing. If you can’t stand that kind of heat, then you should probably stay out of this particular kitchen.

If you can stand it, and would like to survive as gracefully as possible, here are some survival tips.

1. Don’t Run Scared

While fear may not be the only thing we have to be afraid of, it’s certainly up there at the top of the list. It can be an absolutely paralyzing emotion, utterly undercutting the self-confidence it takes in order to put words on paper in the expectation that someone will be eager to read them.

Fear keeps a lot of writers from freelancing in the first place. Some people are never comfortable with the financial insecurity of freelance writing, and do better emotionally if they remain employed and write on the side. Those of us who do choose to write fulltime must balance fear with faith—in ourselves, in Providence, or in both.

Just about the time I was starting to write stories, Richard S. Prather published an article in Writer’s Digest explaining how he’d become a fulltime writer. He’d begun with the revelation that nobody starves in America; accordingly he’d decided to quit his job and invest a year in the process of establishing himself. It was, of course, the best investment he ever made, and before the year was out he had sold novels about private eye Shell Scott and had launched what was to be an extremely successful career.

Prather’s piece must have impressed me; not only do I remember it after all these years, but also my own first published story began with the line, “Anybody who starves in this country deserves it,” an observation of dubious socioeconomic validity, perhaps, but a not-bad opening shot for a suspense story.

In any event, it was easy enough for me to decide to freelance. My salary and expenses were so low at the time that I didn’t have to sit down and write Forever Amber to make ends meet. Some years later, when I returned to freelancing after a year and a half’s gainful employment, I had a wife and two children and a somewhat higher standard of living. But I also had the knowledge based on previous experience that writing was something I could make a living at, and I made the move without thinking to be afraid of the outcome.

2. Watch Out for Sure Money

There are more ways than one to run scared. In my own case, fear has tended to manifest itself more in terms of an inability to take chances at the typewriter. For a few too many years I wrote pulp novels on regular assignment for sure money rather than risk failure by attempting something more ambitious.

This is even more of a hazard for writers who are rather better established than I was. Not long ago, for example, I was talking with a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He had had some success with a novel some years ago and was talking about wanting to write another novel—and did a pretty good job of talking himself out of it.

“It would take a minimum of six months and probably more like a year,” he explained, “and then what could I expect to see out of it? A $10,000 advance? A couple grand more in royalties if it gets lucky? Maybe a few thousand in foreign sales? You write one half-hour sitcom script and you make more than that by the time you’re done with the residuals. And what does that take—a week of real work? I’d love to write a novel, but I don’t see how I can afford it.”

It’s hard to fault his dollars-and-cents logic. But when I start thinking along these lines, I try to take a step back and remind myself that I never got into this business for the money in the first place. I became a writer so that I could do what I wanted, and if I reach a point where my “success” as a writer keeps me from doing what I want to do, there would seem to be something seriously wrong with the turn my career has taken.

In my friend’s case, it may be close to impossible for him to gamble the six months or year required for that novel’s production. If he’s used to living on a six-figure income, how can he survive the drop in income that writing that novel will almost inevitably entail? Prather may be right, and perhaps nobody does starve around here, but mortgages get foreclosed and cars get repossessed. Should a simple urge to write a novel leave a family living in Griffith Park on nuts and berries?

Which brings up another point.

3. Keep the Nut Down

However good we are at what we do, however much acclaim we win for our efforts, we are not working for the government or IBM. We do not have that kind of job security. We have security of another sort, the knowledge that we possess a marketable skill that no one can take away from us and that will ultimately carry us through adversity. But the operative word there is ultimately. We can’t count on a weekly check the way others can.

For this reason, and to keep from painting myself into a financial corner where I can’t afford to take professional chances, I find it worthwhile to keep my fixed costs as low as possible. I don’t buy things on time, and my rent is relatively low in proportion to my income. (I did buy a house on time, there being no other way for most of us to purchase real property, but when a Hollywood windfall came along, I paid off the mortgage rather than spend the money upgrading the property or enhancing my standard of living, or investing for future gain. Paying off the mortgage, several people assured me, was not a sound move economically. I knew what they meant, and I knew they were right, but I knew the best thing I as a self-employed writer could do with that windfall was knock out that monthly payment, and I never regretted doing it.)

I don’t want to give the impression that I live like a churchmouse: I very likely spend as high a percentage of my income as the next wastrel. But I try to squander it on luxuries rather than saddle myself with a heavy burden of ongoing necessities. I’ll spend money on travel, blow it on high living, or otherwise find a way to divest myself of it without increasing my day-to-day expenditures. Thus, when the money supply dries up and I have to cut back, I simply go without. I don’t own a car; I take cabs when I’m flush and use the subway when I’m not. I treat myself to a lot of good dinners when there’s money on hand, and I stay home and eat rice when it’s gone.

4. Don’t Take Income for Granted

When pests asked J. P. Morgan what the stock market was going to do, he always gave the same answer: “It will fluctuate.”

So will a writer’s income. If anything, my income seems more subject to fluctuation now than it ever did, and seems concurrently to depend less on how hard I work than ever before. When I started out, I wrote a book a month for one publisher, working on regular assignment and knowing that I was going to get a certain check every month. I would write the book and I would get the check. Nowadays I’ll work hard and produce a lot and make next to nothing, and then the next year I’ll goof off and get little done and earn a lot.

Just recently, for example, a book of mine was published and sold to a paperback house. The publisher was as certain as he’d ever been that he was going to get a six-figure advance for this property, and his track record shows he doesn’t make many mistakes along these lines. Well, there was no book club sale, and no paperback publisher submitted a floor bid, and they finally had the auction and he got the six-figure price, all right, but two of those figures came after the decimal point.

Well, these things happen, and I’m glad I’ve been in the business long enough to roll with the punches. The real heartache comes when you take the big money for granted and act accordingly.

Friend of mine writes mysteries. For quite a few years he had a movie sale every year, regular as clockwork. Sometimes two books sold in a year, but there was always one that came through for him, and that was half his income.

Not surprisingly, he learned to count on it. If you make, say, $60,000 a year, year in and year out, and half of that comes from film sales, it’s not too long before you’re living on $60,000 a year, and in the expectation of $60,000 a year. It would be hard to do otherwise.

Then the well ran dry. Nobody bought movie rights to his books, and he sat around wondering what he was doing wrong. Well, he wasn’t doing anything wrong, any more than he’d been doing anything especially right previously. You just can’t take windfalls for granted, and when they come regularly, it’s an easy mistake to make.

There are other ways to take income for granted. When I write a mystery, my income is realized from several sources. There’s the advance my hardcover publisher pays me. There’s the royaltyincome the book earns over and above the advance—it doesn’t amount to an awful lot—and there’s the paperback money. There’s another small chunk from a book club specializing in mysteries, and there are checks from the six or eight foreign countries where my books are regularly published.

Every now and then, these sources of subsidiary income dry up. There was a two-year stretch, for instance, when my French publisher didn’t buy a single American mystery. There was another point when the Scandinavians suddenly ceased buying foreign books. It’s important—but almost impossible—for me to remember that the only thing I can take for granted when I write a book is the initial advance. Other sources of income may be probable, but they’re a long way from certain.

Fortunately, there are so many diverse sources of subsidiary income that I can survive when one or two of them dries up. Which leads us to our next point.

5. Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

As I said, when I was first in the business, I wrote a book a month for one publisher. Then I had a falling out with my agent and we parted company, and the publisher in question turned out to be a closed shop, dealing only through that particular agent. Although I liked writing for him and he very much liked publishing my work, we both had to live without each other. This was manifestly easier for him than it was for me.

Well, I survived, and in the long run the experience was enormously beneficial for me. I was forced to grow as a writer. But I had made a mistake. I had grown far too dependent upon a single market, and when it was closed to me I found it extremely difficult to make a living.

This happens to lots of people. You can take a market for granted just as you can take certain income for granted, and an abrupt change in that market can be devastating. Sometimes there’s not much you can do about it. In the ’50s the market for pulp westerns dropped absolutely dead. A whole slew of writers had done all their writing for these magazines for a couple of decades. They didn’t know how to write anything else. Some of them managed to write western novels for the paperbacks, but that market couldn’t absorb all of them, nor could all of them produce novel-length stories successfully. Others switched and wrote mysteries, or got into television work, or somehow adapted.

But some of them stopped being writers.

Now, you can say with some justification that these fellows should have seen the scribbling on the side of the building. The pulps didn’t all die on the same afternoon. There was a point where some western writers realized they were going to have to develop new markets while others missed the boat—or stagecoach, if you prefer.

Any market can dry up. While it’s hard to guard against the collapse of a whole genre, a writer can avoid being too dependent upon a single publisher. If too much of your income comes from a single source, you might as well be on that man’s payroll. You’re working for him and he can fire you at will. Or he can go out of business.

Or the editor who likes your work can move elsewhere. This is almost certain to happen repeatedly in the course of a writing career, and it has its good and bad aspects. While it can mean the end of a relationship with one publisher, it can also mean the beginning with another. And that’s one way to…

6. Make Friends in the Business

I haven’t heard of a business yet, with the possible exception of the undertaking trade, where people wouldn’t prefer to deal with people they know. Some writers use this fact of life to explain their own lack of success, muttering darkly that a conspiracy of old friends is keeping their work from getting published.

That’s paranoia. Editors don’t keep their jobs and publishers don’t remain in business by buying inferior work from their buddies. (And yes, I have known an editor or two who bought garbage and took kickbacks, and another who published his old pals out of friendship even when their work was no good, and none of these people is working today.) What a good relationship with an editor or publisher will do is assure you that they will use you if they can. They would rather work with you than work with an unknown quantity. They know you’re reliable. They know you can deliver. They know you won’t make a nuisance of yourself over some minor point. And, all things being equal, they’ll do business with you rather than take a chance on some yo-yo they’ve never laid eyes on.

Publishing is an extremely small business in relation to its importance and influence. Editors commonly change jobs many times in the course of a career, even as writers commonly change publishers. One happy result of this—there are unhappy results, too—is that sooner or later you wind up knowing a whole lot of people at a whole lot of publishing houses.

It’s worthwhile to cultivate these friendships. This doesn’t mean sending out a ton of Christmas presents. It means becoming as genuinely friendly as your nature permits with the people you do business with. If you don’t live near New York, it means budgeting for one or two trips a year just to allow yourself the chance to know personally some of the people with whom you’ve been corresponding.

It means, too, that you must get past thinking of the relationship between writer and editor or writer and publisher as on a par with that of tenant and landlord. It’s hard not to regard it as essentially an adversary relationship, especially during the early years when the chief function of an editor seems to be that of spilling coffee on your story prefatory to returning it to you with a form rejection slip. But we are all of us in this silly business together, and working for the same ends, and it’s useful to remember this.

7. Be Careful with Advances

William Faulkner once wrote a friend that the best way to get published was to secure an advance from a publisher. Then, he explained, the only way the publisher can get his money back is by publishing your book.

Faulkner’s point is not altogether off the mark. There’s a definite advantage in getting a publisher to make a commitment in advance. While he still may elect not to publish a book if it falls short of his expectations, he at least has a vested interest in publishing it and this can make him more receptive to the final product.

There are dangers, though, in living on advances. You find yourself trying to come up with an idea that will lead to two chapters and an outline and a fast contract, not something that will evolve into the best possible book. Some years ago, when I was more prolific than I am now and landed virtually all of my contracts on the basis of an outline or a brief proposal, I could hardly avoid the realization that I was writing a couple of hundred words for half the money and then had to write an entire book just to get the other half. It seemed economically sensible to stick to outlines—I could write dozens of them in the course of a year far more easily than I could produce half a dozen actual books. But sooner or later, I found, you have to deliver the book, or after a while they won’t make more deals with you.

Years ago I knew a writer who was always living on advances. His agent operated as sort of a banker; whenever my acquaintance sold a story, the agent would advance him the sum due him, reimbursing himself when the check ultimately arrived from the publisher. At other times, when the writer needed money and had not sold anything, the agent would extend an advance against future sales, which is really nothing more than a polite term for a loan. On one such occasion, the writer turned up to collect a $50 advance, and received a check for $45; the agent was so accustomed to taking 10% out of everything, he’d even done so with the loan.

If you live on advances, you’re always behind, working to get even. You’re like a coal miner in debt to the company store. I think it’s sound business sense to contract for one’s work in advance rather than write all the time on speculation, and it’s undeniably true that the greater a publisher’s cash commitment to a book, the more likely he is to promote it effectively. Still, living on advances has its dangers.

8. Have a Way to Make the Rent

I never knew my paternal grandfather, who died a decade before I was born. I do know, though, that he started out as a plumber. He saved a few dollars and bought a couple of buildings, and he ultimately made his living in real estate. But he never let his card in the plumbers’ union expire. He paid his dues every year, just in case.

Writing’s the only trade I know, so I can’t go down to the union hall if the rent’s due and the wolf is at the door. I’ve often wished I could. I think a writer should know how to do something, preferably the sort of thing that enables him to pick up day work when the going gets tough. I know writers, for example, who are experienced bartenders. They can get work whenever they need it. Experience as a fry cook is probably more useful to a writer than experience writing ad copy or selling insurance, because it’s the sort of thing you can walk into on the spur of the moment and keep as long as the financial shoe pinches.

While I don’t have that sort of fall-back skill, I do have some things I can do to bring in small sums on a steady basis while my main business of book-writing blows hot and cold. I write my WD column, for example; it provides a steady monthly check and gives me a regular task to perform. I do occasional reviewing for a book club. I teach a course at a university.

Occasionally I’ve thought about getting a hack license, or doing office temp work, but I haven’t had to yet. When the time comes that I do, I hope I won’t let pride stand in the way. Having to do something else to make a few bucks doesn’t mean that one has failed as a writer. It just means you’ve got a case of the shorts, and that, as we’ve seen, is part of the game.

9. Remember the Difference Between Poor and Broke

And act accordingly. Being broke is not a crime, nor is it proof of one’s inadequacy as a writer or as a human being. If you go around with an attitude of implicit apology for being temporarily without funds, it’s going to do you more harm than good.

Conversely, an air of confidence can get you through some tight spots. Some years ago I bought a house in New Jersey. I made the deal and set the closing date with the intent of making the down payment with a chunk of movie dough that was coming my way.

Now, this didn’t seem unrealistic at the time. The deal with the movie company was already made when I arranged to buy the house. It was just a question of drawing up the contract and getting the cash.

Terrific. Various lawyers dragged their feet on the contract, and then, when it was finally signed, the producer found a way to stall. He kept being out of town and unreachable by phone, and the closing date on the house kept approaching, and I didn’t have any money. My then-wife asked if I didn’t think I should tell the seller. “No,” I said. “I can’t see how it will help me to give him that information in advance.” Well, then, didn’t I think I ought to engage a lawyer? “No,” I said, “because if I have a lawyer and he has a lawyer, the two lawyers’ll fight.” Then what did I intend to do? “I’ll just play it by ear,” I said. “Maybe the money will come in by then.” And if it doesn’t? “Maybe I’ll think of something.”

Well, I went to the closing and explained the situation. I offered to pay the down payment with a post-dated check, which would enable the sellers to sue me if I couldn’t cover it but which wouldn’t really get them their property back, since title would have passed to me by then. Still, they were eager to sell, and they knew I wasn’t going to put the house on wheels and truck it across the state line, and I knew the money was going to come in from Hollywood sooner or later. And, because I didn’t have a lawyer, their lawyer didn’t have anybody to fight with, and I bought the house. I think the fact that I was really quite confident about the whole thing had a lot to do with its outcome.

10. Let Financial Need Be a Spur, Not a Sledgehammer

Mickey Spillane has told of the time when he was living on an offshore island, spending a lot of time on the beach and generally taking life easy. “I decided it would be fun to write a story,” he recalls, “but I couldn’t get an idea. I took long walks, I sat at the typewriter, but I couldn’t seem to come up with an idea. Then one day I got a call from my accountant. He said the money was starting to run short. And you know what? All of a sudden I started getting one idea after the other.”

I love that story, and I can believe it. Financial need can very well be necessary to goad the unconscious to come up with story ideas. But when the need is too great, when it weighs too heavily upon the mind, it can have the opposite effect, serving not as a spur in the horse’s flank but as a sledgehammer blow between his eyes that stops him dead in his tracks.

I try to avoid this by divorcing myself from financial matters as far as I possibly can. I have an accountant, and for a couple of years now all my income has gone directly from my agent to him. Similarly, all my bills go straight to him as well. Sometimes there’s a lot of money in my account and sometimes there’s not, but unless matters are very urgent, I don’t know how high the stack of bills is, and that’s fine with me. I can forget all that and concentrate on writing.

Not everyone would be comfortable turning over financial management to another party. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t handle this aspect of my life myself. But all in all I like things as they are.

11. Remember, It’s Only Money

According to Dr. Johnson, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. Now, you can read that line in more than one way, and I prefer to believe that Johnson meant that one is not justified in writing in the expectation of anything but financial gain, that he who writes hoping to be rewarded by fame, or to change the world, is unrealistic in his expectations.

I write for money, and if I struck oil in my backyard I can’t be certain I’d ever write another line. All the same, I try to remember that it’s only money and that money is just not all that important. I didn’t get into this business for money and I don’t stay in it for money. If I write something I don’t want to write, I’m giving up some personal freedom. Perhaps more important, if financial considerations induce me to forego writing something I would really like to write, I’m giving up a large measure of freedom and defeating my own purpose in having become a writer in the first place.

I have come to believe that freedom is ultimately the chief attraction of the writing life. I believe, too, that we are about as free as we recognize ourselves to be. The more I realize that material possessions have little to do with my happiness and that money is accordingly of rather little importance, the freer I am to enjoy this life and to fulfill whatever potential I have.

And that’s as much as I have to say on the subject of living on a writer’s income. Now that I’ve said it, they’d better pay me for it. And fast.

Whew. Long for a blog post, isn’t it? Now for the hard sell. Here are Amazon links for my writing books:

Telling Lies for Fun & Profit
Spider, Spin Me a Web
The Liar’s Bible
The Liar’s Companion

and these, not mentioned above:

Writing the Novel from Plot to Print

(which is, duh, a book focusing on the novel)
Write For Your Life
(a home seminar centered on the inner game of writing)
Afterthoughts
(a writer’s piecemeal memoir consisting of afterwords to my books)

And here are Barnes & Noble links for the same:

Telling Lies for Fun & Profit
Spider, Spin Me a Web
The Liar’s Bible
The Liar’s Companion
Writing the Novel from Plot to Print
Write For Your Life
Afterthoughts

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88 Comments
  1. “Thus, when the money supply dries up and I have to cut back, I simply go without. I don’t own a car; I take cabs when I’m flush and use the subway when I’m not. I treat myself to a lot of good dinners when there’s money on hand, and I stay home and eat rice when it’s gone.”

    This is my favorite part. And same with me.

  2. Great Blog. Is self-publishing ever part of sardine salary?

    • Good question! I guess it’s like everything else. Some self-published indie authors are having trouble buying the sardines. Others, from what I hear, are eating caviar.

  3. Wonderful–as always. I have The Bible (yes, the Holy, but I’m speaking of the other one) and Companion on my Kindle but couldn’t resist since this was conveniently in my email Inbox. As to us indie folk eating sardines or caviar…? Well, to satisfy my organic food budget, I sell plastic. Seriously. 🙂

  4. Richard Mabry permalink

    Great post–good advice mixed with personal anecdotes, resulting in an entertaining but very useful read. Thanks.

  5. I suppose it’s as organic as plastic gets…I try not to think where my plastic goes, although I cringe when it goes into “food” prep for big Ag companies.

  6. Yeah…that makes me feel muuuch better. More like a Pontius Pilate approach: “Hey, kill the guy, fine with me, my hands are clean.”

  7. kmmaggio permalink

    You can’t possibly know how much today’s blog has meant to me. My writing was just taking hold when I was reading your articles in WD so long ago; then life happened. Now, after all this time I am trying again. I am probably too old to start this kid’s game, but your words remind me of a time when I was full of hope and energy. Perhaps there is still hope…I’ve got to find out (and stop being afraid of failure). BTW, I own one of your writing books, but will be purchasing at least one of your new ones. Thanks again.

    • Why should it be too late? Odds are you know more than you did then. Take your shot and have fun with it.

      I seem to recall correspondence with a Kathy Maggio. That you?

      • kmmaggio permalink

        Yep, that’s me. I was trying to be clever and import an avatar, so had to change my name for that…so now my name is different here, and the avatar is no more.

        I don’t know if I ever told you, but the one piece of advice that you gave that I always think of when having a blank moment is something that you told your daughter. She was having trouble with a piece and you had her change the protagonist’s sex. Nothing kinky, just a change in attitude.

        Have been drawing a blank except for an old, old, old project until on a trip back from Duke (doctor appointment) something came to me that I love. I don’t know where it will go, but am excited to have something at last.

  8. kmmaggio permalink

    This is crazy, so will get rid of the avatar…sorry for this doublepost

  9. John Helfers permalink

    Classic, Larry, and all of it just as true today as then.

  10. Thank you Lawrence, this was just the kind of advice I needed to hear right now.

  11. Hello Mr. Block,

    As I mentioned on Twitter earlier tonight, I spent the better part of my day fighting with one of my publishers to give me the cash I’m owned. It’s a dance that I step to and dread on a monthly basis. I know they’re not going to pay me on time. I know they’re not going to pay me at all unless I poke them with a stick. I work for a handful of other publishers as well. Luckily, they pay me reliably, and I in turn can pay the rent. Despite this, having to get into a knife fight over my invoices every thirty days wears me down and makes me question what the hell I’m doing working as a freelancer. I panic. I doubt myself. I long for the sure thing salary I had until I walked away from my job a few years back. I get sick to my guts wondering about where the money will come from if the rest of my employers start playing grab ass with me over my paycheque.

    Just at the point where I’m certain I can’t take the worry anymore, something comes along to put me back on track. Last month it was receiving word that a pair of flattering offers for work from publications I admire and hadn’t submitted any queries to. This month, it was due to this blog post. I’ve read and admired your work since I had to hide your books from my mother in order to read them. Seeing that in a few short years I’d smartened up enough to pick up a few of the lessons on your list on my own makes me feel like I’m on the right track with choosing to peruse my passions.

    I’ve already gone over this blog posting a few times this evening, and am pretty sure I’ll be returning to it time and time again in the days to come.

    Thanks for the encouragement and the lessons.

    • Many thanks for this, Seamus. Reminds me of a story, perhaps apocryphal: a science fiction writer, who more than made up in chutzpah what he lacked in stature, was unable to collect $75 owed him by a magazine publisher. The editor always managed to be out or otherwise unavailable when he came calling. So one day he snatched a typewriter off a desk, snarled “Someone’ll give me seventy-five bucks for this,” and stalked off.

      • Two years into working full-time as a freelancer, I’m still constantly amazed that people not only want to read my work, but they want to pay me for it. This, after years of noodling away at my typewriter and laptop for free. Having worked for over a decade in an profession that exists solely due to the fact that fear is a growth industry, I’d grown so accustomed to believing the bottom will eventually fall out of everything that there was never a question of my paranoia spreading into my writing as well. I’ve never assumed that someone would give me dollar one for my work, and I’ve never believed that I’m a better writer than any of my fellows. I work hard for my editors because I expect that there’s one thousand other writers that would love to take my place, and because my name goes on everything I put out there. In the end, my reputation is the only thing that matters.

        I think that my fear of failure has served me well. When I saw the first sign of money trouble at one of the publishing companies I work for, I started looking for new digs, and luckily found them. While other people suffered layoffs at the company, I still had cash coming in. Because of this, I started reaching out to other magazines and sites as well. There’s more stress involved with juggling multiple projects for multiple editors, but not so much as being unable to pay the rent at the end of the month. It also keeps me from getting cocky. I still haven’t seen a hiccup in my cash-flow, but I’m sure it’s coming. There’s a good chance that thinking along these lines might be keeping me from enjoying the small amount of success I’ve found as fully as I could, but I’d rather feel safe in the long run than be a happy fool until the work dries up.

        That said, the thought that some editor, some day would without a doubt pay $75 for one of my stories is a pretty sweet. If I ever find myself in that state of mind, I’ll be glad for it.

  12. Wow, does that bring back memories of many decades of writing and paying the bills. And some shudders as well. (grin) Thanks!

    And I agree with the part about watching out for “sure” money. I did that for about a decade, writing media books like Trek and Men in Black and all sorts of stuff because they kept offering me money. About seven or eight books a year. Now, here in this brave new world, I wish I owned those books. (grin)

    Wonderful glimpse into the past and the feel of fighting a piece of carbon paper to the death. Thanks.

    • Ah, work for hire. The good people who prepare my self-pubbed eBooks and POD paperbacks operate on a work-for-hire basis, and it was the first time I heard those three words without my gorge rising.

      • People making a living by practicing their craft makes you want to vomit? On a couple of those lean years you mention you might have had a few more lavish dinners and cab rides if you were a little less high handed.

        On the other hand…Such Men Are Dangerous is one of the best suspense novels I’ve ever read. You just knocked it out of the park on that one and I’ve read it, re-read it, and read it again over the years. Well done.

        (ps, somehow I ‘lost’ my first post so if I somehow double post, all apologies; thanks for reprinting this article)

      • Thanks, Nathan. I’m truly glad the book’s eVailable.

  13. Larry, I know what you meant, but my father and both of my grandfathers were in “the undertaking trade,” and trust me, it is the epitome of a trade where people want to deal with people they know.
    My Dad and grandads worked harder than most authors I know, not including you, at building name recognition and a sense of “oh yes, I know him.” (One of my grandfathers is still at it: his embalmer’s license from 1903 hangs on the wall of Seattle Mystery Bookshop today.) Booksellers do this too, if they know what’s good for them.

    • Hiya, Bill. Funny thing is I found myself questioning the line when I was preparing the piece for posting. Never knew you had a background in that honorable calling. What did you think of “Six Feet Under”?

  14. As a young person poised on the brink of the “real world” with plans to be a writer, dancer, and English teacher — in other words, a young man passionate about fields/careers that merely prompt people to joke about what a literally starving artist my already lanky self will become, and who is slowly beginning to learn just how the hell people make a living in this world, particularly after an expensive education like mine at NYU — this is a wonderfully insightful and honest read. Dancing (at least my field of tap dancing) is not so unlike writing, as I’ve often thought. I really appreciate this post and everything you had to say, LB. Thank you!

  15. The Other LB permalink

    Great work, Lawrence. I’m in the midst of all this myself, and have found that keeping expenses low is indeed the way to go. Thanks for all you do to help other writers.

  16. Susan Pruskin permalink

    I’ve been a writer and I’ve been CEO of a $200 million company. Neither have secure income. Try begging a Fortune 500 company to pay you so you can meet payroll, or get what you were contracted to get so you can make the health insurance premium to keep your key guy’s son who has ALS from losing his wheelchair. The point is, NOTHING is a sure thing. Especially in today’s economy. So, if you have to struggle anyway, you might as well struggle while happily writing. But a back up plan doesn’t hurt. In either scenario.

    PS – I’m waiting for some youngsters to ask you what carbon paper is

    • Susan, I’ve long felt a free-lance writer (a free-lance anything, really) has the ultimate job security. Nobody can fire us.

      “Uh, carbon paper? Is that for taking footprints?”

  17. Lawrence, thanks for posting this! I’m starting to think #3 is keeping me from exchanging my fallback career for my writing career. Security seems to be the bane of many would-be authors…

    –Jim

  18. Hi Lawrence, thanks for posting this!

    For me, making the switch from a secure six-figure career to a writing career gets me as scared as the first time I saw The Exorcist as a kids. Sleep? What’s that?

    –A. J. Abbiati

  19. Mr. B:

    I love it when other people’s perspectives agree with mine … especially when they’re bestselling authors. 🙂 Seriously, I value your advice and just purchased the Kindle version of Writing the Novel from Plot to Print.

    As a freelance writer of insurance and business educational texts, magazine articles, and other materials, I’m able to “get by on a writer’s income.” And, after having published a mystery novel and a business book with Indie publishers, I’m still learning my craft. Funny how a person can know something yet, when someone else puts word to the particular thought, it crystallizes and becomes a gem.

    You’ve done that for me in this article, in Telling Lies, and will do so, no doubt, in Writing the Novel. Thanks for your generosity in sharing.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Linda. (See, I too appreciate it when other people’s perspectives agree with mine!)

  20. Mr. Block – Thanks so much for this timely post. Just yesterday, I did a stupid thing and looked at my student loan balance for the Masters degree I’ll receive in May, and had a proper royal freakout that perhaps this degree that was “supposed” to free me from being chained to the work-a-day block would instead keep me weighed down indefinitely, with no hope of freelancing ever in writing, photography, or even the interests that have risen in pursuit of the degree. Cheery, right? So, thanks. I’ll find or make a way, even if it takes time. Conveniently, I’m quite good at cooking a pot of congee, which only requires a cup of rice, some garlic, ginger, napa cabbage, and soy sauce. This makes a large pot, which will keep one for days, and a nice-sized napa cabbage will suffice for many pots

  21. Hi Lawrence –
    I read your book on how to write a novel in the 1990s or thereabouts, but I had a job as an electronics technician so I thought I had plenty of time to write later. In 2003 I became ill with a disease called Wegener’s Granulomatosis. I was dying. The one regret was that I never got that novel written.

    It is nine years later. I still have the disease, and I am on daily chemo to keep it under control. I have four novels, some short story collections, and a small medical biography in ebook form. I just started doing POD (I was a typesetter at 18 so it was easy for me to take those skills and put my books up). It was the disease that became my thorn to write.

    I also have that worry that my time is running out. Plus my hubby makes sure that the nut (housing, food, clothing, medical) is paid. I can’t work now because being around people can make me ill.

    Just wanted to say thank you for the writing books that you wrote … They were sure helpful when I was starting out.

    Cyn – cynbagley.com

    • No, Cyn, It’s for me to thank you. Your comment’s one of the most inspiring things I’ve read in ages, and I think it will resonate with a whole lot of people out there.

    • Wow. Cyn, you are an inspiration to us all. Thank you for your candor.

      • TY – it is not that remarkable. There are a lot of writers out there with serious diseases. 🙂
        I do a lot of mentoring for folks who get this disease. It is scary at first (sometimes scary now even) because if not treated properly it is fatal. Thankfully we do have meds that can get us into a chemical quiet period. The worst thing about it is the side-effects like brain fog.

        Cyn

      • Brain fog is a hindrance for me even at the best of times. 🙂 I think the inspiration for me is that this “hurdle” served as impetus for you to create something. The grain of sand in the oyster. It’s that “rise above” mentality that sets you apart–and for that we applaud you! 🙂 All the best in your writing!

  22. “The room was $8 a week, the sardines were 15¢ a can, and I got a hundred bucks for the story.”

    As a point of comparison, in 1989 I was living in a rural village outside Buffalo, New York. I was earning $100 a week as a journalist for a weekly newspaper. (I wrote all the newspaper’s staff articles, took all the photos, did all the copyediting, and did most of the layout.) My weekly expenses were as follows:

    Rent and utilities: $50.
    Food: $25. (I ate a lot of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.)
    Gasoline and sundries: $25.
    Health insurance and car insurance: Paid for by my parents.

    Ah, those were the days. Yet even back then, I couldn’t have made a living from writing short fiction for the science fiction and fantasy market – the market was too limited.

    You just made me feel much better about my e-book earnings. Thank you.

  23. Paul Harwood permalink

    Dear Mr Block,

    I have enjoyed your writing for many, many years now and I am always impressed with your characters and wry humor. You are my favorite author in spite of the wide range of reading I have done over the years. I have little inclination towards writing but I have been given quite a bit of insight into the craft because of your books on writing. I might add that reading your books on writing have made reading your books all the more interesting.

    I lived in NYC for many years and I am familiar with the places you describe and mention throughout you various books. I even claim a small distinction of having purchased a paperback book entitled “Such Men Are Dangerous” before you actually were listed as the author. I suspect that was the reason for the story you told about Lynne being told that it was written by an agent. I really enjoyed a hearty laugh over that story.

    Best of happiness doing what you do best and giving me all these years of enjoyment which I still go back to reread from time to time.

    • Thanks, Paul. And you’re not the first person to tell me that reading about the craft of writing has made theim more insightful readers.

  24. Hi, Mr. Block

    Just wanted to thank you for republishing this post. It came at the right time, when I could use the encouragement.

    I’ve been a freelancer for years (a licensed landscape architect with my own one-man design firm and writing on the side), and chasing down hard-earned fees is nothing new. Developers can be as bad as publishers. Don’t know what it is about some people that make them think they don’t have to pay for an honest day’s work.

    Right now in my area the building industry is belly-up (since 2008). It’ll get better, I’m sure (fingers crossed!), but right now I make more from my writing and from Adsense on a few websites than I do from land planning and site design work.

    Thanks for the inspiration, and all the fine books on writing you’ve given us, as well as your fiction. I have a few writing “mentors” (you’re one of them); I may not ever be able to write as well as them, but it’s something to aspire too.

  25. juliabarrett permalink

    Wow! You have too many comments for me to even comment, except to say this post is timeless.

  26. Thanks Mr. Block, GREAT ADVICE!! If you had told me 10 years ago that I would write a book I would have said, “Yeah, riiigghttt!!”

    When I announced to my family that I was writing a book, my sister and sister-in-law both had a gut laugh at my expense. But my Dad’s girlfriend told me later, “You go write that book!!” I’m now done and working on my second one, but in working on my second one with a co-author, my Dad is succumbing to a 15 year battle with prostrate cancer and has months to live, maybe weeks. Life is never fair, but you have to deal with it. My “story” in my how-to book about Erica not having enough money for college has the same tone as yours: Life throws curve balls, be prepared for them. She goes on to start her own business. If you don’t take a swing at the ball thrown at you, how are you going to get a hit, let alone a home run? Take a swing is what I say.

    Thanks again for your candor. Gives me hope for more of my writing.

  27. Brilliant advice as always, Mr. Block. Reminds me of a saying we have out here on the American frontier. “I’d rather live in a shack in the country than a mansion in town.”

    For me, I’d rather be a writer eating sardines in a garret than anyone else eating cavier.

  28. What a splendid article.

    Though my own income as a writer is so small that I’d only just be able to buy a coffee per day (and then would have to share it 5 ways with the family), I’m almost tempted to jump.

    Only almost.

    For now the teaching will have to bring in the bread, the butter and the marmalade.

    What I will say is that if a writer with your talent and productivity couldn’t make it then so very few would stand a chance. Mainly I’m grateful that you managed to survive, sardines or otherwise.

    I also see you have new Kindle lines coming thick and fast – maybe they’ll see you through to the millions.

    Best,

    nigel

    • Thanks, Nigel. There’ve been thick years and thin, but I can’t think of any way I’d rather have spent them.

  29. One of the great things about this post, in addition to the fact that you wrote it in 1981 and it resonates very well now, is how many authors are suddenly finding enough success to keep at it through indie publishing, and it’s like you’re speaking to every one of us.

    In addition, when you wrote this, could you have imagined a world in which you could ‘post this online’ (ha–an unknown concept), and reached thousands of people in a single day. It’s going viral, you know, if it hasn’t already …

    • Sarah, thank you. When I selected this piece for the blog, I felt it still applied and that people might like it—but it’s already had more hits than anything I’ve posted this past year, so I guess it does strike a chord. I know it’s getting reposted and passed around, and I’m delighted. And it’s launched a flotilla of comments, many of them extremely provocative and/or inspirational, and that’s gratifying, too.

      Could I have foreseen this world of the blogosphere and social media and things going viral? Not in my wildest imaginings. Nor could I have guessed that the entire world of writing and publishing would find itself so utterly transformed in such a short period of time. And we ain’t seen nothin’ yet…

      I suspect it’s always an exciting time to be a writer. But never more than now.

  30. I’ve been writing and getting nonfiction published for more than 14 years and have learnt many of these things first hand. With the decline of newspapers, I’ve started the journey of writing fiction again (my first love) and hope to have several books self-published before my genealogy column (which has run for 6 1/2 years) suddenly dries up. My column is a regular pay cheque, but as you say, it can be gone in a flash. I completely agree with living below your means so when the money doesn’t come in as usual, there’s no panic. Whether 30 years old or 80 years old, the advice you offer is great advice. Thanks.

  31. A very thought-provoking post. If I were single and childless I’d be tempted to take the plunge. I’m sure I would enjoy life more than I do now with my generous salary for a tedious job. But family responsibilities have to come first, so I’m stuck at the moment.

    • I’d think it would be hard these days to walk away from any job, tedious or not.

      • True. I’ll have to satisfy myself with writing part-time, at least until I write a novel that becomes an overnight sensation and brings in enough money for me to take early retirement 8^)

  32. Now why didn’t I think of that? But yeah, that’ll work.

  33. Great stuff Lawrence, I couldn’t agree more: We’ve nearly always been broke but never felt poor: Small streams of incomes from different sources are enough to keep the artist going. Hot water comes out of our taps, we eat a simple diet of unprocessed food, our house is always filled with colour and light. As long as we can listen to the most beautiful music and have access to mind-blowing books… who cares that the digits in the bank don’t always add up? Love and light xx

  34. Cathy permalink

    I wish you would tell me how an unpublished writer in Kansas who must make a living at minimum wage, when a job is available, is to make friends with publishing people in New York. Sending manuscripts doesn’t do it. They are not read, often not even opened. (If they were, they would use my SASE instead of stuffing the whole, unopened bundle into their own.) I’m a fiction writer because that is what I was born to do. I could no more stop than I could stop breathing. And, I’m good at it, not just because I say so but because people who have read what I write like it. But, I can’t make friends with people half way across the country who won’t open my mail in the hope of being published. So, any suggestions (other than the standards: “Just keep on plugging’ away at it!” and “Hang in there” are my least favorites) would be greatly appreciated. I have taken your advice since the Writer’s Digest days and don’t see any reason to stop now.

    • Cathy, it does sound as though you’re sending unsolicited manuscripts to publishers who make it a policy not to read them; if so, it’s not their fault they return them unopened. Many publishers, of both books and magazines, have adopted this policy, and it’s not hard to understand why—it costs too much to screen over-the-transom submissions, and the rewards are too small. They can’t afford it.

      I don’t know a great deal about breaking in these days. It was different (albeit never easy) half a century ago. Increasingly I’m coming to believe that self-publication may be the best course for a new writer. And I’ll blog about this…but not until I’m a lirttle clearer on just what I want to say about it.

      Thanks for your comment, which is appreciated.

      LB

      • Cathy permalink

        I never send a manuscript to a publisher who does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. I would not waste my time and postage that way. But, I can’t just run down to the local coffee stop and hobnob around with publishers, or eavesdrop (which I’m not opposed to, by the way) and hear the news and catch the latest names. So, while building a relationship with a publisher might be a good way to get published, my question remains, how do I do that from rural Kansas?

    • Block fan permalink

      Cathy, check out WritersMarket.com. For $5.99 a month, you have access to critical info about agents and publishers. It has been integral to my success.

      • Good suggestion—thanks!

      • Cathy permalink

        Believe it or not, Fan, I’ve already done Writer’s Market. The bottom line is, I am still a long drive from a New York publishing house, and just because a publishing company lists its needs in Writer’s Market doesn’t mean that anyone there is really interested in opening a manuscript, query letter, or Christmas card from someone they have never heard of.

  35. Cathy–have you tried attending writer’s conferences or workshops? Great way to meet people in the biz. There are also online conferences and classes, writer’s groups, etc. You can virtually meet people that way and find out what editors and agents are looking for.

  36. I love this article. So much blunt truth. When people tell me they want to write novels my response is usually some variation on, ‘don’t give up your day job.’

  37. Thank you, Joshua!

  38. Thanks, Debbi!

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