I’ve had this interesting question on an email. It’s several questions, actually, and it raises points that I’ve seen many writers struggle with. To sum up, it’s this:
I’m hoping you can help me understand what it takes to make a career out of writing and whether it suits me.
Okay! Buckle in, chaps. Here’s the full version.
I recently began wondering if I’m more of a hobbyist as a writer. I’m a short story/novella writer, wrote a lot of stories when I was young, and over the last several years began to think about writing to publish. I’ve had a lot of trouble with that— I’ve always suspected my stories are too old-fashioned or unusual for traditional publishing. I like the freedom in self-publishing, but I hate the idea of marketing.
This may seem like putting the cart before the horse, but if you don’t market your work, nobody will know it exists. It’s that simple.
And you will do the bulk of the marketing yourself, whether you self-publish or get a deal with a publisher. A publisher will market your book for a brief period while it launches, then they’ll probably stop, but the book will still be a piece of your heart and you’ll still want it to have the darndest best chance possible. And even while the publisher is pushing it, they’ll expect you to do a lot of marketing alongside theirs.
So if your work is to be read by others, marketing is unavoidable.
I simply don’t know that I could build a steady platform, as I have little interest in social media.
Social media are great, but they’re not the only tool for marketing. You can market your books by advertising – on Amazon and Facebook, and in paid newsletters.
But let’s talk about social media and websites. These are not necessarily a way to directly sell copies of your book. What they do is this – they make you more tangible to readers. You are more findable if somebody googles you. Even if you only have a placeholder description on Facebook or Twitter or wherever, it can direct readers to your website or to a platform you do actually use. Meanwhile the reader has learned you’re real, you are the person who wrote that book. Or those books.
A website is a necessity, I feel, to show readers what you’re about. It’s your home base. Social media platforms are places you can go to meet people. Ideally, you need both.
Yes, all this internet networking is time consuming. But it can also be fun and rewarding.
It has bonuses you may not have thought of. On social media you’ll meet other authors who’ll help you out with unexpected opportunities. And if you’re a shy person, as most writers are, social media make networking a doddle. In the old days, you built your professional network by going to writing groups or launch parties and hoping you’d get talking to someone useful. Or hoping you’d pluck up the courage to talk at all (that’s me). On social media, you can check somebody out before you talk to them, and there are no awkward silences. You just type.
But I’ve also started losing interest in writing, after I began studying story structure and outlining. It really threw me off balance and I’m trying to get back to my more intuitive methods.
Is your muse killed by any sort of analysis? Some people do feel this.
Some authors write a spontaneous draft and edit heavily, thinking about structure and arcs once they’ve created the book as a free-flowing spirit.
But here’s a point – people who are aiming to write to a publishable standard will usually need to study craft. Although there’s loads you can learn with no outside input, you’ll have blind spots. Many of these are techniques and mechanisms you were never aware of – and with good reason, because they are not meant to be noticed by the reader. Structure is one of them.
And actually, when we discuss structure or any other point of craft, we’re actually seeking control of our work – to understand how we’re affecting the reader.
If you’ll allow me, I’ll quote from the introduction to my plot book –
‘When I talk about structure or form, I’m striving for tragedy, doom, comedy, romance, complexity, sadness, wonder… I’m interested in what does this and how.’
I do understand that analysis can seem to be deadening. But to people like me, it is also exciting and fascinating.
‘It really threw me off balance… I’m trying to get back to my more intuitive methods…’
New methods do! I wrote about this a while ago – the three ages of becoming a writer. Stage 1 is easy, intuitive, natural. Stage 2, you feel you’re doing it all wrong, you don’t sound like yourself and the joy has gone. Stage 3, it begins to fall into place. You don’t think about rules, you write with a new awareness, an enhanced intuition.
So you might not be failing at all. You might be in Stage 2, looking for Stage 3.
I question the idea of publishing often, thinking about the effort and whether I have the motivation and drive to actually see my stories through to publication (whether self or traditional).
Some authors take their time to complete a book. I’m one of them! You’ll find numerous posts about that on this blog, but here’s a recent one – Seven Steps of a Long-Haul Novel. You can publish as slowly as you want, especially if you self-publish.
However, if you publish frequently, it’s easier to find and keep an audience because you always have new books to offer them. That makes marketing easier (and it’s also why publishers prefer writers who’ll put out a string of similar books). Otherwise, you’ll have to do other things to keep them connected to your creative world and to keep them interested in you. But… social media let you do that. Another method is blogs and newsletters.
As for motivation and drive, if you’re going to be an author, you need a completer-finisher mentality. First, in the creation of the manuscript – all books pose challenges and you need to be doggedly committed to meeting them. It also helps if you love editing your own work. Few novels come out perfect in the first draft. Writing a book is a long game, even if it’s a collection of short pieces. Personally, I relish the process of refining and honing, and I find the book creates its own momentum. I love the process of making it ready for readers, both the writing and the production. It’s creative and positive, with achievements all the way. You might find this too.
I’m wondering if I just like writing as a hobby. In the writing world, there’s always the push to be seen as more than hobbyists (understandably, of course), so I’ve always felt pressure to publish. But I’m wondering if I only ever wrote stories for my own enjoyment, without much need for an audience.
There’s nothing wrong with writing just for you. I recently discussed this in a post How Much Does It Cost To Self-Publish – which deals with similar questions. The cost of self-publishing is related to your ambitions and there’s nothing wrong with publishing – or writing – on a modest scale simply because it fills you.
Here’s a parallel from my own life. I have a horse, who I enjoy training. I know a lot of other horse owners, and many of them compete. Some of them think you’re not riding properly if you and your horse don’t have a competitive career. I don’t give two hoots about this. My riding is between me and my horse, having adventures together, enjoying our connection. That might be like your writing – it’s you and the page, doing your thing. A private pleasure that does not have to be measured.
I don’t want to stop writing, but I’m at the point where I need to make a decision on what I want to do. I was hoping you could help me understand what it takes to actually make a career out of writing and whether it actually suits me.
Emily, you’ve already understood the basics, because the questions you’ve asked are spot on. Yes, publishing is a separate undertaking from writing. But before you feel daunted, let’s see if I can help you feel inspired, because some of these elements may not be as bad as you think.
1 Yes, you need professional-level writing skills. It’s usually not possible to reach this standard without studying craft, dissecting how books work and getting professional feedback. But if one way of learning doesn’t suit you, there are hundreds of others, all heading for the same place – increasing your control over your material, and over the reader’s experience.
2 Yes, you need to market your work and yourself as a writer. Many authors, actually, dislike the idea of marketing. Especially the concept of self-promotion, which sounds obnoxious and embarrassing. I find it helps to think of doing your best for your work. Giving it the chance it deserves. You are the finest ambassador for your books – this is particularly true of authors who are, as you said yourself, too old-fashioned or unusual for traditional publishing. You might hate the idea of being an ambassador for your work; or you might find this is a liberating idea – you are your work’s embodiment and spokesperson, inviting readers to take a rich journey with you. That’s why we work on any idea – because we feel we’ll make something worth sharing. And this is where point 1 is important. If we’ve done the work on our craft, we know we have something we’re confident to share.
But think. Just because writing can be a career doesn’t mean it has to be. Take my example of horse riding. For me, the pressures of competing would ruin my pleasure. Moreover, there is nothing about competing that I want, even secretly. With my writing, though, I want very much for my work to find a readership, to be counted among other published work, and to build a career and reputation. This matters to me.
I ask you this: if you did not try for a writing career, would you feel you were missing something important that you would like to have? Or would you not feel like you were missing anything at all?
I’ve tried to show you that the issues you raise might not be as bad as you think, but I might well have confirmed the opposite. If so, writing as a personal pleasure is still a mighty fine and worthwhile thing.
This question was raised in a Facebook group this week: if you’re not earning much from writing, does that make it a hobby rather than a serious pursuit? My gut reaction was ‘no’, and I’d like to examine why. What follows will be a few attempts at definitions, a few assumptions – and I want this to be the start of a discussion rather than the last word. So do let me have your thoughts at the end.
First, let me state that when I use the term ‘hobby’, I’m not suggesting a pastime that isn’t serious. I have hobbies that matter greatly to my enjoyment of life. I ride horses and I attend dance classes at Pineapple Studios in London. My weekly schedule is constructed to accommodate these activities. They are essential outlets in a cerebral, sedentary life and they ensure my general wellbeing. I spend money on them; I’ll buy a good pair of riding boots to see me through the winter or because I’ll enjoy using them. I’ll pay serious attention to technique and invest in tuition. Because of my perfectionist nature, I’ll be frustrated if I’m having a klutz day.
But they are hobbies. I don’t kid myself I can match the standard of real professionals. I’ll perform them with dedication and I’ll try to improve. But my expectations are capped. I don’t have ambitions for them.
A business / profession?
Any level of writing where you’re earning money would fall into this category. Or is it that simple? Perhaps not.
If you’re writing as a business or a profession, the sums are important. You are careful about the investment of time. Will the book repay in terms of sales, or as a gateway to other kinds of income such as speaking or consultancy? When you buy equipment or services, it’s not an indulgence as my boots might be. It’s an investment that must save time, or add polish to the final product.
An art / vocation
What follows will be completely subjective. I’m going to try to explain why I regard my fiction writing as an art or vocation, not as a hobby.
I’m not happy to write – or use my writing sensibilities – just for income. Of course, I have to take income seriously, but I also want something more worthwhile to show for my days, months and decades. Stories have been some of my most enthralling, memorable experiences, so that’s what I think a proper story should be. When I read a good writer, it is a challenge to my sense of worth – if I don’t aim for this, I am not respecting the medium. Some people don’t feel like this about their writing, and that’s fine. But I do.
Writing this piece, I’m struck by the crossovers. The hobbyists and artists are not so far apart, in terms of devotion. So let’s quarry further.
In my hobbies, I don’t compare myself to others. A hobby is something we largely enjoy, give or take the odd teething trouble or bad hair day. We keep a sense of proportion. But many serious authors find writing exquisitely hard. They like ‘having written’. They can be profoundly disappointed in themselves.
Let’s return to the question of income. I earn most of my income by editing, teaching and ghostwriting, and I find these rewarding in more ways than just £££. I’m not a mercenary, I believe in my craft and I love to teach. But I see them as enablers for the work that matters to me most – my fiction. Like a director or an actor who makes one movie for artistic satisfaction and another to pay the bills, the work that truly defines them is the passion project.
An artist finds their identity in their work, for better or worse; which is why it’s hard and relentless and a personal quest that will probably be endless. Is that it? Let me know your thoughts.
Some of you know that I began my writing career incognito, as a ghost-writer. It gave me certain habits and approaches that I still use to this day, and I’m sure they were a head start for productive writing processes. Today I’m talking about those habits at Jo Malby’s blog. (And as I’ve had two guest posts this week, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the rest of the weekend off. There is bank holidaying to do, as well as a spot of writing.)
And if you’re wondering about ghost-writing yourself, let me clear my throat discreetly and point you to this course…
Today I’m being interviewed by historical and speculative novelist KM Weiland at Authorculture, a powerhouse blog she shares with authors Lynette Bonner, Johne Cook and Linda Yezak. Its manifesto is ‘to inspire, enlighten and unite writers and readers’, which sounds pretty necessary to me. And, with their combined background of writing, editing, publishing and mentoring, they certainly deliver.