Not Quitting Your Day Job and How to Sell Out for Fun and Profit!

You will never get rich writing short stories and submitting them to magazines.

Out of the online communities and couple dozen or so writers, editors, etc. that I have shared words with over the last ten years, they will all tell you the same thing.  This isn’t the 1930s anymore, where the great pulp writers like Howard or Lovecraft could earn a living off the checks from Weird Tales, and it’s not even the 1970s where you probably read about Stephen King’s first big sale to Playboy in his book On Writing that inspired you to say, “Hey!  If I sell this story, I won’t starve at least!”

No, you are going to starve.

For one thing, writing takes a long time.  Not only the start to finish of it all, from concept to the polished manuscript (which is hilarious, because you will always be able to polish a manuscript even more), but considering the submission/editing process, and if they buy it (which odds are, they won’t) you are going to be missing a lot of meals between you acceptance letter and the arrival of your check if you go that route.

The vast majority of magazines pay a pittance.  Compared to the hours of work you soaked into that story, you are better off working at a Taco Bell.  Most publications pay in exposure or just a token amount nowadays.  The big magazines are limited to space and they are also used to selling the writers they already know are popular, which means that the same people who inspired you to write and submit to that magazine are likely your biggest competition and the promise of them submitting a trunk story for a check that will cover their car payment or their kid’s braces that month will edge your 3,000 word short story of epic brilliance to the deleted items file in your slush-reader’s laptop.

You are currently starving.

I really, really hope you didn’t quit your day job.  Even if magazines like Playboy still bought fiction, they aren’t paying out four figure amounts to writers for their brilliance anymore.  Unless the writer holds a prominent place on the NYT Bestseller list or just sold their soul to a movie production company for a cool million bucks so you can watch whatever the scriptwriters have butchered into so much dogmeat for a summer movie in a couple years.

The truth is I love to write.  I love how language is a maleable medium, like clay is to a sculptor, metal is to a welder, or mashed potatoes is to a guy who has been abducted by aliens.  I could go on with the metaphors for days. I’m a writer.  Metaphors are to me what Thalo-blue and a fan brush was to Bob Ross.  I fucking love them!

What do I like almost as much?  Getting paid to write.  The satisfaction of a job well-done is unparalleled, unless you are putting an actual dollar amount to it.  This means that not only did someone like what you wrote, but now you can pay the bills, maybe buy a sandwich, or a new pair of shoes so you can write some more stuff!

In fiction, my total royalties and paychecks is probably under $1000 after ten years of effort.  My biggest paycheck was $100 for a 10,000 word short story at a penny a word.  The publication is no longer around.  The shoes I bought with the check I cashed wore out less than a year later.  Keens.  They were pretty nice.  My first paycheck was for a 3,000 word fiction story.  It was $10.  A year went by until the next $10 sale came.  I probably sent that ms out to a dozen places.  Around $3 a pop for postage.  It’s actually costing me money to write at this point.  That is why I have a full-time job with insurance and everything.  Even when it sucks, I know it’s going to make sure I don’t die.

So, what do you do when your best talent is putting words together but in this culture, you’ll starve to death if you try to do what you love?  You sell out.  That’s what.

I write SEO content for business blogs.  I made more money selling one blog about heavy equipment truck tires than I did the first three short story sales I made combined.  I have written all sorts of things, from product descriptions about dry-aged beef that can be shipped to your door, to gas-permeable membranes and cladding used in construction.  All sorts of shit.  And the sad thing is writing this stuff actually supplements my income.  It makes sure my checks don’t bounce, even with the day job, even with a divorce and child support payments, and insurance and car payments. Oh the glamorous life of a writer!  It’s probably no different than yours, is it?

If you have read this far, that means you are a writer yourself. You are interested in that calling.  You might be a little depressed right now or are telling yourself that my failures don’t mean you won’t sell your space opera to Harper Collins and Ridley Scott will send you the seven figure check tomorrow!  If that happens, then I lost the bet.  Congratulations.  Or you might consider the lucrative world of selling out.  Because hey, you are still writing, and you are getting paid.  It’s actually a good way to sharpen your skills.  And feel like less of an impostor when you tell people you are a writer.  Because that’s all anyone really gives a shit about when they ask what you do.  They aren’t asking what you LOVE, they are asking what keeps you from starvation.  In my case, writing is a big part of that.  It keeps me from giving up on the writing I love doing too: The fiction.

Right now, I’m not getting paid to blog this stuff.  I’m writing it to get your attention in the hopes that you like what you see here enough to buy a copy of my book.  I’m not getting rich doing it, but I hope that you read my book and get something out of it.  I might get a couple bucks.  I can make more money writing about plantar fasciitus or alpaca sweaters than I will make off the royalties of my book.

I wrote a book!  Buy it.  Give it a review on Amazon once you read it! That is the kind of stuff that keeps me wanting to write more fiction and less blogs about root canals.  Which are nearly as painful to write as getting a root canal.  But, the money flows to the author.  Even if it’s only like $10.

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Where do you get your ideas?

I get asked this a lot. If you write fiction, chances are, you do too.

The answer is simpler to say where DON’T I get my ideas. I would like to say that I read a lot. I don’t. I have kids. A full-time job outside of writing. Various writing oriented side jobs that help pay the bills. And the need to actually get out and have fun. I live close to the mountains in Colorado, so if a nice day goes by and I wasn’t out in it, I start to get a little cranky.

I glean a lot of my ideas from my own experiences. Little details can inspire me. A snippet of conversation overheard at a park or restaurant. Things that take me out of the real world, such as a Renaissance fair, or a bookstore, or just walking alone in the woods. Horrible people at the store, failed relationship, unrequited loves, random people you meet on the bus. A big part of writing is the characters. Collect experiences with interesting people and use them for your own nefarious purposes. Settings are next. Then the plot will come.

When I read, I tend to throw myself into reading until that book is done. I don’t get a lot of writing done when I’m reading. Sometimes I get ideas from arguments on the internet. Sometimes it’s from something as wonderful as a truly, awesomely shitty movie.

Bad movies often have more imagination than their production value was able to afford. They have a lot of heart. They have great characters…its just they couldn’t pay actors who were good enough to play them. And they sure as hell couldn’t afford better set designs.

The worst part about being inspired by bad movies is the ego trip involved, since you are telling yourself “I could write something better than this!” You are probably right. But the key here is actually getting on your butt and doing it!

Writing is 10% inspiration and 90% staying off the internet.

You’ll never write your novel just by making whitty comments on facebook. You’ll get instant gratification that somebody “liked” it within ten seconds of your posting, but that’s like trying to live off M&Ms for your life. When what you really need is a steak and a salad and a glass of good red wine. Facebook is the bag of candy. It’s just going to rot your teeth.

I’m on Facebook a lot. I’m lucky I have any motivation to write anything at all.

Also, social media doesn’t give you ideas like the good old forums used to. Some of Cinder was inspired by a science fiction magazine webforum. I don’t remember which bits. The forum is long gone now. I still keep in touch with some of the patrons.

Honestly, hanging out with those people in a virtual environment taught me more about writing and trying to publish fiction than a four year degree at a University which got me a degree in English and nothing much else to show for it.

More on that at another time. Here’s the obligatory link to my book!

What’s the Best Way to Learn How to Write?

Simple answer: By writing. A lot. But really, if you want to sell stories. If you want to hone your craft, you have to start getting used to hearing the word “No” a lot.

You’ll hear it more than you ever heard it as a Freshman asking someone out on a date. You’ll hear it more than you’ve heard it asking a boss for a promotion. You’ll hear it more than you have heard it asking a highway patrolman if you could just get off with a warning this time. You’ll hear it and like those events, in the beginning, you’ll hear it with laughter.

If you got published on your first try, congratulations. I hate you. But if you were like the rest of us who live in the real world, it stung. You probably thought your concept and delivery was better than the latest Nebula or Hugo winner. Certainly better than that movie you watched on Netflix the other night.

It probably wasn’t. Or maybe it was and it just wasn’t for that publisher?

Put some organizational skills to work. Make a list of magazines/editors/publishers/agents you want to send your work to. Make sure they can or can’t take simultaneous or multiple submissions. Also use the spreadsheet to figure out what their return times are like. There are a number of websites that can help you with this.

Oddly enough an agent or publisher, for you aspiring novelists out there, will get back to you probably within a month to just a few weeks. They will be curt. Blunt. They will expect a finished copy to read if they like what you send. If they don’t, they will just say no. Magazine publishers will sit on that rejection notice for upwards of a year. Most sales I have made were sold within three months.

The problem with agents/publishers is the slushpile is run by interns, and they get traded to other agencies that spring up worse than a freeagency. When they leave, they usually leave a big slushpile for the next sucker…er, intern to go through. More often than not, they just purge the whole pile. That’s why you didn’t hear back. It’s nothing personal.

Now, as far as learning the process on how to write, take my college creative writing class. Out of the 30 or so students in there, everything we wrote was amazing. Our professor gave us the same kind of praise that parents and grandparents given when they stick a crappy drawing a kid has given them onto the fridge. Only the kid actually might go somewhere.

A class like that isn’t doing you any favors. You aren’t hearing “No” you are just wallowing in reports of your own genius. Well, genius, how do you explain how you have an A in the class, but nobody will buy your story? What does that say? Is it something about your story or the way it was graded? Maybe both. Maybe neither. EIther way, it’s frustrating to hear about how great your story and writing is, only to have a recent MFA graduate send you an email saying “Thank you for your submission to our publication. Unfortunately were are going to have to pass on this. It just didn’t hold my attention. We look forward to seeing more work from you in the future. Best of luck in your writing endeavors!”

It took me about ten seconds to type that up. I have the cadence and the structure memorized because I’ve seen it so many times. Yet the words still sting when you read them about your own stuff. They should. They mean very little, but what they should mean is this: I lived through the experience and I’m not going to let it stop me.

Because rejection letters can be a death of a thousand cuts. Don’t take them to heart. They didn’t mean much when they were written. They shouldn’t mean much when you read them. Be like a duck and let them roll off your back. But keep submitting your work. Reread it. Rewrite it. Leave it in a file for a month, go back to it and make adjustments. Write something else. Because everytime you finish something, your writing will improve.

You can’t learn how to write in a classroom. You can get practice doing it because of that grade. Then you can get used to doing it even when someone isn’t looking.

Reading is important, sure. Just be sure you aren’t just emulating your favorite author and you are actually developing your own voice. The word out there is you won’t even accomplish this until after your first million words. Better get started!

How long does it take to write a book?

Answer: It took about five years to write Song of the Cinder. From the first novella I came up with about fighter pilots who tangle with a dragon to the finished product you can buy on Amazon.com or Createspace.

The story itself took about three years. Then two years of editing. Lots of late nights. Lots of rewrites. Lots of procrastination. A year of shopping it out to publishers and agents. Out of 30 of these queries I sent out, I got six partial manuscript requests. Three of those were full ms requests. Unfortunately all of those were a pass, but not because they didn’t like the writing or the story, it’s just they couldn’t figure out an angle to market the damn thing!

So, I decided to self-publish. It became more important for me to let people read the book than it did to rake in that JK Rowling green or sell a treatment to HBO.

Self-publishing is a lot of work. It isn’t just your kooky uncle wanting to write his memoirs or your great aunt wanting to share recipes. With a novel you become your own editor, publisher, art-director, marketer, etc. etc. ad infinitum. You have to change hats completely. It really messes with the creative process. Editors can be writers and vice versa, but never at the same time.

So, then it was a month of just messing with formatting and the cover. I took the picture myself. Formatted everything myself. Took care of widows and orphans and wacky page breaks. There are still a few typos in the book. You will see them.

You can buy my book here, here, and here. Enjoy!