So You Want to Write for a Living

ribbonsLast week I talked about the benefits of writing for your own deep pleasure, not having to depend on this uncertain craft to have a warm bed at night and food in your belly. And as disingenuous as that sounds, coming from someone who is a career writer, I do remember from my own early years the pure joy of writing simply because I loved to write.

But I also remember yearning for a scrap of recognition, yearning to earn enough dollars even to pay for paper and typewriter ribbons, for the courage to fill in the occupation blank in the doctor’s office with the single word writer. And if someone who was actually earning a living from writing had tried to convince me that I was having more fun, I would, not to put too fine a point on it, have been pissed. And the truth is, however romantic I might feel sometimes about the long-ago pleasures of just-for-myself writing, I would never trade the solid, work-filled days I live for the pleasures of that early freedom. 

So let’s look at the other side of the coin. You want your writing to be your work, your primary work. What does it take to make that happen?

First, and more than anything else, it takes intention. You get up every morning because you’re going to write. It’s that simple … and that hard.

If you’re working another job, if you have children, if you have a thousand other demands on your attention every single day—and most of us do—you’ll still get up knowing that writing is primary. You don’t get up at 3 in the morning after working the late shift unless you’re a masochist. You set a reasonable schedule that you know you can keep and you keep it. You will get a whole lot more writing done if you go to the library from one to four every Saturday afternoon (if that’s what works for you) and actually write than you’ll ever accomplish beating yourself up year after year because you never have enough time.

The second thing you need to do is to find a good critic—or two or three—and learn to listen. Don’t let anyone else take over your manuscript. The critics who will help the most are the ones who know how to talk about what you’ve written without invading it. “This works for me, this doesn’t; this is too much, this is too little; I don’t understand; this moved me to tears; I laughed and laughed.”  The ones who want to climb in with all four feet and start rewriting for you are poison. Smile. Thank them. And move on.

And then sort the responses you’ve received, let go of what isn’t working in your manuscript no matter how deeply attached you might be, take a firm hold on what is working and start in again. Learn to revise deeply. And keep doing it!

These two pieces you’re in charge of, entirely.

The third thing required to make a success at a career in writing is serendipity … lots of it.

And serendipity, by definition, is what you can’t make happen.

But that I’ll talk about next week.

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