Tag Archives: writing careers

9 Myths — or Not — about Writers

Over at Facebook, David Jones posted a link to this entertaining squib at “Authors Publish”: “14 Myths about Writers.” Well, since we know blog readers LOVE lists (hence, the endless popularity, among blogmasters, of listicles), let’s see if we can come up with our own list of writerly mythoids. Hmmm…

1. We all love cats.

tabbycatNot so much. Some of us do love cats. Some of us are responsible for those cute Facebook memes of cats dancing across computer keyboards.

Some of us don’t. Some of us are allergic to cats. Some of us construct barriers along our walls to repel the cat-lady neighbor’s collection of feral cats.

2. Writers are starving artists who live in their garrets and survive on wine and cheese.

Meal, balanced

Meal, balanced

If only. Actually, most writers have a day job, unless they’re independently wealthy or they have a working spouse.

Often those jobs entail an element of writing or publishing. One of the best writers of literary fiction I’ve ever met was a Silicon Valley tech writer. Not starving.

One of my former graduate students who is also an exceptionally talented literary writer has a day job as a public relations executive at a vast regional water conservation and supply project. Also not starving.

In my own salad days, I was a journalist; served as editor for two regional magazines and published more junk than I can count in local, regional, and national newspapers and magazines. Then I became a college professor and administrator, an endeavor that supported me more than adequately, left some time for writing, and provided for my retirement.

3. You can earn enough as a writer to quit your day job and take up idyllic residence in a grass shack on the beach along the Sea of Cortez.

Nope. Few people who try to make a living publishing books — whether through traditional publishing or through the various self-publishing avenues — earn enough to put food on the camp table, to say nothing of a roof over their heads. Some people do pretty well. But they’re the exceptions, not the rule. Most authors earn less than minimum wage at their craft: “below the poverty line,” as PW puts it.

4. Writers are artists, not office workers. They don’t care whether they earn anything, because (like teachers!) they find writing “fulfilling.”

Alas, you can’t eat fulfillment. So, no. As fun as it is to walk into a store and see half-a-dozen instances of your by-line in print, baby needs shoes and mama’s gotta eat.

Yes, I find writing fun and satisfying. And just now I’m writing primarily as a hobby. That’s because I don’t have to earn a living: a successful editorial business, Social Security, and required minimum drawdowns from savings support me. If I had to make a real living with a day job, darned right I’d expect to earn a living wage!

5. To become a successful creative writer, you should get an MFA.

Will an MFA make you a better writer? Only if you enjoy wasting your money. This is a high-risk way to invest in a career. Some graduates of MFA programs do build good writing careers. Others spend years teaching adjunct — a dead-end job that often pays less than minimum wage, or going into trades or professions that have nothing to do with writing.

An MFA is helpful if you want to become a literary writer (as in high lit’rachure) or if you understand that one of its main benefits is the access to influential people in publishing and the arts. If you want to write nonfiction — the type that is not billed as “literary journalism” — or genre fiction, then you would do as well or better to just start writing. It might help you to land a full-time academic job…or probably won’t, since those are in scarce supply, and people with MFAs are anything but.

6. Anybody can learn to write.


Yeah. Anybody can learn to write their name. But real writing?

Writing is a form of thinking. If you don’t think logically, you don’t write clearly or engagingly. You would be surprised how many people don’t think logically. It’s not taught well in public schools, nor is it a habit fostered in the national media.

Most people who can string together a logical argument, however, can also write, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction. This applies to people who are not native speakers and to many (possibly all) dyslexics. You don’t have to have the grammar and spelling down pat (that’s what editors are for) to be able to write an engaging story, article, or book. But you do need to know how to build a coherent discussion, how to tell a story, and how to figure out what will appeal to your specific kind of reader.

7. You must have special talent to write a best-seller.

Have you read a best-seller lately? Apparently some of the Great No-Talents of the Western World turn that stuff out.

No. All you have to do is be able to write a simple sentence and string together a series of coherent thoughts in a reasonably understandable way.

8. Writers write when Inspiration strikes them.

writers-block-museNo. Writers are inspired by the vision of their byline on a paycheck. You do not write because you are inspired. You write because you write. That’s what you do for a job.

9. You don’t have to read all that __(fill in the blank)__ to write it.

Please. First, why would you write a __(fill in the blank)__ at all if you don’t like reading the stuff? And second, what makes you imagine that you can write a __(sci-fi novel, detective novel, inspirational book, magazine article, whatEVER)__ if you don’t even know what one looks like?

This is one of the things that most amazes me about the scribbling game. People think they don’t have to read to be writers! You’ll teach a course or do a workshop in magazine writing, and the room will fill up with people who never read magazine articles! You’ll teach the short story and find people in the group who maybe have read one or two short stories — back in high school. You’ll take on an editorial project by some would-be novelist and discover the author has never read a novel in that genre.

If you’re a carpenter or a dishwasher repairman or a jet engineer or whatever else you can dream up, you have to know your trade to do your trade. So it is with writing and publishing: to produce successful work, you have to know what successful work looks like. You need to read and read and read and then read some more.

If you don’t like reading detective novels, don’t try to write one…

How Much Can You Earn Writing…uhm…Spicey Novelettes for Grownups?

Over at Funny about Money, which after all IS putatively a personal finance site ( 🙄 ), I’ve added up a fantasy profit-&-loss scenario based on what some people claim they earn writing 3000- to 5000-word er0tica for the adult set. The figures are interesting.

They’re high, but they may not out of the question.

Some people, including an acquaintance of one of my best friends, claim they’re making six-figure incomes on this endeavor. In a more modest scenario with goals set to cover subcontractors’ costs and provide oneself a fairly low living income, it looks…well, possibly do-able.

You’d have to churn out two or three racey novelettes a week, or pay someone else to do it. But I write 3000 words every day, seven days a week. Wouldn’t be hard to direct some of those words toward a specific type of booklet. The marketing plan is described nicely by a person writing under the name of Jade K. Scott in The Six-Figure Er0tica Author.

What say you? Would you resort to writing naughty booklets to get out of teaching freshman comp and editing brain-numbing dissertations translated from the Hebrew?

Why Publish with a Mainstream Press?

One reason: creds.

Several of my friends and acquaintances have immersed themselves so deeply in the indie publishing/self-publishing phenomenon that they can’t see why anyone would want to publish through an old-fashioned brick-and-mortar mainstream publisher. After all, they cry, look at how much more money you can make on sales of your book through Amazon!

To that I have this to say:

a) Fat chance and good luck with that.
b) Even if you make more per retail transaction, you’re still very unlikely to make as much publishing a good, truly promising book through Amazon as you would on an advance against sales from a major publishing house. And…
c) Let’s look at the whole picture.

Here’s the thing: even if you publish regularly on Amazon, you’re not very likely to earn a living on it. Sure, some people do. But most people don’t. And dreaming about being a Writer with a Capital W does not put food on the table or a roof over your head.

Unless you have a working spouse or independent wealth, what you need to be a Writer is a job that will support you while leaving you enough hours in the day, every day, to do the work of writing. And those hours cannot occur after eight or ten hours in the salt mine: writing is every bit as much a job as slinging hamburgers or preparing tax returns or or painting houses or pushing some company’s papers. The Writing hours need to occur when you’re fresh enough and energetic enough to devote your full attention to your job of preference.

There is a type of work that fills the bill: teaching in higher education, preferably at a university. Preferably in a graduate-level writing program. Whereas in the olden days artists and writers were supported by aristocratic patrons — dukes and earls and kings and such — today’s patron is the university.

Universities (and, to a lesser degree, two- and four-year colleges) support artists and writers by employing them in jobs that are light on labor and heavy on prestige. And the “prestige” part is the part they expect you to deliver.

To provide that — to get a tenure-track job at all — you have to be published through a recognizable press. And that does not include CreateSpace. As with any tenurable position, jobs in writing programs require more than just publishing. It’s not that you’re published. It’s where you’re published. You have to be published with a first-line press that has gatekeepers — editors and marketers and reviewers who assess the quality of your manuscript before it’s accepted for publication.

A book or two published through a recognizable house will open the doors to jobs that ask only that you teach two or three sections of creative writing or literature in exchange for freedom and time to build your career as a writer. It doesn’t have to be a Big Five publisher. An academic press or a small (but real…not CreateSpace, not Nook, not iBooks, not Ingram, not Kindle…) publisher will do the job.

I landed a full-time teaching job complete with excellent benefits, very nice office space, a decent salary, and a future on the strength of two books published through university presses and one through a major commercial publishing house. If I were to apply for such a job today, my CV probably would contain no mention of the book published through Amazon’s Kindle platform. Any whiff of a self-published book could be fatal.

Could I earn more by aggressively marketing a self-published book with broad appeal than I would by publishing the same book through a mainstream publisher? Maybe. Let’s even say “sure.”

But that income would be short-term. It would peter out in a few years, maybe even in a single year. To stave off the evil day, I would have to devote an inordinate amount of time to marketing and to hustling sales.

A salary from an academic job, on the other hand, will remain a salary as long as I hold the job, whether I publish more books or not. The academic employer will match contributions to a 403(b). It probably will offer a health insurance plan. It will offer disability insurance. It will give me an annual travel budget to cover junkets to various professional conferences. It will, in a word, support me.

Now, I’m not saying no one ever cobbles together a living wage by cranking out self-published books. No doubt some people do — maybe a lot of people. But it’s an iffy proposition.

If your books are good enough to sell to enough readers that the proceeds will support you, then they’re good enough to sell to a mainstream publisher. And the kind of job you can land with a few mainstream publications on the CV will support you steadily and usually better than a catch-as-catch-can income stream from Amazon will.

Mainstream publication gives you credentials — the credentials you need to persuade an academic patron (a university or college) to support you while you keep on writing.