A frequent reader of these little forays into virtual journalism wrote for advice on making the perilous trek to becoming a successful writer. The question was jarring at first, and led to three weeks of pondering, resulting in – what comes next.
Jarring because I’ve never thought of myself as a successful writer. I’ve published dozens of essays and articles, and even a poem or two, in local and national newspapers and magazines. I have created a how-to book, two books of essays, and three novels, plus several dozen posts on this site and a 4th novel in production. Why would that not constitute success?
Because I got caught up in ranking myself based on financial success, that’s why. Don’t we all make that mistake from time to time is evaluating our progress? I’ve not made that much money from writing, so therefore I did not think of myself as successful.
Eventually (I can be slow), it occurred to me that I did not start writing because I wanted to make money. I started writing because I wanted to write. Everything I’ve ever published, whether for free or for some negotiated sum, was created because I wanted to read it myself. After I was satisfied, I wanted to share it with others.
I did not set out to make a pile of cash from writing, and in that regard I have been spectacularly successful.
For perspective, we’re currently purchasing a Fiat 500 Sport (which has appeared in posts on this site a few times) on a three year loan. In a good month, I make enough from writing to pay 50% to 100% of the payment. Not a huge sum, but as my father used to say, “Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.” I have been poked in the eye with a hockey stick during a weekend pick-up game and even though it was not sharp, my father was right – a couple of hundred dollars a month is much better.
Based on why I started writing in the first place, therefore, I am a little surprised to conclude that I am successful.
Lesson #1: “Successful” may not have the same meaning for you.
Lesson #2: Since my goals may be different, my choices might not work for you, and in fact will run counter to every book on writing I have ever read.
With those caveats, and for the few interested (perhaps only the person who asked), here are my ideas for becoming a successful writer.
- Write. A lot. Seems obvious, but in my experience many people want to be viewed as a “writer,” which is not the same as being someone who writes – a lot.
- Write for an audience of one – you. Writers’ Digest and similar magazines and books (which are very good) stress studying the market you wish to sell to, and writing to it. I prefer to write what I want to read, and then decide who might be interested in reading it; in some cases paying for the privilege.
- Just do it.
- Once you’ve written a piece, go back the next day and reduce the word count by 25% while retaining the full meaning and flavor. Do this again the next day. By the time you have cut it down by almost 50% it will be better and much more powerful.
- Ironically, I do not follow that advice all the time for this website. Almost everything here is published in “rough draft” form. What you’re reading is essentially a storage file. My last book of essays, No Corner Left Unturned, was created by taking essays from this web site and cutting them down, honing them, and eventually creating a “final” draft.
- But…there really is no such thing as a final draft. If you go back and read anything that is “done,” more than a week later you’ll find things you would like to change.
- Encourage your friends to read your stuff, but don’t be a pest about it.
- You need a web site. Your own web site does not cost much, and even if you’re as technologically as inept as me (unlikely) you know someone who can build it for you. My son is my “agent” and receives 10% of everything I make. A good friend actually enjoys copy editing, and he edits each of my books over a period of weeks spent on the commuter train each morning and then returns them to me. I then send the finished product on to my son for ‘publishing’ on Amazon. The next time we’re on a motorcycle ride I buy by copy editor’s lunch.
- Just do it
- What do you want to write? Short stories? Essays? Poetry? TV or movie scripts? Novels? Bolster yourself with the profound truth that you’re unlikely to make money at any of them. This will free you to write whatever you like in whatever form or genre pleases you. I’ve tried all of the above and made money from all of them but the script. Just do it. You can figure out what to do with it later.
- Work whenever. Some people lash themselves to a desk for whatever period of time a day. Not me. I write when I feel like it. Whatever works for you.
- Just do it.
- Don’t be afraid to let something sit and come back to it weeks or months later – it will get better in your head in the meantime. I usually start actually writing a novel 6 months to a year or more after I first notice concept ideas bouncing around inside my skull.
- If you do create a novel, or a collection of essays, or short stories, or whatever, go ahead and throw it out there on Amazon. The beauty of Amazon publishing is that it is free for you and to some extent for the readers. People can get their money back within 24 hours if they decide your writing is puerile slop unfit for lining a virtual septic tank. No harm, no foul. You can list your book under three different subheadings. Price it at a temping price. All of mine are $4.95, which seems like a fair trade for my considerable labors, and you the author get a hefty percentage (75% if I recall) of sales. The actual percentage to you goes down as you raise the price. Details are, I’m sure, on the Amazon site, but I had my son do all of it.
Here’s the reality. I published Motorcycle 101 in 2001 with a run of 1,000 copies in semi-hardback form. The dealership I worked for purchased most of them and used them as promo giveaways to motorcycle customers. After the publisher got his cut and the costs of publishing were factored in, I made $3 on each book. The books were priced at $19.95 which I thought was outrageous. It was a good book, but not worth that amount. The current version is Motorcycle 201 (Yes, I am that clever). It is much better and only available as an e-book. Instead of $19.95 it costs $4.95 and for each one, after I pay my son his share, I make the same $3! I think everyone wins. If your reader is an Amazon “prime” customer, they can borrow your book for free and you get some money for it, but I’ve never bothered to figure out that works.
- Just do it.
For inspiration, (maybe) here are some improbable examples of what I’m talking about, taken from my “career” as a successful writer.
1. In 1972 I had an idea for a science fiction story set in a fictional 1984 (not a coincidental year for those who have read Orwell) when all gasoline engines have been banned. Once it was done I sent it to “Rod and Custom” magazine. They published the story in December of 1972 and I was a published author! This is surely the only time a car magazine published a sci fi story.
2. That was fun, so I created an article about our honeymoon down the coast of Oregon on a new Honda 500-4 in March of 1972, and that was published by “Road Rider” magazine, now known as “Motorcycle Consumer News”.
3. On my way to the big time, (obviously) I completed a story about a Corvette road racer involved in a battle for the season championship with his rival. During the race he discovers from a myriad of clues that his wife has been having an affair with his rival. Enraged, he abuses his car to take the lead and defeat the hated rival. As the race grinds on, he realizes his racer means more to him and has treated him better than his wife. He slows to save the car, loses the race, and is satisfied on all counts. I still like that story, which I worked on all summer in a UW post-graduate creative writing class. I sent it to Playboy magazine, which at that time paid $10,000 for a short story. For perspective $10,000 was my entire annual income that year. It was rejected by Christy Hefner (Hugh’s daughter) the editor of the magazine. Classiest rejection I ever got (and I received many). Just a small note that said “David, Not for us. Thanks. Christy.”
4. I wrote a poem about riding motorcycles that was also published by “Road Rider.” It was awful, and probably the worst piece of poetry or any other kind of writing ever published. No, I will not repeat it here!
5. Occasionally I would get irritated at the horrid coverage of public education in the local papers. This is not hard to do anywhere, but particularly when your largest “newspaper” (oh how they sully the title!) is the Seattle Times. Often my screeds would get published. Then I had a series of articles on education in the Sammamish Valley News, for which I was paid something or other, and then a few for Bellevue’s Daily Journal American. At one point I had a meeting with a flashy DJA editor (who looked alarmingly like the character Gordon Gecko from later years) who wanted to run a column by me in the first section. Thrilled to pieces, I wrote to Dave Barry asking for his advice on how I was doing (now THERE is a successful writer) and he took the time to write me a 4 page hand-written letter that assured me I was on the right track. What a kind gesture. Alas, the column never happened.
6. There were lots of rejections, and that was OK. I only remember Ms. Hefner’s because it was so classy, and also one from noted moto-author Allan Girdler because he went on at great length ripping me from one end to the other for my flaws and failures as an author. Maybe he wanted to kick the dog that day and then realized he did not have one, so he vented on me.
7. In the late 1970’s I got interested in creating a script for a TV show. I was also working part time as a lead guide for Seattle’s Underground Tour. One of the guides was a niece of the actor who played off Alan Alda in M.A.S.H. (What WAS his name? Arghgh!) She sent him my script about a junior high school and he liked it. The script went inside Disney studios for 9 months while I calculated what I would do with all the money. Then it came out again. The next year the show “Head of the Class” debuted on TV, looking VERY close to my own script, but not close enough for a law suit. Oh well.
8. In the 1980’s while teaching junior high, coaching several sports, raising two children, and working at various other part-time jobs, I wrote a teen-age adventure-mystery novel – purely because I wanted to see if I could. I sent it to the largest publisher I knew of (Dell) with no agent and little fanfare. It got rejected (surprise!) and sat in a drawer for 30 years. Then I took it out and re-typed the entire thing and it is The Third Marcia, My second e-book novel, but actually the first one I wrote. It sells very occasionally, usually to someone who was a student of mine at the time, but I think it is a nice little book anyway. It does give a very accurate picture of teen slang in the Kirkland suburbs of Seattle in the 1980’s, the Seattle Underground, and a few 1980’s motorcycles (all of my books have motorcycles!) because that is when it was written
9. In 1999 my son Will sent me an e-mail that asked “What would I need to know before I bought a motorcycle?” What an honor to be asked! I spent a couple of months on my complete and careful reply, which was 96 pages long and contained all that occurred to me that I knew about motorcycles. That might have been a tad more than he was expecting. I shared it with a fellow teacher who was just getting in to riding. He liked it as much as Will did, and it later became Motorcycle 101.
10. In 2003, now into my 2nd career in motorsports, a concept for a novel plot popped into my head, and I wrote away on the idea here and there for several years. In 2011 I was asked to take a few extra days off in a company cost-cutting move, and that “gave” me the time to finish Mourning Ride. My first “serious” novel. Some of my friends were kind enough to purchase the book, and they all had similar responses. They liked the story, but loved the characters, and wanted to read more about them. So Identity Ride followed, referred to as the 2nd in the “Harrison Thomas” series of mysteries. The 3rd one will be called Triathlon Ride and is about to enter the actual writing stage.
Many more examples could be used, but surely the point has been made. What do all of these ideas and recommendations and examples have in common?
Just do it.
Copyright 2013 David Preston