If you want to write, you can probably scratch out a short story or poem in an afternoon, all kidding aside. Enduring the gauntlet of the author world is a whole other ballgame.
A “writer” is someone who writes. You do the verb, you get the title. That’s all fine and dandy. But some of us want a little more than some words on a page. We want this to be our career, our life, and all we need to do for procurement of a living wage.
It’s not that rare of a thing, interestingly. Anyone can play football or throw darts or whatever a few times. It’s fun, it’s cool, but it isn’t paying the bills. The difference between a professional and a hobbyist lies in one thing above all others:
Determination means rising to the challenge daily. It means the pursuit of something for the long haul, not just for the moment. It means making every single day count toward the end you are trying to bring about. It’s actually the same whether you are trying to polish a story, paint a picture, write a novel, or become an established author.
Let me begin this by discussing the concept of a short story. A few thousand words, and typically a work of love. Each sentence is constructed with care and consideration, to make it as perfect as possible. It’s a snapshot of a much larger world. A single photograph of one square degree of the heavens. A scene in a movie or show.
But even a small story takes time to perfect, and that time is what makes writing, or any art, a work of love. You craft it a bit at a time, and eventually you get to the end.
This November, thousands will try to accomplish something they’ve never done before. They will try to write their first novel, a complete first draft of 50,000 words or more, in a single month. The big hang-ups will filter in after the first week. I’ve done enough NaNoWriMo events to know this. I’ve seen people quit after five days. Writing a novel isn’t an insurmountable task, but while many will prep their story by writing outlines and conducting research, few really prepare themselves for the biggest challenge.
It’s simple really. You sit you ass in a chair every day and force yourself to spit story until you finish.
The Dash vs. the Marathon
I ran a bit of Track and Cross Country as a teenager, and to make the point clear. Writing a story, a poem, or treating writing like it’s some kind of hobby equates to the 100m dash. It’s fun, it’s exhilarating, and you get that wonderful sense of accomplishment, especially if your story is accepted by a magazine or blog. The same is true for writing a song, or creating a painting. You might not be the best at it, but every once in a while you hit a winner.
Heck, maybe they’ll make a TV show where contestants are challenged to make one song, poem, painting, drawing, or sculpture in 20 minutes, and the winner will get a big advance check for a larger project. I’m totally copyrighting that idea by the way, my blog posts are dated. Someone hook me up with a producer.
A longer work: a novel, an album, a fifty-foot sculpture in the city park, a giant mural. These things take time, planning, and effort. That shiny gleam of a new idea is going to have time to weather. The fastest I ever wrote a novel draft was around 14 days (curiously enough the one that I’ll be rewriting this fall, finally). Even if the art is flowing out of you, you have to maximize whatever time you have, and smash through every hurdle of the steeple chase. You will at some point feel the fatigue that all creators face.
They call it Writer’s Block. At least, the one’s crippled by its presence call it that. I call it a hang-up, and my personal solution is to keep going. Write trash, paint a base coat, keep moving the clay. It only lasts so long.
But the problem runs deeper, right? It cuts straight to the point of what it means to be a creator, and that’s doing the hard work, even when it isn’t neat and interesting. It means dragging yourself through edit after edit, fading colors until they are just right, polishing those seas of boring smooth marble between the details until the product shines. It means going back to the drawing board, starting over, letting life kick you in the face, and then getting up and prepping yourself for the next beating.
This is what it means to create a longer piece or a larger work. This is no longer a sprint, it’s a 5K. And guess what, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There is a reason we call our products “works.”
A Mountain of Ice
Ice has a peculiar density, about 90% that of water, which means that for every ton you see above sea-level, there’s another ten below. (I’m obviously not working with exact numbers here, shut up)
You did your best. You created your masterpiece. That first paid commission is on display at the city park. The whole album is finished, and you’re making some cash playing to local bars. That wonderful novel that you are certain will rise above all others is finally done.
At this point, most artists look for what is known as “the big break.” Meanwhile, the decision makers in the industry are taunting without your knowledge. Even if you’ve put out something truly amazing, they’re in the back room counting how much they want to invest, and saying, “bet you can’t fucking do it again!”
This is the part that many creatives hang up their hat. You did the work. You put in your time. You spent six months, a year, a decade working on that damn book to get it right, and then you realize that if you want to make it, you have to start all over from the beginning, and do it again, and again, and again.
It’s a total mind-fuck if you aren’t ready for it, and most people never even realize it, because they haven’t gotten as far as you have. All that work was just one game in a long season of sporting events. It makes sense if you think about it. How many pitchers can throw one perfect game and then simply quit and say “I made it, I did it, done?” You have to repeat that process. It’s time to go again.
Just as you separated yourself from those who haven’t accomplished the feat, you now stand at the bottom of a new ladder. That’s always the reward. I don’t remember who said it, but “the reward for good work is more work.”
The problem is that we look at other successful creatives, and we see the tip of that mountain of ice. We see the first #1 bestseller, or the Mona Lisa, or a debut hit song. We don’t see fifteen trashed manuscripts, or a drafty house full of worn pencils and empty paint tubes, or ten years of singing in bars. Nobody sees that shit. Even the fans, love mine as I do, don’t see you working at 2215 while chowing down a pizza because you forgot to eat and wondering if you’ll be able to cover the rent next month. (wow, that was pretty specific. I’m gonna dial back the realism about 14%)
One Word, One Sentence, One Paragraph, One Book, One Career
Finish the Damn Book! sold about thirteen copies in pre-order, and not a single one more for almost six months after I released it. Now I sell a few copies every month. Things take time, that’s true, but like any success, even a modest one like mine, there’s hours and days and weeks on the back end. Imagine if I had given up on it. If I didn’t make any push to get it where it was most needed last November. Nobody would have read it, liked it, or shared it with their friends (except for the original coven who took a chance on it). It took 100+ sales before more sales started to trickle in on their own. The same thing happened with the original Viral Spark novella. In my estimate, you have to sell 1000 copies before enough people are chattering about your book just to start selling a few per month all year, and you have to keep backing it, and it has to be awesome enough to talk about.
Don’t assume a publisher or agent is going to do this for you, especially if you only plan on creating one work. There is no, “okay, that’s it, I did it, I’m done.” If you really want to be a creator, and you want to some day have any hope of earning a living from it, it isn’t going to come from a reality show or a sudden smash hit on your first try. If you have already gone from short story to novel, or song to album, or painting to a collection at the local coffee shop, then you know what scaling up means. You took something fun-almost fleeting-and you did something amazing with it.
If you decided through the process that you don’t like your art anymore, fine. But NEVER forget the creative process that got the ball rolling. That was your ambition, desire, dreams, or whatever that made you step up your game. You were willing to put in the time then, and this was a passion of yours. Hold onto the passion, and forget the paycheck.
Someone asked me tonight how my books were doing, and I jokingly told him what I actually make per month from books at the moment (between twenty and fifty bucks). But I caught myself in a brief time warp back to a year ago, right when I released FTDB. I watched those zeros roll in week after week, praying and hoping that I could figure out some way to get up to one book a week. That would be enough to keep me going. And now, a year later, because of nothing more than stubborn persistence and an unquenchable forest fire of storytelling desire, I’m there. One book a week, in a year.
Sounds cruddy? Fine. I still have to find a day-job, but my passion lies in storytelling, and I’m going to keep doing it. How many authors do you know (without invoking the JKR story) that “made it” on one book. They don’t, and you won’t. Keep telling stories. Keep sculpting, or drawing, or painting, or just doing wacky things on Instagram if that’s your thing. Come up with clever, fun ways to attract new audiences and build whatever it is you’ve set out to create. Take some time out of your day to talk to each sponsor or customer if you can. Enjoy the little victories for a moment, and then go back to work creating your next masterpiece. That’s the only way to ever “make it,” and you might not ever. But after a while, you’ll remember that you’re creating because it’s something you love doing it, and not because of a damned paycheck.
The pizza is gone, mostly. It’s way too late, and I need sleep. I’ll post this in the morning. Good night/morning, keep creating, and leave a comment. Tell me what you’re working on, and why you do it. I want to know, I really do 🙂