Note: This post was originally published on my blog for authors.
You’ve dreamed of it all your life: Sitting on a breezy veranda, laptop open on the table in front of you, hammering away at the keyboard while a well-oiled cabana boy brings you fresh drinks and flexes his muscles. Or you want to live the Hemingway life in Key West, getting drunk every day as your manuscript takes shape. Or maybe you just want to make scads of money so you can stick it to The Man.
Ok, those aren’t my dreams, but they could be yours.
Fact is, a lot of writers want to quit their day jobs to write full time, but most of them never will. Most self-published writers don’t even make enough to earn out their costs. Many do, regardless of their publishing path, and an awful lot of them are willing to talk about it, like Chuck Wendig, Rachel Aaron, and Russell Blake.
My Full Time Living
And then there’s me. I write full time. It’s not a fancy living by any standard, but I do it, and I support a teen-aged son to boot.
Unlike many full-time authors, my writing career happened quite by accident. In 2008, I had a major disagreement with my then-boss and quit my job. Coincidentally, that was right before the economy tanked and jobs in this area dried up.
I pulled all my savings out of my (admittedly tiny) retirement fund, took odd jobs as they came my way (like working for the Federal census), and managed to eke out a living through grace, a lot of help from my parents (most of which wasn’t financial), and the foresight of having cultivated a low-overhead, semi-non-materialistic lifestyle.
I was working part time for a local lawyer (also my editor) when I wrote and published my first novel The Prophecy under the name Lucy Varna. Over the next year and a half, I wrote full-time hours around that informal job, gradually cutting out the latter as my writing improved and I began to earn a regular low three figures from my books.
Yup, you read that right. I said low three figures.
I kept hoping one of my novels would hit. Everybody said that writing in a series was the key and that it took publishing a third, fourth, or even sixth book for the series to catch on. So I kept writing, I kept publishing, and I kept hoping.
In about October or November 2014, I stumbled across the Science Fiction Romance Mercenary Instinct by Ruby Lionsdrake, a nom de plume of Fantasy author Lindsay Buroker. And I loved it! I’d always been a huge fan of Science Fiction and, naturally, I also read tons of Romance. I’d even managed to hunt down some SciFi Romance prior to finding MI and already had a desire to read more.
But I was a writer, too, so after finishing MI, I thought, why not? I started developing a story world, characters, and a plot, and began writing The Choosing, a Space Opera SciFi Romance of the Mars Needs Women trope, in December 2014. My editor loved it. I loved it. SFR was getting hot, so I worked on the manuscript in my spare time and decided to publish it as a stand alone.
Now, I’m a bit scattered when it comes to publishing. I had no real schedule except publishing something every two months. I had a break in my schedule for June 2015 and was close to finishing The Choosing, so I set everything aside, completed and polished it, crafted my own (really terrible) cover, and set it up for pre-order on 22 May with a release date of 12 June.
By the time it went live, it had garnered almost 800 pre-orders.
I was stunned. Sure, I’d put a lot of thought into category and keyword selection, with help from a well-timed video series published by Nick Stephenson. But I didn’t have a huge fan base. My blog got quite a lot of traffic for being written by a nobody author, but my mailing list had less than fifty people on it. (That more than doubled by the end of June, by the way.) And social media? Forget it. I still only have around a hundred and fifty people following Lucy Varna on Facebook.
I had no fan base, a low social media presence, and yet, that book sold like gangbusters. At the time I didn’t know it, but later I figured out that I’d written a book readers really wanted to read. Between June 12 and June 30, the ebook alone earned over eight thousand dollars. In July, it earned over five thousand dollars, and it remains my biggest selling book across both of my pen names.
Now, the low five figures I earned on The Choosing may sound like a pittance to you, but it enabled me to quit my part time job (remember the low overhead?) and really concentrate on writing. It also afforded me the space I needed to take a few months off earlier this year when I fell ill and had to stop working while I recuperated. The earnings off that book are what prompted me to start this blog in the first place. After all, I’d gotten a ton of help during my short publishing career. It was high time I paid some of that forward to other aspiring writers.
Don’t Count on Making It by Accident
I know a few writers like me, ones who’ve hit it big (or big enough, in my case) by accident, but it’s not something anyone can count on. Going from hopeful wannabe to earning a full-time living as a writer takes a lot of hard work, planning, and discipline, and even then, there’s always the luck factor.
I got lucky. Don’t bet on it happening for you.
Instead, go into it with a plan. I’m not going to detail every single thing you need to do or plan for, but I do want to touch on a few things you can do to make your own luck. It’s not easy. It may not even be pretty. Contrary to what you may have heard, there’s no magic bullet or secret formula to success, and there certainly isn’t a way to do it in a four-hour work week.
Unless that’s all the time you have for writing, in which case it might take you a tad longer to fulfill your goals.
It can happen, though, and it tends to happen more often to people who invest a lot of thought and effort into it. Here are the bare bones of how you can do that, too, beginning with a basic truth.
Writing is an Art. It’s also a Business.
If you have some notion that you’re an artiste and must struggle through gut-wrenching emotion in order to be a real writer, stop there. Do whatever it takes to get that notion out of your head. Writing is an art, it’s true, but if you want to make a living from writing fiction, you have to think of it as a business from day one, including considering what you’re writing and how you’re writing it.
You have to write a good book, yes. Your mechanics (grammar, sentence construction) have to be solid. Your craft (plot, character development) has to rock it. Both take a lot of work, and in the meantime, you might actually suck at writing.
But if you’ve got the mechanics and craft covered, you still have to meet readers’ expectations. That’s a business decision, people. How do I know? Because I chose not to do that with the Daughters of the People Series. I deliberately broke the mold and wrote strong, independent, fiercely individual female characters paired with Betas, Alphas, or whatever worked for the story…
…exactly at a time when digital imprints are calling for more stories revolving around “sassy” female characters paired with “Alpha” men.
Yeah. Missed that one by a mile. Even The Choosing doesn’t meet that definition. Don’t believe me? Read the reviews.
Would I do anything differently? Nope. I learned more about writing and publishing by following my own path than I ever would’ve by following someone else’s, but let me tell you, folks. It’s not exactly an easy path to be on, and it’s not a path I could, in good conscience, recommend to a fellow writer.
Learn when to treat writing like an art, but never, ever forget your end goal: To make enough money off your fiction to quit your day job.
How much money do you need?
Speaking of quitting your day job, before you can even plan a writing career you absolutely have to know how much money it will take to support you and your family. If you have debt, best plan on putting your first few years of book earnings into paying that down and building a nest egg.
You will absolutely need that nest egg to survive on during the dips and eddies comprising a writing career.
Hopefully, you already live within your means, have a solid budget and a well-padded savings/retirement account(s), and are stashing any writing earnings away to cover publishing expenses and taxes. Again, if you don’t, work on those first. Create a budget, pay down debt, figure out how much you actually need in order to live the life you want to live. Keep that figure in mind. That’s the amount you’ll need to earn on a regular basis before you can quit your day job.
I will be brutally honest here. Becoming a full time writer is a lot easier when your needs are simple. The more consumptive you and your family are, the more money it’s going to take (and the harder it will be) to realize your ultimate goal. This isn’t a snide poke at consumerism. It’s the simple truth.
Have a Plan
Ugh, yeah, I just said it. Planning is both my favorite and least favorite writing chore. I love, love, love considering all the yummy stories waiting for me to write them. I hate having to stick to a writing and publication schedule. Writing, sure. That’s the easy part. (Well, it is for me.) But having to write X manuscript before I can work on Y manuscript, while the characters in Z manuscript are making merry in my brain trying to get me to set their story down?
But I’m an adult interested in sustaining a writing career, so I make a plan and try to stick with it, or revise it as needed if a story dumps itself into the mud of plot problems. I get around the whole schedule thing by only scheduling a certain amount of writing time per week (say, 2000-4000 words per day, five days per week), which conveniently enough leaves plenty of spare time for writing extraneous stories.
And I usually do. At any one time, I have half a dozen manuscripts in various stages from bare ideas to first drafts to ready-for-publication. This is what works for me. You have to figure out what works for you.
A lot goes into making a plan for your writing business: Writing speed (productivity), the amount of time you have each week for writing, the genre in which you write, and how often (or not) you wish to publish, to name a few considerations. If you’re interested in going a more traditional path, the latter is largely beyond your control, but no one can take the writing time and productivity away from you.
Figure out your process and goals, and plan accordingly. Keep the plan flexible. Almost nothing goes right the first time around, but remember that simply having a plan will go a long way toward helping you accomplish your goals.
The Important Part of Your Platform
While you’re working on a plan, also consider how you’ll build and maintain your author platform, and by platform, I don’t mean being on every social media site in the history of ever.
I highly recommend studying Your First 1,000 Copies: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book by Tim Grahl. In it, Grahl breaks down his connection system and explains exactly what you should be doing with your platform. It will absolutely help you deal with the social media overwhelm by putting it into its proper place (outreach, building relationships), well behind building a website, blog (if you like), and most importantly, your mailing list.
Yup, your mailing list.
I’m always surprised by the number of authors who fail to build their platform around things they can control (i.e. a self-hosted website and a mailing list they own) and instead rely on ephemeral and unreliable sites like Facebook. Given the ever-changing landscape of social media sites, and especially their tendency to change ToS on a whim, gathering our readers in places we control is a no brainer.
Of the parts of our platform we control, a mailing list is central to our ability to regularly communicate with readers, to build relationships with them, and (ultimately) to sell books. No other outlet allows us to effectively and consistently do any of those things.
Before you publish, create a mailing list. Don’t wait until after your first book is released to start gathering your tribe.
Ready? Set? Write!
So you’ve got a plan. You know how much money you’ll need in order to write full time. You’re starting to build your author platform. Now all you need to do is make time to write
Yup, that’s the hardest part. No matter where you are on your journey as a writer, carving out writing time is the hardest part, and I don’t mean puttering with words. I mean writing consistently day in and day out, producing story at a steady, reliable pace. Cut time out of your schedule for writing, then guard that time like a Banty hen on a clutch of eggs. Do what it takes to finish your manuscript, and when you’re finished, don’t skimp on professional editing.
Most of all, keep at it. It can take years (yes, years!) to go from published novelist to full-time writer. Hang on to your patience and persistence, and never forget your ultimate goal: To quit your day job and write full time.
Good luck and happy writing!