Can You make a Living as a Writer?

In a long continuance of poverty, and long habits of dissipation, it cannot be expected that any character should be exactly uniform. There is a degree of want by which the freedom of agency is almost destroyed; and long association with fortuitous companions will at last relax the strictness of truth, and abate the fervour of sincerity.

Samuel Johnson (on William Collins)

There was a long period of time when I categorized creative writing as a job, like any other. As I grew up though, it became more and more obvious that this simply was not the case.  They don’t work steady hours, they often work from home, or at the very least not out of an office. They often take years, or fractions of years, to put out content.

Really, you could have a lot of fun with this line. Writers often don’t get published. They’re often rejected many times first if they actually are published. It’s a flooded market, because everyone thinks it’s easy to write a novel. Even if you do manage to push out 50 000 words or more, it’s not easy to make them any good. And even if they are good, good isn’t good enough, especially for a publisher. Especially for the market. Especially for history. What was I getting at?

Right. So you put out a book. Does it even sell well? Maybe you put out another? I read that it took one writer eight novels to start making a livable income.

The more I learned about it, the less likely it seemed that someone anyone was about to list “writer” as their occupation. It’s just so unlikely.

The Split

It wasn’t until nearly a year ago that I realized that there’s a split in books. It’s going to seem really obvious when I say it, but I’m really good at not noticing obvious things so I’ll lay it out for you.

Number 3 on Amazon on release!

I had been listening to Gary Vaynerchuk for a long time. Eventually I had gotten his entire message down, and he was starting to get repetitive. (Gary, for those of you who don’t know, is marketing entrepreneur who sells the “work hard” message, and talks about how it’s way easier to “make it” now that the internet exists.) I got his first book, Crush It!: Why NOW Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion on audible, and I listened to it at work. It’s a pretty compelling title, right? The book essentially encapsulates on how to execute on the idea of what is now known as “influencer marketing.” You make a blog, or a youtube channel, or something. Then you become an expert on a topic. Then you just put out content as frequently as you can and build an audience. Apparently it works, because he’s released an updated book on the same thing complete with success stories.

Back to the split. I decided, hey, I can do that. Thus, this blog was started. It wasn’t too long later that I started to realize what I was doing wasn’t the same kind of thing as other influencer blogs were. I’m not talking about anything. I don’t have a specialty. I don’t really have a “brand.” I’m not influencing anyone on anything, not really. I just write stories. Unless I build an audience, nobody’s going to advertise on that, and advertising revenue is kind of the whole thing. It’s hard enough to build a financially successful blog, but building a financially successful fiction blog is essentially unheard of.

To be honest, I don’t know much about fiction blogs. I don’t think you can monetize them in the same way as informational blogs (no affiliate ability, products you can create are limited), so I can’t be of much help. I’m sorry!

— An email reply to my question of how to monetise.

And that’s the split.

Non-fiction is a lot easier to sell than fiction, and as far as I can tell, this extends out of blogs and into books. It’s a lot easier to get a non-fiction book published and have it actually make money. People seek information and solutions to problems a lot more than they seek stories. Those who read for pleasure are a minority; even if you give it away for free, as I and a few other bloggers do.

Let’s keep going.

Great Writers

Studying English Literature at University, I noticed something surprising. A lot of the fiction writers that I studied also had some other job. I can’t really remember many off the top of my head, but I compiled this cool chart. As my definition of “great” I chose people in the canon, and the canon I used was the first one I could find online. You think there’d be a more official list than Wikipedia, but this isn’t really an academic paper, so you’ll have to excuse my use of the free encyclopedia. (Actually, if anyone has a good link to an English or Western canon list, please tell me.)

Writer Artistry Other Occupation
Jonathan Swift Poetry, Prose Priest, Essayist
Samuel Taylor Coleridge Poetry Philosopher
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) Prose Entrepreneur, lecturer, publisher
Edgar Allen Poe Prose Critic*
William Shakespeare Poetry, Plays Actor*, editor
Charles Dickens Prose
William Wordsworth Poetry
Fyodor Dostoyevsky Prose Military engineer, journalist
Arthur Conan Doyle** Prose Physician, Fancy Moustache
John Milton Prose Polemicist, civil servant
Emily Dickinson Poetry Lived with her parents
Ernest Hemingway Prose Revolving door of rich wives
John Donne Poetry Priest, lawyer
William Blake Poetry, Painting Printmaker
Miguel de Cervantes Prose, Poetry Soldier, accountant
Geoffrey Chaucer Poetry Bureaucrat, diplomat
Virginia Woolf Prose Publisher, critic, essayist

Image result for canterbury tales*May not count
** Not in a canon

The man who managed to make it into the canon with an unfinished book was the first person who tipped me off. For whatever reason, I remember Geoffrey Chaucer being introduced in class as a banker. but this was two years ago, so, looking at my chart, it seems that I mixed that up. Chaucer was a bureaucrat and diplomat, and he “audited and kept books on the export taxes, which were one of the Crown’s main sources of revenue” (Greenblat 189). I guess he did do something with money.

So, once you realize that people, even the people you learn about in academia, are working as well as writing, you start to think. At least I did. I started to notice more of them here and there. Although, I didn’t much pay much attention to it. Not until this year, when I was researching Poe.

Edgar Allen Poe managed to scrape his gothic self into two separate courses of mine this year. And, looking into him a bit, I learned that “Poe was the first American writer, as Alexander Pope had been the first in England, to support himself entirely by his writing” (Mayers 138). This quote is kind of cool, because it shows that in two separate countries, making a living writing was unusual… for centuries.

Continuing with Poe, however, it seems that even after he “made it,” he continued to struggle financially.

A young author, struggling with Despair itself in the shape of a ghastly poverty, which has no alleviation — no sympathy from an every-day world, that cannot understand his necessities, and that would pretend not to understand them if it comprehended them ever so well — this young author is politely requested to compose an article, for which he will “be handsomely paid.” Enraptured, he neglects perhaps for a month the sole employment which affords him the chance of a livelihood, and having starved through the month (he and his family) completes at length the month of starvation and the article, and despatches the latter (with a broad hint about the former) to the pursy “editor” and bottle-nosed “proprietor” who has condescended to honor him (the poor devil) with his patronage. A month (starving still), and no reply. … At the expiration of six additional months, personal application is made at the “editor’s” and “proprietor’s” office. Call again. The poor devil goes out, and does not fail to call again. Still call again; — and call again is the word for three or four months more. His patience exhausted, the article is demanded. No — he can’t have it (the truth is, it was too good to be given up so easily) — “it is in print,” and “contributions of this character are never paid for (it is a role we have) under six months after publication. Call in six months after the issue of your affair, and your money is ready for you — for we are business men, ourselves — prompt” (Poe).

Poe struggled because editors avoided paying him, and because of a lack of international copyright law. Publishers and magazines could literally just steal works from other countries like Britain, instead of paying the American for his stories. As far as I know, neither of these issues exist anymore. At least, I hope not.

Related image
Cricton got an MD from Harvard before switching to writing.

A lot of the great writers had jobs… in fact, if my quote has any weight to it, all writers born before the eighteenth century in England, and the nineteenth in the United States had jobs. For me that means a couple of things. The first is that writing “on the side” is normal. The second is that, even (especially?) if you happen to be extremely artistic, writing anywhere except on the side mightn’t ever factor in.

 

While I was researching for this, I found a an entire Wikipedia (again) page on physicians who write. I’m not sure why this is a thing, but it’s common enough to have its own page. Mental Floss also did an article on it. So, why not go be a doctor like your parents (may have) wanted you to? Make a six figure income and write in your fancy home during your off hours. Ahah.

Novels are a Business

There isn’t enough money to go around… sort of.

Image result for pareto distributionAccording to Price’s law, half of all scientific contributions are made by the square root of the total number of scientific contributors: thus, if there are 100 scientists within a given discipline, just 10 of them will account for 50 percent of all publications. The Price’s law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity (Gorny, emphasis mine).

The bigger you are, the more people recognise you. The more people recognise you, the more people buy your books. The more people buy your books, the bigger you get. The more people want to publish you. The more stores shelf your book. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s present in the novelling, and almost any other market.

Most of us aren’t recognised at the top, in fact most writers probably aren’t making anything. There’s probably a large amount that are just writing for fun. Those that are making a living wage are what I like to call the exceptions.

The Exceptions

Image result for agatha christie

Writers like J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and Agatha Christie are the exceptions. Especially Christie. If you want a good example of an exception to the rule, look no further than the woman competing in sales numbers with William Shakespeare!

Outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time. She is best known for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, as well as the world’s longest-running play – The Mousetrap.

— http://www.agathachristie.com

From what I can tell, which isn’t much, it seems to me that there are two ways to actually make money writing. The first is to write a lot of things that are interesting to read. They don’t have to be particularly good, in fact being literary slows you down. Get rid of all that and just write a ton. That’s clearly what Christie did. One of the things that stabbed out of the page at me while reading Harry Potter was the unimpressive and sometimes just plain bad prose. Apparently King isn’t much better. But really, writing in this fashion clearly works if you have the content to make up for it.

There’s another group that manages to get by with fairly simple writing, the occasional grammar error, and lots of releases. It’s the indie publishers. Self publishinh directly to ebooks and cranking out two or three novels a year, these people are on a mission, and it’s paying off. Royalties are lower, if not non-existent if you indie publish, and because it’s digital you don’t even have to pay for printed books. But, the breakneck speed at which you have to release to make a living seems to cut into their quality. I’m not sure.

Conclusion

This is actually sort of an awful article, it spells out how almost exactly how unlikely it is that anyone will make a living writing. It’s the last thing I wanted to hear, that’s why it took a strong three years for me to come around and face it. But, I kind of cheated when I did.

The first thing I pointed out here, in different words, was that it’s unusual to make money doing art. I feel like that’s so obvious that it’s almost in the realm of common sense. Writing somehow falls to the side of that though, possibly because when people think “art” they don’t immediately think “novel.”

Anyway, my first point was that even a lot of the great writers from the canon also did other things, and that’s where I “cheated.” It’s unlikely that you or I will make a living writing. It’s unlikely that anyone will make a living writing. Especially if you want to take the time to put out something of literary quality. So the cheat is that… that’s normal. You don’t have to worry about it, or stress about how you’re going to do it.

I mean, feel free to try, just be careful that you don’t fall into the dead prose of mass fiction… or do, whatever works. As for me, I’m going to try what Margret Atwood did. (Although, I’m not a huge fan of Atwood, she definitely both made it, and is good enough that I read her work in university.) That is, get a “real job” and hope for the best after that. I think it beats being a starving artist working a minimum wage job anyway. And being educated certainly doesn’t hurt writing quality.

Further Reading

I found this article, I thought it was pretty cool. It’s a very strong resource for learning how to make money in art, although it’s geared a little more towards visual arts. The #1 Reason Artists Fail At Making a Living Selling Art (And What You Can Do About It)

I did a post a while back on theme. That might interest you.

Works Cited

Gorny, Eugene. “Price’s law.” Dictionary of Creativity: Terms, Concepts, Theories & Findings in Creativity Research / Compiled and edited by Eugene Gorny. Netslova.ru, 2007. http://creativity.netslova.ru/Price~s_law.html

Greenblatt, editor. The Norton anthology of English literature. Ninth ed., vol. 1 2, W.W. Norton, 2013.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: his life and legacy. Cooper Square Press, 2000.

Poe, Edgar A. “Some Secrets of the Magazine Prison-House,” Broadway Journal, February 15, 1845 (accessed at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/poe/etext/smprison.htm)

Wikipedia. “Western canon.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Feb. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_canon.

Daniel Triumph.

Please check out my most recent work of fiction, Mariça.

My Favourite YouTubers for Writing

Finding a YouTuber that will help you become a writer is very difficult. It took me two years, actually, but I finally found someone who gives real, specific advice, and who has decades of experience.

1. Michael Levin

His name is Michael Levin and books are his babies!

When I’m looking for information, be it writing or marketing or anything else, I want specifics. Anyone, even me, can give someone really good general advice. That’s why you hear it everywhere. But really, I don’t want general stuff, I’ve heard it all! I don’t want more!

Levin has videos for every step of the process, from before you start, to second draft, to selling your piece and more! Every single one of his videos has given me great info, some with specific steps. This is exactly what I want from a youtuber.

But don’t worry, I’ve got some more.

2. Ellen Brock

Ellen Brock was my go-to advice person before I found Levin. She’s an editor, so she has her hands in the field and has a lot of insider tips for how to get your manuscript into a publishable state.

She gives strong, specific advice, and generally explains things with more depth than Levin. Plus she’s pretty 🙂

Brock makes longer videos, and doesn’t cover as may topics as Levin, and that’s why she’s number two. They both do slightly different things, so I recommend check out both!

3. Kristen Martin

I just started watching her. She’s a lot less engaging than the other two, but some of her stuff is helpful. Martin, like myself, is fully employed, so that’s cool. I think she’s also self published, or inde published, and I’m looking into that myself.

She’s a very good speaker, but I don’t watch, or even plan to watch many of her videos.

Bonus Round, a Rant!

The YouTubers I do not care for are the ones I found while looking up good reasons to get an English / Creative Writing degree (one of my dreams). I’m not going to list names, but they aren’t hard to find on the tube. They’re in two camps.

Starry-Eyed Teens

Girls, or young women (and I mean only women. There were no men making this sort of video.) who are trying to justify their choice to go to school and go in debt for an arts degree. I was looking for good reasoning and I didn’t find any, they don’t seem to have any sort of plans or goals in life. Here’s a tip. Don’t go into debt for no reason. If you don’t know what to go to school for, check out the job markets and learn a trade. Millwrights are huge right now and starting wages are $25+/hour.

I too am a starry-eyed teen, but more like this kind 🙂

(Ellie Goulding Review here~!)

I want to start a business either after, during, or before my education. I need the skills in order to be as effective as humanly possible. These young women shy away from, and don’t bother to answer the questions of “What are you going to do with a Creative Writing degree?” The reason? Well, they never say, but I suppose it’s because they don’t know, and can’t justify their decision. Don’t be one of these people. Be smart, your future is in your hands.

Daniel Triumph.

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P.S. Check out the Table of Contents for more.

On Music: Should you Rock and Write?

No.

Thanks for reading,

Daniel Triumph.
Facebook, Twitter, DeviantArtInstagram.

Okay, but why not?

Alright, it’s a fact that music is a distraction. Especially anything with vocals, or things that sound like voices such as guitars. The truth is that our brains will passively focus on the music and some of our cognitive abilities will be lost, distracted. Right now I’m listening to prog metal, and having a lot of trouble trying to stay focused. I don’t know why I do this to myself, really.

But when I’m writing fiction, crafting a narrative, I listen only to either silence, or the Falling Up album Mnemos (not an affliate link, it’s just bandcamp. I told you I’m paranoid about selling out lol). It’s a chill experimental rock album with no guitars and almost no voices either. It’s much better than going on youtube and listening to alpha waves. Eww.

But really, if you want to focus on productivity and quality music will only hamper you.

If you’re looking to have fun enjoying music while you do stuff, I mean, go ahead, but personally quality is more important to me than music.

Thanks for reading, for real this time,

Daniel Triumph.
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On Theme: When Should you Have One?

The theme of a story is what the whole thing is about. And I don’t mean the events that happen, that’s the plot. So, what is theme more specifically? It’s the message that the writer is trying to convey to the reader through their story. All good narratives, regardless of medium, have a strong theme. Have you ever watched a movie that seemed really deep? It probably had a theme, theme is what adds depth, thematic depth. On the other side, a story without depth seems shallow of flat.

Jurassic Park’s theme was that humans can’t control nature. Assassin’s Creed’s theme was: be willing to question your leaders and consider all evidence in doing so. The theme of the novel I’m working on is of reforming the laws, focusing on enabling the redemption of convicts. The example I’ll use for good thematic depth is from a video game. Video games often get away without having a theme, in fact, they don’t even need a plot! So, when a game goes through the effort to develop its narrative to the point where it has theme, surely that’s something noteworthy.

Tales of Symphonia has a long, epic, weaving plot. It’s loaded with sub-themes such as injustice, doing what’s right no matter the circumstances, and sacrifice. Sacrifice and deception are also big. But, I think the overarching theme is discrimination. That’s probably what fascinated me as a child. I’ve always been interested in discrimination, balance, fairness, racism, and even just bias. The theme is constantly working in the background but doesn’t truly surface until about a third into the game, when the characters go to a more developed world. They come to a place where there are structured social classes, and worse, blatant racism of half-elves. I wonder if this is some sort of comment on developed nations?

So, on to the title question. When should you have a theme? By that, I don’t mean when do you need a theme. The answer to that should be obvious, you always want to have a theme unless you’re trying to write a mediocre story. Rather, I ask, when do you need to have your theme? Many pants writers just write and worry about the plot as they go. Can theme be treated the same way, or does it require careful planning beforehand?

There’s a very valuable YouTuber I recently found, and he says you need a premise right away. That makes sense, as you should know what’s going on in your book from the start. He speaks of premise a lot like it’s also the theme of your book. This might be the case sometimes, but consider that the premise of Symphonia is something like, “Lloyd Irving’s friend is the chosen one who is to overcome many trials to save the world.” Further, Saving the world becomes more difficult to do than it appears, however, as not only do they face the expected threat of Desians (an evil organisation) and also the Chosen’s trials (dungeons), but it seems that an assassin who rejects salvation is also trying to kill them. Why would someone want to doom their own world by stopping the chosen one from completing their journey? Notice that this has nothing to do with discrimination, and yet that’s the theme, the main driving force of the antagonist. Anyway, tangents on Symphonia aside, a premise you should have at the start, a one paragraph explanation of what your book is about, the shorter the better.

Theme is just like plot, it really comes down to how you write, or how you’re choosing to write. You can have a theme at the beginning and build a plot that conveys it. I’m certain that that’s what Michael Crichton has done for many of his books, especially State of Fear, about global warming being used as for social and monetary gain. Alternatively, you could do what I’ve been doing, and find it as you go. I highly suggest doing a bit of planning though, as you can get lost in a messy plot and lose track of both what’s going on and what your theme should be.

As I wrote my novel, codenamed Natasha, I wasn’t sure what the theme was. Actually I really just wanted to finally write a novel. I planned it out all the way, just an outline, and wrote. Well, I’m about a third the way through, and I’m only now realizing what my theme is. The book focuses on reform, specifically the reform of the law in the Solune Kingdom. It also has redemption as a sub-theme. The theme can also come about accidentally. When I wrote Alice and Finch: Negative Dawn, now simply called Inck, I had one mission, to record what happened to Alice’s mother, and show how she got into the Solune Kingdom even though it’s walled off. My theme ended up being that which a parent will endure for their child. I don’t recommend following this route though, as it’s much easier to accidentally not have a theme than to accidentally get one! Although, I had a very specific premise, and I had the whole thing mapped out in my mind, so that likely helped.

Theme is very important, maybe even the most important story element, and yet it’s often neglected, not talked about nearly as much as Plot, Character, or Setting. Of course, this is the way of the world, people often forget to mention the most important things!

Don’t forget your theme,

Daniel Triumph.

Internal Links:
Natasha Updates
Inck (Alice and Finch: Negative Dawn)
See also: Alice and Finch

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P.S. This post contains amazon affiliate links. All of the links are relevant, the Jurassic park link brings you to the novel, Jurassic Park. I’ll be deploying affiliates in future posts, but NOT in fiction posts. My narratives will remain clean and readable.

For those unaware of how affiliate marketing works, essentially it’s a link to a product, in this case on amazon.ca. If you buy the product in the link, I get a portion of the money.

I don’t know why I’m so nervous about offending readers, really, large blogs do this in a lot of posts. I’m sure you’ve seen it. Maybe I’ll put the links at the bottom, loud and clear and leave the post clean? We’ll see.