I started writing this post a while ago, after I read a rash of posts about people quitting their jobs to write. It was always in the most terrible ways, too–they were the “I’m struggling to support my boyfriend because he doesn’t work, but he says his ‘big break’ will come as soon as he finishes his book” or “I’m just out of college, and writing is my DREAM, so I’m not going to look for a new job” kinds of stories, which always fill me with a sort of cold-stomached dread. I forgot about this post until early this week, when I saw *another* “Hey guys! I don’t like office jobs, so I quit my job!” post And here we are again!

So let’s talk about the logistics of being a career fiction novelist!

Conventional wisdom holds that if you want to write for a living, your best approach is to:

  • Find a job that pays the bills.
  • Write and publish in your free time.
  • Quit your job once (or if) you make enough money from publishing that that change won’t ruin you.

This is a cautious approach that ensures you have enough to eat and live while you establish yourself as a writer. It’s not very sexy, but it’s a reliable, safe path.

It’s also agonizingly slow, especially if you already have a lot on your plate. Consequently, there are always people who would rather throw caution to the wind. They aren’t making much, if any, money. They may have never even written anything before! But by golly, they want to be an author. So they save up money, quit their jobs, and plan to become a professional author before their money runs out.

But this… really doesn’t work. Here’s why.

Hardly anyone supports themselves on the sales of one book.

Let’s just start out with some fascinating stories, like:

  • Paul Kemp, the author of more than a dozen novels, who explained why he still needed his day job when post was written
  • Rachel Caine, author of a considerable number of novels, who quit her day job 17 years after first being published.

These are successful authors with many, many books, and they are absolutely the norm.

You, too, will most likely have to have a lot of books, and a lot of success, before the sales start adding up.

But let’s go into the details. Let’s imagine you have less than a year of savings. You have a completed manuscript. You want to sell your debut novel before your money runs out, and you really, really want to make a sale that’ll give you enough of a salary to recoup the time you spent pitching, with enough left over to write your next book. What would happen?

Agents are slow.

If you’re on a strict timeline, you can forget about agents. Let’s say you send out 100 queries today. What would happen?

  1. The agents have to review your query. While each has a different reading schedule (that they’ll list on their submission page), most of them… well, most will never respond at all. But the ones who do will respond with rejections or requests somewhere between 1 week and 6 months.
  2. If they do like your manuscript, they may ask to look at a partial or the full manuscript. And if they don’t get to it quickly and read it in a month or two, which is all very common, it’s considered bad form to prompt an agent about those until after 6 months have passed.
  3. If an agent does offer you representation, they still have to find a publisher to publish it. And, guess what? That can take months, too! There’s also a non-negligible chance that they won’t find anyone to buy it at all. This would be horrific for you and your agent, and agents are as picky as they are precisely so this is a rare occurrence, but it’s not impossible.

Can this go faster? Absolutely! If your query is perfect, the agent loves it, and the stars align, an agent might respond to your query within days and offer representation within weeks. Is that something you should count on? Of course not. Agents can be perfectly interested and still take months to respond to every step of this process.

And, of course, an agent is just step #1. Now you have to accept that…

Traditional publishing is slow.

Again: if you’re going to starve to death if you don’t get money in a few months, traditional publishing is too slow for you.

Advances are slow. Also, they’re small.

If you publish with a publisher large enough to give you an advance, then congrats! You’re guaranteed some money!

But while numbers vary widely by content and genre, the average advance for a debut author is under $10,000. Writer Beware used to link to a famous survey of SF/F authors and their advances–it was posted in 2005, the link’s dead, and I can’t seem to find a good mirror–that famously stated that the average advance for a SF/F author is about $5,000. And that was more than a decade ago!

Also, you don’t get it all at once. You get advances in chunks. The publisher may give you it in chunks of 1/4 or 1/3 at a time, spread over months. That means your already-small advance is now divvied up into even smaller chunks.

And, of course…

Publishing is slow.

They have to edit it. They have to do art. They have to market it. Also, they put out books at certain times of the year. Your book probably won’t come out for–wait for it–months.

You don’t start making monthly royalties until you sell enough to make back your advance.

And now you can look forward to making $0 until you sell enough books to recoup your advance. If you do. (And if you don’t, erk. That can happen, too. And then you have the added pressure of disappointing a publisher.)

None of this is good if you need money fast.

So you can see what this means, right?

If you had a book that was done today and decided to go the agent –> publisher route, or even just went directly to a publisher, it could easily take you more than a year to see any money, and it will, most likely, not be a lot.

And that’s a big “if.” A lot of the “I’m quitting my job to write!” posts I’ve seen involve people who haven’t even started their novel, and who may have never written a novel before. So, yes. That’s not helping, either.

Small presses are fast. Self-publishing is faster! But…

…They also don’t pay advances, so you’ll have to make all your money off of royalties. So all of your money comes from sales.

On one hand, this is great for the author who’s in a blinding rush to become an author, because you can publish as fast and as often as you want. Also, you keep more of the royalties!

But, uh, what’s your platform like? How many devoted fans do you have?

Unless you’re an internet phenomenon, you probably don’t have hundreds of thousands of fans lining up to buy your books. If you’re like most of us, and you’re just a nobody on the internet, you’re not going to sell a lot. While this article is from 2012, it includes a not-too-unbelievable fact: most self-published authors make less than $500 per year. (EDIT: This last sentence was rewritten to better reflect the facts reflected in the article.)

ALL authors, no matter where they publish, typically support themselves on volume.

No matter how you cut it, your first book, whether it’s traditionally or self-published, will likely net you somewhere between a few hundred and few thousand dollars. And either way, it’s going to take you months to get that money. So how do people afford to quit their jobs, ever?

Well, that’s why so many don’t.

But the more books you have out, the better chance you have. Most authors who quit their day jobs have several books out. They have fans! They have series! Their royalties have reached a semi-predictable state where all their books, selling together, can guarantee a reasonably predictable amount of money per month, even if sales on one book dip while the others rise.

This is true for everyone. If you go the agent and/or traditional publisher route, you’ll find that publishers take bigger chances and pay better advances to authors with established, successful track records. (The process also goes much faster if you already have an agent on hand when you finish your next book.)

And library-building is an extremely common approach for self-published authors. One of self-publishing’s greatest strengths is that you can put out novels as quickly as you want. While everyone publishes differently–that’s the charm of self-publishing!–a lot of people support themselves on sheer volume.

And that’s why publishing is a marathon, not a sprint.

If you want to write for a living, your plan shouldn’t be “I’m going to do everything I can to write one book.”

You should plan for the long run. Find a system that allows you to write often and regularly. Set long-term goals for multiple projects. Get yourself on a sustainable, steady schedule that doesn’t burn you out, but still pushes you toward your goals. Produce, polish, and finish content regularly.

You may reach a point where you can support yourself after one, two, ten, or twenty books–or it may not ever happen. But while it’s slow and steady and so-very-uncertain, a gradual approach is more likely to work out in your favor than the “Burn your entire life down and make gutting sacrifices to write your first novel” one.

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Holy moley, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted here. Hi! I hope everyone reading this had some wonderful holidays!

It’s December 31st! The end of the year! And I wanted to take this moment to look back at what I accomplished this year. So let’s get to it!

I read a lot of awesome books!

I read 31 books this year. And while most of it was the usual fare–YA fantasy and a smattering of non-fiction–I also read a toooooooooon of MG!

But that doesn’t matter, because almost all of the books I 5-starred on Goodreads were non-fiction or adult fantasy. And so, for the second year in a row, almost all of my favorite books were not in the genre I’m trying to write. Delightful!

The books I enjoyed the most were:

  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, a book on elfin/goblin politics that has maybe 5 pages of action and is still completely riveting.
  • Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman, although I’m still conflicted about it. Every single line spoken by a dragon is pure shining gold, but the ending frustrates me to this very day.
  • How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman, which is just a lovely non-fiction book, and…
  • A New History of Shinto by John Breen and Mark Teeuwen, which is also super aweome!

I wrote a fair amount!

My original plan was to just dump numbers here. I have them! I seriously do! I can tell you with extreme accuracy how many words I wrote, and how many of those words went to novels, short stories, outlines, and query letters.

But… let’s not. I wrote the first draft of a 60K MG fantasy novel and four short stories. I sold two shorts. I placed in one contest.

And most of that was written after July. I had a pretty weird year, honestly. I spent the first 6 months just fumbling around–struggling to write a novel, puttering through short stories, and being furious at myself all the while. Sure, I pulled out of it. The last half of the year was extremely productive. But none of it was really good for me.

We’ll get to that in a second.

I finished querying a novel!

Okay, so. I kept saying that I was going to post my querying stats. I haven’t. I was imagining a nice, long post about querying where I explained what went well, what didn’t, what freaked me out, and how I worked through it.

I never wrote that post! And now it seems unlikely that I will.

So let’s get that out of the way. I queried a YA fantasy to 92 agents. I got 5 full requests and 1 partial. No one made any offers, unfortunately. I’m done querying that novel–and I have other plans for it, which I hope I can talk about soon! But for now, I can just say that it was a good experience, I learned a lot, but it’s obviously not where I wanted to be.

It’s one of the things I’m most unsure about this year. I feel like I’ve got a bad case of the almosts. I almost had what it took to get an agent to take me on. Almost. Not quite. But almost.

Almost’s not a great place. It kind of drives me nuts. But I also feel like a huge hypocrite in saying so. I know that the me from 5 years ago would punch me in the gut for complaining about getting full manuscript requests, even if they didn’t go anywhere.

So there’s my New Year’s resolution: To write more and agonize less.

So, like I said before, this year was weird. It started out bad. It ended up good. But none of that, I think, is how I’d like to write in the future. And that’s because I spent an awful lot of this year being angry with my writing. Here’s how my train of thought would go:

Writers write.

If you want to make a career as a fiction writer–after accepting that this is extremely unlikely to happen in the first place–you need to write a lot of stories. You have to produce constantly.

The more novels and short stories you complete, the more chances you have at publishing them.

If you are not producing complete novels regularly, you will not be working toward this dream.

OK. So that’s the stupid little reel playing in the back of my skull. It’s reasonable, right? It’s realistic! It’s entirely true. If someone wanted to make a career as a writer, they would have to write a lot of books, regularly and often. Heck, they’d probably want to do a lot more than I manage, which is roughly a novel a year.

But I beat myself over the head with with logic constantly. I wrote a short story a month earlier this year, and it wasn’t enough. 4 stories in 4 months? You can write a short story in a couple of days! It wasn’t enough.

I was writing a novel. When it puttered out in February, I was crushed. I had wasted 6 months on that thing, and I didn’t end up with a completed first draft. I needed to start another. Immediately. I needed to plan and outline and write, because it was February and if I didn’t hurry I wouldn’t finish anything by the end of the year, and then I would be a total failure.

But it turns out that screaming WRITE MORE! PRODUCE MORE! FASTER! at yourself every damn day doesn’t actually make you write better.

I did eventually sit down and write a novel. In fact, almost 60% of the words I wrote this year happened between July and November. But it was a heroic effort. It was repentance! I had struggled so much the first half of the year that I felt like I had to write 10,000 words a week to make up for it. (Though, to be fair, I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t like I was hatewriting the poor thing. I did really enjoy it.)

But the point is that none of this is good for the long haul.

I need to stop… Haranguing myself so much, I guess. And it’s hard, because I’m seeing some success. Some of my novels are getting interest, some of my stories have been sold. Those are all good things. But I have some fervent need to up the ante and do MORE BETTER FASTER.

So yes. That’s my goal. That’s my resolution: I really just don’t need to turn writing into a boom or bust cycle where I’m either frustrated about not writing enough or writing more than I can reasonably maintain.

Because, regardless of all the stress, I got a lot done. I sold more stuff. I wrote more stuff. I learned a ton. And I can continue to do more, and see more success, without making myself feel panicked about not doing enough.

So! That’s the plan. We’ll see how it goes. Here’s to 2016 being an even better year!

When I published my first short story, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. What happens after you get your acceptance email? How long will it take? What if the editor is really slow to respond–should I go into hysterics and assume they decided not to publish me? Or, um. Maybe not?

I’ve published four short stories and placed in two contests, so I’m definitely not an expert. But I’ve got a pretty good idea how this process generally goes, and that’s what I’m going to share.

So here goes!

1. Step 1: The Acceptance Email

One of these days, you will get the most wonderful of gifts: An acceptance email.

By this point you’ll have seen a ton of rejections. You’ll be used to the pleasantries, the “Thanks for submitting”s, and the “This isn’t right for our publication”s. But one of these days, it’ll be different: They’ll thank you for sending the piece. They’ll tell you that they really like it. They’ll say they want to publish it.

OK, so, uh… Now what?

(OK, so the right answer is “celebrate.” But what about afterwards?)

2. Step 2: Getting the Contract

Nothing is final until you sign the contract.

Short story contracts are very simple. They tell you what rights the publisher is taking, how long they’ll hold onto those rights, and what they’ll do with them. Every contract is different, so you will definitely want to read yours.

I don’t pretend to understand contract law, but you should be able to understand most of what you read. Google (and your friendly neighborhood writing communities) can help with the rest. Some questions I look for are:

  • Do you have to wait before re-submitting the story anywhere else? Weirdly enough, you can submit your short story–even one that’s been published–to multiple places. You just have to look for places that accept reprints. Your contract will probably explain how long you have to wait before doing that.
  • What rights are they claiming? All of mine ask for the one-time, nonexclusive, world, electronic, English-language rights for some period of time. This is the important stuff. Google anything you don’t understand.
  • When and how will they pay you? If this is a paying market, the contract will explain when and how you’ll be paid. Most of them will pay you after the story is published.
  • Does it mention any way the contract can be voided? Sometimes you’ll see clauses explaining that the contract can be voided if something goes horribly wrong. For example, I’ve seen some saying that they have to publish the story within a year or I have the right to ask for the contract to be nullified. Another said they could void the contract if we couldn’t agree on edits.

But honestly, short story contracts are very simple. Novel contracts are a big deal, and you’ll often see people pouring over their contracts, identifying poor language, and renegotiating for better terms.

Short stories aren’t nearly as complicated. You should definitely understand what they’re asking. But unless you find something super nuts in there, you’ll probably just read it and sign it.

Step 3: Sign the Contract!

When you’re ready, sign that baby! Each place does it differently. I had one ask me to print it, scan it, and sign it. Some take e-signatures. Whatever. The editor probably told you how to fill out the contract when they sent it to you.

So sign that. Sent it in!

Step 4: WAIT FOREVER

And…. now what?

Probably nothing.

The thing is, the contract is signed. You’re good. It’s out of your hands. Now you just have to wait for the thing to be published, and that might take months. And unless you have edits to do, you’re done. It’s over.

Now, if you’re a crazy-pants worrier like me, you might be tempted to get anxious. What if the publisher doesn’t respond again? What if the publication is months away? Is there a chance they’ll decide not to publish me? Could they have lost my emails? Could anything go wrong? Do I need to check in periodically?

And no. No, no, no. You’ve signed the contract. Unless the publisher goes out of business or cancels the issue, you are pretty much guaranteed to be published. Cool your buns and wait.

(As a side note, though, you can probably start telling people you’ve sold a story. You’ve signed the contract. It’s a done deal! You could wait until it’s actually out and published–because at that point people can buy and/or read it–but that’s up to you.)

Optional Step 5: Edits!

Of course, sometimes you won’t just be waiting around. Sometimes you’ll have edits!

In this case, the publisher will have their editor work on your story. This is very standard stuff. You’ll work with their editor. You will be courteous and kind and open to their feedback. You will work together harmoniously and end up with a story everyone is happy with.

Optional Step 6: Biographies!

And sometimes they want you to write a short biography, too. Those are fun!

Optional Step 7: BUT THEYRE TAKING FOREVER and they didn’t respond to my contract and maybe it was lost and now theyre not going to publish it and its been months oh god

STOP IT

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about small presses, it’s that they’re slow. Slower than you would ever imagine. They are very busy companies run by a tiny number of people, so please. Have some sympathy. Have a lot of patience. They are going to be slow, slow, slow.

This means they may take forever to respond to your emails. They may not acknowledge they got your contract. You may toss your edits at them and never hear back, ever. These are all maddening, obnoxious things for a writer, but you have to let them go.

Of course, it’s OK to follow up if you have a big question, the publication date is looming, and you aren’t sure everything is ready. You can definitely send a polite question. But sometimes you’ll just have to trust that it’ll happen. It’s out of your hands.

You signed a contract. You’ll be published unless something goes horribly wrong. Just run with it.

Step 8: Publication!

Finally, your story will actually be published. And that’s when you can cheer, celebrate, read your own work a dozen times, and/or glory over your free copy of the book. Send the link around! Put it, without fear, in your future queries! “I’ve previously published short fiction at [Name of Publication.]” Heck yeah! You have!

You have a publication credit. Congratulations!

Optional Step 9: Get Paid

If this is a fee-paying publication, your last and final step will be getting your check or PayPal payment. But you might have to wait a bit. The contract says they’ll do that after your publication goes out… But, being a small press, they might be slow about that, too. Just stay on the ball and follow up as necessary.

All in all, it’s a slow but delightful process. And while nothing is set in stone until the moment the story’s published, you honestly don’t have much of a role in this. Sign the contract, do your edits, and wait. It’ll be nervewracking until the day you see yourself in print (or e-print), but believe me: It’ll be worth it.

I’ve been querying my YA fantasy novel since September 2014, and oh man, it’s been a journey. I’m not quite done, so I can’t talk about stats yet, but I can definitely talk about the random things I’ve learned.

Lesson #1: I hate competitions.

I really, really, really hate competitions.

I’ve participated in PitMad, Pitch Wars, WriteOnCon, and Miss Snark’s First Victim’s Secret Agent. They’re great resources, but I don’t know if I like them.

And really: It’s me, not them. Contests consume me. I find myself hovering over the computer at all hours of the day, stalking the most successful entries and trying, desperately, to figure out what they’re doing right and I’m doing wrong. I get super competitive, I stay up late, I obsess until I have to force myself away from the computer, and then… well, I crash. Because that’s not sustainable. I almost always came away feeling miserable and spent.

These are wonderful resources. But they’re also crazy-stupid stressful. I’ll probably participate in more in the future, but I’ve got to be super careful. I have a lot more success in quieter, more private, less competitive situations… Like, you know, just querying agents directly.

Lesson #2: Fantasizing about success is poison.

When I first started querying, I got super into it. Every time I sent a query I spent hours pouring through the agents’ backlists and dreaming about what would happen if they liked my novel. That giddiness kept me going even when I didn’t feel up to querying.

But every time my emotions went up, they had to come down.

This also might just be me: If I get excited about something, there are only two options left for me. I either maintain that excitement (because all my dreams came true!) or I’m disappointed. And the more excited I am, the more disappointed I have to be.

And if it’s already hard to query, you can darn well bet it isn’t easier for me to depress myself first.

This was especially true whenever I got a full manuscript request. It was tempting to keep myself up at night going, “OMGGGG, I’m one step away from an offer! Most people don’t get this far!” Nope, that sucks, too.

Enthusiasm is poison to me. The best I can manage is a business-like professionalism. “Ah, a full request. Great. Let’s see how it pans out.” That’s a level of emotional involvement I can keep up forever.

Lesson #3: I probably was a little too cautious about querying.

For several months, I queried 10 agents at a time and waited for (almost) all of them to respond before I tried again. I was following some commonly heard advice: Send 10 queries, see how it goes, and then use your response rate to measure whether you’re doing OK or not. So I did that. Forever.

The problem was, this made me read too much into my response rate. I got two full requests in my first 14 queries. That’s really good, right? Then I got nothing for the next 34! That’s nearly 40 queries without even a personalized rejection! That’s awful, right? That’s “There’s something super wrong with your query” levels of bad, right?

Or, er, is it?

Really, numbers don’t mean anything. Queries are random. Some people like stuff, some people don’t. You can’t literally crunch your numbers, calculate a “success rate” and determine the numerical strength of your novel.

I had gotten some requests, so my novel had potential. Eventually I just sucked it up and blew through the rest of my agent list. But by the time I had done so, I had taken already slow process and drawn it out to almost a year.

Lesson #4: Don’t let the querying process keep you away from writing.

It’s really tempting to get deeply, deeply involved in the querying process–to spend hours and hours pouring over your query and triple-quadruple-quintuple checking your first few chapters and getting feedback, feedback, and more feedback! There are contests! (See above.) There’s #MSWL!

And QueryTracker! QueryTracker has stats! You could spend hours pouring over each and every agent you’ve queried, trying to guess where they are in their inbox. Oooooh, they’ve rejected all the queries ahead of mine! Maybe I’ll get an answer soon! Oh, this one’s rejected queries before and after mine! Am I in the “maybe” pile?

And… yeah, that’s just another form of getting my hopes up, isn’t it?

So yeah. If lesson #1 is to be zen about querying, lesson #2 is to query and forget about it. I remind myself to check in 3-4 months if I get a manuscript request, but that’s it. Queries go in the memory drawer, where I don’t have to think about them unless the agent responds one way or another. I have to go back to writing, focus on a new project, and let life go on. Otherwise I will literally lose hours of writing time.

Lesson #5: Querying is how you learn about querying. Do it sooner rather than later.

I waited until I had the best story I had ever written to query. I had kinda-sorta queried agents before, but… not really. I tried once. With one novel. I sent it to 10 agents, shelved it, and never tried again. I wasn’t really trying, because I knew the book wasn’t that good and I wanted to write a better one.

And while that’s not bad–good on me for recognizing that I had a lot to learn!–I also missed out on a chance to learn about querying.

Query letters, synopses, how to find agents, how agents work, what to do when you get a request… These are all things you learn by querying agents. And it’s stressful. And emotional. And often upsetting.

It also gets easier with time.

It’s like all sorts of things: You start out clumsy and confused, you don’t have any idea what you’re doing, and it’s stressful. But by the time I had sent out all my queries, I felt good. I was a pro at this. I knew what to do, what worked, and what didn’t. I hadn’t sold a book, but I had a pretty darn good run.

And I should have queried sooner. Because then I could have learned this all sooner, gotten it out of my system, and had a way easier time with this one.

Oh, shoot! Has it really been three weeks since I last posted? I’m awful at this blogging thing.

But never fear! I have yet another writing resource that you might have seen already, because it came out weeks ago. But here you go: an interesting guest piece from Writer Beware:

Writer Beware®: The Blog: Guest Post: Want to Become a Better Writer? Stop Writing.

Yes, that is a toooootal clickbait title. But the message is good, believe me.

This is an old article, but who cares? It’s new to me! I found this little gem on Reddit’s /r/Writing, and now I’m sharing it with you:

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules For Writers — Barnes & Noble Reads

If you’ve ever read King’s On Writing, then none of this is surprising, because… well, it’s been a while since I read it, but they seem to be directly quoting the book. So if you haven’t read On Writing, then great! Here’s a summary.

I’m personally not the biggest fan of On Writing, and sometimes I feel like I’m the only author who isn’t. I’ve seen a good number of people call it life-changing, and it’s hard to live up to hype like that. It’s a good book and it has a lot of good advice. But life-changing? Ehhhh. It’s not a bad choice if you need another book to tell you to stop procrastinating and write 1,000 words a day, though.

I’ve only got a short update this week, but hey! This made me laugh. In this piece, editor Nathaniel Tower talks about the cliches that he’s utterly sick of seeing in short fiction:

things I’m tired of seeing in lit mag submissions | freeze frame fiction

It’s a little vitriolic, but the last paragraph is 120% worth it.