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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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.

For years, I had an extremely rigid writing schedule: I wrote 2 times a week for about 3 hours at a time. I’d usually do two days writing and one day editing, and I’d write somewhere around 4-5,000 words a week. It worked, it was wonderful, and I kept it going for 7 whole years.

And then I moved.

My whole schedule changed. My work schedule was different. My husband’s schedule was different. We were in a different time zone, I couldn’t talk to my friends or family at the same times I used to, I couldn’t sign on games at the same time and expect anyone else to be on, and I definitely didn’t have 3 solid hours, twice a week, to write.

So after whining and dragging my heels and trying desperately to make my 3-hour-super-runs work, I gave in. I decided to write one hour a day, every day. (Well, okay: Every weekday. I still keep my weekends beautifully open.)

I expected to hate it. But honestly? It’s great.

Here’s why. And before you start, a disclaimer: All of these are obvious. There’s a reason that you see Stephen King recommending “1,000 words a day” and not “a 3 hour super-rush where you write a 4,000-word chapter in a sitting.”

1. It’s easier to find a free hour than a three-hour block of time.

“Writing every day” felt like a huge, onerous task simply because I was used to “writing” = “an entire evening of work.” But an hour is easy. An hour is nothing. Pretty much everyone has an hour of free time somewhere in their day.

2. It’s not a big deal if I miss a day.

Life happens. Sometimes you have to go somewhere, do something, or work late. When that happened on one of my old 3-hour writing days, it was tragic–I had either reschedule my entire week, plan to write my full 5,000 quota in a day, or accept that I’d have a really pitiful week.

Missing one hour? Totally doesn’t matter. I can make that up easily.

3. It’s OK to stop if I’m not feeling it.

Some days suck. Some days I’ll just stare at the screen, hate every word I write, and discover that nothing is coming out of my brain at all. On a 3-hour day, I had to force myself to write stupid words on stupid paper and hate each stupid, stupid word, because otherwise I wouldn’t get anything done all week.

But if I’m having an awful day now? I can write 200 words, throw up my arms, and come back to it tomorrow. I can make that up later, too.

(That said, it’s good to push through writer’s block. But having to do it under the threat of an entire wasted week leads to a whole lot of unnecessary stress.)

4. It encourages me to keep writing instead of stopping after a chapter.

When I wrote a couple times a week, I usually had a concrete goal: Write until I hit the end of a chapter. That’s when my multi-hour writing spree could end.

But when you’re writing every day, you can’t really say “I’ll hit the end of this chapter and stop.” So you just… keep going. And going.

And, surprisingly, I’m actually writing more. I don’t have a “stopping point” if I have to write every day. And because of that, I’ve had exceptional weeks where I’ve cranked out 8,000 words. That isn’t normal for me, and it probably isn’t sustainable, but it never would have happened on my “write a chapter a week” schedule.

Basically: It’s just an easier schedule to maintain.

Obviously, you should schedule your writing time around your schedule, and any schedule works as long as you’re making meaningful progress.

But I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I thought “writing every day” would be super hardcore, but this is actually easier. I thought “write 1,000 words a day” was just a way to strongarm new, aspiring writers into writing on a schedule–on any schedule–but no, it’s just good advice.

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.

Another year has come and (almost) gone! That means it’s time for that most precious of all New Year’s traditions: Brutal self analysis!

…well, okay. I’ll hold the “brutal.” Let’s just see what I did this year.

Reading!

I read an awful lot this year. I read 41 books, in fact, and that’s pretty darn good for me. Almost all of that was fantasy and most of it was YA.

And yet, bizarrely, my favorite books this year were all MG. I only read The Luck Uglies a month or so ago, and it was seriously the most charming action adventure I’ve read in a while. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was also exceptional, though I may just be saying that because the villain is a little girl with a massive hat and a tragic backstory.

And yet, if we’re going just on Goodreads ratings, One Summer: America, 1927 and The Gift of Fear were the only other books I 5-starred this year. And they’re nonfiction.

So why have I not mentioned a YA book so far? Tragically, the YA I read this year just didn’t hook me. Some of it was good and some of it was not-so-good, but nothing really gripped me by the heart and refused to let go. If I was forced to choose something, I’d probably go with Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and only because the writing was beautiful enough that I’m still thinking about it half a year later. I really didn’t enjoy the romance, but at this point it has enough brain-burrowing staying power that I may read the sequel anyway.

Oh, yeah. Almost none of those books came out this year. I just read stuff. There isn’t much of a pattern to it.

Short Stories!

In March of this year, I finally decided to give short stories a try. Considering that I had never written one before, I did pretty OK. Here are the stats, courtesy of Duotrope:

  • I wrote 6 short stories…
  • …Which are, together, about 14,761 words.
  • I submitted 15 times…
  • …Which led to 3 acceptances (for 2 pieces)!
  • And all those sales went to semi-pro markets.

That’s not a lot. But, hey! I didn’t write that many (I had a I MUST FOCUS ON NOVEL TIME crisis mid-year) but I sold 1/3 of what I wrote. That is not bad. Considering that I hadn’t published at all before these sales, I should really admit that it’s quite good.

Novels!

Most of my progress this year had to do with Justice Unending, a novel that I have been agonizing over since I finished it in 2013. This year, I:

  • Got 4 new beta readers (and 4 wonderful reviews!)
  • Rewrote the first 1/4 of the novel, changed one entire character, and rewrote several scenes from scratch
  • Edited every word in that poor thing at least twice
  • Wrote a totally new query letter
  • And got a boatload of critique on the query and the first 5 pages.

And now I’m querying it!

I am also a little over 20,000 words into a new novel, a YA steampunk/fantasy. And that breaks my heart, because I put about that many words into an earlier, aborted draft of the same story. I REALLY wish I had gotten more done this year.

So that’s the goal for 2015: I am going to finish the heck out of that thing.

And that’s it! It’s been a busy year. I published my first things ever. I got a wee little bit closer to selling a novel.

So, to all the folks who follow this blog: I hope you had a wonderful 2014. Here’s to an even better 2015!

The pantsing vs. outlining discussion is as old as time. Every writer has, at some point, watched a bunch of people debate about the benefits of “winging it” versus the benefits of planning.

And I may be sensitive here–I probably am–but whenever people talk about pantsing vs. outlining, outlining gets panned. I’ve heard it all! It’s not creative and spontaneous. The process of outlining seeps all the fun out of writing. Outlining gives you the feeling of “being productive” without you having written anything, therefore it makes you not want to write at all. Heck, even Stephen King’s On Writing suggests you should just make a character and then just write and watch their lives unfold, because anything else wasn’t actually being creative or something. (I’m paraphrasing. That chapter irritated me and I don’t want to dig it out.)

I outline. I outline deeply. And it is literally the only way I can have an enjoyable, productive, creative writing experience. Obviously, that’s all I need–that’s how I write, and I write successfully, hurray!–but here’s what my process is and why it works for me.

Here’s how it goes.

Step #1: The Super-Loose Calculations and Plot Structuring

This is the only step (I hope) where I’ll sound stark-raving mad.

I am obsessed with word counts. The first two novels I ever wrote were horribly, stupidly, ridiculously off-target–the first was obscenely long, and the second was novella-length. It took me until my third novel to go, “Hey, you know what? Maybe I should actually stay in a sensible range.”

I write YA fantasy, so I try to stay in the 70-80K range, with an absolute upper limit of 100K. And I don’t do this by sitting down, writing, and hoping I get there. I do loose calculations. I know, for example, that I write about 3,000 word chapters, so my novel target is about 24-27 chapters.

And then I toss some kind of story structuring on it. At the very least, a 24 chapter story will have its midpoint somewhere around 12ish, and major, transitional events somewhere around 6 and 18, with smaller events interspersed between.

I am not laying a formulaic blueprint down. I’m just storyboarding. “I have these major events, and maybe they should go hereish and thereish.” I’m not saying, “Hey, event #1 has to happen in chapter 6, 18,000 words in.” I’m saying “Maybe this comes early in the story, and this stuff comes later.” It helps me figure out, in a very big-picture way, where stuff might happen and where it might go.

It’s not pushing myself into a formula, because I’m not going to actually limit myself to certain word counts. I’m not even going to outline around this. I’m just brainstorming in an organized way.

Step #2: The Outline

My outlines read like screenplays. I write down broad, summary sentences that explain everything that happens, all the scenes that occur, and where the dialogue happens. (Unlike a screenplay, I usually do NOT write down the actual dialogue.)

It doesn’t look like a screenplay, though. I make bulleted lists, broken up by where the chapters might start and end. Each bullet explains something that will happen in that chapter.

Now, this would be an excellent time to include a screenshot of one of my outlines, but I can’t find one that isn’t completely ridiculous. My outlines are silly, in shorthand, and full of profanity. So let’s just stick to a much less useful example instead:

  • Character A goes and talks to Character B.
  • They talk about what just happened. Character A is upset and troubled, B tells her not to worry, but it doesn’t help…
  • Character A goes out to the shipyard and thinks about…

So on, so forth. It’s just a basic list of this happens, that happens, this happens. I’m figuring out the logistics. Why are people where they are? What did they do? Why?

And why? Because then, when I sit down to wrote a chapter, I don’t have to worry about what will actually happen. I know, kinda-sorta. I just have to sit down, flesh it out, and put it into prose.

But it also lets me identify plot holes before I ever write the story. It also lets me ensure that everything is foreshadowed sufficiently and gives me a high-level perspective on character growth, plotting, and pacing. I can usually address the most grievous plot holes before I even write the story.

Step #3: Write the actual story, and only loosely follow the outline.

Now that I have thoroughly plotted out every important detail, I write. I only loosely use the outline.

And this is why I say that outlining doesn’t make writing any less spontaneous or creative. I have the logic figured out. I have the gist of pacing, characterization, and plot development. But when I sit down and write the thing, I usually change my mind.

I stumble on unforeseen issues. I think of things I’d like more. Once I actually write the dialogue, the interactions, the scenes, I realize that the characters are going in a different direction–their feelings or reactions are different or strong enough that I have to have them do something else.

So things change. I generally stay pretty close to the big picture, but the details all change. I almost always add chapters, remove them, or end them at different places. In my last major novel, I dropped an entire subplot, and chapters 4-7 did not resemble my original outline at all. And that was fine. I still knew what I was doing.

And that’s it! It works for me. I’ve tried pantsing stuff, and it just doesn’t work–everything I write has to be drastically, immediately rewritten, because the first thing I think of is almost never as good as the second. Outlining helps me figure that out without investing 3,000 words into it.