Over the past few weeks we’ve been answering questions about writing and agents, and while reading over the questions, I’ve heard from several people who asked, “What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a living at writing?” I love the question, and it’s one we’ve tackled here before. Some of my thoughts:
—Have a time and a place for writing. If you really want to make a living at this, then treat it as a business. Get up, get dressed, and go to the office (even if your “office” is a little desk in the corner of your bedroom). You need to show up to the office every day and write, so have a start time. My world changed when I read an interview with the great American writer Tom Wolfe, and discovered he started getting up every morning and putting on a white suit to go to his office (even though his office was in his home) just so he could begin to think of his writing as a “job.” He started at 9, an alarm went off at noon so he could take a lunch break. A time and a place — a great start to making a living with writing.
—Keep your mornings protected for writing. Move your other work to the afternoon, but write every morning.
—Group similar activities. If you do all your phone calls back to back, you’ll get through them faster. Ditto emails, snail mail, budgeting, project planning, looking over proposals, etc. Stick all the activities that are the same into one block of time, and you’ll get through them more quickly.
—Organize your day first thing every morning. If you have a plan, you’re much more apt to stay focused. So at the start of each day, make a list (or check the list you made last night) to give yourself an advance organizer for your day. Having a “to do” list helps most writers immensely.
—Take a day off one each week. Getting away from writing one day each week allows you to recharge your batteries and get your mind refreshed. I know you won’t think so, particularly if you’re on deadline. This is one of those “trust me” things I can say after having worked in this business for decades. Take one day off each week, and you’ll feel like you get more done. Hey – even God rested.
—Kill the muse. That is, forget the concept that you have to be in a certain mood to write, or find exactly the right space to create words, or you have to have music on, sitting in a certain chair, and wait for some voice to speak to you. Just sit and start writing. I’ve long appreciated Ernest Hemingway’s writing idea that you end each day in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down the next morning, you don’t have to figure where you are, or get yourself into a certain mood, or work up to some storytelling. All you have to do is to finish the incomplete sentence you’d left yourself, and you’re off and writing. Kill the muse and just start typing each morning.
—See the value of shitty first drafts. Too many writers tie themselves in knots because they think they need to make their manuscript perfect. But for most novelists, what they really need is to get a first draft done. Then they can go back and fix it, because it’s always easier to FIX something than to CREATE something. So get a draft done and you’ll be able to eventually move it from “bad” to “better.” I tell writers to think “progress,” not “perfection.” See the value of creating a shitty first draft. (And I’m sorry if you don’t like my use of the terms, but my thanks to Anne Lamott for first offering this bit of wisdom in her wonderful book Bird by Bird.)
—If you’re running your writing career like a business, learn to farm out certain tasks. Do you need to do the budgeting? Do you need to be the person who sends out all the tweets? Do you need to do the copyedit on the website? Maybe you do. But let’s face it: if somebody else can do something 80% as well as you, then you need to consider farming it out to them in order to allow you time to grow your business.
—Protect your hands. This big of wisdom may not be all that important to you, but one of the biggest mistakes I made as a young writer was using a cramped keyboard, then not taking adequate breaks or stretching my hands. Now I have a lot of hand problems. There’s a ton of research on things you can do to protect one of a writer’s most valuable assets – ergonomic keyboards, stretching exercises, the proper chair, being careful to not over-tax your fingers, etc. Check into them. (The same goes for those with back or neck or shoulder pain, I suppose.)
There are probably a dozen other things I could add, but I’ll open it up… What wisdom do you have to share with other writers? As you move toward making more of your living at writing, what is the best advice you can give to other people who want to make a living at this business?