Do you want to make money writing — or do you need to?

Note:  this was published in a newsletter on August 11th, 2014.  In light of Robin Williams’ tragic suicide, I thought it might be best to share it here, as well.

Do you want to make money writing – or do you need to?

This may seem like a strange question. If you’re subscribing to this blog, I’m assuming you at least want to make some money with your writing. (Many of my clients have an eventual goal of writing full time, and that plan doesn’t include winning the lottery or landing a filthy rich spouse with a conveniently steep flight of stairs.)

But do you want to make money with your writing – or do you need to?

First, a story.

Once upon a time, there was a writer who needed to make money.

Not wanted. Needed.

She and her husband had purchased their dream house shortly before a perfect storm hit: she found herself unexpectedly pregnant; the construction industry in their area collapsed, taking the husband’s business with it; her freelance work dried up.

She’d managed to write several novels while working a forty hour a week job, so she thought that it would be no different now. She could manage multi-tasking like a boss.

Besides – then, it was because she wanted to. Now, failure wasn’t an option. She would handle it.

Then the baby arrived… and all hell broke loose.

She was under contract, since she’d begged every editor she knew and sent out proposals like a madwoman prior to the birth. Now, she was sleep deprived, and found herself unable to write a usable page. Bills were piling up, yet she couldn’t seem to get her act together and write the books – even though she desperately, desperately needed to.

The darkest point: she stood by her son’s crib, thinking – I’m going to kill myself. I just need to find somebody to watch the baby.

Hungry vs. starving.

Naomi Dunford of Ittybiz writes about the difference between hungry, and starving.

Being hungry means you want it.

Starving, on the other hand, means you’re desperate. You need it.

Seeing someone who’s hungry makes us feel admiration. It has a roguish, heroic quality about it. We admire people who are proactive, who have hustle, who work for what they desire.

Seeing someone who’s starving makes us feel frightened. Because it makes us afraid that “there but for the grace of God go I” – it’s too real, too stark.

Hungry people remind us that you can work and achieve success. Starving people remind us that there is immense pain if you fail.

A hungry person is someone who will challenge you to a swimming race across a pool.

A starving person is someone who is clinging desperately to anything to try and survive – and who you’re afraid will drag you down and drown you, too.

Again: do you want to make money writing – or do you need to?

Hunger can be the thing that pushes you to write. It’s the glue that keeps your butt in the seat and your hands on the keyboard.

Starvation can be the thing that strangles your creativity. When you can’t afford to fail, it’s hard to quiet your internal editor and take the risks that are so necessary to what we do as novelists.

So what is the solution, when you need rather than want?

In case you hadn’t guessed… yeah. I’m the woman in the story.

I started thinking of the combination to my husband’s gun safe and then thought – oh, fuck. This is not good. I can’t do this.

Crying and grabbing the phone, I called my medical provider, told them I was thinking of killing myself, and got an appointment for treatment. After a diagnosis of post-partum depression and some anti-depressants, I started talking to people. From there, I was able to start getting back on track.

(As an aside: this was not my first rodeo when it came to suicidal thoughts.  I made an attempt when I was 14, and I’d been on medication on and off at various points.  Which is why it finally sunk in, just how far I’d gone, and I knew what to do.)

It took a while to climb back out, but I did climb out. The thing is, I didn’t do it alone. And I have moved my fiction from need back to want.

  1. Get support. When things start to go sideways, it’s easy to isolate. We blame ourselves. We don’t want to let anyone know the depths of our problems, out of shame, out of fear. We try to fake it till we make it, and think if we press harder, something will finally work. But it won’t. Not alone. Lean on your friends – tell them what’s wrong. Look for ways to get financial help, if you need to. If you’re in the same position I was in, you need to get some medical help. Even if you’re broke, there are resources, believe me. Start with friends – not for money, but for the emotional strength to reach out in other areas.
  2. Create temporary stability. If you’re lost in the wilderness, the very first thing you need to do is think survival… and keep your head. If you’ve gotten support, the “keeping your head” bit will be a lot easier. So now, you’re going to think about what you need to do to keep the lights on. That may or may not be your fiction. In fact, if you’re really in dire straits, FICTION IS NOT THE ANSWER. Why? Because writing novels and making a living with it is a long game: the proverbial marathon, not a sprint. You’ve got to get a short game in place before you can write full time. (Note: if you’re really stuck with this, I strongly recommend getting Ittybiz’s Emergency Turnaround Clinic: http://ittybiz.com/emergency-turnaround-clinic/
    It’s pay-what-you-can… you can literally pay $1 for it if that’s all you can spare. Trust me on this. It’s a game-changer.)
  3. Start replenishing. It may seem completely counter-intuitive. I am completely screwed, and you’re telling me to take a bubble bath? But, again, it’s a matter of getting yourself stable. If taking a bubble bath or even a nap seems impossible because you’re too anxious, start taking ten minute breaks to breathe deeply. Go for a walk. Drink a glass of water. Start thinking “I am doing this to help my situation.” Think of it as a proactive solution. You need to give yourself a little gap between pain and reaction. Also, you can’t grow a crop in depleted soil. It’s important.
  4. Create a game plan. When you’re panicked, and starving, you probably will find yourself flitting from one “solution” to another, desperately trying to get something going somewhere. This frenetic energy tends to dissipate, leaving you exhausted and giving you no evidence of progress. Once you’ve got some support, some stability, and you’ve replenished yourself, it’s time to think game plan. It took time to get you into the situation you’re in – it’ll take some time to get out. I’ll repeat: building a fiction career is a long game. At least sketch out some major plot points in your writing journey – where you want to go, what that looks like, how you might get there, and what you’ll try in the next week, or month, or year.

 

Why I got involved with WriterMamas.

When the opportunity to help mothers with young children get to a writing conference, I knew I was going to help. That’s why I’m sharing my story. I know intimately what it’s like, to juggle writing and motherhood and just plain surviving.

We’re still short on bundle sales, and the fund raiser is closing at the end of August, whether we’ve funded or not. If you purchase a bundle, you’ll get a 50% discount on my editing services for one project — $1.50 per page, when it’s usually $3. If you don’t have any projects ready, this offer is good with proof or purchase all the way through next July. And if that’s still steep, I’m offering payment plans.

http://www.writermamas.com

If you don’t want the bundle, we are accepting donations of any size – there’s a donate button on the page.

I started Rock Your Writing because I want to help writers do what they love full time. I know how hard that transition can be. I can help with the game plan. I’ve been in the trenches – and I know the way out.

And if you’ve been in the same position – if you are in the same position, feeling a clawing, desperate hopelessness – and if you feel like doing something drastic… please, please email me. I know how you feel. Sometimes, it just takes reaching out to one person to start getting back to balance.

 

Please share this with anyone you think might need help, and thanks.  I love you guys.

3 Ways to Prevent Publishing Agony

sunday 015Recently, literary fiction author Ted Heller wrote an article for Salon called “The future is no fun: Self-publishing is the worst.”  In it, he describes his misadventures in self-publishing his latest novel, specifically the difficulty he’s had promoting it.

I am not going to go into detail about all the points I disagree with.  (For one thing, there’s already a dog pile of disgruntled authors about twenty deep,  tearing the article apart.)  However, one of his paragraphs in particular did cause me some concern:

Now, I happen to know a few people at magazines and newspapers; I’ve had novels published and I have an agent. But what is this experience like for Jane and John Q. Self-Publishing Author way out there in South Podunk, who don’t know anybody at all and who have zero connections? My heart goes out to them….I really don’t know how those other people — the 99 Percent of Writerdom — can do this. Where do they find the time and the stomach?

Mr. Heller is far from alone in his sentiments.  If you’ve gone to a writer’s chapter meeting, there’s always at least one writer who is complaining bitterly to anyone who is unfortunate enough to be trapped next to him.  To him, there is no hope, no chance for success, no sense in trying.

The truly insidious thing is, spend any time with Bitter Guy, and pretty soon you’re feeling anxious and crappy, and wondering if there’s any point to it all.

How to find the “the stomach” for publishing.

There are three elements that can help prevent the pain, despair, and hopelessness that seem to be associated with getting published (traditionally or on your own.)

Element 1:  Attitude

In the Olympic games, every­one is tal­ented. Every­one trains hard. Every­one does the work. What sep­a­rates the gold medal­ists from the sil­ver medal­ists is sim­ply the men­tal game.

–  Shannon Miller, Olympic gold medalist, gymnastics

It can seem very simplistic, almost insulting, to say “it’s all in your attitude.”

Like Pollyanna, it can come off as a bromide:  buck up, little camper!  Sometimes it just rains to make you appreciate the sunshine!

And if you’re already in a bad mood, somebody telling you to “turn that frown upside down” just makes you want to, say, punch that somebody in the throat.

(Perhaps that’s just me.)

Nobody I know dismisses Olympic athletes as “Pollyannas.”  They’re not “thinking positive” because it’s cross-stitched on a sampler somewhere.  They “think positive” because, frankly, they can’t afford to do otherwise.

To compete — not even to win, just to get in the game — they have to push themselves past what their competitors are doing.  That means going beyond technique, and skill.  It means developing, actively choosing, their attitudes.  It means recognizing that moods aren’t facts.

They’re not going to let someone else’s bad experience turn into their reality.  You don’t have to, either.

How to adjust your attitude.

If you’re feeling horribly negative and hopeless, here are the best ways I’ve found to turn things around:

1.  Have a coping strategy.

First off, a simple fact.

Shit is going to happen. 

You’re going to get reamed by a harsh review, get a truly stupid and painful rejection, have a royalty statement that would need a ladder to reach abysmal.  You’re never going to come up with an absolutely foolproof plan to avoid pain — in fact, it’s energy-draining to try.

Instead, what you need is an “in case of shit happening, break glass” emergency plan.

First, just notice you’re in the downward spiral of pain, and acknowledge it. “I feel horrible about this (rejection letter/crappy review/whatever.)”

Then, take steps to stop the spin.  In woo-woo terms, this is called “changing your energy” and there are a million different ways to do it.  It can be a stockpile of movies you can watch, showcasing people beating the odds. (I’m a big fan of Moneyball and Sliding Doors.)  Or a bunch of funny Youtube videos.  A playlist of music that energizes you.  Take a walk around the block.  Take a bubble bath.  Beat the hell out of a punching bag.

I’d have a list of ten convenient options in case of publishing pain and panic, and I’d have them readily available.  When it hits, the last thing you’re going to want to do is spend the energy to hunt down comfort.  Make it as easy as possible.

2.  Have a support network.

I have said it before, I’ll say it again: we all write alone, but nobody succeeds that way.

Sometimes, you just need to vent a little with people who “get it.”  Jump on a writers loop, or have a cup of tea (or bottle of wine) with sympathetic writer friends.

Tell them what happened (try to keep it brief — there will be a temptation to turn it into a tale of summer blockbuster proportions.)  Let them tell you that reviewer ought to be burned at the stake, that the editor who passed on you is an idiot, that your sales numbers will bounce back.

If you’re truly lucky, you’ll have friends who bolster you and who call you on your crap if you start wallowing.  A balance is important.

Don’t know where to find these people?  Savvy Authors, Writer Unboxed, Absolute Write, NaNoWriMo… those are just off the top of my head.  Start getting connected.  Take a class.  Join a forum.  Take baby steps, but the sooner you get a network in place, the stronger your attitude will be.

Element 2:  Expectations.

This is closely related to attitude, since I’ve noticed that attitude (and pain and suffering) is usually tied to an expectation not being realized.  (As the saying goes, “an expectation is a premeditated resentment.”)

Please note:  this does not mean that you abandon goals.  It does mean that you adjust your expectations.

One way to approach this is to only set goals for things you can control.  You can’t control signing with an agent or an editor.  You can control how often you write, and what you write.  You can’t control how many reviews you get.  You can control how many review requests you send out.

Base goals on facts.

If I set a yearly goal of outselling Nora Roberts, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling — combined — and I haven’t completed a novel, what is the likelihood that I’m going to be triumphant come December?

This is reductive, but it illustrates what happened with Mr. Heller.  His sense of dejection comes after seven weeks of emails.  The Salon piece posted two days after his launch date.  (As of this writing, it was ranked at 33k on Amazon.  For those who don’t know, that’s pretty decent.)

It does beg the question:  what response did he expect?  And when?

To give a sense of perspective: for my Urban Fantasy release, my publicist and I sent out 167 review queries and guest blog requests to date.  Out of that, I’ve gotten about 32 reviews… about a 19% response rate.  That’s over several months, and for a genre title, which is a much easier “sell” as far as getting reviews and guest spots.

I am all for ambition. It’s a good source of motivation.  But if you set your expectations unrealistically, without any foundation in fact or any sort of tests, then you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Which isn’t going to help your attitude.

Which leads us to the next element.

Element 3:  Research

A way to ground your expectations, and consequently bolster your attitude, is research.

If you don’t know how much a typical book in your genre sells, do some Googling.  Ask other authors, in writers’ groups, forums, Kindleboards, what have you.  If you’re looking to sign up with a traditional publisher, find out how much typical advances are, or how well similar books are (approximately) selling — the ones closer to you, not the blockbusters.  You can also ask your publisher point blank “what would you consider a successful yearly sales number for this title?”  (I have done this tons of times.)

If you’re self-publishing, the numbers are actually more easily available, since a lot of authors are sharing their data.  Look at the time frame, as well as the number of books sold or dollars made.  Even a rough ballpark estimate can help root you in reality.

But research is important beyond creating realistic expectations.  It should be what drives you to improve.  Part of what I feel may have gone wrong for Mr. Heller is how he approached the endeavor.

His bio “sells” his book — by pointing out that he’s publishing the book himself.  “I’ve got no publisher, no publicist, no marketing department, no regional sales manager. It’s just me.” (That’s verbatim from his Amazon author page — he doesn’t have a website, apparently.)

That’s his pitch.  That’s his sales hook. He does include a brief book blurb after, but this is his lead.

If you’re a fan of Heller’s, then perhaps this will goad you to pick it up.  If you’re new to his work, it may not be the most effective way to pique a reader’s interest, especially in today’s self-pub free for all.

If you set even a realistic goal for, say, a self-published book, and then don’t really understand any of the mechanics that would help make the book a success — the promotion, the foundation, how to write a sales blurb, how to qualify your review targets, as well as how to create a better cover and how to get a print version of your book if you want it… then even if you’ve got a modest to ridiculously low goal, odds are good you’ll still be hosed.  Because in that case, failure is the Universe’s way of saying: do your homework.

Problems of lack of preparation can be avoided by research.  You want to temper it — it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of perfectionism, where researching replaces action — but at the same time, if you’re going to self-publish, there is a slew of information and notes from trailblazers.  In an age of Google, there’s no shortage of data.

Not sure what information is right?  Test, measure, track.  Lather.  Rinse.  Repeat.

Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional.

As I mentioned:  shit’s going to happen.  You are going to hurt.  There really is no avoiding it.

But the fact that you accept it creates the solution.

You can have a coping strategy in place, a group of friends nearby.  You can armor yourself with preparation, cushion the blow with adjusted expectations.

When it does hit, you’ll know that you don’t have to let it encompass your world.  You’re not going to pretend it’s not happening, but you’re not going to let it rule you.

With some forethought and a little emotional elbow grease, you can downgrade your pain from “fiery hell” to “really frustrating.”  You can shift from “I am never going to write again” clothes-rending martyrdom to “man, today sucked” irritation that dissolves into writing your next novel a few days later.

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.  I promise.