Business Musings: Getting To The Stories You Love
One of the comments I heard the most at this year’s Business Master Class was a bit wistful. And the comment usually came in a discussion about something else.
- I sure would like to get to the place where I can do what you folks do: where I can write what I love.
- As soon as this [insert detail] is over, I might be able to write what I love.
- Writers who write what they love are really lucky. Sure wish I could get there.
Over and over and over again. Those phrases have been going round and round in my head, partly because I have a lot of compassion for the speakers, and partly in conjunction with other things that have happened this past year.
About a year ago, I wrote a blog post on burnout. It, and the subsequent posts, got reprinted in the magazine for the Romance Writers of America, the Romance Writers Report or the RWR. I got a lot of email from the original blog posts and from the RWR reprint. I had hit a nerve.
I was aware of the nerve, but not thinking about it too much, except to realize that so many writers were on the hamster wheel of doom—trying very hard to write more and more and more to make the same amount of money they had made a few years ago. We’re in a mature market now, and the highs aren’t as high (and the lows aren’t as low). Things do change, sometimes daily, in this new world of publishing, but the business models remain the same.
Dean and I have also been planning a new series of online courses which we call the Futures courses. We learned long ago that most writers don’t look very far ahead in their careers. Writers have no idea how to sustain a career past the first few years. That kind of long-term career takes not only planning, but a certain mindset, which some writers never learn.
Others learn it too late.
In fact most writers don’t learn it until it’s too late. Then they have to do triage to save their careers.
Triage isn’t always a bad thing. It often enables the writer to end up in a much better place than they currently are in. But triage can be hard and it can be painful.
It’s also not fun to do something because you have to do it or lose everything. It’s better to do something because you want to, or you have hit that point in your career (or in life) that makes a change possible.
As Dean and I planned these futures workshops, we had discussion after discussion about what’s going on in indie publishing right now. In addition to the burnout, lots of writers who were the early adapters of self-publishing have disappeared. They quit, pulled their books down (!), pulled down their websites, and moved onto other things.
Even the early gurus of self-publishing have either given up or gone back to traditional publishing in whole or in part. Considering how outspoken some of them were about the evils of traditional publishing, you (I) have to wonder what caused the shift. And the silence. None of them are blogging any more.
I suspect I know. Because Dean and I have been around forever, we’ve seen a lot of writers come and go. In traditional publishing, the average length of a writer’s active career is about ten years. That clock usually starts with the first major professional sale, and ends when the writer either can’t handle the crazy of traditional publishing any more and/or when the writer can no longer sell a book to any traditional publisher due to a variety of factors (including but not limited to declining sales numbers, burnout, difficulty of working with the author, burnout, difficulty of working with the publisher, burnout).
The freelance life is not for everyone, and a lot of writers leave even when they have a lot of success simply because they can’t handle the financial ups and downs. Handling cash flow, among other things financial, is really hard for most writers, and it destroys some of them.
The thing Dean and I have come to realize is that indie careers have a shelf life as well. Most indie writers seem to be disappearing after five to six years of really hard work.
Much of that is burnout. Some of it, though, is that hamster wheel of doom and the mature market. When a market is new, it’s in a boom cycle and everyone gets rich. When a market is mature, it’s in a sustainable place where some get rich, while others make a healthy living, but nothing more.
The tricks of the boom cycle don’t work in the mature market, and making the shift to a different way of doing things is hard.
I’ve examined those things in the past, but the one thing I didn’t examine is a whole different side to the hamster wheel.
Writers who make a good living writing something they don’t want to be writing. Writers who aren’t writing what they love.
I think every long-term writer has gone through this phase, and the writers who end up with decades’ long careers have figured out a way through it.
Surviving this phase requires a bunch of different skills. Not only does the writer have to manage their money correctly, but the writer also has to have a period of high productivity to get through it. The writer needs to have a strong vision of the future, and a willingness to delay gratification to get where they want to go.
The writer also has to be willing to make a really, really hard choice, to revamp their life and maybe their definition of themselves, to get to this new place.
What is that place?
That place is what I think writers usually dream of from the very beginning: making a living writing what they love.
Early on, writers often confuse writing what they love with just plain old writing. If they can only make a living at writing, they’ll be happy. And that’ll be true for a while. But over time, the writer needs to realize that writing can become like any other job—a daily grind. And that daily grind is unnecessarily hard. It’s easier, sometimes, to go get a paycheck and let someone else think about the vagaries of cash flow and business sustainability.
If writers are on a daily grind, then they need to ask themselves if the grind is worthwhile.
Usually, though, that grind starts out of love. The writer loves writing more than anything else. The writer is willing to try something new—some kind of erotic romance short novel, for instance—to see if the writing can sustain itself.
I’m going to use myself as an example. I was raised by bookish people, including several professional writers (a journalist uncle and a historian brother-in-law) who did not believe that anyone could make a living as a fiction writer (unless they got Stephen King lucky. That was a phrase one member of my family used once. Stephen King lucky). However, because I had professional writers in the family, I knew that it was possible for a writer to make money—sometimes good money writing nonfiction.
So I started writing and selling nonfiction while getting my history degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My professors there also told me that it wasn’t possible to make a living as a fiction writer, even as they invited professional fiction writers who were making a living to speak to our classes.
I made a good living as a nonfiction writer. So good, in fact, that I was able to pay off debt, move across the country, and get any kind of income I needed by querying someone and writing an article fast.
I was on my own hamster wheel, and I was quickly approaching burnout. The one thing I looked forward to every week was writing a short story on Saturday, the day I had reserved for fiction, which was what I loved.
I was making some traction on fiction, having sold a few short stories, when I met Dean. Who asked me why I was hamster-wheeling the nonfiction when I really, really wanted to write fiction. With a clarity that he has since used on countless authors, he asked me why I was spending so much time on nonfiction, burning out my writing energy, when I could cut expenses to the bone and get a crapass job to pay my meager bills while I built my fiction writing career.
He was clear-eyed and knew that writers could and did make a living writing fiction.
Long story short, I took his advice, quit writing nonfiction, used all of my writing energy on fiction, and got a part-time day job as a receptionist/secretary for a forensic psychologist. I stayed there for a few years, until the fiction writing took off and I had enough money in the bank to quit.
For years, however, the idea of writing nonfiction made me twitch. I had walked to the edge of burnout, and had nearly lost my writing by trying to put too much pressure on it.
Dean, wise as he was then, did the same thing after the first incarnation of Pulphouse Publishing collapsed. He wrote work-for-hire novels to pay the bills we had incurred in that last year of Pulphouse. I wrote some too, but I had learned my lesson: I only did a few and never did they get in the way of what I actually wanted to write.
Both of us had a rule about the work-for-hire that we did: we had to love the project. So we wrote for Star Trek, which we both still love, and I wrote for Star Wars, which has since broken my heart, and we wrote novelizations for some really obscure 1990s TV shows because they were our favorites. We wrote novelizations for some movies we hadn’t yet seen, and those were exceptions, but we only took those jobs if they could be finished in two weeks or so.
Dean gave up his own fiction to do this, though, and that hurt him. He had entered his own hamster wheel of doom, and he knew it. And he kept doing the work until burnout took him down.
Which is why this topic is so passionate for me.
I’m seeing indies hit the same problems. Sure, they might have liked writing billionaire erotica a la Fifty Shades of Gray, but after a book every two months for the past five years, writing that subgenre has gotten old. And the indies find themselves in the place that Dean (and I) found ourselves in years ago: they’re making such a good living at what they’re doing that walking away is hard.
Or walking away will be detrimental to their families. I was single when I quit writing nonfiction. The only person who might have gotten hurt when I cut my expenses and took a day job was me. At that point, I rented an unfurnished apartment and couldn’t afford to buy a couch. I lived with one living room chair and a futon on the floor for a year—not something someone with a spouse and two kids can do.
That trapped feeling—the feeling that you have to keep writing this particular thing, whatever it is, no matter what—makes everything worse. You got into writing for the love, and now it’s no fun at all, but you need the income.
You are trapped by your success and that’s harder to get away from than being trapped by failure.
Some writers quit cold turkey. Dean did with work-for-hire and played professional poker for a while. I did with nonfiction and worked a part-time day job for a few years.
We both reduced expenses and saved to make those changes work.
But those options aren’t available to everyone. Besides, many writers—many people—aren’t able to stomach the severe change in the way they earn their money. It’s not that the income went down or up, but the difference between a set paycheck (for example) and being able to release a new book or write a new article to goose the income when you need it is huge.
The best advice I had ever heard on switching from a writing trap (as I’ll call this) to writing what you love came from a variety of romance writers in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Back then, the hamster wheel in romance was severe. The category romance writer—the writer who wrote those short 55,000 word novels for Silhouette and Harlequin, often on a monthly basis—made decent money, but could never really hit a home run. Those writers did exactly what indies do now—they increased their output within their regular writing to increase their income.
I know of several romance writers who were writing categories under more than one name, and sometimes as many as two a month. The money was good, but the potential for burnout was high.
Those writers wanted nothing more than to write what they called “a book of the heart.”
So, they came up with a system to do so.
The system varied from writer to writer, but here’s the gist of it: The writer would plan to remove one or two category romance novels out of the schedule. They would plan ahead for the decrease in income, so that it was in their budget.
Then they would use that time saved from writing the category to writing a book of the heart.
There was no guarantee that book of the heart would sell. The writers were taking a chance. And some of them tried for a few years before they were able to move into an aspect of the business that paid more and enabled them to slowly leave the categories.
But a large number of the writers did move out of category romance into larger (and more lucrative) books, using that system.
The system translates to an indie writer’s career as well. It takes planning, however.
Romance writers, generally, were moving from a category romance to a regular romance or maybe to romantic suspense or something with romance in the genre.
I’ve heard writers say that they got their start in erotica but they would rather write cozy mysteries or YA novels or science fiction.
That leap is greater, and often the writer can’t take their pen name with them. (Particularly with erotica and YA.) So the writer essentially has to start all over again from scratch.
Plus, there’s no guarantee that a cozy mystery novel will earn at the same rate as the next billionaire erotica in a writer’s on-going series. In fact, that cozy mystery probably won’t even earn 10% of what that erotica novel will earn.
Building a writing career in any subgenre is hard, and moving from one subgenre to another is harder. Ask those traditional romance writers from decades ago. Building a writing career by moving from one genre to another is extremely hard.
I moved from nonfiction to fiction. For years, I could not command the same amount of money from my fiction writing that my nonfiction brought me. The upside, though, is that after a while, my fiction dramatically out-earned my nonfiction.
Even better, the fiction has no cap on potential earnings. When I was making a living as a nonfiction writer, working primarily through articles (and not books), I had a cap on my earnings. I could not get past a certain threshold, and never would without breaking into a different aspect of the market.
If writers understand that they might take a pay cut to write their books of the heart, the writers are better off. They can then plan for the decrease in income, realizing that the decrease might go on for a few years.
Weirdly enough, knowing that you have scheduled (and will write) books of the heart makes it easier to continue writing what you’re already writing. Those other books—the ones that are so successful—got you to where you are, and knowing that (and knowing that they were practice) makes writing more of them while you’re in transition even easier.
Ultimately, the choice on how to transition out of writing books for the sake of writing them to writing books you love is up to you. Quitting cold turkey and getting a day job might be best for you. Dumping one or two of your regular novels and writing books of the heart might work better. Saving every dollar you earn after a certain point and setting aside three years’ worth of income before you make the leap to writing what you love might work for you as well. But realize if you do that, you’re going to put a lot of pressure on those books of the heart, and that might make them less fun.
Only you know your own risk tolerance. If you’re risk averse, find a scenario that takes the pressure off you. Maybe write a book of the heart in the morning, and the writer-trap books in the afternoons and evenings. That’s how the old-time pulp writers did it.
If you have a good stomach for risk, maybe you set that money aside and quit cold turkey.
If you need the money, you might want to promise yourself that you’ll get to the books of the heart once you’ve saved a certain amount. But if you do that, make sure you can actually save money. So many people can’t.
There are a lot of options.
The one option that is not sustainable, however, is to continue writing books you no longer enjoy writing with no way to get to writing what you love. At some point, you’ll have to add in writing books of the heart. If you don’t, you’ll burn out and vanish like so many indies before you.
So make the right choice for you.
And you might want to start investigating that choice and your various options in the next few weeks. The first of the year is just around the corner, and that’s a good time to start a new writing program.
You can get off the hamster wheel. You can write books you love. You can also make a living at writing. You just need to plan. You need to make the right choices for you and your family and your current circumstance.
One of those right choices is to recapture the fun in writing.
And you can do that—by figuring out how to write a book of the heart in 2019, and restarting the writing career you always dreamed of. The writing career that got sidelined by your success.
I’m writing a lot of blog posts of late because I have a lot to say. While my mind is going over everything I learned at the Business Master Class, I’m trying to get that all down. I’ve also been reading some interesting books on creativity and business, and those are sparking ideas as well.
So when I get ahead (as I have this fall) those posts show up early on my Patreon page. If you want to wait until the posts appear here, that’s fine. But if you want everything that’s available right now, head over there.
Also, if you want some insight on how to have a career that lasts for decades, not just the standard 10 years, then you might consider our futures online writing courses. We’re doing our best to impart what we’ve learned about attitude and handling everything from craft to licensing to money management, all with an eye to maintaining the career for the long term.
And, of course, if you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.
Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!
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“Business Musings: Getting To The Stories You Love,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / ammza12.