This article is part of my series How to FINISH Your First Novel. They are the basis of a book by the same name, which will include expanded versions of the blog posts along with contributions from fellow writers. So if you have something you’d like to add to the conversation, or if there’s something you want to know more about, please leave a comment at the bottom of the post.
As the last part of my Make Space mini-series, I want to address something that too often goes overlooked for creatives: financial space. We have romanticized the idea of the starving artist. Our society loves the idea of rags-to-riches stories featuring a writer whose genius unleashed on the page allows them to soar to new heights of financial success. Take a look a J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. Both were writing in poverty, and their big breaks shot them into the stratosphere.
These writers are the exceptions that prove the rule. Simply put, passion is not enough except in the exceptional cases where it’s not. For every success story you hear there are countless untold stories of failure. I account for several of them personally. The sad truth is that most writers don’t make money and those that do don’t make enough to live on.
The average published writer makes enough on book royalties to buy about one new appliance per year. Indie authors rarely even break even. It’s exceptional for an author to be able to make a decent living on writing alone. That means that writing is a passion project, and it is likely not to be free. At the very least, you’ll need writing utensils like pens and paper. More likely, you’ll need a computer and word processor.
And then you’ll probably want to do some reading about writing. Maybe take some classes or attend workshops. And once you’re finished your book, you’ll want to hire an editor and a cover designer. (Really, if you’re serious about this, you should find both.)
To break out as an author, people will need to know how to find you. Sure, you could open free social media accounts, but you’re probably going to want a website or blog of your own. There are free options, but it’s best to get your own domain, which means web hosting. If you’re not tech savvy, you’ll probably spend some money on web design for your online presence as well.
And if you’re going to go full speed ahead, you’ll probably be in the market for a publicist and street team. There will be ads to buy – to promote your book and you as an author – and fees for contests, book deal aggregators, and press releases.
Not willing to spend this money? Well, your competitors are. While authors provide a loving, supportive community, we are also in direct competition for readers. And as unfair and classist as it is, those with the most money are going to be the ones who make the most money. It’s as simple as that.
The purpose of this litany of expenses is not to put you off your goal of finishing your novel. Quite the contrary, I hope that it inspires you to say “fuck the system” then bend your head to writing. But don’t put all your eggs in that basket. If you do, you’re likely to find that there are fewer and fewer eggs for breakfast each day. That’s going to stress you out, take up valuable mental and emotional energy on worry that could be spent on creative pursuits.
Essentially, make sure you have enough money before you start writing. So how do you do that? (Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to give up avocado toast. [link]) Instead, there are some practical things a writer can do to make a little financial space.
Do some freelance writing. My work as a freelance writer — and then later as an editor and proofreader — did a lot for me as a writer. It gave me an opportunity to make a paycheck, at least enough to cover a few bills. Most importantly, however, it gave me the chance to write. As a result, I also got to write about things I would not have otherwise written about on my own. So you get to expand your experience, develop your craft, and make a few extra bucks to invest in yourself. You can also get some valuable experience in fields that you wouldn’t otherwise look at. I write for a magazine designed for English learners in Taiwan (where I live). Thanks to this, I’ve had experience writing on almost every topic imaginable – from candy shops in Singapore to Elon Musk. Additionally, I’ve had to write to the level of the reader, which is a challenge unto itself (i.e. simpler words and no cussing).
Ghostwrite. This is an option I wish I’d tried before I became a husband or dad, mostly because I always had some other hare-brained scheme to make some extra cash quick. (Surprise, none of that worked.) In hindsight, I wish I’d worked as a ghost writer more. It would have been an amazing opportunity to make some money while again developing my craft as a writer.
While one could consider this similar to freelance writing, I consider it different in many ways. While both are forms of contract work, the term “freelance” I’m using is here is meant to describe shorter pieces of non-fiction, which may even appear under your own name. Ghostwriting is often fiction, however, and it rarely appears in your own name. Believe it or not there are some significant benefits: it gives you the opportunity to write, get paid, and not care if you totally fuck it up. Write whatever shit the client wants, and make a bit of money. And once you clear the pipes of all that garbage, you’ll be able to take the money you made and re-invest it into your own works of unimaginable genius.
Offer writing services like editing and proofreading. Nothing in my career as a writer has been more helpful than the time I’ve spent as an editor and proofreader. It took my writing craft to the next level because it showed me the kind of mistakes people make (including me). As an added bonus, when you start providing authors with services, you start to connect with other writers. These connections will prove invaluable down the line when it comes time to promote your own work. Additionally, it will expose you do different styles than you might look at yourself. I’ve done magazine articles, blog posts, marketing materials, English-language textbooks, grad theses, and probably a few others that I’ve since forgotten. Each gave me the chance to challenge my skills and build new ones.
Of course, as you’re getting started, these forms of income should supplement more traditional forms of financial solvency. In other words, don’t quit your day job just yet. It’s important to remember that most writers today do not make a living writing. For most of us, in fact, it will forever be a side project. And that’s okay. If you write for the sake of writing, then it will be something that fulfills you even if it costs you money. (Like, dare I say it, a hobby.)
But whatever you do, don’t quit your day job, no matter what. There is no honor in starving yourself while you bang away at the keys. The words flow so much better when you have a full stomach and a roof over your head. It’s not a rags-to-riches story. It’s a let’s-be-responsible-with-our-money-to-focus-on-writing story. Why put yourself through the unnecessary stress and hardship? You’re a writer, not a survival coach.
And seriously, keep your day job. Money is kind of important, you know.
For more posts like this visit my on-going series How to FINISH Your First Novel, or read some of the other posts in the Make Space miniseries below:
How do you afford all of life’s necessities as a working writer? Let me know in the comments below!