Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.53: Funding the Writing Life

Rent isn’t paid in words alone. How do all of us, in various stages of our careers, keep ourselves afloat as we go about the writing life? We’re getting in the weeds with this one – tips, tricks, and tools. 

We share our thoughts on diversifying your income stream outside of traditional publishing? Let’s get creative. We’re talking about school appearances, copywriting, fellowships, consulting, and teaching. We also share advice about newsletters, Patreon, monetizing yourself, and how an agent can help you overcome your imposter syndrome,  


Write an artist statement for yourself. Think about who you are, what’s important to you, and what are you trying to put out in the world? 

Thing of the Week: 

Joyland directed by Saim Sadiq

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Funding your writing life! First, get paid for your words. Traditional publishing, indie publishing. But watch, your agent takes 15%, taxes take a chunk, and it comes in over time. Beware the tendency to undervalue your work. Diversify your income streams. Try different formats. Don’t throw anything away, your boneyard can be useful. If you want to work in other formats, learn about them first. Newsletters and Patreons. Teaching, public speaking. Appearance fees! Fellowships and grants. Do an artist’s statement: who you are, what’s important to you, and what are you trying to put into the world.

[Season 18, Episode 53]

[Mary Robinette] This year, my family will be having our 67th annual Christmas Eve dinner. It’s a menu passed down from my grandmother through my mom to me. The entire family shows up. I’m talking 4th cousins once removed. This is not an exaggeration. Which means that during the lead up, I don’t have time to menu plan or cook anything else. That’s when I turn to prepared meals like Factor, America’s number one ready-to-eat meal delivery service. Factor can help you eat well for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with chef-prepared, dietitian-approved ready-to-eat meals delivered straight to your door. It allows me to save time and not eat garbage, while tackling all my holiday to-do’s. So if you want to cross meal prepping off your list this holiday season, consider Factor. You can skip the meal planning, grocery shopping, chopping, prepping, and cleaning up, and get Factor’s fresh, never-frozen meals delivered to your door. They’re ready in just 2 minutes, which my dad says is the appropriate amount of time to cook a meal. He has no idea. The point is, all you have to do is heat and enjoy. If you’re trying to squeeze writing into the holiday press, it might be useful to know that Factor is not just for dinner. Count on extra convenience anytime of the day with an assortment of 55 plus add-ons to suit various preferences and tastes, so you can carve out some writing time in the morning by choosing quick breakfast items, lunch to go, grab and go snacks, or ready to eat coldpressed juices, shakes, and smoothies. So, head to and use code WX50 to get 50% off. That’s code wx50 at to get 50% off.

[Mary Robinette] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by our listeners, patrons, and friends. If you would like to learn how to support this podcast, visit

[Season 18, Episode 53]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Funding the Writing Life.

[DongWon] 15 minutes long.

[Erin] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we wanna get paid.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Erin] It just occurred to me that this is our last episode of the year, which I think is a great time to think about… It’s holidays, it’s making resolutions, it’s thinking about what you want. One of the things that we want is, as Howard said, to get paid. So, how do we actually get money for writing? I think there are a lot of ways that writing and the skills we use in writing can actually end up with money in our pockets. So I wanted to explore some of these. So, I think the easiest one is getting paid for your words directly. DongWon, I feel like this is something…

[Mary Robinette] I love how you say that’s easy.


[Erin] Good point. [garbled]

[DongWon] Most obvious. Right? The most obvious is you write a book, you get an agent, you get it published by a traditional publisher, you get paid in advance. Right? Like, that is sort of the most traditional path is we’ve alluded to. It’s not always an easy one. One thing to think about as… I think sometimes a thing that happens is you hear, “Oh, so-and-so got a six-figure deal for their book.” It’s like, great. A six-figure deal is amazing, everyone should be really excited about that, this is not me taking the wind out of anybody’s sales. But, also, you need to remember that that money is going to be portioned over a very long period of time. You get paid a portion on advance, you get paid when you deliver the book, and you get paid when the book is published. Then, usually, paid… Or not usually, but often paid when that book is in its 2nd format, paperback. So that money can be spread out over, at the fastest pace, 4 years. Or 3 years. It can be up to 5. Depending on how fast you write, depending on how fast the publication cycle goes. So that money, that hundred thousand dollars, incredible amount of money. 15% of that is coming off the top to your agent. Then, from what you see from that, a portion of that’s going to the government. Right? For taxes. So, now your actual living income is in the neighborhood of more like $50-$60,000 spread out over 3 to 5 years. That suddenly looks a lot less like a living wage when you really map out how long it takes for that first book income to hit. Now, as you have more books, you have more regular payments. Hopefully, you’re getting royalty payments from older books and that really helps even things out over time, but it takes years and years and years to get to a point where you can be really stably dependent on your traditional book publishing income.

[Howard] I want to be… I actually want to preface all of this with the imposter syndrome problem that we see with writers and artists of all stripes, which is this idea that we tend to undervalue our work.

[Mary Robinette] Absolutely.

[Howard] You wrote a thing, you deserve to get paid for it. You may be… You may decide to self publish and you list it on Amazon and you tell yourself, “Ah, nobody would pay more than $0.99 for this book.” The answer is, well, if you list it at $0.99, then nobody’s going to pay more than $0.99 for that book. But if you wrote a book, you deserve more than $0.99 for it. And…

[DongWon] Yep. This is why you need someone like me, who’s constantly telling you you’re being undervalued for your work.


[Howard] Exactly. But I want to lead with that because you will almost always… Almost always undervalue your own work. Whatever you think your writing is worth, that number’s probably too low. I’ve got good news. That’s really good news. It means you’re worth more than you think you are.

[Mary Robinette] That said, there’s also a thing that happens to people who have not… Who have the dream of being a career writer. Where they overestimate how much money their writing is actually going to break into… Bring in. So we’ve talked about traditional publishing route, you can also do self-publishing, you can… There’s a bunch of different ways. But the main thing that I want people to understand is that as a writer, you are a freelancer. The key maxim for a freelancer is diversify your income stream.

[DongWon] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] So what we’re talking about today is all of the different ways that you can bring in writing money through your… From your writing, whether or not it is sending the words out.

[DongWon] Almost every single writer that I work with who does not have a day job, who’s writing full time, has diversified their income stream in a variety of ways. Whether that’s writing other formats, whether that’s speaking appearances, school visits, frankly having a partner who is providing healthcare or some financial stability. Right? There’s a lot of different ways that people are able to have the life where there writing is their primary, or not even primary, only job.

[Erin] I think there are 2… A way to frame this is that there are sort of 2 things as a freelancer that you can get paid for.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Erin] One is the work that you produce, and two is what you bring to the table as the type of person who can produce it. I think that’s true for writing as well.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Erin] So, thinking about the things that you just listed off, things that are like being paid for your direct writing, that’s like the book, you’re being paid. Being paid for other writing you can do in other formats is one way that can often be like the… I don’t want to say easy, but it seems like you know how to write creatively, now you’re going to figure out how to write creatively in games.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Erin] So, I personally like started doing writing in tabletop games because I was like, “I love worldbuilding, a lot of tabletop is worldbuilding, how can I take this skill that I already have and do it in a different way?” I know you’ve had like clients who’ve gone into like comics and other formats where you’re taking your creative mind and doing just a slightly different format with it.

[DongWon] Yeah. I have several clients who write in games as well. I don’t know if I have anyone who does tabletop… Oh, I have one person who does tabletop. But a lot of videogame writing. I have 3 or 4 clients who write for video games either as freelancers or sometimes full-time, depending on the role. I have a bunch of clients who got into writing for comics. Right? Some of that is doing their OGN, original graphic novels, or limited series that are original IP. But a bunch of them are doing a bunch of work for the big 2, as well. Right? Writing DC, writing Marvel comics. My client Alyssa Wong has written on Dr. Aphra for many years, doing Deadpool now. My client, Sarah Gayles, is launching the new White Widow Solar title coming up in a few months. So there’s a lot of work that’s happening for… In the comics world that is good freelance opportunities that can really bulk out your writing income. Because writing a comic strip is a different pace and a different style than writing a full novel, it can fit into your workflow in a way that it will be between edits, it’ll be between that. When you sent your novel in, you’re waiting for feedback, or you’re waiting for the publication cycle. There are ways you can really schedule out the rhythm of your writing life to make space for comic strip writing in addition to the prose that you’re working on.

[Howard] One of the tips that I lean into pretty hard is… It begins with the strategy of never throw anything away. That fanfic you wrote when you were 15, Star Wars fanfic? After a certain point, you’ve got some writing chops, you can open something like that up and realize, “Oh, wait. I can file the serial numbers off of these pieces, and there is a plot, and there are some characterizations. If I reverse this and if I change that and change that… Oh, my goodness, I have this whole new thing.” I imagine myself sometimes as a woodworker who has a garage full of things that are half nailed together. Then along comes this client who needs a set of cabinets. I walk into the garage and I say, “What looks like cabinets? Oo, that kind of looks like cabinets. And that, and that.” Pull it to the table. Boom! I make it. Your boneyard has enormous value. Don’t throw anything away.

[Erin] I think also, though, with your boneyard, as you’re in there, figuring out how the skeletons of different formats work…

[DongWon] Yup.

[Erin] How to put the bones you have into the skeleton that you need it to fit into.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Erin] So, sometimes people will be like, “Well, that was great to tell me to just become a game writer, but how do I do that?”


[Erin] Seems rough.


[Erin] Part of it is that you have to learn a little bit about that format. It’s unlikely that someone will trip over you in the street and be like, “I want you to write the new Dragon Age game.” We all wish, but no. So what you do is, if you like games and that’s something you think you might want to go into, and it’s tabletop, write a quick scenario. Write something up and try to like put it somewhere and see if someone will buy it, on or like even give you feedback…

[DongWon] Make a [time game?]

[Erin] Make a [time game?] If you want to do interactive. Try playing. That will let you know, number one, is this something that fits into your schedule or does it just make your brain not like writing at all. Also, is this something that you can… You think you can do well. Thirdly, if you are in the position, like, you see a job posting or you see something going on, your following people, I would say, on whichever social media still exists at the time…


[Erin] Follow people who are doing that kind of work, then you can actually say, “Okay. I have something to show you. Because I went and made something on my own.” With that, when we come back, let’s talk a little bit about how to just get paid for being your lovely, wonderful self.

[DongWon] This week, I want to talk to you about a movie. I saw a film earlier this year called Joyland. It’s been a pretty incredible year for cinema, but this one is, for me, a real contender for the best thing I saw this year. It’s a film by a director named Saim Sadiq. It is his debut film. It is the story of the youngest son in a Pakistani family, in a very traditional family, who’s under a lot of pressure to get a job. He ends up as a backup dancer for a Bollywood-style burlesque company, dancing as a backup dancer to a trans woman. He really falls into this woman’s orbit. It is a story that is of incredible queer joy and experience and community. It’s also about the tension of living in a traditional family and the things that tie you to that family. The bonds of love and connection and relationship. Also, the enormous amount of pressure that that conflict puts on the younger generation and the people around you. In particular, the way in which the women of this world are forced to carry a lot of the emotional weight of the people around them. It’s a very, very beautiful movie. It is a joyful movie. It is incredibly tragic and sad movie. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I sobbed through the whole last act of it. It is an incredible, incredible film. Please go see it. That, once again, that is Joyland by Saim Sadiq.

[DongWon] One thing I want to flag about the conversation we were having right before the break is that I do also want to make sure that we acknowledge that these are full careers in and of themselves. Right? So we’ve talked about them as side things that writers do. It is true that for many writers that is happening. But it does require its own networking, connections, attention, and craft. Right? Also, understanding and respecting other people who do this full time as a primary career. Just because it may be a side gig for one person doesn’t undermine that in any way. But a lot of times when you’re going for these gigs, kind of as Erin was alluding to a little bit, is you need to put the time and effort into building connections, to get to know people, to learn how to do this thing well. People aren’t just going to come to you and hand you an opportunity. Some… That does happen now and again. But, in general, it’s a thing that you need to think about as an actual business that you’re developing with real skills that you’re developing.

[Erin] I think that’s so important.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. Absolutely. I think one of the things that you can do to help position yourself is by thinking about what you yourself individually bring to the table. Which gets into what you were talking about, Erin, we would discuss after the break, which is how to basically monetize yourself.

[Erin] Yeah. This is hard. This is where that imposter syndrome, if we thought it was bad when it was just your work, when it’s you, I think it can be so much harder. Because it’s very easy to say, I say this all the time to myself, like, “What am I saying that’s like people want to spend money on?” But I think you kind of have to put it out there and try. So we’ve talked in the past about, I think one is newsletters and Patreons. That is who you are as a writer, as a creative, going out into the world and saying to people, “Do you want to help support me and doing this work?” I don’t know if y’all have any thoughts on that?

[Mary Robinette] No. It’s very much that. When I first started doing the Patreon, I felt like I needed to do a, like, lot of, like, I’ll send you a postcard in the mail. What I realized was actually, no, what people are showing up for is the expertise that I have from the time that I’ve spent. But I didn’t feel like that’s… Like, I didn’t feel like that was something I could to modify. Now I recognize that it is. At the same time, there are other things that I’m doing to diversify that income stream where I’m using the skills that I have gained as a writer and stepping to the side, so, some of it is teaching, some of it is public speaking. But some of it is the audiobook narration. Like those 2, those are both forms of storytelling and they are things that I can do in parallel. So what I look for are additional skills that I have within myself that I can monetize that also refer back to the writing skill.

[Erin] Yeah. It’s… I would say, like a… For me, one of those side things is actually I worked in nonprofit communications for a while. It’s something I had a bit of a background in, but also, for me, the type… There’s a lot of creativity in… Just in the way there is in prose writing and creative writing, there’s a lot of creativity in writing a newsletter article or writing about an issue. So bringing those skills in the way that I think about writing into making you care about what is happening in a particular social justice issue felt to me like the same skill set used in a different way. There are people for whom this does not work, I will say.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] There are folks for whom, if you write during your job, it is taking the writing out of your brain for the creative writing that you want to do later. For me, it really fed me. Because I was like, “Oh, I’m learning about all these really interesting issues in the nonprofit sector,” and now I’m thinking about, “Oo, what can I use… How can I use these as a way to build a world in a creative life?” So I was able to both get money from it, but also use it as a way to feed my well as opposed to like taking out of the well. If that makes sense.

[Howard] As writers of big fictions, we’re often told, “Hey, come up with an elevator pitch for your book. Come up with a… Give us a 50 word description.” Whatever. There are businesses… I say there are businesses. Every business out there that makes a product has a need of good 10, 25, 50, and hundred word descriptions of their product. Nobody sweats words like an author who’s trying to come up with a 50 word description of the novel they spent the last decade on.


[Howard] If you’ve ever tried to do that for your own work, and then you look at somebody… Widget co wingnut product, whatever, you may find that it is super easy to write to spec marketing copy like that for people.

[Mary Robinette] You know what, I’m going to jump in here because I’m going to say that the worst thing that a writer has to write is their own bio. If you can set up a business model where you will write bios for writers, I am certain that writers will flock to you, and give you… I will fling money at you myself.


[Erin] Business ideas, you heard it here first.

[DongWon] As someone who writes a lot of book copy for other people, yes, it is a lot easier to write someone… Describe someone else’s book than describe your own. One thing I want to tag onto all of this, we kind of hit a little bit on in person appearances as one way to generate income. Mary Robinette, I know you do a lot of conferences. The clients… I have a few clients that are very good at performance and performance has been a big part of their role in their pre-writing life and that has continued to be a source of income for them that is connected to their writing now. So, my client, Chuck Tingle went on tour for the launch of his debut novel Camp Damascus, and we were able to do a lot of in person book events. But then also, in a lot of these markets, he was also setting up additional events that were more of a personality event. They were ticket events where people came, they weren’t associated with a bookstore about the book launch, it was more come see Chuck talk about XYZ or come see Chuck in conversation with somebody else. Those were ticketed things that we were able to do because he was a personality, because he was a brand, and was able to drive that himself. Oh… If you’re a YA and middle grade author, my client Mark Oshiro does a lot with schools and libraries, does a lot of school visits, they’re often paid visits that… In part because Mark is great on stage, great at talking about things. He used to be… Have their own Internet personality brand before they started writing novels. So that has really dovetailed for them as a skill. Not everyone’s going to be able to do that. But sometimes you can inventory what are things you’re good at, what do you enjoy doing. Do you like being in front of a crowd? Are you good at public speaking? You can lean into that and make that a part of your writing life in a way that can be very financially rewarding, and help build your brand for your new readers, and so on and so forth.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I have… The things that have been very difficult for me is that appearance fee because you can ask for an appearance fee. When you are going and you are appearing at a convention, particularly… I’m speaking specifically to those of you who are in a very particular place, where you are starting to get guest of honor appearances. You can actually say, “What are your usual appearance fees?” Or you can say, “My customary appearance fee is…” And then name something. But I’m willing to work with you to fit within your budget. But the default that we have is that, oh, I can’t ask for… Of course, everyone else is volunteering, and I should as well. But your time and energy… It’s taking you away from writing.

[Erin] This is reminding me of the idea of delegating to yourself. Or also, like, almost creating a persona that does the things that you don’t want to do. I’m thinking about actually when I was growing up, my parents had a really small business where they took orders, like, 4 records over the phone. They were the only ones working there, but they actually had customer service names.


[Erin] Because if people thought they were talking to the owner, they would feel one way, but if they thought they were just talking to, like, some random person, they would be another. So they would be like, “Oh, I’ll relay that…” Like, to themselves.

[DongWon] That’s so funny.

[Erin] But what’s nice is, like, sometimes that other, you can kind of be like, “Well, I don’t want to ask for that much,” but, like, this other part of my brain, that’s, like, all about the commerce, is going to be like, “No. This is the rate, and this is what I’m sticking to.” Sometimes, like that weird sort of putting it on the other part of yourself, be your own assistant, almost is a way to kind of make yourself feel it’s not you doing it, it’s the part of you that needs to eat doing it, the…

[DongWon] There are also speaker bureaus that will help you do this.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The metric that I use for myself on whether or not I should do… Should invoke this, is that I imagine it’s like, okay, if a friend of mine were offered this opportunity, what advice would I give them?

[Howard] Yeah. I’ve got several friends… We’ve all got friends who do speaking visits at schools. The one common denominator I’ve seen among them all is if the school gives you any sort of speaking fee, any sort of appearance fee, they treat you so much better…

[Mary Robinette] This is correct.

[Howard] Than if you show up as a volunteer. You show up unpaid, and they treat you like a substitute teacher. But if you’ve got a $50 appearance fee, suddenly you’re a VIP. I mean, $50…

[Mary Robinette] It’s not just schools.

[DongWon] It’s everywhere.

[Howard] Cool. It’s not just schools. But many of you, if you want to write YA or middle grade, school appearances will become a big part of what you’re doing. Early on, you need to be asking for those appearance fees just so you get treated well.

[DongWon] There’s a weird inversion that happens. People value what they pay for, and if they’re paying you a high fee, they will treat you that sort of premium way. If you’re being paid a very low fee, then, in their heads, psychologically, that’s what you’re worth.

[Erin] So you’re just helping them treat you better by asking for more money.

[DongWon] Exactly.


[Erin] So, last thing I want to get to before we close out this episode is about being a VIP in a different way. That is fellowships and grants. There are people out there who will just pay you to be an artist in the world. We care about the arts, sometimes more than others. But most states, if you’re in the United States, counties, provinces, wherever you are, often times your local jurisdiction will have some sort of arts council that cares about the arts and gives out money if you’ve lived in that area long enough. So try looking that up in your area and seeing what it is. It could be $20, it could be $2000. A lot of it depends on where the arts funding is, and it can change year to year. But a lot of times, they really want artists who want to be in their community, and they will give money to you to continue to be an artist in your community. I’ll give one sort of peace of like very practical advice. Sometimes these types of fellowships will ask for, like, I want to fund your project. Sometimes they’ll be, like, I want to fund you. You’re like, “But I always want the money for me.” So what I do is I will turn me into a project.


[Erin] I will say, “You know what, I have to work X number of hours a day to make money. Instead, if you pay me that hourly rate for X amount of hours, I can be creating art.” So it’s an easy way when you don’t have like tools or supplies the way that like in visual artist might, to say, like, it’s the time. That’s the thing. Pay me for my time, and then you will get arc back. A lot of times, they don’t actually need you to deliver a specific product. The point is that you got the money from them, that you think them if you ever wrote a book out of that, put them right in the acknowledgments, couldn’t have done it without local jurisdiction X. There are also sort of bigger foundations and stuff. We’ll try and link to some resources in the liner notes of places you can find grants like this. But I would say put yourself out there. Do that thing where you write up who you are as artist, like the same way you would for a book. You can do that for yourself and put it out there and find people who are willing to give you some of the money so you can do the writing that you want to do.

[DongWon] There are national level organizations, there are private organizations, there are local organizations, all of these. Many literary writers support themselves or fund a lot of especially their early work by going to these fellowships, these retreats, getting these grants. I always wish genre writers were more aware of them and knew how to pursue them. I love that you’re talking about this and I hope people will start doing a little bit of research and finding ways to get access to those resources.

[Mary Robinette] So, I think that brings us to our homework. So Erin was just talking about something that is called an artist’s statement. While it sounds like a thing that is… You will only need for writing grants, it’s actually an extremely useful exercise to do for yourself. You’ll hear businesses do a vision statement. An artist’s statement is very much the same thing. It’s about who you are, what’s important to you, what you’re trying to put out into the world. So you can just Google artist’s statements, look at a bunch of examples of them. But take a moment, right and artist’s statement for yourself, even if you’re not planning on pursuing a grant. It will help you focus on what is important for you.

[Howard] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write an artist’s statement.

[Mary Robinette] Hey, writer. Have you sold a short story or finished your first novel? Let us know. We love hearing about how you’ve applied the stuff we’ve been talking about to craft your own success stories. Use the hashtag WXsuccess on social media or drop us a line at [email protected].