Writing Excuses Episode 11: The Business of Writing

So… you’re ready for the big-time. You’re a writer, and the writing is almost paying the bills. Hurray!

Now, how do you balance your life so that you can make the jump to writing full-time? How do you manage your time? How do you keep your artistic side from accusing you of selling out? The Writing Excuses Crew answers these questions and more, as we explore the business side of writing.

Also if you listen closely you’ll hear Smart Howard somewhere in this podcast. We think he’s like Howard’s evil twin.

And this week from Tor, The SFWA European Hall of Fame


30 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 11: The Business of Writing”

  1. Despite not being a writer, I must say that I find your podcasts enjoyable and listening to them at lunch on Monday is quickly becoming a weekly event for me.

    Also, I think that between the three of you, you probably are smart enough for a longer podcast.:)

  2. Smart enough perhaps, and egotistical enough definitely, but interesting enough? I don’t know. I’d much rather have an interesting, snappy 15-minute podcast than a slow and cluttered 20-minute one.

  3. We could probably pull off a 20 minute long podcast and have it stay interesting (it would depend on the topic) but the reason we do 15 minutes has to do with us wanting to keep things interesting and not get off topic. The problem with doing a longer podcast is that they tend to get off topic and wander so in that 30-60 minutes of talk there’s only 10-15 minutes of actual good content and we’d rather give you 15 minutes of high quality content then 30+ of content where a good chuck of it is a waste of your time.

  4. If you’re going to continue speaking about the business side of writing, could you throw in a bit about how exactly you know when someone’s trying to sell you a “bad” contract? A lot of people, myself included have trouble breaking into new self-employed businesses simply because we don’t have the tools or the experience to navigate the metaphorical twists and turns.

  5. The first and most important rule is to never take a contract that requires you to front any money. Honest publishers pay you, not the other way around, and honest agents won’t take any money until they’ve actually done their job (ie, they’ve gotten an honest publisher to pay you). Anything that requires you to post some money of your own is either a scam or a vanity press, which is probably also a scam unless you specifically sought out a vanity press.

    The other rule of not getting swindled is just to get a good agent. Websites like Preditors & Editors (http://www.invirtuo.cc/prededitors) are a great place to check up on an agent to make sure they’re good and reputable and honest and so on. Once you’ve got a good agent, you don’t need to worry about the rest of twists and turns because your agent will take care of them for you. (Another great site to learn about agents is Neil Gaiman’s post on the topic: http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2005/01/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about.asp)

    Beyond that, take heart! Our next two podcasts include special guest Stacy Whitman, a fantastic editor with Mirrorstone, and we go into the business side of how to get published much more extensively.

  6. I found this podcast to be fascinating.

    I guess since I work welfare cases for the state, I see a lot of wannabe “artists” who are trying to make the leap from having a job to working full-time on their art. I see at least one case per week where someone is waiting to sell their book, or get that record contract, or someone in Hollywood is finally going to find them. Doesn’t happen very often or at least not very quickly. And if said wannabe artist has a couple of children and a spouse that doesn’t want to work–the government will come down on said artist with dire consequenses (like repossession of homes, cars, children, etc.).

    The number one excuse I hear though is: “but I just can’t work for someone else. I have to be my own person.” Or something like that. I’ve learned that if you can’t work for someone else then you won’t have a successful business. Self-employed writers may not have a manager or supervisor over them, but they are working for their publishers, agents, editors, audience, etc…

    The standard the government uses for successful self-employment is that if you work 40 hours a week at your self-employment you make at least minimum wage over the course of a year. So say if it takes you 516 hours (3 months at 40 hours a week) to write, edit, and sell a book and you get a $5k advance, that’s $9.69 and hour. Not bad, but if you have a spouse that is not working then you are in the poor house (100% poverty level for 2 is $1883 monthly).

    So I hope many wannabe writers listen to this podcast and don’t think they can quit their other jobs as soon as they decide they’d rather write full-time.

  7. On the length of the podcast: there’s plenty of chewy morsels in the fifteen minutes each week. I listen on Monday on the way home from work (OCD.com here :-)) Almost every week, I’ll then listen again another day, usually with pen in hand to take notes. Some weeks I’ll give it a final listen. Longer than fifteen minutes, and I might not do that, and I’d drop details. I like it when you hit us with a pithy summary (“in late, out early”) followed by a good explanation. The pithy sticks, and the explanation marinates. Without reviewing, I’d miss some. Of course, I could just read the transcripts being provided (much appreciated also).

    So glad you are doing the business side of writing. Is it too mundane to ask for small details like business organization (self-employed, sole proprietor, etc.) and taxes? I’ve got short fiction stories out, and when they sell, I’ll have to pay taxes on the income. Anticipating that, I’m figuring that side of things out before hand. I presume my tiny short fiction income this year will just fall under self-employment (since I have no personal business org for them to go under). We’ll see. And no, I’m not looking for tax advice, as much as your experiences. A pointer to a good book on the business side of writing would be nice….

    Also, I’m glad you aren’t just focusing on the business side of the full-time writer. Where Dan is right now (though not for long), is where many of us may stay, and yet we’ll have a business going. The full-time and part-time writing experiences of all three of you will help us.


  8. I did the full-time/part-time thing for four years, so I know exactly how demanding it can be. We’ll revisit the topic at some point, I’m sure. For me it came down to careful scheduling, and lots of small sacrifices. They became too much in mid-2004, and I quit the day-job about 18 months before cartooning could really start replacing my salary.

    It was a stressful 18 months, but I wouldn’t trade it for the alternative…

  9. Another informative week. Thank you gentlemen.

    I’m looking forward to hearing what Stacy has to say. I’ve enjoyed her blog for a long time. It will be fun to hear how she sounds “in person”.

  10. I don’t mean to sound unappreciative, but the audio quality on the last two episodes has been terrible – to the point of me having to stop listening after a few minutes.

    Hope it gets better in the future since I love the content.

  11. There’s nothing wrong with the length of the podcasts. Fifteen minutes keeps it short and to the point.

    It’s the frequency that’s the problem. You guys ought to be short and to the point several times a week.

    None of this “Blah, Blah, Blah, I have a life and a career” nonsense. I demand daily podcasts!

  12. Thanks so much for these podcasts. I love listening to them–you give us entertainment value and educational merit all in the same package. I know I look forward to them each week.

    I know you touched on it to an extent during the podcast, but I would be interested in hearing more about your experiences balancing family life, day jobs, and artistic aspirations before you got established as artists. I’m finding it difficult to reconcile my ambition to write with my desire to have a meaningful family life. I have ideas that I want to develop but it’s hard to take the time away from my family (wife and three kids) to write, when I’m away from them all day at my day job. I could write at night after they go to bed, but then I’m up until 2 a.m. writing and I’m afraid that both the quality of my writing and my day job performance would suffer. I’d love to get a sense of how you guys managed it.

  13. @Peter: You don’t sound unappreciative. You sound like you didn’t read far enough along. As we said last week, Episodes 10 and 11 were accidentally recorded through a single mic. Episode 12 will be back to normal.

    @Alan Scott: Hmmm…. I bet that if we were being paid $1000 each, per ‘cast, we’d spend one day a week knocking down seven ‘casts. That way for the remaining six days we could all roll around in piles of money and reminisce about our forgotten careers.

    Nah. You want us working as writers most of the time. That way our content stays true, and you can trust our perspective.

    @Sluggo: I’m looking forward to Stacey’s ‘casts, too. I was absent when those were recorded, so I’ll be hearing it all for the first time.

  14. Sam, I understand where you are coming from too. I’ve gotten a lot out of Jim Van Pelt’s blog about being a writer while also being a Dad, a full-time high school teacher, a part-time college teacher, a commuter, and, admittedly, a lazy guy by his own statement (doesn’t sound like it though). His rule? 200 words per day minimum, and with no misses. If he gets only 200 words done, then fine! If he does more, then fine! Now obviously he has not given up the day job, but he is writing, and he is publishing. His latest post talks specifically about this topic: http://jimvanpelt.livejournal.com/127331.html

    I bring this up because it made me realize that a) to be a writer, I need to write, b) I need to write consistently and regularly to get the dumb stuff out of my system, and c) how much I choose to write is up to me, there is no standard. I can determine the pace that I go, and the amount of time I dedicate. Terry Pratchett started out by writing 400 words per day, every day. Bradbury did a thousand words a day everyday starting at twelve years of age. It’s up to you. Your pace. Your time. Your balance.

    Another thing that I do, and Van Pelt echoes this, is when you working your writing into and around other things, be ready to use time that comes to you. I always carry a notebook. If I get some time sitting and waiting for the kids, I write, or outline, or edit prior stuff. It’s not the dedicated time of a pro, but I’m not at that point yet, and it’s not going to happen in my life right now. However, I am writing.

    Anyway, hope this helps.

  15. Thanks for talking about the dual personalities of a writer, the business person and the artist. I am not a professional writer but I married a professional editor. Before I met her, I like many writers, believed that writing was all about the art. I soon learned from my wife that publishers are in the business of making money. It doesn’t matter if you can write the most innovative, compelling, and moving piece of fiction, if a publisher doesn’t think they can sell it, then you won’t get published. Writers should still write for themselves but they need to keep the market in mind.

    Also, two of the people in my writers group had to make the same decision that Dan made. Do we want to write or do want the most wicked WOW avatars on the face of the planet. As a former WOWer, I must say writing is more rewarding.

  16. I guess I’m lucky as heck, I find time to write at least 3000 words a day, without fail. I also work a full time job, and go to school part time.

  17. @Peter
    This is about the best that can be done in cleaning up the sound without getting something like Pro Tools (which the cheapest version costs around $10k) and will be back to pre ep 10 quality next week.

    She doesn’t sound like a man if that helps.

  18. One of the key things to remember about writing, or really anything, is that you can’t do something professionally in your spare time. It just doesn’t work. If you want to do a good job, and be consistent, and actually get things done, you have to schedule time and then hold yourself to it. Taking advantage of time that comes your way is great, but if you rely on it exclusively you’ll quickly find you don’t have nearly enough of it.

  19. @Dan I agree with you about “you can’t do something professionally in your spare time.” Entirely true. What I was originally trying to say was write *something* everyday regularly, consistently, and at a set time. If it’s 30 minutes and 200 words a day at lunch, then great. If it’s more and longer, then great. The point is: write and be consistent about it. Obviously the more you write, the more you’ll learn and hone your skill.

    The idea to use time “that comes your way” is just that, time you can take advantage of, but not the way you actually organize your writing time.

    I’m not coming across clear I fear. Rough day.

  20. I defintely appreciate the nudge, Guerry, and the link to Jim Van Pelt. I’ve actually read similar insights from Stephen King, talking about writing a set number of words a day and forming the habit of being a writer. I tend toward laziness, which has often been my problem. I’m going to see if I can implement Van Pelt’s suggestion though. Whether it’s a short story or ideas/scenes for my novel-in-development or just a blog entry, hopefully I can start getting something down each day.

  21. Howard — After many years of just struggling to make ends meet, I’ve finally gotten that somewhat lucrative cublical job. It may not be a 6-figure deal that you walked away from, but it has afforded me a respectable standard of living. Now I find that I’m being lulled into a sense of security that has deminished my creative drive. Did you experience anything similar? And if so, how did you overcome it?

  22. Guerry:
    Don’t worry, I get exactly what you’re saying. My comment was intended to support it, not to contradict it.

    To some degree I wouldn’t really worry about it–if your creative drive is worth its salt, it will be right back in your face after a week or two of complacency. I find that I can never go more than a week, if even that, without a desperate urge to create. I get very down and depressed if I’m not working on some artistic project or other.

    That said, it can be very easy to get burned out by a hard day’s work, especially if your job involves writing. I feel very lucky that I get to spend my days doing what I love, but I have to admit that it does get very hard sometimes to write all day and then go home and force myself to write all night. One of the best ways to overcome this is through simple, dogged determination–I tell myself that I eventually want to drop one of my two jobs, and obviously I’d like novel writing to be the keeper, so I have to stick it out and make it happen. Beyond that, once of the great motivators I’ve found is a weekly writing group–they’re a great way to improve your writing, of course, but they’re also (and often more importantly) a way to make yourself accountable and actually do the work and write. I know that if I don’t get anything new written during the week, I won’t have anything to submit to the group, and then six or seven of my trusted friends will berate me and get me back on track.

  23. @Dan: Thanks! I’m coming off a week of high temps and the yuks, and am not sure my baked brains are clear yet.

    @Karl: My biggest issue was that my job in software engineering uses a lot of creativity, and I’d feel creatively drained. The motivator for getting back to writing though was this: software doesn’t last, most folks don’t understand it and don’t want to, and fiction, well, it has a chance to last…maybe. I couldn’t see a future where someone would say: “Look, this is a collection of Java code your great-great-grandfather wrote!” However, I could see that with some short stories and novels, even if out of print and dead outside the family. As Dan said, you creative urges will get you. Your inner-motivations will find you where you sleep and bug the bejiggers out of you. :-)

  24. Thanks for the insight, Dan & Guerry.

    In a strange way, thankfully my job does not require much creativity — critical thinking, yes, but no creativity. Therefore I still can get my creative fix after hours (my media of choice is screenplays). But with the creative muse being a fickle mistress, it can be difficult to put pen to blank paper in my limited free time.

    Don’t mind my whinging. I’m just out of my writing habit. Sadly it’s been a couple of months since I’ve had a chance to sit down with my scripts.

    As a side note, I’ve been distracted by drawing a cartoon for the monthly newsletter for my local SCA group. I figure if some people (who shall remain nameless) can do this on a daily basis, surely I can crank out 12 of these in one year. Four down, eight to go. I firmly blame Howard!

  25. Howard Said:
    I bet that if we were being paid $1000 each, per ‘cast, we’d spend one day a week knocking down seven ‘casts.
    Money? You want Money for this?
    C’mon Howard–Everyone knows that Information wants to be free.

    On a more serious note:
    Karl and Guerry talk upthread about being drained or stifled by their professional jobs. I find my (grunt unskilled labor) to be similarly draining (more physically than mentally, but I still have doing anything mental or creative when physically exhausted).

    From a pure writing perspective, which do you think is a better day job to have? Something professional or that otherwise requires brainpower? Or something mindless?

  26. @Alan: If your day job leaves you too exhausted to do anything but collapse in a heap on the couch, then you’ve got problems regardless of whether it was brain-work or muscle-work you were doing.

    I’m going to lean towards saying that muscle-work is better, because you can be rehearsing dialog, exposition, and world-building bits in your head while you move bricks… assuming the muscle-work you do doesn’t become dangerous to you and those around you if you’re a little absent-minded here and there.

    BUT… I came from a brain-work job, and found enough leftover creative energy to make a career in comics in my free time.

  27. Ideally, I reckon a job should be able to support you at least minimally, and be either so non-intensive that you can do writing without shirking your duties (Brandon mentioned a graveyard shift job, and I know someone online who only works weekends at some security job, and uses the time between rounds to draw, although they’re not doing that professionally yet), or it challenges you enough that you can do your writing as an escape.

    If it’s an especially high-stress job and you have to take work home, that’s not so good. Same if you’re miserable at it, although some people can use that as inspiration to keep writing, really push themselves to get somewhere.

    Strangely enough, I was at my most creative/prolific when I was studying. It wasn’t good stuff, but it was stuff, it was practice. Even if I should have been writing essays or paying more attention in class. Seems I’m at my best when there’s something else I should be doing. Which is not the best way to go about it, really.

    For example, right now I could be writing, but I’m typing… this… comment… hmmm…

    I’ll, um, see you all later.

  28. I, too, had a good creative run during my undergrad days. I would always look like the most intense note-taker out of the whole class, but really I was just coming up with good ideas and stream-of-conscious writing them out.

    Now I have a real job and other assorted responsibilities and it is harder to find time to write. I honestly think that class time was productive because it did not involve staring at a monitor. Pen (or pencil) and paper seem to bring out my creativity a lot better than a keyboard.

  29. @Alan: Then by all means, spend more time in front of a piece of paper holding a pencil or pen. Get yourself a sketchbook, and start doodling. You’ll find yourself sticking story notes in there in no time…

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