Whether you want to quit your day job and write full time, or you want to build up your creative practice alongside whatever else you do to pay the bills, it can still be useful to think of writing in the same terms as you would think of building any other career: something with identified goals, barriers, milestones, priorities etc.
Of course, just because you write, it doesn’t mean it has to be your career – whether full-time or otherwise. I want to take a moment here to mention that there are plenty of avlid reasons to write and not make it a career. Write for fun. Write because it helps you process the world. Write because it gives you an excuse to go and hang out with those other writers in the pub once a month. It doesn’t matter. After all, just because someone enjoys playing tennis sometimes, we don’t expect them to be aiming for Wimbledon.
But if you are thinking in terms of career-building, then here are a few of my thoughts on how you might go about it:
Before you set out on your career path, there are a few things that you need to think about – at least as far as I’m concerned. There’s a reason why I made this the 4th post in the Writer’s Apprenticeship series, and not the 1st.
The first thing, obviously, is to WRITE, and to make your writing as good as it can possible be. The second is to learn about how the industry works; after all, how can you build a career in an industry you don’t understand? And the third (which may overlap a little with career-building) is to think about who you are and/or who you want to be as a writer.
Of course, you’ll keep on building on all of these things throughout your career. But it’s good to think about them before you fling yourself into the unknown.
Set goals and milestones:
What do you want to achieve? It isn’t enough to say, ‘I want to be a writer’. What does that look like for you? What are your priorities?
In the months before My Name is Monster came out, a writer friend asked me: ‘What are you hoping the novel will do for you?’ It was an interesting question – especially coming from the person it came from. I won’t name names, but I will say he’s an international bestseller. So I assumed his bar was set pretty high. Did I want to set mine at the same height, only to set myself up for disappointment? What was it that I was after? Massive sales figures? Literary prizes?
Don’t get me wrong, all of those things are and would be lovely. But I decided a while ago that they aren’t the reason I write. So I said: ‘I want it to do well enough that I can keep writing and publishing work.’
That’s my personal goal: to keep writing, and to keep developing my practice. Anything else is a welcome bonus.
But that doesn’t mean this has to be your goal. If your goal is to write bestselling commercial fiction, then that’s great. The same if you want to write something incredibly niche, which you know will only ever likely have a tiny audience. It doesn’t matter what you want – so long as you know what that is.
Sit down with a pen and paper. Force yourself to write it down.
- What are you ultimate goals as a writer?
- What are your priorities in your career?
- Where do you want to be this time next year? (Warning: be realistic – publishing is a long process, and unless you’ve completed your manuscript and are in the process of signing with a publisher, or at least with an agent, you’re unlikely to have published your novel within the year. The exception, of course, is self-publishing.)
- Where do you want to be in five years?
- What about ten?
- Who do you want to read your books – and how big do you want your audience to be?
- Are you hoping for a niche group of dedicated readers, or mass market success? (The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but it’s good to know which you’d prioritise.)
- Most of all: why are you writing? What do you want to gain from it?
Once you’ve figured out what you want, you can start figuring out how to get it.
Get the skills – or be prepared to outsource:
Your most important skill is always going to be your writing. It is, after all, the main part of your business. If you can’t write well, then the whole ‘being a writer’ thing is pretty much a non-starter.
But writing is only the top line of your CV. If you’re thinking of your writing as a business, then this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. There are multiple aspects to running every business.
Before I ended up writing full-time, I worked a number of jobs. Most of the work I’ve done since graduating has been in the field of arts administration, mostly for small locally based arts organisations, with a handful of staff. If you’ve never worked as an administrator for a small arts organisation, then I can tell you that your job description basically ends up being to do a bit of everything. Which makes it an excellent apprenticeship for going freelance. Most of my skills, which help me as a full-time writer, are skills that I picked up as an arts administrator.
I should mention that none of the things listed here are absolutely necessary, and not every writer will need to do the same things in order to succeed. This also isn’t a definitve list. But a lot of them (if not all of them) will be incredibly useful for you as you run the business of being a writer. And the ones that you absolutely can’t do, or don’t want to dedicate the time to learning, when you could be spending that time writing instead? Well, there are plenty of other freelancers out there, who specialise in this sort of thing.
- Keeping your calendar organised
- Website creation & maintenance
- Social media
- Publicising your books and events, but also for yourself as a writer
- Public speaking, and the ability to read / talk about your work
- Organise submissions & applications – including applying for funding
I’ve already talked a bit about this in my post about building a profile as a writer, but I wanted to mention it again here, because I think that the sustainability of a writing career depends in part on how connected you are with other writers and industry professionals.
Connect with people through social media. Connect with people in person. Connect at talks and workshops and festivals. Connect through post-workshop drinks down the pub.
I think I’ve said this before, but I’m a great believer that we are all colleagues, not competitors. If I come across a residency, for example, that I think would really suit a writer I know, I’ll send them the info on it. Even if I’m planning to apply for it myself. If the other writer gets the residency and I don’t? Then well done to them. Clearly the residency either wasn’t right for me anyway, or I wasn’t right for it, or I just wasn’t as good as the other writer and need to up my game. Either way, I’m glad that I writer I know and like and support was able to benefit from the opportunity.
This isn’t entirely selfless. I find that often writers will share opportunities with me in return. And will be more inclined to say yes if I ever need something from them – such as a quote for a book jacket, or a retweet, or whatever. This isn’t why I do it, but it’s an excellent side-effect, and one that helps me to stay connected as a writer. This, I believe, is how it should be: a community of writers supporting one another.
When I was a newbie writer, another writer gave me this advice: Be reliable, and be nice.
Nobody wants to work with somebody who doesn’t turn up when they’re supposed to, or arrives for a workshop unprepared, or never communicates. Similarly, nobody wants to work with somebody unpleasant.
This doesn’t just apply to organisations who might want to invite you back to work with you a second time; it also applies to organisations you’ve never worked with before. The writing world is small, and word gets around. A person or organisation doesn’t have to have worked with you before to know what sort of person you are; they probably just need to ask a friend.
So if you’re making those all-important writerly connections, make sure those connections remember you for the right reasons.
Identify your weaknesses:
And then do something about them.
This is a classic business strategy, so it makes sense to apply it to your writing career as well. In fact, it goes all the way back to those school reports, where your teacher noted your ‘areas for improvement’ for the next term (mine was always throwing and catching).
We do this with our writing itself all the time. If you’re a poet who finds line breaks difficult, then spend some time looking at how other poets use line breaks; read essays and books on the poetic line. If you want to get better at character development, we can do it by reading about it, or by looking at examples of character development done well (or badly) by other writers. Ideally, we can do both.
It’s the same with the other aspects of your writing career. What do you find difficult?
Let’s say you identify your weakness as a lack of confidence. (This is pretty common among writers – hence why I chose it as this example.) How are you going to improve your confidence? One way might be to read self-help books about how to appear and/or become more confident. Another might be to look at other writers who are coming across as more confident than you feel, and seeing how you can emulate them.
(Caveat: not every writer who appears confident actually is confident; also, some writers who have bags and bags of confidence are not as good a writers as they might like to believe – the two are often inversely proportional.)
Once you’ve looked at how other writers pull off being confidence, give it a go for yourself. Practise being confident. Go to workshops and open mic nights without apologising for your work. Introduce yourself to people as ‘a writer’. Talk to industry professionals.
Confidence is like a muscle: you have to work if you want to strengthen it.
You may not write because you want to earn money. (Honestly, if your main goal is to make big bucks, then this probably isn’t the career for you.) But that doesn’t mean that you can’t think financially about your career. Whether you want to make writing your sole income, or you want to write professionally alongside your other job, you need to value yourself as a professional, with professional skills. This means that you need to expect to be paid professionally for your work.
This isn’t a new idea. (Although for some organisations, the idea of paying professional writers in something other than ‘exposure’ still doesn’t seem to have got through.) But it’s something that’s worth mentioning.
If you value your work, it will help others to value it, too.
It feels counter-productive, but if you work for free, it might seem as though you’re making yourself amenable, but you’re actually harming your professional reputation. You’re effectively saying: ‘my work isn’t worth paying for’. Not to mention, you’re harming the careers of all those other writers who can’t afford to work for free.
Get paid for your work. I repeat: GET PAID FOR YOUR WORK.
And, if you’re getting paid, then there’s money going into your business. And if there’s money going in, then maybe there’s room for money to go out. Don’t be afraid to invest in yourself and in your practice – whether that’s about buying yourself a smart outfit for readings, or paying to attend a networking event, or booking a place on a writing course.
And to make things even better: this kind of investment in your career can go on your expenses against income tax. Win win!
Those are my thoughts for now on building a career. Like all my blog posts, this isn’t an exhaustive list, because every writer’s circumstances will be different. But hopefully it’s useful – and as always, happy writing.