I’m not an adherent of the ‘writing is torture, they have to drag the words out of me, darling’ school of writing.
But I do know that being a writer can be stressful, especially if you’re pursuing a writing career and also have a day job.
Writing takes time. Marketing takes time. Getting covers, formatting, and all the rest of it takes time.
And it feels like everywhere you look, there are indies releasing a book a month and making six-figure incomes. Or trad published authors with huge book deals and masses of publicity.
But the reality is that most of us aren’t like this.
Most writers don’t earn a full time living. Most writers don’t write multiple books a year. And most writers aren’t famous.
This is all OK. Everyone has different goals; some of us are actively pursuing them, and others have reached them. This goals could be creative, financial, or personal. They’re all valid.
At the 20Booksto50k conference, two of the talks that resonated with me the most were those by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.
Both of them have been professional writers for over 40 years. They’ve both seen trends come and go. Both have written and published in a variety of ways, and learned to pivot when things change. And they had some fantastic insights to share.
In today’s post I’m going to share my notes from Dean’s talk, because it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me.
Dean’s talk was different from a lot of the talks at the 20books conference, mainly because Dean doesn’t subscribe to the write-fast-publish-hard model of publishing.
A lot of the speakers there were people who found success by writing lots of books and getting them out quickly.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m a fast writer myself, and I’ve taken pains to become more productive and write more words more quickly. I know that the more books you publish, the greater success you can gain.
But both Dean and Kathryn have had long-term careers as authors. They’ve been writing for over 40 years, and unlike many of their contemporaries, are still going strong. So, what did Dean share that was particularly enlightening for me?
1. Make it sustainable
Dean said that this is single most important thing that you can do with your author career.
If you want to make a long-term living as a writer, you need to forge a career that is sustainable. This means not burning out writing 12 books a year. It means writing in a genre that you love, and writing books you enjoy writing and reading.
It may be tempting to pick a hot genre, and write to market in that.
I’m not a critic of writing to market. I think that understanding your market is part of understanding your readers, and that’s just showing simple respect for your readers. But I do think that better books are produced by people who write the kind of book they like to read themselves.
Dean asked this question: could you do what you’re doing now for five years?
It made me think about the kind of books I’m writing, and whether I enjoy reading similar books. The good news is that I do.
But what I don’t enjoy is writing the same thing day in, day out. I do that in my day job, and although I enjoy the topic that I write about, I don’t enjoy doing it every single day.
So although writing in three genres (yes, I’m that dumb) may not be wise in the short term, it could be a wise strategy in the long term. Because it’ll keep me enjoying my writing, getting the variety that I love, and learning new things.
2. Have fun
This relates very closely to number one. If it isn’t fun, it isn’t sustainable.
Do you find writing fun? Do you find the genre that you write in fun? Do you find marketing fun?
I know a lot of writers don’t find marketing fun at all. But that’s where finding an aspect of marketing that you do enjoy is worth pursuing.
A lot of book marketing is about engaging with readers, something I love doing. It’s about sending out newsletters, which is writing. It’s also about responding to emails from readers, and engaging with them on social media.
Engaging with readers like this may be a slow burn process, because it’s only one at a time, but it’s a sustainable way to build a fanbase. After all, how do you feel when your favorite author replies to your emails?
3. Never write to market
Now this is a controversial one.
Most of the people in the room were probably writing to market. There were talks, including one by Chris Fox (who knows this stuff well) about identifying a market and writing to it effectively.
But Dean did give one caveat and that was ‘unless it’s a market you love’.
Are you a fan of that genre? If you are, then write to it. Writing to market doesn’t have to mean writing books that you don’t know anything about, don’t read and aren’t interested in. What it does mean is understanding your niche inside out.
You can gain that understanding by reading books in your niche, which will do if you already love that genre. You can also increase your understanding by analyzing the market. Look at what’s being published.
In short, write to a market you know and love – which links to having fun and keeping it sustainable. Write to market – but not to trend. And not if you don’t love that market.
4. Defend your work
There are two groups of people you have to defend your work against.
One is obvious: it’s other people.
If people are critical of your work, defend it. You love the book you’ve written, otherwise you wouldn’t have published it.
That doesn’t mean jumping on your one-star reviews and getting defensive. But don’t take negative reviews too seriously. Dean was of the opinion that writers who read all of their reviews are just heading for a mental breakdown.
So when you’re talking about your books, talk in positive terms. Don’t say ‘oh this is just a little book that I wrote’. Say ‘this is my fantastic magnum opus, it’s going to change the world’. Maybe not that extreme, but you get my point!
But there’s another person you need to defend your work against, and that’s you.
We are our own worst critics.
Writers tend to be introverted, introspective, and often self-critical. Resist the temptation to hate your own work. Resist the temptation to strive for perfection.
Edit it as much as it needs editing, and no more. Dean doesn’t do second drafts: he sends a polished first draft to his editor, and that’s it. He never sees it again. He never gets the chance to criticize it to himself.
(This is something I’m going to experiment with when writing my next novel: watch this space.)
5. Believe in your work
This is related to being able to defend your work against others and yourself.
If you know it’s the best story you can write at that moment in time, it’s good enough.
Don’t revisit old stories. Instead, apply what you learn to new projects. If you’ve learnt a new technique or you believe you’ve become a better writer, don’t go back to your very first book and apply what you’ve learned in an edit.
Instead, write another book. Write a better book.
Dean recognized in his talk that he hasn’t written his best book yet. He’s constantly developing as a writer, as we should all be.
Nobody is perfect, everybody has scope to develop and become a better writer. Everybody has the capacity to write the next book and make it even better than the last one.
But believing that you can improve doesn’t mean believing that you are bad. It just means understanding that you are continuously striving to improve yourself and your craft.
6. Dare to be bad
This is quite a scary one, but the crux of it is this. If you hate what you’re writing, don’t stop writing.
Just keep writing. Don’t worry about ruining your career when you haven’t got one yet.
If you think your writing is bad, it’s probably because you’re relatively inexperienced. This may be your first or your second novel, in which case, early drafts are likely to be pretty bad.
It’s only with experience that you learn to write well first time round. So write what you love, write the story you want to write, and don’t worry about what other people think about it once you put it out there. Just keep writing.
7. Follow Heinlein’s rules
This is a set of rules first devised by Robert A Heinlein, the sci-fi writer. They are:
- You must write.
- Finish what you write.
- You must not rewrite.
- You must put it on the market.
- You must leave it on the market.
- Start writing something else.
So use that confidence that you have in your own writing to finish your writing, to trust that you don’t need to keep rewriting it, to publish it, and not to take it down if you think it’s bad in the future. Leave it behind and start working on the next project.
Again, this is quite scary for many of us.
But it’s all about confidence. Constantly doubting yourself and believing your past work wasn’t good enough, as well as doubting the work you’re currently doing, won’t help your sanity as an author.
If you force yourself to think this way, it will end up coming naturally.
8. Nobody cares
Nobody really cares about what you’re writing.
Nobody except you (and maybe your family if you’re earning a living) cares what you’re publishing and how many books you’re selling.
This should be freeing. If nobody cares about your writing, you have the freedom to write what you want.
Be in a hurry, don’t be in a hurry, nobody cares. Your readers won’t really care if you don’t publish your next book a month, two months, three months, or even a year from now. They have other things to worry about!
If you’re a writer because you love it, it doesn’t really matter that nobody cares. The important thing is that you’re enjoying yourself. Being able to make a living will obviously be a benefit, but that doesn’t have to mean earning lots of money, but maybe just enough for you to be able to survive and spend more time writing. That’s the whole point of becoming a full time writer.
Forget about those wild ambitions and focus on the fact that writing makes you happy.
If writing stops making you happy, stop writing.
Just go back to the day job. The day job gives you a pension, it gives you holidays, and it gives you colleagues to work with. Why on earth would you give all that up for writing if you don’t enjoy the writing in the first place?
9. Calm down
Take a deep breath.
Slow down if you need to.
Don’t burn out, and don’t compare yourself to anyone else.
Someone else in your writer’s group might be publishing three books a year and you’re only managing to write one. You might not have finished your first novel and you’ve got a friend who’s written twenty.
It doesn’t matter. Don’t compare yourself to those people.
You can only be the best writer that you can be. Whatever that means in terms of reader numbers, in terms of reviews, and in terms of output, what matters is doing what’s sustainable for you and what makes you happy over the long-term.
The experts on writing and publishing tend to be people who write lots. I have to admit I’ve written plenty of articles about being more productive as a writer. I want to write a hundred books before I die, and I know that if I’m going to do that I need to be productive. I enjoy being productive, and I get value from that.
But if I stopped enjoying that, I would stop writing so fast. I need to be constantly reassessing what I enjoy about this writing business, and tweaking my goals and my activities to fit.
So maybe my notes from Dean’s talk have given you some food for thought as well. Maybe it will make you feel more confident in your writing abilities, or it’ll stop you comparing yourself to the people around you.
I know I found it liberating. The biggest take-away for me was about a sustainable career being one that involves writing books that I enjoy writing. For me that involves writing in more than one genre at one time. I get bored if I’m doing the same thing every day. So for me, writing four thrillers in a year, or four mysteries in a year, or four non-fiction books in a year, would be dull.
Instead, I write a mix of those. And that makes me happy. Although people tell me that that’s not the best way to build an author career quickly, Dean’s talk made me realize that the most important thing is building a sustainable career that you can hold onto for the years to come.
I plan to be here for a while yet!
How do you stay sane as writer? Share your tips and perspective in the comments.