I’ve been juggling a lot of balls this week.
I’ve been working hard on launching this site and the brand that goes hand in hand with it: creating artwork, designing covers, running ads.
I also launched my fifth fiction book, and did a talk at my local library.
And on top of that, this week was supposed to be a ‘day job’ week, where I do the freelance writing that pays most of the bills.
As you can imagine, I didn’t succeed in getting all those things done (did I also mention my son played in a music concert, my husband and I had to pick out a new car after his was stolen, and I met up with my writing group? Phew!).
All of which means I’ve been stressing about priorities: trying to determine which pen name to focus on, whether I should be concentrating on writing or on marketing, and how much time I can spare for my day job as well as for my family.
So today’s post is designed to help me find a way through the minefield that is prioritization and planning, and hopefully to help you work out your own priorities too.
I’m going to look at each element of the writing life, and try to identify at what point in your career it’s a priority, when it can take a back seat, and how to ensure it doesn’t get dropped completely.
Here are the six aspects of a writer’s life that are important at different times – feel free to add your own as you read!
- real life
Let’s start with craft, something every writer needs to constantly work on.
Writing craft. Without mastering it, you’ll never be a writer.
At least, you’ll never be a writer whose work other people want to read.
I’m a firm believer that all writers need to work on their craft throughout their career. If you’re like me, you write because you love it, and striving to become a better writer has its own intrinsic rewards.
On top of that, improving your craft will help you reach a wider audience, give more people pleasure in your work, and help you build a career as a writer.
But there are times when craft needs to (temporarily) take a back seat.
I made myself a promise late in 2018 that when my fifth novel came out, that would be the point at which I could really focus on marketing. I have enough of a list for read-through to be significant, meaning everyone who buys one of my books will have a good chance of reading more of them. I also have two entry points to my books, as I’ve got one published trilogy and another with two out of the three books published (and they can be read as standalones).
That’s not to say I’ve abandoned craft. Not at all. In fact, just this week, I bought John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, one of the best respected books on story telling.
But I’ve put that book on a shelf and I’ll wait to read it until I’ve finished the marketing books I need to re-read in order to hone my marketing skills and practice.
I don’t have time to do both, and as I’m not working on a novel right now, it wouldn’t be the best time to be developing my craft.
If you’re early in your writing career, craft will be the top priority. You have to become a better writer if people are going to read and enjoy your stories.
Forget about marketing. Forget about publishing, whether your goal is to get a deal with a publisher or to self publish.
Focus on writing. Write as many words as you can fit into your schedule and edit them. If you don’t edit your work, you won’t learn how you could have made it better in the first place. And you won’t improve.
Join a writing group and get feedback on your work. Try not to take it personally if it’s critical – it’ll all help your writing improve.
And read about craft. Read Truby’s book that’s on my shelf. Read Into The Woods. Read books about character, dialogue, story structure. Make notes. Identify how you can put what you’ve learned into action.
This is where you build the foundations of your author career, and it’s essential at the beginning.
But it’s also important forever. Once my stint of marketing is done, I’ll be switching to working on my next novel. And before I write a word, I’m going to be reading more craft books, analyzing where my weaknesses are and what I can improve, and seeking feedback.
To summarize, craft is essential, but especially at the beginning of your career.
This is something I spent a lot of time on last year. I wanted to release my political thriller trilogy within a space of two months, and I knew that to do that, I had to be productive.
So I spent time analyzing when and where I’m most productive. I used a spreadsheet to track my writing time and word count. And I challenged myself to write a book in a week.
I vastly improved my productivity, and published four books last year. I aim to publish five this year.
And I believe that increasing your productivity will also improve your craft.
This is the underlying principle behind Nicholas Erik’s Trifecta of Indie Success.
This states that productivity underpins craft, which in turn underpins marketing.
In other words:
- You can’t become a better writer without writing a lot of words.
- You can’t sell books unless they’re good.
It’s obvious really.
Productivity is something I feel strongly about. I get frustrated at the idea that writers who write less are somehow better. How can you be better at anything unless you practice?
Are musicians who don’t practice considered better? Basketball players? Footballers?
Writing more, editing more, getting more words on the page: all of them will make you a better writer. Even if the first draft is godawful, it’s better than nothing, and it’s something you can edit.
Right now, productivity is a priority for me, as it is constantly. If I’m going to earn money at my day job and write the books which will help me switch to writing my own books full time, I need to be productive.
So I’ve worked hard to identify how to be productive. I’ve banished distractions as far as possible. I never watch the news: there’s not much point here in the UK as it flips on its head every day right now. I’ve resolved to only watch TV with my family, and I try to limit my social media time (a challenge for me, I admit). If I’m spending non-work time alone, I read.
(There’s something I forgot to mention in the last section: reading is one of the best ways to improve your craft. Learn from the people who’ve done it before you).
Next week I’ll be starting on the first draft of WordPress For Writers. If I’m going to publish that in the summer (I’ve got guest posts and a marketing plan lined up, so I have to), I need to write it in two weeks.
Because I’ve already analyzed my productivity, I know I can do this. So that’s one thing I’m not stressed about.
If you’re at the stage in your career where your craft is coming together and you want to become a serious writer, I recommend focusing on productivity. It will improve your craft and help you build a long term career.
The top of Nicholas Erik’s pyramid is marketing. Without it, you won’t have a successful career.
This applies to traditionally published authors as well as indies like me. I’ve had four nonfiction books published by traditional publishing houses and they did no marketing. Zero.
The idea that a good book will sell itself is a myth. There are millions of titles competing with yours on Amazon and the other booksellers, and people won’t magically find yours unless you help them.
So learning about book marketing is important if you want to make a living at this (in other words, to give up the day job and write full time).
When I started out as an indie, I got excited about marketing. I did a bunch of courses, read a host of books, and started dreaming of making it big. Stephen King, eat your heart out!
But the reality is that you need a few books published before marketing will reap rewards. This is doubly the case if you write in series, as read-through (the people who buy books 2, 3 etc after reading book 1) will make your ads for book 1 all the more profitable.
My focus right now is on marketing. I’m re-learning all that information that’s become out of date since I first consumed it over a year ago (what a waste of time). I’m analyzing how it applies to me and my books. And I’m talking to successful writers to find out what works for them in the current climate.
My advice is don’t be like me: don’t get starry-eyed at the thought of selling millions of books, and don’t waste time (or money) on it until you’re ready.
Wait until you’ve got at least three books out, preferably twice that, and then turn your attention to marketing.
There is one caveat to this: it pays to understand your market before you start writing. If you read widely in your genre and know what readers expect from it, you’ll find more happy readers when you do eventually come to sell your books.
I’m not saying you have to sell out: just that writing in a genre you have no knowledge of will give you a disadvantage. So make sure you read other books like yours while you’re honing your craft.
This could be hard for you, or ridiculously easy. It’ll depend on whether you’re self publishing or seeking a publisher.
Seeking a publisher will entail a steep learning curve and probably involve plenty of heartache. You’ll need to spend time researching agents or publishers, sending out query letters with exactly what they request in submissions (don’t take a blanket approach unless you want your submission to go straight in the bin), and leaning how to write the best possible query letter.
You’ll then have to learn about the publishing industry. Most of the actual work getting the book published will be done for you, but you’ll be at an advantage if you take the time to learn about it.
If you’re self publishing, this bit is actually easier. True, you have to publish your books yourself. But once you’ve done it once, it’s unlikely you’ll need to learn new skills next time you do it. I find that it gets easier with each book I publish.
You will need to make some decisions, and possibly spend some cash. Will you hire an editor? A proof reader? A cover designer? Involving professionals will enhance the quality of your book and enhance your chances when it comes to marketing.
But actually publishing the book will take very little time, and once it’s done, you can leave well alone.
If you want a checklist that helps you remember what steps to take each time you publish, I recommend Adam Croft’s book Indie Author Checklist.
Ah, networking. A dirty word to many of us.
Let me call it by a different name: making friends with other writers.
Does that sound better?
Networking with other writers will involve one or more of the following:
- Going to writing events.
- Joining a writers’ group.
- Finding other writers on social media.
- Reading and giving feedback on each other’s work.
This is important but it shouldn’t be your top priority. Maybe early in your career, when you need some encouragement, it might be more important. But if you have a writing deadline to hit, or marketing to do, that should come first over networking.
Networking is great, but if you enjoy it, don’t let it consume your time. You need to spend time alone getting those words written.
Prioritizing Real Life
This can be a toughie.
Last summer I was part of a thread in a writers’ group on Facebook that was started by a woman whose partner didn’t support her writing. She had to sneak writing time in when he didn’t want her attention, and sometimes lie to him about what she was doing. It was sad how many people had similar experiences (although there were others who enjoyed plenty of support).
Your loved ones won’t always understand why you write. They’ll want you to spend your time with them instead of holed up in your room disappearing into fictional worlds.
If you need to spend time marketing, they may think it’s a waste of time if you aren’t making any money yet. They may not believe you can, having read so much in the media about how underpaid writers can be.
If you have young children, it’s impossible to ignore their demands. If you’re caring for an elderly or sick relative, the same will be true. And your friends will miss you if you’re at home writing instead of going out with them.
And then there’s the day job. Your boss doesn’t care about your book: he or she just wants you to do your job. You may be expected to work long hours, or you might work two or more jobs to make ends meet. When you get home at the end of the day, you might be too exhausted to consider writing.
Prioritizing the things in your ‘real’ life that are important to you is essential for your happiness and mental health. That could be relaxing with family and friends, caring for a loved one, or earning a living.
This is where understanding your own productivity comes in. If you know how to be more efficient as a writer, you’ll make better use of what available time you have.
And it’s worth talking to the people around you, explaining why writing is important to you. They may be more understanding than you think. When I went indie, I told my husband that my long term goal was to earn enough money to enable him to quit his day job. That made a huge difference to his motivation to look after the kids while I write!
But I’d be wary of the ‘experts’ that tell you to focus on your writing over all else. Your real life is important; your loved ones are important; and your health is important.
In all things, balance.
Prioritizing Can Be Tough
So those are the six things I believe authors need to prioritize.
Has it helped me sort out my own priorities right now?
To some extent.
- I know that I need to spend tomorrow running and analyzing the ads for my new fiction release (Marketing).
- On Sunday I’ll drop all writing-related tasks (except reading the marketing book I’ve got on the go), and spend some time with my family (Real Life).
- Then come Monday I’ll be focusing on the first draft of WordPress for Writers for two weeks (Productivity).
- I’ll carve an hour out of each day while I’m writing that to monitor and tweak my ads (more Marketing).
- And once the book is finished, I’ll be able to go to my writers’ group happy in the knowledge that I’ve met my goals for the month (Networking).
- Once I’ve finished that book, I’ll pick up my new craft books and focus on honing my craft ready for plotting the next fiction book (Craft). And I’ll need to spend some time on my day job! (Real Life)
As you can see, it never lets up. But it’s worth it.