I have been seriously writing for six years now, which is either a very long, or very short amount of time, depending on your perspective. It’s the most amount of time I have ever put into anything voluntary, and on this winding path I have learned a few lessons I thought might be useful to pass along.
My early forays into writing varied in their seriousness. In highschool for example I attempted to write a Warhammer novel, in which the dwarves solve everything. It was fan fiction before I was aware that that was even a thing. In college I made a couple of half hearted attempts at writing some strange Lovecraft/Gnostic hybrid short stories that went nowhere. A few years after that, I got involved on a roleplaying forum where we created characters in a shared multiverse for a few years. In 2008, having just been divorced and laid off, I decided to use my free time to write up a novel set in a DnD world I had built over the years. It made it three chapters before fizzling.
Late summer of 2012 is when I sat down one day and decided to make a serious go of writing a short story. Grad school was winding down, and the amount of DnD I was playing was diminishing as well. My creative itch wasn’t being scratched, so I decided to try knocking the dust off the hobby I’d attempted at various points over the years.
And what do you know, I loved it in a way I had never loved writing before. To this day I am not really sure what changed, but in those few early stories I discovered my passion, and I haven’t managed to shake it yet haha.
That November I decided to try for NaNoWriMo. I did a post on facebook asking my friends how they would like to die in a story. I took all the various submissions and built short story ideas around them (death by prostitute? Why not do a twisted steampunk retelling of Jack the Ripper?). One month later I had written 50k words, which was twice over what I had written to that point in total.
I fully attribute that first NaNo to why I am a writer today. Writing is a muscle, if you don’t flex it, test it, stretch it, it will never grow. Were the stories bestsellers? Hell no. But they worked to both show me what I could do when I set my mind to it, and started training me to not worry about editing, but to just sit down and WRITE.
Starting out I only wrote short stories. Mostly I wrote steampunk and horror in those first couple of years, occasionally dipping my toes into fantasy when I wanted a change of pace. I quickly discovered that I have a sort of writing ADD: I tend to get somewhat bored if I write in a genre for too long. So any time I began to get bored with writing steampunk, I would switch to horror, or fantasy, or southern gothic. Once I started writing in 2012, I have only very rarely gone a week without writing something, and at this point I rarely go more than a few days at worst.
I began looking online and in facebook groups for places to submit these stories I was writing. This led to a large number of rejections, a smaller number of personalized rejections, and an even smaller number of acceptances, all of which I tacked onto the wall above my desk. A lit journal, four small press short story anthologies, a couple of online zines. Nothing mindblowing, and very, very little money, but it served to stoke the ego a bit. I mean, someone liked my stuff enough to publish it I figured, so I had to be on the …write path (ba da bum, tiss).
All the while I was slowly researching writing as a career. I had decided that this is what I wanted to do with my life, so I looked at what it would take. And I learned that short stories were very, very unlikely to get me to where I needed to be. So I resolved to attempt a novel.
I ended up writing my first novel, a southern horror tale, in two months, two years apart. I wrote the first half for NaNoWriMo one year, then two years later wrote the second half. You see, what I have learned about myself is while I can write an average of 1660ish words a day for a month, afterwards I tend to be a bit burned out and write very little in December. 25k words a month is about my upper limit without experiencing any sort of drop in productivity the following month. I was so burned out from that first month of writing that novel, that I had no desire to work on it til two years later.
I had read that agents now really like to look at your social media presence, so I resolved to do what I can to establish my ‘brand.’ Website, blog, twitter, facebook, patreon you name it, I have done it. I got a friend to design me a bitchin’ logo, and Tales by Bob was born. A brand without a real product haha. Well, I do have a few shirts and buttons I guess…
In the midst of that two year gap on my novel I was approached by a professor from my college (not one of my professors, but a friend of a friend) who had a small press that published scholarly works. They had decided they wanted to branch into genre fiction in a small way, and I was approached. They looked over the steampunk fantasy short stories I had written, decided they were workable with a bit of editing, and we agreed to put out four 25k word short story collections, each centered around a different character. To date three have been published, with the last one coming out…some time. Maybe.
It hasn’t been a great experience to be honest.
Once I finally finished my horror novel, and once the wave of elation had passed, I realized I reaaaaally needed to get serious about editing. The only problem was that I violently hate editing. I had trained myself very well to write, but had never instilled any sort of real editing habits.
To distract myself from what I should have been doing (editing ffs), I finished up and self published two 25k word dark fantasy short story collections. I also took a minor detour into trying to write smut books under an assumed name, trying to cash in on the somewhat short lived smut book gold rush on Amazon. I ran a mildly successful fiverr. I took some paid blog work. I worked on a couple of short lived zines. I wrote a tiny self-help book for creative people that I self-published on Amazon.
I wrote some novellas about a redneck wizard. A couple more short stories. Then I tackled and wrote a second novel, a grimdark fantasy tale, the first in a proposed trilogy. Once it was done, I wrote a few more novellas, and an abortive attempt at a novel set in redneck wizard land. Then started the second in my fantasy series (which the first draft will be finished in a week or so). I started a blog/podcast about writing called Books, Beards, Booze. I started hosting a monthly writing group in the nearest big city to where I live (3 years strong almost!).
So yeah, I kept busy. Anything to avoid editing, amirite?
Sometime last year I made a serious effort to edit up my horror novel. I got it as polished as I could at the time, then sent out a trio of query letters at the start of this year. Got a couple of rejections back, still waiting on my third.
So where am I at right now? I have two finished first drafts of novels, another a week or two from done, enough short stories and novellas to put out 4 or 5 collections of shorts, a decent social media presence (considering I don’t reeeally have anything too serious out), an ongoing podcast, and a writing group. All told it’s over 700k words (only 300k from getting good they say).
So what have I learned along the way?
- If you want to be published, really published by a big dog publisher, then don’t give in to distractions like self publishing, small presses, etc. The time you are spending on that, you need to be spending on making your novel as good as possible. I look back on the amount of time I spent with these various small presses, and my limited foray into self publishing, and wish I could have it back. I have friends that are simultaneously trying to get novels published, while getting covers designed so they can self publish it. Decide what you really want, and go all in on that. If, after you have exhausted all chances, then go to your fall back plan. But until that time, don’t waste your effort on what isn’t as important to you.
- Make damn sure whatever you put out, you are really happy with, and have polished. My two short story collections I self-published, I ended up taking them down eventually. Why? Because I became uncomfortable promoting them. I knew I could do better, that I needed to do more editing on them, get more beta readers, get fresh eyes on it, before releasing them.
- It is so cliche, but if you want to be a writer, you have to write. And I don’t mean a few half-assed words every couple of months. If you want to have writing for your career, you need to treat it that way now. You need to learn the discipline you need now, before you haul off and quit your job, only to realize you just don’t have the willpower you thought you did. And test yourself. Stretch that muscle. Complete a NaNoWriMo. Take an off day and spend the whole day writing, to see just how many words you can write. I did that, and found I can write a bit over 5k words a day if I need to. You are not going to get better, if you are not writing.
- Experiment with planning vs pantsing to find what works best for you. Keep stalling out on your novel attempts? Try something new. My first ever novel attempt was all pantsing. My second was heeeeavy on worldbuilding, but not on planning beyond that. A later abortive attempt was all planning and never really got off the ground. What I finally settled on, that works for me, is make a spreadsheet with one chapter per row, and one to two sentences describing the broad action. This shows me where I am going, while giving me the flexibility to explore the story along the way.
- I can see how it would be very possible to make a living as a freelance writer. There was a point, on my quest to avoid editing, that I was making a decent bit of side money, between my fiverr, band press work, and paid blogging (about vaping of all things, which I have never done, but hey, any port in a storm). But all that time I was spending writing things that were not furthering the career I wanted, which was fiction writer. Did my craft improve? Yes. But it would have improved as well had I spent that time writing what I really wanted to write. Money is nice, but if you don’t have to have that extra money, don’t let small change distract you from the real prize you want. I decided to give up money in my pocket now, for (hopefully) career level money later. Because I am just not ready to settle on my dreams.
- The hardest lesson I have had to learn is that writing is really only half the battle. Editing is just as crucial, and unless you have tons of money with which to hire editors (spoiler: I don’t), you are going to eventually have to bite the bullet and just do it. And like writing, the more you do it, the better you will get at it. It will also improve your writing. It’s a win/win, you just have to do it (he said, trying to convince himself to quit wasting time writing this little essay and go edit).
- If you do deal with a small press, do your research. Make sure they know, really know, what it is they are doing. And honestly, unless they really have their shit together, you are probably better off self-publishing whatever you have. I am not going to go into my particular saga, but I wish I had had older, wiser Bob around to tell me that when I signed on with my small press. You’ve worked too hard on your baby to let a small press screw the pooch. If anyone should be screwing that pooch by god, it should be you. At least you will be keeping a larger cut of the (likely) meager sum of money.
- It is really fucking hard to get noticed these days. If you are going to stand out, not only does your work have to be top notch, but you are probably going to have to get creative. Gone are the days when just being really good were enough. There are more folks churning out books than ever, and if you want to be one of the few making a living at it, you are going to have to polish your craft, but also find an angle. Even if it’s just a small one, something a little extra that catches someone’s eye. You need fans, real fans, and slopping out hum-drum run-of-the-mill stuff isn’t going to get you there.
- I have been lucky to never really have writers block. I have had times when the words just don’t flow as well as other times however. One thing I have done is train my mind that certain music means time to write. Mostly, when I am writing, I listen to Bohren and der Club of Gore (doom jazz), or Thievery Corporation. I have done that so consistently, that whenever I listen to those bands, the words flow better.
- Sometimes silence is your best friend. I love a good audiobook, but if I am hitting a thorny part of a book I am working on, I will ride in silence to work. Or I will go for a long walk. No music, no audiobooks, nothing but being alone in your mind. It won’t work for everyone, and it won’t work every time. But there are so many problems I have solved with my books just by walking to the end of the dirt road and back, alone with my thoughts.
- I am a firm believer that if you want to create more, you have to consume less. Rather, you have to be more selective on what you consume. Myself, I went years without a tv (have one now, but never use it). If I am consuming media it is either a book, seeing a movie with friends, or going to a show. I virtually never watch tv, and spend that time typically reading, or going out and about to see friends, travel, etc. If you want to be a writer, you need to read of course, but you also need to ‘fill the tank’ with experiences. If you are a hermit homebody who never talks to people, it’s going to be that much harder for you to write convincing dialogue for example. If you have never been to a concert, how can you really describe it in a believable way? And so many story ideas have come from experiences I have had (across all genres, not just horror). Get off the couch and live life. It will reward you beyond your writing.
- Since you are reading this, this won’t have to be drummed as much, but you need a community. Sure some people write in utter seclusion, with no one ever knowing til the book hits the shelves. Those people are rare. You need writer friends who can tell you when you are being dumb, who can commiserate when you have hit a rough patch, who can be a set of fresh eyes. It takes a village, or something like that. Join a writing group. Or do what I did, and start your own. It will pay so many dividends long term.
Hopefully you will find something useful in here. Listening to someone who isn’t writing for a career, on how to get there is perhaps not the best idea. Damn it though, I really believe that I am on the right path now. If I don’t get to where I want to go, it’ll be because I really am just not good enough, not because I kept making the same boneheaded moves over and over. So take that for what it’s worth.
Cheers, and happy writing!