Ten Steps to Overnight Success -- or --
How it Only Took a Decade to get Paid
How it Only Took a Decade to get Paid
The top 1% of members of the Writers Guild of America -- the folks who make between $600,000 and the "big money" (seven figures) number in the mere dozens. Of the rest of them -- members of a group that as a rule has to get paid to even join -- only the top 25% make $62,000 a year or more. And the average age of a person who actually makes it into the Guild -- meaning they got that sale, or finally optioned enough screenplays to make it -- is 35 years old.
Let’s talk now about some other averages. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for salaried writers hovers just over $50,000. Only the top 10% of salaried writers make over $95,000. And it must be emphasized that these are "salaried writers" -- narrowly defined by the BLS as people like salaried journalists, or professional technical writers. Fiction writers are, for the most part, freelance writers whose annual takes -- even if they are "professionals" (i.e., occasionally paid) -- is much, much lower.
In other words, "the big payoff" of becoming a "real, published author" may have more in common with the salary of your average janitor than it does with the sixteen bizillion dollars J.K. Rowling makes every time she writes a postcard.
Of course, the chances of making money go up greatly if you are signed by a large publisher -- Scholastic, or Bantam, for instance. However, this itself has an inherent earnings inhibitor built in: most of the larger publishing houses require that submissions be "exclusive." This means that a writer is only permitted to submit his work to one large publisher at a time. The average wait time to find out if the work has been rejected or accepted can range anywhere from a few weeks (if the writer already knows someone "on the inside" who is in a position to fast-track the review) or, more likely, several months to a year and a half. Then, even if the book is accepted for publication, the large publishing houses will typically take, again, several months to a year and a half to actually roll out the book.
In other words, even assuming your book is picked up by the first major publishing house you submit to -- and the odds are against you -- you are looking at somewhere between half a year and three years before you start really seeing any money. And if your book is not accepted by the first major publishing house, then you are once again in a sort of voluntary limbo, consigned there by the "no simultaneous submissions" rule.
What to do?
The reality is, most authors have "day jobs." I am considered an anomaly. I have optioned screenplays and done rewrites for major Hollywood production companies. I have numerous television shows in development. I have written over a dozen novels that have spent time on Amazon's major genre bestseller lists, and have spent the better part of a year as one of Amazon's Most Popular Horror Writers.
I make a living writing.
Now, to put this in perspective: I began writing at the tender age of four. I made my first "sale" of a short story to a local newspaper at the age of 15. I earned creative writing scholarships in college. I hold the record as the person who has had the most screenplays go to quarterfinals and semifinals in the history of the Nicholls Screenwriting competition. And in spite of all this, it took me fifteen years of rejection letters to actually start making money.
Still, through it all I have learned some things about writing, and about how to become a "successful" writer, particularly in genre work like fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. Following is my "road-map for success." Which is not a guarantee that it will make you a millionaire...but it is a guarantee that you will never fail so long as you continue doing these things.
This may seem obvious, but the simple fact is that if you wish to make a living as a writer, you MUST WRITE. Constantly and without letup. Write your books, your screenplays, your stories. And when you are done writing those, write about them. Start a blog. Issue press releases. Have a Facebook page. The "writing muscle" is one of the most easily atrophied muscles in the human body.
2) Involve yourself in marketing.
The fact is, people will (for the most part) not come banging down your door looking for you to write them the next bestelling novel or blockbuster screenplay. You have to do the work yourself. Enter contests. Get involved in writer’s forums. Be a voice that can be heard and one that is accepted as an authority.
Another way to do this is to do interviews. There are many websites (The Author Exchange Blog, Two Ends of the Pen, just to name a few) that actively seek out writers to interview. The fact that they interview both "established" writers and first-time novelists is a huge benefit for new authors: they benefit from the many "eyeballs" who will want to read about their favorite established authors...and who then will perhaps take a gander at a new author as well. IF you stun them with what you write on those sites.
These kinds of interviews also provide another huge bonus: they are one of the few fora in the world where you control things. The blog owner may send you interview questions, but you get to take your time answering them. You are free to create for yourself a persona that will appeal to your target audience...and you get to take your time doing it.
Which brings me to the next item:
3) Plug your book (or script, or whatever)!
It does no good to be a highly visible personality on web, screen, and radio, if whenever you appear you smile modestly, rub your toe around on the ground a little, and say "Twarn’t nothin’" without ever mentioning your body of work. The whole point of arranging for interviews on radio, TV, the internet, or at your local bookstore is so that you can showcase two things: 1) yourself, and 2) YOUR WORK.
People may think you are the most scintillating person they have ever heard speak. But they still won’t buy your book if they don’t even know what it is.
4) Make connections.
I’d like to share a story.
I wrote a script called Barricade some years back. It was one of the scripts that did well in the Nicholl Fellowhips competition, and the script made its way around Hollywood. Everyone was "a fan" (this, by the way, is Hollywood code for "you ain't seein' no money from me today"). One of the fans was a junior executive at a major production company. We will call him Johnny. Johnny loved Barricade. He was "a fan." I took several meetings with Johnny and others at the prodco. Every time I met someone new I made sure to get a business card and either write or email them within a day or two of meeting them to let them know it had been a pleasure and if there was ever anything I could do for them, I was happy to chat.
Five years went by.
Then, out of the blue, Johnny called. Barricade had not been purchased by his production company originally because they were not interested in doing that kind of a story. But Johnny liked Barricade. And he had liked me, and liked the fact that I emailed him to say hi every few months.
Subsequent to the original meeting, everyone at the production company was fired except Johnny. The new senior executive walked into Johnny’s office, told him he wanted to do a ghost story, and Johnny promptly handed him Barricade, which had been sitting on his bookshelf waiting for just the right moment. I had stayed in touch, Barricade was a good piece of work, and those combined to make Johnny my own personal champion. Papers were signed within a matter of weeks, leading to a fairly lucrative deal including some rewriting which took something in the order of a week and for which I was paid an obscene amount of money.
But this would not have happened if I had not taken care to keep myself in Johnny’s mind.
5) Play nice with others.
If you are trying to write for yourself -- a book or a story that you are writing as some form of private psychotherapy, or just as a form of enjoyment that you never intend for anyone to read -- then you can do whatever you want. But if you are writing the great American novel, or the next blockbuster movie, or next year's bestseller, the reality is that your first draft is not going to make it through unscathed and unchanged. It will be pored over by executives whose jobs it is to find out what is wrong with your work in order to have an excuse to turn it down. This is because nothing will get an executive fired faster than backing a major flop. So it is natural that they will want something that is as commercially viable as they can make it.
This means you will be given notes. It also means that you will probably have to change things.
This is not to say that you relinquish all control. I have been in many story meetings where a story executive has made a suggestion for "a change or two." Meaning that he thought the ghost should be less scary. Like Casper. Or a dog. In fact, the story should actually be about Lassie. But Lassie should maybe be a Leprechaun who grants wishes to orphans. And why aren’t there any orphans in this thing, anyway? Or dragons? Everyone knows that dragons sell. Or maybe not. But for sure the main character should have a scar on his forehead. But not a lightning bolt. That’s too on-the-nose.
Get the picture?
This happens more often with movies than with publishing, but it happens more the more money is involved.
And no matter how this event occurs, I have a tried-and-true method for dealing with such "contributions." First, I calmly and sincerely thank the person for his ideas, then ask him to explain them to me. I have found that in the majority of circumstances the ideas, if not completely helpful, contain a kernel of truth that will end up improving the story. If the story exec thinks the magicians should be more like dogs, it may be because the "rules" of the fantasy have not been clearly set forth (more on this below), whereas the "rules" by which dogs live are simple and easy to understand. Message taken: clarify your magic system. And for bringing that to my attention, I thank (sincerely!) the story exec.
Occasionally, the person making such remarks will not be able to explain why he holds this point of view. In that case, I thank him (always thank people!) for his comments, then state something along the lines of "While I see where you’re going with the dog idea -- and if that’s the way we all decide to go, then I can definitely work with that -- I worry that it might change the novel/screenplay/story/haiku into something different...something that loses the very qualities you all loved enough to get together in this room to talk about."
Usually this ends with the story remaining unchanged, and a story editor or creative exec who is now my friend because I just acknowledged that his idea had merit in front of his peers and bosses.
It pays to have friends. Compromise is a large part of writing for a large audience. Even Charles Dickens responded to readers’ suggestions when doing serial publications of his books.
Can we do any less?
6) Constantly improve...but don’t overstudy.
Writing is one of the best pastimes in the world. It can be done virtually anywhere. Give me a piece of charcoal and a light surface and I am good to go. It can also be done for the entirety of one’s life -- unlike, say, hockey or Ultimate Fighting, which tend to get much harder once you hit eighty or ninety.
It is also wonderful because you can constantly improve. No matter how accomplished, no matter how many publications you have under your belt, you can always learn something new. But that learning should not ever take the place of actually doing.
I was a missionary in Paraguay for two years. At one point during my service, I was in charge of giving training sessions to large groups of missionaries. This usually meant a three-hour torture session comprised of reading dry excerpts of manuals that most of us had already memorized. I decided to be different. I decided to be interesting. I decided to put on a show!
And did I ever! Every single missionary in the audience agreed it was one of the best training sessions they had ever had.
Then I spoke to the Mission President. He barely said anything about what I had perceived as a stunning success and quite possibly an evolutionary leap in the way church training sessions could be taught.
Finally, after talking to me about the missionaries in my care, the idiosyncrasies of the area I was working in, and sundry other items, he got around to his opinion of the training session. It was short:
"Did it ever occur to you that we have boring meetings for a reason? Did it ever occur to you that maybe we want them having more fun in the work than in the training?"
Though I do think that there is some room for a bit of fun in most things, the point was well-taken, and applies extremely well to writing. I have noted many writers who started off "hot" -- the next big thing in fantasy, or sci-fi, or horror. They had a book or two hit the bestseller lists.
Then something happened.
They started being (gasp!) guest speakers at various symposia. They started lecturing on how to write.
And they forgot to actually keep writing. Or, at best, writing became their second form of amusement instead of their primary form of expression.
Similarly, we as writers must always improve ourselves. But we must not be sucked into the trap of "constant improvement, minimal accomplishment." Read a book on characterization, fine. But then apply it immediately by writing a novel in which you have as a secondary goal (the first should always be to tell a good story) that you will write your best, most complex, interesting, three-dimensional characters.
Don’t miss the forest for the trees. And don’t miss the writing for the smug satisfaction that comes with just "learning" something.
7) Be clear.
This is something that is both very easy sounding and extremely difficult.
It is especially difficult in the realm of fantasy and science fiction, as well as other genre writing like horror or supernatural works. People read fiction to be transported to another place, to give them some experience that they would not otherwise have. The reader of a work of fiction must always and automatically "suspend disbelief" whenever reading: he must put away what he knows to be "true" in order to immerse himself in the "reality" of the story. This is why details can sink or save a book: too many things that don’t ring true, and the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief is undermined. The reader stops being an active participant in the book’s adventures, and turns instead into a critic, a scientist, an observer looking for what is wrong rather than enjoying what may be right.
And the idea of "suspension of disbelief" is nowhere more crucial than when writing genre works. In addition to the first layer of suspension (the fact that the reader is not really participating in the fictional adventures of the book’s protagonists and antagonists), there is another layer of disbelief that must be dealt with: the question of magic. Of alien technologies. Of ghosts and specters. These "make believe" aspects of genre writing present a special problem, as they inherently inhibit the reader’s ability to put aside the "real" in favor of the "read."
The best way to deal with this problem is a facet of the critical characteristic of clarity. The best genre work always takes place in fully realized "worlds" with clear, easily-understood (or at least fairly easily-understood) "rules." The presence of such rules can mean a fantasy windfall. Their absence can mean disaster.
One example of this is the blockbuster hit The Sixth Sense, one of the top-grossing suspense/supernatural thriller movies of all time. The rules are set up very early on in the movie: the movie’s young protagonist can see ghosts. The ghosts do not know they are dead. He can help them "move on" by finding out what unfinished business it is that they are remaining to deal with. These simple rules set the scene for both an engaging ghost story and one of the greatest surprise endings in modern cinematic history. And the surprise is complete and utterly earned because it follows the rules.
Another example of literary rule-making is in The Lord of the Rings saga. There, Tolkien draws upon a much wider palette in order to paint an epic portrait of an entire world at war. Unlike The Sixth Sense, which is an intimate, almost claustrophobic movie, The Lord of the Rings follows dozens of characters throughout the various landscapes of Middle Earth. The magic use is prolific and varied. But still, there are rules, and they are scrupulously adhered to. Elves have a natural inclination toward and protective sense over all things of nature. Dwarves prefer to be underground. Gandalf the Gray is quite a different person than Gandalf the White. Each has set characteristics, set attributes, and these are as unchanging as the DNA of any real human being.
A final example, if I may be permitted, is my book Strangers. These are the rules: a family wakes up and finds out that they have been sealed in their home by a killer intent on torturing them to death. Now there's more to the story, of course, but the basic rule is that they're confined to their home. There's no way out, no way to contact others. It's a simple concept, and the simplicity is largely what sells it.
Clarity is key in all fiction, but critical in genre work. A muddled magic system, an alien technology that is capable of some things one moment then incapable the next, a ghost that has muddled capabilities...these can be the genesis of confusion in the reader. And confused readers signal the death knell for a story.
8) Be interesting. And interested.
Back to the story about my screenplay. I was asked to come in and talk to the executives about the movie. I appeared as requested, and since it was cold I wore a jacket. This particular jacket had "Black Belt Club" embroidered on it. One of the executives noticed it and demanded "What does THAT mean?"
I told him it meant I was a black belt. (This is true. I also crochet. 'Cause that's how I roll.)
He gave me a five minute lecture about how karate was voodoo.
I asked -- very good-naturedly -- if he would like a demonstration.
He -- very good-naturedly -- tried to punch me.
I -- still all in good humor -- carefully put him face-down on the conference table.
Then I let him up.
And we had a two hour discussion about karate. Nary a word was spoken about my screenplay, but the papers for the script were in the mail less than a week later.
This is not advice to attack potential publishers or purchasers. But it does highlight a very real fact: given the choice between two excellent writers, publishers and other people involved in purchasing your work will choose the more interesting and interested one. Because of the pervasive nature of today’s media, a writer must (if he wishes to become a famous writer, as opposed to someone who writes for an audience of one) be prepared to be more than just a wordsmith. He must be a friend, an intimate, and someone that others can feel connected to and interested in.
Due to the incredible sums of money at stake whenever a publishing house is releasing "the next big thing" or a production company is backing a tentpole movie, the writer is no longer able to be the lone hermit in front of a computer. He must be prepared to be interviewed, to do book signings, to do lectures, and generally speaking to be poked and prodded like a veal cow about to take its last walk down the chute.
Not only that, but the writer must be aware that things like "privacy" and "one’s own opinions" have largely gone the way of the eight-track cassette: people have heard of them, but hardly anyone uses them or grants them any kind of importance. Being writers, you will be writing on the internet, where everything you say and do becomes words to haunt you for the rest of your life. Being writers, you will be available for television and radio interviews where your image and your thoughts are frozen in time.
Being a writer, you must prepare yourself for the fact that you must be more than just a writer. You must be a character. There are the occasional exceptions (J.D. Salinger has not, to my knowledge, appeared on The Today Show recently). But for the most part "the real you" may not be enough -- particularly if "the real you" is shy and unassuming.
You are a writer. And if you want to be a successful one, you must also be a personality.
9) Be prepared to be part of a big game hunt. And you’re not the hunter.
Some time ago I published a book called Billy: Messenger of Powers. The book was a young adult fantasy, full of adventure, with settings that ranged from a normal high school, to an asteroid in outer space inhabited by a very irritable space scorpion, to the secret undersea living quarters of a mermaid, to the bowels of the earth itself. I wrote it as a present to my wife, who loved Harry Potter and had been asking me for years to write something in that vein -- particularly since most of the work I had been doing was in the horror genre and she really wanted me to write something where the main point wasn’t someone trying to escape being "whacked" in some interesting way.
I wrote Billy, and had a blast. It was almost immediately picked up for publication by a small press, but I retained the rights to the e-versions and the audiobook version. In advance of the publication, I designed and put up a website, and with a marketing budget of about $200 I began my campaign. I sent out press releases, put bumper stickers on cars, stuck business cards in people’s doors...any way I could get the word out.
It seemed to work. Within a few months, the website (without the book being published yet) had already had over 250,000 hits. Then I published the book in e-format with amazon.com and smashwords.com. On amazon.com, the book quickly moved up several of the bestseller lists in the children’s literature fields. On smashwords.com, it shot to the top of the "Highest Reviewed" list, and was also one of the best-sellers in the Young Adult and Children’s books sections.
And then, out of nowhere, negative reviews popped up on Amazon next to every one of my books. I use the term "review" loosely: they were more attacks on my person, claiming that the positive feedback that had been garnered was the result of my having "sock puppet" identities that I used to boost my ratings. The person threatened to have Amazon look up the IP addresses of the positive reviews to verify they all came from me.
Apparently, this person made good on his promise. Because soon thereafter Amazon investigated...and the negative "reviews" were (all but one) suddenly withdrawn. This was not the end, however. A few days later I received an email from a fan who had become a friend, notifying me that a "review" with strikingly similar vitriolic verbiage had surfaced elsewhere on the 'net.
I had the unpleasant feeling of knowing that I now had an enemy -- one who was cowardly, who attacked in secret and without warning, and who apparently didn’t like something about me. Perhaps it was my face (I have a face made for radio and burlap sacks of the heavy-duty variety). Perhaps it was that my shoes were screwed on too tight. Maybe (just perhaps) it was because I was selling more books than this person.
For whatever reason, though, I had a new sensation: a bullseye on my forehead and a sign stuck to my back that said "public person...attack at your convenience."
When you enter the world of writing, you are entering a world that is full of wonderful, generous, intelligent people. But, like any fantasy setting, there is always a troll or two hunching in the background, hoping to take a bite out of you at any opportunity.
10) You cannot fail...
... if you don’t give up.
As stated, I sold my first story at 15. Between that and my second sale, I accumulated well over 1,000 pages of rejections. Contrary to myth, none of them were nasty (though a few were a bit brusque).
But they all boiled down to the same thing: "No thanks."
Thankfully, my high school dating life had prepared me for rejection. But still, when adding the one thousand dating rejections to the one thousand writing rejections...well...it started to add up. It started to weigh.
In between all the rejections, I also received several "offers" that I did not think were right for me. Either the money was wrong, or the terms were bad, or I just got a lousy feeling from the person offering to make me rich and famous. But ultimately I endured a 20-year dry spell.
And kept on writing.
And this, then, is the secret to success. In finance, in love. In the sacred, in the mundane. In life...in writing. You must endure to the end. You must write until your fingers bleed, and then write some more. The only failed writer is the writer who has put a cap on his pen, who has turned off her laptop.
The only failed writer...is a person who no longer writes.
It might take decades to achieve your goals. Perhaps even longer. But one thing is certain: a writer writes. There is no other criteria, no other requirement. A person who writes is a writer. A writer who persists is a person who is preparing for success.
And those who prepare for success are those who most often find themselves ready for it when it comes.