The Nine Business Mantras of A Cranky Writer

So, here’s the thing: I spend the vast majority of my daylight hours talking to aspiring writers about what they’d like to achieve and how they can get there. This is one of the things that comes with the territory when you work at a place like Queensland Writers Centre, and it’s pretty sweet gig. You get to meet up-and-coming writers as they’re getting their shit together and help them along the way; you get to meet older, established writers and glean what you can from their experience. You get to talk to the absolutely raw rookies, the people who have just decided I want to be a writer and want to know what they should do next.

When I answer questions at work, I’m polite and enthusiastic and eager to give you the best answer I can. I do that ’cause that’s what work-Peter does.

This post isn’t written by the guy that’s politely answers your queries if you call us at the centre. No, this post is written by the guy who actually does the hard yards of sitting down and writing stuff; the grumpy-as-shit professional who spends the other half of the day trying to earn some extra cash out of his writing.

“Look,” the cranky writer snarls, “this writing shit isn’t that difficult. I can tell you everything you need to know with nine fucking rules. Just read those and go away; I’ve got a deadline looming.”

If you ask me about writing outside of work, and I’m inclined to help you, odds are the cranky writer is whose advice you’re going to get. They’re a list of mantras I find myself muttering during the particularly bad days at work, or when people who are close friends ask about writing.

Consider them rules to live by, if you’re planning on being writer who wants to earn money from their work.

MANTRA ONE: I WILL TREAT MY FUCKING BUSINESS LIKE A BUSINESS

Somewhere along the line we convinced ourselves that publishing was a business and writing was a calling, which excused aspiring writers from ever having to put a moment’s thought into how they should handle their careers. It’s like we bought into the idea that publishers and agents handled all the business shit, while writers traipsed along sunlit meadows waiting for the muse to bequeath genius upon them.

Fuck that shit.

Writing is a business. The number of people I’ve seen make expensive fucking mistakes because they don’t realise that is staggering. It never occurs to them that they should read their contracts, let alone negotiate the terms on a short story or article; or they mistake getting published for the goal, instead of building a sustainable career.

The truth is this: if you’re trying to be a writer and you’re trying to get paid for your work, you are running a fucking business. Treat that with the respect it deserves.

MANTRA TWO: I WILL HAVE A FUCKING PLAN

Most people, when they start a small business, put together a business plan that outlines useful stuff like why they’re starting this business, how they’re going to make money with the business, and what they expect to happen in the future. It helps them make decisions and allocated limited resources, can provide day-to-day guidance about what’s important, and generally helps keep things focused.

I can’t blame people for shying away from planning. I mean, how many of us have heard the following when we say “I’m a writer?”

  • “There’s no money in writing.”
  • “But what’s your real job?”
  • “Have you published anything I might have heard of?”
  • “You should go write something like Harry Potter and make millions!”
  • “There are only three people making their living from writing in Australia.”

The rhetoric around writing seems to suggest that your business plan for becoming a full-time writer is rather like winning the lottery – it’s so rare that it just doesn’t happen. This applies even among published writers – when I was doing a creative writing degree at university, the business plan I inherited from the other professionals in my faculty was write a novel, win the Vogel prize, get a teaching gig once your PhD is finished.

Here’s the thing: if there are only three people making a full-time living out of their writing in Australia, I know them all. Plus the handful of extras. And that’s just among the writers who work in SF.

People do make a living out of this writing thing, which means you can go out and figure out HOW they’re making a living and put together a plan that suits your goals and temperament. It may be more work than you want. It may involve taking a close look at your dream and figuring out how realistic it is. It may even teach you that you don’t fucking want to write full-time (trust me, you don’t; I’ve done it before, and I much prefer the part-time writer life).

Writers tend to dream big and think small. We plan through to the end of our current project, figure we’ll work out everything after that. Very rarely do I talk to people who are thinking five, ten years ahead. Fewer still have long-term dreams like I’d like to quit my job and write with a feasible plan behind them.

Don’t be that writer. Have a fucking plan. If you’re among the handful of writers who have never read Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife, go track down a copy. It will lead you through the planning side of things far better than I can in a blog post, and give your writing career energy you never knew you had.

MANTRA THREE: I WILL KNOW WHAT I AM FUCKING SELLING

If you go into writing novels and short-stories without a basic understanding of copyright, how it works, and how writers make their income from carving up the permissions associated with their works, then you’re in trouble.

If you’re looking at the rise of ebooks and thinking “yeah, I’d like to experiment with that” rather than looking at the freely available data about how people are making substantial incomes with ebooks, then you’re in trouble.

If you’re a writer of any type, and you’ve never looked into some of the ways of making money out of being a writer rather than your work itself, then you’re missing out on a slice of income.

Once you start treating your business like a fucking business and focus on the plan, then next thing to look at is how you make money. The traditional ways, the new ways, and the ways you’ve never even thought about ’cause the opportunities weren’t there.

I’ve worked for business that didn’t know what they were selling before. They knew what they were doing, but not where the income came from. And they muddled along for a while, then…well, some died, some are still muddling along – but the lack of focus hurts them ’cause their attention is never focused where it needs to be.

You need to know what you’re selling because sooner or later you’re going to need to make hard decisions. Do I write a short story or work on a novel? Do I work on my novel, or prepare this course that will earn me a couple of hundred bucks? Having a real sense of where your money is coming from helps you decide how to allocate your time.

MANTRA FOUR: I WILL TRACK MY FUCKING RIGHTS

This is related to point three, but deserves its own data-point simply because of how ridiculously fucking useful it is, yet no-one really does it. Track your damn rights.

Writers talk a lot about tracking submissions, knowing where you’ve submitted something and what the response was, but our attention tends to die off once the acceptance has come. The story or novel has done it’s job by then; we’ve been published, we’ve been paid.

Don’t be that kind of writer. Fire up excel, start a document where you track the rights of every story or novel or article you’ve sold. Have you sold first world English language rights? Write it down, along with the date when things revert. Did they take the audio rights? The ebook rights? Make a note of those too.

If you can’t figure out what rights a being taken from the contract, don’t sign the contract. Go back. Negotiate. It’s a business transaction, after all, and this is worth getting right.

It’s going to feel stupid when you’ve only got one short story published. It gets a lot less stupid when you’re thirty stories in, with a handful of novellas, and you’ve got emails asking if you’d be willing to sell the translation rights to one story to a small press in Serbia while an anthology editor is looking to reprint that story you wrote four years ago.

Sure, you could dig out your contracts, but having the one document makes life easier, and if you’re smart it can serve as a tool that lets you know when to reactivate a story (hey, look; audio rights to that one reverted last week. I should go send it to an audio market…).

MANTRA FIVE: I WILL RESPECT MY FUCKING AUDIENCE

You are not smarter than your audience. Your time is no more valuable. Your readers owe you nothing. If you don’t deliver, they are well within their rights to fuck off and let you bleat into the darkness.

When you write something, give it the attention and seriousness it deserves. When you are asked to write something, even if you find the topic faintly absurd, give it your best attention. If there are constraints based on time or topic or word-length, over-deliver as best you can based on the limitations.

The moment you take your audience for granted, you’ve lost them. At best, they’ll disappear. At worst, they’ll sit in the audience of your reading and daydream about carving up your face with the sharp end of a beer bottle.

Yes, that example is enormously specific. This is what happens when you trap the cranky writer in a room and subject him to people half-assing it as a reading.

MANTRA SIX: I WILL BACK UP MY FUCKING WORK

You do not back up your work enough. I don’t care who you are, it’s the truth. Every time you think your back-up system is impregnable, something will happen to remind you that there is still a hole there, somewhere, and you’ll find yourself losing data.

You don’t want to lose data. That data is stories and novels and articles. That data is the stuff you make your income from.

I’ve got a pretty good back-up system. It’s not perfect, ’cause no system is ever perfect; there are always holes, no matter how automated the process. I’ve learned that twice this year. First, back in March, when the combination of being on holidays one week and being on deadline the next let to my computer being disconnected from its usual back-up systems.

I plugged that hole. Made sure it’d never happen again.

Then I lost my USB on the way home from Write Club one week. Four hours of work gone, but they were four really productive hours. Several thousand words down the drain.

You do not back up your work enough. No-one ever does. But you want to minimize the losses when things do go wrong, so institute the most stringent back-ups you can and then do a little more.

MANTRA SEVEN: I WILL HONE MY FUCKING CRAFT AND BUSINESS SKILLS

I know fuck-all about writing, really. I’ve done okay with what little I know – a couple of novella, a shit-load of stories and poems, the bulk of my life spent working as a freelancer and contactor instead of going to an office (and when I broke that streak, it was to work on a games convention and the writer’s centre; not a bad deal).

But I still maintain that I know fuck-all about writing, ’cause I’m realistic enough to know that there’s always something new to learn.

I am always looking to improve my craft. I owe it to my readers to be a better writer than I was on my last project; I owe it to myself to run my business better than I did last year. My guiding principle is always I want to be better.

Always be learning, whether its through courses or books or just putting together a plan for figuring shit out. Get better at what you do. Admit that the skills that got you to this point aren’t always the same skills that will get you to the next level.

MANTRA EIGHT: I WILL GET MY SHIT DONE

I write my blog posts on the weekend. This seems ideal, but some weekends I’m sick and burnt out, which makes writing a week’s worth of blog posts much less fun than you’d think. It doesn’t matter. I’m the cranky writer. I will get my shit done.

Getting shit done is the basis of being a writer. I can’t post blog entries that aren’t written. I can’t sell stories that aren’t finished. I can’t make money on a book that isn’t finished and out there in the world.

It’s easy to get distracted from this. The business of writing will distract you with emails and opportunities and planning, all of which feels like work. The internet will be there, asking you to spend time. You will have a bad day. Your job will eat time like no-ones business.

It doesn’t matter. Get your shit done.

MANTRA NINE: I WILL GET MY FUCKING HUSTLE ON

When I’m in Cranky Writer mode, there is a line between “a writer” and “someone who writes.”

The writer hustles. They keep moving forward, like a shark. They line up projects. They think ahead. They’re in it for the long haul, aware that writing is a long-term game. They know how the things they’re doing now will connect to the things they want to do in five or ten years time.

They focus on the hustle, ’cause that’s what being a writer is all about. They may not be making a living from their writing, but they have a strategy that’s informed and workable. They look for ways to do new things with the work they’ve already done. They look for opportunities in things that have nothing to do with writing. They have a faintly manic gleam in their eye.

There are some damned fine writers who don’t hustle. It’s not a mandatory skill for writing well, but you learn to recognise it in the way a lot of full-time writers talk about building their careers.

If you want to be a Writer – a capital-W writer who actually makes income from their work – get your fucking hustle on. Give a damn about what you’re doing.

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