It’s a tough being a writer, and even tougher if you’re hoping to earn a living from words. Long gone are the days of glossy magazines and book publishers paying writers enough to sustain some modest (perhaps the optimum word here is meager?) living. Yet the dream still exists—writers attempt the illusive “full-time” writer gig. Books, journalism, maybe screenwriting? There are many paths one might choose to take, and you’ll be wise to be open to “all of the above” to cobble together income. Being a writer is based entirely on your own demands for the craft. Before anything else, you should ask yourself what you want out of being a paid writer. The more goals and demands you place, the longer the challenge to get that done.
That being said, as someone that gave it a shot and had it work out, I’m here to say that being paid to write is equal parts daunting and delightful. Deadlines are constant, and the pressure to produce something of quality will forever be the chip that keeps your ego from going wild. Burnout is almost always just over the horizon; you may often find being a paid writer is like having an intense amount of homework every day, without fail. You’ll often be earning as a freelancer, which means chasing down every venue and company you’ve written for. And then there’s the creativity part—you’ll discover that the more you write the harder it is to pitch pieces, books, projects, scripts that meet your constantly shifting standards. The better you get, the more burned out you tend to get.
So then how do you avoid burnout? How do you become a paid writer? What’s the trick to making it work and potentially making it “full time?” Here are six helpful tips moving forward.
Figure out what scares you the most.
If you’re looking to write and continue writing—especially in the suspense and thriller space—you’re going to want to tap into the proverbial creative well from a very vulnerable place. Rather than writing what you think everyone wants to read, or even whatever might be trendy at the time, go back to the beginning. The real beginning. Fear is one of our most basic and influential emotions. It often corners us when we’re sad, consuming us when we’re breathless. What scares you will undeniably become the source of not only one project, but perhaps an entire career. Afraid of animals? Write the next Cujo. Afraid of being alone? Try writing a claustrophobic story of being trapped somewhere. Afraid of COVID-19, viruses, or germs? Write a pandemic novel. It’s important to identify the heart of your fear so that you can tap into it as much as you like. Plus, the more you write about it, the more you’ll carve out an identity surrounding that fear. It grows to inform every aspect of your work.
Revision is your greatest weapon.
I learned this the hard way. I’ve always been a fast writer, capable of knocking out an article in an hour, a book in a week. My novel, My Pet Serial Killer took me two weeks. When you’re a young writer, it is easy to get used to abusing your strengths. I started to fixate on this speed writing skill, much to the detriment of my ability to see past the current project. You turn skills and strengths into pitfalls. I never revised, much less edited except for as I wrote the first (and only) draft.
These days, I live in a book project for as long as I want, knowing well that it will be the only time it’s truly mine to enjoy (and suffer over). I revise at least three times, meaning three complete rewrites, before going in for that line edit. Revision of a piece that might already be strong only makes it stronger. Be patient with the project (and yourself). Revise your work to the point where comparing the revision to the first draft is almost night and day.
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Being a paid writer means deadlines and often quick turnarounds. Still, find and carve out time for at least a single revision. It’s all about balance. And remember, the stronger the writing, the more likely you’ll find more work.
Join communities like the Horror Writers Association, the Authors Guild, and Study Hall.
Starting out, it’ll feel like navigating a wasteland in search of water and food. You can only get so far scouring Twitter or using Google to search out venues, publishers, etc. This is where the importance of community and networking comes in. Joining a community can give you the jolt you need to step up, meet other writers, and learn how to navigate the publications. You’ll make countless discoveries, find new opportunities, and more. When joining these communities, everyone is there for the same agenda: to network and find work. When you join a literary community that’s transparent about its motives, you’ll be able to move forward without worrying about being taken advantage of.
Use active scenes over literary pontification.
If you’re aiming to write stories and/or novels of suspense and mystery, you’re going to want to get used to stepping away from what you might call “literary pontification.” Instead of a character musing for multiple paragraphs, you’re going to want to build scenes of compelling dialog and action, whole chapters that become more like what you’d see in a film. Think about it this way, every page should keep the reader compelled and turning those pages. To do so, you have to adhere to active not passive events, situations, and drama. There’s a time and place for language and exploring a feeling, but when it’s building suspense, it’s about anchoring the story to actions rather than nuance.
Wear your influences on your sleeve.
I don’t know why so many writers try to hide their influences in their work. Really, as a writer looking to pave their way into consistently paid work, being aware and prideful of the authors and stories that influenced you acts as a barometer and checklist for prospective readers. Think–if someone loves the work of Jeff VanderMeer and you advocate cli-fi in your work, it’ll potentially attract other readers and devotees of cli-fi.
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The monster is the metaphor.
There’s nothing more suspenseful than a memorable antagonist. Be it horror, suspense, or mystery, there’s often a monster at the so-called end of the book. And with good reason. We need an antithesis to not only help increase the suspense, but to also act as a visible and concrete thing that the writer can control and the reader can understand and identify as the source of the problem. The problem doesn’t need to be murder, either. Just look at the film Get Out—the monster becomes a brutal sort of racism, but still has its visual component of the odd, cold-hearted affluent family peddling their body-switching machinations. By giving the conflict and the central themes a tangible monster, you’ll be able to carry the reader through to the end of the story.
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Featured image: RetroSupply/Unsplash.