National Novel Writing Month

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I don’t write novels, but this morning I got a message from the website Webucator asking me for my thoughts on National Novel Writing Month.In particular they wanted to know what it means to write for a living.  Regular readers will remember that I recently published a short ebook on the freelance writing career path called The Quick and Dirty Guide to Freelance Writing about how to attain that elusive dream of quitting your day job and working for yourself. So, perhaps, they wondered, I could share a few thoughts on how to write for a living.

  • What were your goals when you started writing?

Sometimes I feel like I didn’t choose to be a writer, but that writing chose me.I’d failed or been fired from every other job I’d tried over the years and writing was the only thing that I was ever good at. Part of the problem, of course, is that I have an almost adolescent rejection of authority and working on other people’s projects always seemed less fulfilling than working on my own things. I also have a predilection for exploration and adventure. Writing has given me an excuse to spend months at a time pursuing strange and unusual subjects and call it a career.  As I mention in the book, my first real assignment came after I’d dropped out of graduate school and enrolled in a clinical trial for the erectile dysfunction drug Levitra. I thought that it was hilarious that I was going to be stuck in a room with 30 other dudes on penis-poppers and decided to write to Nerve.com to see if they wanted a feature on the subject. They did, and a writing career was born.

  • What are your goals now?

At first it was good enough to see my name in a magazine or newspaper. Getting a byline was such a buzz that I would probably have done it for free. Now, however, the luster has worn off a bit and I’m a little more picky about what sorts of assignments I take.  A lot of publications don’t treat their writers very well. Boiler-plate contracts are often rigged against the writer and payment can take forever if the magazine is even a little bit disorganized.  So while I still love the work (i.e. having mini adventures in the world and then coming back home and telling people about it) I am much more savvy at making the work that I do build into larger things.

  • What pays the bills now?

After about six years of freelancing exclusively for magazines I started to diversify my revenue streams. I had a pretty substantial body of work that I controlled the rights to, so I started to poke and prod magazines and newspapers in foreign markets to see if they’d be interested in buying reprints. Some time around 2008 I made $$25,000 on reprinting one story in 15 different countries and I realized that secondary markets could be more lucrative than the initial assignment fee. I began looking for other ways to make money on my writing and compiled some of my best stories into a book called The Red Market. While the book didn’t become an out-of-the-box bestseller, it established me as a serious journalist in a way that simply having a byline in a magazines never could have. It also opened upmarket for paid speaking engagements. I started giving lectures around the United States and Europe on the subject of organ trafficking. I started looking at magazines as incubators more lucrative projects.  Now I only write stories in magazines if I plan to build it into something bigger. My third book A Death on Diamond Mountain, started out as a story in Playboy.  

  • Assuming writing doesn’t pay the bills, what motivates you to keep writing?

At this point writing absolutely does pay the bills.

  • And optionally, what advice would you give young authors hoping to make a career out of writing?

It’s counterintuitive, but the most important thing you can do as a writer is say “No” to assignments. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of believing that simply having a byline is payment enough. This sort of mindset will doom any aspirations that you might have to make writing a living. There are a lot of bad deals out there, and if you don’t stand up for your work then why should you expect someone else to do it for you?  Treat your writing career as a business negotiate every deal you have with an eye to building the career that you want.

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