What's the Point of Writing Fiction, If It Doesn't Pay the Bills?

If you're trying to make a living as a fiction writer, I certainly know a great many self-published writers who are able to do that. Literary writers, or even commercial writers like me, have a tougher time making a solid income from our fiction.
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A few days ago, Bob Clary, the Marketing Manager at Webucator, asked if I'd be interested in writing a blog post about what keeps me writing fiction, and novels in particular, in honor of National Novel Writing Month. That led me to think about how I started writing fiction long before NaNoWriMo existed, and how the idea of writing an entire novel in a month seemed ludicrous to me when I first heard about it.

Now, though, I'm a fan. Why? Because NaNoWriMo gives writers a community as well as a deadline, and those are two key motivators when you want to complete a novel.

It took me over 25 years to publish my first novel. Despite having an agent who believed in me, I wrote many novels that were rejected before I finally self-published my favorite out of some combination of desperation and determination. I found the Indie publishing world to be an exciting and generous place and was prepared to do it again, especially when I realized I could make a little money that way. However, nanoseconds later, my agent called to say that he'd sold my newest manuscript to an editor at Penguin Random House.

I have now published two novels with Penguin and have a third scheduled to launch in April 2015, with a contract for a fourth book right on the heels of that one. I'm happy to share my experiences with other writers out there who might be dreaming of one day seeing their own books in print--especially those of you taking on the challenge of writing a draft in November. Here are my answers to Bob's questions:

What were your goals when you started writing?

When I first began writing fiction, I had no goals beyond entertaining myself. Seriously! I was a biology major on my way to medical school (or so I thought) and I needed an elective, so I took creative writing. I was immediately hooked, and all I wanted to do with my spare time after that was write fiction. I wrote short stories and tried to get them published in literary journals. I succeeded a few times, but never, ever, did I imagine making money from my fiction. Nor did I think I had it in me to write an entire novel. I had never even met a novelist at that point in my life. A year after graduating from college, however, I decided to go back to graduate school for a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. There I met actual living, breathing, fiction writers who not only wrote novels, but sold them! Those mentors inspired me to do the same.

What are your goals now?

The nice thing about being a novelist is that it's not a limited career -- we're not ballerinas or ball players who will age out of the game. My goals as a writer now are simply to keep writing better books. I hope my novels will make readers laugh, cry, think, and come away with fresh perspectives. I don't ever consider money when I'm actually in the process of writing fiction. It's still very weird to me that someone is willing to pay me to make up stories!

What pays the bills now?

I'm extremely lucky, in that I have a husband whose job provides us with a steady income and health insurance. I'm an equal contributor to the household finances on an annual basis, but because I work as a freelance writer, my income is sporadic. Some months we're flush, while others are pretty tight if a client doesn't pay on time. I would say that, at this point, writing fiction provides me with about half of the income I need for our household to stay afloat. (Bear in mind that we have five children, with one still left to put through college.)

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

I find nothing more satisfying than inhabiting a world that I create, inhabited by complex characters whose conflicts I can make bigger or smaller as I choose. I have a rich emotional life both on and off the page. I wouldn't want it any other way. I think I would find it impossible to stop writing.

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

That depends on what you mean by "career." If it's money you're after, then you can earn a good salary as a writer if you go after diverse jobs, as I do, and don't mind thinking of yourself as a technician who is paid by the hour or by the job. For instance, in a single month I might be working on a novel, a magazine article, a college marketing brochure, and a ghost-written memoir for a celebrity.

If you're trying to make a living as a fiction writer, I certainly know a great many self-published writers who are able to do that -- typically the ones who write mysteries or romances in a series. Literary writers, or even commercial writers like me, have a tougher time making a solid income from our fiction. Do whatever it takes to support your fiction writing habit, whether that means working on your fiction during intensive weekend retreats, in the evenings while holding down a full-time job, or through arranging part-time work and living more frugally so that you can devote half of every working day to writing fiction. Follow your passion. Write what intrigues and entertains you, and take every opportunity that comes your way, whether that's an editor's rejection letter that includes suggestions for revisions, or a contest that might earn you a place in a magazine and recognition by an agent. The only sure way you will not succeed as a writer is if you give up.

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