“Top Ten Tuesdays” — Please Welcome Guest Blogger Carol Tice

Welcome to our new feature, Top Ten Tuesdays, a series of guest blogs by winners of the “Top Ten Blogs for Writers” contest hosted at Writetodone.com

The Upside of Selling Out

By Carol Tice, of Make a Living Writing

Back before I was a freelance writer, I was a songwriter, when I lived in L.A. I worked a day job as a legal secretary to support my dream of being a rock’n’roll star.

I knew some other songwriters and musicians who didn’t have a day job — to support their careers, they played Top 40 tunes in casinos 40 hours a week.

In other words, they were sellouts.

I wasn’t about to sully my creativity by playing old Foghat tunes while people ate free shrimp and played blackjack at 10 a.m.! That was like a living death, my bandmates and I sneered. I was better than that.

Bet you can guess the end of this story. I eventually got tired of starving and hanging around smoky clubs at 2 a.m. I discovered the world of freelance writing, where I could get paid a bit per article, instead of having to pay to four-wall a hall to play a gig. I’m not a songwriter anymore.

But some of those Top-40 players I knew ended up playing in great bands, or being killer professional studio musicians. They knew something I didn’t: Anything that lets you practice what you want to be in a professionalal setting helps you become it.

The advantages of selling out

I flash back on my rock’n’roll days when I meet would-be novelists who can’t seem to get their book written. Many are also too good to sully their hands with writing an article or Web content for a business.

“I’m a creative writer!” they tell me. “I couldn’t work on — gasp — an assignment someone else gives me!”

From personal experience, I’m telling you that’s the wrong attitude to take toward your writing aspirations.

Here are some of the many advantages of “selling out” — taking some paid writing work while you work on that novel:

You learn discipline. If I had a dime for every novelist that can’t quite get around to actually writing, I could retire right now. This happens partly because there’s no accountability in writing that first novel — no editor standing over you expecting pages by the end of the week. When you write freelance, you get introduced to the wonderful world of meeting deadlines. You can take this skill back and apply it to your novel, setting deadlines with yourself for when chapters are “due.”

You get feedback. Working with editors can be a revelation. They know things about how to make articles compelling, and they share those tips with you, free! You start learning how to make your work better, and better, and better. Then, you can go home and apply what you’ve learned to your novel.

You get to play with words more. If you spend some of your time writing for pay, you’ll simply spend more time writing. More writing is better than less writing when you’re looking to hone your craft.

It builds your writer cred. Ever notice how much easier it seems to be for longtime journalists to make the leap to being a novelist? The fact that they’ve been working with words professional for years seems to impress many publishers.

You meet people. Circulating in the writing world as a freelancer, you have the chance to meet people who could help you get published. Obviously, I didn’t meet many record producers at my secretary job. But my writer friend Candace Dempsey kept plugging away at the freelance articles over the years…until one day, at a networking event for writers, she told another writer about why she was the perfect person to write a true-crime book about the Amanda Knox murder case in Italy. She knew Italy well — she’d been writing and blogging about it for years. That writer handed her his agent’s phone number. Her book, Murder in Italy, came out last year.

You avoid the soul-killing “day job.” Many writers have the equivalent of my secretary job — a thing they do to pay the bills while they write nights and weekends. If you can avoid needing a day job because you can earn from writing, that puts more flexibility into your schedule and hopefully cuts you more time for writing your own projects.

You build your fan base. I’m constantly blown away by how many people call me up to pitch me a story idea — because they know me from a writing gig I had five or more years ago. People do read and follow bylines. So freelance writing can grow you a built-in audience of people who might take an interest if you put out a novel, a trait publishers seem to hold in high esteem these days.

It builds your self-confidence. There’s no ego boost like seeing your name in print. Published work is a fear-slayer that kills the little voice in your head that says, “Maybe I’m just not a good writer.” But the wait to see your name on the cover of that novel can be long. Feeding your ego along the way with the occasional magazine article can keep your courage up.

There’s a myth that novelists are pure-art types who never sully their hands with workaday writing. Let me just puncture that balloon now. Longtime newspaperman Mark Twain wasn’t above it, nor was Salman Rushdie, who wrote copy for Ogilvy & Mather. The road to novel success is often paved with freelance articles.

Carol Tice helps freelance writers grow their income at the Make a Living Writing blog, which was recently named one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers. Her upcoming Webinar is How to Break In and Earn Big as a Freelance Writer.

Note from Larry: Amen to that.  This blog led to my new book, and freelance writing led to my novels and screenplays.  And then back again.  Now they co-exist, and I actually get paid, and well, for the articles and projects I sell and write on assignment.  I encourage you to discover Carol’s site, it’s a gold mine.

17 Comments

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17 Responses to “Top Ten Tuesdays” — Please Welcome Guest Blogger Carol Tice

  1. Great post! I did what I called “hack writing” – churning out a set number of articles and stories every month – for five years very early in my pursuit of writing. I didn’t produce too much of value during those years, but I learned some great habits: how to work under deadlines, how to instill self-discipline, and how to go to inspiration instead of making it come to me.

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  3. AWESOME.

    Thanks for bursting that balloon. Keep on bursting it and blowing our minds Carol. 🙂

  4. Hi Carol, so true that writing begets writing begets better writing… Also, reading like a writer is another way of honing the craft. I have stopped reading for pleasure years ago. It has its downside but I’m learning.

    Thanks for a great post.

  5. Great advice. Ten years ago I was not making much headway in fiction. I had an agent but he couldn’t sell my novel. So I turned to nonfiction articles as a way to earn money, get publishing credits, and hone my craft. Two nonfiction books and 800 articles later, I have a new novel coming out in August and a movie made from one of my scripts set for release in July.

    The list of journalists turned novelists is very long. Ernest Hemingway, Michael Connelly, Julie Smith, and on and on.

    There is no better training for a writer than a deadline and a maximum word count.

    Chuck Hustmyre

  6. @Chuck – “There is no better training for a writer than a deadline and a maximum word count.”

    Took the words right out of my mouth.

    @Carol – Great article! Personally, I started out dreaming of being a novelist (as most writers do) and ended up a marketing writer. In the end, I’m just happy to make a living as a writer, no matter what I’m doing.

    I’m coming full circle now — I started my novel last September, and I’m into my second draft. Guess I want to see if I can have my cake and eat it too…

    ~Graham

  7. I totally agree with this. I wrote and published my first few novels while I had a day job, but once I had my son, I didn’t have the time or the mental wattage to maintain. So I took on ghostwriting and other freelance stuff, so I could write full time and stay at home. It’s not easy, but I think it’s helping me develop an “entrepreneur’s mentality” as well… which I also think is crucial to becoming a successful fiction writer.

    Great stuff! I will definitely be reading “Make a Living Writing” on a regular basis! 🙂

  8. Hi all —

    Thanks for adding these great stories of how paid gigs helped your book writing.

    @Chuck — GREAT story! Thanks for sharing it.

  9. Absolutely, Carol. If you want to make your living as a writer, figure out how to get paid to write. I learned an enormous amount during my years as a tech writer and editor—strong, clean, simple language, addressing your reader’s needs, why there’s no point in being afraid of a page, and (big one) what happens to a writer who thinks they’re too smart or talented for their audience.

    I also learned it’s a whole lot worse to be an unemployed novelist than a well-paid nonfiction professional. I owe my home to nonfiction.

  10. Oh, yes, please sell out.

    I’ve been a technical writer for over 20 years. That is definitely getting paid to write — against deadlines. No, it wasn’t fiction (most of it was factual).

    When I decided to write fiction, I wrote the first novel and published it (free) on StoriesOnline.net. Got it (somewhat) edited and released a chapter a week just after midnight EST so it was available Saturday. I lost 4 editors along the way, so ended up doing my own reviews and edits on each chapter just before I released it.

    In the meantime, I was still on my tech-writer day job and was writing the second novel in the series. When the first novel was done serializing, the first chapter of the second popped up on SOL the next week.

    This went on through a total of 4 novels and almost a million words over about 1-1/2 years. Missed only one self-imposed deadline and that was by a half-day.

    No shame in non-fiction, folks. My tech writer experience gave me no back-off on using the tools, formatting, grammar, sentence structure, et. al. Now I “just” have to learn enough actual Craft to re-write those 4 novels.

  11. Great story of how the discipline instilled from tech writing drove your novel publication schedule, Bruce!

  12. Curtis

    The mantra back-in-the-day was, “never do work for hire.” Right. I was glad when my competition didn’t. I won’t bore you with the list of trips work for hire funded or the banked dollars.

  13. Ha! I remember that old saw, Curtis. Now I do SO much work for hire it’s amazing. And great-paying, too…

  14. Unfortunately I’m too far along in my career to quit and start writing for hire. My family has become accustom to the housing, food, schools etc that the ‘real’ job affords.

    So selling out, per se, is not a concern. The getting up at 4, or schlepping my laptop to soccer training, bowling league, etc to get more hours in while the kids do there thing has become ingrained to the point that they look at me strange if I *don’t* take it with me. And while the deadlines are self-imposed, they are no-less important. February is ‘final prep of latest WIP and March is research next. April is writing it. (I’m amazed that I can write 100k words in a month, with a full time job, but I can only do it because I follow a lot of the tips on this website.)

    I actually wish I COULD sell-out. I think I’d really enjoy that.

    Thanks for your post.

  15. Hi Tony —

    Well, I’m the sole support of a family of five on my freelance income, and I earn about 50 percent MORE than I did as a staffer…so don’t assume you couldn’t make it work on the freelance lifestyle!

  16. @Carol, I’ve got no doubt it’s possible. The transition wouldn’t be overnight though. I’ll continue to work on my novels at 4am and in the evenings for now.

  17. Carol,

    This was a much-needed encouragement. I especially loved your point about how long it takes to see your name in print for a novel, but how getting articles published along the way can sustain you.

    Thanks for the encouragement to sell out and start practicing professionally!

    Elise