Ask Tania: What's the best way to work towards becoming a full-time author?

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Dear Tania,
What's the best way to work towards becoming a full-time author?

Hi Cathy,

I could write 1000 paragraphs on this! And even then, it would be part-way subjective and would fail to cover all the intricacies and variations and far-reaching tentacles.

Some of us need to work full-time jobs, some of us work part-time, and some of us have the luxury of all the time in the world. Some of us have small kids, older kids, grownup kids, no kids. Some of us are in marriages, some not, some in supportive relationships, some not. Some of us have self-belief and some of us don't. Each author's life situation and journey is unique, and so very many variables contribute to the acquisition (or not) of a full-time writing career.

I could also regale you with the myriad things you 'should' be doing, but honestly? ... other than the fact that each person has a unique life situation that must be navigated around, authorship is changing. Our online world is changing. The way we read books is changing. The way we write and publish is changing. And it's all changing so fast, I reckon by the time you read this, my 'advice' would be redundant.

So, I'm going to go back to brass tacks. I'm going to hand pluck the 'little things' that I've learned in almost 30 years in the writing industry (first magazines, then adult non-fiction, then children's). I reckon if you can resonate with the following stream of consciousness, you stand a good chance of securing full-time authorship.

Bolded entries are especially important. At the end of these points, I'm going to cover Self-Belief and The Flow--also especially important!

Here we go ...

  • great work sells; time spent honing your craft is never, ever wasted
  • practice, practice, practice--invest in your skills endlessly
  • never stop learning
  • know your market inside out; live in bookstores whether in person or online; watch what's being published, get to know publisher lists and the work of other creators
  • read read read, especially in the genre you want to write in
  • write what you love and what calls to you, even if the market doesn't agree
  • if you need to work at a full time job, write in your spare time, on weekends and holidays--pass up TV and socialising and all manner of deflections, to dedicate to your craft; this can be tough, but like anything in life, the sacrifices you make for writing are clearly indicative of how much do you want it
  • over time, find ways to downscale the full time work you do in terms of hours--then fill those hours with your writing and earning from your writing; over time, if you play it right and dedicate yourself, your writing hours will outweigh the full time work; if your current job would deem this impossible, look for other work
  • if you have small children, things will be tougher, of course, but they do grow up eventually; a famous author once told me that I shouldn't even think about being able to achieve an impactful 'career' until my kids were not only older, but had actually left home; so know that one day, you'll have your time (and in the meantime, dedicate what time you can)
  • always be curious, and always stretch yourself
  • think outside the square and try something new
  • learn the formula for storytelling and plot structure, then break all the rules 
  • avoid formulaic writing like the plague--surprise your reader
  • avoid prescriptive, expositional, predictable, over-written text; write intuitively and don't try to sound like a great writer; rather--BE one
  • use your own voice, not someone else's
  • avoid overly familiar, typical themes, especially in regard to picture books; if you simply must write about fairies and trucks, do it in an unexpected way
  • avoid didactic writing; if you must include messaging, make it barely perceptible, especially in picture books
  • never write for publishers or for perceived market gaps; YOU dictate what the market needs (with your fabulous new idea)
  • stop asking for critiques of your work; the more others dissect and opine, the faster your work loses authenticity, honesty and clarity; too many cooks DO spoil the broth
  • believe in yourself; have faith in your own intuition
  • if you do receive criticism, never take it personally, NEVER react badly to it, take what works (or doesn't), let go and move on
  • if you get a bad review or an assassination on your character, walk away, let it go, do not respond
  • a great idea is far more evocative to an editor or publisher than a perfectly-polished (over-worked) manuscript 
  • unique work, with a unique voice is highly sought after
  • luck does have a something to do with full-time authorship--but perhaps more than luck--rather being in the right place at the right time; put yourself in situations that increase this 'luck' (you'll find suggestions in this post!)
  • always, ALWAYS respond to people in a timely manner--by phone, email, in person; don't leave anyone waiting, even those you perceive 'unimportant'
  • always, ALWAYS treat people with respect
  • always, ALWAYS thank 
  • never look down on, dismiss or judge anyone regarding their work, presence or 'status' in the industry--not only is it mean, you never know who will be whom in five years' time
  • ergo, never burn bridges
  • excellence all the way--from your beautiful email signature to your carefully proofread manuscript submission
  • think twice before gossiping about or deriding colleagues; it's mean and our industry is small
  • kindness! generosity! maybe fairydust to some, but you better believe it works
  • the vast majority of authors (and illustrators) are smart, intuitive, generous and kind people--get to know them
  • give back
  • support and uplift your colleagues
  • don't look sideways at what anyone else is doing and what they're achieving--put your head down and focus on your own journey
  • don't be threatened by anyone else's success--feel genuine happiness for others, even if you don't particularly like their work--there is always enough room in this industry for everyone. Never blow out someone else's candle, because it won't make yours brighter.
  • real relationships are everything--get to know people--you may well develop working relationships and opportunities, sure, but you may also make dear lifelong friends and share in immensely rewarding connections and support
  • check in on your friends and colleagues--this is a lonely profession--even the high-fliers and those who appear supremely confident, falter sometimes
  • never shout about yourself; don't bombard people with sales pitches
  • for every promotional post you do, post three that are informative, educational, fun, personal or promoting someone else
  • have a solid web presence--a website at the very least; it doesn't have to be fancy, just have one
  • don't fret about social networking; have a Facebook page and/or Twitter/Instagram/Pinterest, etc, account and post when you want to!
  • be easy to work with and never be demanding
  • commit to a writing schedule
  • learn ways to streamline your life and kybosh procrastination
  • if you are working full-time elsewhere, write at night, on weekends and during holidays--ask yourself, how much do you want this?
  • enter competitions and apply for grants
  • attend festivals and conferences--they are life-changing and will shuttle your career trajectory into the stratosphere when compared with staying home; meeting publishers personally really does up your chances of becoming known/having work looked at faster/receiving contracts
  • get industry involved; this is my TOP TIP and it's huge (and totally underestimated by newbies); do something for your industry; judge awards, support fledglings, volunteer for organisations or festivals, review books for websites, involved yourself with CBCA or SCBWI or ACLA or other children's lit organisations; I frequently volunteer, and founded Kids' Book Review and the 52-Week Illustration Challenge, but you don't have to invest an enormous amount of time and energy--just do SOMETHING!
  • if you don't know something, ask others (or google it!)
  • try not to use too many exclamation points!!! 
  • expect nothing while you expect big things
  • BE PATIENT--gaining any kind of industry recognition can take at least three years (if you're active in the industry!)--and most authors wait at least 10 years before making a solid impact with their books
  • realise now that much of an author's income doesn't come from books--it comes from events, talks, presentations, school visits and other writing gigs; much of mine comes from ELR/PLR payments, copyright payments, presentations and events; also know that over time, your wage will increase as you have more books on the market and earn more ELR/PLR, copyright and reprint payments
  • support other creators--attend book launches and writerly/literary events
  • be self-effacing; be willing to look objectively at your work and see where you can do better (we are always improving!)
  • tenacity and hard work is as vital as talent, oftentimes more so (there are plenty of supremely talented creators who will never publish because they give up or expect things to be handed to them)
  • understand this: you simply must put in the hard yards; this career is HARD WORK ... thank goodness it's so much fun
  • a hole-in-one IS possible; but how many times are you willing to hit the ball?
  • believe in yourself
  • have I said 'believe in yourself'?

Self-belief is a curious thing. It's like the tide--it ebbs and flows, and this affects all of us, no matter where we are in our writing career. Any writer's biggest hurdle is self-belief. It's not publishers or editors or the market. It's how we feel about our own work, and how much we believe in it. (And I'm talking truly madly deeply--in our heart. Our brains can tell us they believe in us all they want. It has to come from the heart.)

Having self-belief doesn't mean we stand on chairs and shout. We can be quiet and have self-belief. We can be shy and have self-belief. But the bottom line is--if we don't believe in ourselves and our voice and our stories, publishers won't, and readers won't.

If we want to make authorship a full-time career, we need to believe in ourselves enough to commit the considerable time and energy required to write full-time. We need to trust, despite the inherent solitude and rejection authors suffer, that our investment will pay off. And we have to MAKE that investment--in ourselves and in our work, always bettering ourselves and our words. Growing, moving, changing. Listening to what calls us ... and honouring that call.

We need to trust that we can still be standing after many years of 'getting nowhere', and that we will not (nay, CANnot) give up. Tenacity is as vital as talent in this industry, and although it's tempting (and normal!) to have moments of 'why am I doing this? will I ever get anywhere?!', we must move through them if writing is our true calling. And get back to writing.

Elizabeth Gilbert once spoke of a very talented writer friend who gave up on his authorship journey because he was tired of getting nowhere. She described him as supremely talented, and she remember being shocked and desperate that he would give up 'so easily', but the fact was this: it didn't mean enough to him. He actually told her that. Writing didn't mean enough to him to continue to suffer the slings and arrows of rejection, editing, and idle waiting. So he moved onto other things, and he did so happily.

Indeed, perhaps some of us think we want to write (it IS fun!) but maybe it's not our truest passion or calling. We get this idea in our heads that it will be a certain way and when it proves otherwise, we might become disillusioned and question our direction. And that's okay. We can move on.

But, if like me, writing is like oxygen to you--you can't live without it--then embrace it, claim it and give it every ounce of self-belief you have. This kind of courage and passion is like a magnet for your full-time authorship desire. It's powerful stuff.

The Flow
On a similar note to Self-Belief, above, I really do believe that we need to do what makes our heart sing, yes, but also what fully absorbs us. When we become lost in our work, that's when we know we're on the right path and have stepped into life's flow. Things come easily, things just sort of 'work out'--the obstacles slide on by, synchronicity is rife, and little miracles pop up with sign posts saying 'this way', 'enter this!' and 'meet such-and-such--she's looking for someone like you'.

When obstacles begin flourishing, when things become fraught, difficult, agonising, unbalanced, or just feel 'off', you've stepped out of the flow, and are, mayhaps, not doing what's right for you. You're standing on the riverbank and the water is rushing past and you're feeling that desperate ache in your chest that you're getting nowhere and are somehow missing out/something is not right. It's like you're pining for something and don't even know what it is. (A friend recently made a big realisation in this vein and has made some huge decisions about her future career, which may lie completely outside the kids' market--so utterly inspirational! and brave!)

But when you step back into the river and relax and go with it, you notice the river is running more gently and more smoothly than it appeared on that riverbank. And you are floating along nicely and you are passing wonderful opportunities and people and they're jumping into the river to float alongside you and you just feel GOOD. You float around obstacles and don't even need to look sideways. Your eyes are on the river--the journey. And you're soaking wet, you're so absorbed.

That's being in the flow.

Finding yourself out of the flow doesn't have to mean your writing career is over. It can simply mean you need to change genre. I've lost count of the times a friend or someone I'm mentoring realises the book they've written is sitting in the wrong genre '... whaaaa? It's a picture book, not a chapter book!' or vice versa. A friend recently made an enormous realisation that her future didn't lie in children's picture books. She was meant to write adult romance. And voila--she's just signed a huge deal with a major publisher of women's romance novels!

Perhaps you just need to change your direction or style or skillset. A couple of years ago, I made the realisation that I really wanted (needed!) to illustrate as well as write. I hadn't picked up a paint brush since my early 20s (I was a prolific illustrator back then) and had no idea where to restart. But restart, I did (via the 52-Week Illustration Challenge) and my first self-illustrated book, Australia Illustrated, is out November 2016. I've also just signed a contract to illustrate a major children's compilation.

If you had told me I'd be doing this even two years ago, I would never have believed you. But I couldn't be happier, more excited or more absorbed by this new, unexpected (deliciously pined-for) turn of events--and all because I just went with the flow. I went with what called me at the time.

Who knows, in six months I might be embarking on another direction--so long as I sit in that river and follow the flow. Who wants to sit on the river bank and watch it all go by? Not me.

So, Cathy, jump in that river. Your full-time authorship awaits.


ALSO... see my other Ask Tania topics...

See all the questions so far

And check out my Fantastical Flying Creator for priceless tips and exercises on flying high in this jam-packed creative world. Click the poster below for more.


Jambo said...

I think I may have just sobbed out loud, reading The Flow. I needed this today. Must stop sobbing now and keep on keeping on. Thanks for a wonderful post

Tania McCartney said...

Oh, J.A.--I'm so touched! That's wonderful to hear. x

Sofia Goodsoul said...

I appreciate your generosity in sharing mighty useful tips:-)) Thank you Tania!

DimbutNice said...

Each and every point salient and worth its weight in gold. Worth wall papering the work space walls with!

Zanni Arnot said...

What an incredible list! Hear hear to everything! Particularly patience! xx

Yvette Wynne said...

That's awesome thanks for sharing!! Xxx

Anonymous said...

I wrote the best story ever (no, really! ha.). Then, I had it looked at by two people who know stuff, and got some excellent advice. Then I had it critiqued. And again. And again... too many critiques! Thank you for pointing that out. I'm not sure how to get it back to its best story everness, but I think you've stopped me just in time! Thanks! I'm printing this advice and sticking the entire thing on the wall to remind me. THANKS. Thank you. {Did she hear me?} Thank you, Tania. :)

Tania McCartney said...

Oh Zoe--loved your comment. Please file that darling manuscript in your hospital filing cabinet and let it heal a while, then go back to it with fresh eyes and rewrite it in your own voice, with your own vision. Or better yet, start all over again! What I do is keep my drafts as I go along in case I ruin it along the way. Even small changes, I make a copy and start edits afresh. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I'm up to version 11! Filing all those copies into my beloved 'One Note'! I was thinking the other day that I Should just rewrite the bastard! Do I Have the courage? Hm... Not sure... THANK YOU, Tania! ;)

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