Those of you who’ve gotten started on this whole business of being an author may have seen some folks share about how they write and publish anywhere between six or even twelve books a year. There’s also a method put forward by certain author groups on Facebook that if you can publish a certain amount of novels, it’s possible for you to make a decent living off your writing, by working with the Amazon algorithms. And who among us hasn’t at some point dreamt of what it must be like to support ourselves writing novels instead of having that nine-to-five McJob? I understand all too well the allure of being a professional author. It was precisely this dream that drove me to not only burn my candle at both ends, but melt it in a bonfire, when I was in my early 30s and miserable as all hell working in newspaper publishing. I suffered a complete physical and mental breakdown that saw me suffer a grand mal seizure and spend a week in hospital with liver failure. Not fun. And I sure as hell do not want to rinse and repeat.
So today I’m going to talk about a sane way to approach writing novels.
Don’t quit your day job
This past week, actually, I encountered an article which offered a more realistic glimpse behind the dust jacket in terms of what being a published author is like. The truth is, that most of us have some other sort of income or support from family that make it possible for us to write. Some authors I know pen school textbooks. Some work as illustrators. Another author I know handles social media for a corporate. I may be an award-winning author, but my work as a graphic designer for a major pet food brand keeps the roof over my head when I’m not editing other people’s writing. This means I have very little time to write for myself, so I need to make those moments count.
Many of us, as the article stated, have the kinds of jobs that won’t make us sad after ten years of still doing them. They are the kinds of jobs that give us the time and resources that create the space and opportunity to write. We don’t rely on the success of these novels to feed us and pay our utility bills. (For which I’m incredibly glad.)
That is one way to do it. Sure, we may not bring out six books a year like some, but we still have our literary pursuits that spark joy without the pressure of having to sell hundreds if not thousands of copies. Writing, for us, is a passion, a calling, not a job.
Be a tough boss
So you want to be a professional writer? Then you’re going to have to treat it like a job. One hallmark of successful indie authors is that they have highly structured days. As if they were going to go work for an employer. (And yes, that means getting out of bed the same time as everyone else, getting dressed, and showing up at the office at 8am, if not earlier.)
Making a living off your writing means you’ll know your chosen genre. You’ll be aware of the best sellers within it, be it crime, thriller or romance. You’ll structure your novel so that it will hit all the right notes and add a little extra flavour that is uniquely you. In other words, you’ll make sure that you have a really good idea of what it is that readers within your chosen genre want, and you’ll go out of the way to give them exactly what they want. Which may not necessarily be what you want to write. I’ve a friend who is a highly successful writer of inspirational poetry. He told me the other day he’d like nothing better than to write vampire novels. But his readers never pick up anything he puts down if it varies from the inspirational stuff.
But back to the question of writing as a career. If you mean business, then you’ll write. You’ll have a schedule. You’ll need to hit a certain amount of words a day – so this means you’ll spend the amount of time that some office workers do at their tasks, on writing or revising. When you’re not writing, you’ll deal with admin-related tasks, any marketing that needs to be done or liaising with designers, illustrators or other industry professionals who assist you in your endeavours. And you’ll work hard so that you at the very least have what we term in the industry as the minimum viable product – writing that is adequate. That’s if you’re aiming for volume of work and frequency of releases. Because if you’re looking at releasing a novel every month or every other month, you don’t have time for extensive revisions. You’re also not going to have the time to pretty up the words either.
And if it’s volume you’re aiming at, do keep an eye on your mental and physical health. Burnout is real. I’ve experienced it. I’ve seen other authors who’ve gone down in flames. You wouldn’t want to crunch continually if you had an ordinary office job, and you certainly can’t sustain 14-hour days, seven days a week, all year round if you’re in the creative industry. You’re a human being, not a machine. You need to refill your well.
Follow the muse
But let’s look at the flipside of the coin.
Most importantly, and what I’ve learnt, is to write what you want. Ever since I had my joyful little stint in hospital, I’ve gone about making changes in my lifestyle that lead to me being a happier, healthier (and saner) person. As I’ve joked to many of my friends, eight hours’ sleep is currently my drug of choice. I’m realistic about what my aims are with my writing. I want to write the kinds of stories I want to read. As for whether they make me piles of dough, I’m of the mind that I’d rather sit with a book that is memorable, that sparks joy.
Whether a story takes five months or five years from inspiration to print, I want to be certain that the story is the best that it can be. This is my path; it’s right for me. Other authors’ approaches are right for them. It’s up to you to figure out which of their methods will work for you in a way that is both sane and sustainable.
I’ve heard it said that being an author is akin to having a gambling addiction, and to a degree I’m down with that assessment. You keep creating, with the hope that this particular novel is The One. Some months you might make a few dollars’ royalties. And then one month you might have a short story sale to a big publisher that sees you earn a few hundred dollars. There are no guarantees. Each submission, each time you release one of your own novels into the wilds of Amazon, you simply don’t know. It’s exciting. It’s also a source of great misery, especially if you compulsively check your Amazon rankings or brood over a two-star review of your darling.
I have no easy answers. I am not some publishing guru. There is no One True Method to approach writing and publishing novels. Every author has to figure out how to best work the ever-changing system for themselves. All I will say is that you need to take care of yourself, whether you write one novel every other year, or look at rapid release of one a month. Don’t allow other people’s apparent success to get you down, because I can guarantee you that you don’t have the entire story about what goes on behind the scenes in their lives. Be kind to yourself, and if you’re ever feeling inadequate or down, try to figure out what that initial spark was that gave you the joy in telling stories. For me it’s about writing the tales that fire my imagination. This doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be a financial success (although winning awards can be cherry). For others it’s all about that algorithm, and they’re not afraid to drop hundreds if not thousands of dollars in the process of chasing it.
Know what you want, and aim for that.
Nerine Dorman is a South African author and editor of SFF currently residing in Cape Town. Her short fiction has been published widely, her YA fantasy novel 'Dragon Forged' was a finalist in the 2017 Sanlam Youth Literature Prize, her short story 'On the other Side of the Sea' was shortlisted for a Nommo in 2018, and she is the curator of the South African Horrorfest Bloody Parchment event and short story competition. In addition, she is the founder of the SFF authors' co-operative Skolion.