September 2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of Jay’s decision to become a writer. His gift to you all this celebratory year is DO IT – Twelve hard lessons on learning by failing, succeeding by accident, never giving up and saying FXXK WRITING all at the same time. You’re welcome!
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What makes you a professional writer? It’s a dumb question, but a necessary one. Writers are not engineers, or lawyers, or doctors. The public’s trust is not formally vested in their professional expertise. While writers can do harm with shitty books and bad conduct, few will ruin lives like the world’s worst surgeon.
I used to care what being a professional writer meant. Initially, I believed it was some kind of badge of courage to make a living off your writing like the pulp writers of old. And it is possible. Sorta. But ask yourself why you want to? The dream is more about avoiding the day job you hate than the reality of your dream job you desire. For 99% of those who call themselves writers, the only ones who rest on their writing alone are wealthy, have a supportive spouse, or have success you can envy but not duplicate. Or you can become a small business in ebooks, pump out novellas for years, all while hoping to make it bigger than 30g a year (minus health care costs).
If you want that, dig in, but most people taking Master Classes with James Patterson or Margaret Atwood or David Mamet dream of being a writer as you would dream of being Bruce Wayne, with inherited wealth allowing you to Playboy by day, Play BatWriter by night. Hardly professional thinking, no?
So much of publishing is out of your control. But one thing you can control is submitting to markets that actually pay. Not for the love. Not in contributor copies. Writing is labor. And labor gets paid. Here’s an old-timey story on why that is the least of your requirements.
When I started in 1999, I had nothing on my cover letters. I had no sales, no contest wins, no MFA, no big named workshops to brag about. All I had was a story. And those got rejected at a brisk clip. But what if I submitted to mags that don’t pay? Just to get some publications on my cover letter that I could then send to PAYING mags? I’d pulled it off once with a literary journal, but I wanted a couple more so it looked like I wasn’t a one-trick pony. Wouldn’t I look like a real pro? Wouldn’t that help make me stand out
So, for a summer, I didn’t send to pro markets, or semi pros, or even paying markets. I submitted to anything with an email address. No payment. Just contributor copies. This included one of my best-worst-early-salad-days stories, “Flesh Flowers for Rachel,” a tale of love and racism based on my experience working as a cemetery groundskeeper. Fired it off in all directions. PING! An editor loved it! They wanted it for their magazine! DAMN!
I agreed, signed the contract, and waited for the next credit on my cover letter to show up-
And it did. Side stapled. Hard printer typed text. Cardboard cover. Like you’d make for a public school project. Best part? They typed another author’s name for my story. Their fix? Scratch it out and scrawl my name by hand! Which means the other dozen or so this guy printed likely did NOT have my name on the index at all!
After that minor screw job, I realized that there was tons I could never control. But I could at least sub to markets that had professional layout and paid. Noticed I said paid. There are many markers for being a professional market, but no standard. Hell, until this year many professional writers orgs were still using pay-rates as a measure, despite “professional” pay rates for short stories and novel advances being more reflective of the immediate post-war economy or the heyday of the midlist writer of the 1980s.
So, I try to get paid the best I can. I hit markets with good rates, and especially ones outside the norm (non-fiction, humor, weird blogs), and I harass everyone until I get paid. As many authors have noted, much of your life as a freelancer is hunting for what you are owed by people who would prefer you go away and just work for free. Worst payment? 5 bucks for a flash fiction story (and the check bounced so I got -10 bucks for the NSF charge!). The best? 500.00 for a serialized Halloween story in a local paper that I wrote strictly to pay my rent when I lost my job.
No one really remembers those stories but me. To the rest of the world, they never happened. But by turning my imagination into a cultural product, I was both hurt and helped by publishing. And it learned me on these four aspects of being a pro when it comes to finances in the writing life-
Writing is labor.
Labor gets paid.
Get paid as much as you can.
My pen name for erotica will be Pat Lestewka.
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