Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Milking Money From Fiction

I'm an aspiring literary novelist, and have been for many years. All this time, I've also been freelancing unrelated (and un-literary) nonfiction work, both in the form of books (low-paying) and magazine articles (high-paying). My freelance work has been just a job to me -- I've mastered it enough to do it half-asleep, but I only do enough to keep the bills paid and buy time for my "real" work that I put everything into.

Now that I'm selling my novel, I feel ready to show my "real" self to the world, and never again go back to those nonfiction articles I only did for money. So I've begun to sell some of my short stories, but while I regularly got 4-digit sums for nonfiction magazine features, I'm discovering that magazine and web outlets don't seem to pay much at all for serious fiction. What should a writer in my position do to shift successfully to fiction?

First of all, congrats on selling your book! That's a big accomplishment.

Second of all, I don't have much advice that you're going to want to hear. I feel your pain - I do - I certainly understand the tug of fiction and the monotony that one can feel (but not always because, hey, some magazine assignments are interesting and informative, etc, etc, etc,) with the freelancing gigs. But the truth is that fiction just doesn't pay well, and often times, the only way to keep a steady flow of incoming coming in is to make compromises with yourself and with your career.

I can't tell you how many best-selling authors I know who didn't quit their day-jobs until their third or so book. Because then, and only then, will you (hopefully) have an influx of royalties, as well as money from new advances, coming in. It sucks to say and to hear, but it's the truth. Even if you get a 100k offer, that's 85k after your agent's cut, then say, 50k after Uncle Sam is done with you...and that's your income until you crank out another novel. Short stories and such? Well, unless you're writing for top markets - Esquire, The New Yorker, etc - you're just not going to bring home a lot of bacon.

I wish I had better news. I wish I could say, "kiss all that soul-sucking work goodbye," but I can't in good conscience do so. Sometimes, it's called a job because it IS one. So the best advice I have to offer is to keep writing - the more books you sell, the more money you have to potentially pad your back account.

But readers, am I too conservative? What advice would you have for transitioning to fiction full-time and not going hungry?


Trish Ryan said...

If it's any solace at all, I've found that my periods of soul-sucking work have provided great material for my writing. Not just the usual "life in the cube is miserable" stuff, but watching people interact everyday. I found it really helpful. If you're freelancing, I'd guess that you are keeping in touch with issues that might not be at the forefront of your life right now. But they're front & center for someone, and you never know when knowing things like that can come in handy as a writer.

Starving in a cold, dark, apartment is WAY less inspirational than the writer mythology makes it out to be :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insight. I'm also very happily surprised to see that Trish Ryan also replied to this -- I like both of you, and while my own work is different I think there's enough similarity between us that I'd put out queries to both of your agents specifically because I liked what the two of you were doing ... (Trish, I made that post in your blog the other day about being the superhero of the "traditional renaissance".)

And it's true, jobs always provide fantastic material -- and the predicament addressed here is one reason why, I think, so many great novels are about writers struggling to deal with their profession. I'm smiling at this moment because I'm thinking of the new novel I'm working on now -- it's about a great talent (and an incorrigible romantic) who has to choose between the uncertainty of writing the unseen literature of his heart and just going with the steady ease of magazine journalism ...