Useful tips from a life of blunders
A printout of my first royalty payment droops like a Dalí from a strip of Scotch tape on the wall. Black letters boldly proclaim earnings of $4.30.
I’ve made more money in 30 seconds lifting couch cushions, but this is different. It’s spectacular. It screams: “SUCCESS!”
It took me just forty years to become a “professional writer.”
A brief history
As a child I was a voracious reader. I fought beside King Arthur in battles of medieval swordplay, stowed away with Vonnegut on fantastical expeditions to the stars, visited strange lands with Heinlein, studied the animations on Bradbury’s illustrated man, and fell in love with countless fairy tale princesses, gypsies, and hobbits.
In college I tumbled head over homonym in love with words.
Words have the power to transform the simple toll of a bell into a classic novel, or inspire murder and destruction in the name of leaders and gods. Words tempt us to dream of a wonderland that might someday come true and transport us to the caves, parlors, and cerebrums of our ancestors.
I wanted to harness that power, to mesmerize and hypnotize the world. Copernicus, Kant, and Kerouac did it, so I could do it too. How hard could it be if I put my mind to it?
Well, turns out my mind had other things in mind and instead I graduated with a business degree, got a job, and started chipping away at student loans.
So it goes.
For three decades I promised myself that I’d pick up a pen and put it to paper.
I wanted to. But I didn’t.
My loans were paid off and I could carve out the time, but priorities choked my days like ivy vines: Diapers, soccer games, yard work, home projects, and employment. All the while, the little pen pixie on my shoulder whispered pleas, urging me to write.
I wanted to. But I couldn’t.
Nobody I knew was a writer. I had no mentor, and it had been so long I probably forgot how to do it. I’d be insane to consider writing at this age, I told myself.
Or is that insanity exactly the sanity I needed?
So, I did it.
By the time I reached for a pen, it was a keyboard.
A novel approach
My first and only unfinished novel took two years to almost write.
It was an incredible premise. A story that would mesmerize and hypnotize. I had been mentally kneading it for years and had perfected the story a dozen times before I began typing.
And typing I did.
I banged away late into countless nights until red eyes and thinning hair convinced me to admit that writing is damn hard. My inglorious novel is now resting comfortably in a mausoleum on a dusty thumb drive awaiting reanimation and extensive edits.
I wrote a poetic tribute to my father for his retirement. Mom published it in a wooden frame and hung it on the wall. People said they liked it.
They said it sounded a bit like some bloke named Kipling.
“That was fun. I should do more of that,” I said to myself.
I did, and it was fun, but writing good poetry is damn hard.
I’ve been working on a song for almost year now. Just one song. It sucks. And I can’t sing anyway so I have no idea what I’d do with it if it sucked less.
How do artists write and record multiple best-selling albums a year? No idea.
Probably has something to do with the word “artist.”
Along came a blog
College came and kids went. My wife and I pondered our future. Since I enjoy reading and researching more than singing, I studied retirement when my literati friends Cussler and Grisham granted me the freedom.
I was obsessed with retirement — particularly early retirement. If I could find a way to retire early, I would have all the time in the world to pursue my writing.
Success would surely find me.
Notes, thoughts, and ideas clogged my computer like the hair in my daughter’s shower drain. Story lines hung from the walls, and notebooks of musings curled up at my feet.
At first, my discoveries were fodder for conversation with friends.
Conversations morphed into Facebook posts.
Posts morphed into a WordPress blog.
I was publishing. People were reading. Commenting. They liked it.
But something was missing.
Meeting my money maker
Fast forward to discovery of the Goldilocks platform that’s not too hot and not too cold. It’s just right for writers like me. Medium, in fact.
It offered a delicious, bottomless buffet of inspiration and information. Mentors, models, and opportunities abound.
I read articles and clapped until my index finger was calloused. They told me millions of potential fans were ravenous, on the edge of their chairs, fists tightly gripping cutlery, eager to consume a bountiful salad of nouns, verbs, and adjectives (a few adverbs too, but not too many, they can be ironically annoying).
Eagerly, I copied my blog posts into my glistening new personal publication and waited.
Curation to the rescue
Undaunted, I wrote more, and expanded into a wider variety of topics. One day an article about my love of Mexico was discovered and distributed by the curators of Travel. It got a couple hundred hits and five people started following me.
I was on my way.
Unfortunately, I was just as poor as before I was famous.
But I’m a quick learner. Five dollars later I was a member of their exclusive club. For only $5 a month- and if you write well — you can be paid by the other members.
Too good to be true? Another multi-level marketing scheme?
Nope. It actually works.
Seems they have battalions of ninja curators scouring the platform day and night looking for great writers like you and me. They find us, highlight our articles, and dangle them in front of the other members like fried pickles on a stick.
Then you make money. A little.
Getting to the point
First let’s define what a professional writer is so I don’t disappoint you further.
Professional athletes have always been differentiated from amateurs by one simple metric: Income. Professionals are paid.
So, I’ve unilaterally self-defined a “professional” as someone who gets paid (not from your mom, sorry) for doing something of value.
It’s not like a lemonade stand, where nobody really wants to drink the tepid swill that you’re selling. It’s not about the cases of Girl Scout cookies that your dad ‘sold’ to his staff in the office so you could win a plastic badge.
It’s mowing a lawn. Building a house. Acting in a play. And yes, writing a story that people want to read.
A star is born
January 21st, 2020, I woke up at the crack of dawn like I often do, to squeeze in some writing before work. I opened Medium and I was surprised to find new followers, claps, and a comment.
The enigmatic curators had selected my article to publish in Money.
The following day I caught some pennies sneaking into my account. They were followed by nickels and dimes (with the prescience of social distancing of course). I checked my stats multiple times a day and with growing excitement I watched the view counts and earnings rise. On January 31st, 648 people had read my article.
The following week, my $4.30 arrived at the bank with appropriate orchestral accompaniment.
A few dozen dollars and over a score of followers later, I feel qualified to offer advice on how you can become a professional writer like me.
1. Write for yourself. Be yourself. When your writing speaks your truth, it will speak to others.
2. I guarantee your work will touch people. Maybe just one. Maybe millions. But your efforts will not go unappreciated. Know that. It helps keep you going late into the night.
3. Write for personal joy, not for the money. Some day you will be as successful as I am, and when you are, you’ll still need a real job.
4. Read. Consume anything and everything like a starving hyena. Even read my poetry if you have the constitution for it. Reading is kindling that feeds the flames of inspiration.
5. Above all else keep writing. Don’t stop. Share your work with the world — it needs you more than ever right now.