Writing and the Goal of Financial Success

“If [financial success] came early enough and you
loved life as much as you loved your work,
it would take much character to resist the temptations.
Once writing has become your major vice and
greatest pleasure, only death can stop it. Financial security
then is a great help as it keeps you from worrying.
Worry destroys the ability to write.”
—Ernest Hemingway

This article is an excerpt from QUIT YOUR DAY JOB, a sound, strategic plan for building your career as a full-time writer. Author Jim Denney has been a full-time, self-employed writer since 1989.

In 1920, Aldous Huxley was a struggling, unknown writer. He eked out a living writing reviews for the Athenaeum and the Westminster Gazette. The pittance he earned allowed him to barely support his wife and child. They lived in a spartan coldwater flat in Hampstead, living on canned soup and boiled potatoes. Discouraged, Huxley wrote his father, “There is nothing but a commercial success that can free one from this deadly hustle.”

Two years later, Huxley’s first novel, Crome Yellow, was published and met with critical praise and modest commercial success: 2,500 copies sold the first year. Those may be dismal numbers by today’s standards, but they were solidly respectable sales for the time, and Huxley was delighted. After several years of the “deadly hustle” of writing articles and reviews, the 28-year-old writer had achieved success. He moved his family from the Hampstead flat to a comfortable home in Kensington. He quit his day job at the magazine and became a full-time working writer, devoting his time and energy to his novels, including Eyeless in Gaza and Brave New World.

I know exactly what Huxley meant when he talked about the “deadly hustle.” You probably do, too. But with persistence, planning, and hard work, you can achieve the success that will bring an end to the hustle. You can achieve the dream of becoming a writer on your own terms, writing the books you want to write, commanding huge advances, collecting obscene royalties. In time, you’ll look back and know that the struggles and lean times were worth it.

From QUIT YOUR DAY JOB by Jim Denney. Available in trade paperback and as a Kindle ebook from Amazon.com.

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On Writing for Children

Here are a few of my favorite quotations about reading and writing literature for children:

“You must write the book that wants to be written. If the book will be too difficult for grownups, you write it for children.”
—Madeleine L’Engle

“When I was young I longed to write a great novel that should win me fame. Now that I am getting old my first book is written to amuse children. For aside from my evident inability to do anything ‘great,’ I have learned to regard fame as a will-o-the-wisp which, when caught, is not worth the possession; but to please a child is a sweet and lovely thing that warms one’s heart and brings its own reward.”
—L. Frank Baum

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.”
Walt Disney

“It is usual to speak in a playfully apologetic tone about one’s adult enjoyment of what are called ‘children’s books.’ I think the convention a silly one. No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all. A mature palate will probably not much care for crème de menthe: but it ought still to enjoy bread and butter and honey.”
—C. S. Lewis

“I love letters from little kids. Adults never proclaim themselves ‘your number one fan!'”
Lauren Baratz-Logsted

“The only lastingly important form of writing is writing for children. It is writing that is carried in the reader’s heart for a lifetime; it is writing that speaks to the future.”
Sonya Hartnett

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
G. K. Chesterton

“The tale is often wiser than the teller.”
Susan Fletcher

“We must meet children as equals in that area of our nature where we are their equals. . . . The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man.”
C. S. Lewis

“You must write for children the same way you write for adults, only better.”
Maxim Gorky

“I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children’s books ask questions, and make the readers ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.”
Madeleine L’Engle

“It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations-something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.”
Katherine Patterson

“In our time, when the literature for adults is deteriorating, good books for children are the only hope, the only refuge.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer

“Children’s literature must build a bridge between the colorful dream world full of fantasy and illusion, and a tougher real world full of twists and turns. The child armed with the torch of knowledge, awareness and guidance must cross this bridge and set foot to the intense harshness of the bigger world.”
Samad Behrangi

“Most children won’t remember an author’s name, but they remember a good story.”
Amy Timberlake

“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
Ursula K. LeGuin

“First rule of writing: When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.”
Zadie Smith

“Imagination has brought mankind through the Dark Ages to its present state of civilization. . . . Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone, the talking-machine, and the automobile, for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities. So I believe that dreams—daydreams, you know, with your eyes wide open and your brain machinery whizzing—are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to invent, and therefore to foster, civilization.”
L. Frank Baum

“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.”
Jacqueline Kennedy

“Good writing is difficult no matter what the reader’s age—and children deserve the best.”
Aaron Shepard

“Some people argue that life is not always pleasant and that children’s books should reflect reality. Others feel that young people should be protected from the disagreeable side of life, and have their innocence left unsullied for as long as possible. Both of these views are to some degree didactic and neither takes into account young readers’ right to make their own decisions about what they read, to make choices about what interests them, and to seek out books that will help them make sense of their worlds.”
Prue Goodwin

“Don’t you think it’s rather nice to think that we’re in a book that God’s writing? If I were writing the book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right—in the way that’s best for us.”
E. Nesbit

“Edgar Rice Burroughs never would have looked upon himself as a social mover and shaker with social obligations. But as it turns out—and I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly—Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world. By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, ‘Hey, life is fun! Grow tall!’ I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. . . . The need for romance is constant, and again, it’s pooh-poohed by intellectuals. As a result they’re going to stunt their kids. You can’t kill a dream. Social obligation has to come from living with some sense of style, high adventure, and romance.”
Ray Bradbury

“I’ve never written for kids. I’m just trying to tap into the kid in myself and just go with my taste.”
Andrew Stanton, screenwriter, Finding Nemo and WALL-E

“I Eat Rejections Like Popeye Eats Spinach”

William Saroyan in 1976

William Saroyan in 1976

Before author and playwright William Saroyan made his first sale, he wrote dozens of short stories and sent them to every paying fiction market in the country. Eventually, every one of his stories was rejected by all the magazines. He had collected nothing but rejection slips.

Undaunted, Saroyan simply turned right around and sent the same stories to the same publications—and the second time around, they started selling. Why? Because there was a high turnover rate among junior editors who sifted the slush piles at those magazines. The second time Saroyan sent out those stories, they went to a whole new round of editors. And you can do the same, because there is still a high turnover rate in the publishing business today.

Submit, submit, submit—and if your work is as good as you know it is, you will sell. As Lawrence Block put it in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, “Once you’ve got a story to the point where you think it’s worth submitting, you must submit it and submit it and submit it until someone somewhere breaks down and buys it.”

Mystery writer Donald Westlake (Bad News, Don’t Ask, and The Ax) used to paper the walls of his apartment with rejection slips. The day he sold his first story to a magazine, he celebrated by ripping those rejection slips off the wall—all 204 of them! At the time of his death in 2008, Westlake had more than a hundred published novels and nonfiction books to his credit.

Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov observed, “Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil—but there is no way around them.” And another science-fiction writer, Brian Stableford, said: “The vital point to remember is that the swine who just sent your pearl of a story back with nothing but a coffee-stain and a printed rejection slip can be wrong. You cannot take it for granted that he is wrong, but you have an all-important margin of hope that might be enough to keep you going.”

British mystery writer Alex Keegan is the author of a number of novels featuring private investigator Catherine “Caz” Flood. His titles include Cuckoo (Anthony Award nominee, best first novel, 1995), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill, and A Wild Justice. His short fiction has appeared in print and online magazines, and has been adapted by BBC Radio.

Alex Keegan has made a careful study of rejection, and has arrived at a startling statistical conclusion: If you make a persistent attack of the markets, you can develop a highly consistent and predictable ratio of sales versus rejections. “It’s a fact,” says Keegan, “that the more you submit, the more you will be rejected, but . . . you cannot fail if you work at your art, if you read, read, read, write, write, write, submit, submit, submit.”

A great antidote to the discouragement of rejection is the encouragement of a writer’s group. In January 1997, Keegan started a “Boot Camp” of committed but mostly unpublished fiction writers—eleven founding members, only three with any publishing credits. It was a hard-nosed, tough-minded, no-excuses writing group. The demands: each member must produce one short story every two weeks. The story must be submitted to the group for critique, then rewritten and submitted on the open market for publication. Though all eleven members professed a desire to write professionally, few had produced much output during the preceding twelve months, and even fewer had submitted any stories for publication.

But the rigorous demands of the Boot Camp changed that in a hurry. During the first year, 1997, the eleven Boot Campers racked up an astonishing number of sales—85 stories sold for publication either in print, online, or on the radio. One Boot Camper won the BBC World Service’s Short Story of the Year award. Keegan sold his fifth novel that year—and he sold forty short pieces. Each sale, regardless of medium, was designated a “hit.” The following year, 1998, Keegan and his fellow Boot Campers racked up over 200 hits. In 1999, over 350 hits.

It stands to reason that more submissions would result in more sales—but more submissions also means more rejections. “In 1997,” he said, “I had more rejections than in the previous forty-nine years of my life. But rejections are side effects, meaningless.” What mattered was that Keegan was writing an enormous volume of stories, and he was submitting them. If they came back, he instantly resubmitted them. Keegan made 168 submissions in 1998, which returned 107 rejections—but also returned 43 hits.

Keegan kept a spreadsheet of his submissions, and was able to calculate a “hit rate”—a ratio of sales per submissions. He found that he was consistently selling one time out of every 3.5 submissions (which was a bit higher than the “hit rate” of his fellow Boot Campers, one sale for every 4.5 submissions—and much better than his average at the beginning of his writing career, when he averaged a sale for every thirty submissions).

Many writers view rejections as bad news, or even as a personal insult. Not Alex Keegan. He views rejections as feedback. Sometimes an editor would append a hand-written note, giving Keegan insight into ways to make his work stronger and more salable the next time around. Most important of all, he knew he had a consistent batting average, and every rejection just brought him one step closer to his goal.

“I can count,” says Alex Keegan. “I know that three rejections mean a sale. I welcome rejections. . . . I eat rejections like Popeye eats spinach.”

The moral of the story: Never accept rejection as final. Keep working at your craft, keep writing, and keep submitting.