“There’s Nothing Crass or Ignoble about Trading Your Writing for Money”

This article is an excerpt from QUIT YOUR DAY JOB by Jim Denney.

There is only one way you will ever be able to write for a living: You must write words that people will pay money to read. If you do that, you’ll make a living as a writer. If you don’t, you won’t—simple as that. The money you make as a writer represents more than just the ability to pay the mortgage and buy groceries. It is the writer’s strongest and finest affirmation. It is tangible proof that someone thinks your words are worth purchasing and paying attention to.

There’s nothing crass or ignoble about trading your writing for money. Your words are your stock in trade. Doctors sell their medical knowledge for money, lawyers sell their legal knowledge for money, and you sell words. If they are good words—well-chosen, skillfully crafted, filled with ideas and energy—the world will buy them. You prove your own craftsmanship by writing saleable words. It’s a great feeling to receive a check for a publisher’s advance; but it’s an even greater feeling to receive a royalty check, because that means that it’s not just the publisher who likes your words; the public is willing to pay money to read them.

It is that feeling that enables you to say, boldly and unabashedly, “I am a writer.”

From QUIT YOUR DAY JOB!: How to Sleep Late, Do What You Enjoy, and Make a Ton of Money as a Writer by Jim Denney (Sanger CA: Quill Driver Books, 2004), 6.

Quick to Learn, Slow to Judge

I have a longtime friend who has followed my writing career for more than twenty years. Today, he asked me about the writing projects I’m working on. I told him I have a book due in six weeks, but it’s a short book and that should be plenty of time to get it done.

In reply, he said something he’s said to me at least half a dozen times over the years, something that irritates me to pieces whenever he says it:

“Well, you always work best under pressure.”

Every single time he’s said that to me, I’ve explained, “No, I hate pressure. Deadline pressure is corrosive and destructive to my creativity. I don’t work best under pressure. I’m self-motivated, self-disciplined, and extremely productive without pressure. I don’t need deadline pressure to help me write quickly or write well. Your impression of me is 100 percent wrong.”

I’ve told him this many times in the past, but he never remembers. I know it’s not that big a deal, and that my friend means no insult. But it tells me that he thinks that, unless I have a deadline bearing down on me, I’m lazy, unmotivated, and undisciplined as a writer. It’s a slur on my character and an insult to my professionalism that he thinks I “always work best under pressure.”

It’s a minor issue, but by sheer repetition it has become like fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul. Though I’ve corrected him many times in the past, this time I just let it slide. I’m sick of trying to acquaint him with the reality of who I am as a writer and a human being.

It frustrates me that people tend to form judgments and opinions about others, and no matter what you say and how many times you say it, you can’t shake them out of their views. People judge each other based on the scantiest slivers of experience and information. Once they think they’ve got somebody pegged, their opinion hardens like concrete—and they filter out any new information that doesn’t support their prejudice.

I think we owe it to each other to really try to understand each other instead of forming snap judgments and closing our minds. We should always be open to new insights and open to revising our impressions of each other.

As motivational psychologist Steve Maraboli explains, “Judging prevents us from understanding a new truth. Free yourself from the rules of old judgments and create the space for new understanding.” Especially as writers, we have to continually be observant and open-minded, always willing to look at other people with new eyes and see truths we’ve never seen before.

Be quicker to learn than to judge. Keep all opinions subject to revision. Observe. Question. Understand.

Then write.

“It is well, when judging a friend, to remember that he is
judging you with the same godlike and superior impartiality.”
—Arnold Bennett

Do You Have the Fire?

In Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Lawrence Block retells an old story.

A young musician approached a world-renowned violinist. “Master,” the young man said, “I want to pursue a life in music. I know I play well, but I don’t know if I have the talent to become great. If you give me encouragement, I’ll devote my life to music.”

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.

“Play,” said the master.

The young man poured his heart out through his violin and played every note flawlessly. Then he waited for the verdict from the lips of the master.

The master violinist shook his head. “No,” he said. “You lack the fire.”

The young violinist was shattered. He walked away, depressed and despondent. He set aside his violin and studied for a career in business.

Years passed. One day, he heard that the old violinist was in town to give a concert, so he went to the master’s hotel room to call on him. When the master answered the door, the businessman said, “Years ago, I played for you and asked if you thought I had talent.”

“I think I recall you,” the master said uncertainly.

“You said, ‘You lack the fire.’ I was bitterly disappointed, but I had to be realistic and accept your judgment. So I chose a career in the business world, and I’ve become very successful. But one question nags at me: How could you tell that I lacked the fire?”

“Oh, I can’t tell anything from hearing you play one time,” said the master. “Whenever a young musician plays for me, I say, ‘You lack the fire.’”

The businessman gasped with outrage. “How dare you!” he sputtered. “I played my heart out for you! I looked to you for encouragement, and you shattered my dreams! How could you do that to me?”

The master was unmoved. “I said you lacked the fire and I was right. No one could have kept you from your dreams—if you had the fire.”

Do you have the fire to be writer? If you lack the fire, nothing can help you. If the fire burns in you, nothing can stop you.

If you are a writer, you will write.

Persistence in the Face of Rejection

“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘To the editor who can appreciate my work,’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address.’ Just keep looking for the right address.”
Novelist and humorist Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Bean Trees

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I recently received a letter from a writer who is battling his way through rejection after rejection. He quoted the words of Thomas Edison, who said in 1877, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” My friend refuses to give up, and he believes he’s going to find the right publisher in the end.

I like this writer’s confidence and persistence in the face of rejection. I’ve been writing full-time since 1989, and I can tell you that you never get used to the rejection. All you can do is learn not to take it personally.

A lot of people give up after a few rejections and go the self-publishing route. It’s hard to blame them, and in some cases that’s undoubtedly the best course. But I still think that, in most cases, it’s worth it to make a good sustained effort at finding a traditional publisher.

Madeleine L’Engle once said, “Anyone who has received as many rejection slips as I have is not going to complain about signing autographs.”

At the height of his career, Ray Bradbury said, “I get rejection slips every week of my life. I’ve published thirty-five stories in Playboy magazine, but in recent years they’ve rejected eight short stories. And The New Yorker rejects every time I submit.”

J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected innumerable times before she finally sold it—for a paltry $4,000 advance. Dr. Seuss’s first book was rejected 23 times before it sold. Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H, 21 times. Frank Herbert’s Dune, 13 times. Mystery writer Donald Westlake collected more than 200 rejection slips before his first sale; he actually papered the walls of his apartment with rejection letters.

William Saroyan, at the start of his writing career, wrote dozens of short stories and sent them to every paying fiction market in the country. Ultimately, every one of his stories had been rejected by every one of those magazines—he collected nothing but rejection slips. So, after that first round, he simply 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 the 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 he began selling his stories.

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.”

I hope you find it reassuring to know that rejection is just a normal part of the writing trade, and that rejection is not a reflection on the quality of your work, anymore than it was a reflection on the quality of L’Engle’s, Bradbury’s, or Rowling’s work. While there’s no guarantee of success, it’s important to know that a key ingredient of success is perseverance.

Give Yourself Permission to Write Badly

A candid, no-nonsense appraisal of the daily grind of the writer’s life, QUIT YOUR DAY JOB lays out 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.

“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or ten pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”
—Lawrence Block

The following is an excerpt from my book on writing for a living, Quit Your Day Job: How to Sleep Late, Do What You Enjoy, and Make a Ton of Money as a Writer (Linden Publishing, 2003, and a Writer’s Digest Book Club Selection). The book is available in paperback and as an ebook at Amazon.com and in paperback at BarnesAndNoble.com.

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A young woman came up to me after a workshop where I spoke on writing for a living. “My problem,” she said, “is that I never finish anything. I’m so afraid someone will see a mistake in my story that I go over it and over it, trying to make everything perfect. I write a paragraph, and then I rewrite it and rewrite it before going on to the next paragraph. Sometimes, I can’t even get started on a story. I know what I want the story to be about, and I know my characters and my plot. But until I can think of the perfect opening sentence, I can’t write the rest of the story.”

Obsessive perfectionism is deadly to good writing. It not only keeps you from finishing a book or story—it can even keep you from starting. If you are obsessed with writing the perfect book, you’ll end up with no book at all. The solution: Give yourself permission to write a bad book.

I give myself that permission all the time. When you are okay with the idea of writing badly, you allow the words to flow. A lot of them will be lousy words, formed into wretched sentences. But some of them will be good. A few will be great. You simply keep the good words and delete the rest.

The beauty of writing on computers is that you are not writing on paper—you’re just shoving electrons around. Your words are not chiseled in stone or even typed on paper.  Until you actually print out your manuscript, your sentences exist only as invisible traces on the ferromagnetic coating of your hard drive. So what have you got to lose by writing a bad sentence?

In the old days, a writer used to sit at a typewriter, with crumpled paper overflowing from a wastebasket, with scores of paper balls littering the floor. Back then, if you wrote a bad sentence, you defiled a sheet of paper. Today, if you write a bad sentence, you just highlight it, tap one key, and make it disappear. So relax. Have fun. Write badly. Brainstorm. Experiment. Throw some really awful sentences on the screen, then read them and laugh. Then think about it. Some little notion of genius may lurk in one of those bad sentences. A horrible sentence may give you a clue to a classic line that will live forever. It happens all the time. . . .

You want to write the perfect book? Then put perfectionism to death. Snuff it. Terminate with extreme prejudice. Give yourself permission to write badly—and soon you’ll be writing brilliantly.

This excerpt is from Jim Denney’s Quit Your Day Job: How to Sleep Late, Do What You Enjoy, and Make a Ton of Money as a Writer (Linden Publishing, 2003), 120-121.