One Simple Rule To Sell Your Writing

Writing for a living is filled with many amazing moments. Seeing your book on the shelves. Your name in the credits of a film or TV show. Cash in the bank account. Paid! For doing something you love so much you’d do it for free. What a world to live in.

There are hard times too. Those rejections. They never stop, even when you’re a professional. Sometimes you feel like that’s all there is.

Some people make it even harder for themselves by not applying brutal logic to what they’re doing.

Pop quiz. What’s the essential nature of a publishing company? Most people say publishing books. They’d be wrong. The essential nature of a publishing company is the same as every other business: making a profit for shareholders. Publishing books is just the way they’ve chosen to do it.

It’s the same answer for film and TV production companies, and for agents. It’s a simple notion, but for many writers it comes as a revelation. They spend their lives immersed in art so that in the end that’s all they can see.

RULE # 3: If you want to get paid, remember it’s a business.

Ram that idea deep into your mind: everybody who might buy your work wants to make a profit for their shareholders, and allow all the editors and commissioners to keep their jobs and put food on the tables for their loved ones. They’re not going to turn down an opportunity to do that. They’re just not. And you need to run that rule over everything you do: will this idea connect with enough people for the publisher/TV/film company to make money out of it?

Here’s the thing: nobody in the creative industries cares about you. Nobody cares if you live or die. Nobody needs to publish your work – they’ll get along just fine with all the thousands of other ideas that cross their desk every year. They don’t have to give you a chance. They don’t need to try ‘new stuff’. They don’t need to push back boundaries. The publishing or film and TV industries don’t owe you a living. They don’t need to change their business practices, however much you rant about ‘gatekeepers’, because: You. Don’t. Matter.  Your art doesn’t matter. Your great, world-changing idea doesn’t matter.

But persuade them that your idea can reach an audience and make a profit for their shareholders and they’ll be all over you. Because that’s their business.

Writers hate to hear this. They absolutely hate it. They think it puts them on a par with, you know, people who do actual jobs. Money is grubby. Writing for cash makes you a hack.

(The truth is, they’re just patsies for big business. There’s nothing the sharp-suited sharks like more than creative people saying I do this for art…while they do the profit.

Do both.

In fact, you owe it to every other writer to try to get cash. The more you perpetuate the idea that art is it’s own reward, the easier you make it for business predators to depress earnings across the industries.)

Then those whining writers disappear down the rabbit hole of reasons why their work isn’t getting bought. Most people find it psychologically hard to accept that their genius is being rejected – there has to be some explanation, some massive failure in the system. So here’s a little psychological salve: in the end there’s really only one reason. The people doing the buying don’t think they can get good returns on their investment.

That’s quite liberating, in a way. Seeing it as all about cold cash means it’s not about you personally and that it’s simply about finding the idea and style that convinces.

How you change perceptions of the commerciality of broader cultural issues is a totally separate post. Why did Marvel break with long-standing movie tradition that only a predominantly all-white cast finds an audience? Black Panther blew that one out of the water. The short answer there is that it’s not down to the individual writer or director or producer. Society itself does the heavy lifting to change minds on the earnings potential of creators, subjects and markets. What we’re focusing on here is what the individual can do.

If you have only one idea, you’re not a writer. All writers have multiple ideas so they can sift and discard and then decide which one they want to devote the hours of their life to. So the first thing you need to consider if you want to make a living out of writing is, can someone make money out of this? Is it a pale copy of something else? If so, people will always buy the original. Does it have themes and subjects that reach into the lives of a majority of people?  If yes, there’s an audience.  If it’s niche appeal, there’s likely no audience. Is it original? If yes, then people like to invest in new experiences, new information or a new way of seeing. Is it so original that you can’t explain it to friends without spending ages setting up the context? Your idea won’t reach people if it needs a rulebook.

It means pulling out of the story, and the idea, and looking at it objectively. Which is exactly what the ones buying it will do. Do the art thinking, and the business thinking.

If you want to sell your work, all of these are questions you should ask yourself very early on in the process. There are no real surprises there.  The only really surprising thing is that a great many people think the rules of business don’t apply to something where money changes hands.

All of the glamour industries are businesses, and they operate by the rules of business.  Don’t like that, don’t work for them. Give your stuff away for free. But if you do want to get paid, you have to play by their rules. You have to accept you’re playing by their rules.  Because they won’t change.  The only choice lies with you – do it or not.

Writing For A Living – The Big Payday Fallacy

All you need is that one big break and you can quit the rat race and live your dream.

That’s the thinking, isn’t it? It’s also the mistake that just about every writer makes.

You’ve spent your life reading books, or watching films and TV, and you’ve decided the life of a writer is a great one. Better than wasting the days of your life in an office, or on the shop floor, or digging ditches. And you’d be right. It might not all be unicorns and stardust – it’s a job, what job is? – but it’s about as near-perfect as it gets.

You set your own hours. You don’t have a boss needling you in your place of work. More importantly, you get time. To reflect on life. To spend with your thoughts. To appreciate the world around you.

That’s a big deal. (And most writers will tell you, it’s more valuable than money.}

But money is still the key in the equation.

Everyone has responsibilities. When you’re in your twenties, it’s making sure you can pay the rent and eat. When you’re a little older, it’s, perhaps, a significant other, perhaps children. How many get to be self-indulgent and take a leap into the dark to launch that fantastic writing career?

And so the plan is to steal all your free time, in the morning when everyone is asleep, or late at night, or in your lunch break, and scribble away. And then you sell your novel/script and take all that cash, replace your salary, and ease seamlessly into the writing life.

That’s not a plan. There are no milestones, no measurable data, no paths to an achievable target.

It’s a fantasy. A child’s wish.

You’ve read the stories of the writers who get big, life-changing pay-outs, but you’ve never read the stories about the ones who get some, but not quite enough. Because those stories are boring.

Most book advances are the equivalent of a year’s salary on minimum wage. You might think you can scrape by on that until the bigger stuff starts rolling in. You might be right. Or you might never be published again. You might sell one TV script and no more for years. To stake the existence of all those people who rely on you on a roll of the dice like that, is not kind, or wise.

So if you’ve got responsibilities, that’s it for the writing dream. Is that what I’m saying? There’s no way to gain escape velocity from the mundane life into the place where you’re making a living from writing?

Wrong.

There’s no simple way, but there is a clever way.

Forget the idea of a big pay-day as a mirage that will lure you away from the path you should be on. Once you ignore that impetus, you can start plotting the way ahead.

RULE # 8: Build your portfolio.

We’re in a new world now. You no longer need a ‘job’ like mum and dad. Increasingly, people are carving out a good living away from the nine-to-five. They get money *and* freedom *and* fulfilment.

The trick is building multiple income streams so you’re not relying on one paying gig that could fall apart. This is your portfolio. It’s what all 21st century writers are doing – and it is something you can start putting together while you’re in regular employment.

Start off writing for some online sites that pay. Work on an ongoing relationship. Self-publish on kindle. Do some journalism. Ghost write. Do ad copy. Teach a class at your local college. Write some comics. The thing here is, you don’t need to make a lot of cash from each individual job, but cumulatively a little becomes a decent amount.

There are plenty of tiny pots of money out there if you’re spry and you pay attention.

Keep a good account of earnings. Data is everything. Once you can see you can pay the month-to-month bills you’re close to take-off. And then when you do sell your book, or a script, or get a pitch accepted, or get to write an episode of Doctors (the entry level for screenwriters and who accept *lots* of new writers every year – £4,700 for a half-hour script and you can do several a year), you’re ready.

Even so, there’s still going to be one key moment when you have to take the big decision: stay where I am or take a leap into the unknown?

Question any person who’s found their way into one of the glamour industries, or any successful person anywhere, and they’ll tell you that at some point they were faced with risk. Taking the risk – a calculated one, of course – was the key factor that moved them out of the pack and into the front-runners.

There is no safe path to being a success. There is no easy road to making a living out of writing.

But if you treat it like a business, building your client base, you can minimise that risk and dart through the open door.

Agents, And Why You Need Them

In a café in North London, my screen agent leaned across the table and gave me his first – and probably most important – piece of advice. He said it to every single new client who signed with him.

“Nobody in this business is going to do you any favours.”

That stands true for every area in which you might be trying to sell your writing, not just the film and TV industries. Publishing. Comics. Games. Journalism. No one will give you any chances. No one will give you a shot because you’re plucky, or because you had a beer with someone they know, or because you’ve worked really, really hard and you feel you deserve an opportunity for your efforts.

Every single opening has to be made by you, and earned by the quality of your writing.

It’s a great piece of advice that may not be obvious when you’re starting out (it’s very clear when you’ve been doing it a while). But it also shows the value of having experienced people around you.

If you want to maximize your earnings from your writing, you need to develop a good team who can take all your hard work and run with it. Agents are the key part (and we’ll get to the other members – your network – in a future post). It’s entirely possible to sell novels and short stories without an agent, but it’s a huge mistake because you won’t make a fraction of what you could be earning. Even if you’re self-publishing, Amazon offers better terms for work submitted through an agent. (Didn’t know that? One reason why you need an agent.)

And if you’re hoping to work in film and TV, you won’t get anywhere without an agent. Nobody will read your work. And if they do, by chance, scan the first few pages, they won’t take you seriously.

More importantly, as we crash towards the third decade of the 21st century, everything has changed. Media is converging, the opportunities are endless, and a good agent will help you navigate the labyrinth to that pot of riches.

Back in the bad old days of the last century, writers generally did one thing. They’d have a book agent, say, who sold that great opus to a local publisher, maybe a few foreign publishers. And that was it.

Nowadays your book can be sold in multiple territories across the world, with an advance in each one. And then books become films, TV, comics, video games, board games, virtual reality experiences, and all those things become all the other things. If you don’t have a good team with expertise and contacts in all those areas, you’ll miss out on the gold rush.

One of the questions I often get asked is why this or that book hasn’t been made into TV or film.  “It’s brilliant!” “Better than XXX!” It’s not been made because the author hasn’t employed a good screen agent who can get that book on to the desks of producers and sell it hard. That’s how it works. If no one sells it, it doesn’t get made. (Usually. There are one or two exceptions that prove the rule). Producers haven’t got the time to find you.

RULE # 4: Build your team.

I have two agents, both based in London – one for books, one for screen. My books agent is Euan Thorneycroft at the long-established agency, A M Heath. Euan pitches book ideas to editors on my behalf, negotiates my contracts with Random House, mainly in the UK, but sometimes in the US depending on the project. Euan is widely connected in the industry, so he picks up intelligence about who is looking for what, what’s been bought, what sells, what’s the likely next trend.

But here’s the thing: because A M Heath is a big agency, they have other departments and a wider range of contacts to get your work earning. There’s a dedicated Foreign Rights department with a wonderfully multilingual staff, who know the editors at publishing houses everywhere else in the world. In the last few months they’ve sold, among other things, my novel Hereward to a big German publisher, and my novel Pendragon to Italy.

My screen agent is Conrad Williams at Blake Friedmann. Conrad sells my screenplays and my two-page pitches. He also suggests me for projects that he hears about where a writer is needed. Producers come to his office to tell him what they’re looking for, and he regularly meets with the movers and shakers of the UK and US TV and film industry on their home turf. His contacts are impeccable. Conrad also makes sure my novels, short stories, novellas and comics are optioned for film and TV. Even if they don’t get made, there’s always a fee for optioning. And once an option expires, usually in a year or two, the option can be re-sold. Some writers make a good living merely from having their work optioned, without it getting anywhere near a screen.

Euan and Conrad are in regular contact to exchange intelligence and to make sure my work is getting out there to all possible outlets.

In my experience, the bigger the agency you can land, the better. They’ve got more contacts, more clout, and departments of experts in different areas. In screen, they can package you with directors and stars to make a better ‘offer’.

That’s going to put a lot of noses out of joint. One-person bands will tell you their contacts and clout are just as good, and they can give a personal service. There’s some truth in that. But see what kind of personal service you get from a big agency if they start making any money out of you. But really, just get the best agent – with the most experience, and the most contacts – that you can. It’s hard to land on the books of bigger agencies, and you’ll need to prove they’re not wasting their time with you.

But: not all agents are equal.

Some people decide one night they’re going to be an agent and set up a website the next day. Poor writers get excited they’ve got an ‘agent’. But these people have no contacts and no clout. The writer would be better served sending out their work themselves. In fact, these kinds of agents can damage careers from the get-go. Remember, you sign with an agent – there is a contractual agreement. They have rights to your work that they’ve, allegedly, marketed during that period, and can hang on to the agenting rights so no other agent can touch it. If they were hopeless at the start, they’re not going to get any better. That book or script is essentially dead, unless you can get them to null and void their rights.

Other agents – usually in the one-person band group – don’t keep up with industry standards. Some still operate as if it’s a 20th century business. They haven’t developed contacts in film or TV, games, whatever. Others are simply unaware of the advances in digital. One agent told an author to give up his entire ebook rights for his backlist to his publisher, because ‘at least they’ll be earning’. No advance or at least only a nominal one. Those ebooks now sit on the company server, not marketed, earning a tiny royalty, and they’ll sit there forever. The author could have made a fortune self-publishing them. The agent had no idea.

Find good people you get on with. Clever people. Connected people with a track record. With a team like that, you’re out there punching hard, and you’re not doing it on your own.

 

Ideas And How To Get Them

Before I became a writer, I crawled along a coffin-sized tunnel far underground. I was set on fire while sleeping under canvas in the Arctic Circle. Gangsters threatened me with a gun in a basement in Brighton. And bullets whizzed around my head during a high-speed chase into the desert outside Palm Springs.

When I turned my hand to writing fiction, in novels, TV and film, I had plenty to write about.

But once I got my first publishing contract, I found myself stuck in a back room, staring at a screen and tapping at a keyboard. Where are you going to find something new to tell people in that experience? It’s the curse of writers everywhere. Once they achieve what they always wanted, they lose what earned them that ability to do what they want.

There’s a widespread belief that ideas simply happen, sprouting magically in the mind ready to be transcribed. That’s not true.

Experience creates ideas.

This isn’t an issue specific to writing. In the music industry, where I used to work and where relatives now work, it was a constant observation that artists would turn in a phenomenal debut album shaped by their lives. And then they’d get signed and spend their time in the studio or on the road and the second album would be a tired affair with nothing to say.

Even  if you don’t write directly about your own personal escapades, what you learn about the world, and about people, informs everything you write, and prompts new thoughts.

There’s a parallel but connected problem.  In every TV pitch meeting I’ve been in over the last twelve months, the buzzword has been authenticity.  A senior BBC executive told me about a great new script that had crossed their desk, but which they’d had to pass on.  The reason: “it seemed like telly”.  What that executive meant was that the characters and plot seemed like they were shaped by other television shows, not by the real world.

This is an issue that many editors in publishing talk about too.  A lot of projects seem to be informed only by other fictions, and so end up unbelievable – and even fantasies have to be believable on their own terms – or merely watered-down versions of what’s gone before.

This is a particular problem for writers who retreat to their rooms and indulge their love of reading and viewing and immersing themselves in their own thoughts – which is, admittedly, a fantastic life.  But it’s anathema to creativity.

If the only input you get is other people’s thoughts, what are you going to offer the reader?  And if you have nothing to say, no one wants to hear your voice.

TV commissioners and editors are not going to tolerate anything that doesn’t ring with authenticity any more.  Bring in the real world, and real people, so your characters feel in tune with now.

RULE # 6: Engage with the world.

Read a serious newspaper every day.  And I specifically mention this creaking old media because online a lot of the interesting side stuff that you stumble across on inky pages has been filtered away.  Read everything about what’s happening.  Current affairs – politics, foreign relations, social policy – medical journals, science and tech journals, art, fashion, trends, the Kardashians and Yuval Noah Harari.  Nothing is meaningless if people connect to it in some form.  Do anything that informs you about the workings of that great engine outside your door.

There’s a great scene near the beginning of Robert Altman’s The Player where the film executives are looking for ways to cut the difficult, obstructive writers out of the process.  One flips open a newspaper and says all the great stories are in there.  On one level he’s absolutely right.  But Tim Robbins’ cunning, highly political Griffin Mill knows deep down that it takes a writer to take that material and do something worthwhile with it.

There’s a reason why professional writers are always banging on about current affairs online.  They’re deeply immersed in it because it’s the fuel for what they do.

And it’s this: the more you learn, the better you write. Because neuroscience tells us that the more we learn and experience, the cleverer we get.  The more new ideas we generate from all that rewiring in our endlessly plastic brains.

But reading is not enough.  I can sense the collective shudder of introverted writers across the globe at the next suggestion, but the only real way to keep the creative mind fecund is to get out there and interact with people.  Find ways to engage with strangers, hear their stories, understand their lives.  How you do it is down to you.  Some go for politics or local campaigning or societies.  Others simply get out and talk to people they meet.

Then throw yourself into new experiences, whether you learn to scuba dive or hike across a moor or climb a mountain.  Travel to a new country, explore a city you’ve never visited before.  Be an adventurer.  Discover new things.  Then take all that you’ve learned, give it your own unique analysis, and pass it on.

You as a writer are a virus. Your job is to take your ideas and infect other people with them, change their biochemistry, change the way they think and interact with the world.  People want that.  They yearn to be transformed.  And if you give them that gift, they will love you forever.

But first you need to keep changing yourself.

Be a student of the world, not a shut-in who only consumes other people’s thoughts.  You’ll be surprised how quickly those amazing ideas bubble up from that deep pool at the back of your head.

Are You A Writer?

Simple question, complex answer.

Kat is a fantastically talented writer.  She graduated from one of the UK’s leading universities with an MA in creative writing and immediately sent out her manuscript for her first novel.  It was picked up by a small publisher.  It didn’t sell well.  Books from small publishers normally don’t.  Nor do first novels, usually.

When you go into a venture with a lot of dreams, it’s very easy to become disillusioned.  Nothing is how you imagine it.  Cold-hearted and hard-headed is the best way forward (writers don’t like that, of course – they deal in fantasies).  Once Kat received another crushingly small advance for her next book, she could see the road ahead unfolding.

“It’s impossible to make a living from writing any more,” she blurted.  “Nothing sells.  There are no opportunities to break out.”

“Write something different,” she was told.

“But…but…I only want to write about unicorns!*”  (*not unicorns – that’s me being glib – but it was something equally narrow.)

Writers are fantasists.  They can see the end results of their dreams so clearly, they can believe they’re almost there.  And by doing so, they fool themselves that they’re not actually in a business and that the normal rules of commercial engagement do not apply to them.  Wishing hard enough makes things happen.  And unicorns are everywhere.

No point telling them that this genre no longer sells, or no TV commissioner is interested in that kind of idea.  They want to write what they want to write.  They will not compromise.  Which is fine, as long as they also accept that it’s their choice that is limiting their ability to continue in their career or make a living out of it.

Most will say, I’ve made my choice to be a full-time writer – it’s my dream life – but I only want to write about unicorns.  Why am I stocking shelves in my local supermarket to pay the bills?  Life’s not fair.

If you choose writing as a business that will feed and clothe you and your loved ones, then it needs to be treated as a business.  That doesn’t mean you become a hack who does all for cash and nothing for art.  It does mean there are compromises involved, like in every single one of the creative industries.  If you choose writing as something you do in your spare time, a hobby, that’s great – indulge yourself and sink deep into the endless joys of creating something.

So the very first question you need to ask yourself when you’re starting out is: am I a writer?  Or am I simply a novelist, or am I a horror novelist, or am I a zombie horror novelist?  And you must be hard on yourself, because the outcomes you want will depend on the path you choose.

The brutal truth is, the more you narrow the parameters of your writing, the less likely you are to get escape velocity into making a living from it.

RULE # 2: Writers can write anything.

Over the last few days, we’ve established a few important points:

          * A writer is in the business of ideas, not the business of writing.

          * Ignore any knowledge about the industry gained from more than ten years ago.  Everything has changed.

* Maximise your talent if you want to make a living from writing.

These all feed directly into that initial question.

China Mieville, all-round fine fellow and the award-winning author of many novels including The City and the City (coming to a screen near you soon), has said it’s no longer possible to make a living from novels alone.  He now works as an academic at the University of Warwick, but he still publishes every year.

And he’s right.  In the tail-end of the eighties, a debut horror novel in the UK could gain a six-figure paperback advance from one of the big publishers.  Now a debut from one of the big five may likely net you £10-15,000 (sounds a lot if you’re earning nothing, but you may only be published for a couple of years).  If you go to one of the smaller publishers, you are looking at sub-£2000.

But remember – you’re an ideas person, and ideas are easily transferrable across media.  And when you look across media, the opportunities are endless.  All you need is to learn the form for each new medium: film, TV, comics, journalism, video games, blogs, technical writing, copywriting.

If you have ideas, if you can write, you can do any of them.  So why wouldn’t you?  Each one will channel funds into your income stream and you can work in several areas at once.

I started my writing life as a journalist.  Most publications accept freelance work if you can show you’re any good.  A Guardian Comment is Free blog piece is open to anyone and nets £65.  A feature within the paper around £400.

BBC Radio Drama brings in £40 a minute for beginners.  £957 for an episode of The Archers.  An hour of BBC TV, for absolute beginners, brings in £12k or £14k for ITV (script fees go up *very* rapidly after that).

A theatre play can bring in £10k.  UK features with a budget under £750,000 gets you a minimum of £19k.  For budgets of £750k to £2m, it’s £25,650.  And for budgets above £2m it’s £42,120.

Caveats: these are all minimums negotiated by the Writers Guild, and a good agent may well get you more.  These are UK fees.  US fees are *significantly* higher.

Why say you’re only go to write horror fiction when it’s not the 1980s and the majority of major publishers won’t go anywhere near horror?  You can keep your muse alive by self-publishing your horror work, and at the same time publish in other genres that are still vital.  Use a pseudonym to differentiate, if you like.  I write under my real name for film and TV, fantasy, SF and horror, and under James Wilde for historical fiction.

And don’t forget, all the rules have changed.  The publishing and entertainment industry is global now.  German TV channels are commissioning UK writers.  The BBC is commissioning Americans.  Marvel and DC Comics have creators from all over the world.

The barriers to earning only lie within.  Your brilliant ideas can go anywhere.  Be spry, be flexible, and soon you’ll be in a position to write exactly what you want.

Writing For A Living – New Ways Of Being

We’re going through the biggest period of change in human history, and one that’s accelerating.  Every aspect of life is being disrupted.  As a general rule of thumb, if you’re carrying over any wisdom about the world and how to operate in it from more than ten years ago, it’s probably no longer applicable.  (And that’s not an age thing – millennials are bringing forward that wisdom from their parents.)

Everything is changing.  So isn’t it crazy to stay doing the same thing?

There’s never been a better time to re-invent your life.  To reach out for a way of existing that you always thought was beyond you.

Most of our ways of operating that are embedded in us from childhood are based on a Victorian – if not earlier – worldview.  The notion of a ‘job’, a career, the 40-hour work week.  Sending children to school for long days, designed, not to educate the child, but to keep them out of the way so the parents could be productive for those same long workdays.

Our education system really isn’t fit for the 21st century.  We don’t teach things that are vital for the modern age.  We’re stuck in a groove of repeating things that once worked.

The aim is still one of moving children out into a world of work as it was, but which is disappearing fast and will be gone very soon.  According to an Oxford University study, all developed nations will lose 47% of jobs within twenty years.  In his excellent book, The End of Big: How the Digital Revolution Makes David the New Goliath, Harvard academic Nicco Mele makes the case very clearly.  In the future, most companies will have only four employees.

The Bank of England warns of imminent career collapse for accountants, auditors, technical writers, train and tram operators, and power plant operators.  There’s a medium term threat for financial advisors, computer programmers, airline pilots, surgeons, judges and magistrates, and economists.

The lowest risk of all?  Creators.  Ideation – the creation of new ideas – is the major area that won’t be disrupted in the short to medium term.  They used to tell us that the creative life was the riskiest one to choose, financially.  And now the nerds and the geeks and the meek shall inherit the earth.

This rapid, escalating change can be a crisis.  But if you’re wise, it can be an opportunity.

RULE # 13: Change your thinking.

You don’t need to have a ‘job’ like mum and dad told you.  Or go to an office.  Or have a career in the traditional sense, not if you don’t want to.  In fact, it’s probably wiser not to.  Why set yourself up for obsolescence?  You certainly don’t need to work a 40-hour week to make the same amount of money.

You don’t need to buy into that Victorian worldview, or keep repeating ways of being because it was right for your parents and your grandparents.  The opportunities are available to do everything differently, if you have the will, and the courage.  Work smarter.

I understand The Fear.  Structures give us comfort in a chaotic world.  It’s easier to keep doing what you’ve always done rather than sweep everything away and start afresh.  That’s frightening.  What if I’ve discarded stability for something worse, even if I wasn’t happy before?  What if I can’t put food on the table for my loved ones, or a roof overhead?

Income is the biggest worry.  No one wants to be a starving artist (especially when you can’t create when you’re desperate).  But it’s entirely possible to make a good living…often a very good living…from writing.

A lot of doomsayers will tell you that’s not possible.  But I would suggest their position is because they’ve not been doing it properly.

It all comes down to strategy.

I’ll be getting down to the nitty-gritty in the coming days and weeks.  But the first step (even though it’s Rule # 13) is to change your thinking.  Throw out those old and outmoded ways of seeing the world.  Once you understand the landscape as it is now, the way forward becomes a lot clearer.

It’s Not Actually About The Writing

A manuscript flopped on to an editor’s desk.  The prose was absolutely captivating, every word honed to perfection.  A joy to read.  It was about a boy wizard, attending a school for magic while battling a rising evil linked to his past.  Only this novel was written by…let’s call them ‘Dave’.  From Droitwich.  Dave had done his market research and had accurately discovered that there was a great public hunger for stories about boy wizards so he’d set out to write the best boy wizard story he possibly could.  He laboured over that pristine prose for three years.  Every diamond word.

You should be able to find that book self-published on Amazon, for 99p.  Download it.  Worth a punt at that price, surely.  Luxuriate in that great writing, for a couple of pages at least.  Then it’ll sit on your Kindle until you delete it.

Want to see a grown person cry?  Corner an editor at a convention and ask them about the manuscripts they’ve received for secondary world quest novels with a group of plucky heroes fighting…I don’t know…Horcs?…and…no, not a magic ring…maybe a magic…goblet?  Or about serial killers taking trophies from their victims.  Or zombies battling a dwindling band of surviving humans.  Many of them absolutely beautifully crafted.

I’ve seen aspiring writers draft and re-draft and re-re-re-re-draft their opus, making sure every single sentence sings while draining away the days of their lives.  And all for nothing.  Because the seed they originally pushed into that fertile earth was already dead.

Dan Brown takes a lot of flak for his novels.  Yes, some of the prose may lack elegance.  But the readers keep buying his work in enormous numbers, despite the critics’ views.  After the huge success of The Da Vinci Code, his publisher – my publisher – did extensive market research to find out why readers loved that novel so much.  The overwhelming response?  They didn’t care about the writing.  They were excited because Dan Brown was telling them something they didn’t know.

Readers, and TV and film viewers, desperately want to be told something new (even when they think they don’t), or to experience new feelings, or to be prompted into new thoughts.

RULE # 5: It’s not about the writing.  It’s about the ideas.

Received knowledge says writers are in the writing business.  They’re not.  They’re in the ideas business.  Editors and TV and film commissioners buy the idea.  They buy the person creating it, the sum total of their thoughts and feelings and analysis and life which will be poured into the project.  They expect the work to be beautifully crafted too, of course they do.  That’s the job.  But it’s not the essential part.

Ideas.  New ideas, that get the brain fizzing and the heart pumping.

Every year I get invited to the BBC Writers Festival, which is open to any screenwriter who has had work produced and screened on TV.  You get to hear from the top people in the industry about what they’re looking for, to commission, and to garner all the insider knowledge.  Those still slaving over their unsold scripts no doubt think it’s the media equivalent of the Bilderberg Group, where the elite swill champagne and plot to ruin the next year’s TV schedules.  (It’s actually a place where writers can get passionate about the craft and bitch and moan.  Writers are writers wherever they are.)

This year a very senior TV executive who dishes out millions of pounds to creatives said: “We’re only really interested in the premise and the characters.  Everything else is fixable.”

In his must-read screenwriting manual, Story, Robert McKee exhorts that you should never put fingers to keyboard until eighty per cent of the work has already been done.  It’s a natural human instinct to launch straight into writing once you get that creative rush of a new idea.  But if you talk to agents and editors and producers you’ll find that what is new to you is not necessarily new.  They’ve usually seen your fantastic new idea six times *that week*.

McKee advises caution because you need to be brutally hard on yourself and ensure you have the right idea, formulated in the right way, with the right characters.  If you don’t, any writing, however brilliant, is wasted effort and time.

Many people think creative writing courses will get you published or produced.  That’s a misconception.  All they can ever do is teach you to recognise good writing.  They can show you how to change the spark plugs and how to tune the carb, but they can’t show you how to win the Grand Prix.  That bit is inside you.

The writing is how you communicate those ideas and it has to be perfect to carry the thing at its heart.  But in the end it’s just a wireless signal rolling out into the great void.  The idea comes first.

Ideas are your currency.  Good ones are in very short supply, and they will buy you riches beyond imagination and that gilded future you dream about.  But you need to know how to mine them, and how to recognise them when you turn them up in the soil.  In the coming weeks we’ll talk about how you find those answers.

And yes, I hear you cry that people don’t *really* want new ideas.  Aren’t books and TV filled with familiar tropes?  Well, yes.  And no.  We’ll get to that too.

But for now, find those ideas.  And, remember, as a general rule of thumb, the first twenty are the ones most people have.  The next ten or so some people have.  It’s only after that that you get to the really unique ones, that only you could produce.

Yes, it’s extremely hard work.  It’s much easier simply to start writing and sink into the words.  But that’s why there are so many writers and so few who make a living from it.  Teach yourself to sweat and labour.

 

The First Rule Of Writing For A Living

It’s a fantastic time to be a writer.  And that’s the problem.

There are opportunities everywhere – in self-publishing, particularly, via Kindle, or in this golden age of TV.  Sometimes it seems like every single person you encounter is publishing their novel on Amazon.  (A friend, an acclaimed UK screenwriter, was chatting to a street cleaner in his local town.  When he found out what my friend did, the sweep mentioned he was working on his first screenplay.)

Everybody.  Billions of potential writers, competing for attention.

It’s easy to get disillusioned.  How are you going to get noticed by that traditional publisher, or that TV commissioner when you’re just a face in that seething crowd?

You might as well ask, with all those men hoofing a ball around a park on Sunday morning, how does anyone get to play in the premiership?  Or with all the people slapping paint on canvas in the spare room, what chance of getting an exhibition at Tate Modern?

RULE # 1: It’s not a numbers game.  It’s a talent game.

Nearly all that competition is going to fall by the wayside.  Why?  Wanting is not enough.  Once you grasp the deeper meaning of that rule above, you’ll realise that the way to get into this business, and make a living from it, is by maximising your talent.

That doesn’t mean learning your craft.  That’s taken for granted.  It’s about taking what skill you have and supercharging it so you surge past all those other people scribbling away.  And you do that by learning every aspect of your chosen business.

Throw away all the received knowledge of how publishing works, or TV or film.  It will kill you.  You’ll make choices based on that knowledge which will lead you into mean streets.  Everybody who works in those industries knows that on the inside they look nothing like they seem on the outside.

Find out why publishing with a small publisher – and some that are not so small – could get you nowhere.  Discover why finding an agent who’ll take you on may, in some circumstances, not be a good move.  Learn the first threshold you need to cross to get taken on by a publisher (it’s actually quite simple).  Realise why having the most amazing idea in the world and a fantastic script probably won’t get you a TV series commission.  Why your story isn’t being optioned by the film industry.  Why you can make just enough cash to keep you hoping, but never enough to get escape velocity into a writing career.*

Writers are a weird and often useless bunch, I’ve discovered over the years.  Some are so vehement that it’s “all about the writing” that they see learning about the business as selling out.  “The art will out.”  And by doing that, they end up killing their chance to write.  You only seem to get this kind of thinking among writers (maybe musicians too).  You won’t find many plumbers saying they’re not going to learn about the business – it’s all about the taps.

Others refuse to shake their imagined view of publishing, TV and film for the usually much more messy and hard reality. It’s a comfort zone thing – they’d rather have the fantasy.  That kills them too.  I’ve seen authors get a good publishing deal and end their days stacking shelves in a bookshop because they’ve refused to engage with the less rarified, less creatively-stimulating side of what they do.

Don’t make that mistake.

(* I’ll get to all these things in the coming weeks.)

2018 – The Year When Everything Changes

For a while there, I was thinking of changing the name of this blog to The View From The Bunker.  On a personal and professional level, 2017 was all-round great, if not one of the best for a while.  But…you know…out there in the world…

Now, stuffed full of turkey and mince pies and brimming with martini and champagne, I feel a bit more optimistic.  Still, whichever way you look at it, this year is going to be another one where Big Things Happen.  No point trying to ignore it.

Everything is connected.  Outside/inside.

On that theme, I plan to be writing a lot more here.  For a while, I’ve wanted to pass on what I’ve learned about the writing world.  How to go about making a living from novels and TV and film and journalism, say.  Because when momentous events are occurring out there, it’s also a good time to shake up your own life.  If you’ve ever wanted to walk away from the mundane world of 9-to-5, to carve out the existence you’ve always dreamed for yourself, now’s the time.

One thing the current Age of Upheaval has taught us is that time is running fast, life is short, and there’s no point counting on the status quo to see you through.  The people who win big are those who take calculated risks.  There won’t be a better time to reimagine who you are and what you do.

I’ll be talking about all that here.  Maybe you’ll pick up something that might help you.

My own work-front is looking pretty crammed.  I have three TV series in various stages of development with major broadcasters, and a movie script underway.  Can’t say any more about any of those right now.

There’s a new book out from my pseudonym, James Wilde, in July:

The paperback edition of Pendragon is out in March:

And various foreign editions all hit the shelves across the globe.  For a while, I’ve kept the “Mark Chadbourn” name just for screenwriting, but this year I’ll be publishing something under that moniker which will appeal to Age of Misrule fans.

And in the summer, I’m being inflicted on the poor students and conference visitors at the University of Oxford, talking about fantasy, Tolkien, writing and more.

Hold on tight. 2018 is going to be epic in all the right ways, if you decide to make it so.