In it for The Money: How to Career as a Writer

"Lots of folks get worked up and defensive when they feel their baby has been wronged; don't be one of them."

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Because I live in a college town, I’m periodically asked to speak to undergrads about “careers in publishing.” Despite my discomfort with human beings in general, I tend to jump at these opportunities. First and foremost, it’s nice to seem important.

And undergrads are pretty easy to trick into thinking you’re worth listening to (just ask any Lecturer III).

Beyond that, launching a writing career is a really straightforward process, and I feel it’s more or less my duty (as a former educator) to demystify whenever possible.

I think that folks outside the university systems might also be interested in this process. So, for the benefit of anyone looking to make a terrible career move, I offer this roadmap. It starts with getting a baby.

How To Launch Your Writing Career

Launching a writing career is a four-step process:

  1. Get a Baby
  2. Write Some Stuff
  3. Go to Library Story Time
  4. Check Your Email

I know, I know, you have a few questions. So, I will clarify in detail below, with footnotes.

Step 1: Get A Baby

This is important, because unless you have a baby you’ll never realize that your teaching career is driving you precariously close to involuntary institutionalization. Besides, as a teacher, you cannot actually afford to work full-time and own a child. Daycare alone would consume 75% of your paycheck.

So, get a baby, quit your job, cut your household income in half, spend your days baking from scratch (it’s cheap and nutritious!) and learning to fix your own appliances (it’s cheap and diverting!), and your nights finding work you can do quietly while a baby snuffles upstairs.

Step 2: Write A Bunch Of Stuff For Little To No Money

People – those who aren’t “professional writers” – will likely urge you to be practical about this. “Write what you know!” they’ll say. “You’re a stay-at-home parent; write about that! Write about parenting! Write something marketable! Start a blog!”

Don’t do those things.

Or, don’t do just those things.

Also write totally unmarketable things. Write op-eds for the local paper about birds and climate change, write weird almost-unsellable short fiction, write for-pay blog posts about Detroit for some really sketchy Eastern European guy.

Don’t worry about maximizing profit or placing things in “advantageous” venues; at this stage everything you think is savvy will turn out to be dumb, and everything that seems like an eccentric waste of time will ultimately cash out.

Accept that you have no idea what you’re doing, and just keep flailing away.

Step 3: Take Your Baby To Library Story Times

First, these offer free entertainment. Because you have no money, free is a plus. (Remember: you quit your low-paying job while increasing expenses by an unknowable multiplier.)

Second, as a stay-at-home parent you are moderately starved for human contact that doesn’t involve butt wipes. Finally, Library Story Time is a prime setting for your baby to get into an altercation, which is vital at this stage in your professional writing career.

Fair warning: “Story time” itself is pretty lame – apart from the closing ceremony, which consists of all the babies sticking communal penlights in their mouths; it’s as fascinating as it is unhygienic – but don’t let any of that faze you.

You just need to wait it out for the “free play” time that follows Story Time. “Free play” means that a librarian dumps a slew of bright plastic toys on the immaculate gray industrial carpet of the multi-purpose room. Like chum strewn in shark-choked waters, this triggers fantastic, boiling chaos.

It is in this chaos that a toddler will cruise in and snatch a truck from your baby. Do not intercede!

There are three reasons to take this laissez-faire approach:

  1. You are exhausted from keeping house, keeping baby hours, and keeping to esoteric deadlines set by an absentee Eastern European blog slumlord. You simply lack the spiritual fortitude to intercede on anyone’s behalf, even your own. [1]
  2. Your baby – just nine months old – is still far too young to have any sense of property rights. He or she doesn’t care that someone took something from him/her, since there are plenty of other somethings to grab and drool on.
  3. This is part of How You Become a Professional Writer.

While writing is a notoriously solitary task, getting paid is by its nature social. For the burgeoning professional writer, a baby-fight is the perfect social venue, because it is a great opportunity to be impressively pleasant.

Lots of folks get worked up and defensive when they feel their baby has been wronged; don’t be one of them. Laugh off the truck-snatcher’s violation of your baby’s sovereignty, make a joke, and for the love of God jump at this opportunity to talk to an adult human.

When asked what you do, say:

I am a writer.

Elide the fact that most of this “writing” is either local interest items for the free monthlies stacked in wire racks next to the legitimate newspaper machines, and that ongoing gig with the sketchy Eastern European. [2]

As it turns out, the truck thief’s mom is also a writer; she works on textbookish reference stuff for a sort of obscure Detroit-area conglomerate that you’ve actually heard of, albeit coincidentally – as their main offices are five miles from your parent’s house.

Say, “Oh, that sounds neat!” Because, frankly, anything billable sounds pretty neat.

The kids will now scatter, with their respective parents trailing like pilot fish. Follow your kid; children are expensive to repair or replace. (Remember: You’re basically broke.)

Go home and nuke leftovers for lunch, because that’s all you ever have for lunch, and you are grateful for that. This is a period during which you will, on more than one occasion, burst into tears when you knock your baby’s bottle off the counter, dumping breast milk or formula on the floor. Yes, you will cry over spilled milk. Breast milk is in limited supply, and baby formula is expensive. (Remember: You’re basically broke.) This is part of being a professional writer, so just get it out of your system, splash cold water on your face, and keeping hustling.

Step 4: Check Your Email

A few weeks later your baby will take a bottle after lunch and doze off.

Once baby’s in the crib snoring, go check your email.

There will be a message in your inbox from someone you don’t know, inexplicably addressed to your full birth name – which is something no one ever actually calls you. But you use your full birth name as your byline because your common name is so generic that it’s essentially Google-proof.

This email might be from, say, an editor in Beijing who wants to buy the Simplified Chinese translation rights to one of your stories. [3] Or maybe it’s from the mother of the library story-time truck snatcher, who will explain:

  • She’d read an op-ed in the on-the-verge-of-collapse local newspaper the other day and thought the little blurry pic next to the byline looked sorta-kinda familiar, although she couldn’t put her finger on why.
  • Then she took a totally out-of-character mid-afternoon nap.
  • Then she got up and was leafing through the latest issue of a very obscure print ‘zine out of New England – one with a tiny circulation – where she saw your name again, along with your wife’s, attached to an odd horror story you two co-wrote, titled “You Were Neither Hot Nor Cold, But Lukewarm, and So I Spit You Out.”
  • Your bio at the back of the ‘zine indicated that you and your wife lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan – where she’d met the guy with the chill baby at story time.
  • And your full birth name is eminently Google-able, so she wrote you, because even if you aren’t you, it’s still a suitably mind-blowing set of coincidences.
  • And, as it turns out, yeah, there are some freelance openings with the big conglomerate she works with, and she’s happy to put you in touch with some people.

Seven years later your kid will be in first grade – and thus the state’s problem between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. – and you’ll have written 11 books with one division of that company and several hundred reference entries for another.

You’ll have leveraged all that work and experience into a healthy commercial freelancing business, as well as a regular newspaper column, occasional magazine gigs, a couple of geeky DIY books, an interview with Noam Chomsky, a taco lunch courtesy of a grateful nation of Canada, short stories in science fiction magazines people have actually heard of and anthologies that you regularly see on bookstore shelves. Lots of stuff.

You will have written a lot of stuff, for money, just like professionals do.

Because this is how you launch your career as a Professional Writer!

Career Lucky

“Hey!” you’re about to type, “This isn’t a career plan, it’s just a string of random events involving a nameless baby! None of it applies to me; I don’t even have a baby! What a rip-off!”

What’s tripping us up is this word “career.” Our noun-y modern sense of the word – the one that’s grown to almost totally devour the word’s denotation, this sense of an orderly set of steps between one point in your working life and the others (“career plan,” “career building,” “career management,” etc.) – is only a couple hundred years old.

That noun-y modern notion of a “career” is first attested in the early 1800s – but such a usage would have sounded totally nuts to English speakers from an earlier age. For the preceding 200 years, “career” was mostly a verb, meaning “to run at full speed,” often out of control (e.g., “The cart careered down the hill and crushed poor Sir Percival!”). Prior to that the verb just meant to charge at full speed, generally in a jousting tournament. (Any noun-y use of the word from the 1500s was referring to such a charge, e.g., “Sir Percival showed himself a coward in his first career of the match; perhaps he’ll avail himself better now that he’s quaffed a health tankard of mead!”) If you’ve ever seen jousting – even the heavily managed Ren Fest reenactments – you know this is far from orderly set of steps leading to a well-planned conclusion.

The point is that, in truth, a “career” isn’t about planning out the path you are going to take, so much as it is about looking back over your shoulder once the ride settles down to get a glimpse of the crazy path you took. One way or the other, you are sure as hell going to end up at the bottom of that hill.

Every “career” is a random string of events rationalized through hindsight. There isn’t an easy four-step Instructable for becoming a “professional writer.” But I tell the story anyway, because it’s funny and because, over time, it’s shown itself to be a sort of parable on “marketing” and “networking” in their most human (and humane) forms.

So you can think of that four-point list that led off this column as a caricature of the real deal – The Four-Fold Path to Landing Gigs:

1. You need three contacts to stick in someone’s head.

Had it not been for the library play group, the newspaper op-ed, and the weird horror story, I wouldn’t have landed most of the work that sustained my family between my boy’s first and seventh birthdays. Even with any two of those contacts, it wouldn’t have been sufficient to make the connection. Dammit all, the marketoids were right! [4]

2. Be funny, or barring that, at least be pleasant; don’t ever take offense.

Say the things you’d naturally say; it’s better to risk giving offense and honestly connect with a human than to present some false version of yourself that you imagine will result in a “solid lead.” This isn’t a movie like “Glengarry Glen Ross” – it’s your actual real life.

3. Everyone has connections, everyone offers opportunities.

People like helping folks they like; be likable, and be helpful. I remember this story as being about how someone kindly gave me a leg up when I was starting out and lost at sea. But digging through my ancient sent-mail to draft this essay, I discovered that I was also sharing my meager freelancing leads with the tiny truck-snatcher’s mom from our first email exchange.

4. Commit.

None of this would have come together if I’d said “I’m a stay-at-home parent, but I’m trying to be a writer” – even though that’s exactly how I felt. I said “I’m a writer” – even though it felt like the worst fib in the world – because it just happened to also be the goddamned truth.


[1] In about nine months you’re going to physically track down that same wayward Eastern European over an unpaid $1,000 invoice. This merry chase will culminate with you standing on a sketchy porch, about to turn the door knob, and pausing to call your wife and ask her to wait 10 minutes, then call the police with the address unless you call back telling her otherwise – but you’ll have gotten some sleep by then. Right there, in the library, you’re as weak as a very tired kitten.

[2] This may feel somewhat fraudulent. Tamp that down. And, whatever you do, don’t say “I’m a stay-at-home parent, but I’m trying to be a writer.” Sure, that’s how you feel, but it’s nonsense. People say “I’m trying to be a writer” because they don’t feel like a “real” writer because they aren’t getting paid – or not paid well enough – or don’t have an agent, or whatever. But no one ever says “I’m trying to be a stay-at-home parent,” even though that position is likewise unpaid and unendorsed. You get a kid, you get the title of “parent,” regardless of your competence. Meanwhile, if you’re writing stuff and folks are reading it, you’re demonstrating essential competency; for better or worse, you’re a “writer.”

[3] An example that sounds absurd, but actually happened to me in February of this year. It’s not even the weirdest “So I got this email…” story I’ve heard from a writer.

[4] Quoth Wikipedia: “In advertising, the effective frequency is the number of times a person must be exposed to an advertising message before a response is made and before exposure is considered wasteful.” Since the marketing revolution of the mid-1960s it’s become largely accepted folk wisdom that it takes three exposures for an advertising message to have a measurable impact.

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  1. August 26, 2013 at 10:37 am | permalink

    I realize that this column is written in jest, but I spent a couple of years as a freelance writer and got to know quite a few freelancers by participating in an informal group [link] which was quite a help in comprehending this world. There was a great deal of advice as well as the sense of support from knowing others in the field. (Vickie Elmer is my personal hero; she has made a career of helping others in addition to her own excellent writing career.) (You’ll see some of Vickie’s helpful hints on that blog.)

    I would guess that the life of a serious novelist or the writer of a serious non-fiction book is rather different. And I suspect that if you try to be either of those things AND be a freelancer to support yourself, you are doomed to a certain level of frustration and unmet goals.

    Anyway, I have great respect for those who must actually make a living in this way. There are a lot of hardships and difficulties, and the result is that we get some good articles to read.

  2. By Mike
    August 26, 2013 at 2:58 pm | permalink

    Dear David,

    God bless you, your wife and your little one(s). Please keep up your wonderful writing. Thank you for the smiles, thank you for your making memories come alive again. Thank you for making others’ past come alive with your present.

    My unsolicited advice (with the caveat to you that I am not professional writer) – hang in there with that wife, hang in there with those little ones, hang in there with that career. As the Desiderata correctly asserts [link] “Keep interested in your career, however humble” (it helps if you love it – as you no doubt know); “it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.”

    From my experience, even if the book of your life doesn’t net you billions of dollars, the “ride of your life” – your “trips around the sun” with you and family together – can be more worthwhile than all of the treasures of the world. Even if you don’t have the time to get the book of your life to print, may the book of you and your family’s life be the greatest story you’ve ever told.

    All the best, David. And thanks again.

  3. August 26, 2013 at 3:00 pm | permalink

    Nice article! Before I started my quest to find an agent/publisher for my YA book, I would have agreed that everyone has contacts and everyone offers opportunities. Sadly, I have found the latter to not be true (for the most part–Sarah Zettel has been a huge source of support!). I do know that if I ever get published, I pledge to be as helpful as possible.

    As Vivienne says, there is likely a different between freelance and bigtime! serious! author! and maybe that is what I am running into. Likewise, I also very much respect anyone who can be self employed at anything–especially freelance writing.

    PS: The same is true in teaching…it is very helpful to “know” people. I know of a few special ed jobs in the county where I teach if anyone wants to email me about them!

  4. August 30, 2013 at 4:35 pm | permalink

    Woah, that’s me, mother of the truck-stealing toddler (now 8 years old). God I hated those library story times, but I guess it paid off. I never knew until today the tremendous impact that had on you — so good! Thank you for sharing this. And it still goes down in my personal history as one of the strangest synchronicities of my life. Stranger than fiction.

    Double underline on the “just be yourself” (#2) because that is what made you memorable to me from our short conversation. Every other story time experience my son and I had was dull or negative and has been wiped from memory for posterity.

  5. By Steve Thorpe
    September 5, 2013 at 11:43 am | permalink

    As someone who toils in that particular bean field, I must say that helping someone to become a writer is cruel and sadistic. Not quite as bad as suggesting they go to law school (and certainly cheaper), but still heartless.

    Welding is nice.