Making Writing Work

A while back Joe Konrath put out a call for guest posts for his blog. This was mine. Unfortunately the day before I was going to send it to him he ended up writing a post with a similar message. I decided to go ahead and post it here anyway. It’s geared toward other writers, like most everything else on this blog. Hope you like it.

* * *

My name is Brian J. Jarrett. You’ve probably never heard of me.

I’ve never been published in a magazine of any kind. I’ve never had a story published in a collection. I’ve never had a novel published by anyone.

I’ve never once sent a query letter to anyone. Ever.

I wrote my first short story in grade school, then started writing more seriously in high school. After graduation I wrote a bunch of short stories and a novel. I thought about trying to become an author, but ultimately I gave up on that dream. I ended up going to college and becoming a computer programmer instead.

Fast forward a dozen years. It’s late 2010. I’d decided I wanted to write creatively again, mostly for myself. I thought I might be able to find a website to share some of my work. Maybe I’d write another novel.

Then I stumbled upon a blog that changed everything for me: A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.

I learned about a device called the Kindle. I learned that I could publish myself on this device via Amazon, electronically. There was little risk; I would write the best book I could and put it out there. Maybe it would take off.

I reread my old stories; none of them were good enough to publish as they were. Neither was the novel. I studied writing as a craft. I improved. I wrote a short story.

Then I decided to write a new novel.

I spent eight months writing my novel, Into the Badlands. I spent a month alone on the outline, a first for me. I collected a group of beta readers to provide feedback. I started getting up at 5:00 am every day to write. I wrote on nights and weekends. I revised, listened to feedback, revised again.

In September, 2011 I published my novel. Friends and family came out in support; I sold 18 copies the first week. I fully expected sales to slow to a trickle. I figured I’d sell 50 copies total, if I was lucky. Instead I sold 46 copies that month.

Then in October I sold 60 copies. In November I sold 165 copies. In December I sold 411 copies. I’m on track to sell over 900 copies in January, 2012.

I made some mistakes along the way. I skimped on an editor. I tacked on a bad ending without my beta readers’ blessing. I corrected these things quickly.

I also did a few things right. I wrote the best book I possibly could. When I found problems I fixed them immediately. I hired an editor to help me proofread. I used beta readers to keep me on track.

I had a bit of luck on my side as well. Into the Badlands features a world stricken by a horrific virus that turns humans into violent animals hell-bent on killing the survivors.

In other words, zombies.

I didn’t plan on writing a zombie book. I wrote a book about a father and his two sons trying to hang on to their humanity while they search for a safe haven from these monsters. But the book resonated with zombie fans, mostly because of this. They found the approach refreshing and compelling. Luckily for me zombies have a lot of fans right now and those fans have accepted my book. Also, one of my beta readers was an admin on a popular zombie website, another incredible stroke of luck. He put a post out in their book forum that definitely helped drive sales.

After nearly 1,400 copies sold in four and a half months I started rethinking my “hobby”.

I decided to make writing work for me. I read a lot of stories on here about writers quitting their jobs and writing full time. That’s awesome, but I don’t want to do that. I love my IT job and I make good money. I like writing in my off hours. My wife is a teacher, but the recession hit us and she’s now working at a grocery store.

So instead of me quitting my job to write full time, she’s going to quit hers.

With her no longer working she can now pick up the household chores that pull my attention away from writing. She can give me back the time I need to write more. As we all know, the more books you have the more you’ll sell. I have two books due out this year; a horror novel and the sequel to Into the Badlands. If all my books combined continue to sell as well as my single book has sold, we’ll be sitting pretty.

We’ll be making writing work for us, our way.

So maybe instead of you quitting work, maybe  your spouse can quit. Or maybe you supplement your regular income with your royalties. Save up for that vacation or new computer, maybe use your royalties to buy a car.

In programming we use the concept of the Boolean, a true/false. Writing in the post-Kindle world isn’t a success/fail scenario; there are lots of graduations in between.

The rules have changed and your indicator of success ought to change along with it. I’m on track to make $1800 this month in passive income from a book I thought no one would buy. I now realize I should have had more faith in myself. Could I have done this ten years ago? Doubtful. But I’m doing it now, and that’s what matters.

Granted, these numbers may be pitifully low. I don’t have much of a frame of reference. I do know that my monthly royalties are twice what my wife makes part-time at the grocery store in a month. That’s good enough for me to call it successful. Will it continue? I can’t say. But I will continue with the formula that’s working for me. I will write the best books I can and sell them at a reasonable price. I will continue to learn the craft and improve my work. I will listen to my readers. I will write the kind of books I would like to read. I will also continue to read, read, read.

I don’t care about being in a bookstore, or the New York Times, or winning some award. I care about reaching readers and that’s exactly what I’m doing.

How can you make writing work for you, your way? That’s up to you to decide…and that’s what’s so great about this brave, new world we call publishing.

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