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How To Make A Living As A Writer

Writing As A Career

F.A.Q Series #1

By Peter Lourie

After years of getting asked different variations of the same questions, I thought curious folks might appreciate having the answers in print. 

In this post, I talk about:

  1. When I knew writing might be a viable career path.
  2. How I maintained momentum as a young writer while making a living.
  3. How I, as a fledgling writer, broke into the business and got publications to notice me

When did you know your writing was a viable career path?

Joseph Conrad wrote, “There’s no getting away from a treasure that once fastens upon your mind.”  That’s how I was driven to the story of the Inca treasure in Ecuador. I wrote and rewrote it many times in many forms.  I couldn’t let it go. I’m not sure I ever thought about a “viable career path.” I was more like a terrier with a bone. It was a story I kept trying to get right.

But how did you have the confidence to keep going? I think most people are probably worried that they can’t make a living at being a writer. Is that something you were worried about? Or did you do something else to support yourself while you were trying to get the book right?

In one way I was lucky.  I didn’t need to starve in a garret.  After I got through my first 300-page travel book, my shorter nonfiction projects felt like assignments I could work on in chunks.  I kept a teaching job. In Ecuador it was little kids. In the Hudson Valley it was high school English and Community College. At Columbia I was a Teaching Assistant with two classes of freshmen comp a semester.  After that, I started teaching at the University of Vermont and Middlebury College. I found some sort of balance between making money and continuing to write. 

One school of thought says, if you spend too much of your energy making a living, you’ll inevitably forgo the more ambitious, artistic writing projects—a memoir or perhaps another 300-page deep dive into a complex subject.  Certainly a novel. As a dedicated teacher, I didn’t really have the energy left over to write three hours a day.  So I gravitated toward shorter projects for young readers. 

Maybe it’s a question of stage of life, too. Just out of college, one might starve in a garret for a few years while trying out a novel.  Ten years out of college with a blossoming family, a writer starts to think about educating the kids and insurance policies. Perhaps as I got older with more financial burdens, thinking of others instead of just me, I naturally felt more comfortable making money from something other than writing.

Teaching alone never paid all the bills.  My advances for the books got bigger, and I supported my family by giving adventure presentations to elementary and middle school students.  I’ve probably presented to a million kids over the past few decades.

It’s wonderful that children’s book authors and illustrators can get paid to go into schools and excite young writers and readers about books. Adding adventure into the mix just makes it all the more exciting.

How does a new writer break into the business and get magazines or publications to pay attention to them?

I started with an article for Treasure Magazine in the 1980s that paid me $100.  I moved on to other magazines for adults and children.  One of those magazines, Highlights for Children started a book-publishing company and invited me to write a kid’s book about my travels in Brazil’s Amazon.  I went on to write 15 books for that new publishing house, and was off to the races.

As for getting someone to notice—I come back to what I tell students: explore a subject you are passionate about and then make it your life to find out all you can about that thing. Passion coupled with expertise will always be rewarded, but sometimes it does take a little bit of patience and a whole lot of faith.  And some luck, too.

People say writing a book is maybe 10% of the battle, the other 90% is getting it published and getting people to read it.  Even if that were true, I decided to finish a whole draft of my first book before thinking of where/if/when it might be published.

Believing in your project enough to go out on a limb artistically and financially can help convince an agent or an editor to take an interest in the topic.  But mostly it gets you through the grueling day-to-day work of writing. Getting noticed later will be very hard for sure. I know one writer whose book became a bestseller but was rejected by so many publishers that he implied in a letter to a 30th or so editor that he knew the author of one of the books the editor worked on.  It got him noticed and his book was read, loved, accepted, and sold a million copies.

Writers dream of such success but at the end of the day, there’s no formula for achieving it. All we can do is write, write, and write some more about things we’re deeply interested in and want to share with the world. Do that and no matter what you’ll satisfy yourself. As to getting it to the rest of the world—stay stubborn, stay patient, and keep your eyes wide open for opportunities. 

Good luck.

 

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