If you’ve followed me here for a while, you know that I was a freelance writer/corporate drone writer for years before becoming a published novelist. It was nice to be able to make money from writing, and to finance my novel writing dreams with my words. More than that, though, the benefits of being a “writer” before becoming a “novelist” helped my novel writing in ways I did not foresee.
(Note: I keep putting words like “writer” and “novelist” in quotes because there tends to be a lot of quibbling about the definitions of these words. “Author” is another one that generates argument. When to call someone a writer, author, novelist, or word monkey is a matter of personal opinion. For the purpose of this piece, I refer to “writer” as someone who makes money from writing, but not necessarily creative writing. A novelist is someone who writes and publishes novels. I’m not going to distinguish between self-published and traditionally published because I don’t think it matters for my purpose here. So argue if you want to, but that’s where I’m coming from.)
Just how did being a working writer help my novel-writing dreams and career? First, being a working writer teaches you how to write fast, yet remain accurate and relatively error-free. When you’re paid by the gig, or working under crazy deadlines for an employer, you learn how to crank out the words quickly and accurately. You don’t have time to agonize over every word, or rewrite every paragraph forty times.
Second, it cures you of any sort of “writing diva syndrome.” When you’re working for an employer and on deadlines, you can’t afford to be precious about your words. You can’t suffer from writer’s block, or any other sort of imagined affliction that causes your word count to sputter. If you don’t write, you don’t get paid. It’s amazing how little time you have to think about failure, success, perfection, or creativity when your next paycheck hinges on getting the piece done.
Third, you learn how to take criticism. All writers get criticism, but being a working writer pretty much makes you immune to any criticism you’ll receive as a novelist. Over the years, I’ve heard it all. I’ve failed to accomplish the employer’s goal. My writing is terrible. I’m terrible. I don’t understand anything the client wants or needs. I can’t write my way out of a bag. People don’t hold back when they’re paying you for your work. Sure, bad reviews sting, but when you’ve spent years having employers criticize everything about your work (and, occasionally, you personally), a bad review of your novel or a critique from an editor washes right over you.
Fourth, you learn how to meet deadlines. Often, quite ridiculous ones. Employers need their pieces by certain dates. The piece has to go in the newspaper or newsletter. It has to be on the client’s desk by Friday. You have three hours to completely rewrite a 200 page grant proposal because the specs changed but the deadline didn’t. When you’re writing your first novel, you have all the time in the world. But once you’re heading toward publication, deadlines become a big thing. The editor needs the copy back by tomorrow. Your contract says the sequel is due next month. You don’t win friends by missing deadlines, so having the experience of regularly meeting them makes you easier to work with.
Fifth, you learn to put your butt in the chair. The work only gets done if you show up. There are no elves that will do it for you. As a working writer, if you want to be paid, you show up. Day after day, whether you feel like it or not. That’s discipline you need as a novelist. When you’re working on something huge like a novel, you have to show up regularly and make progress. Learning this discipline from your work saves you the pain of learning it as a novelist.
Sixth, you learn how to edit. (And how to be concise from the get-go.) Employers don’t want your long-winded prose. They want the facts, the bullet points, or the persuasive arguments. You learn quickly how to kill your darlings and get to the point. And the better you are at that from the beginning of a piece, the less time it takes and the more pieces you can write. As a novelist, your editors will thank you for this ability.
Seventh, you learn how to finish. Just finishing the dang thing is often the biggest hurdle for beginning novelists. Working as a writer teaches you how to finish. If you don’t finish, you don’t get paid, so you learn how to get over yourself and finish pieces. When you become a novelist, not finishing isn’t even on your radar because you know you can finish anything you start, whether it’s a three-hundred page proposal or a door-stopper-sized novel.
(Image by gonzalo cox)