I’ve been a (mostly) full-time writer for about 20 years now. Sure, there are periods where I have to take a job for a while to supplement my income, but even during those times, I’m a writer first and any other job just fills in the gaps. Over that time, I haven’t developed a survival kit so much as I have come up with some survival essentials to ensure that my writing career will last my lifetime.
Be willing to work harder than every other writer out there. Let’s face it. I’m not the best writer on the planet. I’ve met many others who, hands down, can write better prose than I can. However, I learned early on that the ability to write well can be learned and sometimes what makes the difference is your ability to write more than anyone else. I’ve had stints during my career where 3 hours of sleep was a norm because my work load was so high. During those times, I learned to write faster and cleaner. During slower times, I learned to write better. (And if you’re a writer, you know what I mean!)
Be flexible, always. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, there’s always room for flexibility. In fiction writing, your characters are going to take you places you never thought you would go. In non-fiction, your editors will take you there. If you’re willing to be led. If not, you could miss out on some great opportunities. I’m currently struggling (still) with Biloxi Blue, the second in my Biloxi Series, because for the longest time, I just couldn’t be flexible with my characters. They won, of course, and now I find myself going down a road that makes me supremely nervous. But it’s their story, so I have to flexible and allow them to lead me where THEY need to go.
Be willing to say no. Some of the worst mistakes I’ve made as a writer have stemmed from my inability to say no. The problem with always saying yes is that sometimes, those mistakes end up in print and they will haunt you for years to come. For example, I wrote a book a number of years ago on a topic with which I wasn’t very familiar. But the editors asked me to write it, and who was I to turn down a request from an editor? Uh…the author! YOU know what you’re capable of and what you’re not. Set your boundaries and respect them, because I promise, always saying yes isn’t necessarily what is best for your career.
Know when to take a break. This is the toughest one. Everyone assumes that if you can go a day (or a week, or a month) without writing, then you must not be a writer. I believe that is wrong thinking. See, the thing about writers is that we tend to work ALL the time. There’s a popular image going around right now that has a caption that reads “A writer’s life is spent writing or thinking about writing.” It’s true. We never take a break. If our fingers aren’t actively moving on some article, poem, or story, then our brains are working out plot points and scene breaks, organization, and character motives. But it is possible to burn out, even for writers. I know. I’ve had it happen to me. And if you don’t take a break before you get to that point, the damage to your self-esteem and your career, can be hard to overcome.
These days, I know what to look for. If I get too tired. If I dread going to the office or sitting down at the computer. If the thought of having to write one more word makes me want to huddle in a ball in the corner. Then it’s time to take a break! And I do. Sometimes, it’s a short break – a few minutes. Other times, it’s a break that lasts a month or more. That doesn’t make me NOT a writer. It makes me a smart writer who understands that for the best possible stories to come from that creative place in my being, it’s essential for my being to take a break.
So, that’s my list. What’s yours? What are the things that you ABSOLUTELY have to do in order to survive the writing life? I’d love to hear your suggestions, because I’m always looking for new ways to ensure a long and happy writing career.