Several years ago, David Handler gave a talk to aspiring writers at the inaugural Writers Weekend at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. David is a successful author who has been writing for decades. Inevitably in such a setting, someone asked about his writing life. David replied that he spent the morning writing and the afternoon working on his small business.
“What’s your small business?” someone else asked.
“Being an author,” he replied. He explained that in the afternoon, he routinely dealt with the business end of writing, including communications with his agent and his editor, correspondence with readers, and planning talks just like this one.
Call me naïve, but this was the first time it truly dawned on me that being a writer involves more than just the writing. Considering that I’d spent more than twenty years as a self-employed legal writer and researcher, you’d think this might have occurred to me before now. In my day job, I’m a one-person show: I do the research, I write the briefs, I track the time, I compose and send out the bills, I handle the accounting (and collections, when necessary), I file the documents away, I manage the technology, I vacuum the rug—literally everything that needs to be done. I’ve occasionally hired a file clerk to handle big jobs like stripping and storing files, but easily 98% of the work over the past twenty-five years has been done by me or not done at all.
When I first started writing seriously in 2013, it occurred to me that I was effectively taking on a second job. If I wanted an author career, I needed to treat my writing like my legal business, meaning that I needed to invest time and resources. I did, and in those early years, I wrote several stories that ended up being sold or published in connection with contests. The payments and honoraria didn’t come near offsetting the costs of classes, workshops, and conferences, but I was making progress.
After a few years, I decided it was time to take a few more steps forward. I set up this website and began blogging. I continued to take classes, attend workshops, and go to conferences. Perhaps most significantly, I set aside the short stories and focused my writing time on the early drafts of State v. Claus, having (finally) come to the realization that writing a book was important to me, but that it would require regular, disciplined effort. At least five or six days a week, I spent an hour at my treadmill desk, composing and then editing, until I had a completed draft. I would print out each draft and set it aside until I could read it cold; in the interim, I focused on stories.
It wasn’t until I had what I thought was a final draft of State v. Claus that I began to understand what David meant about the small business of writing. I originally wanted to publish my book traditionally. This required copious amounts of research to ascertain which agents might be appropriate, followed by still more time and effort working on those submissions. Maybe others can do it more efficiently, but for me, preparing each submission was an hour’s work. Not only did I need to individualize the letter and the specific materials the agent required, but I had to double-check their website and Twitter feed to ensure they hadn’t temporarily closed to submissions since I’d seen various tweets about how submissions sent during “closed” periods were deleted unopened.
For a variety of reasons I’ve discussed in other posts, I eventually decided to form my own imprint, Tuxedo Cat Press, and publish State v. Claus myself. That’s when I discovered that there are two kinds of independent publishing. One kind is where you dash off the story, go on Amazon, and upload it with barely more effort than my friends and I used to post our fanfic stories. The other kind is where you do whatever you can to ensure your book looks professionally published and won’t look out of place on the shelf of your local bookstore. That approach takes a lot of work: learning the publishing business, researching and hiring designers, figuring out distribution—and did I mention having the book edited by someone who knows what they’re doing? And then, after the book is published, there’s the neverending work of selling it, whether it’s figuring out how to run ads and plan deals or overcoming your innate shyness to contact bookstores and other venues about doing signings and talks. It all takes time and effort, on top of the day job and the time spent actually writing. In essence, publishing the book is a completely separate business—a third job.
As 2021 drew to a close, I found myself remembering the days of short stories and submissions. Maybe I was nostalgic; maybe I was looking for an excuse not to struggle with my current novel. Regardless, I went through the section of the newest issue of Poets & Writers where they list dozens upon dozens of contests and publication opportunities, and I marked the deadlines for any that seemed relevant on the whiteboard over my desk.
I ended up spending much of this past holiday weekend submitting short stories to contests and publications. Again, there was additional research and non-writing work to be done. For example, submitting to contests generally carries a fee, while many regular publications don’t charge submission fees, so I needed to consider my budget. Also, even most contests ask for a cover letter including biographical information, and this often needs to be tweaked. After the story is sent off, the submission needs to be tracked; I use Duotrope, but some people are perfectly happy setting up a spreadsheet. (Note: failure to track can mean submitting a story to a publication that has already rejected it, which is embarrassing for the writer and annoying to the editor.)
It’s hard to say whether this short story submission practice is a fourth job or merely an extension of Job #2, writing. I’d say it doesn’t matter, but for me, it helps in the planning. If I’m trying to ensure that I include time for each job in my week, I need to know how many jobs I’m planning for. I’m counting blogging as writing, which means the hour I’ve spent composing this post is my writing time for the day, and the time I spend posting it is my author-business time. Once I’ve posted this, I’ll turn to my legal work. I have a commitment this evening, so that’s likely it for today’s writing-related activities. Tomorrow, I may schedule my day differently—maybe spend an hour on the new book in the morning, a few hours on the legal work (which is, after all, the bread and butter, as well as having court-ordered deadlines), and half an hour in the evening on submissions. However the schedule plays out, it’s important to know how many balls I have in the air, if only to ensure that I catch them all.
Because David Handler was right all those years ago: there’s being a writer, and there’s the business of being an author. Whether you prefer big categories like those or narrower ones, there’s no escaping that if you want writing to be your career—or one of your careers—you need to pay attention to all the different aspects and figure out how to work each into your day so you don’t end up dropping one (or more) of the balls.