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Making a living as a writer …
Whenever I read that phrase, I immediately think about all the opportunities for writers to make money doing what they love — copywriting, web writing, resume writing, grant writing … writing case studies, white papers, online content, social media posts — the list goes on and on. And typically, that’s what I cover in this blog.
After all, there’s SO MUCH opportunity for SO MANY writers in these fields. And for over 18 years now, AWAI has successfully been training writers on how to find the best-paying assignments and acquire the skills they need to do the job well.
Yet I also realize that for many writers, there’s a passion to become a published author — along with making a good living.
Since making money as a fiction writer isn’t my area of expertise, I called up rising star author Becky Masterman, who promised to hold nothing back …
Becky has had quite a bit of success in the past two years …
Her first book, Rage Against the Dying, was nominated for seven awards for Best First Novel, including the Edgar, Anthony, Gold Dagger, Macavity, Barry, International Thriller Writers, and Audie, and was recommended by the AARP and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” It was named Pick of the Week by Publishers Weekly and will be translated into 11 different languages, including Japanese and Czech.
And Fear the Darkness, the follow-up, which just hit shelves January 20th, appears to be following in its footsteps with glowing reviews. According to Janet Maslin, reviewing for The New York Times, " ... another strong display of the author's ingenuity ... this novel is no replay of the first ... " and Tom Nolan in The Wall Street Journal declares the book, " ... idiosyncratic and engaging ... pulls the rug out from beneath expectations."
But her success didn’t come overnight …
Prior to hitting her break with Rage, Becky wrote six novels … but nothing sold. It wasn’t until she challenged her husband to a competition for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) where they’d each write a book in a month that things started to change ...
With a background in forensic science book publishing, connections to some of the most famous scientists and experts in that field, and a desire to compete head-on with her husband, the character of Brigid Quinn was born …
An FBI special agent who now — in her retirement — is finally getting married, making friends, owning Pugs, trying to fit into the civilian world she always sought to protect for others. A woman whose priority is to keep her Book Club from finding out she can kill people with her bare hands.
And while it took Becky six weeks instead of the month to finish the first draft, she loved the character so much, she thought maybe someone else would like her, too.
She sent a query letter to an agent who responded, “Nobody is interested in a woman over 30.”
And though she shelved the book for a few years, she didn’t lose hope.
A few years later, something happened to change the world — maybe it was how Helen Mirren wowed at the Oscars — all of the sudden, older women were hot. Becky saw the opportunity and decided to send out query letters about her book one more time …
This time, the literary agent Helen Heller called. “I’ve been looking for this character for years. I think you can write, and if you’re willing to work hard, I think this book can be something.”
It took you 20 years to experience the success you’re experiencing now. Did you ever think about giving up? And if so, what made you go on?
I joke sometimes about giving it up and raising therapy cockapoos, but after all this time, I can’t see life without writing. It’s not about the publishing or the money, that’s just the game. For me, it’s about loving to write. I feel down when I’ve been away from it more than a week. I keep doing it because I can’t stop.
Where do you find the inspiration behind your writing?
You never know where an idea is going to come from. It could appear in a book, or in watching two strangers interact, or a news item, or a magazine article, or a friend telling you their troubles. That means you have to stay alert and ready to make that leap into story. You have to be ‘writing’ all the time.
What writers inspire you most?
John D. MacDonald, Richard Ford, Lee Child, Anna Quindlen, James Lee Burke, Walker Percy, Elmore Leonard, Daphne du Maurier … I get such different kinds of inspiration from so many writers, the list is endless and could change daily. I think it’s important to read widely and not stick to a genre.
What was your biggest challenge, and how did you overcome it?
My biggest challenge was recognizing that there’s a difference between writing the first draft for my own pleasure and writing every draft after that for love of the reader. Luckily, I was granted the counsel of an agent and editors who had been serving readers for a long time.
Why did you choose to go with an agent versus self-publishing?
I was familiar enough with publishing to know I’d likely sell a couple hundred copies tops if I self-published. There are self-published authors who make it, but the chances of that are equal to my getting a movie role that Meryl Streep wants. No, when I decided to play the game, I intended to do whatever it took, short of nastiness, to win.
What advice do you have on getting a good agent?
Write a great query letter, for starters. Make sure it shows your writing chops. Keep the part about you short. If you’re somebody, you don’t need to say much, and if you’re nobody, it doesn’t matter what you say. The good agents get a thousand queries a week, and in order to manage this quantity, they look for a reason to say no.
Next, try to find an agent who will criticize your work. Praise is useless. You want someone who will work with you to polish what they like, and who won’t just throw the manuscript as-is at five publishers and see if someone bites.
I know it’s exciting to get a call from someone who wants to represent you, but take a little time, find out who else is in their stable. How long have they been an agent?
You want someone who has experience with names you recognize, who specializes in your genre, but doesn’t have so many clients they haven’t the time to bring you along.
How long does it take to go from an idea for a book to actually getting published?
How much research do you do for your books?
Lots, but the question for me is not how much, but when. I do initial research when I’m developing my ‘what if.’ For example, googling executions at Raiford Penitentiary in Florida. But you shouldn’t get bogged down in fact-finding because you’ll never start the book. Get enough information to do a quick draft. Then figure out if the plot is viable, revise, and then find out the procedure for visiting a death row inmate.
Do you use an outline?
In this way: I list a bunch of possible scenes. I put them in some kind of order. I write a draft, changing things in the writing. I revise the outline to see what kind of book I’ve got. I write another draft. I revise the outline. Repeat.
What percentage of your fiction is based on real-life experiences?
You know how they say ‘write what you know?’ I think what it means is that you take what’s in the darker corners of your mind, and what you observe in the world, and then you distort it, refine it, or exaggerate it. One small example: I sometimes use a cane. My protagonist uses a walking stick when she hikes. It has a sharp blade attached to the end for killing … snakes.
How do you keep your fictional life separate from your real life? And if you don't keep them separate, how do you keep people from getting upset with you?
You mean your narcissistic cousin who can’t hold a job? According to author Anne Lamott: “If people don’t want us to write about them, they should have behaved better.” Distort, refine, exaggerate, even change the gender, and they probably won’t recognize themselves. If you’re worried that they will, don’t do it. It’s all up to you.
What are some life experiences that led to some of your character development?
I worked as an acquisitions editor in forensic science and law enforcement. My retired FBI agent Brigid Quinn is an amalgamation of so many of the people I knew and loved. Also, I married late in life to a retired Episcopal priest. People ask if Brigid’s husband Carlo, a smart, sexy, good-looking ex-Catholic priest turned philosophy professor, is my husband. He denies it.
What was it like to write a follow-up book?
The challenge was that I needed to keep my protagonist and yet I didn’t want to write the same book again, perhaps with a higher body count. So I took risks, turned from a serial killer plot to one with a slower build into psychological suspense. The funniest line about my protagonist came from my editor during revisions: “What’s heart-breaking angst in the first book, in the second book is just whining.” The best advice is succinct like this. You have to keep a sense of humor.
With the praise Rage got, were you intimidated at the thought of following it up?
You bet I was! But the choices are to go on, or stop. It’s quite simple.
Will there be a third in the Brigid Quinn series?
I’m working on the fourth revision right now. When you say revision to some people who aren’t writers, they seem to think it’s tweaking sentences. You’ll understand when I say ‘revision,’ I mean the stage where your agent is advising, “You’ve got this character who’s just a walk-on, and he’s too important. You need to give him more of a role.” This time around, I’m figuring I’ll drop about 10K words and add another 10K. This is good progress.
Since this is a blog about making a living as a writer, I have to ask … Can you actually make a living as a fiction writer?
There’s a statistic about how many authors make their sole living at writing. I don’t know the number, but I think it’s single-digit small. I recommend having a day job. Be a hospital orderly. Work as a receptionist in a police department. Clean other people’s houses. Clerk in a bookstore. Just think of all the rich material you get from the people you encounter and the profession you have. Observe conflict. Take notes.
Do you have any income streams other than your books?
I had a full-time job until last year. I had saved my retirement fund and was close enough to Social Security that I could stop working. If I were younger, I wouldn’t have quit my day job.
Is it true you got your start as a copywriter? Anything you learned that helped you as a novelist?
Like journalism, copywriting is good preparation because you’re working on a deadline. Novelists don’t wait around for inspiration either. You churn out the words and then revise. Good advice from a mentor: You can’t rewrite nothing.
What advice would you give a writer who has a dream of being published?
Don’t stop at one book. While you’re shopping and revising it, be writing the second. If a publisher is going to invest in you, they want to know what else you’re working on. Besides, the pleasure of the writing will cushion the knocks of the business.
If you could go back and do something different, what would it be?
I’d rewrite Rage an eighth time. Someone once told me books are never finished, they’re abandoned.
When you sit down to write, are you ever overcome by the possibility that, when all is said and done, there will be no one there to read what you write?
You mean like we’ll have hit the zombie apocalypse? And there’s no market for zom-com?
Okay, seriously. Writers will talk about wanting to be published. I tell them just because they’re published doesn’t mean they’ll be read. “How many readers will make you happy?” I ask.
No, you either love the writing or you do something else that satisfies you more. Sometimes my agent will call with changes that the editor wants and she’ll apologize that it will mean several month’s work. I always tell her not to worry, because it means I’ll be writing and that’s all I want. If you love writing that sentence, and then throwing it out and writing a better one, at the end, you will have lived an enviable life.
It was a thrill to interview Becky Masterman ...
And if you’re interested in learning more about making a living as a writer from some of the most successful writers in the industry, I also invite you to check out AWAI’s Barefoot Writer Magazine …
Each month, we feature an interview with a writer who is willing to share specific insights and advice on how you can follow in their footsteps. I’m always amazed at how generous they are with their information (like Becky was), and how many great actionable tips they give away. I highly recommend you check it out.
Next week, I’ll share with you five ways you can start making money as a writer while you’re working on your novel …
And I’ll even give you the one you should jump on right away if you’re looking to turn your writing into a full-blown career.
P.S. A quick thank you to all of the writers who posted questions on my Facebook page for Becky! It was fun to work on this interview with you. Felt like a team effort :)