During a recent trip, I was flipping through an in-flight magazine and stumbled across an interesting article. So interesting that it inspired me to write a blog post about it. The article was called Office Pace, and while it was about how to achieve inter-office greatness, I couldn’t help but be struck by how relevant Cal Newport‘s points were to writers as well.
Writing is a tough industry to break into. While self-publishing through the likes of KDP and others make it much easier for authors to have their voices heard, the fact of the matter is: if you want to be a career author, you have to treat writing not as a hobby, but as a job. I’ve been a full-time author for less than a year but I’ve achieved a lot. My first contract was a two book deal. I’ve sold the movie rights to my debut novel, SEED. And just a few days ago, I signed another two-book deal. A lot of aspiring authors (and some self-published ones, too) like to ask me “how did you do it?” and every time I’m struck a bit dumb by the fact that I actually don’t know how all of this happened. And then I found myself in a cramped plane seat only to have this article explain exactly what I did do without knowing it. As soon as I read it, I knew it was something I had to share.
Rule No. 1
Don’t Follow Your Passion
I know it sounds nuts, but up until a year ago I lived my life by this very rule. Cal Newport says, “the advice of ‘define your passion and then go after it’ can actually be harmful. It can lead to unhappiness, uncertainty, and chronic job-hopping. The best thing is to hone a valuable skill and have the courage to leverage it and pave your own path.” I think this rule is particularly important to artist-types. I’ve been telling a friend of mine for years that rather than focusing on how he can make money with his art, he should make money by working a regular job and perfecting his artistic skills in his free time.
Many people assume that if you work a full-time job, you’re left with little or no time to do what you love. I know from experience that this isn’t even slightly true. When I wrote SEED, I was working forty hours per week, I was cooking dinner after eight hour days, but I was also setting aside at least an hour a night (no excuses!) to work on my novel… and, lo and behold, the thing got written without my survival relying on Ramen noodles and boxed mac & cheese. It’s much easier to focus on your passion when you aren’t hungry and worrying about how you’re going to make rent. It’s even easier to start hating what you love when that love is supposed to pay the bills… and isn’t.
Rule No. 2
Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You
Cal Newport says, “If you simply show up every day and do your job, you’re going to hit a plateau and stop improving. The people who burst through that plateau tend to be much more deliberate about learning new skills. They challenge themselves to pick up knowledge they didn’t have before.” I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, but all of those articles I was reading about the publishing industry, all of the writing craft books I bought, were doing just that–teaching me things I didn’t necessarily know. I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t have an editor. But I didn’t give a crap. I decided that I was going to break through that industry ceiling on my own by writing the best book I possibly could. And then I self-published it. And it actually sold…
But with self-publishing being as easy as it is, mediocrity is even easier. Push yourself. Do the best you possibly can, because you never know who’ll be reading your book, looking at your art, listening to your music… People with connections are everywhere. They keep their eyes open. But it’s your job to send up the signal flare.
Rule No. 3
Turn Down a Promotion
Promotions are great, unless you’re following rule no. 1 and not following your passion. One of the major factors of having rule no. 1 work for you is having enough spare time to focus on the things you do want to do. A promotion may mean more money, but it also means more responsibility, and that almost always equals less free time. How are you going to finish your novel if you’ve up’d your hours from forty to sixty a week? You’re going to be exhausted. You’re going to develop an aversion to using your computer when you don’t absolutely need to. Your brain is going to want nothing more than reality TV and sleep.
Before I became a full-time writer, I became a part-time worker. I cut my hours at the office to focus on what I genuinely wanted to do. There were two definite pro’s to this approach: first, I got to spend more time doing what I loved to do; second, I got to see if I actually loved it enough to do it all the time. One of the scariest things for a brand new author is quit their job, find themselves in an empty house, and realize that it’s now up to them and them alone to stay inspired, stay motivated, and stay awake (that’s harder than it sounds sometimes). Rather than throwing your hands up and telling your boss to take that job and shove it, try the part-time route first.
Rule No. 4
Think Small, Act Big
“People often jump too quickly into identifying major goals. Big, broad thoughts often only lead to small actions.” I can’t tell you how many aspiring authors I’ve run into that say they’ve got an idea for an eight-book series all figured out only to reveal that no, they haven’t even started writing book number one (but they’ve got it all mapped out inside their head!). I never understood this approach. To me, it’s like a couch potato saying “I have to get off my ass, I’m going to climb Mount Everest.” What an awesome way to doom yourself to failure, right? When I published SEED, I had one goal: make a few hundred extra bucks per month. I told myself that if I could even make a few thousand dollars of extra income per year on this one title, I could call myself a successful author. I had absolutely no idea that SEED would hit the #1 horror spot on Amazon by word-of-mouth alone. I had no idea that it would hit the 40’s on all of Amazon a year after I published it myself. I hadn’t let any of these possibilities even enter my mind because I knew that as soon as I started thinking big, I’d be intimidated, disappointed, things would start to feel impossible and my self-confidence would slowly get beaten down. Instead, I climbed the invisible ladder one rung at a time.
Think small: finish your novel. Act big: dare to publish it (after you follow rule no. 2, of course). Think small: if you can sell ten books in your first month… Act big: start thinking about your next book, because the more books you have out there, the more you’ll sell. Before you know it, you’ll be turning down that promotion, making up your lost paycheck with book sales.
Keep your day job. Spend your free time being brilliant. Push to get noticed. Take baby steps to the top. And remember what Richard Bach once told us: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”