Sunday, November 21, 2021

Cash and the Creative Long-Game


The golden dream of writing a bestselling novel that sells millions of copies, or a screenplay that lands with a multi-million payday, hangs in front of most writers when they first begin to put pen to paper. At least the honest ones. 

As they tap away at the keyboard, they dream big, and why shouldn’t they? It is human nature to dream of becoming financially-free, of buying that glorious house or vacation home in the Caribbean and taking care of family, friends and parents that have supported the fledgling writer through all the first draft nightmares and daily worries that being a writer brings.


But the dream is one that can quickly become a nightmare. Dreams are one thing, but the realistic expectations can be soul shattering for those who think writing is a quick dash to financial freedom. It is one thing to read reports of J.K. Rowling’s $92 million pretax earnings or James Patterson and his $70 million profits in 2019 (Forbes), but consider that Stephen King’s earnings dropped by $10 million while other big-hitters such as John Grisham or Dan Brown didn’t even make the list.

Unfortunately, the top 5% of authors represent about 70-80% of the revenue which can be a disheartening fact for new writers.

And even if you are lucky enough to get a publishing deal, chances are there won’t be any advance paid to you. Instead you will rely solely on the royalties paid yearly by the publishing company, and that might mean a long wait till payday. Most traditional publishers pay their authors between 7% and 10% for paperback and hardback sales, 25% for digital, usually based on Net Sales (the amount wholesalers and retailers pay the publisher).  In recent years there have been a slew of indie publishers cropping up, offering high royalties (around the 50% mark), but expecting you to do 80% of what you'd expect a publisher to be doing for such a high cut of your money.  For that, you could become an independent author, choosing to publish directly with Amazon and receive higher royalties, usually somewhere between 35% and 70% (less delivery and tax costs). A lot higher, right, but you as the author are wholly responsible for the editing, layout, formatting, cover design and all the many other minutia that goes into getting a book into print, all of which come with a cost of both time and money.

And you still need to make a living, to pay rent and put food on the table.

So how can you survive while still chasing your dream of being a published author or produced screenwriter?


There are many online and physical magazines that are accepting submissions for pieces of writing, either short stories up to seven thousand words or poems. Apex Magazine and Dark Magazine are two such magazines. These are fantastic opportunities to stretch your writing in new directions, trying different genres and styles of writing.

These publications can pay between £30 to £450 for a short story dependent on length but be expected to wait some time to hear back. Three to six weeks is the standard for most online publications, with some suggesting four to six months before you hear back. Most magazines will pay you only once a piece is finished to their satisfaction so factor in that time for editing, and you are looking at about seven months from writing the piece to getting paid – and that is only if the first place you submit to accepts your work.


Editorial services can include copy-editing, line editing, structural analysis and many other different facets that bring a manuscript from its rough draft to final, polished piece.

A quick glance on Fiver (I don't recommend this) and you can see the numerous people offering this service, and the, sometimes ludicrous, amounts they charge. From £50 for a line edit, right through to £5’000+ for a complete 12-page structural report on your manuscript including suggested edits, there is something for everyone’s budget. But are you getting what you pay for? What sort of experience does this person have in editing, and why should you trust them with your, as yet, unpublished work?

These are questions you should ask about yourself before thinking about offering editorial services. Do you also have the required skill and time to work on someone else’s manuscript? Editing at a professional level is strenuous, detailed work which demands a high degree of concentration and grasp of language.

For someone just starting out on the writers’ path, this is the option I would least recommend.


By far the most popular, widely used option to ensure an income is to find a regular job, the dreaded, and hated 9-5. Whether it’s stacking shelves, selling dishwashers, Encyclopedia Britannica’s or even small plastic goblins (all jobs I have done while writing stories, screenplays and novels), the knowledge that at the end of the week or month there will be money to pay the rent, heat the flat and feed the cat takes a huge weight off your shoulders.

There are a couple of connected downsides to having a regular job while writing. Most obvious is the time away from your writing desk. Most full-time jobs are around the 40-hour mark each week, not including time to travel to your place of work and back.

This leads into the second slight downside – you have to be organised. You need to have set schedules for your work, what you are going to write and when, plus deadlines to ensure you finish, all at the same time as going to your day or night job as well as maintaining your home.


Whatever you choose to write, the best way to ensure some form of income is having multiple pieces of writing all at various stages. Being realistic with what you want to achieve, and the realities of is everyday life key to this. Don’t expect your first ever novel to become an instant bestseller; neither should you expect the first magazine article you submit to get published.

Find work you enjoy and which won’t suck your soul from you while you pursue your writing dream. Pay your bills with this steady income, be organised and get up early to write and one day, if you're lucky, you’ll become an overnight success thirty years in the making.


Saturday, November 13, 2021

Top 3 Tips For Maintaining Creative Focus

The biggest obstacle to a writer’s success is their own inability to maintain focus on a current project usually by being distracted by all the copious ideas that flood into the creative’s mind at the most inappropriate time.

And that is a dangerous time of potential derailment, one that needs to be managed and controlled. 

But how does the creative writer manage that, without losing all those wondrous new ideas in the process?

Here are my best top 3 tips that will help you maintain your creative focus, another piece of writing I did during my second year Creative Writing degree.


It can be all to easy to lose yourself in the grand, romantic dreams of being a writer, basking in overnight success and the onrush of fame and fortune that being published or produced brings. Or at least, that’s what the movies would have us believe. The best way to avoid disappointment is to be realistic about this creative career you have chosen.


I originally wanted to write film scripts and wrote a couple before an idea for a novel took over. I then started writing the novel, only to have a producer request a meeting about a horror script I had written. I was back to writing scripts.

This went on for about ten years. If I had stuck with one or the other instead of flopping back and forth between novels and scripts, I would have made better progress – I certainly would have improved my writing by focusing on one form consistently.

Decide what you want to write: online articles, non-fiction books; film, theatre or radio scripts, or even novels. I'm definitely in the novel writing camp, with a current focus on crime fiction. I'll talk about my reasons for focusing on the crime genre in a different post - I was certainly surprised when I found myself writing in this genre, moving away from my usual staple, horror. With a long series in mind, along with some stand alone books, I have plenty of ideas to keep me busy for many years to come.

By making that decision early, you can put all your energy and focus into improving that skill, and by so doing, will reap the rewards.


I thought I would churn out a book, a publisher would buy it and my fortune would be made, all within a year, two at the tops. After making the decision to focus on writing prose, my stories improved, and opportunities started to present themselves. I wrote background and product text for a local tabletop games company; another hired me to develop their game world, and I wrote my first ever published novel, a tie-in for another company’s fantasy game.

It would be another ten years before a publishing company offered me a three-book deal for the first in a series of crime fiction novels. That unfortunately became a nightmare, and the following publishing deal, while better, ended up worse; but that is another story entirely. 

By managing your expectations of what being a creative writer means, you will avoid falling into the disillusioned trap that saps your creative energy and makes you lose focus.


I was definitely all over the place when it came to my writing when I first started out. In form I was writing screenplays, novels and short stories. In content I was writing character pieces, non-fiction and fiction, and my genre of choice depended on what day it was or what movie I’d just seen or book I’d just read. Fantasy and horror were my staple, but I tried writing westerns, sci-fi and even a Mills & Boon romance called Blackjack.

I was all over the place with hundreds of ideas of what I wanted to write, but no plan.


We can all have an idea of what sort of career we’d like to have, or what project we’d like to work on next, but until it is tangible it is but an idea, as fleeting as the rest. The best way to see your ideas to completion and your portfolio of consistent, quality work grow is to have a plan – and this means write it down.


My original plan for the Louise Miller series of crime novels was very simple: a list of potential titles under which was a three-sentence premise of the book. I am most definitely in the pantster camp when it comes to outlining my work: I start with the story idea and one or two notes and develop the story as I write.

Your plan should include all that YOU need to get started, but at the minimum a rough premise of the story/article, including a beginning, middle and end so that you have a goal to aim for.

By having a written plan, you can keep referring back to it when you feel your resolve start to wane, thus keeping you on track to finish your project.

I am now looking for an agent, giving myself a deadline in 2022 to get one and/or a new publishing deal, and if I haven't then I will explore the route of the indie author.


With your expectations managed and a plan to follow, you can now start to create a consistent body of work, adding to your portfolio of stories, articles, novels, screenplays; whatever your choice of writing is. This will give you a huge boost of self-confidence and take a little of the sting out when you get rejected. I now have two novels completed, both part of a larger (planned) series. I have numerous ideas for standalone novels across crime, horror and literary genres. I've a manuscript of short stories that I'm adding to, building up a collection, practicing different styles and topics.


Your work will be rejected, a lot. You will wait weeks and months for a response and, more often than not, no response will come. And when it does it can be disheartening and cut to the bone, but that is the nature of the creative business.

I print mine out and stick them on a spike on my desk and send out another submission. Over time, thanks to these top three tips, the sting grows weaker. 

This is my latest spike - lots of rejections coming in from agents and a couple of publishers, but also lots of encouragement. Many of them ask to see other work in the future - there's incentive to write one of the standalone. Also, it is very, VERY, satisfying to ram the spike through the latest rejection note. Just saying.


If you’ve practiced #1: MANAGE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS you’re resigned to the deluge of rejections heading your way. You’ve followed #2: MAKE A PLAN AND STICK TO IT and know what’s next to submit and work on, and because you followed #3: CREATE A CONSISTEN BODY OF WORK you know exactly what those projects are.

There is no golden guarantee of your work ever being published, but by doing these top three tips repeatedly, you will develop a powerful writing habit and maintain your creative focus and mindset.

At least, that's the plan . . . 

Cheers - JP

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Adding To The Toolbox

In this week's article taken from the writing I did for my second year in BA Creative and Professional Writing at Derby University, I will look at how the differing forms of storytelling and the increased practice of reading widely have contributed to a seismic shift in my perception of what it means to be a writer, and how the addition of each to my own writing toolbox have affected my craft moving forward.

Stephen King talks about a writer having a toolbox from which to draw everything needed to tell a story[1]. After his usual poetic descriptions of his grandfather’s actual toolbox and the screen door they fixed together when he was a child, King goes on to explain that the writer’s toolbox should have several levels, starting with Vocabulary, followed by Grammar and then Form and Style. I’ve spent many years getting those levels of my own toolbox stocked and well-practiced with each new story I’ve written over the last thirty years, but taking a look at the work I’d produced, it was obvious that my tools could only take me so far. They were good stories, fun to read but they could be better. I just needed more tools.

Till recently, I have focused on writing commercial genre fiction, tales packed with mass-media popcorn entertainment; monsters, explosions and horror . . . oh, my! I’ve had some success with optioned scripts and published fiction for games companies. During this semester I fell in love with Ian Rankin’s Rebus series and wrote a crime novel called Dirty Little Secret, again using my well used three layers of toolbox to produce an eighty-five-thousand-word novel. But as the semester continued, and this module especially, I started to see the potential for several new layers to be added to my toolbox, and in so doing, gain the confidence needed to start writing a book that has sat in my Compost Heap of ideas for several decades. 

Being within arms reach of 50, I have obviously known about the different forms of storytelling. Poem, novel, short story and so on; I’ve known these in the same way I’ve known the differing types of music: classical, rock etc. What I hadn’t known on a conscious level were the many varied styles in which these stories took form and the countless ways these influence the way the story is told. For example, the Greek mythological tale of Medea, taken from Ovid’s great work the Metamorphoses, is a grand sweeping epic of daring and adventure, but told in a poetic, lyrical style[2], one which modern authors of Games Workshop’s Black Library fiction mimic very closely in their tales of epic warfare amongst the stars.[3] I have tried many times to write such stories when they had submission windows for new authors, but was never able to capture the tone or style they were looking for. I now know why. Their chosen language and style was that of myth, of the retelling of great deeds of heroes and legends, the word choice deigned to evoke feelings of majesty and wonder. Despite having read many Black Library books, until I learned of Ovid, I couldn’t see what I was missing in my submissions which were always getting rejected.

In a similar fashion are The Sagas of the Icelanders, a great body of mythic prose that the Czech writer Milan Kundera classed as possibly the foundation of the European novel[4]. From oral tradition down to written form, the Sagas utilises all forms of narrative from the mythic to the fairystory, and I achieved a greater understanding of the work after learning the details of the forms of narrative from this module. For example, Egil’s Saga uses both long form and poetic didactic narration to teach the reader the history of the Icelanders.

It was the realisation that the style of story affected the way it was told in everything from sentence structure, pacing and word choice that led me to look hard at my reading choices. I have always been an avid reader, but I could see now that I was drawing from a very limited palette, much in the same way that my writing wasn’t using the full capacity of the toolbox as I could, or should, have. Stephen King, Terry Brooks, Ian Rankin and John Grisham were my staple go-to’s, a generous mix of horror, fantasy and crime – all of which classed as commercial genre fiction; all of which my own style of writing lent towards.

Thanks to this module I was led to great works such as the Metamorphoses and the Sagas of the Icelanders. While researching Japanese tales of Kanashibari, I became aware of Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor. The story is one of love and revenge, a staple of commercial fiction, but I could see it was written poetically, almost as a tale of legend[5]. The writing is extremely evocative, suitable to the era in which the story is set, and not usually associated with genre fiction. At least, not the sort I have been used to. This in turn led me to writers such as John Irving (Last Night In Twisted River, A Prayer for Owen Meany) and Paul Auster (Leviathan; 4,3,2,1), authors whose language is so clearly and precisely chosen; a layer of toolbox to which I aspire.

With a greater understanding of the different forms of narration and how they impact the creation of a story, along with a much broader scope of reading to draw upon, two new layers were added to my toolbox, bringing to my writing (I hope) a stronger, more confident tone.

[1] King, S. (2000). On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft. London, UK. Hodder & Stoughton. “I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behoves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.”

[2] Ovid. (2014). Metamorphoses. London, UK. Penguin. “For he who was all the world to me, as well thou knowest, hath turned out the worst of men, my own husband.”

[3] McNeill, G. (2006). Horus Heresy Book 2: False Gods. Nottingham, UK. Black Library Publishing. “She had waited for this day since the great warriors from the sky had brought word of the sacred task appointed to her when she was little more than a babe in arms.”

[4] Milan Kundera quote on the back of the Sagas of the Icelanders: “(if the Sagas had been written) in one of the languages of the major nations… we would have regarded the Sagas as an anticipation or even the foundation of the European novel.”

[5] Hearn, L. (2002). Across The Nightingale Floor. London, UK. Macmillan. “Whatever I had inherited from him, I was also my mother’s child. I was woven from two strands that could hardly be less alike, and both called to me through blood, muscle, and bone.”

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