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Fun Q&A from Kate Cavanaugh

On YouTube, Kate Cavanaugh did a Q&A with questions from her writing community. At the end she challenged her viewers to answer the same questions.

My Q&A responses

  • How do you shelve your passion projects that you know will never “make it” but that constantly invade your mind? I take notes on them, but don’t write them. 🙁 I play the story out in my mind as I go to sleep at night. I enjoy the story; it lives in my mind; but it never sees the page.
     
  • How do you stop thinking “I must make money from this or it’s a wasted effort”? I don’t think that exactly. I think that non-commercial projects take time and energy from commercial ones. And I pretty much don’t try to stop that thought.
     
  • Candidly, how many hours per day do you write? I count words, not hours. 500 words on workdays. 1000 on non-work days. I’m employed full-time and work a fair amount of overtime.
     
  • Why do you want to be published? (Fame, money, success, or something to say?) I don’t know. I’ve known since third grade that I was a writer, and being published is just part of the definition in my mind.
     
  • If you only had 3 days to write 80K words, how would you do it? I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. Not kidding. Okay, I take that back. I would write nonfiction on clicker training. I know the subject inside and out and could vomit words at a ridiculous rate. But I expect I would still fail.
     
  • How do you overcome crippling perfectionism? I don’t. It’s part of who I am. I am a plotter, though, so there’s literally zero chance that a scene I’ve written will be thrown out.
     
  • Do you enjoy death scenes? HUH YOU MONSTER? Shrug. Depends on who I’m killing off.
     
  • How do you find the balance between reading, writing, and other hobbies/obligations? Priorities. I set a low word count goal, and once I reach it, I’m allowed to stop. I try to do those words early in the day, so I’m not torn between writing and other activities.
     
  • What was the benchmark you used for when to quit your corporate job and rely on writing? How should I calculate mine? I just wrote a blog post that talked about this.
     
  • How do you deal with Impostor Syndrome? (How often do you deal with it?) I just keep pushing on. I feel like an imposter in EVERYTHING I do. If it stopped me, I couldn’t even work.
     
Q&A

Can You Make a Living as a Novelist?

Writers like James Patterson and Stephen King would tell you, undoubtedly, yes. It is absolutely possible to make a living as a fiction writer. Possible, but very difficult.

How do you define “make a living”?

What are your personal circumstances?

  • Are you fresh out of school — or even in school — with few responsibilities other than yourself? Or are you supporting a family, pets, a mortgage, two cars, and a fun vacation every year?
  • What country or region do you live in? How expensive are rent/mortgage, food, utilities, etc.?
  • Are you married? Do you have kids? Is your goal to be the sole source of support for these people?
  • If you live in the US, who pays for your health insurance?
  • Do you have outstanding debt?
  • How much money do you want to have for travel, vacations, and “fun stuff”?
  • Do you have a spouse or other person who provides a regular income and benefits, including health insurance?
  • Are you working a regular job now that you hope to give up? How much are you making in that job that you wouldn’t be making if you quit?

How you answer these questions goes a long toward defining the amount of regular income YOU need to “make a living” from your writing.

A whole lot of novelists who "make a living" from their writing are married with spouses who provide a regular income and other benefits like health insurance.

Where does the money come from — and when?

I am focusing specifically on novelists in this post. There are so many different kinds of writers and so many different writing streams you could tap. I don’t want to focus on those, however, because most novelists want to focus on their novels, not on hustling for freelance work.

So looking specifically at novels, how and when you make money depends on whether you’re traditionally published or self published.

I wrote a post on money in traditional publishing already. The TL;DR of that, though, is that for the vast, vast, vast majority of traditionally published writers, advances are low and split into several payments that can be a year or more apart. Royalties, if you are paid any over and above your advance, are generally paid quarterly.

The money in traditional pub, at least if you have a good agent, is in subsidiary rights. Audio, foreign, movies, merchandising. Each subsidiary right sold would have its own royalty percentage and payment schedule. A huge part of an agent’s job is to ensure you’re getting the money you’re owed and getting it on time.

Although self published writers can sell subsidiary rights on their books, most don’t. For most, the money they get is solely from regular book sales. How often you’re paid will depend on the distributor or retailer. Amazon, I believe, pays monthly. Some companies require you to reach a minimum owed before they pay you.

Making Money Takes Money

Although it’s possible to have a career as a traditionally published writer without a financial investment, it’s not unusual for traditional writers to sink money into publicists, publicity events, and marketing — and those expenses eat up small advances.

Self publishing requires a fairly significant financial investment to do *well*. (Yes, you can do it inexpensively. Not many people can do it inexpensively and actually sell many copies.)

Editing, covers, production of the digital files, marketing — it’s ALL on the self published writer, and you have to make it all back before you can say you’ve “made a profit.”

It Takes More than One Book

Whether you’re traditionally published or self published, it almost always takes more than one book to make regular money you can live on.

As mentioned, individual books rarely make much money. Even those that do, don’t make money forever, especially if they’re standalone novels. If you want to make a living from writing novels, you have to keep producing.

Traditionally published writers are generally asked to produce a book a year. Self published writers tend to produce two to four per year.

There are writers of both types that produce much more. James Patterson has a content production model that produced 24 novels in 2020 alone! Self-published writer Amanda M. Lee produces a similar number — she has multiple pen names — and she doesn’t even have co-writers.

That regular production, though, is where the money comes from. The return on investment (ROI) of a marketing campaign is much, much higher when the author has a large backlist. (So much higher, in fact, it’s questionable whether it’s even worth advertising if you have fewer than three books out.)

But when can I quit my job?

When you can quit depends on several factors:

  • Your personal risk tolerance
  • How many people are counting on you to support them
  • How easily you can move back into the work force if you need to
  • How much you have in savings
  • How much money you have (and will continue to have) rolling in predictably

One rule of thumb I heard was you could quit your job when you had five years worth of salary in the bank as a buffer. (Really? Wow!)

Another was you could quit your job when you had a year’s salary in the bank and could live off your royalties. NOT advances — royalty payments only.

Honestly, I think it’s up to you and your personal situation.

I’m in my 50s. I make a professional salary that would be difficult to replace. If I leave the work force, I likely will age out of my non-writing career and will be unlikely to re-enter at all. That means I can’t quit my job until I have enough in the bank to, essentially, retire.

If, however, I had several books out, and the subsidiary rights, etc. were providing a regular income that replaced…, oh, call it 75%… of my regular salary, I’d consider making the leap.

Bottom line

Yes, it’s possible to make a living as a novelist. It’s a lot easier for young people with few responsibilities to do it (especially if someone else is paying their insurance!) than people with mortgages, children, etc.

It’s worth shooting for. Crunch the numbers, make a plan, and don’t jump in without being pretty sure you’re ready to swim.

make a living

Hybrid authors: Which first — self or traditional?

Many writers have heard that being a hybrid writer — one that traditionally publishes some work and self publishes other work — is often where the most money is made. So, coveting that seemingly lucrative strategy, they ask, “Which should I do first — publish traditionally or self publish?”

This is absolutely just my opinion, but my opinion is very firm: traditionally publish first. I believe this for several reasons.

Reason #1

Self publishing well takes a fair amount of money, excellent craft, and a LOT of business knowledge.

I . . . don’t have the energy to explain how jumping into self publishing as a beginning writer with little industry knowledge and little marketing skill isn’t a good way to start a career.

If you’re self publishing books and not getting great sales, you’re hurting your traditional publishing chances. Publishers don’t care that the book was self published. They see one thing: low sales.

If you have books out with low sales (no matter how you were published), it’s very likely you’ll have to traditionally publish under a different, unrelated name — which means any existing fan base won’t find you. You’ll be starting at zero anyway.

Reason #2

If you self publish first, you’ve blown your debut status.

Traditional publishing values debut writers and top sellers. Those in the middle, not so much. This goes back to sales numbers. Unless you show some pretty amazing sales from those early self pubbed books, you’re back to being asked to change your name and start over.

This bit of info actually contradicts some commonly heard (and incorrect) beliefs.

  • “Oh, I’ll get several titles published, and then I’ll be more attractive to publishers.”
  • “Traditional publishing doesn’t look at nobodies. I have to make a name for myself before they’ll sign me.”

Both of those statements are demonstrably false. Let me repeat: Traditional publishing LOVES debuts. Debuts don’t have a sales history. They have POTENTIAL. Agents and publishers love potential. Potential means this new person might be the next big thing!

Don’t blow your debut status.

Reason #3

Traditional publishing gives you a wide fan base that you can leverage for self published books in the future.

It’s really, really, really hard to build a fan base with self publishing, especially if you don’t know how to do it. Again, I’ll repeat, coming into traditional publishing with low sales and a small fanbase isn’t a strong selling point.

Traditionally publish first, and have their publicists help you learn how to market. Let their big reach help you get a wide readership. Have that in your back pocket when you self publish to give your new book added visibility.

Reason #4

Traditional publishing will introduce you to the business side of publishing, and do so with a much easier learning curve than you’ll face if you self publish first.

Seriously, being professionally edited — developmental, line, AND copyedited — is a master class in the craft of fiction. Few writers can afford to pay for that level of editing when they self publish, especially for every single novel!

But, but, it takes so long!

Yep, traditional publishing is slow, and there’s a LOT of rejection, especially at the beginning. I know. I’m in the query trenches myself.

If you covet the career of a hybrid author, deal with it. Slow down, build your craft, and then traditionally publish FIRST.

Write the other books and put them in your back pocket if you want (for a publishing blitz after you’ve fulfilled your traditional contract). But trad publish under the name you want, use it to build a wide reader base, and THEN leverage that existing base when you self publish.

traditionally publish first

Update on Querying

When I jumped into the query trenches back in September, I said I wouldn’t be giving an update. I lied, LOL.

I’m not going to give you stats — who I’ve queried, how many people I’ve queried, number of requests, number of rejections, etc. Instead I’m going to talk more about the experience and an unexpected choice that experience drive me to make.

The Experience

Intellectually, I knew querying would be hard. I knew it would be long. I knew there would be tons of rejection. I knew this book might not get picked up.

The head knows. The heart does not.

Querying is soul destroying. It killed my interest in publishing. It killed my interest in writing. The new story I had been so anxious to start sat untouched.

The problem isn’t rejection — it’s lack of feedback. I don’t expect feedback on queries, but it sucks to get no feedback on fulls. There are many reasons for rejection. Some are things I absolutely have no control over. Others, though, are manuscript issues that might be fixable. Am I wasting my time sending out more queries? Can I change something and get more interest?

Awful. Horrible. Soul destroying.

The Unexpected Choice

I don’t believe that writers aiming for traditional publishing should pay for professional editing. Pro editing is expensive, and it misrepresents your skill level. But I needed to know if my manuscript was fatally flawed.

I chose to get an editorial assessment from someone at Reedsy. His name is Dominic Wakefield, and he had worked for Harper Collins and Little, Brown as an acquisitions editor for books like mine.

An editorial assessment isn’t editing. It’s more like an extended book report. He read my book, and he told me what worked and what didn’t, and he gave me concrete suggestions for improvement.

It took him about a month to do the report, and we followed that up a week later with an hour long phone discussion.

Was it worth it? For me — 100%! I had told him my big question was whether there were issues — fatal flaws — that would prevent me from getting an agent. He addressed that on page one: No. In his opinion, the manuscript was good enough as is to get an agent.

He went on to give me various suggestions to make it even stronger, nearly all I agreed with. But the value for me was in reassuring me that I’ve just got to keep looking for that agent who falls in love with my manuscript.

Let me be clear: Reedsy is high-end, and it's expensive. Getting an editorial assessment was extremely valuable for me, but it's a lot of money.

The Experience after the Assessment

Just asking for the editorial assessment back in December settled my heart a bit. I created a new list of agents to query, and I began noodling on the next book.

After receiving Dominic’s feedback in January, I felt even better. I sent off the new queries, and (until work took over my every waking moment) I did significant pre-work on my new WIP.

But rejections are still rejections. Especially full rejections.

I don’t know if I’ll send more queries for this novel. I still have fulls and queries out, so I’m not giving up. I’m just not sure I’m going to put my energy into Doubting River anymore.

If work allows — seriously, I may be working seven days a week through the end of May — I’ll work on the new novel. If Doubting River doesn’t land me an agent, I can put it in my back pocket and query my next book.

What about self publishing?

I am not anti-self pub. I actually think self pub is awesome. But it’s not a great choice for standalone book club fiction.

If I were to self publish Doubting River, it would blow my debut status. If I want to traditionally publish in the future under my own name, blowing my debut status would not be a good thing.

So I’ll never say never, but right now, self pub isn’t in the cards.

querying

Populating Your Story (Characters, Part 1)

As you write the logline and pitch, characters begin to appear. In fact, your idea might have originated from a character that grabbed you and wouldn’t let go. However it takes more than an initial idea to bring a character to life.

My first step in this process is very simple: I identify the main characters by role and give them names and ages.

Roles

I start by thinking about the roles in the story. I need a protagonist. I need an antagonist. Maybe I need a spouse or a kid. Maybe I need a best friend or a boss. Or a parent. I also think in terms of main characters and secondary characters and tertiary characters.

Main character is not a synonym for protagonist. Although a protagonist undoubtedly is a main character, not every main character is a protagonist. The protagonist is the character who has the most to lose and whose decisions drive the action.

Harry Potter had three main characters — Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It had ONE protagonist: Harry. Same with Twilight. Main characters — Bella, Edward, and Jacob. One protagonist: Bella.

In the book I’m querying, my protagonist is named Charm. His sister and mother are other main characters. They each have character arcs and stakes, but Charm is the one driving the story.

I have several strong secondary characters too. Charm’s nephew and the titular dog. Also Charm’s friends, the trainers who help them, and the antagonist(s).

Knowing the roles helped me identify characters I needed to create. To become well-rounded, “real” people, they needed far more. I started by giving them names and ages.

Names and ages

I struggle to find the right names. I want names appropriate for the place and the time. Ages are important because popular names change over time.

I also want the names to be easy to remember and hard to confuse. Recently, I read a book with Kenny, Kennedy, Kel, and Kelsey. Enjoyed the book, but damn.

My personal guidelines include:

  • Start each name with a different letter of the alphabet.
  • Watch the endings — “Ellie” and “Kellie” start with different letters, but they sound a lot alike.
  • No, twins don’t need to have cutesy similar names. That’s hard on readers even if it’s common in real life!
  • Use baby lists from the year the character was born to find a name that was used but not uber common.
  • The names of important characters should be meaningful. Research name meanings. Tie the name into the theme. In my current WIP, some characters have biblical names, and the biblical stories behind those names tie into the characters’ roles in the story.

Conclusion

At the end of this step, I have a list of main characters and a few secondary ones. I know their names and ages. They’re starting to take shape in my head.

In future posts, I’ll explain how I develop these names into full characters.

characters