Chip MacGregor

June 22, 2016

Ask the Agent: What’s your advice for making a living at writing?


Over the past few weeks we’ve been answering questions about writing and agents, and while reading over the questions, I’ve heard from several people who asked, “What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a living at writing?” I love the question, and it’s one we’ve tackled here before. Some of my thoughts:

Have a time and a place for writing.  If you really want to make a living at this, then treat it as a business. Get up, get dressed, and go to the office (even if your “office” is a little desk in the corner of your bedroom). You need to show up to the office every day and write, so have a start time. My world changed when I read an interview with the great American writer Tom Wolfe, and discovered he started getting up every morning and putting on a white suit to go to his office (even though his office was in his home) just so he could begin to think of his writing as a “job.” He started at 9, an alarm went off at noon so he could take a lunch break. A time and a place — a great start to making a living with writing.

Keep your mornings protected for writing.  Move your other work to the afternoon, but write every morning.

Group similar activities.  If you do all your phone calls back to back, you’ll get through them faster. Ditto emails, snail mail, budgeting, project planning, looking over proposals, etc. Stick all the activities that are the same into one block of time, and you’ll get through them more quickly.

Organize your day first thing every morning. If you have a plan, you’re much more apt to stay focused. So at the start of each day, make a list (or check the list you made last night) to give yourself an advance organizer for your day. Having a “to do” list helps most writers immensely.

Take a day off one each week.  Getting away from writing one day each week allows you to recharge your batteries and get your mind refreshed. I know you won’t think so, particularly if you’re on deadline. This is one of those “trust me” things I can say after having worked in this business for decades. Take one day off each week, and you’ll feel like you get more done. Hey – even God rested.

Kill the muse.  That is, forget the concept that you have to be in a certain mood to write, or find exactly the right space to create words, or you have to have music on, sitting in a certain chair, and wait for some voice to speak to you. Just sit and start writing. I’ve long appreciated Ernest Hemingway’s writing idea that you end each day in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down the next morning, you don’t have to figure where you are, or get yourself into a certain mood, or work up to some storytelling. All you have to do is to finish the incomplete sentence you’d left yourself, and you’re off and writing. Kill the muse and just start typing each morning.

See the value of shitty first drafts.  Too many writers tie themselves in knots because they think they need to make their manuscript perfect. But for most novelists, what they really need is to get a first draft done. Then they can go back and fix it, because it’s always easier to FIX something than to CREATE something. So get a draft done and you’ll be able to eventually move it from “bad” to “better.” I tell writers to think “progress,” not “perfection.” See the value of creating a shitty first draft. (And I’m sorry if you don’t like my use of the terms, but my thanks to Anne Lamott for first offering this bit of wisdom in her wonderful book Bird by Bird.)

—If you’re running your writing career like a business, learn to farm out certain tasks.  Do you need to do the budgeting? Do you need to be the person who sends out all the tweets? Do you need to do the copyedit on the website? Maybe you do. But let’s face it: if somebody else can do something 80% as well as you, then you need to consider farming it out to them in order to allow you time to grow your business.

Protect your hands.  This big of wisdom may not be all that important to you, but one of the biggest mistakes I made as a young writer was using a cramped keyboard, then not taking adequate breaks or stretching my hands. Now I have a lot of hand problems. There’s a ton of research on things you can do to protect one of a writer’s most valuable assets – ergonomic keyboards, stretching exercises, the proper chair, being careful to not over-tax your fingers, etc. Check into them. (The same goes for those with back or neck or shoulder pain, I suppose.)

There are probably a dozen other things I could add, but I’ll open it up… What wisdom do you have to share with other writers?  As you move toward making more of your living at writing, what is the best advice you can give to other people who want to make a living at this business?

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  • Traci Hilton says:

    Not protecting my hands has caused me a lot of problems over the last twelve months! I am thinking of doing some text to speech in the future. I talk faster than I type, anyway. Let’s see if the software can keep up…

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I keep trying text-to-speech, Traci. Would love to hear what you find. I’m old school, apparently, since I seem to struggle to make it work. I do so much revising as I write that speaking the text doesn’t come easily for me!

    • Traci Hilton says:

      I’ll let you know! I’m hoping it will be sufficient for that bad first draft, but only time and practice will tell!

  • Andy Furillo says:

    Words from a great editor (Jim Bellows): “Begin at once, and do the best that you can.”

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Andy. And for those who don’t know, this is sportswriter Andy Furillo, whose father was one of the country’s great sports writers, so he grew up seeing this demonstrated.

  • Allen says:

    This worked for me, it might work or not for others. I wrote most of my novel at my office, being the boss helped me not to get fired. I shut down my phones and made a point of writing 1500 words a day. To use your term, mostly shitty ones. I am waiting until I get it published, than my assistant and staff will figure out why I spent so much time with my door closed and not taking calls. They asked but I never answered.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think having a goal like that, and working toward if faithfully every day, is a key thought, Allen. Thanks. The fact is, you’ve done what most people WANT to do, but never ACTUALLY do… complete your novel by chipping away at it 1500 words at a time. Thanks.

  • Susan Sleeman says:

    To make a living at writing you have to write a lot so I’d say set word count goals and on the days when you’d rather do anything except write, make sure you hit that word count and if you don’t, you have to make it up the next day.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      This coming from an author who started out doing smaller books, and is now hitting the big time. Really appreciate you coming on to say this, Susan.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    Spot on advice, Chip, as always.

    I found that joining a critique group was invaluable when I was first learning to write–and it’s still valuable today, many years later. I learn so much from my critique partners, and I think I learn just as much critiquing their work as I do when I get back their critiques of mine. It’s so easy to see what’s wrong when the problem is in somebody else’s book, and when you train yourself to look for them in other people’s’s work, you see the more readily in your own.

  • Ellen Gee says:

    I tell many writers they need to get comfortable with a “shitty first draft.” But in my circles, I have to lower my voice when I say “shitty.”

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, I know, Ellen. It’s just that I want to be accurate with my quote. And besides, saying “you need to create a lousy first draft” doesn’t have the same punch.

  • cynthiahickey says:

    I’ve been following your advice (above) since you first mentioned it to me years ago…and look at me now! Three years as a full time writer and I’m the primary bread winner in the family. Thank you, Chip!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      For those who don’t know, this would be Cynthia Hickey, author (who is now making her living selling books) and publisher (she started her own publishing company that is doing well). Great to hear from you, my friend!

  • James Pence says:

    Not everyone will want (or be able) to do this, but if possible try embracing the idea of helping other people write their books. I’ve been conventionally published since 2001 and made a so-so living at it, meaning we lived off of savings and credit cards much of the time. (I agree that wasn’t smart from a business or personal standpoint, but that’s for another post.). It wasn’t until I moved into collaboration/ghost writing that I began to make a living at writing. However, even now I have to diversify, creating content for a company that produces art curriculum for home schoolers. Bottom line is, if you’re going to make a living at writing, you’ve got to be open to more than just your own creative projects.

    And about protecting your hands, I add a big amen. One of the ways I supported my family during the lean writing years was as a karate instructor. (Yeah, I know I don’t look like one, but that’s another story.) I learned early on that breaking boards might impress my students, but it put my livelihood at risk. I quit breaking boards.

    Last year in a brainless moment, I nearly amputated my right index finger because I was trying to pull wet grass out of the side discharge of a running lawn mower. (The first words out of my mouth were STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!) Thankfully I had heavy gloves on and only lost the fingernail. Anyway, it was very difficult to write for quite a while. Guard your hands.

  • Theresa Lode says:

    Love the “shitty first draft” comment. Brene Brown cited that in her latest book too so it’s been rolling around in my head a lot. Also loved the Hemingway wisdom too.

    Thanks for the great encouragement, Chip!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You’re welcome, Theresa. I think Anne Lamott’s comment is one people hear, but don’t always recognize where it came from.

  • shellphoenix says:

    “See the value of shitty first drafts” made me laugh out loud–and confirmed that you’re not only a top-notch agent, but exactly the right one for me!

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