Should You Write for Free? Redux

My post yesterday about writing for free prompted lots of response, but the most extensive came from a woman who has been writing novels, screenplays and plays without (so far) much publishing or producing success. You can read her comments here, but I want to take a few minutes to talk about the differences between the writing she is doing and the journalistic writing I was referring to in my post.

Lorraine is trying to break into the online world of writing, and I wish her well. She seems to be doing all the right things. But most of her work falls into a category I call speculative writing. All of us who write novels or short stories, plays or screenplays, are engaging in a process that we hope will at some point result in publication and – perhaps – remuneration. We do it because we love to write, first and foremost, understanding that success – let alone payment – is not guaranteed.

Unless you have a degree from a film school and have connections in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, the chances of selling a screenplay are slim to none. The same goes for plays: If you live in LA or New York, have come through an acknowledged playwriting program and are tapped into the theater network, you’re better off. But selling a play is still going to be difficult. You might be lucky to get a small regional theater group to stage your play, but you’re not going to make much – if any – money doing it. With novels, again, unless you attended a top creative writing program and made friends with successful novelists who can help you make the right connections in the publishing world, you are swimming upstream.

That is not to say one can’t do all of these things. But, as Lorraine’s post attests, it is a tough slog. And she is a good writer; she also has an honest passion for writing.

Unfortunately in today’s publishing world, it takes more than talent and good writing to get published. It takes persistence (Lorraine seems to have more than enough of that) and connections.

What can one do to increase the odds? Take writing classes and workshops from respected institutions and successful authors. Ask them to help. Attend writers conferences and meet agents and editors. Network, network, network. Keep sending out those queries, and revise your work until it sings. Speculative writing is the hardest kind to do, and also the most rewarding once you do sell that novel, screenplay or play. But a good dose of luck is at play here, as well. Here’s hoping Lorraine hits the jackpot one day soon.

Writing Success Requires Persistence

Robert Grudin, in his lovely book, Time and the Art of Living, encourages writers to not be discouraged by, among other things, “editors who discard literary proposals because, ‘That is not what people are reading these days.’ Writers who suffer from this intimidating illusion would do well to remember the following:”

“The published writing of a given era, no matter how comprehensive it may seem to be, is generally based on shared assumptions, and therefore suffers from common weaknesses. 

“The surface of the human condition, vexed and driven by change, incessantly demands new patterns of art.

“While the reading public and those who purvey to it may seem to dominate the present, the future is the domain of sincere and persistent individuals.”

In my coaching work, I have found that persistence is the primary indicator of whether someone will be successful in writing. Writing is a craft that can be learned. There are rules to writing, and they are not difficult to learn, though practicing and mastering them can take time. But once you learn the rules, you know how to write. Yes, there are some people for whom writing and words just seem to come naturally. We often say those people are talented. But there are many others of us who can be equally successful in writing simply by learning the craft, applying hard work and, yes, being persistent.

It’s easy to become discouraged. Rejection slips; family and friends who say things like, “When are you going to get a real job” (a friend actually once said those very words to me); finding time to write amid the demands of daily life. It all adds up to tremendous pressure, and many would-be writers give up their dreams.

But those who don’t, those who persist despite the odds, they are the ones who are most likely to succeed. If you don’t keep sending out your short stories or poems to literary magazines, or you give up pitching nonfiction story ideas to editors, or you get discouraged because you haven’t found an agent yet who loves your novel as much as you do, if you don’t finish the novel in the first place, failure is guaranteed. Because you have removed opportunity for success.

You know the old joke about the guy who prays every day to win the lottery? After years of praying, one day God, exasperated, says to him, “Harry, give me a chance and buy a ticket!”

So, writers, go buy a ticket.