You Can Write for Love AND Money

Guest Blogger: Chuck Sambuchino

You ever see Superman IV? You may have blocked it from your memory because the whole movie is just a drive down Awful Street. But as awful as it is, I think it has a connection to the world of writing. One fascinating thing about the movie is that Christopher Reeve wasn’t interested in making another Superman film (because knew it would suck—and suck it did). So if he knew Superman IV would suck and didn’t want to do it in the first place, how on Earth did that movie ever get made? Two words: Street Smart.

Street Smart was a tight little drama script that Reeve had been trying to get off the ground for years. Some Hollywood producers told Reeve they would bankroll any picture of his choosing in exchange for doing Superman IV. He couldn’t resist, and he signed the papers. Street Smart was released in 1987 and Morgan Freeman got his first Oscar nomination for the film.

The point is: Like Christopher Reeve in the mid-80s, we writers will sometimes do things for love and we will sometimes we do things for money.This is normal; it’s perfectly healthy. Think like an actor. You do the safe picture, then you can do the arthouse picture.

See, most of things we write for love—i.e., usually our fiction—doesn’t have a guaranteed financial payoff, and even if it does, it’s minimal. From my experience writing fiction (in my case, mostly scripts), I can tell you that even with having several stage plays produced and commissioned, there is very little money to be made in playwriting. (Also, I have yet to see dollar one for the screenplays I have composed—but here’s to hoping.)

Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

David Morrell, the thriller writer who brought John Rambo to life, once told me that only 250 people in the country make their living soling writing fiction. All the other writers must do other writerly tasks to bring in money. They teach online courses; they draft up press releases for local businesses; they freelance edit manuscripts; they pen magazine articles. In other words, they do a variety of tasks to make a decent income.

One of my common pieces of advice that I give writers is this: Do not put all your eggs in one basket. In other words, diversify yourself. If you are just writing one picture book or one novel or one memoir, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. The truth is: A lot of first books don’t sell.

You have to keep writing. Give yourself the best chance for success by having multiple projects to sell over time. If the wonderful day ever comes when a literary agent calls you on the phone to discuss representation, the first two questions out of their mouth, guaranteed, will be: 1) “How’s your day?” and 2) “What else are you writing?” They want to make sure you’re a career client, not some one-book wonder—so for that reason alone you have to write multiple things to be an attractive client to an agent.

Find a Healthy Balance

So don’t just write one thing; write lots of things. My advice is to take this “Diversify yourself” advice a step further. I say write long, write short, write fiction, write nonfiction. Stick your toe in different waters. And as you seek to diversify yourself and tackle different projects, you will take on some projects for love and passion—projects that might fail. And you’ll also find yourself taking on assignments just to pay the bills. And this is okay. Just find a healthy balance.

Chuck Sambuchino is an editor and a writer. He works for Writer’s Digest Books and edits Guide to Literary Agents. His humor book, How To Survive a Garden Gnome Attack , was released in Sept. 2010 and has been featured by Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post and AOL News.
See Gnome Attack on Amazon
See Guide to Literary Agents on Amazon

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  5. Nike Chillemi says:

    >Wonderful Christophe Reeves story. It does apply to writing, of course.

  6. says:

    >"Diversify yourself." I like that. I've only recently decided to do just that. Thanks for the informative post.

  7. Ron and Jennie Dugan says:

    >Thanks, Chuck! I always felt a little embarrassed that I write a little of this, a little of that. Made me feel better. —Jennie D

  8. kangaroobee says:

    >Thanks Chuck, as someone with more WIPs than chocolate in the house, this is music to my ears. Since I have stopped being precious with the WIPs that everyone loves so much but I’m really struggling with I’ve decided to play around with them, write them in first person, change them completely and write new stuff. Before i wouldn’t have dreamed of sending a ‘good’ story to or a magazine, but in terms of exposure and credits why only give them your okay stuff. Send it all out,regardless of payment, your best work is always yet to come.

  9. Martha Randolph Carr says:

    >I started out wanting to write a novel, Wired, and knowing I had to pay the bills at the same time so I started writing articles. That lead to writing for the Washington Post for years and eventually becoming nationally syndicated. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have taken on both if I hadn’t felt an economic need but I love both and they compliment each other nicely. Now, I write a political column and write thrillers and have a great agent. (Yes, it’s Rachelle) I’ve been at all of this for 20 years now and find that there’s a blessing in everything.

  10. T. Anne says:

    >Chuck! The Garden gnomes in my neck of the woods are a fierce and unruly bunch. I look forward to reading your survival guide and perhaps gifting it to a few family members who are heavily invested in the G-man lifestyle.

    As far as diversifying myself as a writer I plan to dip my toe in many waters and often. I have a central focus of where I'd like my career to go, but I tend to live with my head in the clouds and foresee a bright future in many waters, I mean uh…genres. =)

  11. Em-Musing says:

    >Great post, Chuck. And I love your blog, because you always deliver.

  12. Julie Anne Lindsey says:

    >This was a great post. I think I needed this. Somehow I feel like a sell out when I submit another article when I know my heart's in writing novel length fiction. I just keep telling myself that all writing is good practice and will benefit me in the long run.
    Thanks for this.

  13. Tom Bentley says:

    >Chuck, nice piece. I've threaded together a crazy-quilt career of writing straight journalism, software manuals, personal essays, short stories, web content, radio ads, magazine pieces and a load of marketing piffle, and been paid—though in some instances with pebbles and lint—for it all.

    I'd be happy if I didn't write another instructional manual for anything, but you do what you gotta do.

    Can't wait for Superman V.

  14. Tim A Martin says:

    >Great post Chuck. I certainly am diversified in my writing. Between writing a blog, magazine articles, and my first novel I'm starting to spread myself out. The real challenge is time-management. Finding the time to diversify oneself can be a struggle. By the way, Superman III was far worse than Superman IV, but great point.

  15. Walt M says:

    >I'm kind of the opposite of one of the people above. I set out to write nonfiction (and have several magazine credits to my name so far), but now write that I'm trying to publish. Both are satisfying.

  16. Kathleen says:

    >I appreciate the affirmation. I set out to write fiction and fell into a love of nonfiction along the way. Some projects, anyway. There are definitely those that are bill-payers, but even in them I find satisfaction at wrestling thousands of words of interviews into fifteen hundred words that offer a useful message. Not a bad way to spend time while I'm trying to break out in fiction.

  17. Tory M says:

    >I just have to chime in that, as bad as Superman IV was…it was WORLDS better than that monstrosity called Superman III. Ugh. Still pretty bad and can't come close to I & II.

    When it comes to diversity though, I'm not sure whether I'll manage to diversify OUT of paranormal romance/UF. Might change what non-human races I feature, but away from the genre? The only other genre I'd like to write is historical, and I don't think I'm ready to dive into that one quite yet.

  18. Yvonne Osborne says:

    >Thanks Chuck for the reminder that it's ok to write boring stuff to pay the bills. And the challenge to diversify is one this writer is ready to take up. Oh, and I love the look of your Garden Gnome book. I'm ordering it pronto to give my husband for Christmas. He's freakish about gnomes!

  19. Anonymous says:

    >Great post. Diversification is awesome. It allows writers to stretch their little writing muscles.

    I cannot imagine writing in only one genre and one medium. There are so many different ways to tell stories. And there so many different ways to tell the same story.

    At the end of the day, if a writer is submitting writing to earn income, rather than for pleasure, why would a writer not want to maximize that income?

  20. Micah Maddox says:

    >Hello, Chuck. I found many great blogs that I follow to this day about the world of publishing from your site, so thank you.

    When I hear arguments on this subject I often find them off-base because people tend to construe it as a double bind which is, by the way, flawed in its premise. 'Sell-out' to business ventures or do what you love (you can do both if you want)…yeah, not so much. As you say, very few will make a living writing, much less on one novel alone.

    The argument (as opposed to misconstrued, eccentric, or flat wrong interpretations thereof) reverts back to: how are you going to live while you are writing? So simple. No conundrum needed.

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