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5 lessons learned from 5 years as a full-time writer and author entrepreneur

Five years ago in June 2011, I gave up my job as a website editor at a national sales company to become a full-time professional writer and author entrepreneur.

This is the part where I should pop out the old chestnut that most small businesses in the US fail within the first five years.

But I’m still here.

I’m a full-time, self-employed author and professional writer. I write and publish both my own books, as well as articles for a range of print and online publications. I also structure my business and schedule so that I don’t work all the time, but am actively involved every day with my wife and our two small children. I work on our house. I cook (quite a bit, actually). I’m present in life, family, and work—and five years on, I’m still going strong and wake up each morning excited for a new day.

I know that you may be pondering your own journeys. Maybe there’s one you’re on, maybe there’s one you’re yearning to start. So I wanted to take a little time today to talk about 5 lessons my journey has taught me so far.

  1. Get started. Don’t quit.
  2. Big projects are actually lots of little projects added up.
  3. There is no muse. There is only process.
  4. Understand your options, make confident decisions, and follow through.
  5. Fear shows you crossroads, but love should pick the path.

1. Get started. Don’t quit.

When I started my old job in 2004, I was thinking that I could have the best of both worlds: a steady, decent income, and time on the side to write. You know what I didn’t do for seven years?

I didn’t write on the side. I put other things ahead of my writing. Writing kept being something I wanted to do instead of something I was doing. Finally, my wife and I realized that I needed to put up or shut up. I either had to write and publish stories, or I had to let it go and move on.

I chose to commit. Once I got started, I made one other important choice: I wouldn’t quit. I would keep making small steps and big steps, small decisions and big decisions, that kept moving me along where I wanted to go.

The key to a journey is to not only to start, but to keep going. There are difficulties, setbacks, and challenges. But if you keep at it, you will find little successes that keep adding up to bigger wins and better opportunities.

For me, I needed to take the big leap. I chose to go full time, but that’s not required. The important part is the commitment. Maybe it means writing a little every day, or finally sending in that manuscript, or refining your process (more on that in a bit). No matter what, it’s time to make a promise to your craft and stick with it.

2. Big projects are actually lots of little projects added up.

Whether it’s a 1,000-word article or a 100,000-word novel, a project can seem like a giant, impassable, impenetrable monolith. You stare at the bloody thing, but there’s no way through it, no way up it, and no way around it.

Until you look closely.

All writing projects are the sum of lots of little projects added up to the complete whole. Just as the human body is actually a mass of trillions of cells working together, any writing project is letters and ideas, words and paragraphs that add up to something bigger than their component parts, but which could not exist without those smaller parts working in concert.

All my writing projects get broken down into smaller steps. For an article, that’s usually first the research, second the interview, third outlining the piece, fourth writing a rough draft, and fifth revising to final draft and filing the story with my editor.

A novel is on a different scale, but the same principle holds true. Break down the novel into different smaller parts—preferably tied to some sense of word count, to give you some sort of concrete number to aim for. If you say you are going to sit down and write a book… you will wind up putting your head through the desk. But if you sit down with a goal of writing a book with 50 scenes of 1,500–2,500 words per scene (which adds us to a 75,000–125,000-word rough draft, by the way, not chump change by any means)? That is doable. You can wrap your head around that.

At least, with four books published over the last 5 years, that’s working out pretty well for me so far.

3. There is no muse. There is only process.

Anyone who asks me about writing doesn’t hear about the muse. They don’t hear about flashy spells of inspiration where I write furiously for days on end, followed by dry spells where I write nothing because, man, the muse just isn’t there, man.

Dude. I’m a parent. I’m running a business. The muse doesn’t change diapers, wash dishes, sit down at the keyboard, or meet deadlines. I do. Muses are mooches. They don’t earn their keep. I don’t write for a weekend and then do nothing for six months. I write at least a thousand words a day, six days a week. Editors like working with me not because I meet deadlines, but because I often file before deadlines.

So when people ask me about writing, they hear about process. Process is key to writing, and process is key to working toward and realizing your writing goals.

Process is how you get it done.

You’ll note that I have yet to mention my super-secret, one-size-fits-all magic pill silver bullet that cracks the code on all your writing dreams.

That’s because there isn’t any. If you want to believe there is, no offense, burn your notebooks and go do something else. You won’t be a writer. You’ll just be chasing crap that you’ve confused for gold. That search will have no end, because you’re seeking something that doesn’t exist.

There is no muse. There is only process. Every successful writer, trad or indie published, has worked out a process that works for them. So has anyone who completes projects in any field, from the arts to sales, manufacturing to real estate.

No process, no success. Know process, know success.

You’ll also note that I’m not telling you my process.

That’s because it won’t work for you. Just like your process won’t work for me.

No one’s process is a template that you can just plug in to your brain. Here’s the only thing that works: You have to figure it out for yourself.

How do you learn your process? By good ole trial and error. You can research, read articles, take courses, talk to people, yes, those are all good things that will inform your process. But ultimately you must apply that learning to your own writing, and you can’t let learning become an excuse that stops you writing. You will never know enough. You will only know enough to get you started—and if you want to finish, first you have to start.

But here’s the thing: you’re not taming tigers. Nothing is going to eat you because you wrote a crappy story. If you write that crappy story though, and figure out why it was crappy, then you can learn from it and do a better job on the next one.

The more you work at it, the more you will refine your process. It took my first two books to teach me my process. Four books in, I now have a solid idea of what works for me to get my writing done and to have a story that damn well sings on the page.

But as I start outlining my fifth book, I will still be refining my process. I will be on my fiftieth book too.

Start figuring out your process, and it will be like a treasure map to your goals. Follow your process, and you will get to where you want to go. You don’t need a muse. You just need your process. But hey, if it helps, call process a muse. Process won’t care, and you’ll get more done.

4. Understand your options, make confident decisions, and follow through.

This is the hardest thing to do… except for #5. But we’ll get to that.

Anyone who wants to make a big life change often hits what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance. This is not the Resistance of the kickass song by the band Muse. It’s not a group of revolutionaries. Resistance is the scared part of you that wants to preserve your current state of being at all costs, out of terrified concern that any change will destroy you.

Resistance, though, can be repurposed. That fear can become the energy that drives you. The key to making it as a writer, or pretty much anything, is very simple. It’s not easy. But it is simple:

Understand your options.

Make confident decisions.

Follow through.

Understanding your options means educating yourself. For example, do you want to publish through a traditional publisher, or do you set up your own publishing operation? Each option has positives and negatives. One option may be perfect for one project, but not the next. Learn about the options and how they apply to your situation, your dreams, your project. Know what you’re getting into, what the pitfalls are, what you give and gain.

Then decide. Indecision is the enemy of completion. Anyone who does anything has to make choices. Those choices will likely be flawed. You likely will be plagued by doubt. You still must choose.

And you must follow through. Following through means sticking to what you chose. But it also means learning. If you made a mistake, following through also means changing course, making amends, or using the mistake to springboard to a better decision.

My son is sometimes terrified of making mistakes. He’s a lot like me in that regard. And I tell him the same thing I keep telling myself: mistakes are opportunities to learn, but in order to learn, we first must choose, do, and keep at it.

Understand your options. Make confident decisions. Follow through.

5. Fear shows you crossroads, but love should pick the path.

We all know what it is to be afraid. I’ve been afraid many times, and I’ll be afraid many times more. And I’ll tell you a secret: I’m not afraid right now… I’m terrified.

Whenever I have felt trapped, or when I have felt overwhelmed, or when I have felt like I can’t make a decision, it has always been because I am at a crossroads. Fear usually shows me these crossroads—it’s very good at sniffing them out.

Over my five years so far as a full-time author and professional writer, I’ve been afraid lots of times. And like I said, I’m terrified right now. I’m working hard on improving my marketing. Talking more. Being more personal and open. I’m a very private, closed, quiet, prefer-to-listen-instead-of-talk kind of person. Being more open online scares the hell out of me.

But I’m doing it anyway.

Because here’s the thing: I have to. The next phase of my business’s growth depends on my being willing to improve how I do outreach and awareness for me and my work. My fear of this has shown me that I’m at a crossroads.

I can keep being afraid, and I’ll eke on, doing okay, but not really breaking out.

Or I can work past the fear, and skyrocket.

So here’s what I’m trying to do: Thank the fear for being there, for showing me this choice.

Then I will tell it to step back. That I’m in charge, and that we’ve got things to do. Because I love what I do, and because I can do better, if I am more open and trusting, then my business will grow. I will write more stories. I will sell more books. I will get where I want to go.

In every decision that has been worthwhile in my life so far, love has led the way. In every decision where I wish I’d made a better choice, fear did the choosing.

So now, even though I’m terrified, even though I have screenfright like some people have stagefright, I’m working through the fear and working on the fear. Yes, I’m at a crossroads.

Fear showed me the choice.

But love will do the choosing.

I know my choice. So I’m committing.

So I can keep going for another five years and beyond.

These past five years have been an amazing ride. I’ve written dozens of articles. Published four books. All while bringing two kids into the world. Thank you for being part of this journey. I can’t do this without your support. You’re part of the love that guides me. You’re part of why I do this.

I hope these lessons from my experience are helpful to whatever journey you’re on or wanting to take.

I can’t wait to see where you are in five years.

Let’s get to it.




New Creative Penn Guest Post: Fire the Muse and Go to Work

Flickr Creative Commons hard hat area by Jason EppinkThe Creative Penn is a long-running blog, podcast, and resource for authors trying to improve their chops for writing, marketing, publishing, and entrepreneurship. I’ve relied on Joanna Penn’s site for years, including as I planned to leave my job in 2011 to become a full-time writer.

After all the things I’ve learned from The Creative Penn, I wanted to give back to Joanna’s community. She recently gave me the green light to send along a guest post about writing.

The post just went up this morning, and here’s a snippet:

No More Excuses About Writing. Fire The Muse And Go To Work »

“So, you what, sit down and wait for the muse?”

My father-in-law’s question made sense. A master electrician and project manager, he heads up the installation of massive industrial electrical systems. But when he asked me about how I write and work, something clicked.

“No,” I replied. “When you get down to it, my job actually has a lot more in common with yours.”

Go to the full post (see you in the comments!) »

Image: Flickr Creative Commons hard hat area by Jason Eppink




10 Minutes

20130502-195635.jpg

Tonight I am at the monthly meeting for Willamette Writers. My duties as co-chair as done for now, and I am listening to Eric Olsen talk about his creative process and that of other writers he’s known, all with varying degrees of success.

He just hit upon an example that hit me hard. He read an author’s account of how she would get her work done, all the more challenging while also raising a daughter. As someone who both works and provides a lot of child care for a wee lad, this resonates.

I would write from 11:15 till 1 in the morning, she said (more or less). Sometimes I would spend 10 minutes on my manuscript, but even those few minutes kept my book in my mind during the day.

And that’s what I work toward, always. I work on my fiction usually first thing in the morning, but when raising a child that doesn’t always work out the way I would prefer.

It’s those 10 minutes that stick with me. That’s where I can improve. It’s not easy. I have to immerse myself into a made-up place, where I also have to think not as myself but as multiple other people.

Tough schnackies. That’s the job. That’s my job. And like fatherhood, I have to figure out what works best with what I’ve got at the time.

So that’s where I am working. How can I better poise myself to take 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there, and work on the novel, or a short story, or a novella? What can I do, at any time, that keeps my wee travel fiction projects moving forward?

10 minutes. Maybe it’s all I get. But time is a gift. I don’t always get to use time the way I want. But how I use it, how I choose to perceive the value of what bits of time I get, well, that’s all up to me.




The trials and travails of writing travel fantasy novels

Photo by ironmanixs - http://flic.kr/p/gqkmw

Varanasi, India - part of the basis of the fictional city in my novel. Photo by ironmanixs http://flic.kr/p/gqkmw

If my pen were a match, it would be wet

This is not a day where I’m fired up to write a new scene, delve deep into a character, or get into the mystery and nuance of the plot, all the while subtly laying groundwork for the crucial twist at the end of the story.

This is the kind of day where I want to curl up in my favorite chair with a cuppa coffee and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. (Which I’m halfway through, as of this writing. It’s feckin awesome. I can hardly focus on my own story because this one is so compelling.)

This is the kind of day that is just damn hard to be an author.

Which brings us to the end of Act I

Over 30,000 words later, I’ve roughed out the novel’s first act of three. I can feel the book is in transition. Relationships are set, villains and heroes are established, major and minor characters are in play. Complexities have begun forming.

Now what?

Now what is what I feel I’ve been putting off: reviewing the first act, and filling in some major blanks:

  • More color and sensory detail. The novel is set in a fictional city by a fictional river in India. I want the novel to appeal to people who like travel. To support that, India needs to come alive on the page. The noise and vibrancy of the culture needs to be in the reader’s face, because India is always in a person’s face. Every moment is every sense on overload. I need to establish that more, and that means filling in good detail.
  • Surrounding narrative. My rough drafting tends to focus heavy on dialogue and action. My brain sees scenes in vivid detail, but when drafting I take for granted that I need to present that vivid detail to the reader. I get caught up in speech and movement, plot progression and narrative unfoldings, and forget to fill in visual blanks. Now it’s time to enhance conversations and action with a better sense of place and setting.
  • More travel. The world of this novel is a world for people who like travel. While keeping things relevant to plot and story progression, I need to weave in more actual traveling. Meeting people, seeing sights, doing the things that you would never do back home but can’t wait to talk about when you get back.

Yeah. That’s all. And I’m still just in the rough draft stage. Coffee and The Hunger Games is looking mighty appealing again…

But not yet.

Touch up. Fill in. Move on.

Even more important is what I must make sure not to do: over-revise. I want to touch up the first act to help me be better prepared for the drafting of the second act. That doesn’t mean the first act needs to be ready for typesetting. There still will be big revisions to come once the full draft is written.

That is my mission: touch up, fill in, and move on. There’s writing galore to do — probably about 60,000 more words, for a rough draft totaling about 90,000 words, equal to about 360 pages.

Time to fire up the printer, the legal pad, and both the drafting and editing pens.

Act I, I’m coming for you.

Act II, you’re next, buddy.

Now I’m fired up. Hunger Games will just have to wait till lunch.




Nick Usborne’s latest riff on long copy sales letters

Nick Usborne’s latest riff on long copy sales letters – Debbie Weil, WordBiz Report

I go back and forth on this all the time. On the one hand, design screams “short pages! short pages!” But users scroll more than they click. The New York Times experiences dropoff when its articles span multiple pages. And Usborne says longer pages work — as long as they’re done right, of course.

The trick? To gab like good conversation, and say something that both talks with your reader/ customer, and at the same time seems like you’re listening to what’s going on in their head — and somehow putting it on a page before they even knew they were thinking it.




One Word, every day

one word. so little time.

Now this is a writing exercise. They give you one word, and you have 60 seconds to write. No thinking, just writing.

Writers should scribble every day. It’s practice, just like hitting a ball or shooting an arrow. I’m going to start going to one word every day. I’ll post my ramblings under this One Word, 60 Seconds category.

Now it’s your turn. Besides, it’s only a minute. You can spare a minute for a bit of writing. It’s good for you. Anyone can bare their soul, or just blather some shite, for 1 minute. Go on. That’s it. Click the link.

Have fun.




What can you read about on here?

Thank you Jon Meyers for asking what I’m going to be writing about.

A feature of blogs is that you can set up categories to organize your ramblings. Once there’s a post under that category, you can look at any and every post in that category. Here are categories now on or coming soon to AntSaint:

  • Beer & Wine
  • Books & Reviews
  • Coffee
  • Daily Miscellany
  • Food & Recipes
  • One Word, 60 Seconds
  • Stuff I Use
  • Stuff I Want to Read
  • Travel
  • Web/Tech
  • Weblogs
  • Work
  • Writing

This will change over time, of course. Categories are in the right-side bar on every page. Enjoy, and let me know if there’s anything you want to hear about.




So It Begins

What this blog is
If you’re interested in books, travel, writing, food, coffee and quirky perspectives on the world, then you’ll find something here worth sticking around for. AntSaint.com is about anything from writing novels to backpacking through Asia, from a good microbrew porter to an average day on the range in my home of Eugene, Oregon.

There’ll be off-the-cuff smarty-pants remarks, and some serious musings. There’ll be reflections on ol’ day-to-day life, and overall curiosity about the world and its general nuttiness. There’ll be links and book reviews, photos and lots and lots of stuff that I can’t yet even imagine.

What it’s not
What there will not be is endless why-blog?-navel-gazing (it’s like writing a novel about why people write novels) or eye-glazing second-by-second retellings of my day (Oatmeal. With chocolate chips. Wore my red shirt to the office. Remembered pants, but just barely).

I hate that crap. If I lapse into this rot, slap me (antsaint at myway dot com). I’ll thank you in a post.

Why it’s here
I’ve set up this site for a few reasons –

  • It’s good practice. AntSaint is personal and professional. I’m a writer and editor by trade, and there are projects I’m working on that I need a website for, both now and down the road.
  • It’s the 21st century – not having a website is like not having a phone number.
  • I have something to say, even if I don’t know what it is until it catches my attention and doesn’t let go.
  • What I have to say will be different. At least, people around me say that I look at things, and talk about them, a tad on the out-there side. I’ll just post and spout, and we’ll see what happens.
  • It’s fun. ‘Nuff said.
  • I’m hoping that the end-but-ongoing result will be some good, not-too-clean fun. Have a good time, thanks for coming around, and if you’ve got 2 cents to add to my 2 cents, leave a comment or send it to antsaint at myway dot com.




    Hi.

    Anthony St. Clair - Travel Fantasy Author / Craft Beer Writer / Business Copywriter
    Author and copywriter Anthony St. Clair has specialized in online content since 2000, blogged since 2004 and is the author of the Rucksack Universe travel fantasy series.

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