Fan To Writer Part 5: The Hustle, And The Joy

Welcome to the fifth and final part of Fan to Writer, in which writer, editor, and conference organizer Spencer Ellsworth leads us through the various steps on the path to pro writer. From having fun with stories, to making pro sales and even some money on your writing, come with us on this road.

Part 5: The Hustle, And The Joy

Stage Five! And to qualify for this stage you need…

A career. Even if you feel like putting “career” in air quotes, you have publications, you’re making some money, and you have future projects in the works. You have deadlines, and some income, and tax deductions, and you should probably hire an accountant if you haven’t already.

But you’ve also got to keep hustling. Remember Stages Two and Three? When you were trying to level up on craft, attending conferences and learning the business, and also trying not to let yourself get too mired in frustration? Well, friend… you have to keep doing that, too. Up your craft, re-learn the business, rinse and repeat. Remember the randos in Stage Two, who go to open writer groups just to shit on other writers? Now you get to read their Goodreads reviews and remind yourself to ignore them. The paychecks and publications get bigger, but so do the rejections.

You get to face this very likely fact: even after a book deal, your income hasn’t changed much. First book advances are usually under ten thousand dollars, paid out in dribbles. Even future deals won’t give you the money you need to support a middle-class life for one, much less for a family.

There is no job interview, secure contract, or long-term paying gig in publishing. You could sell one story to your dream market and spend the rest of your life bouncing stories off that same market. Also, remember when you were getting rejected every week? That doesn’t go away, either. You could sell a book series to your dream New York editor and have them turn down your next ten proposals. You could write a story on commission that an editor specifically requests, and that editor can reject it. Those rare multimillion-dollar contracts are still gambles. In John Scalzi’s case, he is writing ten books for $340,000 each. That is a very, very, very good advance per book. But if books 8-10 bomb hard, there’s a good chance Tor won’t go back for another million.

Your publications will probably just do okay.

Just okay.

Make peace with that now.

I’ll link this article in Further Reading, but I want to share one of my favorite quotes about this, from Jay Ridler’s F**k Writing, on the dangers of confusing a career with fame and glory:

“Admit to yourself that what you really want is legions of fans, billions of ebook sales, and gaggles of groupies who worship you more than Neil Gaiman, and then toss those dreams in the burn can. Later, when they creep back in, shove them back in the burn can. Every time. And they’ll return and return, but they won’t happen. You can’t make them happen any more than Hitler could use his “Triumph of the Will” spell to turn the Battle of Stalingrad into a German victory. So, kill your porn dreams! Understood? Cool. Now, pornless, do you still want to write? If yes, carry on!”

That says it all.

I became more and more aware, over time, that I had to be practical about a writing career. I made a five-year plan, a sensible one that did not include “write the next Harry Potter.” It included “get an agent and publish a book and join Science Fiction Writers of America,” all of which I’ve done since.

I also did not include “go full-time writer” in there. I couldn’t see how, unless I wrote a major hit. As Jay made clear, you can’t rely on being Pat Rothfuss or JK Rowling, Stephen King or Suzanne Collins. I recently spoke to Terry Brooks, a full-time writer who lives quite comfortably. He wanted to go full-time after the multi-million dollar success of The Sword of Shannara. Terry’s editor gave him the advice “don’t go full-time until you have three years of income in the bank.” It took him four or five major hits, and about ten years, before Terry could do it.


I decided to keep my day job until retirement, barring any glorious fame. My major professional goal was this: I wanted writing to be my only other job. I’d had up to three jobs at a time, some full-time, some part time, since I got my Master’s. (Let me sing you “The Song of the Millennial.”)

My Starfire books were published just about when my youngest went into kindergarten and my wife and I didn’t have to worry about childcare anymore, so I was able to let some gigs go. I was also able to develop my freelance editing and take on more clients attracted by the books. The freelance editing, in truth, has brought in most of the money, more reliably and steadily, than the writing does. Writing brings in larger checks—my German translation rights, for instance, came in increments of nearly two thousand dollars each—but the editing has proven to be more constant.

As such, my considerations now are business considerations, and for all working writers, writing is business.

Switching agents is less about personality than a fresh approach. Work-for-hire might be necessary to pull in some money when original books aren’t selling. Freelance editing or for-hire time bleeds into that precious drafting time. Conferences should help sell books, not just be a good party.

That sounds skeptical, but it’s accompanied by a kind of beautiful maturity in my love for writing.

The joy of the process has deepened and become more rewarding. There’s joy in freelance editing, in organizing conferences, and in mentoring new writers. There’s joy in knowing how to outline and revise, and seeing a story come together with the realization, “Wow, I leveled up; I couldn’t have written this five years ago.” There’s joy in seeing your friends succeed and in sharing the vicarious thrill of that first publication with them.

There’s a special joy in reuniting with those friends you started out with in your nascent writing groups and knowing the years of shared experience have meant more than words to all of you. Whether they or you are still writing, you’ve blessed each others’ lives.

And there’s still the same joy, the same “wow, fun!” when I sit down to write. If it isn’t there, I do something else and come back and try again.

In that way, I’m still a fan. I’ve just gone from being a fan who dreams of writing to a big fan of my own writing.

Further Reading: F**k Writing: Advice On Writing Advice, Jason Ridler, Starve Better: Surviving The Endless Horror of The Writing Life, Nick Mamatas

Spencer Ellsworth

Spencer Ellsworth has been writing since he learned how. He is the author of The Great Faerie Strike, out in August 2019 from Broken Eye Books, and the Starfire Trilogy of space opera novels from Tor. He lives in Bellingham, WA, with his wife and three children, writes, edits and works at a small tribal college, and would really like a war mammoth if you’ve got one lying around.