Writing is creative and subjective: if anyone’s told you it’ll pay off straightaway, run a mile. How to fund your writing is our real-world guide to making your writing pay.
Overnight success is a myth.
That’s the first lesson I learned when I became a full-time writer.
(Yeah, it made me a bit depressed, too.)
But writing is like being a lawyer, a forklift driver, or — increasingly — any other job in this world: no one will employ you while you’re learning the ropes, but you still need to eat, and live.
In his book Real Artists Don’t Starve, Jeff Goins wafts away the rosy tint framing bohemian romantics suffering at the altar of a great muse: it’s at best a Victorian fantasy, and at worst, a lie which has kept writers poor for decades.
“The starving artist,” Goins argues, “despises the need for money. The thriving artist makes money to make art.”
So, where to find this money? You have three options:
2. A day job
Each of these have perks and pitfalls: one will be suitable, or if not, try a combination of two or even all three.
Fund your writing through patronage
Patronage means getting other people to sponsor your creative works.
In the old days, artists would apprentice under a master and then go out and find a patron of their very own: a wealthy person who wanted regular works and who would recommend them to friends.
The best patrons had a deep appreciation for the craft, and could offer guidance as well as financial compensation. This is the sort of helping hand – and hand out – someone like Michelangelo would have had.
These days, traditional patronage is given by organisations more often than individuals, like Arts Council England who support new writers in poetry, fiction, life writing and the spoken word, and the Royal Literary Fund (supporting authors since 1790).
Universities and colleges may offer bursaries on creative writing courses, where eligibility is determined via the merit of your work.
Patreon is a website that lets the general public donate to their favourite creators in return for exclusive content. Instead of trying to extract a huge sum from one source, your fund builds up as your patrons donate a fiver a month and spread the word to their friends.
Unbound is an innovative crowdfunding publisher. Authors pitch their idea, and if it’s accepted by the Unbound editors, it launches — and the author has to spread the word and ask for donations. Once the target sum is reached, the book is published.
Paul Kingsnorth’s award-winning novel The Wake was an Unbound creation, and more authors are being launched every day.
Fund your writing with a day job
You guessed it — and you may already have one.
But if you’re a barista in the doldrums about her half-finished novel waiting at home, it’s time to change your mind: a day job isn’t tedious. For some writers, it’s necessary.
William S. Burroughs was an exterminator, Arthur Conan Doyle was a surgeon and Harper Lee was a ticket agent. But these writers used their experiences to launch successful novels by bringing in material and characters from their everyday jobs, while giving themselves the financial room to breathe.
Not only that, but many writers find physical work a nice escape from nonstop thinking, planning and imagining, giving their brains a rest and their muscles a workout — and some writers prefer mindless day jobs like night watchman, where they can let thoughts run wild as they earn.
Fund your writing through self-patronage
The third option is sponsoring your own creative work financially, but also educationally, by writing for a living and using your ‘real’ work to fuel, fund and expand your creative work — and vice versa.
Sounds great, right?
Ehh, there’s a catch: you’ve got to write what sells. And what a ‘real writer’ actually does is vastly different to what everyone thinks a ‘real writer’ does.
When I started writing full time, I told myself people wouldn’t pay for short stories.
That’s why I sought out people who were wanted to pay for blog articles, pizza maker manuals, sales letters, emails, website copy, film production notes, online help docs, and scripts for annoying pop-up videos you can’t pause — a market only slightly less difficult to break into.
Though it’s not 24/7 book launches and awards, it’s the freelance writing market: I can say I write, for a living. I’ve met some incredible people, written about some really weird topics, and learned the most important lesson of all:
It’s time to let go of ‘the dream’.
Sure, you might one day have a lakeside summer house in which to spend long mornings writing before a round or two of golf— but the days of £20,000 advances and winning a golden contract are over.
Self-publishing is here, and that means all writers need to be their own marketers, publishers, agents, coffee-getters and cheerleaders: if we get good at it, and start offering our services to others, we can create our own day jobs and enjoy a head start when we finally do publish that novel.
I think Michelangelo would approve.