#FridayPoetry: For Father
#FridayPoetry: Surf Song

How Not to Go Broke As a Creative Writer

Lisa Fantasy Shot

Image credit: Lindsey Look

Here's what my life as a writer is like! I sit on my writing throne all day, penning masterpieces with my quill, all while dressed fashionably for battle, my loyal feline by my side!

Ah, nope. That's why they call it "fantasy."

The truth is, I'm sweating blood and crying tears doing this. Blood. Sweat. Tears. Lots of tears, actually... But hey. I'm doing it! I've been writing for 20+ years, I paid a Seattle mortgage on my freelance income, and I have an enviable stack of byline credits.

And here's how you can make it, too. That is, as long as you get the fantasy version of a writer's life out of your head. Here, I'll give you some new images to replace it with. And look! I've even organized this into a listicle!

#1 Work Your Personal Network

Group Shot BF

Photo credit: Margie Bissainthe

Way before Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter existed, successful writers worked their networks. First and foremost, this means being the kind of person people like working with and know they can count on to get the job done.

For me, this also meant always making sure I kept in touch with people, letting them know what I'm up to, and when I needed work, I told them I was available. Some of my best gigs have come from people I’ve known professionally and become friends with. When I freelanced, I sent all my clients links to an online survey where they could brag about my work. Then I reported back the results and blurbed them on my materials.

#2 Diversify Your Skills


These days, it's not enough that you can write creatively. You should also be a good public speaker, a crackerjack editor, know interactive media, or be able to train and manage people well. It's best to do all of these things, and more.

I've never got a job on the basis of my creative writing MFA alone - but in combination with other credentials, it looks good. Some of my best experiences came early in my career, when I was in college working in politics, where I wrote brochures, press releases, letters to the editor, and newspaper columns as well as learned to give speeches and manage and motivate people.

#3  Diversify Your Portfolio

Moss Adams Report

Especially if you’re freelancing, it's next to impossible to make a living off one thing these days. As a freelancer, I basically subsidized my really fun work, like doing author interviews, with well-paying gigs, like editing financial services reports. But even this work can be creative – in the above example, I distilled a very analytical idea down to “growing pains” in the financial services industry. In that world, there aren’t many creative writers, so if you can do this for them, you’re a god, and they’ll pay you well.

You should also expand your notion of what "writing" means to you. It's possible that editing, which often involves a fair amount of rewriting, could make you perfectly happy. In the game biz, I'm called on to critique game stories and rewrite rough translations from another language, and that gets pretty darn close. In large projects like TV shows and games, writers aren't usually coming up with the original story line anyway but rather writing for a specfic character or punching up the dialogue, as Joss Whedon did on the TV show "Roseanne" early in his career.

 #4 Stop Thinking of Your Writing As Art

If you want to earn a living, you need to think about your writing as a business. Otherwise, it's a hobby, or a sideline. Even Shakespeare made his writing into a business. That’s part of why we’re still thrilling to his stories today.

Big Fish Rankings

At Big Fish, where I work most of the week, my colleagues and I get very passionate about our games, and when we get into intense discussions, it's always valuable for us to bring it back to the hard data we have about which games sell and why. If the games don't sell, we won't have the privilege of sitting around talking about them for much longer.

#5 Don't Write for Free

SLU News Highway to Smog Heaven

It’s OK to work for free when you’re in college, or just starting out, so you can get the clips. But once you’ve got a portfolio, stop working for free! If you write for free, you are not a writer; you're a volunteer. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But if your goal is to make a living as a writer, you should not give it away for free. And you shouldn't ask others to write for free, either. Here on the blog, as you may have noticed, I've got ads (shocking, I know). I hope you'll click on them, as they're funding the article you're reading right now.

#6 Get Cozy with Rejection

Don't get discouraged by rejection. Cozy up to it. Friend it on Facebook. Cuddle up with it at night. You and rejection will be seeing a lot of each other.

Here's an example of why.

Newspaper Closures Since 2007

Newspaper Closures

Please see www.newspaperlayoffs.com for more information. Used with permission.

The collapse/revolution/massive transition - whatever you want to call it - of the book publishing and journalism industries is out of your control. So don't take it to heart if you’re not a lightning, overnight success story. You’re competing with out-of-work, Pulitzer-prize-winning writers with a lot more experience and credentials.

Look for the opportunities: When the journalism door closed for me, another one opened. I was recruited to work in games, and unlike some writers, I didn't think I was too good for games. I've never thought I was too good for any writing job, which is probably why I've never been out of work. And truthfully, working in games has tapped my passion for both story and interactivity in a way few other industries could.

But I've seen my share of layoffs in this industry as well, which brings me back to the original point: Get cozy with rejection! There are NO guarantees, anywhere.

Sometimes, a rejection can even make your day. Here's one I received after querying an editor on my children's picture book manuscript:

“I've had a chance to review MOON GIRL and while I think it's unique, dark, and quite whimsical, I am concerned that it would be a hard sell for us. It reads a lot like Neil Gaiman's children's books but those are difficult to compare with given his known status…”

She had me at "unique."

 #7 Don't Be a Job-Hunting Jerk

Respect and reciprocity are the names of the game. Network like a human being, not a selfish twit. 

Be solicitous with people's time - take them to coffee, buy them lunch. Send a thank you letter afterward. Remember them - if there's any opportunity to do them a good turn, do it! Do your research and ask good questions. Don't flub it in the interview stages - take it seriously. Dress up, arrive early, shake hands, speak well, do your homework on the company and the games or products they make or services they provide.

BF Surface Page

You can play the first hour of many of Big Fish games for free online. But when I was a hiring manager, I had people apply for jobs who clearly hadn't played any of our games.  

#8 Learn to Collaborate with Others

Credits Whispered Secrets

 No woman is an island. Almost every project you write for will be created by committee, and it’ll be a better project if you know how to play well with others.

I used to make my students do group projects when I was teaching, and they always complained. Now I feel vindicated. Forget bylines. Your name for two seconds in the rolling credits will give you a high, but it’ll be a different one than getting a book published. Not “I did this myself,” but “Wow, look what we all made happen!”

#9 Don't Think You're Too Good for Entry-Level

  Group Shot NDs

Photo credit: Anna Rix

Despite having had a great resume post-college that included service as the chair of Missouri's largest environmental organization and a prestigious internship in D.C., not to mention a portfolio of clips, there was a recession going on in 1994 when I graduated, so the only job I could find was as a secretary. But I made the best of it and was promoted in six months to a job that involved a bit more writing.

In games, you often start out in customer support and/or as a game tester. One of my team members spent 2.5 yrs as a tester before we hired her as an Assoc Narrative Designer. Another worked on a team with me at Nintendo. We hired them as much for their editing skills as for their creative writing backgrounds.

 #10 Consume What You Produce

Don't just expect everyone to consume your words. You must also be a consumer of words.

If you want to write books, make sure you're buying and reading a lot of them. If you want to play games, you better play them. We can spot a poser a mile away. If you don't really love them yourself, how do you expect to make your audience love them?

Here, you can start with my book. :) Why not? You must like my writing, since you made it this far...


If games are more your thing, check out the ones you can download from Big Fish. Happy writing!


Note: This article grew out of a presentation I gave to the creative writing program students at Seattle University in the fall of 2013.