Business man wearing sunglasses with text: Are Pen Names Smart for Business?

One of the things we’ve talked about here is the struggle we sometimes face as artists to handle the business side of writing. While some of us might have business sense or experience, not all writers do.

However, I don’t want that lack of business knowledge to hold any of us back. That’s why I’ve shared advice and guest posts on how to create a business plan, think like an entrepreneur, or even start our own writing-related company.

That last post linked above was written by my guest Kathryn Goldman, an intellectual property attorney who helps authors protect their work and think like business people. In fact, she’s designed a whole program to step artists (like authors and others) through their options for protecting their hard work so they can make more money from everything they do.

Today, she’s sharing insights from one aspect of her program, focusing on the business considerations for using pen names in regards to copyright. Please welcome Kathryn Goldman! *smile*

(Note: Some of this post might apply to international authors, but the specifics are focused on U.S. copyright laws. Please consult local experts for more information on laws in other countries.)


Mastering the Details of a Creative Career

Writers are constantly striving to improve at their craft. The skills of an author are never fully developed. There is always more to learn about character development, plot arcs, word selection, and editing, to name just a few of the things that occupy your mind as you create, write, and revise your story. Many of those things you learn right here on Jami’s blog.

There are times when mastering your craft can seem overwhelming and you have to dig deep to find the enjoyment in your art. But when you do, when you find that flow and uncover the contentment of creation, you discover that there is still more to learn and to do to make your work tangible in the hearts and minds of your readers.

The discrete parts that surround the business and legal practicalities of raising your creative work up from a newborn on paper to a fully formed entity in the world of readers can also be overwhelming.

The Business Aspects of Writing Can Be Overwhelming

There are droves of details that go into making your work real outside of your computer. Details like how do you protect your story and your ideas once you share them with others, or how you monitor whether your work might have been pirated, or what is the appropriate action to take if your work has been copied.

These pieces of the puzzle can become overwhelming when all it is you want to do is to share your work and be compensated for it fairly with an eye towards making a living by being a creative professional.

While they can seem daunting (especially after you’ve just completed or are still working on the work itself), these details can be easily mastered and controlled by you right in your workflow while you prepare your creative work, when you launch it, and when it lives out in the world.

The problem is that there are so many particulars to attend to, so many aspects surrounding the production of a commercially successful book that it’s hard to know what they all are, let alone what to focus your energies on, what to spend time trying to understand, and what can be set aside for later.

Sometimes, not having answers to these questions—what is important and worth being concerned about or what can be set aside to worry about later—can cause a writer to freeze in her tracks. It’s a case of there’s so much action to take that she takes none at all.

How to Manage the Overwhelm

The solution to this sense of overwhelm is to break the problem down into manageable pieces.

There is a saying, I don’t know who said it, but it goes like this, “How do you eat an elephant?”

“One bite at a time.”

I’ve designed a framework strategy complete with a blueprint to help creative professionals gain mastery over their creative careers. It’s called CP²: Content Protection for Creative Professionals.

This post is an example of one element in that framework. With it, I’d like to help you take one bite out of that practical, legal, and logistical elephant that prevents writers from becoming successful authors.

I’m going to discuss how to protect your work in the Copyright Office using pseudonyms effectively so you can build a brand, protect your identity (if that is a goal), and create lasting value in your work.

Mastering the Art of Using a Pseudonym

(NOTE: This discussion is limited to works created after 1977. The copyright law changed with the Copyright Act of 1976. For those of you who have been creating work since you were young ‘uns, the rules are different for work created before 1977.)

  • If you are a person, as opposed to a company, and you apply for a copyright registration using your real name, then your copyright lasts for your lifetime +70 years.
  • In the case of a company when a work is created by an employee, the copyright lasts 95 years from the date of publication or 125 years from the date of creation whichever occurs first.

The reason for the difference is that corporations don’t die. They may go bankrupt, dissolve, or otherwise disappear, but the “lifetime” of a corporation or company may be infinite.

To use the lifetime of a corporation to measure copyright would mean that the copyright in a work in which a company is the author would never expire. The work would never pass into the public domain. This would be an unfair advantage to corporate authors.

Copyright for Pen Names

If you file an application for copyright registration anonymously or using a pseudonym without revealing your true identity then the copyright lasts for 95 years from the date of publication.

You can always update the registration with a later filing. You can let the copyright office know who you truly are and potentially get the benefit of a longer copyright period.

For example, assume an author wants to file a copyright registration today using a pseudonym without identifying herself. The copyright in her work will expire in 2111. Let’s say she’s 28 years old today. If she changes the registration sometime before she dies by identifying herself to the Copyright Office, and she ends up living until she’s 80, then her copyright will expire in 2138. That gives her heirs 27 more years to monetize her bequest to them. That could be significant if there are licenses generating income from that work.

The key here is that you can change your mind about using a pseudonym. What might work for your plan today may not be necessary tomorrow. But if you do change your mind, you have to change the registration and alert the Copyright Office to your true identity before you pass on to the great beyond.

When is a Pseudonym Not a Pseudonym?

What if your name is Robert and you want to publish your work using the name Bob, is that considered a pseudonym?

Not really. My recommendation in situations like this is to use “Bob” on the cover of your book and in your marketing but to use your legal name in the registration and on the inside of the book with the copyright notice.

Copyright becomes inherited property and you don’t want there to be any question about what it is that you own and are passing on to your heirs. It’s always good idea for inherited property to be in your legal name. It makes it easier for everyone involved.

Be the CEO of Your Creative Career

How easy was that? You now have an understanding of pseudonyms work with copyright in less than a dozen (short) paragraphs.

The pathway to a successful creative career is a winding one. Common sense suggests that the writers who are most likely to be successful as independent publishers are those who have been exposed to many different aspects of the indie world.

Success isn’t just about writing a great story. Instead, it’s about accumulating diverse skills related to the vastness of the creative business and legal world. Understanding how to use a pseudonym is just one of those skills.


Kathryn Goldman headshotKathryn Goldman is an intellectual property attorney who wants you to become the CEO of your creative career. She has built a framework strategy called CP²:Content Protection for Creative Professionals to help creative professionals reach that goal, one manageable step at a time.

She invites you to download the FREE CP2 Blueprint for an overview of the strategy.

CP2:Content Protection for Creative Professionals


Thank you, Kathryn! I appreciate you looking out for authors with advice and insights on how to protect ourselves.

Like Kathryn said, learning everything we need to from a business perspective can be overwhelming. I’ve definitely fallen into the “I don’t know where to start, so I won’t do anything” trap on occasion.

Obviously, that’s not a great strategy, no matter how we define success. But breaking a big project into smaller chunks can help, and for the business side of writing, that means learning one aspect of business matters at a time.

For this post, Kathryn shared some of the legal considerations for pen names. Put together with what I’ve written before about some of the reasons we might want to use pen names, from privacy to branding and being Google-able, and we start to get a fuller understanding of this piece of the big overwhelming picture.

Once we understand enough of those information chunks, hopefully we’ll feel less overwhelmed and ready to take control for however we define success. Even if money isn’t our primary goal, we likely still need income just to pay for releasing a good quality book. The more we learn about business and our options for protecting our work, the more we might succeed at keeping as much of our income as we can. *smile*

Does dealing with the business side of writing feel overwhelming to you? Do you usually have more success with projects when breaking it into smaller chunks? What aspect of the business side of writing do you struggle with the most? Have you considered using a pen name, and if so, did this answer any of your concerns? Do you have any questions for Kathryn?

(Some links in this post are affiliate links. These links do not suggest a recommendation of the associated products or services.)

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Strengthening Stakes: It’s Not about Going Big

by Jami Gold on September 27, 2016

in Writing Stuff

High tension electrical wire with large spark: Are Bigger Stakes Better?

There are many reasons why readers obsessively turn a book’s pages. They might love the plot, voice, characters, etc. But the basic reason at the root of most “page turners” is the reader’s desire to learn what happens next.

Do the characters succeed with their plan? How do they stop the bad guys? What happens when X learns about Y‘s secret?

One story element that keeps readers interested in what happens next is the story’s stakes. Remember that stakes aren’t just pointless obstacles that the characters have to overcome. Stakes are the negative consequences for failure.

The more readers care about seeing whether our characters succeed or witnessing our characters’ reactions to those consequences, the more likely readers will continue to turn pages.

That connection between stakes and reader involvement can make authors think that bigger stakes are better. We can probably think of countless examples of huge stakes: deadly laser beams aimed at the protagonist, giant meteors headed toward Earth, aliens obliterating humanity, etc.

However, not every story lends themselves to those types of stakes. Are “quieter” stories doomed to fail the “page-turner” test?

Not at all. Let’s take a closer look at the different kinds of stakes and learn what makes stakes work for readers…

Why Are Stakes Important?

Our characters face difficult obstacles during their story, but something makes them persevere through all of the conflicts and setbacks. I don’t know about others, but I’d be pretty tempted to give up if I faced the threats of many stories.

That something that keeps our characters going is stakes, and they’re essential for explaining why our characters do what they do.

Stakes—the consequences of failure or giving up—create a sense of risk. There’s a chance things might not go well, and our characters want to avoid those consequences.

This hints at two different reasons that stakes are important:

  • From a Story Perspective:

Stakes create a stronger sense of a story. If the situation might turn out differently, there’s a bigger sense of change, a journey.

Stakes also provide a sense of forward momentum. Characters are working toward their goals to avoid the negative consequences, which prevents a too-passive protagonist and increases a story’s pace.

  • From a Reader Perspective:

The risk that plans might fail creates tension that gives readers a reason to turn pages beyond just curiosity. Without that risk, readers might be curious about how a plan succeeds, but there’s no dread or anticipation accompanying that curiosity.

From dreading the consequences to rooting for characters to succeed, readers experience more—and stronger—emotions when stakes are involved.

Many articles about stakes talk about “increasing the stakes” from a story perspective, but let’s talk more about stakes from that reader perspective too.

Is It Still a Stake if No One Cares?

I have an odd fondness for disaster movies (sometimes the cheesier the better *hello Sharknado*), and if you’ve watched many disaster movies, you might have noticed one thing many have in common. They’ll often cut from a wide-angle shot of crumbling buildings to a close-up of characters known to the audience, as they experience the disaster in their corner of the world.

The reason for this is that big stakes—even “blow up the Earth” big—are meaningless to viewers unless they’re given a reason to care. The Earth isn’t really about to be hit by a giant meteor of death (despite what current U.S. election politics might have us wishing for), so the fact that it’s happening fictionally doesn’t affect us.

We could watch the entire Milky Way galaxy succumb to a black hole in a movie and not feel a thing. In other words, stakes aren’t about the size or the destruction or the explosive sounds.

As I mentioned at the outset, stakes require that readers care:

The more readers care

…the more they’ll want to root for the character’s success,
…the more they’ll want to find out what happens in the plot and to the character,
…the more they’ll want to witness the character’s reactions to those events,
…the more they’ll want to see how the character overcomes the consequences of their failures, and…

…the more they’ll turn the pages.

What Makes Readers Care about Stakes?

Even more than reading about world-ending catastrophes, readers care when:

  1. they feel a connection to the character, and
  2. the stakes are personal to the characters.

That makes psychological sense. We care about something bad happening to a friend far more than something bad happening to a stranger. That’s just human nature, and so the same goes for readers.

We also care more when that bad thing happening to our friend is going to affect them personally, rather than just creating a bad situation around them. For example, if the company they work for is laying off a lot of people, that’s a bad situation for them, but it becomes personal if they’re one of the ones being laid off.

What Creates a Connection to Characters?

There are many posts about this topic already, as there are many types of connections we want readers to form with our story and characters. However, Kristen Lamb wrote an interesting post about the difference between outer problems and inner problems that applies to the issue of stakes:

“Humans feel far more comfortable with outer problems (initially) and it is what draws us in. …think of it this way.

If we notice someone crying? We might (big on the might) get involved, but we wouldn’t feel very comfortable. If, however, a person is carrying a briefcase and the latches give way spilling out the contents? Most of us wouldn’t think twice about helping the person gather her papers.

We also would feel far less weird if after we helped gather the papers, we “found out” the person was discombobulated because she was upset over a personal problem (was just fired). We might even want to know more because we’ve established enough report to activate empathy.”

So if we’re not sure if readers are prepared to care about our character and the consequences they’re facing yet, we can try to draw readers in with a related external problem. We might even be able to use that problem to set up some of the stakes, all before focusing on the goal the character cares about (and that they don’t want to fail at).

For example, a character’s goal of needing a raise won’t mean anything to readers until we know their rent is going up and they’re supporting their younger sibling. Knowing that external problem sets up external stakes (eviction, not enough money for food, etc.), as well as internal stakes (would feel like a failure, worry for the sibling, etc.)

If we started off by just having the character brooding on those internal stakes, the story would probably feel melodramatic. And more importantly, readers probably wouldn’t care.

What Makes Stakes Personal?

In order for stakes to be personal, the risks to our characters have to be personal. They need to have something they can lose, even if they’re a loner type.

Obviously, they can lose their life, but let’s talk about non-life-or-death options. They could also lose their…:

  • job/success,
  • family/friends,
  • home/security,
  • dreams/hope for the future,
  • faith in God/humanity,
  • sanity/sense of self, etc.

And by lose, we don’t necessarily mean that they completely lose a friendship or whatever. (Again, we’re talking about the potential for “quieter” stakes here too.) Lose could refer to losing the situation as it is now.

A friendship might be damaged. Family could turn distrustful. Pessimism could take root. Etc., etc. The point is that whatever threatens the character will feel personal to them because they care.

How to Strengthen Our Story’s Stakes

A common problem I see as an editor is when the characters don’t seem to care enough about the possible consequences. And if the character isn’t worried, the reader won’t be either. A character has to want to succeed—and be willing to fight for it—before the reader will root for them.

In other words, even if the stakes aren’t life-and-death big, it’s our job to make the threat of those consequences for failure really bad for the characters—if only because they think the consequences are to be avoided at all costs.

So to strengthen our story’s stakes without going “bigger,” we can check:

  • Do consequences of failure exist for each of our characters’ goals?
  • Does the character(s) have something to lose to create a risk?
  • Are the negative consequences expressed on the page (do readers fully know how they’d affect the story)?
  • Are they personal to the character(s) (or do they become personal as we raise the stakes throughout the story)?
  • Do the stakes force characters to make sacrifices or difficult decisions that reveal their depths to readers?
  • Is the character(s) shown as caring about those consequences?
  • Have we set up readers to care about the characters?

“Worrying about a friend discovering their lie” isn’t a life-and-death stake, but it can be extremely meaningful to the character—which means it can be meaningful to the reader. And if a character cares about a stake, and readers care about the character, we don’t need any explosions to make a stake strong enough to pull readers through our pages. *smile*

Do you struggle with making stakes strong enough? Do you think it’s a problem of size or one of the other problems here? Have you encountered stakes that didn’t feel strong enough because it wasn’t personal to the characters, the characters didn’t seem to care, or a connection didn’t exist between readers and characters? Did this give you any ideas for how to strengthen stakes? Can you think of any other tips for strengthening our stakes?


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Planner, colored pens, and sticky notes, with text: What Will Help Our Productivity?

Most (probably all) writers I know want to increase their productivity. Whether we’re speaking of drafting more stories or building up our platform, we want to accomplish more in our writing life (and life in general) with our limited time.

As we discussed last time, many writers have day jobs, and that’s just normal—not a sign of failure. We might also have family obligations that take up our “free” time. Or maybe we’re struggling with health issues that cut into our alert time. (And maybe we’re dealing with all three!)

The point is that there could be many reasons why our time for writing is limited. Thus, we can have many motivations for wanting the make the most of the writing time we do have.

However, when it comes to our brains and our situations, advice won’t be equally helpful to everyone. We might need to dig deeper to figure out the right style of advice for us.

Good Advice Doesn’t Necessarily Apply to Us

I’ve pointed out before how we might need different types of motivational advice. Some of us might need pompon-waving “You can do it” messages, and others might need crack-the-whip messages. (And our needs might change with our moods.)

Similarly, there are different types of advice for increasing productivity, and not all will help our situation. For example, posts abound with advice for us to…:

  • Wake an hour earlier to get in writing time.
  • Use a timer to create focus.
  • Turn off the internet to eliminate distractions.
  • Write long-hand.
  • Use to-do lists to focus on priorities.
  • Create outlines and scene lists before drafting.
  • Use X program to make our writing more efficient.
  • Use Y tool to motivate our results.

None of those are wrong, but chances are many of them won’t help us. That gap isn’t necessarily our fault, and we don’t need to beat ourselves up about being lazy or whatever.

The truth is that we’re all different. Our thought processes are different (e.g., pantser vs. plotter). What motivates us is different (internal vs. external). The struggles affecting our available time are different (physical vs. mental).

Personally, my most productive time is at night, and I’m already waking up too *&%^ early every morning for my day job, so a morning writing schedule wouldn’t work. Similarly, neither would writing long-hand or creating outlines, etc.

But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with that advice. It just means that it doesn’t work for me.

What’s Your Productivity Style?

So if we’re trying to be efficient about our writing, it only makes sense that we want to be efficient about figuring out which of this conflicting advice might work for us, right? *smile*

The answer might be in learning about our productivity style. (Here’s the official assessment quiz, but you need to provide your email to get your results, and it occasionally comes back with an error.) And yes, it’s possible to be a mix of these styles.

Prioritizer: Goal Oriented (Focusing on the What)

Do you like a logical approach to time management? (Maybe even figuring out how long different tasks take to create more accurate estimates?) Do you focus on the what of the end goal and don’t worry about the how?

If so, helpful advice or tools might concentrate on:

  • daily goals,
  • tracking activities,
  • organizing information and tasks,
  • timers, etc.

However, advice that might not help us increase productivity includes those that:

  • seem counter-productive (“Create a scene list before drafting”),
  • require communication or collaboration (“Find an accountability partner”),
  • encourage stopping work before a goal is met (“Switch between tasks to stay fresh”), etc.

Planner: Detail Oriented (Focusing on the How)

Do you like the logical and organized approach of the Prioritizer but also enjoy digging into the details for how to implement goals? Do you thrive on schedules and agendas? (Maybe even writing a completed task on a to-do list, just to check it off?)

If so, helpful advice or tools might concentrate on:

  • project planning tools,
  • forming habits,
  • tracking tasks and to-do lists,
  • deadline calendars, etc.

However, advice that might not help us increase productivity includes those that:

  • skip the details (“Focus on your end goal, not the steps to get there”),
  • encourage spontaneous ideas or working on tasks out of order (“Work on each day’s passion”),
  • require ignoring errors (“Don’t edit typos as you draft”), etc.

Arranger: Team Oriented (Focusing on the Who)

Do you enjoy collaborating with others to get work done? Do you accomplish more with a favorite office supply (like a special pen or notebook) or when using lots of colors to highlight tasks? Do you make decisions intuitively?

If so, helpful advice or tools might concentrate on:

  • increasing focus,
  • using incentives, accountability, and community,
  • organizing collaboration,
  • visually appealing office supplies, etc.

However, advice that might not help us increase productivity includes those that:

  • focus only on facts and logic (“Figure out each task’s priority”),
  • don’t allow for social/community downtime or incentives (“When under deadline, ban yourself from all social media for the duration”),
  • require strict adherence to a plan (“Follow these steps to increase your word count each day”), etc.

Visualizer: Big-Picture Oriented (Focusing on the Why)

Do you enjoy working on multiple projects at once? Do you like thinking of possibilities and how to integrate different ideas? Do you struggle to keep a clean desk but know where to find things?

If so, helpful advice or tools might concentrate on:

  • turning dreams into reality,
  • mind-mapping,
  • eliminating distractions,
  • visually appealing organizational supplies, etc.

However, advice that might not help us increase productivity includes those that:

  • focus on single project at once (“Don’t multi-task”),
  • require lots of details and repetition (“Track where your time goes every 15 minutes”),
  • don’t explain the why behind the tips (“Don’t get creative; stick to this tried-and-true method”), etc.

(This article by the author of the book includes links to specifics tools for each style.)

Can Knowing Our Style Help Us?

I’m definitely a mix of styles:

  • Prioritizer: When it comes to drafting, don’t waste my time with plotter-outlining stuff. My writing-by-the-seat-of-pants drafting style gets me to the goal of a finished book, and that’s all that matters. *grin*
  • Planner: When it comes to specific projects, I’m a list-maker and detail oriented. I can plan logical and sequential projects and processes in my sleep with one arm tied behind my back and only a slow computer to use for organizing. *smile*
  • Visualizer: When it comes to everything else, I analyze the why and the big picture but get bored with the details. (There’s a reason I don’t offer copyediting services, even though I can do it.)

Before coming up with this list, however, I would have labeled myself as a Planner for “everything else.” Thinking about it deeper, I realized that’s not quite true.

I’m shockingly (disgustingly?) organized about a few select things (I use color-coded spreadsheets to schedule my time at conferences), but outside of that specific list, I’m kind of a Visualizer mess. Seriously, I have piles a foot high on my desk. *smile*

Editing-wise, this means that I’m gung-ho for any type of edits where I can see the evidence of improvement (proof makes it easy to understand why the editing time is worth it). But those self-editing programs that go through every sentence drive me up a wall because it takes up too much time for edits that might not make a difference. I can’t—don’t—use them. Instead, I rely on my editors to find the nitpicky stuff I’ve missed.

So what does my mix tell me about increasing my productivity?

  • My drafting process works. I’m a Prioritizer for drafting, and I love the daily goal aspect of NaNoWriMo. I’ve used timers to narrow my focus and enjoy word sprints because they make me stick to my goal of writing.
  • My editing process works. I have fantastic editors, and I trust their changes will improve my work. And I’ve narrowed my self-editing tools down to ones where I can see the evidence of improvement. (As mentioned here, I use a modified version of Jordan McCollum’s GrabbingCrutches macro to find weak actions and verbs and fix with the Weak Verb Converter Tool from Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.)
  • Everything else? That needs help. *smile*

I think what my analysis tells me is that I have to find a way to make my Visualizer style more productive or I have to convert more aspects of my life into specific projects that get my Planner side going. I’ve never been one for mind-mapping or the like, so my best bests are eliminating distractions or engaging my Planner side. Either way, I now have specific strategies to try, and that’s always a good thing.

Whether we’re primarily one style or a mix of styles, by learning more about what helps us be productive, we can be more efficient with our time. Just as importantly, we can know what “never fail” advice we can safely ignore because it won’t work for us. *smile*

Do you struggle with productivity? What causes problems for you? Which of these productivity styles resonate most with you? Can you identify different circumstances in your life when different styles might apply? Did this post give you any ideas for how to increase productivity for your style(s)? If you’ve tried productivity advice, was it appropriate for your style and did it work?

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Writer Goals: Quitting the “Evil” Day Job

by Jami Gold on September 20, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Close-up on cash register with text: Should We Quit Our Day Job?

Several years ago, I shared advice for new writers about what they should focus on. One of my points was about the expectation of having a day job. Many new writers define “being a writer” as writing full-time, as though having day job equals an admission of failure or demonstrates a lack of professionalism.

However, most writers do have day jobs. And as my post back then pointed out, day jobs can help us as writers, so they’re not just time sucks.

I was reminded of that old post by a question making the rounds on Twitter a few weeks ago, when Marian Call asked people to share their first seven jobs, specifically the jobs they’d held as teens or young adults. The lists people shared reminded me of how we don’t have to be defined or limited by our non-career jobs.

Those “lowly” jobs didn’t stop Buzz Aldrin or Lin-Manuel Miranda from being successful. In fact, I’d bet that if we asked most people about their early jobs, they could point to at least one way those positions helped them later on.

Non-Career-Related Jobs Can Help Us Too

Maybe our non-career-related job helped us learn how to get along with others very different from ourselves. Maybe we learned something about our likes or dislikes. Or maybe we just had our eyes opened to the world.

For example, most of my early jobs are self-explanatory (from babysitting to restaurant hostess). Those taught me patience (with a side of biting my tongue), how to be detail-oriented, and how to compromise with coworkers.

But for a period of ten years after graduation, because I was moving so frequently, I worked for temporary agencies, mostly in office positions like receptionist, secretary, and data entry. That might seem like a long time to not have a career job (pre-Millennial time anyway), but I enjoyed the experience.

I got an inside look at tons of industries: major TV station, large-circulation magazine, automotive manufacturer, stock broker, etc. So I learned a little bit about a lot of companies and industries, from technologies to office politics, all of which is great experience for a writer.

Also, because temporary jobs pay according to the skills used, I learned to advocate for my worth, negotiating raises on a regular basis as my assignments changed. Being able to stand up for our worth in the face of confrontation is a skill more worthwhile than most things we could pick up from any job.

In other words, we might be able to turn almost any job into a learning experience that helps us as a writer—and throughout our life. Day jobs don’t have to be avoided.

Is Our Goal to Quit Our Day Job?

Unfortunately, even non-newbie writers fall into that “quit the day job” definition of success. I’ve seen too many writers quit their day job too early—when they don’t yet have a solid plan to stay ahead of bills—because they assume that’s the next logical step in their career.

That old post of mine also came to mind when an article on Marie Claire made the rounds on social media. The author of the article bemoaned not being financially secure after writing one acclaimed literary novel. *sigh*

No author will be financially secure after a single book. It takes time and additional releases to build up to success.

If an author is in a position where they can quit their day job and write full-time, great. But unless we’re downright wealthy, that means taking on a lot of pressure to produce words that add up to a product that readers want to buy. Many authors find that pressure makes it harder to write than when they had the time-suck day job.

As the author in question, Merritt Tierce, said (parentheses are my summary):

“I haven’t been able to write since the moment I started thinking I could or should be making money as a writer. I haven’t produced a Second Book. …

I could (lists several jobs that would bring in enough money to erase her worry…) but I don’t … Because I don’t want to write on the side, on sabbatical, in my spare time, for one month each summer, or never.”

In other words, she quit her job before her debut was published and then she didn’t write during her time off while living on her advance because of the pressure to produce. She doesn’t write now because she’s so stressed about money. And she doesn’t want to take a job and reduce her stress because she’s told herself that part-time writing doesn’t count. *double sigh*

Don’t Let the “Quit the Day Job” Goal Hold Us Back

I hope we can all see the false belief she’s telling herself here: I must write full-time to be a real writer. Yes, that’s just like the false beliefs that our characters are guilty of. *smile*

And just as our characters’ false beliefs lead them to self-sabotaging behaviors and hold them back from what they really want, the same holds true in our life as well. In this case, it’s better to write part-time than not at all.

Kameron Hurley wrote a great post in response to this author’s disappointment:

“I have seen this sudden, shocking realization – that writing is a job, a hustle – destroy a lot of debut writers. … If you are looking for your self-esteem in your sales numbers or the size of your royalty checks (if you get them) you are on a fast road to disappointment. … Writing is not a get-rich quick scheme. Fans, media, and aspiring writers need to stop positioning it as one.”

Bob Mayer added his insights as well:

“Every author I’ve ever met who thought they had it made? That was the moment their career as a writer was over.”

None of that is meant to imply that we should give up on our dream of quitting our day job if that’s our goal. In fact, with self-publishing, more mid-list-type authors are finding success than ever before. However, we do want to be smart about it. *smile*

How Can We Tell When We’re Ready to Quit?

If we think we’re ready to quit our day job, we might want to question our plans and our personality:

  • Are we the type of person who gets more work done when there’s a time crunch? If so, we might want to think of the many authors who quit their day job only to discover they got less writing done when they had more time.
  • Are we the type of person who struggles to write when stressed? If so, we might want to hold off until quitting won’t cause income stress or look for ways to reduce the stress factors.
  • Are we able to stick to self-imposed schedules? If not, how can we work around that weakness?
  • Do we already know our most productive writing times and how to make the most of them? Is our day job interfering with those times now?
  • Do we have a plan for including downtime? Or will we feel guilty for taking any time off?
  • Do we have several story ideas ready to draft so we can be productive right away? Do we have plans to improve our chances at good income (writing a series, etc.)?
  • Have we tested our ability to fast draft or other productivity-enhancing techniques?
  • Do we have savings or other income to pay the bills? Or are we hoping we’ll be able to “force” success before the money runs out?
  • Do we have a plan (and willingness) to return to a day job if our productivity, scheduling, or income doesn’t work out as expected within a certain time frame?

It’s worth remembering that just as Lin-Manuel’s path to Hamilton musical success wasn’t straight or fast or glamorous (Slushee machine to intern…to McDonald’s), we’re not going to be rolling in the money after our debut. Successful authors build up their income over many releases.

Our path to success might take zigs and zags. Plenty of authors on Twitter talk about their day jobs. Just as many share how they couldn’t get a book contract after they thought they were set. One successful book might be followed by five that tank.

None of those things are the end of the world unless we give up. And we might be more likely to give up if we’re in the hole and unable to scrounge up money to pay the bills because we don’t have a day job providing consistent income.

On the other hand, success can find us if we’re releasing books, even if we’re working a day job or writing part-time. When the stars align, a day job won’t keep the writing-success fairy from visiting us. Trust me. *smile*

What were some of your first jobs? Did you take away any lessons or insights from them? Do you have a goal to quit your day job? What would make you decide you’re ready for that step? Do you know writers who let false beliefs about day jobs and being a full-time writer hold them back? Or do you know writers who quit their day job too soon?

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Many rocks balanced on their ends with text: What's the Right Balance for Our Story?

I’ve offered several posts here about balancing various elements of our story. Just last week, guest poster Janice Hardy discussed how to find the right balance of backstory (and I then wrote a follow-up post with my thoughts). I’ve also written about balancing the amount of story description, character emotions, plot obstacles, etc.

I could write several more posts about how to balance other elements of our stories: dialogue, action, plot vs. character, internal dialogue, etc. In other words, there’s a lot of balancing we have to do to find the right amount of all the elements for our story—not too little and not too much.

Even after those posts linked above, there’s still room for debate. How much is too much…backstory or whatever?

That “room for debate” is good. *smile*

We have to find the right balance for our voice, genre, characters, tone, and style—for our story. That means there is no perfect amount of backstory or description or emotion.

My posts give guidelines and things to think about. They give tips on how to decide whether our story will be stronger if we cut a section. They give advice for how to analyze when our story might need more of an element.

But they don’t give specifics, and they don’t establish hard-and-fast rules. And there’s a reason for that. *smile*

Only We Know the Story We Want to Write

With my editing clients, I try to give lots of disclaimers with my suggestions. I try not to tell them X must be changed or Y must be cut. I’m not in their head, so for all I know, they might have intended exactly the impression I have.

Instead, I inform them of my impression and what would be needed to create a different impression. My edit letters usually have paragraphs along the lines of:

“Currently, X is creating (a distant point of view, a feeling of sympathy rather than empathy, a sense of immaturity from the character, etc.). If that’s not what you intended, take a look at Y.”

Just because I as an editor (or our beta readers or editors) prefer books with certain styles (whether that’s point of view, depth of emotion, amount of action, etc.) doesn’t mean that’s the one-and-only way to approach a story idea. One way isn’t automatically right and all other ways wrong.

When I’m wearing my editor hat, it’s not my job to tell a client how I would write the book. It’s my job to provide advice about what might strengthen their story. Sometimes that means pointing out how the target audience for their genre might expect more X or less Y while also giving them the pros and cons of making the change.

They have the right to write with a shallower point of view or include fewer emotions or more backstory or whatever than I would. My responsibility is just to make sure it’s a conscious choice on their part.

I want them to consciously decide what they want their story to be. I can’t answer that for them, and neither can anyone else. Only they know the answer.

What’s the “Best” Type of Story?

I say all this about my editing philosophy because there’s no end to the advice out there making judgment calls on the “best” types of stories.

I’ve seen posts and statements like:

  • The best stories include lots of subtext to add layers to readers’ understanding.
    Great! I love subtext too.
    But what if an author is writing middle grade or YA? Or what if they’re writing a story about a neurodivergent character who doesn’t think in subtext? Or what if subtext doesn’t fit their voice or style or genre?
  • The best stories require readers to fill in the gaps themselves by minimizing the use of backstory, internal dialogue, etc.
    Agreed! We don’t want to spoonfeed our readers.
    But what if readers get confused because there’s not enough explanation? Or what if they fill in the gaps with ideas that are better than what we wrote, and they’re disappointed by our story choices? Or what if we don’t give enough information for them to connect to the characters?
  • The best stories put readers inside the protagonist’s head, where they fully experience the story.
    Absolutely! I love immersing myself in a story.
    But what if an author wanted to use a more distant point of view because of the plot structure? Or what if that distance was better for readers because of the negative emotions or tragedy of the story? Or what if it was more of an action-oriented story than a character journey?

In other words, there’s a huge gray area between including too little and too much of any element. In fact, a case could be made for just about any combination of elements.

All dialogue and omniscient? All subtext and internal thoughts? All backstory and flashback?

Sure, someone out there could make those approaches work for the right stories. The perfect story vehicle in the right author’s hands would probably be a memorable bestseller too.

Yet that doesn’t mean that story or approach would work for every reader. So before following advice claiming what the “right” amount of an element is, we should remind ourselves that no story—not those that follow the rules or those exceptions above—could ever find agreement of “best.”

Develop an Instinct for Judging Our Stories

All that is a long explanation for why we need to nod along to—but possibly ignore—advice like those bullet examples above. While they might have value in a generalized way, just about any advice can be taken to an extreme, hurting our work.

Backstory is not bad. Description is not bad. Even adverbs aren’t bad. *smile*

We wouldn’t want to eliminate any of those elements in our story, and yet those example statements above miss out on the nuance that we might encounter for our specific story and situation.

Instead, we’re usually going to be better off learning the risks and guidelines for various story elements and developing our self-editing ear for what feels right for our story, genre, voice, style, characters, etc.

For example, the romance genre I write expects that readers will be able to develop strong empathy for the main characters. While other genres might succeed based on interesting plot twists, romance stories live and die by relatable and likable characters.

The amount of emotion, internal dialogue, and backstory I include in my stories will be different from what would make sense for other stories and genres. And within my writing, the right amount will vary from character to character, scene to scene, story situation to story situation.

Guidelines for Judging the Right Amount of Any Element

The specifics of how I feel whether I’ve included too much of an element don’t cross over to others. However, the general guidelines might help:

  • Proper Balance Changes over a Story’s Structure
    In the beginning of a story, we might limit internal elements to short hints that establish reader empathy right away. At the Midpoint beat, the internal elements might be more straightforward to clearly lay out the stakes of the character arcs, as they realize the price involved with their current situation.
  • Match Elements to the Character, Genre, Style, etc.
    While the balance will change somewhat over a story, we should maintain some consistency too. Some characters will catalog their surroundings and others will be oblivious. That character trait would affect the amount of description in their point of view, and that’s not likely to change from the beginning to the end of a story. Primarily, think about matching elements to the needs of our story.
  • Pay Close Attention to “Impression” Feedback
    Just because only we know what type of story we want to tell doesn’t mean feedback should be ignored. *grin* As part of knowing our story, we should know what impression/reaction we want to create in the reader, and any feedback that indicates our words aren’t creating the effect we want should be heeded especially closely.
  • Learn Our Default Settings
    If we don’t naturally include a lot of emotions (or any other element), the “right” amount for the reader reaction we want might feel like too much. Feedback from critique partners, beta readers, and editors can be essential for learning where our defaults are off from what reaction we want from readers. I know many low-emotion-writing authors who say that when a scene feels melodramatic due to all the emotion, they know they’ve found the right amount for their reader-goals. *smile*
  • Check Pacing and Flow
    Often, the biggest aspect of whether an element feels right or wrong comes down to pacing and flow. Description that’s boring or static can slow down the pacing even if it’s only a couple of sentences. Backstory that’s shoehorned in without a transition will feel out of place no matter how relevant it is. Aim for a pace that works for the story and a flow that doesn’t bump readers’ immersion.
  • Make Elements Work Harder
    Any element will work better if it’s fulfilling multiple purposes. Think of description that’s full of voice and hints of backstory. (He hesitated, his knuckles an inch away from knocking. The plain red door shouldn’t have intimidated him, but years ago, this front porch had witnessed his biggest humiliation.) Or if an element would slow down a story, consider whether using a different element for sharing the information would work better, such as swapping backstory for a flashback.

The “right” balance of any element is strictly a judgment call based on the story we want to tell. However, it might take practice to develop that self-editing skill with good judgment, especially as we learn our default settings.

In the meantime, we can listen to feedback and learn everything we can from guidelines. But at no point should we believe advice that implies there’s a “best” hard-and-fast rule on what would be right for our story. *smile*

Have you seen advice about the “best” type of story before? Has advice like that ever made your question your writing style? How well are you able to feel when something is off in your story? Do you know your default settings for how much you naturally include different elements? Can you think of any other guidelines to add to this list?

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Backstory: When Is It Necessary?

September 13, 2016 Writing Stuff
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We often think about the purpose of backstory in terms of “what do readers need to know?” But with that perspective, it’s too easy to include too much backstory. Instead, we might be better off if we think about backstory from the perspective of what the story needs.

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Backstory: Finding the Right Balance — Guest: Janice Hardy

September 8, 2016 Writing Stuff
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Today, Janice Hardy shares her revision advice on how to include the right amount of backstory. Too much slows the pace, and too little can leave readers confused. Her tips help us avoid the issue of slow pacing, learn how to hide backstory, and identify when we need more.

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Pros & Cons: Referencing the Real World in Our Story

September 6, 2016 Writing Stuff
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Should we refer to the real world in our fictional story? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons and why we might want to include those references, as well as why we might not.

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Self Publishing? What’s Your Newsletter Plan? — Part Two

September 1, 2016 Writing Stuff
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Newsletters are an important tool for holding onto our readers from book to book, but how do we want to grow our list? Do we want to go for quantity or quality? Let’s explore the pros and cons of those two philosophies.

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4 Ways to Add Depth to Our Stories — Guest: Kassandra Lamb

August 30, 2016 Writing Stuff
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What makes a story *not* frivolous? If it’s gritty and dark? Has emotional depth? Or does it need to be “serious literature”? Can a story be light and yet weighty at the same time? Today, Kassandra Lamb shares her insights on how we can add meaning to our stories.

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