The thoughts and work of Sam Witt

Three Ways Success Wrecked My Writing Career – And How to Avoid My Fate

Believe it or not, twenty years ago I was a very successful writer making a solid, middle-class wage as a writer for the adventure games industry. I had a flow of steady, legitimate work that paid well. I was in my early twenties and living my dream. Everything was going according to plan and life was good, damnit.

And then I fucked everything up.

Unlike the vast majority of writers, writing full-time it was a big, fat raise for me. I went from making about $1,500/month at my day job to making $10k per project and I was knocking out projects every six weeks. It looked like I’d proven everyone wrong – I wasn’t just a full-time writer, I was a full-time writer making a killing.

Career Wrecker #1: Money

MoneyI grew up poor and before I started writing I rarely had more than a couple of pennies to rub together. There’s a theory that poor kids kind of lose their shit when they suddenly have fat stacks of cash on hand, and I certainly lived up to those low expectations. I was a professional writer, I needed a fancy new 486 computer with a goddamned turbo button, now. I needed a laser printer, now. I blew $5,000, half of my first real writing check, just on those two things.

Of course, I didn’t spend my money on that. I stuffed it onto my new Gold MasterCard.

The big problem wasn’t spending money, it was racking up credit card debt under the assumption that writing was like every other job I’d ever had. If I put in the time, the money would come rolling in like clockwork.

All of you full-time writers can stop laughing at me right now. For the rest of you, pay close attention to this next part.

Despite having more money than I’d ever had in my life, I damn near went broke. I didn’t budget and wasn’t used to getting paid in big lumps with weeks-long gaps in between checks.

I also failed to pay my quarterly taxes, which led to the IRS of the olden days taking all of the money out of my bank account one fine day. Poof.  Gone.

Having your bank account reduced to $0 puts a serious crimp on paying your bills. Collectors started hounding me. Repo men stalked my truck like it was the Golden Hind. My landlord lay in wait for me to go out for cigarettes every day. My writing suffered. My health suffered. My marriage suffered.

Things were about to get a lot worse.

Career Wrecker #2: Performance Anxiety

I’d started my career out of sheer determination and a willingness to meet deadlines that no one elsesorry I'm overdue would touch. I landed my first big project when the original author died and the publisher needed a  project that would normally take about six months written in sixty days. I poured my heart and soul into that project and brought it in well ahead of deadline. My editor was ecstatic to have anything in hand, which I think turned my very good manuscript into an artifact of almost mythical awesomeness in his mind. Word got around that if you wanted something written well and written fast, I was the go-to guy to get that shit done.

Editors loved me. I wrote well, I wrote quickly, and I followed editorial advice to the letter. For a couple of years, I was golden because my editors knew they could call me, day or night, and I would save their bacon. Most of my money came not from my own projects, but from rescuing  screwed-up messes on very tight deadlines. I was a behind-the-scenes miracle worker and my reputation kept me very busy and paid me very well.

And then all the financial stress curb-stomped me. I started fucking up in ways big and small. Deadlines slipped while I struggled to get my finances in order and fought with the IRS. My reputation was tarnished, but the real damage was in my head. The little mistakes I made felt like enormous failures. My self-image took one kick to the balls after another, until it was curled up in the fetal position in the back of my skull. I second-guessed everything I wrote, leading to unnecessary rewrites. Everything snowballed and before long I wasn’t a week behind on one project, I was months behind on a dozen projects. Pissed-off publishers slammed the door on the advances that were keeping my head above water and the Good Ship Lollipop sank straight to the bottom of a sea of depression.

Career Wrecker #3: The Black Cloud

Say A Little PrayerCareer Wreckers 1 and 2 were bad enough. The real, final nail in the coffin of my newborn writing career came a little later. I struggled for a long time to make good on my deadlines and to redeem myself in the eyes of my editors and publishers. It was a difficult, ugly path I walked, but I was making some progress and the money started to trickle in again. My sins were on the verge of being forgiven, if I could just stay the course and fix a few more problems. I’d been in a freefall, but I was pulling out. I was going to be okay.

There was on project I really thought I’d nailed. I wrote it very quickly, about 10,000 words a day for a week straight, but it felt solid and my peer review partners really liked it. It was a nice high fantasy assignment that was squarely in my wheelhouse. It gave me a confidence boost when I needed it most and I shipped that book off with my head held high.

The book’s editor, the gentleman who’d given me the assignment and told me exactly what he wanted, was fired while the book was in transit. The new editor was part of the new grim-n-gritty school of fantasy. He took one look at the book and shipped it back to me with a note to make everything darker and ditch all the high fantasy elements. I’d planned on a few revision notes, what I got was a request to gut my baby and start from scratch.

It broke my heart right in half and a big black cloud poured out of its shell. Everything seemed hopeless. I had four other books in the final stages of writing, days away from submission. Through the black cloud, all of that writing seemed wretched. I needed to rewrite all of it. The other projects I’d been excited to tackle now seemed impossible – I wasn’t good enough to write them even if I had years instead of months to get the job done.

I felt like a failure. I stopped answering phone calls. I stopped sending out manuscripts. As far as the writing world was concerned, I’d fallen off the face of the Earth. The self-fulfilling prophecy of the black cloud came true. My career was over. I’d failed as a writer.

It would be more than a decade before I pulled myself out of that hole and got back to writing for money.

How Not To Be Me

The sad thing is, I could have avoided the entire mess if I’d just known about the pitfalls that tripped me up. If you aspire to be a full-time writer, or to be a professional writer of any stripe, you can save yourself a ton of pain by following the three steps I missed.

  1. Hoard your pennies. Money from writing is neither steady nor reliable. It comes in torrents followed by droughts. You may make all of your money for a year in one month. That means you need to formulate a budget and stick to it. Lock that money up like Smaug’s trove and throw away the key. If you’re living on your writing money, you must have a budget and you must stick to it. The only money you can depend on is the money in your bank or your pocket. Any advances, milestone bonuses, or royalties might as well not exist until you get them. Even if you aren’t living on your writing money, don’t get used to the idea that the money will keep rolling in. It may dry up just when you’ve come to rely on it most. If you learn nothing else from this post, learn this: if I’d followed this advice, I would not have hacked ten years out of the middle of my writing career.
  2. Keep Calm and Carry On. You’re a writer. If someone is paying you for your words, then you’re a damn sight better than most other writers. You may hit some bumps along the path, but don’t let them throw you in the dirt. If I would have just had faith in myself and kept grinding away at the writing even when I didn’t feel inspired or motivated, I could have recovered from the money problems and fixed my career. You are a writer. The only person who can take that away from you is you.
  3. Communicate. It’s What They’ve Paid You For, Dumbass. When that book came back with a request for a rewrite, I should have picked up the phone and told the editor he’d need to find someone else to do it. It would have pissed him off, sure, but at least he’d have known he needed to find a new writer and adjust his schedule accordingly. By disappearing, I’d made sure he’d need a new writer and I hadn’t given him the benefit of advanced warning so he could minimize the damage I caused. When you don’t own up to mistakes, you’re not just hurting yourself, you’re screwing over people who will never, ever want to work with you again. We all make mistakes; just don’t be a dick about it. Admit you’re having a problem, talk to the people you’re affecting, and help cushion the blow as best you can. Your career will thank you for it.

By keeping those three things in mind, I’ve been able to resurrect my writing career and get back to chasing the dream. If you keep them firmly in mind, you may just be able to avoid killing your career in the first place.

Have you ever made a boneheaded business decision when it comes to your writing? Let me know what went wrong and how you fixed it in the comments.


About Sam

I am the author of the popular Pitchfork County series of horror novels. I also write a newsletter with great reading suggestions and free fiction.