Tough Choices: The Professional Writer’s Daily Grind

tough choices, writing, writing professionally, Kristen Lamb

Tough choices are the beating heart of anything remarkable. From being an excellent parent, to getting (then remaining fit) to being a professional writer, every day is a forked path. One road is usually easier, and a lot more fun. The other? Hard work, sacrifice, tough choices, and more hard work.

You guys have NO IDEA how hard it has been for me not to be blogging and teaching regularly.

So HUGS, HUGS, HUGS! I HAVE MISSED Y’ALL!

Anyway, blogging and teaching, for me, isn’t even like work. It’s been the joy of my day for many years. Yet, while I’ve enjoyed teaching, speaking and blogging immensely, my primary goal has always been to become the best author I could be.

So long as I could balance writing with blogging and teaching, it was fine. But, this past year, I hit a major crossroad. I was blessed enough to be hired as a ghostwriter. As an actual ghostwriter with the excellent pay and perks…but also the grueling hours, crippling self-doubt, and steep learning curve.

Did I mention crippling self-doubt?

Though I tried maintaining doing ALL THE THINGS for a time, eventually I had to tap out. I had to do the paid work first.

*sobs*

Going Pro Even When You’re New

tough choices, going pro, professional writing, becoming a professional writer, Kristen Lamb

I didn’t begin where I am today, and THANK GOD for that. In the beginning, I didn’t know how to make the tough choices. There are many author resources I recommend, but for anyone out there who doesn’t already own a copy, I strongly recommend picking up The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

When I began my writing journey, The Big Six was still in charge, no one had ever heard of Amazon, and the internet was for tech nerds living in their mothers’ basements. Publishing hadn’t changed in almost a century, and self-publishing (mostly vanity publishing) was regarded as the realm of the talentless hack.

How could I call myself a ‘professional author’ if I’d never finished a novel let alone published one? What was worse, how could anyone else take me seriously if I’d never published a book? There was no explaining to others (and often to myself) that every mega-author with a large display of shiny hardbacks had once been unpublished. Even they had to start somewhere, right?

Where was that shadowy land of…Somewhere?

In the mind.

I had to learn to deal with crossroads and choose what I wanted most LATER for what I wanted most in the moment. When my mom wanted me to go shopping, or my brother needed me to babysit at the last minute, or a friend wanted to go hang out at a coffee shop and simply talk about being a published writer, I had to say, “NO.”

When faced with tough choices, I had to train myself to choose the path of greatest resistance trusting that, over time, I’d become stronger, and that with strength I’d eventually gain confidence.

Tough Choices: Pro Versus Amateur

One concept that I do believe has been lost in the digital age of publishing is that it is perfectly okay to write for fun. Not everyone who enjoys blogging or penning a short story or novella is automatically required to make a living writing. There is a totally different standard for those who write simply for pleasure and those creating a commodity for sale to the public.

In fact, I have a fun post on this very subject, Choose Your Pain: Hobbyist vs. Professional Author.

Sadly, though, with the new age of publishing, it seems there’s this idea that anyone who simply loves dashing off a fun flash fiction is somehow…’less than.’

That’s bull sprinkles, btw.

If you want to write because it’s FUN, have some FUN! No, you don’t need to understand the craft at the same level unless you really want to. Feel free to have all the purple prose you like and 42 POVs (points of view). You can even use so many exclamation points we might think William Shatner was your ghostwriter.

No…big…dealio.

This said, I’ve run into plenty of authors who claim they want to be the best, make the big lists, win the prestigious awards, earn a nice living, and yet they approach their writing the same way as the dabbler.

I’ve been that person, so no judgement.

But for anyone struggling, wondering what exactly makes a professional writer? Pressfield equates ‘the professional’ as an ideal, and I’m inclined to agree.

The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps. To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro, it’s his vocation. The amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time. The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week.

The War of Art, Steven Pressfield, Page 62

Which Way Do You WANT To GO?

tough choices, going pro, becoming a professional writer, Kristen Lamb
“Up? Or Down?” Image via The Labyrinth

Sometimes the way forward is often the way baaack… All The Labyrinth fans get the reference there, but it’s true.

There are a number of reasons I started blogging fifteen years ago (on MySpace, and YES I am THAT old). First, it was to train myself to make tough choices. I had to be able to set boundaries, learn to guard my writing time, and to write NO MATTER WHAT.

Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. ‘I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. ‘Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.’

The War of Art, Pressfield, page 64

I started out ‘writing’ screenplays and that was a disaster, mostly because I was still more in love with the idea of writing than actually doing any study or work. But then I landed a job as a technical writer. I wrote software instructions, specs for night vision, gun scopes, and every variety of optical gear. Then, I moved onto computer training manuals and HR forms.

SUPER fun stuff.

*stabs self repeatedly*

At the time I landed my first ‘real’ job as a tech writer, I’d already written my 183,000 word ‘novel.’ The one that’s in the garage because, even twenty years later, it still bites visitors and pees on the carpets.

Of course I’d believed my ‘novel’ was perfect, my only worry was how to choose between all the agents that surely would be fighting over me. I wish I were joking. THEN, I joined a local writing group and learned how much I did NOT know about how much I could bleed writing.

Which was a lot.

Not All Who Wander are Lost

tough choices, going pro, how to become a professional writer, Kristen Lamb

Over the years, I’ve written a couple thousand blogs. I’ve published three best-selling non-fiction books, an acclaimed novel, a novella, and have now finished another full length book as a ghost writer. I’ve written educational material, instruction manuals, and published poems, short stories, flash fiction, and on and on.

Suffice to say that I’ve done a little bit of everything because I like a challenge. I like to stretch my muscles. Most importantly, though? I’ve yet to figure out where I want to call ‘home,’ (though my client might be taking me hostage for more books in the future).

Some of y’all out there might have a major advantage over me. You’ve made the tough decisions and know you want to be a romance author, write long urban fantasy series, or be the next Stephen King.

Me? I was the kid who wanted to be a ballerina-archeologist-attorney-surgeon-astronaut-makeup artist-pathologist. Doesn’t seem much has changed.

Make Tough Choices & Know Thyself

Sure, I probably would be further ahead professionally had I known precisely what sort of writer I wanted to be in the beginning (other than MEGA FAMOUS). But, I don’t regret the long and winding road either.

It took everything for me to set aside my 183,000 word monstrosity and admit that maybe…just maybe an over-caffeinated chimp at a typewriter could have written a better book I didn’t have the first clue about writing a novel.

I believed that if I stopped trying to make that monstrosity into a real novel, I was a failure. What I learned is one of the fundamentals of going pro, one of the first BIG writing choices—aside from actually writing no matter what—is to learn when to let go. Excelling in our craft is a process.

We learn by doing…and, more often than not? REdoing.

We’re all different. Some of you reading might be fortunate enough to know what kind of writer you want to be. Tough choices then boil down to learning to make writing a priority, set boundaries, and always keep searching for ways to improve.

Me? I’m glad I took time to experiment and explore. All the wildly different areas of writing strengthened my skills and broadened what I have to offer. Training myself to be a ruthless editor helped a lot as well. Tough choices sometimes involves killing our darlings and cutting complete sections we’ve spent days or weeks crafting to perfection.

***I literally have a google doc with over 50 pages I cut from the ghostwriting project. As a n00b, I’d gotten off topic. Great writing, but? It needed to GO.

So for those who aren’t yet sure? Have some fun! Even those who want to go pro can enjoy the journey. Stuck on the novel? Warm up with some flash fiction. Finished with a project? Maybe try a short story in a different genre you wouldn’t normally write.

Speaking of TOUGH CHOICES, Did I Mention?

This latest crossroad was one I never saw myself ever reaching. I’ve spent the better part of fifteen years being able to do all the things (housework not included). I prided myself on blogging no matter what. Felt it was my duty to show up no matter what.

Oh, and I tried…and nearly had a nervous breakdown.

It was one thing when I was solely responsible for generating all my own income, but totally different once someone else was paying the bill. I had to tap out. I’d even written a post about having to take a break, only to end up neck-deep in research material so long until the post seemed…dumb.

It’s been really lonely without you guys, I CAN say that. Also been a LONG time since I was utterly new at anything. Lots of crying, self-loathing and gnashing of teeth. I was terrified turning the book into the client (and attorney), certain they’d tell me it was complete crap and I’d have to start over. Or they’d tell me I was fired, blackballed and they were sending a hitman.

Not that I have an active imagination or anything.

Ah, but that’s the writer’s daily grind. Crossroads, tough choices, and a perpetual mixture of godlike ego and crippling self doubt.

But I made it! The client, thus far, is ecstatic and wants me for more books. Since I won’t be totally new, I’m hoping I can balance better if I take on anymore projects…because I MISSED YOU GUYS! Sorry for ghosting y’all for the ghostwriting.

It haunts me…

…aaaannnd I’ll stop.

What Are Your Thoughts? I Love Hearing From You!

Me for the past year…

What are some tough choices you struggle with? Mine was feeling I even deserved to call myself a writer let alone be selfish enough to sit down and write. That and realizing it was possible to work even if my house wouldn’t be featured in Better Homes & Gardens. Hard to make yourself a priority in this business, especially for the pre-published folks.

What are some tough choices you’ve made that you are proud of? Are you writing so many words a day? Reading so many books per month? Studying craft books?

Are you a wanderer like me? Dabbling in a lot of areas trying to find what you love? Or are there tons of areas which you love, but you simply get bored and long for new challenges?

Do you like switching things up simply to see if you could write something you never planned on writing? I did that with the novella (which was a romance and I am NOT a romance writer). Thinking on trying my hand at screenplays again now that I actually know WTH three-act structure IS.

Or do you just want to ask some questions? I’m here. Just have to work on citations and a bibliography now. Hard part is OVER *throws confetti*

21 comments

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  1. Welcome back!
    You were missed.

    I just discovered a blog I had in 2008 I had completely forgotten about!
    There have been 2 1/2 more since than.

    I het anxious if I’m not writing.
    Once I finish a post I’m overwhelmingly relieved.
    So I don’t fight it anymore.

    There MUST be a reason we do this!!

    1. We are masochists.

    • tony on February 23, 2021 at 7:00 pm
    • Reply

    Congratulations!
    Such fun you have And you’re willing to tell us about it. I’ve said it before, but thanks!

    1. I’ll write more about it in another post. This is mostly the apology *hangs head* (((BEAR HUG)))

  2. I did the write to market/ FB/ AMS ads career and hated it. After eight books. Chucked it out the window and am now writing what I love in a genre with twelve people. If I make $$$ great, if I dont’t… meh. Life is too short.

  3. I didn’t know you were a tech writer. I toiled in the software industry trenches for a couple decades. It taught me about meeting deadlines or else, and about the mind-numbing amount of work involved in publishing a manuscript to truly professional standards.

    For years I wanted to write a tech writer as a lead character. When I finally found a storyline that fit the job, the writer got to marry the alien prince. (It was science fiction romance.) Hey, even salaried writers can dream big!

    1. I’ve found it is shocking what you’ll use from those unplanned paths. Without my experience as a tech writer, I never could have written three books and a gazillion blogs about how to use social media…and written it in a way that was fun and regular people could understand. I remember when I wrote software instructions, I’d read the copy to my then 55 year-old mom who believed she’d break the internet if she touched anything. If she understood what I wrote, it was good to go. Did the same thing with all my social media books. And frankly, being one of the first, if not THE first social media/branding expert for authors helped my career do a bit of a warp speed that never would have happened had I remained trying to be a novelist. We writers are like crows, picking up all the interesting shiny bits others toss away 🙂 .

      That and a “murder of writers” sounds apropos.

    • Anna Erishkigal on February 23, 2021 at 9:59 pm
    • Reply

    Glad you’re back. I find that either I can write, or I can be sociable online, but I can’t seem to do both at the same time. My imaginary friends don’t talk to me if real-life people do. That’s just the way it is. Glad you’re back, and will understand when you disappear again to write the next big project. Hugs!

  4. I’m processing my feelings about all this. LOL…no seriously, I noticed you were…absent. I’ve done all those kinds of writing, too, and it seems I shall continue with the variety pack. Welcome back…take your time.

    • Jean Lamb on February 23, 2021 at 11:47 pm
    • Reply

    Yay, glad to see you back! I’m re-reading IN THE SHADE one last time before I upload it (a 196K monstrosity, snicker) and boy, I’m glad I did. And in the middle of that fun task I horked up a 400 word flash fiction about Zoom ghosts (called “Waiting Room”).

    Stuff happens. Pay copy goes first, but once you come up for air? Have some fun.

    As for the 183K monster you mentioned, I bet you could hack it in half. Reread it again, and you may well be pleasantly surprised at how much you might be able to use once you get the axe out.

    • Susan Talbot on February 24, 2021 at 8:34 am
    • Reply

    I have to think the same little gremlin running around you, doing high dives and acrobatics for attention, bending thoughts like pretzels is at the least a relative of the one I know too well. Wow, if I was more experienced and nearly as devoted as you to my craft, I could have penned that exact blog!

    I own so many creative “outlets” I could open an art or stationary shop, have fueled fires with journal pages spanning thirty years, could supply at least our neighborhood with enough lined/unlined paper and pens of every color (some even with glitter) that I’ve invested in to quell my creativity, for their lifetimes!!

    Random girl (oops 75 years old already) I am, blessed by a few little things published and selling art pieces, but…at my age I can’t be pulling anymore hair out, BUT I think I still want to feel the cover of my published book against my cheek, maybe even rub it all over my wrinkled body (ewww!).

    I love what you’ve written here! Such encouraging words. Maybe hope for me yet! I’m in a writing group, yay. I’m into my memoir 30,000 words, each chapter revised at least fourteen times. Yay And the children’s book I started twenty years ago and have revisited and revised (can’t count that high) is close to finished but it’s only 13,000 words geared for 8-10 year olds so I’m told I need to flesh it out to pump in at least 20,000 more words is my latest challenge. I LOVE to REVISE!!

    Oh dear!! I took a break from my memoir to gussy up this “book”—now which way to go??????

    I tell myself FOCUS lassie! All this rambling to say thank you for your wonderful blog and for letting me vent a little here dear Kristen!

    Respectfully, Susie Talbot ??

  5. I’ve missed you too, Kristen. Glad to see you’re back, and congrats on the ghost writing project.

    • John Keller on February 24, 2021 at 9:48 am
    • Reply

    Kristen, We all missed you too. I am not an author just a cyber friend. Your writings have bonded you to us. We all are cheering for you to make that 7-10 split and roll a 300 game. Find your ‘Bliss”. Much love and encouragement. John

  6. Congrats on finding a path you can walk between the tripping hazards and false trails that strew life’s wandering road. Loved the Satan meme. Must remember that one when my day goes into the toilet–it must be exiting in hell. Best wishes on the writing and even the non-writing. Sometimes, it is enough to just get through the day. (Says the woman whose kid woke at 4:50 a.m. and would not go back to sleep.)

  7. Great post, Kristen! Glad you’re back. As another type-A personality who has been determined to “keep it all going no matter what,” and just about giving myself a nervous breakdown in the process, I feel your pain. I’m currently working my way through the book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, by John Mark Comer. I see myself in so many of those pages. Good luck on all your projects.

  8. Welcome back, Kristen. I was wondering why your articles stopped showing up in my inbox (assuming all the spam and Best Buy advertisements hadn’t eaten them up). Glad to see you’re well and prospering.

    I finally did something important this year (this year meaning last year, but since Thanksgiving). I bought my domain name and started building my author site. Everyone says to have one. Everyone doesn’t understand the tightness of my budget. But a brief change in circumstances last summer opened the opportunity for me, and I had to seize it. And now I’m neck deep in development overwhelm, but it’s coming along quite nicely, and I hope to take the Under Construction page down in March or April. Among its standard features, like author bookshelf and all that, it will also have a public roadmap for books in development, as well as an ideas board for any reader who wants to tell any author what he or she wants to read (eliminating the guesswork out of finding that idea that may or may not land). Yes, any reader (not just mine). Any author (not just me). Hopefully the program I’m using allows for that in the ToS. I think it does. If nothing else, I still have my own roadmap. But yeah, that’s finally in progress, and it really has softened my shoulders a little. Hearing about the importance of a personal website and not having the resources to build it has been a frustration of tense levels. But now that it’s in motion, it’s also a great feeling knowing I can build it to look like whatever I want, and I wanted my site to look like a fun place worth exploring, not just a storefront for flattened e-book covers. Getting readers to visit it will be its own challenge, but I hope they’ll like the experience once they do.

    Other than that, I’ve also started a YouTube series last September called “The Writer’s Bookshelf,” where I spend a Friday morning talking about a writing guide I have on my bookshelf and explaining why it’s important for wannabe writers to check it out (while offering disclaimers about books that may not be perfect). It’s currently between seasons, but I’m launching Season 2 at the end of March (or early April, but probably late March), beginning with “The War of Art” and ending with “Troubleshooting Your Novel.” I’m still racing to get through the rest of my reading slate, but I’m almost there. Where Season 1 was all about structure, Season 2 will be more about craft like characterization, settings, etc., with every season having extras to get writers in the proper mindset. So, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve also been writing here or there. :p

    Oh, before I forget my reason for even writing a response today, I wanted to address the 183,000-word monster.

    I know the advice is often to let the bad ideas go, and I think that’s good advice. But I also think it’s possible to save our failed monsters by reconsidering the elements that attracted us to write them in the first place, then craft those elements into another work that has a better central idea but can handle the pieces of our failed work as a series of scenes or subplots. Maybe that means putting the characters into a new situation. Maybe it means stripping out the topic from the original terror and reshaping it into something of greater value in a new work. But I don’t think the bricks we’ve shelved have to stay shelved if we can think of a better way to reconstitute. I know for me, I can’t stand letting any story shrivel and die. The plot may not work, but the title might, and the characters always can. I’ve found myself reconstituting several of my shorter stories lately because I know they can have better plots and situations representing them. The real trick is admitting that their current designs are terrible and need replacing.

    It’s like giving Jan Brady her own TV show.

    Anyway, glad you’re back. Time to catch up on my reading again.

    1. GO YOU! Fantastic progress and YES YOU MUST HAVE YOUR OWN SITE! Facebook can fail and Twitter can flitter but your site is YOURS no matter WHAT and it only keeps growing with the years and the more love you give it.

      As for the monstrosity, I now have the skills to actually go make something of it. The problem was there were a lot of interesting characters and lovely prose, but I couldn’t spot a plot ina lineup, LOL. I suppose I have so many other ideas running around. Maybe I’ll get back to it one day. Thank you so much for the detailed and thoughtful response. THIS is what I MISS! I love that this blog is a dialogue and I get to hear about you guys too ((HUGS)).

  9. I missed you. Wondered where you were. Good luck on your ghostwwriting project. Have fun with it!

    • maggielynch54 on February 24, 2021 at 12:49 pm
    • Reply

    Absolutely love this post and your usual humor even in the face of fear of potential failure. So many things to embrace. Though my path has been different, I had many of the emotions you describe in this past year.

    I had a seemingly non-productive 2020–at least in terms of turning out books. For the first time in my full-time author career, I didn’t put out a single new book last year. Part of it was I needed to do things that made me a consistent income–which writing never has. So I went on a search to return to old haunts of a regular paycheck. Lots of interviews but then the pandemic hit and everything fell apart. I had turned all my energy to reigniting that flame and, for the first time in my life, felt like a complete failure for not landing a job.

    So, I started a couple of businesses, thinking they would grow slowly and take at most 50% of my time. Good news is they grew quickly. Bad news is they take 150% of my time (sounds like your ghostwriting did the same). At the same time, I had several “emergencies” with family situations–each one taking days or weeks out of my working schedule. The pandemic has made it more difficult for so many people to function. In short, I always felt that I was struggling to make 36 hour days and 10 day weeks in order to stay on top of things. As you can imagine, not possible no matter how much I tried to build a world that could operate that way.

    Now, a year later, things have settled down–as much as they can given our crazy world. The past couple months I’ve been taking stock of what brings me joy in my author career and what is simply joyless work. I don’t have a complete answer for that, but I know changes are in store. I’ve also decided the new businesses are interesting and I want to keep doing them but not so much that I can’t write at all. So I’m developing a schedule that allows me to work my usual 100% of the time (maybe 120% on occasion) with half of it around writing and being an author, and the other half around my businesses. This means cutting back on clients and the amount of work I take in for others, and actually putting on the calendar the days and hours I am facing my computer and writing a novel or nonfiction book. Equally important is have time for interacting with husband, extended family, and friends on a regular basis instead of simply trying to fit them in at the last moment.

    A year ago, I would have never imagined I would be in this place of change and having to make these decisions. I was doing the “author thing” pretty consistently for eight years–three books a year, networking, writing in series (couldn’t stay to one genre though) and had it all down. It was working…until it wasn’t.

    Everyone has their own path and a life to navigate for their career. I don’t think there is a difference between a full-time writer and a part-time writer except that the full-time writer counts on that production for their income (unless he/she has a partner who pays all the bills and what the writer makes is gravy). Someone who counts on that income must treat it like a job–and for many creatives once it is a job it takes the joy out of the writing. For me it’s the opposite. Having a job where I can be creative is joy. But that doesn’t mean I just write. There is a lot of over things to do to make that job pay.

    When I was a professor, I didn’t just teach or just do research, or just help graduate students with their dissertations (all of which I loved). I also had to do the other things that did not bring me joy: go to meetings, engage in faculty politics, compete for grant money. Long before that, when I was a waitress I loved interacting with people, but hated all the cleanup and some of the mean people. When I was a secretary, I loved meeting my bosses needs for organization and reports and planning–often anticipating those needs. I hated being an office with a chain smoker (yes, it was that long ago when smoking in offices was still a thing). I hated the way some people treated me, as if being a woman meant I only had half a brain.

    Every career has its joys and challenges. The key is to find as much joy as you can and when you work for yourself, you are the one in charge of that–finding that balance of joy and work. May you find that again, Kristin. I’m counting on finding it this year again myself.

  10. Good to see you back, Kristen! Well done on completing the book.

    Recently, I have suffered a number of setbacks and faced a total crisis on my writing career. As recently as last night, I was ready to throw in the towel. Something happened this morning (a lengthy freewriting sprint, I think), which helped me re-align my perspective.

    The long and short of it is that a lack of qualifications and money has severely stunted my writing life as a whole. I also wanted to work in a French-speaking job, but the same problem affects me there. Nothing I can do about that, but it does mean that I cannot devote as much time to professional writing or foreign languages without a secure income. I had to just accept that, particularly after I found out about the “Sunken Cost” Fallacy.

    (A.k.a, I have a whole load of language books on my shelf, and felt it would be a monumental waste not to spend hours studying them, even though the benefits would be minimal).

    I also have suffered from the same problem of wanting to excel in a million different professions. That beign said, I do take inspiration from the value of dabbling in different genres. For me, it has been fanfiction (though I am suffering right now, as it becomes painfully apparent that my storytelling skills are nonexistent), and nonfiction articles.

    Speaking of articles, I decided to scale back on writing books for the meantime. I don’t currently have enough money or time to invest the time in that area. However, I can build up my writing again through publishing articles regularly, as well as improve my editing skills. Eventually, I want to compile these articles into a book about language learning. I don’t have a specific angle yet.

    At the moment, I am keeping myself accountable through writing daily (though this does not always happen). This has wavered, as my mood and mental health took dramatic turns, but I have written over 235 000 words since September 2020. I have a lot of unedited material in Dropbox that was intended for a full-length book, but might better serve readers as an article in the meantime.

    While I don’t have the capital to make a business of this, I can at least build up a portfolio. The idea about going into flash fiction is great, as I have a serious problem with wordiness and misplacement of adverbs.

    As usual, first rate article! Looking forward to more!

  11. Yay! I’ve missed your insightful, witty posts. As for the professional writer grind, it sent me straight into creative burnout. In fact, I’ve been unable to dig myself out of the pit sufficiently to determine what to write now that 2020 retracted seven contracts I had with a small indie press.
    I love that you’ve written so many things and are still “finding” your professional space. It gives me hope that perhaps the Lord is not finished with me yet and will soon inspire me with either a character or a story that won’t let me go until I write it.
    Thanks for being a wise voice of reason in a sea of noise.

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