What happens when a struggling writer is determined to get rich?
What principles, if applied over a long enough period, make that happen?
First of all, does wanting to be rich make you less creative?
I work with a prolific creative—he has multiple (great) novels published, he works with incredible entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, and he has plenty of time to spend with his daughter.
He uses his money, for the most part, to buy back his time. And, as far as I can tell, what he makes is of genuine value. People seem to gain a lot from it.
So, I had to be honest—in his case, no, being rich doesn’t make him less creative.
Speaking to him the other day, I realized there are a lot more creatives out there making money than we tend to think. We just don’t talk about them.
Why is that?
I asked him about that phenomenon. It sparked a very long conversation. We ended up drilled down on what most writers and creatives get wrong about their careers.
These are the six principles we came up with for struggling artists to get rich.
Creative success is less mysterious than we think. It works on a similar mechanism as investing, it turns out.
The core investing principle is compounding interest. If you invest consistently over the years, the interest you accrue will begin to snowball—because, for example, 1% returns day-over-day end up being 37x your initial investment near the end of year one.
In creative writing, similarly, if you’re a published writer, you’re more like to get your writing published. If you publish lots of writing, big names are more likely to trust you to do their projects.
This is all just a mathematical justification for patience (nothing will happen for a long time) and consistency (but keep doing it anyway).
For creatives, instead of money (at first), you get returns in skill, relationships, mindset, and portfolio. All of which slowly begin to make more and more creative success possible. No one has packaged this idea more clearly than James Clear in Atomic Habits.
The key is to break the vision down into tiny, daily steps.
If you’re starting from square one, your daily step is to practice writing. Every day. For at least a year.
One day, you’ll hit an exponential curve. That’s what creates the “overnight success” phenomenon. Invest for years until, one day, the returns hit critical mass and “hockey stick” up.
How soon? It depends on how patient and consistent you can be (and, how well you implement the following five principles).
Write 500 words a day for a year. Take online classes on writing (by whoever you admire). Practice one technique at a time. Treat it like you’re training for a marathon. The value of each of those 500 words will suddenly become more than the sum of your effort (eventually).
Practice pitching your ideas to friends. If they go “ooh!” then immediately write a pilot script (or something short like that). Don’t spend more than a day on it. Send it to a close friend. If they like it, edit it more. If that feels good, send it to more people. If you get no traction, start over.
Do not do what I did and spend a decade working on the same idea (unless you’re inspired and can’t help it). Still, the chances of success are close to zero. Sure, you’ll learn important lessons, but that’s not worth it compared to the lessons you could learn by making your stories come to life in the marketplace now. You want to start telling stories to as many people as possible. You need feedback.
Invest as little as possible in an idea unless it proves to you it has some “legs.” You can do this with your friend’s honest reactions, and you can also use your own intuition (just don’t be blinded by your love for the idea).
Be willing to “kill your darlings.”
Good ideas usually come from mistakes while you’re working on your bad ideas. Penicillin was some mold that accidentally grew on top of a different experiment, but, of course, it saved many, many lives.
When you set out on a creative career, you can not predict how it turns out. Enjoy the ride.
Come up with five random story ideas today. Pitch one to a friend. Try again.
Art school kids tend to hang their entire ego on the appearance of being deep and creative.
Almost none of those kids will be paid for their writing.
If you want to write something people care about, you have to be willing to be humble. You have to be willing to seem like a failure in the short term.
Humility is easy to understand, but nearly impossible to act out. We are social creatures. Try this:
Pay attention to popular creations: movies, books, whatever. You don’t have to like them. But, be honest, you do. What makes them so successful? If you don’t know—err on the side of it not being random luck. Imagine they are tapping into something so deep that you haven’t even begun to uncover it (probably true anyway). We have a lot left to learn. We always do.
Tell people what you’re actually up to. “I’m going to be a successful writer, but I’m still unpublished.” Does that make you squirm? That’s good. Say it enough times that you believe it, then other people will start to believe it, too.
The ol’ Hollywood expression: “It’s all about who you know!”
Well, yeah, that is a big part of it. While it sucks for people who weren’t born into a Hollywood family, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible for the rest of us. We just need to get a few of concepts straight in our heads:
It’s okay to admire people
You need to meet people you admire
They can help get you where you want to go
Therefore, learn to network
It doesn’t matter if “networking” sounds sleazy to you (it does to me, too)—we gotta learn it anyway. Relationships make or break a creative career.
Besides, these tips are just to get the ball rolling. You can just use normal human empathy once you know people.
First, you need to get near the people who can help you. Do that by moving to a city where they live, going to events, being friendly, and don’t ask anyone for anything. Just make friends and give way more than you get. Never expect anything, and be shocked when you get so much in return (later).
When you meet someone you admire, notice how you feel. Are you resentful of their success? Does this make you act aloof? Needy? Notice it and be okay with it. Accept that you sometimes get jealous—we all do. Then, transfer it to a better behavior: respect mixed with confidence.
Stroke their ego (for real, though, because you admire them), but also imply that you have a lot going on, too (be honest, but don’t sell yourself short). Ask them questions and imply that you have other irons in the fire.
Then, follow up. Offer something of value to them (did you see this article? I thought you might like it). Introduce people to other people. Become the hub of a network over time.
Relationships follow the principle of compound interest (covered above). Do 1% better at these a week, and pretty soon, you’ll have an extraordinary network.
Go to writing events on Meetup. You’d be shocked at the connections you can make at these things. Writing partners for life have been formed after a 55-minute meetup.
Contact people you look up to on social media. Don’t ask for anything. Just offer praise and a small question that indicates you know what you’re talking about.
5. Business sense
If you manage to write something amazing, you’ve only solved 5% of the distribution problem.
The other 95% is marketing and communication.
You have to learn to pitch, sell, market, and organize all those efforts into a unified machine. Or, you have to hire someone to do that for you.
Most writers are sitting with their fingers crossed, waiting for an agent to come along and handle the business side of their career. But, most agents will never sign you (even if you write a masterpiece) if you don’t already have a following or published work with a proven track record. Why would they take that risk? They gotta feed their family, too.
Sure, some writers hit big out of nowhere. But that’s not a strategy. That’s a lottery.
Here are a few practices on the business side of creative writing:
Practice emailing agents. If you don’t know how, read all 300+ query letters on Query Shark. Figure out how to formulate a great pitch in writing. It is way harder than it seems.
Pitch stories all the time. Act like you have to “sell” reading the rest of your work when people ask what you’re writing. Formulate a pitch so good that someone says, “I wanna read more!” It’s possible.
Make an LLC. Turn your writing business into an LLC. Make a tax account, business expense account, etc. Set earning goals. You’re serious about this, right? So treat it like it’s real.
People who do anything great tend to have this in common: they envision their success.
Down to what they wear, who they are with, and how they stand. They picture all of it.
That’s the power of vision boards (roll your eyes all you want). They work because they get your unconscious mind working on problems your conscious mind can’t solve.
Think about what creative writing success looks like, write it down (in detail), and you’ll be much more likely to be “hit” with inspiration out of the blue.
None of this is magic or woo-woo—it’s just tapping into the power of all parts of your brain—not just the tiny portion that can read these words.
While the first five steps are more practical, you’ll never bother to do them if you don’t have a strong, emotional vision. Make it real to you. Then, your mind will constantly search for little pathways to make it happen.
After talking for a few hours, these are the steps my friend and I came up with. They are pretty simple, but devilishly hard to maintain. I’ve struggled to do them for years—but I’m slowly improving.
If you know a writer who is tired of struggling, share this newsletter.
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Let me know where you are on your journey.
Thanks for reading,
Here’s what I’m reading:
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s like if Toy Story was a climate change parable. An obvious critical darling but lacks real depth. Well written in the minutia, but ultimately disappointing—at least to me.
Still clawing my way through The Brother’s Karamazov
Quotes I’m pondering:
“Hell, while sometimes described as a lake of fire, isn’t really a realm of physical torture. It’s simply giving people what they want in life – separation from God. From connection.” — Infinite by Jeremy Robinson
“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” — Seneca the Younger
“Thinking is an experimental dealing with small quantities of energy, just as a general moves miniature figures over a map before setting his troops in action.” — Sigmund Freud