By Cynthia Harrison
The short answer to “How can I support myself writing fiction?” is learn to write non-fiction. There are other ways fiction writers make a living these days. Ways that will pay your bills and support your writing even if you’re (let’s say) a twenty-something single mom with no college education.
I know this because that was me when I decided I wanted a career as a fiction writer. I didn’t want fiction writing to be my hobby. I didn’t want to do it part time. I wanted to write my stories every day, like a real writer. But I had two little boys to support, so I had to be practical. Practicality isn’t a strength, but my top priority was to make a good life for my little boys. A close second was to be a Real Writer. Looking back on the past couple of decades, I see that I accomplished both of those things.
When I was first realized I wanted to be a fiction writer, I found an article by fiction editor Rust Hills called How Writers Live Today. I took every word of that how-to article to heart, even though I now see the advice, even for the time, as glib. Hills advised getting an MFA in creative writing and becoming a Writer-in-Residence. He explained that WiR hardly have to teach any classes and thus have plenty of time to write, plus the pay is good. He didn’t say is that thousands more people get MFAs than there are WiR positions.
Even though there were no colleges anywhere close to where I lived that offered MFAs at the time, I decided to quit my job and go to college anyway. I figured I could teach high school English. I’d have summers off to write and I’d be on the same schedule as my kids. We’d live off Pell Grants and student loans if we had to, but I was determined to live the writing life. In order not to be glib, soon after enrolling in college I met and married a guy who supported me in being a parent, a writer, and a future educator. I don’t know how my story would look without him because I’m still married to him.
I got that degree and I taught high school for seven years, albeit teaching at-risk alternative high school, which was really stressful, I won’t gloss it. But I still wrote a novella or a couple of short stories every summer and went back to school at night and got an M.A. so I could teach at the college level. I got that degree and those college teaching jobs, too. I was able to write more and work less teaching college, and eventually, after at least a decade of hard work, I published my first book. It was non-fiction. I’d written it by compiling lecture notes and writing exercises from a creative writing class I’d been teaching for a few years. I got the idea from Julia Cameron, a famous writer, who did the same thing with her breakout book The Artist’s Way.
Like many a fiction writer before her, Cameron found both teaching and writing non-fiction useful tools to break into the fiction writing market. As you see, I’ve slyly circled back to that first piece of advice: learn to write non-fiction. Why? Because more people read non-fiction. It will get you noticed. Maybe by a fiction publisher. This happened to me. Within a few years of publishing my first book, I was offered a contract to write novels for the Wild Rose Press. My fifth novel with TWRP is currently being edited for Winter 2016 release.
So that’s how it’s done. Teaching is not fast, not easy, it’s not even very lucrative, but it is a way that worked for me, but then I happen to like a challenge.
The real advice here is that most fiction writers without trust funds or partners who support them must find a job that pays a living wage and is compatible with their natural inclinations, values, and priorities. It can be any job, as long you see a way to fit your real career—writing fiction—into it.
And that’s the next piece of advice: do write fiction. Even if your job is to write non-fiction all day, write fiction at night or on weekends or on vacation. If you really want to be a fiction writer, you have to get those words on the page. It doesn’t matter if your first three (let’s say) novels never sell. Call them practice books. Write another one. Then another. Because here’s a piece of truth: in fiction writing, persistence matters more than talent. Also, you’ll never sell a blank page. So put some words on it.