Ten Steps to Overnight Success, or, How it Only Took a Decade to Get Paid

I’m always excited to get feedback from people who’ve been in the business awhile and have achieved some of their goals—because I firmly believe that success doesn’t just come; if you want it, you’ve got to chase it down and bag it. As a bestselling author of over 20 books in a number of different genres, Michaelbrent Collings has put in the time and has some great advice on finding success…

(Note: the following is a digest version of Michaelbrent’s article.  A longer version is available at his website. And while you’re there, feel free to check out my guest post on The Role of Flaws in the Character Arc!)

michaelbrentAccording to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for salaried writers hovers just over $50,000. Only the top 10% of salaried writers make over $95,000. And it must be emphasized that these are “salaried writers” — narrowly defined by the BLS as people like salaried journalists, or professional technical writers. Fiction writers are, for the most part, freelance writers whose annual takes — even if they are “professionals” (i.e., occasionally paid) — is much, much lower.  If you’re publishing an indie book on Amazon, you can expect to have less than 100 paid sales for your book on average.

In other words, “the big payoff” of becoming a “real, published author” may have more in common with the salary of your average janitor than it does with the sixteen bizillion dollars J.K. Rowling makes every time she writes a postcard.

What to do?

The reality is, most authors have “day jobs.” I am considered an anomaly. I have sold screenplays.  I have written over a dozen novels that have spent time on Amazon’s major genre bestseller lists, and have spent the better part of a year as one of Amazon’s Most Popular Horror Writers.

I make a living writing.

Now, to put this in perspective: I began writing at the tender age of four. I made my first “sale” of a short story to a local newspaper at the age of 15. I earned creative writing scholarships in college. I hold the record as the person who has had the most screenplays go to quarterfinals and semifinals in the history of the Nicholls Screenwriting competition. And in spite of all this, it took me fifteen years of rejection letters to actually start making money.

Still, through it all I have learned some things about writing, and about how to become a “successful” writer, particularly in genre work like fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. Following is my “road-map for success.” Which is not a guarantee that it will make you a millionaire…but it is a guarantee that you will never fail so long as you continue doing these things.

1) Write.
This may seem obvious, but the simple fact is that if you wish to make a living as a writer, you MUST WRITE.

2) Involve yourself in marketing. 
The fact is, people will (for the most part) not come banging down your door looking for you to write them the next bestelling novel or blockbuster screenplay. You have to do the work yourself.

3) Plug your book (or script, or whatever)!

People may think you are the most scintillating person they have ever heard speak. But they still won’t buy your book if they don’t even know what it is.

4) Make connections. 
You never know who will buy a book or a script or an article.  Not just now, but in five or six or ten years.  Get business cards, stay in contact with people.  Be cool.

5) Play nice with others. 
If you are VERY lucky, you will get a script sale or a book deal.  This means you will have to listen to others’ input.  Don’t be a douchebag.  No matter how dumb the advice sounds, they are trying to make your work better.

6) Constantly improve…but don’t overstudy. 
We as writers must always improve ourselves. But we must not be sucked into the trap of “constant improvement, minimal accomplishment.” Read a book on characterization, fine. But then apply it immediately by writing a novel in which you have as a secondary goal (the first should always be to tell a good story) that you will write your best, most complex, interesting, three-dimensional characters.

7) Be clear. 
This is something that is both very easy sounding and extremely difficult.  Clarity is key in all fiction, but critical in genre work. A muddled magic system, an alien technology that is capable of some things one moment then incapable the next, a ghost that has muddled capabilities…these can be the genesis of confusion in the reader. And confused readers signal the death knell for a story.

8) Be interesting. And interested. 
Due to the incredible sums of money at stake whenever a publishing house is releasing “the next big thing” or a production company is backing a tentpole movie, the writer is no longer able to be the lone hermit in front of a computer. He must be prepared to be interviewed, to do book signings, to do lectures, and generally speaking to be poked and prodded like a veal cow about to take its last walk down the chute.  You are a writer. And if you want to be a successful one, you must also be a personality.

9) Be prepared to be part of a big game hunt. And you’re not the hunter.
When you enter the world of writing, you are entering a world that is full of wonderful, generous, intelligent people. But, like any fantasy setting, there is always a troll or two hunching in the background, hoping to take a bite out of you at any opportunity.

10) You cannot fail…
… if you don’t give up.

I sold my first story at 15. Between that and my second sale, I accumulated well over 1,000 pages of rejections.

And I kept on writing.And this, then, is the secret to success. In finance, in love. In the sacred, in the mundane. In life…in writing. You must endure to the end. You must write until your fingers bleed, and then write some more. The only failed writer is the writer who has put a cap on his pen, who has turned off her laptop.

The only failed writer…is a person who no longer writes.

Michaelbrent Collings is a #1 bestselling novelist and screenwriter. His bestsellers include The Colony Saga, Strangers, Darkbound, Apparition, The Haunted, The Loon, and the YA fantasy series The Billy Saga (beginning with Billy: Messenger of Powers).

He hopes someday to develop superpowers, and maybe get a cool robot arm.

Michaelbrent has a wife and several kids, all of whom are much better looking than he is (though he admits that’s a low bar to set), and much MUCH cooler than he is (also a low bar).

Michaelbrent also has a Facebook page  and can be followed on Twitter through his username @mbcollings. Follow him for awesome news, updates, and advance notice of sales. You will also be kept safe when the Glorious Revolution begins!


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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37 Responses to Ten Steps to Overnight Success, or, How it Only Took a Decade to Get Paid

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  4. I’ve read a few of your books, Michael (working on more), and I just have to say your one of the nicest people out there in your interviews but boy do you write scary!! Lol. Which is great, because I hope to learn as much as I can from you to improve my own writing. It’s nice to have a window into what to expect in future endeavors.

    • Thanks for the compliment! The question is: which is the REAL me? The nice interview guy, or the creepy writer guy? Mwahaha!

      Seriously, thanks for reading, and I hope you keep on writing and learning and finding great (and maybe scary?) things in your own future!

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  6. Shalin says:

    Wow, adorable article. These are the kind of things I constantly yearn for. Motivation! Even though I am just a blogger, I love to write and share my thoughts and that is precisely why I enjoyed reading your post.

  7. Karen says:

    Excellent tips – especially number one. Like you say, it sounds obvious, but there are so many days I do anything but and I know I could do a lot more!

  8. Cher Green says:

    Wonderful tips. I needed this ‘pep talk’, great timing. 🙂

  9. C.Lee McKenzie says:

    In addition to all your great points–especially endurance– there’s so much involved in success as an Indie. Hitting the market at the right time. Choosing the right cover. Targeting the audience with your marketing. On and on. Great post.

    • There are definitely a lot of balls to keep in the air. One thing you touch on I’d like to address: hitting the market at the right time. It’s true that there’s a timing element to success. BUT it’s also true that those who stick around and keep at it over a period of years tend to be the ones who get “lucky” breaks eventually. It’s a crapshoot, but if you keep rolling the dice over and over, the odds eventually come out in your favor.

      Something nice to think about when the house is beating the tar out of you. ;o)

  10. Kate Tenbeth says:

    That was really good, practical advice and came just at the right time so thank you – and yes, I will keep writing 🙂

  11. And thanks for having me, folks!

  12. “Don’t be a douchebag.” LOL. Is there any circumstance where this nugget doesn’t apply? Thanks for posting, Michaelbrent!

  13. Great post! Yikes! The average indie only sells 100 copies of their book. That’s tough.

    • Thanks, Sharon!

      Yes, yikes is right. BUT, the average person digging ditches only digs a little bit their first day. And the average burger flipper only flips a few pretty crappy burgers during training. Garbage in, garbage out. Put in the time and effort, get better, improve. It’s a profession, not a lark! A fun profession, but effort pays off in this as in all things. I hope.

  14. Rosi says:

    Wonderful post full of great tips and reminders. Thanks for posting it.

  15. Mart Ramirez says:

    Wow on your accomplishments! Congrats! Great advice. Thank you for sharing it w all of us.

  16. lindsey says:

    This was a great post. It’s real, raw, and insightful. I appreciate articles like this.

    • Thanks, Lindsey! The first draft was actually synthetic, overcooked, and shallow. Thank goodness for rewrites!

      Seriously, though: glad you found some good in it. I will tell my wife that I wasn’t ignoring her for “nothing” after all. Ha! (JK, I NEVER ignore my wife. She’s smokin’ hot and can take me out two rounds out of three.)

  17. Such a great, inspirational post, and all of this advice is dead on. So much of writing is not giving up hope while continuing to try. Thank you so much for joining us today!

    • My pleasure, Angela. Thanks for getting the real point: not giving up is the only way to never lose. Sometimes the only difference between a “professional” writer and an “unemployed guy staring at a computer screen in his underwear” is that nugget of knowledge.

      That might have been a TMI moment.

  18. Very interesting and realistic post. Puts things in perspective. I liked your ending…very motivating. Thanks.

  19. I love reading stories like these — a wonderful insurance that there is a light at the end of the tunnel no matter how dark it seems now. Thanks!

    • My wife has a sign that says, “Life isn’t about learning to live in the sun, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” I taped an addendum to it one (very bad) day: “Where you will probably be struck by lightning.”

      A lot of life is just getting through without giving up or giving in. Perseverance is 90% of success.

  20. Excellent motivational post, thank you!

  21. S.P.Bowers says:

    Love this post! I’ll have to click through and read the longer article.

    • Please do! That’s what the interwebz was invented for: infinite knowledge, infinite time wastitude. ;o)

      Seriously, do check out the longer article, and please feel free to drop any questions you have on my FB page as well!

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