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This writing business

Oh look. Another blog post. Yippee!

I guess I have the excuse that I’m still training myself to use dictation for these things. So that’s worth something. As is the sheer fun of playing with a new toy.

You know…I’ve run a few businesses. I’ve actually helped lots of other people start and run their own businesses, and find loans, and even find customers. So I often look a bit askance at my own recent behavior and assumptions.

Starting with the obvious question: is “writing” the right business for me to be in, at all? And if so, how do I prove it?

I’ve talked before about Lean Startup and Customer Development in the software world. And I don’t want to get into it in this post, but FWIW I’m a big fan of Amy Hoy’s blog posts and articles. So I think “the idea” is a horrible starting-place/trap for new business owners…but we’ll skip past that part for today, ’cause I’m talking about specific ideas. Given that this first horrible mistake has already been made, and if we assume it’s somehow irrevocable? I think there are some simple questions one ought to ask when starting a new business. For example:

  • Assuming I know basically what I’m doing, how much money can I expect to make?
  • Why do I think this is a reasonable outcome? Can I identify the assumptions/evaluations that went into this figure?
  • How long is it likely to take before I begin to show a profit?
  • To what degree am I able to directly influence my chances of success? Am I dependent solely upon the goodwill of gatekeepers, or can I make success happen through my own efforts?

Frankly, after looking at the (very short and simple) list above, I think trying to make money by writing fiction is quixotic and stupid. Don’t get me wrong–I expect to succeed. Because…you know…I’m stupid. But also because I think I can find ways to maximize my chances. For example:

  • I can learn to write new fiction quickly.
  • I can work pretty darn hard. In fact, I tend to enjoy that.
  • Assuming I produce a fair amount of fiction, I can look for creative/unusual ways to use it to help me find readers.
  • I can find ways to improve my craftsmanship–meaning improving my wordsmithing skills, my understanding of story, and my ability to manage my own creativity/productivity.

But does it really make sense to put all that effort into this particular business? Probably not for most people. Thing is, I have a couple of fallback positions. What I’m doing right now is compatible with making my family happy. But it’s not my only option, and I can pretty easily move back into a different field.

I started thinking about this today because I heard a young man being advised to look online for a “business plan template” to help him with his very first semi-serious business idea. Now…in my world, the business plan has a specific role: it’s a sales tool. It’s used to convince certain classes of people to loan money. So I might’ve made a different suggestion.

There were some questions I thought the young man might do well to consider. At a bare minimum, given the nature of his idea, I came up with these:

  1. In a perfect world, how much product would he be able to produce?
  2. What, assuming all went well, would it cost him to do so?
  3. If he sold all of that product, how much money would he make?
  4. Given that baseline, would it be enough money to live on? Or at least to justify the ongoing investment of time?
  5. If he wanted to expand the business beyond the level from #4, how could he go about it? Would this particular business require outside investment, or could he bootstrap the thing?

Okay. You guessed it. I spoke up.

Then the young man went on to tell me that he wanted to start a business “for the experience”–implying that the answers to the questions above might not be so important in this case.

“Great,” I responded. “So you want to learn about opening a business. Do you think it might be helpful to learn how to evaluate a business idea? Some people, probably all of them being damned capitalists, the bastards, might think that was an important step.  Hell, some of them would probably tell you you’d have to do it all the time. If you were making your own decisions about your business, that is. And your rebuttal would be…?”

Fortunately this kid is fond of me, so I survived. Equally fortunately, he didn’t ask me a bunch of similar questions. Old age, you know, and treachery.

If he’d been talking about a business that fired his imagination, something that got his blood pumping and lit a fire in his belly, something that inspired me to use three or four more clichés involving the word ‘fire,’ I might’ve taken a different tone. But it was just the first idea that had occurred to him. He had no particular emotional investment. Nonetheless, he wanted to jump in the very next day without any sort of research or analysis. Or concern for the legality of his notion.

I guess there probably wouldn’t have been much harm in it if I’d kept my mouth shut. But…I’ve made that mistake myself, and more than once. I’d like to think the kid can learn something from my experience. And simultaneously, I think it’s over-the-top ridiculous for me to advise rationality in the face of my own efforts in this writing biz.

So anyway, he’s doing some research. Writing down questions and a plan to find answers. Thinking about finding people he can talk to, people who have done various bits of this idea he’s had.

Truth is, he’s probably a lot more flexible than I am. I may not have a lot of choice about what I’m doing right now. I really want to write fiction. I want people to read it. And I discovered a long time ago that I’m really, really bad at doing things just because other people think I should. (Or not doing them because folks think I shouldn’t.) That one goes back to high school at least–I was the geeky kid who studied calculus on his own instead of taking the class, and learned it at least well enough to place out of the basic classes in college, but couldn’t keep an organized notebook or complete a seemingly pointless assignment to save his life. I was, in other words, a “C” student. On my good days. Though…with high test scores. ’Cause I was also awfully competitive, in my own way.

I remember being told many times that I really had to buckle down and do homework assignments because it was “for my future.” I usually responded with something like this: “I don’t actually expect to want to be doing that stuff in the future any more than I want to do it right now. I figure I might as well quit it sooner rather than later.”

I also told people I’d rather dig ditches for a living and keep my thoughts for myself. This one, I didn’t stick to. I’ve probably spent almost a quarter of my adult life working for other people. Sometimes it was even fun. But I always left the job eventually, and every time it was out of frustration that I wasn’t allowed to work effectively.

Turns out? I hate wasting my time. Always have. So if there’s something I think I should be doing, but I’m not doing it, there tends to be a reason for my behavior. Generally, it’s a good reason. Or maybe even several of them. So I try to figure that crap out, eventually. (Though sometimes it’s just that I’m feeling lazy and there’s work involved. But that feeling tends to fade on its own.)

I suspect this is true of lots of people’s experience with “procrastination,” but somehow they learn to do what’s expected of them in spite of themselves. I’m both impressed and saddened by this. But at some point…it’s probably worth considering that I may no longer have a choice in the matter. Years of conditioning, you know?

So that’s me. I’m doing this goofy thing, quite possibly just because I’m incapable of doing anything else so well as I can follow a whim. And then wholeheartedly dedicate myself to it–it’s what I do, and the truth is I love every bit of it.

I don’t know what will happen with this kid I’ve been talking about today. Something cool, I hope. Maybe he’ll learn to ask tough questions. I kind of hope so. If he does, maybe I’ll have to figure out some answers for myself.

Have fun out there. It’s an interesting world we live in.


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