You Gotta Have Skills

Since I started seriously writing, I’ve learned there are a vast assortment of skills I might logically profit by that I just don’t have. And I’m not talking about grammar and spelling, or judging when to use active voice or how to write dialog that sounds true to life but isn’t as dull and repetitive as life—though those are all on the list.

No, I’m talking about the meta-skills, the things writers need to know these days that have nothing (or little) directly to do with writing, skills like using software to create promotional signage and book layouts, reading stories before an audience (or into a microphone for audiobooks), hawking your wares from a comic con booth or yes….begging for money.

That last might seem an odd choice for someone like me with major contest wins and a string of top market professional sales under my belt. But the sad truth is, short stories just don’t pay very much, and unless you hide all the other writers in a cupboard somewhere, it’s almost impossible to sell more than a few per year at professional rates.

So…as I work on the core skills (the prosy ones and the butt in chair, actually writing the novel ones) I started thinking a few years back, that it would be wise if I had a plan in place, should the need arise, to convince the IRS that yes, this writing thing really is a business that will one day turn a net profit after appearances and expenses.

My first step along those lines was to create Got Scifi Group, a small imprint and informal collaborative of some of my award-winning writer friends, for the purpose of producing anthologies that those of us who make appearances and don’t yet have a back list of novels can sell at a measurable profit.

The second step, following on the first, was to start turning those anthologies (and my back list) into audiobooks, both to have something to sell to the increasing number of con-visitors who ask for them, and to make a little money through Audible.

These efforts have paid dividends—anthology sales went a long way toward helping cover my appearance costs last year, and audiobook sales this year have done almost as well—which still puts me seriously in the hole in any year I have to set foot on an airplane.

So this year, I decided to take the next step, and though I had long resisted it, put out my shingle on Patreon.com. In case you don’t know (or perhaps just awoke from cryogenic storage), Patreon is a service that lets fans directly fund the creators they love. The model was originally set up for video, comic, and artistic creators who can seek support (and offer perks) on a per-project basis. YouTubers, for example, often create Patreon-only content, which sometimes is just a video of a live chat with their Patrons, and other times is original content the Patrons get to see first—you get the idea.

Well, none of that really fits writers. I mean, my biggest problem is fitting in time to decide what I’m going to write next while I’m fitting in time to revise what I wrote last. The literal last thing I need is to spend more time creating content for Patrons that will only take time away from what I should be doing—writing a saleable novel.

Or so I thought until I realized some of my mentors are on Patreon and looked at their pages, and realized Patreon now has a setting for monthly sponsorship—and that writers give away everything from warm thoughts and thanks to signed back list stock to the promise of a nicely bound copy of the next big thing. “Hell”, I thought, “I can do that.”

Sure, I’m not as well known as Robert J. Sawyer, but then, I’m not trying to make a living off Patreon either, just get closer to breaking even while focusing on actual writing….and it occurred to me that even a small monthly stipend is enough to buy equipment and services (on a budget, of course) that might actually free up more writing time…

And I have to say, it’s gone quite well. I don’t have as many Patrons as I had hoped, but those I have are more generous and loyal than I expected, enough to vindicate my thinking for the long term anyway.

However…remember back 690 something words ago and all that prattle about skills? I’m not Rob Sawyer, or Larry Niven, or Derrick from Veritasium. They will not come jsut because I build it. So I knew I had to make it attractive.

Let’s back up a tad. One thing my research told me that you—prospective fellow Patreonimator—need to know is, Patreon is not a source of followers. Think about it. How many people do you suppose spend their lunch break browsing through Patreon, looking for creators to sponsor? I’m thinking “a small, possibly zero number.” Nope, Patreon is a way for your fans to follow and support you, but it’s BYOF, “Bring Your Own Fans.” If you’re hoping to put up a Patreon page and people will discover and support you well….good luck.

I have a newsletter with almost 10,000 subscribers, and I’ve won some big name contests and I’m a regular in Analog—so I figure I should at least have a few people who like me…maybe? But I need to wow them, and woo them, and knock their socks off. Step one was setting up my profile, making it pretty, and paring is down—way down. We all like to talk about ourselves (like I’m doing here, see?) but we always nod off when others do it (like you’re probably doing now, let’s be honest). If I manage to actually get someone onto my Patreon page, I want to fill them so promptly with delight or wonder (or pity) that their wallet flies open before their brain or their dog wakes up.

Short. Impressive. Pretty. Clear. Video.

Uh oh.

On of the reasons my YouTube channel has cobwebs growing on the cobwebs is that videos take forever to produce. But on the other hand, I do know that my mailing list skews older, maler, and less committed than is ideal, and YouTube can help with that. And I’m a big famous (sort of) Quora science writer, and I can make science videos that will KILL (no really, they’ll kill with radiation. Very dangerous). But….wait a minute…videos take so long because I have poor software, the wrong machine, lousy skills, a camera without an external mic with autofocus that sounds like a cross between a bat and a woodpecker…if I make a video to get patrons, I can buy stuff to make subsequent videos easier—and eventually pay someone to produce them maybe…?

So….it takes money to make money, and according to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, time is actually money. Or something.

So…I installed and learned how to use EXCELLENT video editing software (Davinci Resolve). I yelled at my kids and cursed the dogs (not really) and got some footage of me being not yelly and not cursy (and now that I think of it, shockingly out in publicy too). And….because I’m a writer, selling my ability as a story teller, I told a story—my story, how I came from a crossroads of different worlds to become a fabricator of fanciful new ones.

And buddy, let me tell you something. I spent a crap ton of hours on that video, and not one of those dainty metric crap tons either—a good old American, why do we still use these godawful units, Imperial crap ton. Finding stock stills and footage to flesh it out, acquiring and adapting appropriate music, moving all the little snippy things around to get it all to look like a unified whole, rebooting my poor, bleeding writing computer after the GPU burst into flames…

But I did it. I got a Patreon intro video that is way too long, but that I believe is compelling and pleasing. Apparently it’s effective. Or maybe I’m more famous than I think and nobody every watched the thing, heck, I don’t know.

But now I have another skill. And when the pandemic struck, I put out a video on protective masks that got over 6,000 views right out of the chute—and that’s how you get new followers.

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It’s a rough and tumble world these days, writing is. You gotta have skills.

Like this post? Take a moment to support Stuart on Patreon!