On Writing,  publishing

Courage in a World of Artistic Freedom

Artistic Freedom From a Different Perspective…

Last week I did three posts about the artistic freedom that all fiction writers have in this new world.

Artistic freedom, at its base level, means the freedom to pick your own path in fiction writing, write what you want to write for whatever reasons you want to write it, and be responsible at the same time for your own mistakes.

Artistic freedom means having the choice to try to chase a traditional big-five book deal, even though the consequences of catching that brass ring is loss of the book and massive frustration.

Artistic freedom means you can write whatever novel or story you want. You can chase markets for more money or you can chase your own dreams, or a combination of both.

There are no limits on artistic choice in this new world.

But all these choices have consequences, some only made up, some real.

And there is a big problem most writers face at one point or another. I know of no writer who is an exception. I certainly am not.

Fear of the choice. That’s the big problem.

Is it the right choice? Am I making a choice for the wrong reasons? Should I publish my most recent book even though I don’t feel happy with it? And on and on. You get the idea. Think of a choice that scares you and you have it.

Fear often leads to no choice, which is a choice.

Courage is that overused word that allows us to keep moving forward, sometimes in the face of all odds. And don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t take courage to send out a book for the public to read. Oh, trust me, it does.

But the writers who make it in the long run, not just in a few years, but over a decade or more, find the courage to pick a path, pick an artistic choice, and then move forward, even when a choice turns out to be a bad one.

I decided, in 1992, to move to writing for money. I tried to take projects I loved and got lucky with that on some. I flat hated other projects, writing only for money.

I was challenged by some projects, bored out of my mind with others.

But my driving focus for a decade was to write for money, make as much as I could to pay off Pulphouse debts, and live nicely.

I succeeded at that artistic choice. Completely. I made well past six figures year-in-and-year-out.

Until I didn’t.

The choice was a bad one in hindsight.

I killed my writing completely in ten years, almost killed my own voice, and I burnt out what makes writing fun for me.

By the end of those ten years, writing had become a chore, something I only did when a deadline and a paycheck forced me to the computer.

And if I hadn’t been rescued ten years ago by the excitement and challenge of the indie world, I would be long gone from writing, one of those writers you notice in a used book store and say, “What ever happened to…?”

And honestly, I never would have looked back. I never would have realized where I made the bad choice and what that bad choice exactly was. I never would have cared, honestly.

But because I made a second artistic choice, to come back to writing, to learn this new world, to write for only pleasure, I can now look back and see the mistake I made in 1992.

And that’s why I often tell writers to never chase a market, never write for just money. Write for the passion, the love, the fun of it. Don’t make the mistake I did. It will kill your writing.

Of course, now, after the last three years of powering on my writing for the fun of it and the four years before that of learning the business, I make more money now than I ever did writing for money. How ironic.

It seems to work that way for others as well.

But trust me, it takes courage to take the long approach, to only write for fun and to entertain yourself. It doesn’t feel valid at times. You have no way to keep score if you don’t use the sales and the money.

I keep score by the fun, by putting out title after title, by getting another issue of Smith’s Monthly out the door.

I know what I make in general because I track by the month and by the quarter and by the year, but I never look at individual book sales.

I don’t use the money anymore to add value to my writing.

My writing has value when I have fun writing it.

It really is that simple and that difficult at the same time.


  • Vera Soroka

    I can identify with the fear. I’m contemplating on moving my Short stories & stuff over to Patreon. I’ve been posting flash fiction, short stories and poems for about five years now. I put the tip jar up for the first time this year. No tips. I have certainly done this out of enjoyment. I also serialized a cat fantasy novel while also posting my regular stuff. I enjoy serialized fiction. All for nothing. A lot of authors would not have done that when there was no one giving tips.
    My gut instinct tells me that those readers would not join patreon. I would be starting from scratch to find a new audience that would be willing to pay. That would be writing for money and I won’t lie I want to write for money but also enjoyment. I don’t have any plans for chasing what’s hot on the market. I’m pretty much a faerie and fairy tale writer. There is also other things I want to write as well, like cat fantasy stories and stories that readers of the fur infinity groups would enjoy.
    But I don’t know if I could pull patreon off. I think I would be writing for free there as well. For this coming year I thought I would post on both my website like always and on patreon. See what happens. Then make a decision as to what happens to short stories & stuff at the end of 2017. I don’t feel I can write for nothing anymore.

  • Chrissy Wissler

    “My writing has value when I have fun writing it.”

    I think I’m going to put that above my writing area. It’s something I often struggle with, mostly because my life situation with two young kids means there’s very little money coming in, or even time to write new words. It’s hard fighting back the critical voice, especially when it’s time to do the monthly business stuff or when I get short story rejections. This is one reason taking your workshops has been invaluable to me right now: I can see the progress and growth in my craft, even if only in these small bits and pieces. (And… my rejections are bringing me in very nice editor comments… so I know I’m growing and getting better… but that critical voice can sure be nasty while I’m alone in my writing.)

  • G


    I’ve had big differences of opinion with you over the years in regards to writing to market. I’m a big proponent of it, I believe it “works” and is a better method to selling books in the short-term than just about any other.

    Personally, I’ve been doing this thing since 2010 and so I haven’t gone a decade yet but I’m getting there, and I’ve made more money than most could ever dream of in that time, without getting overly specific.

    That being said, in writing to a different genre than what I enjoy in my personal life, you may be right that I’ve killed that creative spark. I pretty much just publish and edit others’ work now, writing as little as possible–and don’t feel as though I miss it very much. I basically wrote less and less over the last year or two and transitioned over to the business side, although in the kind of editing I do, I tend to do a lot of actual writing to fix things.

    The money is great and I would much prefer this job/life to one where I wrote what I loved but still had to have a cubicle job to pay the bills…

    And yet I can’t deny that after years of writing to market, I may have killed the goose that laid the golden egg to some extent. You make a lot of valid points, and as I get a bit on in years, experience is showing that some of my preconceived notions I held earlier were wrong.

    Then again, there are shades of gray to all of it.

    Many authors don’t understand and can’t really prepare themselves for what it really takes to make it in this business, whether you write for love or money. Those of us who make a living at it year in and year out just have a different motivation than many who think they want this kind of life, and really don’t want to do what it takes…

    Thanks for your blog, love reading it to get the feel of the life of a writer!

    • dwsmith

      G, sorry to be right on this one I’m afraid. But agree about the fact that most authors with the goal of money don’t understand what it takes to make a living. No doubt on that at all.

      But I came back. I had an editor tell me once he knew of no one who came back from the write-for-money world I was in to their own fiction. At the time and looking back, I no of no one but me who has done it as well. But since I did it, I know it is possible for others to make the transition back to writing for pleasure. And your path would be a different one than I took if you decide to try it.

      But I am the poster child for it being possible. (grin)

  • Veronika

    Thanks for these posts, Dean. Reading them, I’ve finally come to realise that 15 years of academic writing was, for me, the equivalent of writing to market. (shudder)

  • Isabo Kelly

    I’m loving these posts, Dean! Courage and fear were the first things I thought about in the posts prior to this one. That it takes a lot of courage to grab hold of artistic freedom and run with it.

    I was on my way to killing my fun and love of writing before the Indie world hit. I was “tailoring” the stories I wanted to tell so they’d better fit a specific market–not the readers in that market, the editors and publishers (very much writing with my critical voice on my shoulder). I was trying to write what I love without actually letting my creative voice write the stories, and my creative voice was slowly getting worn down.

    The indie world is saving my voice and career too. I’m still working my way through some residual damage, but I’m getting there. And I’m extremely grateful for this new world. Artistic freedom is scary, but it’s oh so good to have it.

  • Sheila

    Fear often leads to no choice, which is a choice.

    Get out of my head, Dean! lol

    Seriously, I had an epiphany about this a few years back, when I realized I would just do nothing when faced with a choice. I figured I always made the wrong one, so what did it matter?

    It took a long time to come around, especially for a person with very low self-esteem. I know it sounds strange, that I can just hit publish on something I think is a darn good story. I do have a bit of panic as soon as the button is clicked, and want to scream. But I’ve told myself that what I think is all that matters, that readers will either like it or not.

    I’ve been told I”m a good writer, so I just need to keep moving forward, writing and publishing more work. I love writing again, thanks to your posts on writing into the dark. I just need the self-control to get myself in the chair and typing.

    But, I’m getting there. 2017 is finally going to be my year, you just wait. 😀

  • Author aspirant

    This is just what I needed to read today. I’ve been looking in frustration all week for something which could crystallise the turning point I am currently at. This post sums it up.

    Six months ago I decided to get “serious” about writing. This meant writing every day and trying to hit pulp speed after being inspired by your posts. I was exhilarated, shocked, and then finally horrified to find I could actually do it.

    Writing fast was exhilarating, an emotional roller coaster, deeply satisfying. I felt like a bird who has just learned to fly when I let go of my outline and wrote into the dark, going on nothing but instinct and allowing it to guide me for the first time.

    I was shocked to find I could write a big story with multiple intersecting narrative arcs and a satisfying ending. I used to think of writing as finding a path through the labyrinth while simultaneously building the walls of that labyrinth at the same time – no longer, because suddenly I felt like the conductor of a orchestra, watching as different elements wove themselves together in harmony to create a symphony.

    Then, the horrifying realisation: I can do this.

    I put together a publishing schedule. I calculated how many novels I could write in what time frame based on various daily word count goals. I anticipated the increased hours at my new job and how I could carve out the time needed to write. I began a rigorous daily writing schedule beginning at 4am.

    A month ago, my WIP ground to a halt. The novel was supposed to be standard length and the first instalment in a trilogy. But it had already passed the standard novel length and I couldn’t see an end in sight–in fact, I suspected I might be less than halfway through. What the hell was I going to do?! I was dutifully doing my daily sprints, but I couldn’t stay in creative mode. No matter how much I told myself not to worry about the word count, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I decided this was a message from my subconscious that I needed to change something. I took a step back and some time to find out what it was.

    I realise now that the non-judgemental way I reacted to my “writer’s block” was a turning point in and of itself.
    If I had trusted my critical voice, as I used to do, I would have probably been ashamed of my failure, then gotten depressed, then scrapped the WIP, rewritten it or started editing heavily to find the “mistakes” and “fix” them in order to continue.

    My critical voice is the one that made the publishing schedule, set the 5k daily word count target, enforced the relentless schedule. My critical voice is the one that spent so much time thinking about the future and if I will be able to quit my day job and how long that will take and if royalties will make me a millionaire or just buy me a latte once a week and anyway what about my taxes and and and…

    All of that is irrelevant. I was taking the wrong approach. Especially fretting about how much I dislike my day job and how it’s a huge waste of my time which I could be spending writing. Not that that isn’t true. It’s just not the thing to focus on.

    Writing and being in creative mode and enjoying the exciting things that happen when I just say to myself, “Wow, I really wish I could be in a world where…” — that’s what counts. That’s what it’s about. That’s what the creative, writing, storytelling life is, and it gives me a deeper sense of satisfaction than anything else I’ve ever done. I love writing 5k and 10k per day when I’m flowing in creative mode and everything is on fire. It’s fantastic.

    I need to trust my creative voice and do my best to not judge it, even when it writes things I find dumb, silly and ridiculous. Because only my creative voice can give me that deep joy and satisfaction that comes from reading and living the stories which are somehow weirdly lurking in my subconscious.

    I need to let go of all that critical voice crap and just moment by moment, day by day, follow my creative voice and trust it to lead me.

    Thank you for your wisdom, Mr. Smith.

    • dwsmith

      Sure sounds like you are on the right track. Another key is to keep having fun. Enjoy the puzzle, the excitement of putting something together. Thrills can be scary, but fun. I enjoy the thrill of being stuck in a story, the push through to let the characters have an ending. All great fun, and the more fun, the more I want to get back to it.

      So thanks for the kind words but sure sounds to me like you are on the right track. Have fun.

  • Author aspirant

    “There are no limits on artistic choice in this new world.

    But all these choices have consequences, some only made up, some real…

    And there is a big problem most writers face at one point or another. I know of no writer who is an exception. I certainly am not.

    Fear of the choice. That’s the big problem.

    Is it the right choice? Am I making a choice for the wrong reasons? Should I publish my most recent book even though I don’t feel happy with it? And on and on. You get the idea. Think of a choice that scares you and you have it.

    Fear often leads to no choice, which is a choice.”

    I have two friends, both original and passionate artists.

    One of my friends made a great work of art, an immense achievement for him. When he finished, he wasn’t happy with the result. And so he stopped. I watched him, year by year, slowly killing the artist within himself. He just pretends he’s no longer interested. His fear was as strong as his passion, but he let fear win. He helped fear crush it into submission.

    My other friend openly admits that he chooses “safe” venues for artistic expression to avoid vulnerability. He admits he hasn’t taken a creative risk in a long time. It seems he’s aware of the conflict within himself. I wonder if he will find the courage to allow that repressed inner voice to speak.

    The artistic process brings our subconscious into play, and that subconscious is notorious for putting out some very unexpected and frightening stuff which we would rather ignore.

    In my opinion, and I think we are in agreement on this, that’s why it’s easier to make one’s stories “safe” by clinging to external forms of validation and justification, such as earning money by writing to market. “Writing to market” makes storytelling seem businesslike, straightforward, clinical, organised, rational. It keeps all that scary stuff under wraps, like being alone in a room with just your own soul for company, with no idea what it’s going to say or do…

    The stuff of nightmares, right? 😉

  • Marion

    Thanks for writing about this, Dean. I needed to read these posts. I just published my second spiritual fantasy novel in a series and felt a little depressed about it over the last few days. I’ve enjoy writing the books and it is something I truly want to write. However, I believe I have let “write to market” crowd and instant KU authors success get to me a little bit. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience about how writing is truly a long-term and writing what you love is most important.