Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If you’re a young person in the modern workforce (or you know one) you’re likely familiar with job listings that target their salaries and responsibilities at recent graduates while asking for a decade or more of experience in the field. ‘How can I get experience if you won’t give me any experience?’ goes the job-hunter’s lament.
For writers, the same frustration can apply; it can be incredibly difficult to find paid writing work without having first done some paid writing work. This applies to ghostwriters and content producers especially, but authors can struggle to romance a publisher or agent if they have no prior work to show off, and even self-publishing authors can fail to attract an audience if they can’t create a sense of creative pedigree.
We’ve talked before about writing competitions as one route around this (as well as how fairy tale retellings can lend you their pedigree), but today I want to suggest some radical writing opportunities that you may not have considered. If you can write compelling prose and/or string together a cogent narrative, your skills are more in demand than you might think.
1. Social media fiction
When it comes to getting your name out there, social media is usually at least part of the answer, especially if you can keep things snappy. Twitter’s low character-count has inspired a lot of authors to try their hand at social media flash fiction, and if you can get some attention (usually by just one tweet taking off), you’ve just built yourself a reputation.
Aside from the character-count of individual tweets, Twitter fiction has surprising breadth, whether it’s creating one-tweet fiction with the hashtag #140novel or turning James Joyce’s Ulysses into a multi-user performance.
Rose went to Eve’s house but she wasn’t there. But Eve’s father was. Alone. One thing led to another. He got 10 years.
– Rachel Johnson, ‘Twitter fiction: 21 authors try their hand at 140-character novels’ from The Guardian
I opened the door to our flat and you were standing there, cleaver raised. Somehow you’d found out about the photos. My jaw hit the floor.
– Ian Rankin, ‘Twitter fiction: 21 authors try their hand at 140-character novels’ from The Guardian
It’s good that you’re busy. Not great. Good, though. But the silence, that’s hard. I don’t know what it means: whether you’re OK, if I’m OK.
– AL Kennedy, ‘Twitter fiction: 21 authors try their hand at 140-character novels’ from The Guardian
Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘you said this would pay’. Well, not directly, but if you’re shopping for books this Christmas, it’s likely you’ll pass at least one rack of hardbacks that were either commissioned off the back of tweets (a la Mrs Fry’s Diary) or are collections of previously-tweeted material (such as Kids Write Jokes).
That’s where the direct money-making is, but as I talked about in Everything You Need To Know About Guerrilla Book Marketing, it’s also worth your time to create something that the media will enjoy talking about. Present the world with a novel idea and you can easily earn some publicity that will help open doors in the future.
Videogame writing is obviously its own profession, but the market is now such that you can create a game almost entirely through writing. Games like Monster Breeder and A Dark Room are functionally without visuals, comprised of nuggets of text that are prompted by player choices.
The latter game begins with one button: ‘stoke fire’, a choice that branches out to give the player options as a story unfurls down the left-hand side of the screen with their every decision.
The fire is roaring.
A ragged stranger stumbles through the door and collapses in the corner.
The room is mild.
The wind howls outside.
The stranger shivers, and mumbles quietly, her words are unintelligible.
– One possible narrative path in A Dark Room
Yes, you’ll probably need to find someone to code the game for you, but that’s not a rare skill in the current market and will cost a lot less than you might imagine.Modern videogames aren’t what many expect – good writing is enough to find an audience.Click To Tweet
Perhaps this is an avenue that you never considered, but if you’re adept at understanding how a reader might want to interact with your story, and constructing a cohesive enough narrative to allow for their choices, it’s a radical writing opportunity worth looking into.
3. Board games
Board games as a whole have always been more complex than their most famous examples, but they’re currently big business, and their narrative opportunities have only expanded. Something like Dungeons & Dragons allows for emergent storytelling – and there are ways to write and sell adventures that people can play – but if you’re a budding author looking for ways to show off your chops, ‘escape room’ games are the answer.
In games like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, the player is effectively dropped into the middle of a story. In this particular game, there’s a short introduction and the player is then given a stack of newspapers, a map, and an address book – they choose who to visit, with each different location offering a new snippet of text that may shed light on the mystery or may be totally worthless. Similarly, the newspaper is packed with stories – some may contain actual clues, some may just raise relevant concepts (a case involving a murderous twin mentions a showing of Jekyll and Hyde), and some are just to camouflage the rest and create atmosphere. Engaging in this game, players are effectively reading a mystery story as a team, and all gameplay is carried out just through reading and reasoning (the goal is to solve the case as quickly as possible).Got a mystery narrative that just won’t come together? Maybe you’re actually writing a board game.Click To Tweet
Just as we settle down into the chairs lined up along the whitewashed walls of the Bethlehem Asylum’s waiting room, a broad-shouldered man wearing a white coat enters and introduces himself as O’Connell. He invites us to follow him to Dr. Praetorius.
– ‘Doctor Goldfire’ from Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective
You can even take another step back from the traditional board game: Hunt a Killer is a ‘game’ service in which the player receives monthly packages of puzzles, clues, and in-world documents as part of a longer narrative in which they’re hunting a serial killer.
Games like this and the Exit: The Game series require a keen mind – accounting for player choice often means every piece of writing has to make sense isolated from any other – but if you enjoy complex plots, this may be a radical fiction opportunity that plays to your strengths.
4. Alternate reality games
Alternate reality games (ARGs) take things a step further than the games above. Here, the idea is that your reader engages with your writing as if it’s part of their real life, often asking the reader to take real-life actions to play.
The basic form of an ARG is a website that’s more than it seems – for example, it may appear to be an innocent business with clues nested in the actual content of the page (as in the I Love Bees ARG). More advanced forms might involve multiple sites or spotting clues in unexpected places (as in The Beast, which hid clues in promotional material for the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence).
Of course, such creative endeavors are always expanding, and ARGs might not involve the internet at all. Businesses like HiddenCity set their stories in physical spaces. Here, the player receives texts directing them to go to different places, often posing a riddle or question that they can solve when they get there (usually, replying with the answer prompts the next step). The Hunt for the Cheshire Cat, for example, immerses the player in a fictional world nested in the real one; a world where saying the right code-phrase at a café gets them slipped a clue, where graffiti isn’t random, where a certain book in a bookshop is hiding a covert letter, and where a wall of posters might hide the secret to a revolution.
This may sound inconceivable to create, but if you know your local area, you can build your story around it, especially if there are a few local businesses who are happy to play along in exchange for you sending customers their way (The Hunt for the Cheshire Cat positions the puzzles you’ll have to sit down and think about at coffee shops, terminating at a bar that offers discounts to players). Once the story is set up, you can even automate the system to respond to keywords, meaning you’re only investing routine maintenance in an impressive fictional endeavor that people will pay a lot to enjoy.
Comics are a surprisingly accessible avenue for writers. Yes, it will probably take a lot of years of work to get a job at Marvel or DC, but now that we all carry computers around in our pockets, webcomics (comics hosted primarily on web pages – like newspaper funnies but online) are an option for pretty much anyone. Again, I can hear you thinking: ‘but I can’t draw’. In response, I’ll point you to two of the most successful webcomics around.
Dinosaur Comics is a webcomic that’s been running for over fifteen years with only one page of art. Almost every strip utilizes the same artwork and layout, with creator Ryan North creating new dialogue such that every strip tells a different story. If you can get your hands on any royalty-free images (and they’re not hard to find), you have all the tools that North uses in his work.
If you’re asking me what inspired me to create a comic, it’s something I’d long wanted to do but couldn’t figure out how to accomplish. I don’t draw, so working in a visual medium like comics isn’t the easiest thing to stumble into! But on the other hand, if you’re asking me what inspired me to create a comic online, the answer is simple: it’s the easiest medium to work with and it affords you a potentially globe-spanning audience for basically free. Sounds like a good deal to me!
– from ‘IN-DEPTH: Ryan North’, CBR.com
The second example is xkcd, former NASA staffer Randall Munroe’s ‘webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language’. Munroe draws almost exclusively in stick figures, but his command of dialogue and text (as well as his frequent and breath-taking ambition with a simple premise) has amassed a huge audience.You don’t need to be able to draw to launch your writing career from a webcomic.Click To Tweet
Both creators have gone on to publish multiple books, some based on their webcomic work and some not, but there’s also opportunities for merchandising and direct reader payments through services such as Patreon. It’s also the case that almost every long-term webcomic is a chronicle of increasing artistic talent, so whether you can only draw a little or can’t draw at all, this is still a radical fiction opportunity worth pursuing.
Copywriting – writing the text used in advertising – is, again, a major field of work. Despite this, there are still companies looking to hire freelancers, and many sites (such as Twago, Zerys, Skyword, and CloudPeeps) that allow you to take on such work. Obviously, this is paying work, but if you’re judicious about which jobs you take on, it can also be a radical writing opportunity that plumps up your author’s CV and allows you to point to previous success when pursuing other projects.
This is especially effective if it’s not your main source of income – in such cases, you can sit back, keep your eye on what’s available, and swoop on anything with a particularly creative bent. A lot of advertising veers closer to short fiction than you might think.
7. Local journalism
Depending on where you live, it may be surprisingly easy to get into print. Local newspapers are often starved for both staff and content, meaning that if you can write, you’re often only a few weeks away from having an article to your name.
Of course, you still need talent, but many writers who don’t see any opportunities to make a name for themselves should look towards local journalism (especially those who want to work in non-fiction). Articles, reviews, and even editing are all great experience, and ‘former writer for ____’ could help you get your foot in the door with writing professionals. Publishers, agents, and editors are always relieved to find a writer has worked with publishers, agents, and editors before.
8. Local services
It’s impossible for me to say what your local community needs, but being able to communicate an idea clearly, succinctly and engagingly is a real skill. A few weeks ago, I came across a business card that advertised a local service that would write a bespoke poem about my pet. Now, it’s safe to say that that poet also has a day job, but they’re also making money off their writing, and a handful of satisfied customers may be enough to help them reach the next level (that’s if they’re not already completely satisfied making individual people happy with their work).
What might that look like? A collection of pet poetry, perhaps, a writing position with one of the many magazines about pet ownership, a book that sells because of the contacts they made in the pet community? Maybe another project is just a poetry book, and their agent gave them the time of day because they were already making money as a poet?
Everyone’s potential path is different, and everyone’s community needs different things. If you’re looking for radical writing opportunities, spend a week actually noticing and recording everything in your local area that involves writing. Whatever it is, it was written by a person, and all of them have more experience than if they hadn’t bothered.Your local community has more writing opportunities than you might think.Click To Tweet
We tend to talk about writing as if it’s a holy endeavor. Perhaps it is, but you may never get to reach people with something worthy of that outlook if you don’t build up your portfolio and gain experience and attention. The above options may not be for you, but good writing is just good communication, and there are a hundred ways to utilize that skill. Find one, work at it, and then ascend to the next level.
What radical writing opportunities have I missed? Let me know in the comments, along with the bizarre writing jobs that were stepping stones in your own writing (anyone else had a day where they wrote sales copy for body armor, lipstick, and emus?) You can also check out Should You Enter A Writing Competition? and How To Be A Successful (And Happy) Ghostwriter for more ways to make your writing work for you.