Aspiring and pro-am writers utter it as gospel: I can’t wait to quit my day job!
Or, for those who’ve made the jump: I was so happy when I finally quit my day job!
But is quitting the day job really everything it’s cracked up to be?
I stumbled across this rather dreary piece from the UK. It paints a sad picture of life for established authors in an economically troubled world, where the rapidly shifting sands of publishing—and the entertainment landscape overall—have undermined what were once burgeoning careers.
It got me to thinking. There is nothing about fiction writing that guarantees a full-time income, much less a lavish or luxurious full-time income. Last year I made a decent pile of cash from my writing. The most ever, in five years. Enough for my wife and I to raise our eyebrows and say, “Wow!” But it’s not even close to enough to replace my full-time job, nor my part-time military job. Well, okay, maybe the part-time military job; but I won’t be quitting that any time soon either.
I understand that for full-timers, especially those who’ve done it longer than a decade, the specter of being forced back into the “mundane” workplace, must be pretty ghastly. Especially older writers for whom re-entering the punch-a-clock universe is going to be problematic; due to ageism and outdated skillsets. It’s a complete drag to think that once one is “made” in the author world, one does not necessarily stay made. I have met a lot of writers in the last five years and this reality is haunting the lives of many people.
But . . . I also think this is just how the world works.
“Eat his bread by the sweat of his brow,” the Bible says. True then, true now, and true in the future too. Even if you don’t believe in the Bible. Everybody has to work. Very few of us get to have silver spoons in our mouths. And not all work is accorded equal value. Especially in the arts, where everything functions (as Eric Flint will often note) on a star system. There is a long-tail curve that spikes sharply for the perennial bestseller set. All the rest of us are living way down on the shallow part. And unless you’re young and single and can literally live on $15,000 to $25,000 US a year, or live with your parents, or have a spouse who pays the bills, life on the flat side can’t be lived without some form of mundane work that supplements or augments the writing income.
This is not a tragedy so much as this is simply what life is. And yes, I get it, trying to reach one’s full potential as a creative artist (in any capacity) while devoting hours each week to mundane employment, is difficult. Believe me, I know. I’ve not only wrestled with a salaried, thankless, high-stress, usually way more than 40 hours a week day job, but also a military job that takes me away from home a lot and is way, way more of a commitment, than merely one weekend a month, two weeks a year. Usually during military days (I’m doing them as I write this) I still have to tackle projects from the day job (in my profession, there really is no such thing as leaving work at the office) while also trying to stay productive with my writing. So I know all about this aspect of The Struggle™ in painful detail.
So what’s a new writer still trying to break into the field supposed to think about all this? Is it even worth it? Why bother, if it’s so hard?
My thoughts on these questions.
1) If your only goal is to make money, there are easier and more respectable ways to do it. The artist life does have an aspect of glamour to it, sure, but it’s a haphazard life, and as the cited article (at the top of this essay) notes, it can sometimes be a garret life: feast, and famine. If you want actual stability, you have to be willing to hitch your wagon to a career field that is similarly stable. Which is hard to do in a tough economy. But the vagaries of the mundane marketplace are positively rock solid compared to publishing. So if it’s rock solid income that you want, fiction writing is not the way to get it.
2) If you find you simply can’t stop dreaming about writing, and telling stories is in your blood, then you need to be practical and pragmatic with your expectations. Your first book or story is unlikely to make you famous or wealthy. Heck, even your tenth story or book is unlikely to make you wealthy. So take Kevin J. Anderson’s and Rebecca Moesta’s advice and don’t quit your day job. Not unless you really, really hate it, in which case you might be trying to flee the hell of your present day occupation for the seemingly sunny fields of authorland. Don’t do it. Find a new job that you can tolerate, or even enjoy somewhat, but don’t unplug yourself from the surety of that weekly or bimonthly paycheck. Especially if you have a family depending on you.
3) Teach yourself to have set writing hours that fit around your other commitments. Could be an hour at night, or in the morning, or maybe you use your lunch break, or the train or bus ride to and from work. Make sure this happens three to five days out of the week, no less. And absolutely do not allow yourself to give in to the temptation to fill those hours with video games, television, movies, or other entertainments. You’ll be surprised how productive you can be once you move past the idea that you must wait for the muse to strike, or you simply cannot write unless you have a half day or more of quiet time in which to sit and work at your computer.
4) Teach your family and friends to leave you alone during your writing hours. This only works if your family and friends support you in what you want to do. And I hate to say it, but there are spouses who can and do sabotage their writer husbands and wives. Either out of uncaring, or feeling like the writing is competition for couple and family time, or because of simple jealousy, or perhaps some other misguided emotion. You should definitely have that hard conversation with your wife or husband, and establish some kind of formal understanding. This is not your hobby. This is an enterprise. In my experience, transactional agreements work best: before I get my two hours of writing time at night (usually 9 PM to 11 PM) I devote an equivalent amount of time to my wife and daughter, for after dinner family stuff. Whether it’s sitting by the fire and talking, watching a television show or movie we all want to watch, playing cards, playing a board game, etc. Some writers think being a writer gives them an excuse to ignore their families. I’ve found it works in the reverse: make sure your family gets your time when they need it, and your family will make sure you get your writing time when you need it.
5) But this makes for drastically reduced production, doesn’t it? In my experience, no. As my mentor Mike Resnick has noted, often times when someone does finally break out and go full time, that writer’s production does not magically spiral into orbit. (S)he might manage another hour or two more than usual, per day. But there is often a practical limit to how much creative juice can be squeezed out of our mental lemons in a 24 hour period. After that, it’s all about recharging. So not being able to be full time isn’t a production disaster. For myself, it usually takes me about 15 to 20 minutes forcing myself to sit in the chair, before I am warmed up and clipping along. In a two-hour block I can usually do between two and three thousand words. And this was true even before I began publishing. Two thousand words times three to five nights a week times fifty-two weeks a year is a lot of prose. Enough to fill at least two or three novels. And two or three novels a year is considered fast by the standards of even the full-time set!
6) Something else that deserves attention, is having some kind of space at home that is your writing space. Could be an actual office. Or it could be a bedroom converted to an office. Or it could even be a walk-in closet converted to an office, or a loft space, or an attic, or a corner in the garage. That’s where my writing desk was for two years: in the garage. Now my writing office is a converted small bedroom in the basement. It’s not huge, but it’s not a dungeon either. It’s fully refurbished and has brand new walls, lights, flooring, electrical, a nice desk, plenty of shelving and cabinetry, a good comfortable chair, and there is even a little day bed for reclining and reading, taking a nap, or even occasionally sleeping through the night. Whatever your situation, I think having that space for yourself—carved out of your mundane life—can help you stay concretely focused on your projects, your goals, and the idea that you are not just an artist, you are also a professional. Which is something even full-time writers struggle with, since unchaining oneself from a mundane schedule can sometimes lead to too much freedom, which is the opponent of keeping rigorous, disciplined writing hours.
7) Assuming you don’t loathe your day job, and have found something that you can do part-time or full-time without hating it every moment, you may just discover that your day job helps your writing in all kinds of ways you might not notice on a conscious level. Especially if your job forces you to travel, or interact with lots of new people. Almost every successful book or piece of short fiction has a human story in it—even if the story is not about humans. In my experience, going to my day and military jobs has been a great way to soak myself (like a sponge) in the human experience. Both good and bad. This unconscious soaking then comes out when it’s time for me to sit down at night and work on characters, predicaments, reactions, and the other meat and bones of storytelling. When I was younger (and failing spectacularly at storytelling) I believe it was because I had not matured and lived enough life yet—not enough soaking!—to be able to successfully render the human experience on the printed page. So while younger teenaged writers especially might be enthralled with the idea of transitioning directly into a writing career, from high school or college, I think it’s actually a good thing for every writer to go out into the world and work. Get your hands dirty. Yes, even, get fired a few times. Hard teaching. The stuff that sticks with you and makes you grow. Things you might not choose to do voluntarily, but having done them, you’re glad you did it. Because who you were on the front end of the experience, is not who you are now on the back end.
Anyway, this is my take.
I know it’s scary watching the publishing world change. It probably is much more difficult now, than 25 years ago, to successfully embark upon a full-time writing career. There are lots of people who see an endless number of clouds dominating their otherwise blue sky, and despair.
I look at those clouds, and I see a healthy challenge. I like challenges. The tougher the challenge, the more satisfying the victory. However one chooses to measure success, or establish goals. The thing hardest worked for can often be the thing most treasured, once attained.
And there is also this. Beyond the perceived glamour and prestige of publishing, and being a writer, all of us who scribble our words for money are just doing what everyone else does: putting food on the table. Look at your life and how you actually live, and ask yourself: what do I really need to be comfortable and happy? Not: what do I desire most and which would be ideal and perfect? Just: what do I really need to be comfortable and happy?
My wife and I did that, when I sold my first stories. We took a look at our situation and what we wanted to accomplish—how we wanted to be living in ten, twenty, and even thirty years—and we made our plans accordingly. At present, those plans do not include me quitting my day job. And that’s not a terrible thing. Oh, I might move jobs. Switching seats and changing careers several times seems to be part of the new adult American normal too. But unless I am literally making millions of dollars and my wife and I are able to stuff millions of dollars into various kinds of nest eggs, there won’t be any quitting of the day job happening at Casa del Torgersen.
Which actually works well for us. Because instead of biting our nails while we ride the financial roller coaster of publishing, the day job (and military job) income provides us with a very solid, very reliable baseline.
Allow me to put it in visual terms.
This is what an average publishing author’s annual income stream can look like:
One month you make almost nothing from your writing, the next month, boom, you make a lot of money from your writing. (With definitions of “almost nothing” and “a lot” being relative, depending on your particular standard and cost of living.) Now, this jagged line is not conducive to financial stability in a 12-month period. You have to artificially flatten it out on your own: save during the spikes, so that you can spend during the troughs. But if the average between peaks and troughs is trending downward—or was never that high to begin with—you’re going to be living very close to the bone. And speaking as someone who has lived very close to the bone, I don’t think that’s the kind of life that’s preferable.
Now, factor in a steady job:
Suddenly you’re not nearly as close to the bone, because there is a relatively stable floor beneath which your income will not drop. Your mundane work is your financial foundation. Yeah, maybe you hate your particular day job right now. I consider it almost tacit among writers that half the reason they want to be pro authors, is because they hate their day jobs. Allow me to suggest that the key is not suffering through a terrible day job until you score big with writing. Rather, the key is to find and keep a day job you can tolerate, or maybe even enjoy. Then your writing income turns to cream: a wonderful layer of bonus income on top of your bedrock income. Suddenly you have surplus! Suddenly you have options! Pay down or pay off credit debt. Begin packing money away for a rainy day. Take care of those overdue car and house repairs. Get your kids some nice Christmas presents. Take the family on some trips. Expand and make your lifestyle more comfortable.
Meanwhile you’re producing more or less the same amount of work (writing) that you’d be producing, even if you did quit your day job. Assuming you are disciplined and diligent with your time. One or more books a year. Maybe some short works too. An actual career. Something you can be proud of from a personal and prestige standpoint, but also from a standpoint of income too. Because you will have invented for yourself a whole new stream of influx from something that was probably a hobby for much of your life; or in the minds of others. And believe me, once the money comes in, even the doubters in your circle of family and friends, will begin to change their tune.
Plus, for me personally, I need the security of being able to know my wife and daughter aren’t going to be suffering if my writing career takes a prolonged dip. This is something else I’ve talked to a lot of pros about, and it’s evident to me that all authorial careers have peaks and valleys, a lot like the peaks and valleys on the charts above. If it were just me worrying about myself, I am sure I could learn to live in a crummy studio apartment eating nothing but ramen noodles and riding my bike—or the bus—everywhere I needed to go. When you’re single you can get away with that. But when you’re married with children? Steven Barnes once said, on a Norwescon panel, that suffering for your art is noble, but making your wife and children suffer for you art is not noble; it just makes you an asshole. And I think he’s right. I don’t want to do that to my wife and daughter. They deserve much better.
So don’t be down on the day job. If you take the right approach, it can be a boon, not a ball and chain.