Monday, October 02, 2006

Writing for a living

Here's the thing few wannabes realize: Most novelists do not make a living as writers.

The few who get to stay home and write novels for their dayjob either a) Are really, really famous; b) Got a really, really good contract with a really, really big publisher; c) Are independently weatlthy; d) Have a spouse who actually brings home most of the bacon and has the job that comes with health insurance.

There is no shame for a writer if you have to work at a regular job to pay the bills. It's the responsible thing to do.

A couple of weeks ago, I received this email:
I wondered if you'd mind sharing what problems or pitfalls you ran into when you started out in writing? I have had a few interviews for editorial assistant and media assistant positions but to no great success. I managed to get a stop gap job after graduating last year thinking it would not take long to find what I wanted but its now heading towards a year and a half of hunting.

I actually spent a few days thinking over my answer. I did not want to be flippant. Finally, I wrote back:
I didn't want you to think I was blowing your question off, but what you ask is so complicated. I have given up trying to think of that perfect answer, so I'll just ramble a bit.

If you are starting out -- and that sounds like what you are saying -- I suggest you take pretty much any opportunities to write that you can. In my experience, sharpening your craft in any kind writing -- scripts, newspaper stories, magazine articles, short stories, whatever -- helps you become a better storyteller. Don't be afraid to write for free as you're getting your first clips. You need to develop, you need to build a stack of printed samples of your work, and you need to develop a reputation as a writer who can be trusted to deliver.

Writing is a career that takes a while to build; don't assume you can make a living at it freelance. (At least, not anytime soon.) Most writers who work freelance have a day job.

Of those who have a day job, I am one of the lucky ones: I have been a magazine editor for some 12 years now -- which means I get to write, but also have health insurance and an office. But even that was something I worked into after years of writing freelance for pennies.

Also: Never pay anybody else to print you. (Unless it's Kinko's.)
I got this reply today:
Cheers, Chris. I'll get writing!! What you say all makes sense. I've just been beating myself up abit over it, not getting into a writing job straight away, fed up in my 'stop gap' job etc. Thanks for keeping it real with me.

I emailed back:
Don't let the "stop gap" job get you down! I have been writing since childhood -- but, at various times, I made my livelihood working at K-Mart, at jobs on campus, at Camelot Music, and even as a part-time community college instructor.


Even now, I write the novels during my lunch hours, and on evenings and weekends.
I know several published novelists struggling with some of these same questions. All I can say is:

1) Plant your crop and be faithful.

2) In the short term, be prepared to have a regular job.

3) Don't give up before your crop comes in.

Related links:


Anonymous said...

And let's not forget, those "stop gap" jobs give us fodder for our characters. I can write, with some accuracy, about:

A grocery store employee (produce)
A paper carrier
A U.S. Navy sailor (that's a good one)
A potato chip delivery guy
A pyrometer repairman
A manufacturing engineer (automotive)
An RV salesman
A businessman

This is the stuff that life is made of. Live it. Know it. Write it.

Unknown said...

Wow. I officially have the dullest life ever.

Barbara Payne said...

It takes incredible reserves of energy to have a day job and write in between the rest of your responsibilities. So I'd say if you're starting out, yes, write anything you can, any time youcan, but try really hard to make your day job include some writing. If you're in sales, for example, you can write sales letters to your prospects (business writing is much more lucrative than novel writing or journalism). If you deliver potato chips, write ads for the company and send them to the boss. If you work in the produce department, start a blog about grocery stores!

Any writing at all is good practice. And the more real it is (related to your job and life), the most passionate it will be.

Barbara Payne said...

P.S. Sorry for the rushed writing and the typos! The topic got me all excited... " )

Unknown said...

Any writing at all is good practice.

Absolutely! Any opportunity to work with words is worth the time.

gypsywriter said...

I agree that any writing is good practice. I am lucky (or not so lucky, depending on how you look at it) that I was laid off from my regular job. This has given me the time to focus on writing. I am looking for work, however. But in the meantime, I am thrilled at least about the time aspect of it. I was able to finish my first book, a novelette, and am working on other projects now as well. Time is a huge factor to a writer. Ever notice how fast time flies when you are really into your writing? Still, we have to make a living. But while you are working, sometimes it is possible for your mind to be concocting scenes and plots.

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