Category: Publishing

6 Reasons To Keep Your Day Job

Once I was on a panel with four other writers in front of a large audience. The event moved the the Q&A segment, and, as writers do, we all held our breath. This next part could go in any direction at all.

The first question was this: Do you write full time, or do you still do other work?

It’s an uncomfortable experience to pass the mic down the line, writer to writer, and answer for your success based on the assumption that writing full time is the goal. (And, the corollary, that if you still have a day job, you are not as successful as the others at the table.)

At the time, I was doing contract work that I loved and I said so cheerfully. But I definitely felt like the lightweight in a room full of novelists with multiple book deals and LA screen agents.

These days, my day job involves helping others question and research their assumptions, so let’s take some time to look at the assumptions baked into the question, shall we?

The question again: Do you write full time, or do you still do other work?

1. Hard Work And Talent Are Not Enough

The first assumption in this question is that if you are talented enough, and work hard enough for long enough, you will reach that zenith of earning a full time income from your writing. If you haven’t reached it yet, then that means you have not worked hard enough for long enough and/or you’re not good enough.

This is simply untrue. I would say that trends, luck, timing and connections can play a larger role in your ultimate success within traditional publishing. You still need hard work and talent sure is great, but those two alone do not guarantee success.

2. Define ‘Full Time Income’

The question also overlooks other factors that can play a huge role in how much time a writer has available to work each day. For example, do they have a supportive spouse with a well-paying job? Did they buy a house before the market went nuts and so they have affordable housing? Did their parents pay for them to go to university, so they don’t have student loans? Did they retire early from a career and now live off a pension?

Writing full time and earning a living from your writing are not the same thing. It’s equally possible that one of these other factors contributes to the situation — or at least that it did when that writer was starting out. One writer’s full time income might be another writer’s golf membership fees. There is no way to define terms, at least not without asking even more personal questions, which…I mean… why are we asking this again?

3. Validation Is Not A Bad Word

Another assumption in the question is that writing full time is the desired outcome. It’s what everyone wants. It’s the goal that all writers share.

As a writer that has worked full time, part time and not at all outside of my creative work, I can tell you that in my experience, writing full time is not for me. At least, not at this stage.

We sometimes talk about creative people looking for validation through their work, and I agree that the idea can be problematic. If every rejection or critique or bad review leaves you in a puddle on the floor, that’s a problem. If you’re constantly sending out unfinished work and looking for someone to tell you it’s good, you are not homing your craft.

But we are human. We are social creatures. We like to do things and receive feedback for the things we do. We like to make a difference in the world, even in a small way. We like the dopamine hit of finishing a task well and getting outside acknowledgement for it and being rewarded for our work through money.

With a novel, you might only get those hits every year or every few years. The right kind of day job — one that pays well enough and is maybe just a little bit boring but not so much that it sucks your soul dry, can fill up those needs very nicely.

I would argue that a job like that gives more than it takes away. It fills that very human need for validation, so that, when you do have time to write, you can focus on your craft. A job like that is worth searching out and sticking with.

4. Writing is Not Enough

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing. I spend two to four hours writing every morning. But even if I had more time, I wouldn’t want to spend all day writing.

I can’t really write productively for more than four hours in a day. After four hours I’m distracted and my mood kind of spirals and I turn to social media or research rabbit holes or worry as a way to fill the time, and that’s just not productive for me. I’d much rather work on something that allows my creative mind to rest and my ideas from the morning to percolate. These days, I spend my afternoons and evenings at a job where I do some peopling and then a whole lot of data entry.

If I ever “got to write full time,” I still don’t think I’d spend the second half of the day writing. I’d probably spend it on correspondence or writing business or volunteering or really long walks or quilting or gardening, because I would still need the same things: connection, checking things off a list, creative digestion, rest.

And yes, maybe I would need to carve out some time to sign book deals and speak with my film agent and consult on the UK cover, but I’m still not sure that would fill the whole rest of every day.

It does not follow that if you love writing you need to do it all day long.

5. It Is Okay To Make Money

One of the things I need in order to continue writing is a consistent income. I need money. (OMG I said it.) Writers are the worst for talking about money. We write for the love of it. We pretend we can live on the ozone-rich air of most-anticipated lists and award nominations and the occasional five-star Amazon review.

There is also still the perception that having a book published means earning the big bucks, and while that may be true in some cases and for some authors, I for one am not banking on it. What am I banking on? My own ability to earn money today.

I don’t see earning a living as something that takes away from my creativity. I see it as something that gives me creative space. If I’m worried about money or debt or whether or not I’ll have to work until I’m eighty, I’m distracted when I write.

I would love for my creative work to earn all the money I need, but I’m not going to count on that or demand it or expect it. A day job allows me to have my perfectly valid need for income met consistently, and elsewhere.

6. It’s An Interesting World Out There

Your creativity is fed by ideas. By overhearing a snippet of conversation, or by observing a strong emotion on a stranger’s face. By understanding how something works in the world, whether that’s behind the counter at a gelato shop or inside the cliquey politics of the parent advisory committee.

I believe that, to truly experience the world, you need to be out in it. You can’t get these inputs secondhand through scrolling news outlets or Instagram at your writing table. And while I would love to spend my time travelling the world and hiking and writing, that’s not my reality.

My reality right now includes a day job where I interact with people and colleagues and where I never quite know what to expect out of each day. And that feeds my creativity too.

Never Thought I’d Say This, But…

…Maybe don’t quit your day job. At least not yet. Instead, find one that is kind of boring part of the time. One that earns you the money you need. One that keeps part of your brain free for your creative process to work in the background, but that also throws you the occasional curve ball. One that allows you to go home at the end of the day, or wake up early in the morning, and write for an hour, or maybe two.

And to those who say you’re only successful if you’re writing full time, I say, get your nose out of my business. Are you doing your own creative work right now? Or are you waiting for some kind of guarantee? If you want to write something, then set your own alarm for 5am and get to it. If you have to go to your day job afterwards, so be it, but at least you will be doing the creative work that is calling you.

Five Reasons I Hate Giving Publishing Advice

(It’s not that I don’t want to help you. Honest.)

You’ve just finished a writing project that you’ve been working on for months, or years. It was way harder than you ever expected and finishing it was a damn miracle. Now you’re done and you’re looking around and saying, now what? How do you get this thing you worked so hard on published?

And then you remember that author you know, or the one your friend said they knew. They must know how to do it! You’ll ask them. You kind of know them, right? You have two friends in common on Facebook or there’s only three degrees of separation between you on LinkedIN. You’ll just ask to pick their brain over coffee. You’ll even pay for the coffee!

Before you do that, can we just stop a minute? Let’s talk about it, okay? Because as someone who has had my brain picked over coffee plenty of times for publishing advice (and I don’t even drink coffee) I have a few thoughts on this approach. I’m going to be clear, and I hope kind. You might not want to hear it, but I have to say it. Here goes:

Ask Google, not that author you kind of but don’t really know, for help.

I believe in the importance of listening to your creative instincts, especially when it comes to writing. For better or worse, I’ve dedicated much of my adult life to this idea. So yes, I get how important this moment is to you.

Please believe me when I say it’s not that I don’t want to help you or that I don’t want you to succeed. It’s just that I really don’t want to give you publishing advice. Here’s why:

1. That’s Not What You’re Really Asking:

When it comes to accurate, current information about how book publishing works, you can’t get better than this article from Jane Friedman. Friedman is a publishing expert, and she updates this article every year. 

In my opinion, there is no better advice out there. So then, why is it that, when I send you this link, you still want me to explain publishing to you? I think the answer is that you are not really asking me how to get your book published. You’re really asking something different.

You’re asking:

Will your book get  published?

Was this worth your while, or did you waste your time?

Are you a good enough writer?

Can I give you a magic bean (or maybe an introduction) that will make this easier?

And, for those of you that are asking in advance of actually writing a manuscript: Can I convince you that publishing will be so difficult that you won’t even have to bother to write the book?

These are all very different questions from the one you have asked out loud, which is, how do you get your book published?

I can’t answer these underlying questions for you. I can hear them, clear as day, when you ask. But I don’t have answers for you. No one does.

If I take time away from my own writing to answer the question you are actually asking, you will still have those unspoken questions. If I try to address your unspoken questions, you’re probably going to get upset with me. Maybe more upset than if I simply send you a link to Jane Friedman’s article. So. Here we are.

2. I Can’t Teach You To Be Good at Musical Chairs.

Musical chairs is supposed to be fun, but the very premise of the game is that there will never be enough chairs for everyone. That’s the whole point. (Which is fun how exactly? But I digress.)

You can do everything right, follow all the best advice, be as agile as a young gymnast and still end up with no chair, because there are simply not enough chairs for everyone. (In fact, there’s some Mom taking chairs away, in full sight of the seven year olds scrambling and elbowing each other.)

Publishing is like that. There are way more authors than there are openings in a publisher’s catalogue. More manuscripts than chairs.

I might be able to tell you a few things to maybe improve your chances at getting that chair, but asking me, or any other author, is no guarantee you’ll get to sit down. There are simply not enough chairs for everyone. It’s the nature of the game.

3. I Want to Keep my Own Rose-Coloured Glasses on.

You wrote a manuscript! Or, you’re writing one now, and to me, that is everything. Something inside you called you to do this and you listened. You put in the hard work to bring an idea that existed only in your imagination, into form.

That takes courage and optimism and vision and a great deal of believing in yourself. More than that, it takes boundaries and discipline. It means saying no to friends and family and sleep and the latest season of Selling Sunset on Netflix.

Now, it’s time for your vision and dreams to meet the realities of the publishing world. While the very appeal of your work depends on that vision you listened to, on your dreams and your imagination and how well you carried them off, the decision about whether or not your work will be published comes down to a calculation on a spreadsheet. (Again, I’ll send you to Jane Friedman for expert information on how this works. )

What makes a book great is the author’s vision, imagination, creativity and willingness to do the work. What makes a book sell is a whole other matter.

Harsh?

Yes. But it’s still true.

Every day that I write, I have to choose to keep my own creative vision alive, knowing full well the reality that my stories will face once I finish them. Still, I choose to honour my innate desire to tell the stories that come to me to be told.

This is a hard decision, and one I need to recommit to on a regular basis. It’s even harder to do if I’m asked to spend my precious free time diving deep into the pool of those realities, again and again, in order to explain them to you and the three other authors that asked for my advice this month. I would rather spend that time going for a walk in the woods, connecting with my family and otherwise replenishing my creative wellspring. 

4. I Might Not Actually Be Helping You.

I write mystery novels set in Canada. What I know about publication is, so far, pretty limited to this very small slice of the industry.

You’ve written a memoir, a travel book, a guide to spiders, a romance novel? I don’t actually know more than what’s written in the Jane Friedman article. Each publishing journey is unique, and my experience is not all that current. (And besides, with COVID, no one really knows what the heck is going on anyway.)  So, while it might feel reassuring to have someone like me talk you through it, I’m not sure it’s actually all that helpful.

5. I’m not Sure Traditional Publishing is the Future.

Publishing was facing huge problems before COVID shut down bookstores and forced launches, festivals and events to go virtual. (Read about current Canadian publishing woes here and here. )

The imminent demise of publishing has been predicted every year or two since forever it seems. (Here are some examples from 2008 , 2011 or here, from 2016 .) Frankly, it’s no longer interesting to me. By the time traditional book publishing takes its long-predicted, last, rattling breath, I may be an old, old woman.

In the meantime, I’m in creative prime. I’m doing my best writing ever, right now. Will publishing be there for my stories? I hope it will, at least some of the time, but I’m not expecting it to change for me. I’m much more interested in exploring new ways to get my stories into readers’ hands than in giving a personalized guided tour of an industry that has been experiencing serious problems for decades.

Thank You for Understanding

You do understand, right?

It’s not that I don’t believe in you, or in your project. It’s not that I don’t want to see your book on bookstore shelves. (Honest, I’ll be first in line to have you sign it when it comes out!)

I do. I believe in the power of heeding the call to write more than almost anything else, and I’m so very proud of you for doing your creative work.

It’s precisely because I believe in the importance of expressing your creativity through writing, that I don’t want to give you publishing advice. I don’t want to discourage you or distract you or harsh on your dreams, or on my own.

Publishing is part of writing. And traditional book publishing is a great option for a lot of projects. I’ve chosen that option in the past and, given the opportunity, likely will again in the future. And I believe you can too. But publishing is what it is. And you can find out all about it with a few good Google searches.

If you are curious about the story I’m working on, (hint: it’s a mystery set in Montreal in 1947), or about my current writing and publishing journey, you can sign up for my monthly letter to readers here.