Wednesday, September 01, 2010

From the Vault: Don't quit!

Happy summer, everybody!  For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we'd hate to leave you guys hanging.  It's no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when.  So we thought we'd bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year.  We've cued up enough, but if you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!

by Michael

It’s most authors’ dream, isn’t it, writing for a living? Being able to leave the grueling, monotonous nine-to-five grind for the glamorous world of publishing; sitting at home in a bathrobe, warm cup of coffee in hand, ever expanding manuscript at foot; calls about sequels and movie options; big packets about promotion and publicity arriving daily. It’s a nice dream, even if it doesn’t reflect the reality of most stay-at-home authors, many of whom will tell you that it’s often lonely, nerve-wracking, and just as soul-crushing (if not more so) as a “normal” job. (For a cheerier take on this subject, see Michael Prescott’s blog entry.) But let’s ignore the plight of those who write for a living for a moment, and focus on the other 95% of authors.

Very, very few novelists get to stay home writing all day. The truth is, many people get one book published, and then find that if the first book doesn’t work, the second becomes very difficult to sell. And, with advances for first books seemingly getting smaller every day, one book sale isn’t enough to live off of for a year, much less retire on. I know my view of things is colored by the rather high cost of living in New York, but even authors in the smallest towns can’t survive on $5,000 a year.

So what’s a first-time author to do? My advice is to keep the day job--the benefits are more than financial. Let’s go back to the writer sitting at home. Publishing is not glamorous; it’s hard work. The full-time writers I know work harder and longer than their peers. They spend much more than eight hours a day writing, thinking about their writing, wondering what their agent is thinking, pondering the loss of yet another editor, desperately trying to refrain from e-mailing their publicist again about that review in the Sioux City Herald, talking with other writers (about their agent, editor, and publicist), blogging, and generally praying that they won’t have a coronary before the end of the day. Authors who have day jobs are often able to put things in perspective: there’s more to life than their book(s). They get to leave a large part of the worrying to us agents (it’s part of what we’re paid to do – see Jane’s latest blog entry here), and that’s as it should be.

My take on this aside, I decided that I would speak to somebody who actually did leave work to write rather than just commenting from up here on my perch. Sara Zarr, the author of the forthcoming Story of a Girl, quit her job as an administrative assistant a few months after we sold her book. She had a lot to say. "If you get a book deal and are thinking about quitting your day job, there are a lot of factors to consider. Of course, it depends on what your day job is. If it's a career job, if you've invested years of time and energy into it and it fulfills some part of you that writing can't, keep it. If it's a minor job that you don't care too much about (or you hate), and you're reasonably hirable in the current job climate, quit and try the full-time writing thing. You can always go back into the job market if you need to or if you find you don't do well sitting home all day. Quitting does free you up to travel and promote your book if you need to, which is nice, but not mandatory." Her last piece of advice struck me as particularly important. "It's not necessarily all or nothing. My employer let me scale back my hours while I was working on revisions. You might be able to arrange something more flexible at your current job or find part time work."

I know it’s tough to write and work at the same time while also keeping up with family and social commitments. I understand that working full-time as a writer seems glamorous, but writing for a living is something that only a handful of people are able to do, both for financial and psychological reasons.

When that final offer comes in from the publisher of your dreams and your excitement is tempered by the fact that you can’t quit counting beans, don’t panic. Your book is going to be published, and you’ll get to keep your sanity. It’s the best of both worlds.

I really welcome comments from authors about this one.

Originally posted in November 2006.


  1. Well, at least I have the warm cup of coffee and ever expanding manuscript going on this morning--I'll focus on appreciating the small things for now and build up to the movie rights.:) Great post! I think perseverance is the key to making it any profession, and long odds only push me to work even harder.

  2. The day-to-day writing life seems so much to do with solitary things: reading, thinking, allowing ideas to brew, crafting, that it's easy to lose sight of the fact that we need something to write about. If I am not doing other things besides writing, I will run out of things to say very quickly.

    BTW, I love Sara's thoughtfulness that is so clear in her books, Her point about whether one is quitting a career job or a temporary one makes a lot of sense.

  3. Nice insight.

    Also, there's no link to the post by Jane. Methinks it is broken.

  4. Thanks, Charlie. I fixed it. -Lauren

  5. I used to dream of quitting the day job but I've been writing for so long now, I've been at my day job for 17 years. In 13 years I can retire at half my pay for I'd just have to find a way to make up that other half. Maybe a part-time job plus writing or maybe I'll have my house paid off and will be able to live on just half my salary. Who knows? Maybe my husband will strike it rich in his career!

  6. I've actually been wondering what my course of action would be if I happened to get a multi-book deal (unlikely but I like dreaming) before I starting applying for graduate schools. Would I hold off and just stick to writing and then go? Would I just keep writing and never stop? I'll find out--if I ever get that deal.

  7. I need my day job - it gives me SO much inspiration. I think if I wrote full time a lot of it would be in cafes and public places so I can observe people. Writing at home with no-one there permantly ...sounds kind of scary..

  8. In the strange, strange world of creative endeavor, I find the opposite of what most people do: it is easier to produce when writing in my spare time than it is when I have all day every day to write and only write and...
    hey, there's a squirrel crossing the yard... gotta go!

  9. When I went to conservatory, I keenly felt and noticed the advantages those who did not have a part-time job had over me. Quitting my "day job" (arguably not a day job) was a no brainer for me.

    Granted, I'd been self-employed in music for fifteen years, and I'd been writing for seven or eight years before I knew for certain writing and not music was my path. The first year as a full-time writer was tough emotionally (leaving behind something I was really good at for something I was just good at) and mentally (writing full-time with ADD).

    But even though I was living on a small income, the financial strains were nothing--are nothing. I do not have materialistic desires. I hate stuff, and I was happy to move into a camper. I get to live and move whenever and wherever I want!

    I'm 100% committed to my writing career, and I just don't see how I could split my focus and improve my writing to the level I want and expect while maintaining two careers.