Making ends meet or selling my soul?

By PD Martin

Like many writers (especially these days) unfortunately I’ve had to take on extra work to supplement my income 🙁 The reality is, getting money fast means putting creative projects on the back-burner.

For about three years I was lucky enough to only write (well, write and look after my baby and then toddler!). But I only had two balls in the air — writing crime fiction and motherhood. This was quite an achievement, especially in Australia where the average author makes $10,000 a year.

Around book 3 in the Sophie Anderson series, I was interested in trying something different. I wrote the first three chapters of two completely different books and pitched them to my agent. But Sophie was doing well and I was convinced to focus on Sophie. The big break was just around the corner.

And then everything went to **** (insert preferred expletive). Sales of book 4 weren’t quite as good as the first three books. My US agent and both my US and Aussie publishers were a little perplexed. The reviews were excellent and my editors loved Sophie, so why weren’t the sales on the up and up? When book 5 was a similar story it was official…my sales had “levelled off”. No one seemed to know why Sophie hadn’t taken off like they’d expected, but she hadn’t. We started thinking of other options. I talked to my agent about a new series and the two manuscripts I’d started a couple of years earlier came out of the draw.

Around this time I got an offer of a corporate writing gig one-day a week. It was fairly short term (six months) and the hourly rate was incredibly good. In fact, my husband asked me what I estimated my hourly rate would be on one of my books – and trust me, that’s not something you want to think about! So I took the job and decided to take six months off my own writing.

Once the six months were up, I decided to work on the action thriller I’d started years earlier. I made revisions to the proposal and first three chapters before sending it through to my agent. I waited, with that terrible mix of fear and excitement that all authors feel when someone is reading their work.

Three weeks went by and I hadn’t heard back. I thought it was strange but was about to go on a 10-day holiday and decided I’d follow up when I got back. But while I was away I got an email to say that my agent had passed away. I had only met her a couple of times but she seemed like an incredibly strong woman. I thought she’d been in her fifties, but she was in her sixties.

For a while there was uncertainty over what the agency would do and I certainly wasn’t going to hound her husband (who’d taken over the agency even while grieving) or the one assistant. But eventually I had to make the phone call. The agency was still in flux and after chatting to the assistant I decided, given I was starting a new series anyway, it would be a good time to move to another agency.

That was November last year. I queried a few agents and got interest but no offers of representation. One agent suggested that in the current economic climate I might have to finish the book rather than getting an agent and deal on the first three chapters alone. My past sales track record was good, but not great.

I took her advice and wrote like a demon (is that an expression in the US??). By the end of March this year I had completed my action thriller. I started the submission process again, only targeting ‘top-tier’ agencies. Again, I got interest and compliments on my writing but no offer of representation. It seemed action thrillers were mid-list books unless the author was already established – or perhaps if it was such a phenomenally new take on the genre that it was mind-blowing. But mine was/is a well-written (so I’ve been told), darker-styled classic action thriller.

In the meantime, finances were getting very tight and I had to take freelance writing gigs to make ends meet. At times I felt/feel like I’m selling my soul when I’m writing corporate pieces, but at other times I feel like I’m just doing what needs to be done to make ends meet. And let’s face it, I’m extremely lucky. I’ve been doing freelance work (from home, around my daughter’s pre-school classes and activities) and some of the content has been extremely interesting. I haven’t had to put my little girl in day care and go in for a 9-5 (more like 8-6) job. And I’ve actually been writing – just not my stuff. Remember this golden oldie? Don’t know what the Disney version is about…

So, what have I been doing?

For the first half of this year I taught a writing class at Victorian Writers Centre. It was fun and also interesting to revisit some of the basics of character, plot, etc. I re-acquainted myself with my writing books (my favourite is Self-editing for Fiction Writers Renni Browne and Dave King) and discovered some new books too (like Donald Maas’s Writing a Breakout Novel).

I started a new project of my own – something completely different again. If this book gets picked up it will take me into an entirely new genre…I might even get kicked off Murderati! My only problem is I haven’t worked on the book for nearly three months now because I’ve been too busy with the corporate work. Catch 22. Need the money to write, but when I get the jobs I don’t have the time to write!

Anyway, back to my eclectic mix…I’ve got two ghost writing jobs on the go. One book is called Death in a Cult and it looks at a young boy whose death was ruled suicide but there are still questions. I’ve been commissioned by the boy’s grandmother to write the story and she’ll self-publish if the book doesn’t get picked up by a publisher. The other ghost writing job is for a book that looks at the different ways women process information and behave when it comes to finances. Some interesting psychological stuff in there! The proposal and first four chapters are currently with a couple of agents. So, that’s two balls in the air.

In the past two weeks I’ve written a website for financial services companies and a couple of brochures. Couple more balls in the air, and why not add a couple more… I’ve also been commissioned to write four presentations in the next couple of months.

I hope to finish Death in a Cult in the next four weeks and then move back on to my drama book (in between the presentations, the women’s finance book if that gets picked up and any other jobs that come my way!). Will I ever be able to get back to my writing?

 I can’t get an advance until I get a publishing deal. I can’t get a publishing deal until I have an agent. And I can’t get an agent until I finish the book. Maybe I just need to sleep less.

So, how do you juggle your various roles? Have you got too many balls in the air like me?

Now I’m off to check my lottery ticket. If I don’t respond to comments it’s because I’ve won and I’m out celebrating.

18 thoughts on “Making ends meet or selling my soul?

  1. Reine

    Hi PD,

    Best to you on this, because at times being an artist totally sucks. But an artist doesn't really have a choice. It's not like a job where you put your time in, do the work, and if everything is okay you collect your pay. More than any other kind of work you invest your self.

    I don't know how I ever did all the things I did at one time. It was a lot like living multiple layers of existence in an unevenly expanding and contracting universe that carried me along its waves at the needed times and speeds. It dropped and elevated me, crossed me over and under, blew me out and sucked me in. All I had to do was keep on with it.

  2. Bernadette

    Phillipa thanks for sharing that with us…every time I go to a writers' festival here in Oz they say things like "only Bryce Courtenay and Di Morrissey make a living at this" and I wonder what everyone else does to make ends meet. I like to think of my juggling in this light..if I didn't have my dull job doing something I'm good at but don't enjoy all that much maybe I wouldn't appreciate my leisure/family/volunteering time nearly as much. That's what I tell myself anyway 🙂

  3. PD Martin

    I'm here…didn't win Tatslotto. Damn it!

    Yes, Reine, sometimes being an artist totally sucks and other times it's totally amazing. Which is why we all do it. I'm also motivated by my new book, which I'm very excited about – like I said, it's just getting time to write it. In fact, I couldn't get to sleep last night thinking about a new plot twist/change (yes, drama can have those too) and a new start to the book. I wrote it today (ignored the ghost writing job I was supposed to be working on!) and feel so much better for it 🙂 So now I've actually worked on MY book for the first time in a nearly 3 months. (I wrote this blog yesterday my time and set it to auto-publish and I guess the fact I hadn't worked on the new book must have been on my mind because it wouldn't go away last night.)

    Bernadette: Thanks for the 'thanks'. It can be a hard thing to talk about, actually, because people have misconceptions about how much money authors make. I've got five novels out in 13 countries and multiple languages – and I still have to take freelance work! And I realise I AM lucky – for my freelance stuff I'm still writing and as I said I've been able to get enough freelance work just through word of mouth and old contacts that I haven't had to actually tie myself down to a part time or full time job.

    And of course I'm lucky in many other ways too – I have my husband, my health, a lovely (albeit modest!) home and the most beautiful daughter on this Earth – yes, slightly biased!


  4. Alaina

    I'm a full-time college student with a part-time job while at college and a full-time job while at home. At college I also have dozens of friends to hang out with, clubs I participate in, and homework… yet I still get more done here.

    At least part of it is, which specific things actually feel more like work? At home, working at McDonalds, that drains me. An 8-hour shift will have me dreading it beforehand and exhausted most of the next day. That makes it hard to write. Here, I love my classes and my part-time job is in a library.

    It's as much what you do as how much you're doing, I suppose.

  5. Shizuka

    Hi PD,

    The balance can't be easy after being a full-time writer for several years.
    And your daughter's still so little that you probably want to spend a lot of time with her.

    My life's simpler, but it's still hard to separate out the corporate world from the creative.
    Freelancing is such a drought or flood situation.
    What keeps me sane — if I work on work-work and writing at home,
    I try to move around and do the creative work at a different table.
    If I feel "itchy" writing-wise, I take the laptop and move to the sofa or wherever else.

    On days when I go to long meetings and I'll be too exhausted to write at home,
    I try to bring some printouts or a my laptop with me and stop on the way home at a quiet cafe.
    That way I can't sleep, watch bad TV, or nap.
    When my motivation or energy's too low for that, I come home and bribe myself with a glass of wine.
    Which works some of the time.


  6. Jake Nantz

    Working as a teacher is kind of frustrating, because what time I have to write is dependent upon how much grading I have to do that night (I love the people who say teaching is 8-3 and summers off….LOVE those guys), and also whether I've been able to spend any time with my wife recently (who also teaches). So I guess I have the same problem from a different direction: steady paycheck, but still little to no time, and picking what to sacrifice can be dicey. Regardless, I feel your pain, and I hope this all works out and the next agent loves your next manuscript Phillipa!

  7. tess gerritsen

    Phiillipa, you've described perfectly what the life of a real writer is often like. The scramble for income, the dozen balls in the air, the constant wondering whether this story or that story will be "the one" that will break out. Early in my writing career, I wrote articles and short stories for magazines, hunted for a part-time job as a medical journalist, scraped together nonfiction proposals, and generally felt that there was just no way to make a living doing what I loved.

    I'm just wondering — have you tried (or considered) self-publishing your unsold novels as e-books? It would at least offer some income.

  8. Louise Ure

    PD, thanks for sharing the truth about the economics of writing. I was one of those starry-eyed newbies at first, thinking that one book sale would set up a writer for life. It's a dash of cold water to learn the truth, but if writing is what you love, your hopes won't be dashed along with it.

    Best of luck on that Catch-22 ladder of next steps.

  9. Reine

    Hi Phillipa,

    Sorry you didn't win the lottery. I know I said that sometimes being an artist totally sucks, but I reLly believe it is a fantastic thing to have that spirit pulling on you and to be there and find it when you are ready for it. The part that sucks is all the other stuff. And I was so happy to read that you had written more this morning. I can't wait to read whatever you write!

  10. Allison Davis


    I work a 60 hour work week when it's calm and lately it has NOT been calm. I lament all the time I should have not have gone to law school and gotten sucked into this work (although J.D. and Alafair seem fine with it) but there it is. (Of course if I didn't I'd be struggling in another way so we can't look back.) Now I have "obligations" of course and help support my extended family and write when I can. I'm on my third manuscript and it took the third to get to something that I think is worthwhile so am trying to find a routine in the madness. That's the hard part — even sitting down for 15 minutes gets me out of work head and into book head, so at least the ideas can percolate in there and not get shoved out. Balance is hard. Sounds like you're doing what you need to do, it's just a rough patch and you'll be fine.

  11. Sheri Hart

    Juggling ANY job with writing is hard. But I think writing for your day job is doubly so.

    I've worked as a corporate copywriter for a dozen years and my fiction has paid the price. Mentally, I'm just sapped at the end of the day. I'm really scraping the bottom of the creative well when I sit down to work on my book.

    This year, I finally have both my young kids in school 9-3, so I'm getting strict with my schedule. I'm doing corporate work only in the mornings whenever I can, and writing for me in the afternoons.

    Part of me wants to quit altogether. My husband would support me if it was what I really wanted. But I can't do it. Not with the kids so young, and my DH in a fickle business too. When you land a good paying writing job, it's hard to walk away.

    I'm working harder on balance this year. That's my only suggestion — try to protect your work if you can.

    I'm enjoying your posts, PD. Yet another reason to love Muderati — it's my first stop on the blogstroll every day.

  12. PD Martin

    Alaina – yes, what you do definitely makes a difference. Although sometimes because I'm at the computer writing for my freelance work, while that's a wonderful job, it can be hard to then sit for another few hours in front of the computer again to write again – even if it's MY stuff. But it's great to enjoy the work I'm being paid for 🙂

    Shizuka – yes, freelance can be a drought or flood! Maybe I should try moving around for MY writing. Although I do find my regular desktop computer much more comfortable than my Netbook for writing. The glass of wine sounds nice, but then that makes me more likely to sleep!

    Jake – I think the balance can be tough no matter what you do…as you've pointed out. And kids of all ages are exhausting! I've done a bit of teaching (older kids and adults) and when you're up at the front of the class it's almost like you're performing!

    Tess – it's definitely a common story in writing! I am thinking about publishing the action thriller as an ebook but at the moment it really does lend itself to a follow on and given I'm now going in a completely different direction (drama, kind of like Jodi Picoult) I'm not sure if I want to invest more time and energy into the thriller direction. I know I already have put heaps of time in, but the book is set up at the moment with a twist at the end that makes a follow-up kind of necessary. Hmm….


  13. PD Martin

    Louise – yes, I think we were all one of those starry eyed writers at first!

    Thanks, Reine!

    Allison, a 60-hour week is full-on! That would make it extremely hard to find time to write. I know a lot of writers either write late at night or very early in the morning but it sounds like you're already doing that with your regular job. Hope you can find the balance.

    Sheri – I think there are some good and bad things about mixing corporate writing with creative writing. The good thing about writing for your day job is that it gives you a great understanding of writing to deadlines and the whole 'bum on seat' notion. When I was writing MY stuff full-time I found it easy to slip into a strong work ethic. On the negative side, in corporate writing you're generally trying to put a concept across in the most simple terms possible. You use shorter words, fairly 'simple' sentences. My brain naturally thinks of the shorter, simpler words, which isn't a good thing in novel writing! Then again, I rarely have to worry about grammar because I'm used to writing every day. Also, you are using the creative part of your brain (as you said above) and it's like that part of you just can't write any more!

    It sounds like you've found a great balance with the morning/afternoon thing. My girl starts school in February so then, like you, I'll have 9-3.


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  15. Lisa Alber

    Hi, I read your post and wholeheartedly get what you're going through and what you're feeling. Though I have yet to have a novel published, I did have an agent for awhile. She flew the coop, so I'm starting all over with the agent-hunting, at the same time that I'm earning my living (no hubby, just me) with at-home contract writing and editing gigs, AND trying to keep up some semblance of a consistent fiction-writing routine…sigh…

    It's so difficult! Sometimes I wonder why I keep at it when I all I hear about economic woes and the demise of traditional publishing, and so on. But somehow I do. I must love writing fiction or something — crazy me. 🙂 I appreciated your post.

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