by L.J. Sellers
Please join me in welcoming what will probably be our last guest blogger at Murderati (since we have so many writers here now, we’re opting for a little predictability). An award-winning journalist, L.J. Sellers is also an editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She writes the Detective Wade Jackson mystery series. Two are in print, The Sex Club and Secrets to Die For, and two more are in the works. A standalone thriller, The Baby Thief, will be released in August 2010. When not plotting murders, L.J. enjoys cycling, gardening, social networking, attending conferences, hanging out with her family, and editing fiction manuscripts.
About ten years into my fiction writing adventure, I read an interview that changed my life. The featured scriptwriter had recently sold his first screenplay, which was made into a blockbuster movie. When the interviewer asked him if he would do anything differently, given the chance, he said, “If I had known it would take ten years to sell a script, I would have found a better day job.”
That hit home with me, and I knew I had to make a change. At the time I had been waiting tables for years while my kids were young (for the flexibility), and I was starting to really hate it…and myself. Novel writing in my spare time was all that kept me sane. I had also recently failed to sell a novel even though my agent told me we had an offer. In that somewhat despondent frame of mind, I decided I needed a better day job. One that would put my journalism degree and inquisitive mind to work—for pay. I realized that the time I spent at work also counted on the happiness meter and that working a job I hated and that made me feel bad about myself was not in my best interest in the long term.
So I stopped living for the future—that day when a novel would sell and my life would change. I found a job on a magazine, and I accepted, on some level, that magazine writing and editing would be my career and that it would be enough if that’s how it all worked out.
It was a great job with eventually great pay, and it led to even better jobs with better pay. It was the best move I ever made. Or maybe it was the worst.
Of course I kept writing novels. For many of us it’s like a drug. Once you’re hooked, there’s no stopping, no true happiness without that fix. But over the years of working for various nonfiction publishers, I wrote less and less in my free time. It took longer and longer to finish a novel. I wrote screenplays for a while because they were easier and needed fewer words. So it took another ten years to finally get a contract and get the first two novels in a mystery/suspense series published. And I had to lose my job first.
Looking back, I see that the only prolific novel-writing periods I’ve had were during layoffs. I wrote The Sex Club after the magazine moved to NY, and I wrote Secrets to Die For and most of the third novel in the series after my lay off last year when the recession hit. I’ve come to conclude that I have a limited number of words I can produce each week or month, a finite capacity for intellectual creativity.
Now I’ve come full circle. I’m writing for a newspaper and working more hours than originally expected. (Unemployment doesn’t last forever, and it’s tough to make real money as a new novelist.) The newspaper job is ideal. All I do is write feature stories; I have no other responsibilities. I don’t even have to attend meetings, and my boss thinks I’m terrific.
Guess what? My novel word count has slowly plummeted, and I’m feeling a little cranky about it. (I started the fourth story in the Detective Jackson series in June, and I’m only at 15,000 words!) I think sometimes that my novel-writing career would be better served if I worked a job that didn’t require me to write. But I’m afraid that any other kind of job would make me feel like I wasn’t living up to my potential, that I was wasting my education and skills.
What will I do? Beats me. I know I’m not going back to waiting tables! If I stall long enough on making a decision, the paper will make it for me and lay me off. We’re down 150 staff members, with only 250 to go. I’m almost hoping it will happen sooner rather than later.
Many other novelists are also journalists or technical writers or they work in communications of some kind. I suspect they also face this word-count conundrum, and I sympathize.
Have you faced this situation? How did you resolve it? Share your experience.