The Writer’s Dilemma

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.

20 thoughts on “The Writer’s Dilemma

  1. Mark Terry

    Welcome. And the answer is yes. I worked in a genetics lab, and it was a good job, but I hated it. I wrote a lot in that period. Now I’m a full-time freelance writer. I’m very happy as a freelance writer. But sometimes it’s actually hard to write fiction. Spend 8 or 9 hours a day writing things that pay better, it can be hard to do more fiction or even to squeeze it in. But I really wouldn’t want to go back to a genetics lab.

  2. Rashda

    Thanks for a great post. I used to be in media –first in newspapers (but I experienced the word count situation) then in TV (not enough depth). Now I’ve managed to land a non-writing job, but it deals with cooking and nutrition (other interests very close to my heart) and I’m happy as a clam working the day job and writing to boot.

    Moral of the story: find something you enjoy doing.

  3. Tammy Cravit

    I’ve worked in a number of jobs where writing was a major part of what I did — I was a freelance journalist in 2003-2007 (or so), and I now work as a paralegal — and I wouldn’t say that writing per se has hampered my productivity as a fiction writer. Sure, my word output drops off a bit when I’m spending hours and hours preparing briefs for a trial, say, but I think that has less to do with the fact that I’m writing at work and more to do with just my energy level. I don’t think that a particularly busy day as a brick-layer (or at some other primarily physical job) would affect me any differently.

    I agree with Rashda, though, about finding stuff you enjoy doing. My paralegal work is at times very emotionally demanding (I work for a group of lawyers who represent kids in the foster care system), but I absolutely love doing it. And, in terms of how freely the words flow now in my fiction, that has made all the difference.

  4. Tom

    Hello, L.J.; haven’t been around CrimeSpace much lately. Good to see you.

    I haven’t solved it. I was most productive when we were about to be homeless. Then we we were rescued by employment. But the day job and home responsibilities have eaten my work alive.

  5. Jake Nantz

    I love teaching. I hate grading. My job doesn’t end when the kids go home, so my writing time often gets eaten that way. But it’s a steady paycheck, and for someone who isn’t published yet, it’s nice to be able to support my family and make a difference in peoples’ lives at the same time, even if it means my words come slower at night.

    Good luck with whatever decision you come to!

  6. Louise Ure

    Hi LJ. Nice to see you here.

    You sound like that golfer who goes pro and then can no longer enjoy the game that gave him such happiness as an amateur. But just like him, each of your golf swings (or paragraphs) will make you a better writer, whether it’s your feature work or your novels. Can’t wait for your next work of fiction.

  7. Helen Ginger

    Right now I’m working from home – editing for other authors, doing Marketing for Legends In Our Own Minds(R), and writing nonfiction books for TSTC Publishing, plus all that other stuff we all do like blogging, etc. I have to say my fiction writing has gone to pretty much nothing. I signed up for a workshop that requires I send in a first chapter, query and synopsis. Dug out an old manuscript and, you can probably guess, am not even through a rewrite of the first chapter.

    Loved Sex Club, LJ. Keep writing!

    Straight From Hel

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi LJ

    Welcome to Murderati! I, too, was a non-fiction writer for some years before returning to my first love – fiction. I started out as a journalist and became a photo-journalist during the course of my first three novels. Now I’m lucky enough to have been able to slide across exclusively into photography, which frees up a lot of time to write, but the lessons learned from non-fiction stand me in good stead, I think.

    Best of luck with your dilemma ;-]

  9. Roxanne Smolen

    I can imagine that it would be difficult to write all day long and then come home and write some more. But even a day job that has nothing to do with writing can cramp your novel time. It’s all about motivation. If you are writing and selling, it’s easier to keep going than if you are writing and letting it fall into a black hole.

  10. L.J. Sellers

    Thanks for all the support of my novels! My plan, for now, is to write every day before I go to the paper and to make better use of my weekends. Meaning, more novel writing and less promoting and biking. Something has to give.

  11. Nancy Laughlin

    Hi L.J.,
    I understand completely what you’re talking about. I’m a Technical Writer in my day job. I work anywhere from 40 to 60 hour weeks, depending upon the month. Sometimes, it’s hard to come home and face more time behind the computer.
    Long ago, I trained myself to write at lunchtime, even if just for 20 or 30 minutes. In the beginning, it was hard, but over time, some of my most prolific writing has come during those breaks. I’ve also found a group of friends I write with online in the evenings. We email time challenges, state our goals for that period and check in afterward with what we accomplished. That accountability and commaraderie has made all the difference. Where before, I’d be lucky to write two scenes in a week, now I sometimes write two in a night, and facing the computer at home after a long day at work, doesn’t seem so overwhelming anymore.

    Nancy Laughlin

  12. Emma Lee

    Hi LJ and welcome to Murderati.

    I have a day job where I’m a writer of non fiction articles and case studies and in the evenings/ weekends/ spare time a poet, short story writer and reviewer. What I find hardest isn’t the creativity as non fiction during the day doesn’t impose on fiction at night, but pacing. If I’ve had an intense day writing at the day job, it’s tiring writing again at night so I revise or edit instead and pick up the night writing again on a less intense day-writing day.

    Unsurprisingly I find planning helps – I’ll find 5 – 10 minutes first thing or during a lunch break to plan what I’ll write in the evening or over the weekend and I find the anticipation helps the motivation. It also helps me spend as much of my writing time as possible actually writing instead of procrastinating or doing displacement activities. One little tip I’ve always found useful is: never finish a scene or a chapter always leave mid-scene or even mid-sentence. That way you know exactly what you’re going to write at the start of your next writing session and you plunge straight in.

  13. Leslie

    The day job definitely takes sucks up a lot of time… especially if you like your job, as I do. I can’t imagine an endless stint working at a job I hated or found boring.

    I put it first because it pays my bills and I owe them a solid day’s work at my best. The new twist in this job is that I’m actually writing a lot more, which is both good and bad.

    Good: I love the camaraderie of at work. I enjoy the job and find it stimulating. Any writing improves my skills, I’ve gained confidence in my writing skills and enjoy the compliments. I derive satisfaction from the completed work.

    Bad: It sucks up tremendous amounts of time and energy, at the end of the day it is hard to sit back down at the computer and keep going. I enjoy the complements on my writing and derive satisfaction from the completed work… the writing in my day job makes me feel like I’ve written without working on my "other" job at night.

    I’m still working on that balance thing, occasionally I get it right, but most of the time I’m having trouble getting it all done, like everyone else.

    PS. don’t tell my writing group I’m posting on the blog during my lunch when I could be writing! It’s our little secret 😉

  14. Jemi Fraser

    Great post! I face that dilemma all the time. I love my day job and tend to spend 50-60 hours at it per week. As a teacher, I rarely have a noon hour (duty, coaching, extra help, clubs…) so that’s out. I have a family at home I refuse to ignore 🙂 Unfortunately that means writing comes later in the evening and on the weekends. It’s a juggle but I do love all parts of it, so it’s worth it.

  15. manette xbox 361

    Hi L.J. Sellers…
    Congrats on the new blog! I really want to appreciate your interesting blog. I hope you will updates this blog regularly. I am sure you really loved being in touch with the audience and speaking and spitting out around. You have done great work. keep it up!

  16. Jessica Scott

    My day job is an army officer and I’m currently in Iraq. While being deployed has its challenges, I’ve also had the discussion with my husband about getting out: basically, its not on the table. We’ve got 4 years until he retires and I’ve got 8 to go. I know that when I back to the States, my word count is going to suffer, probably significantly for the first few months as I get back into a new routine but there’s no way I’m quitting. I hope that by the time I retire, I’ve got a decent sales record that will allow me to write full time. But that’s why the military retirement comes into play:it’s peice of mind that allows my creative brain to work and hope for someday. Even though someday never comes, I hang on to the hope that everything will work out.
    Good luck on your new book!

  17. iPod Accessories       

    I am currently work as a reporter in a company and journalism is my passion and writing is my skill so i never bored from this kind of work and it will never make me hampered. The output of my work is increase day by day and changing my field is affecting a lot in my job designation.

  18. Sarah Kanning

    Great question on a perennial issue: The Day Job. When I was a technical writer, I got almost zero writing done – the job used up too much of my sitting/writing patience and energy. Now I’m doing a mix of design/layout/photography/web work/editing/writing for my day job, which is just different enough from fiction writing that I still have the wherewithal to go home and write.

    I’ve also taken to getting up early and getting my writing done then, which works well for me, because I’m a morning person. I give my best 60-90 minutes a day to my own writing, which makes me feel better about the big chunk of time and energy spent on the day job.


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