Up The Hill Backwards

I want to talk about a dirty little word a lot of writers don’t discuss in public too often. That word? Work.

I don’t mean the writing. I mean the day job. Like it or not, there are a lot of us published novelist out there that still have a day job. We yearn for the day we can ditch it, and just concentrate on the words that float through our minds and come on as stories on the screens in front of us. For a lot of writer, I dare say a majority, that day probably will never come. That’s just the reality. But even knowing that reality, we all still have the dream, the hope. You’ll notice I didn’t write “For a lot of us.” I’m holding onto the hope, and refuse to believe it won’t happen.

But I’m also very aware that without the day job, I ain’t got a roof over my head, or food on my table, or clothes on my back. So I go in every day and try to do my best.

My guess is, other writers do the same. But in public we don’t talk about the day job a lot. We prefer the illusion that we are writers, and writers only. Sure a few of us discuss it. Dusty’s a lawyer, and until tomorrow Duane Swiercynski’s still the editor at the City Paper in Philly. (A HUGE congrats to Duane for making the leap to full time writer!) But most of us keep that part of our lives is better kept to ourselves.

It’s Duane’s decision to devote himself full time to writing that got me thinking about this. I think I read somewhere that he said he wanted to focus on writing. And that’s exactly the point. With the fulltime job – which, don’t get me wrong, I’m very thankful for and we all need at some point – it is so difficult to focus.

There it is again. Focus.

I work in Hollywood. Or, to be more specific, not really Hollywood but a couple miles to the south. The company I work for is located in the middle of the Miracle Mile very near the La Brea Tar Pits. You know, the place where they dig up the mammoth and saber tooth tiger bones? If I press my face against my office window and look to the right, I can actually see the tar pits.

My job? I’m an executive producer at E! Entertainment Television specializing in on air graphics. I know…what does that have to do with writing? I mean, I’m in Hollywood after all, shouldn’t I have a job that takes advantage of my writing skills? My answer to that is no. I purposely got involved in a part of the industry that didn’t require me to write to much. I was afraid of burning out during the day and being unable to write at night. I achieved that, but there are other draw backs as you’ll see in a moment.

But my job does sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? There are many people in my line of work who would love to have my position. I know that. I know I’m lucky.

But a couple things you need to know about a job like mine. Mainly it’s effect on my focus as a writer. During the day I’m pulled in a million different directions, I have projects that come in and need to be done in an hour, and projects that will take several weeks all happening at the same time. It’s not untypical for me to be supervising 15 to 20 projects at one time. If I call in sick, or take a day off, I get phone calls. If I go to a writing conference I get phone calls. That’s a lot of work and a lot of stress and many times very brain tiring. In other words, a great destroyer of focus.

I’ve written else where – maybe even here – that my routine is to get up at 5 am and start writing by 6. What I didn’t say is that I have to stop by 8 and go to work for 10 hours. And even if I have the energy to write in the evenings, my focus is often lacking. My brain is numb. I’ll force myself sometimes, sure, but my productivity is about half that of what it is in the mornings. So basically I have to squeeze a novel out of two-hour sessions during the week, and a few extra on the weekends.

It’s hard to keep the narrative flow when the task is cut up in this way. It’s hard to pick up 22 hours later in the middle of a chase scene or an argument or even a flashback. But I prefer doing any one of those to starting a new chapter. If I’m at a chapter break I’ll try to write a few paragraphs to get things going. That way when I sit down at my laptop the next morning, I’ll at least have some sense of where I am.

In the end it all comes together. That’s what the rewrite is all about. I’m able to smooth things out and make everything work, thank God.

My friend likens me to one of those Chinese acrobats that keep the plates spinning. And it’s probably an apt description about all aspects of my life. The trick is to keep them from falling. They’ve gotten close sometimes, but so far I’ve been able to keep them going.

I’m not complaining. Not at all. The job thing is just the reality of being an author that many people don’t talk about, and I probably won’t talk much about again, either. But it was on my mind, because of my happiness for Duane, and yes a tinge of friendly jealousy.

And a hope…that someday, hopefully sooner than later, I’ll be able to do what he did. The day I’ll be able to focus only on my writing. Until then, I’ll chant the author mantra, “I will get there. I will get there. I will get there.”

I will.

I don’t want anyone to fess up their jobs, but how about a count of hands of people who know what I mean…

BONUS: I’m running a sweepstakes on my personal blog for an advance copy of THE DECEIVED. Details here.

Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone. Be safe out there!

33 thoughts on “Up The Hill Backwards

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    I can completely relate to this Brett. And the fact that I’m still working on my book makes this pipe dream seem even further away.

    Like a lot of writers, I’d love to make my living off of it, but at the same time, I’m very thankful that I have my job.

    Reply
  2. Mark Terry

    Well, my day job is writing, since I’m a full-time freelance writer. But yes, I’d like to get to a point where the only writing I did was for my novels instead of magazine articles and business reports and editing technical journals… I think.

    Because, well, I like being busy and I like keeping my mind active by learning new things and from a business point of view I like having multiple income streams (unless, of course, I’m going to get millions of dollars for my novels, in which, by all means, let’s just write novels).

    And recently, at least, I’ve found the demands of my writing career can get in the way of my, er, fiction writing career. There’s only so much time and energy to go around.

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  3. Louise Ure

    What an important post, Brett. When people at signings or conferences ask me what’s most surprised me about publishing, this is what I tell them: The many writers (most writers?) are spinning this magic while still holding down a full time job.

    I’m in the enviable position of writing full time now, but that’s only because my husband’s doing the hard part, working for living.

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  4. Naomi

    I’ve been a full-time freelance writer for more than ten years now, starting off with nonfiction book projects and p.r. and adding fiction to the mix since 2004. It’s really a risky business, and it’s smart to have something regular at least on a part-time basis, especially if you’re the main breadwinner and there are children to feed, clothe, and medicate.

    Actually having another income stream besides fiction writing can help you some creatively, in that you can afford to take more risks and decide to walk from the negotiating table on a book deal, if need be. That said, I know that I am a lot more productive without that day job, mostly because I’m a lazy sonofagun (or should that be daughterofagun?) and hated when I wasn’t doing well in either my day job as a newspaper editor or my outside writing.

    Some of us rely on the kindness and medical insurance of our spouses/partners (BTW, happy valentine’s day, Wes!). But we still have to be money savvy and sock some money away in an IRA every year. It’s easy to be cavalier and funnel all the advance money into promotion, in hopes that it will payoff in the future, but the reality is that most of us will be earning an midlist writer’s salary throughout our careers, and that’s if we’re lucky.

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  5. Stacey Cochran

    This is a wonderful post, Brett. I love the E! Network by the way… you guys are doing great stuff.

    I think a lot of people feel exactly the same way you do.

    You are an awesome writer, though, and I’ll bet your books will be earning enough once you’ve published a few that you could quit your day job.

    You have hope don’t you?:)

    SC

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  6. JDRhoades

    Brother, my hand is high in the air right now, which makes typing a bit of a challenge.

    One thing that really helps is being completely self-employed. No partners, no fixed number of billable hours. This means I don’t get calls at home if I take a day off to write. Of course, I don’t make any money that day either, so taking that day is more theoretical than anything else. And, of course I have no control over the court schedule whatsoever. It’s good that I practice in a small town and deal with a lot of the same people every day, so I’ve been able to get stuff moved around if I need to…most of the time.But yeah, I’m feeling a little envious of my buddy Duane, too.

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  7. JT Ellison

    I have so much respect for the writers like you who work and write. I’m blessed to have a husband who understands the muse and has been working his fingers to the bone to allow me to stay home and write full time. My goal in writing is to earn enough to let him take a break. Sportscenter and bon-bons in the daylight hours. That would make him happy, the darling.

    Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. And keep the faith, Brett. If there’s anyone I would lay money on to write an “I’ve gone to writing full-time” post, it’s you.

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  8. Ken Bruen

    BrettGreat post and anyone who can do the day job then come home and write, that’s cojones.I never believed I’d be able to quit teaching and when it happened, was I delighted, I was scared to hell and backStill ambestKen

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  9. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Brett – all respect for squeezing the writing in amid what sounds like a brain-imploding day job.

    And boy, I know the feeling.

    I’ve just logged on to Murderati having sorted through, tweaked, and burned to DVD-Rs, the six hundred-plus images I’ve shot over the last couple of days. It means I’ll be writing well into the night to make up the time, but I’m not sure I want to give it up.

    For a start, the photography side is a different and in some ways complementary skill to writing. It makes you observe things, not just look at them. It makes you view at locations and places differently.

    And the time away from the book allows ideas to ferment in ways they wouldn’t do if I spent all day doing nothing but writing. Now *that* really would make my brain implode. In fact, I know a lot of writers who’ve gone full time and now take longer to produce a book than they did when they had a day job to concentrate their mind.

    Writing time becomes more precious, somehow, more focused, when you have other demands.

    But, having said that, I gave up my last ‘proper’ day job to write full time – non-fiction then, rather than fiction – twenty years ago this year. My husband gave up his more conventional job to write alongside me fifteen years ago. And I can’t say the written word has treated either of us badly …

    As an aside, if anyone hasn’t visted Brett’s website yet (and if you haven’t, shame on you) then make a point of reading the ‘interview’ with his protagonist. It’s a great way to introduce people to your character, Brett, and – damn – I wish I’d thought of doing it first 😉

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  10. toni

    Same as Dusty said… we own a small construction business, and I have flexibility and some part-time help. It’s not a job I’d be able to quit easily, though.

    Reply
  11. Rob Gregory Browne

    I have to go on record here as advising Brett not to talk about his day job. And I think it’s important that other writers do the same (not talk about it).

    Why?

    Because thanks to movies and television and the hype over big timers like Koontz and Connelly and King, most people assume that writers at least make a living at what they do, and many assume that they’re filthy rich.

    This is pure fantasy for most writers, of course, but I think if we reveal to potential readers, fans, whatever, that we’re working at the local Slurpy shop during the day, then our image becomes tarnished in their eyes and they start to think, hmmm, is this guy any good? If he can’t even make a living at it… Jeez… why the hell am I reading him?

    Simplistic, yes, but I think there’s some truth to it. And this may reveal more about myself than about other readers, but I remember discovering that a favorite writer of mine worked a day job and being sorely disappointed. It didn’t make me stop reading his books, but it sure did give me pause.

    Granted, not all readers will feel this way, but why on earth should we give them the chance to? It’s fine to be honest and talk frankly about such things with friends, but I think you’re doing yourself a disservice if you make such information publc. Why not simply keep quiet about it and let readers assume you’re working fulltime?

    Nothing wrong with perpetuating a fantasy or two. Actors do it all the time. Politicians. Rock stars.

    Perception is EVERYTHING. And I think most of us would be better served if leave the public believing that we’re living the dream.

    That said, I certainly applaud Brett for being willing to talk about the “dirty little secret,” and I have no doubt that he’ll be able to count himself among the full-timers in the very near future, but I think it’s best to keep your day jobs between you and your accountant.

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  12. Brett Battles

    Thanks, everyone for the great comments.

    To Rob’s point…it’s one he and I have talked about often in the past. It’s part of the reason I was hesitant to even post this. But I think it’s good for discussion, and helpful for all aspiring writers to know the behind-the-scenes stuff. That said, I think my particular job has a perception of glamour to it that others don’t (we can talk privately about whether it really IS glamorous or not), so it’s perhaps easier for me to bring it up.

    Thoughts?

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  13. pari noskin taichert

    Hey there,Fantasy can sustain the occasional reality check. At least that’s what I’ve found in PR. The truth is, the people who believe we’re living the dream — which we are simply by being writers in the first place — will continue to think about those big breaks despite all the comments on day jobs that exist. That’s why the “fantasy” persists.

    I haven’t worked a job outside the home since my first child was born. But, believe me, it’s just as hectic and disorganized and scattered staying home as it is in the big world. Maybe that’s because I see my children and family as my first and most important “job” and then comes writing. Though the kids are older now, thinking about them, planning meals and cleaning and folding laundry punctuate my days more than I would like. I don’t even feel like I can let the phone ring because it might have something to do with my children and I wouldn’t want to miss that . . .

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  14. tess gerritsen

    Great post! As someone who managed to ditch the day job about seventeen years ago, I have to add that, paradoxically, I’m only a little bit more productive as a full-time writer than I was as a part-time writer. While I was working another job, every hour I spent writing was precious and frantic. I wrote fast, and with greater focus, than I do now. It’s really true that work expands to fill the time available.

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  15. Louise Ure

    Like Rob’s imagined reader, I admit that I, too, saw the aura of glamor and success diminish a bit when I found out that one of my favorite writers was still working full time at IBM.

    But like many aspiring writers, I then dismissed it immediately, thinking “things will be different for me.”

    I think that a dose of reality is good for would-be writers. But that same dose probably doesn’t need to be given to readers as well.

    Does that make sense or am I talking out of both sides of my mouth again?

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  16. Steve Hockensmith

    I was lucky enough to quit my day job a few years back, but only because (A) my wife was still working and (B) we’d agreed it was OK to be very, very poor for a while. It’s worked out fine so far, but I do worry about this: What happens when/if I can’t land a new (or lucrative enough) book contract and “very, very poor” starts edging toward “totally broke”? It would be pretty tough to jump back into the job market having been a work-at-home writer/dad for half a decade. So it feels to me like the danger isn’t just in quitting your day job — it’s in abandoning your original career.

    Trepidatously,Steve

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  17. Zoe Sharp

    Dusty – I knew it as soon as I saw your hands …

    Rob – I hear ya, but my day job involves hanging out of moving race cars scraping my elbows on the blacktop taking very low-angle moving shots. (Remember the bit where Tom Cruise leans out of the open door to shoot out the tyres of the chase car in Shanghai in MI:3? You got it. But safety harness? Ha! Bike jacket.)

    It’s taken me to Japan, all over Europe, and numerous states in the US. It even handed me the plot to my first US book, First Drop. Yesterday I was out playing in a 650bhp Mitsubishi Evo IX and an 800+bhp Dodge Coronet R/T. It’s taken me close to 200mph.

    Yes, as with all things, sometimes it sucks. In the cold, in the snow, when it’s raining sideways. When you can’t find a location in Aldershot without threat of arrest by the military police.

    But most of the time, it’s an absolute blast that takes me back to my keyboard with renewed vigor. And it provides a nice fund of silly stories.

    OK, I don’t write non-fiction any more – so yes, in a sense I have been able to give up part of my day-job – but the rest is such fun I’d probably fight to be allowed to keep on doing it …

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  18. Shane Gericke

    Terrific post, Brett. I’m fortunate to be able to write books full-time. One of the reasons I left the newspaper business is I couldn’t do both things well at the same time. It’s precisely the reason you state–after 10-14 hours in the newsroom, the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was get back on the keyboard and write a few more hours. My wife and I talked it over at length, and decided it was worth the initial 50% hit in family income (we both work full-time) to become a thriller author. I have never looked back, as writing fiction is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. More important, my wife insists to this day it’s the best thing we ever did. Bless her and all the supportive spouses in the world, like Zoe’s most supportive hubby.

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  19. Zoe Sharp

    Oh, and Mark – the rest of that line:

    “A lawyer, a novelist and a whorehouse piano player walked into a bar …”

    … and the barman said, “Is this some kind of joke?”

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  20. Lorraine.

    Oh yeah. Writers are so smart, really sort of superior. And readers are really stupid, lucky they can even read, so as to buy the books. And heaven forbid you should be authentic, honest with them. Naturally it’s better that they all think you’re a bunch of Stephen Kings and John Grishams. That way, a reader can feel really great about finding your books in the thrift shops — after all you don’t need the sale.Sorry about this — always thought the day jobs made you more interesting, well rounded people. Bet Stephen King was one hell of a teacher.Lorraine

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  21. Alexandra Sokoloff

    One huge advantage of starting as a screenwriter. It really does pay the bills.

    The rage, though, the rage…

    Tess could not be more right about this: “It’s really true that work expands to fill the time available.”

    Great post, Brett. And happy VDay to all!

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  22. Allison Brennan

    Brett, great post. I do consider myself lucky to have been able to quit my day job, but I wrote four unpublished novels and my first three published novels while working full-time. Like you, I wrote mostly in the morning. I got up at four (you are SUCH a slacker, Brett . . . geez, just get out of bed a little earlier!) and wrote until 6:30 before having to get the kids up and ready and to school then commute.

    For me, giving up the “take home” work was hard. That’s the extra stuff you do so that you can get raises and promotions and all that good stuff. Once I committed myself to writing, I knew I’d never get another advance in my day job. It was a hard decision, but it worked out in the end.

    And I am much busier now than I ever was before. And I still have to take out the garbage.

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  23. Cornelia Read

    I guess I have a problem holding back talking about nearly ANYTHING, if I’m asked by someone who seems even halfway sane. My books are based on what truth I’ve been able to winnow from my life. Why the fuck *not* be up front about this aspect of it?

    I don’t have a day-job, but I have a day-life, what with my kids and dealing with all the special needs stuff for one of them. I have to be on-call for that 24/7–run down to the school if my kid has a tantrum and starts attacking people (she’s 13 and BIG), cope with no sleep when she gets up at 3 and starts rampaging, etc.

    In some ways the difference between day-life and day-job is that day-life doesn’t come with a salary, or benefits. I’m very lucky that most of the time my husband has a decent gig, with health insurance, etc., because I can’t think of any other jobs I’m qualified to do that would provide those for me, given the crazy hours I have to keep on the mom front.

    I am sincerely, absolutely, unbelievably blessed that I get paid something to write–not least because it’s work I can do in the interstices of all the plates I have to keep in the air.

    After taxes (at my husband’s rate), it’s not enough money to keep a roof over our heads and Kaiser cards at the ready, but I hope someday it will be. As he’s presently unemployed, my pittance is helping keep food on the table. I’m goddamn grateful for that.

    As to not telling people you have a day job, or anything else–well, I think that’s horseshit. You want people to buy your books, right? I think it’s important to tell them that it MATTERS to you. Every copy is important, at my level of this game. I need the money, I need the sales numbers, I need every reader who’s willing to take a chance on my work. I’ll tell them up front because that’s the truth, and I tell them I’m damn grateful for their support, too.

    If some writer fakes me out and makes me think they’re lounging by the pool in the Bahamas, clipping coupons, I figure it won’t hurt them if I wait for the paperback or buy their stuff used. For my friends who are trying to support a family and working their asses off any which way they can, I’ll do everything in my power to buy them new and in hardcover.

    Bottom line: for me it’s either this novel-writing stuff or standing on a sidewalk playing “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor” for loose change on my out-of-tune mandolin, baybay, and I SUCK at the mandolin.

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  24. Darwin Stephenson

    A number of years back I got fed up with the lousy writing of a particular business lifestyle magazine (happens of be published one county south of you) and contacted the editor about my writing it instead. I got the job but quickly found my inspiration for writing was being stressed by the pressure to make the deadline. Keep in mind that this wasn’t fictional writing. But, none the less, the deadline took the fun out of it.

    And so your post makes me recall how difficult it was to find inspiration when I had to write. As it is not my full time job now I find myself liberated to write in a way that doesn’t necessarily support my family. And maybe that keeps me from writing in a way that is too confining.

    Or maybe I’m just scared to have the courage to write creatively for a living. I guess one day I may find out. But until then, I’m happy with my lack of a writing day job.

    Darwin StephensonANALOG [darwin]15 Questions Put to 100 Anonymous Strangers

    Reply
  25. toni

    Oh, but Cornelia, I’d really pay to hear you play that anyway. And we could get Dusty on the piano…

    I’m pretty happy to tell people I’m in the construction business. I interact with crazy people every freaking day, and as great as I hope my imagination is, the crazy world around me is an inspiration. (I have to tone things down for my world, as insane / comic book nutty as my books are.)

    Plus, while I can appreciate what Rob is saying about perception, I think the culture of perception needs to stop. Tess posted a fascinating blog not long ago about how new musicians can’t really make a living now. If they’re not pop / American Idol fare or immediately exploitable, they have a hard time breaking in. Add to that the piracy issues of downloads, and corporations not interesting in building up budding careers, and the entire culture risks becoming homogenized.

    Same with authors. We live in a celebrity culture, where people are famous for being rich and partying and nothing else, where it’s Britney (who the fuck cares) 24/7. I really believe if someone sees my book and not going to read it solely because they disappointed that I still work, then they really weren’t my audience in the first place. I write an over-the-top hyperbolic character who struggles with dealing with real life stress –electricity being turned off, trailer flooding — amidst the absurd — brother being kidnapped. Someone who’s worried about perception isn’t going to “get” my book, anyway.

    We’ve managed to transition me out of the bulk of the daily work for the business, but since we own the business, I’ll always have something on my plate.

    Although if Zoe ever needs someone to take over for that gig, I am so there.

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  26. Doug Riddle

    First off….great post Brett, but WOW…it sure has taken a turn I didn’t see coming.

    Like many here I am a “day worker” who never has as much time to write as I would like, and like you Brett, hope for the day when I can do it fulltime. And as a single parent raising 4 kids and living in Michigan….I’m damn glad to have a day job. But contrary to what others might think, it is not the day job that makes the writing possible, but the writing that gets me through the day job.

    As for how my readers might view me….who cares, as long as I do the job they hired me to do when they buy the book…..that is to entertain them for a few hours so they forget about their day jobs.

    How people view King, Grisham and Connelly is more in people’s heads then anything those 3 authors do. Most of the time if you see King in the public eye he is supporting some literary cause…..Grisham and Connelly do a few interviews when they have new books coming out, but outside of that, when do you ever see them in the news?

    And speaking of Connelly….he once said a very interesting thing in regards to quiting the day job to write fulltime….it was something to the effect that when he was working he wrote one book a year and that he couldn’t wait till he could write fulltime because he would be able to write so much more….only thing is….he found that when he could write fulltime, he still put out one book a year. Interesting huh?

    Again Brett…great post and I can’t wait for the new book….loved The Cleaner….and loved the Battles and Browne podcasts.

    Doug

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  27. gregory huffstutter

    This post rang all too true for me.

    My day job is in advertising, but not coming up with the actual commercials. I work in an ad agency’s media department, planning out how much TV we should use vs. other media forms, which markets we should support, etc. Very analytic, lots of numbers-heavy Excel spreadsheets.

    At this stage, I wouldn’t want to switch to being a copywriter — thinking up creative campaigns and taglines — because that job uses the same mental batteries as novel writing.

    Upside about advertising as a day job is that I can usually sneak in an hour’s worth of writing during my lunch break. It’s given me insight into customer mindsets and how to bring products to market. And the regular salary and health insurance doesn’t suck.

    But like your E! gig, sometimes I get pulled in so many directions, it can be hard to break away. And when I do, it’s discouraging to go back to the salt mine when the words are just starting to flow.

    Hopefully, if I’m ever able to make writing a full-time occupation, I can take the mindset of working a desk job and translate that into maintaining a productive writing/promotional daily schedule.

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  28. gregory huffstutter

    By the way, I think de-mystifying the financial realities of being a new published author is a good thing (sorry, RGB).

    Working on my first manuscript a decade ago, I was under the delusion that I could sell it for as much as a Die Hard movie script, quit my day job, and buy a beach house.

    It wasn’t until doing more research — and finding blog posts like this one — that I fully understood it would be a long path, not a quick lottery check.

    The more authors that know what they’re signing up for, the less disgruntled ones you’ll meet at conferences. Because then they’ll have made an informed choice — and shouldn’t expect to quit their 9-to-5 until reaching a measure of success, with possibly a half-dozen titles to their backlist.

    Novel writing is a tough enough gig — brutal to juggle around family and time commitments — that you should have realistic financial expectations. If you are *still* compelled to pursue the dream, and can find motivation outside “I gotta pay my rent this month,” you’ll be better suited to handle the knocks along the way.

    Reply

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