You know those pet topics? The ones people raise over and over again, the oft-voiced misconceptions, the FAQs, the "if I had a nickel..." comments, the remarks that make you want to wax eloquent? Most any human endeavor offers them, certainly every profession, and writing is no different. Here, then, commences a new, probably irregular column covering such topics that I find commonly raised by aspiring writers, acquaintances, those closer than acquaintances, or people who are simply fascinated by what writers do, and allowing me to rant -- er, expound -- on them. So without further ado, today's "if I had a nickel" comment is: "I want to quit my job to write."
Well, maybe you do, and maybe you don't.
Writing at home is a subset of working at home, which has wonderful perks and definite drawbacks. Most of these lie on a continuum. Yes, I can work in my jammies (I can also let my appearance go totally to pot). Yes, I don't care if the mother of all blizzards is blizzarding outside (but I can become a big fat weenie about driving in other than perfect weather). Yes, I can set my own hours (but I may end up working more hours than employed people do, or fewer, because people think I'm interruptible, or I may have trouble separating life and work). Yes, I don't have to cope with office politics or prickly co-workers (but I may go nuts all alone -- actually no I won't, but you might). Yes, I don't have to commute (hmm, still trying to come up with a downside to that one). I'll take the pluses -- don't get me wrong -- but we can't have them without risking, and sometimes getting, the minuses.
But that's any working from home, and it's possible someone wanting to ditch the job to write is talking about ditching a work-from-home job. What do we have to consider specifically about full-time writing? Well, it's not like telecommuting for an employer. No salary, no wage, no benefits, no guarantee you'll be adequately paid for the time you put in, and a pretty good chance you'll not be adequately paid, period. Jim Denney, in his breezily titled Quit Your Day Job: How to Sleep Late, Do What You Enjoy, and Make a Ton of Money as a Writer advises this (my words): Realize that you'll start out poor, sock away a year's salary before you make the leap, and plan to squeak by on that money for the first 1-2 years. Hmmm -- save up a year's salary? Let me know how that works out for you. Another point to take into account is that it's awfully hard to know if you can make a go of it after only 1-2 years of full-time effort. Depending on the project, it can take that long to get one submittable-quality book written, the same length of time to sell it, the same length of time to see it between two covers, and another few months to see if it'll succeed or bomb. This could easily add up to 3-6+ years. Even if the book succeeds, that's no predictor that you can sustain a full-time career. Also, Denney has written a number of celebrity autobiographies and memoirs. Celebrities=sales=money, and nonfiction is very often the backbone of a full-time writer's career. Don't misunderstand -- Denney's book gives a lot of good advice. But writing nonfiction book after nonfiction book to tight deadlines is the usual name of the game here, and I'm not at all sure "sleep late" ends up as part of the plan. Because such writing can become another 9-5er (or 9-midnight) in a big hurry.
With fiction writing, the need to rely on your creativity to pay the mortgage or buy food for your kids can put unexpected and unsustainable heavy pressure on something you once found purely enjoyable. Yes, they say do what you love and (1) the money will follow, and (2) you'll never work a day in your life, but there's also truth to the idea that once you have to do what you love, it's work. I know writers who, when given the chance to go full time, chose not to, even though it was what they'd always thought they wanted.They didn't want to think that covering their bills depended on whether their latest project would earn them a contract, and when that might happen. They didn't want to lose the joy.
One big surprise full-time writers often face is that they don't get much more done full-time than they did part-time. Despite all that's been said above about long hours, sometimes 4-5 hours of writing a day is the maximum one can mentally sustain, especially with fiction. Let's say you only manage 3 most days, either because you're not yet as disciplined as you need to be or that's really all you can do. If you previously wrote for three hours most evenings while holding a day job, you're not getting nearly enough extra writing done to justify having dumped the job and its salary and benefits. Another surprise is that "full-time writers" may earn some, or most, of their income from related activities such as teaching, speaking, editing, or writing material much different from their preferred focus. All this drains time and energy from what you really want to be doing.
Quitting your job to write can work well if:
- You're married to someone who has a regular paycheck, earns enough to support the family, agrees to be the sole breadwinner, carries the health insurance and 401k, and you consider your income gravy.
- You're a stay-at-home parent who would be staying home in any case (there's no job to quit).
- You're responsible for only yourself and are willing to live on a shoestring.
- You have high risk tolerance.
- You're a pretty fast writer.
- You write mostly nonfiction, have a solid network of editor contacts, and have a track record of delivering quality work on time.
- You're pretty sure that if you ever go back to employment, you want a new job/career.
- You sold a book for an advance that wowed you (yeah, it can happen), and/or got a multi-book contract, and now you need to go all out to write the next book to meet your deadline. This may be your big break. Hey, if you can go for it, go for it!
So -- what do you think? Did I leave anything out? Do you write for a living? How does it work in your case? Would you not want to quit your day job? Why not?