Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Making The Jump To Full-Time Writing, Part 1

Many of us start writing as a spare time hobby. And for some people it will remain a hobby -- something to do for fun when the mood strikes. That's a perfectly valid way to write, and one of the great things about both the internet and the new world of indie publishing: it gives the hobbyist an outlet for that work. (And I will probably write more about that later.)

This series of posts, though, is for those of us who see writing as something we'd like to do full time - regardless of whether it's a hobby or not.

It could be a job or small business which supports us financially, or it could be an artistic avocation (related to a religious vocation) which takes up all our time when we don't have to do something else. While an avocational writer might prefer to win the lottery and not worry about the market, most aim to make a living at writing so they don't have the distractions of a day job.

Money and Time

When we think about making the transition from working a day job, to being a full time writer, we tend to focus on The Bills. That is, we think about how much money we have to make at writing in order to afford quitting the day job.

Financial considerations are a big issue, and I'll talk more about those next week, but for this post I'll keep it simple:

Generally, in order to make the kind of money needed to quit the day job, you have to have been writing full time for a while -- which you can't do while working the day job.

Which is a conundrum -- or as I like to think of it, a chasm. You can't make the leap without the money, you can't make the money without the leap.

This gap is very wide in traditional publishing -- where you not only have to be writing at full professional level long before you make a sale, but you will also have to wait a very looooong time after that before getting paid. And that is crushing to the soul when you realize it.

It wasn't always that bad, though: In the grand old days writers could develop their skills and habits and still make some money by writing short fiction for magazines and newspapers -- and that provided a buffer to get across the chasm before you make the transition to full time writing.

And now days, indie publishing can also provide a buffer. It may not be a big one, but you can get your work out there earlier, and you get paid faster, even if it is low amounts. You can build your momentum slowly, scaling the business as you go. You don't have to leap. You can hike. (See Dean Wesley Smith's post about this. Though he tends to encourage a flat out run, you don't need to go quite as fast as he does.)

However, this post isn't about money.

There is something else you have to think about before you make that transition: you have to think about your time and habits. If the structure of your life is built on your day job, that structure will collapse when the job is gone. It happens to both freelancers and retirees all the time. It's something that you need to plan for.

Ways to Deal With The Life Structure Problem

There are two general approaches to preparing for a major life change:

One way to deal with this is to simply throw yourself at your non-writing to get it out of the way as fast as possible. The goal here is not to think about writing, but only about quitting that day job. Throw yourself into becoming financially independent, and then worry about building a new life afterwards. This is what is proposed by the self-help book Your Money Or Your Life. There is a lot to be said for this book. It's particularly useful for folks who are already in a high paying profession, and don't have time to write now. Those people make enough money to have a hope of retiring early, and the demands of their profession interfere with creative work too much anyway.

This concept has two problems: It assumes that you can stop writing, and it assumes that if you manage to stop, you can start again. You will essentially be starting from scratch when you finally get back to writing, and it may not go as well as you hoped. Life is short. You could have a heart attack doing all that work before you ever get to your dreams.

Me, I loved Your Money Or Your Life, but it was out of the question for me because I can't set aside my writing. So using a plan like theirs was a non-starter. I have, however, paused my writing for shorter periods of time to take care of issues in my life. I also put a lot of energy into finances whenever I did, so that I would have something of a buffer when I came out the other side. So at least thinking about that solution was helpful.

The second way to deal with the structural change that comes with full self-employment, is to build an alternative structure that isn't dependent on the day job. It's harder because it requires you to split your attention. The two posts I did about writing as a part time job were all about managing that split in attention. (Read it: Part 1, Part 2. )

However those posts were about surviving with that split over a long time, with no end in sight. And yes, that is important, because it make take you a very long time to make that transition. But if you are actually going to make that shift, you have to do more than survive. You have to actually shift yourself.

The key, I think, is to find the right job and overall work situation.

I like academia for several reasons, but one big one is the seasonal nature of it: whether you like it or not, you will have semester breaks, and maybe summers off. While that kind of stop-and-go schedule isn't ideal for developing your writing habits, it does do one thing: it gives you a chance to use that time to develop "day job-free" zones in your life. And not just weekends -- actual extended periods of time.

Long breaks are like a dress rehearsal for quitting the job. And you may very well find, at first, that all you succeed in doing is demonstrating that making the switch is not easy.

If you can subsist on a part time job -- or at least have the kind of job which you can wean your hours down from beyond full-time, to part-time, to consulting work -- that is ideal, because you can work on creating that writing schedule and structure more formally.

This helps not only with physically having time to do the work, but you can start thinking of your day job as the one you're moonlighting at.

And if you're young and you have energy, you could potentially push your writing up to full time before you actually have to give up that day job.

Now, One Big Warning....

One trap many writers fall into is that once you realize it's possible to make a living at writing, you start thinking of it as a way out of your troubles. Instead of being annoyed at your day job because it interferes with your writing, you start clinging to your writing as a white knight which will rescue you from your day job.

If you find yourself doing that, stop yourself right now. Don't think that way. Just don't. It will kill you.

Writing is too slow and too unpredictable to rescue you from anything. Even if you happen to achieve some wonderful success in your first year or two... that is likely to fade. Especially if you were so busy with marketing and other premature success efforts that you didn't prepare to handle the aftermath.

Instead, say this to yourself regularly:

"Writing will not rescue me. I must rescue my writing. If I want to write full time, I need to find a way to sustain myself and my writing with the resources I have now -- perhaps until retirement."

Novel Dares

A little over ten years ago, I maneuvered my work situation to about half time. The new schedule was to start in January, and as the end of the old year wound down, some Clarion folks I knew online started talking about doing a novel dare. Most Clarion novel dares were more intense than even NaNoWriMo -- often 2000-3000 words a day to finish a novel in a month. But that December, someone proposed a slower dare -- 1000 words a day for 60 days.

Hmmm, thought I, 1000 words a day is something I should be doing every day anyway. And if the whole point of reducing my hours (and taking an income hit) was to make time to write, I really need to put my (lack of) money where my mouth is. So I joined.

Though life has intervened multiple times since then, and laid me very low, that was the start of that new life structure that really worked for me. I do think that if indie publishing had been viable at that time -- the way it is now -- that would have provided the foundation I needed to move to full time writing much sooner.

Furthermore, if I'd had a steady but small income trickling in from indie writing, I could have powered through those tough times a little better. Some of those tough times were due entirely to the changes I was seeing in the publishing industry -- as I saw so many authors I liked lose their careers, or quit because they couldn't afford their "success" any more. It's discouraging to work so hard and then see your only option is something you simply don't want to be part of.

But no matter what your situation, or what you're battling, the very best way to build a structure in your life for writing, a structure which will survive any changes, is with a long term sustainable daily challenge. This will help even if the changes in your life are not voluntary.

I started this blog two years ago to have my own ongoing challenge which would not end. I needed it to build my structure and get me through. And that's why I am so pleased to find like-minded people in this A Round Of Words in 80 Days challenge.

The Most Important Element of a Writing Dare: Reporting

The reason your day job makes for such a strong structure in your life is because you have to show up. Some days, you may not do as well at the job. Some days, you may even call in sick. But you have to call in. The power is not in the doing, but in the showing up and calling in.

I notice a lot of writers in the ROW80 challenge who skip updates, or who make their goals vague and so their updates can't really say if they achieved them. Look, folks, go ahead and set low goals. Change them as your time situation changes. Heck, change them as your interest changes, but make those goals quantifiable, and whatever you do...


Even if you don't achieve anything, even if you fail utterly, always always always make that report. The report is the structure you need to hang your habits on. No report, no structure, no goals, no habits, no nothing.

And if you're going to successfully make any kind of transition, it starts with that structure.

As I said at the top: the thing you're going to need when you change your life is a structure that fits that new life. Building that structure is more important at first than actually meeting goals.

You don't have to join an outside challenge or dare, or even create your own public dare. You can do it privately, in a journal. But whatever you do, you've got to show up every day, or you've got to call in.

Next week I'll talk a little about the money side of all this. But before that, I've got a challenge update (and you'll note that even though we only post updates twice a week, I actually have daily progress reports within each update. I don't go to bed any night until I have updated that post).

And Friday I want to talk about a favorite series which has just hit ebook format: Stuart Kaminsky's mystery series about Hollywood P.I., Toby Peters. The ebooks are a little overpriced, but even though I have all the books in paper, I will re-buy them for Kindle. That's how important these books are to me.

See you in the funny papers.


David Michael said...

Great post, Camille. =)

I've seen a lot of would-be indies of various stripes trip over that lack of daily structure. I've tripped over it myself a few times in the last 13 years. My own daily structure is still evolving.

Back in the late 1990's, at my last job, one of my co-workers asked me how I had time to build video games what with work and family and stuff. I asked him, "You remember how you played Quake for 3-4 hours last night?" He said he did. I told him, "I didn't."

Truth is, you almost have to be a workaholic to build a second career while still working in the first. Or maybe there is no "almost".

In some ways, the last few years have felt a lot like the late 1990's. Except this time, I'm trying to build a writng career while maintaining the indie software business I created while still working full-time. One big difference is: I'm less patient this time around. ;-) I'm working on it, though.


The Daring Novelist said...

The cool thing is that, though you definitely did have to be a workaholic to create a career in traditional publishing, you just have to be an enthusiast to get the ball rolling in indie publishing.

You can build something great in an hour or two a day -- but you still have to be dedicated, and find a way to keep those eyes on the prize.