I was tickled pink when James Scott Bell, writing guru and suspense author, and also one of my professional heroes, wrote a post a few days ago, “What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing”.
He starts the post with:
Next year will be my 24th as a professional writer.
So I knew I was going to start (more or less) this blog post with:
Next year will be my 20th as a professional writer.
That tends to surprise a lot of people, as I have been firmly in the mid-lists my entire career and no one beyond a largish group of rabid romance readers—and you who are reading this post–knows who I am.
Many, many years ago, on my readers’ blog, I wrote a post called “11 Things I Wish I’d Known About Full Time Writing When I First Started Writing Novels”. It has since been transferred to PIFW, where it more properly belongs.
When I wrote the post, I had been writing full time for several months, because of a life roll—I had lost my day job because of budget cuts and was by default trying to make writing pay enough to keep writing.
It didn’t work, because back then I was still writing for traditional publishers.
I went back to working the day job, and that prompted a post some months later, “8 Things I Know About Part-Time Writing Now I’ve Written Full-Time”
Day job hell and that post made me more determined than ever to get back to writing full time. Indie publishing was the key factor that made the difference and in December 2015, I quit the day job to write full time…and I have been writing full time since then and never once missed paying the mortgage and utilities.
Shortly after quitting the day job for the second time, I wrote another post, “13 Things I Know About Writing Full Time Now I’m Back to Full Time Again”.
The posts had turned into a series while I wasn’t looking.
Between quitting the day job the second time and today, I have:
- Written, produced and released 59 titles.
- Started The Productive Indie Fiction Writer.
- Started a pen name and developed the platform that goes with it.
- Built a fourth, “holding” site, to be developed later.
- Fully embraced the “indie” moniker by learning how to sell directly to readers from my romance site, while also building sales on all bookseller sites.
That’s the 20,000-foot view. There’s a lot more detail down at ground level, of course.
Three years on from properly quitting the day job, I feel there is more to add to the conversation.
What I know, Now I’ve Been Writing Full Time for Three Years
1. Indie publishing provides regular pay cheques and peace of mind
As I mentioned above, I haven’t missed a mortgage payment or utility bill payment. Not once. The difference is the monthly indie payments, as opposed to meagre semi/annual royalty payments and the attendant creative accounting.
I tell complete newbies who ask that they need to let go their dream of a traditional publishing deal and get busy indie publishing. Most of them, of course, ignore me, because they’re not standing on the other end of the process as I am, now.
2. I don’t want to get out of the house
I used to plan to get out of the house. I don’t have to do that anymore, because the business of publishing pulls me out of the house often enough to make planned outings unnecessary.
I’d much rather be at my desk. I’d much rather be writing, than just about everything else.
That one has never changed.
3. People are starting to realize I have a demanding business
When I was working full time, writing was a hobby. When I got to write full time the first time, people thought I mostly sat around daydreaming. Getting to full time once more came with the benefit that friends had watched me work my ass off to get back to full time and knew I wouldn’t be eating bonbons on a silk cushion.
But now, three years later, they finally understand that I’m not Joan Wilder (main romance writer character of Romancing The Stone), tucked away in my insulated apartment, living on fantasy stories.
I know as much, if not more, than the average small businessman about marketing, advertising, cash flow, financing, on-line businesses, intellectual property law, international tax laws, Canadian small business taxes, networking, project management, business planning, distribution, shipping, drop shipping, product development, modeling, branding, design and a whole host of other business matters.
I wish I’d started learning this stuff years ago.
4. I do know what day of the week it is
The first round of full-time writing, I lost track of what day of the week it was, because all I did was write fiction. My publisher took care of nearly everything else.
Now, I’m a businesswoman, and I’m as plugged into the 9-5 mentality as I ever was as an office worker.
5. I had no idea what hard work was, first time around.
I thought I was working hard, first time I wrote full time. Hollow laugh.
I wish (I wish, I wish) I had put as much hard work into the writing when I had first started out. I wish I had shut up about wanting to have a life, too, and just got on with it. I wish I had been systematic and relentless, as I am now.
Where would I be now, if I had? Who knows. But I wouldn’t be here. I suspect I would be somewhere far different.
6. I’m still one of the smallest percentages of writers in the world.
Because I spend my days networking with authors who are doing fabulously well (or appear to be—as everyone shows their best face on social networks), I sometimes feel very small and humble and, well, pathetic, because I’m not bringing in mid-six figure cheques every month.
Then I get a dose of reality which reminds me there is only a tiny fraction of authors who get to write full time.
The percentage of writers who write full time among the many millions of writers out there probably hasn’t changed much in the last couple of decades.
What has changed are the actual numbers. There are a shit-ton more people who want to write and are trying to make it work.
There are a correspondingly larger number of authors who are making it work, quitting their day job, and thriving.
Now is the best time in the world to want to be a writer, for the chances are better you can make it work.
7. I still hate long weekends and public holidays
I just don’t hate them with as much virulence as I used to, because now everyone in my household is either helping me with the business or building their own creative-based business. (I have a fine artist, another fiction writer, a game-figure painter, and a memoirist as immediate family members making their living from their art. I have a father-in-law, brother-in-law and cousin-by-marriage who also successfully write fiction.)
Weekends in my house are orgies of productivity, with business conversations on the side.
I wish I had known that eventually, the family would come around. I just had to keep demonstrating that this madness of mine wasn’t going away.
8. I still keep the music pumping, but now I stream.
Music is still a key productivity tool for me, but now I’m not the only one in the house during the day, so volume is an issue. Sound-cancelling earbuds are my friend. And I have discovered the joys of streaming and discovering new musical talents every day.
I wish streaming had been around when I first started writing, but that would involve time travel, so….
9. I am even more hopelessly addicted to writing stories.
I simply cannot conceive of doing anything else. I’m currently on a “break” from the actual writing of stories, and I’ve been getting steadily more twitchy as time goes on. Story ideas are crowding me.
I wish, when I had started, that I had acquired this need to write very early. The habit of writing builds the need to write, which further drives the habit. Oh…the time I wasted when I was first starting to write!
10. I still love the commute (especially in winter).
9 steps, 30 seconds. Fur-lined moccasins instead of stilettos.
However, I remember how much I used to get written on my commute to and from work. They were highly productive hours that I (thankfully) didn’t waste, because they made the difference. The final year of writing with a day job was one of my most productive, ever. I’m glad, now, I put in that work.
11. There is the productive ideal and there is reality
I’m doing a lot of “I wish…” in this post, because I’m talking to that beginning writer of twenty years ago, and any other writer who is new to the business.
One of the “I wish” dreams I still hang on to, is the dream of perfect productivity. If I could write as much as I should write when I schedule it on paper, then I would be producing books at a rate that just might satisfy me.
When I was still working the day job, I would build spreadsheets and projections which would show how many books I could get written this year, and how many I could get written if only I wasn’t stuck with the time-sucking day job.
Now I’m here, and writing full time, I know that the realistic level of productivity is actually a lot less than the productive ideal.
Life rolls, snags and hitches, illness, snafus, all have their impact. So do the other demands of running a business, which grow with each passing year.
The one that caught me by surprise was the amount of time it takes to maintain past years’ efforts – reviewing book titles, updating them, keeping the metadata fresh, plus the huge effort involved with any new distribution or changes in distribution (it took three days to get my 150+ titles up on to Barnes & Noble, for example).
The longer you write full time, the more time you need to maintain your backlist.
The reality is that you simply cannot write at full-speed, throttle jammed open, for the long term, not when you’re writing full time.
Even when you make allowances and schedule all the “other” business, you still cannot write as much as “hourly-word-rate x hours-for-writing” says you should. It just doesn’t happen.
I wish I had understood that better when I was first starting out, because when you are writing in fits and starts around a day job, you can reach maximum theoretical output. In 2015, I did. I wish I had done the same for the years proceeding that one.
12. There’re still not enough hours in the day
I wish, I wish, I wish I had understood this when I was whining about how much my day job got in the way.
When I first started writing, I figured writing full time would let me write all the stories I wanted to write, and I would be happy and never want to write more. I yearned for that freedom.
When I quit my day job in 2015 (as opposed to being pushed from it in 2009), I knew that business matters would demand their share of time.
What I have learned in the three years since is that business matters grow to fill any available time, and that I will never, ever have enough time to write. I will never write all the books I want to write in a single year, or ever.
What I wish my newbie self had understood was that accepting the time you do get to write is the only sane response. I would have picked what I wrote more carefully and strategically, instead of trying everything, like an over-enthusiastic puppy wanting to push her nose into every crevasse (which is one of the major reasons why I spent nearly twenty years with a day job).
Now I know better and I’m learning to use my writing time strategically and pick my priorities.
13. You have to learn to think long term.
This is related to #12. Not having enough time, and learning that you will never have enough time, forces you to think in longer terms of time.
For three years, I have been on a production frenzy, wanting to write as many books as possible, to lift the income as high as possible. All the pet projects and writing I wanted to try just-because, I kept putting off until I had the spare time to do it. You’ve probably come across that “spare time writing” phrase in other posts on this blog. I figured that when I had the income at a level I liked, it would magically open up time to do the other stuff.
What I’ve learned is that spare time is rare. It gets eaten up far too easily.
In the long term, expecting spare time to open up and magically give me the time I want to write fun stuff, experimental stuff, and other genre stuff just isn’t going to happen.
So, I must schedule it, if I want it to happen.
That means scaling back (slightly) the revenue producing writing (at this point in time, that’s all my romances), to open up room for other types of writing, which may develop into revenue streams of their own–given time.
For the same reason, I will spend the early part of next year looking for time to narrate my own audio books, which will be another long-term stream of income.
Short term, strategic sacrifice for long term gain.
I simply didn’t think in these terms when I first started out. Newbies don’t. Their central focus is upon finishing the first book and getting it published, then making money from it, then making enough money.
But I wish I had not gone at it like a bull in a china shop for twenty years. I wish I had picked a more strategic path. But writers weren’t taught this, twenty years ago. They were ingrained in the traditional publishing mindset.
14. I still have the coolest job ever and now I don’t feel like a fake, either.
In 2009, even though I was writing full time, the revenue wasn’t there, and I felt like a fake. Going back to a day job seemed entirely appropriate.
Only, there had been a mind shift during that first full-time year or so—“I am a writer” had lodged itself in my brain and didn’t let go. I was no longer wondering if I would ever make a success of it. I knew I would, and it was the driving force for everything I did (I said as much in the “8 Things I Know About Part-Time Writing Now I’ve Written Full-Time” post).
I went back to the day job in February 2010, and by December 2015, I quit for real. It only took five years and some hard work.
I wish I had known from the beginning, with as much certainty as I knew from 2010 onward, that I was a writer, no matter what. It would have changed many of the decisions I made.
15. I will not ever go back to a day job.
This is a mindset, not just a fear of failure, or the horror and mental torture of having to find a job making my skin crawl (although there is a touch of that).
I know I can make full time writing work, now. I have thrived for three years. There’s no reason it won’t continue if I make strategic decisions and work smart, while also working harder than I ever have before.
The certainty, the mindset, is what has allowed me in just the last year or so to unclench and start thinking longer term. For two years I was terrified the sales would slump and force me to seek employment.
Guess what? Sales did slump. They’ve slumped more than once, and this summer’s Also-Bought crisis was just horrible (for more indies than just me).
But I’m still making enough to pay the bills. I survived.
And gradually, I’m clawing my way out of the crevasse once more, putting money aside to cover the slumps, and aiming for mileposts a year or more away, because I fully expect to be writing full time then, too.
I wish, when I first started writing, I had learned that you can survive without a day job. My entire upbringing was focused upon the ideal of “getting a good job”. Careers, professions, creative endeavours, didn’t enter the picture. I did get a good job, and it bound me to the monthly bank deposit and calcified my fear of living without it.
So did my first foray into full time writing in 2009, when I wasn’t financially ready, and wasn’t indie publishing. Indie writers were around in 2009 and I wish, wish, wish I’d had the courage to jump to indie back then, instead of meekly returning to a day job.
This has been an essay in hindsight thinking, which is usually decried as being a useless exercise.
If new writers take even one point from this reflection and use it to change their career for the better, it will have been worth it.
This series of posts has always been a worthwhile exercise for me, because they make me realize how far I have come and how my attitude has changed. They also tend to underline my priorities and choices, going ahead.
You could learn the same about yourself, if you try this as an exercise. Write a letter or blog post to your newbie self, xx years ago, and tell them what you know now, that you wish you had known back then.
I guarantee it will clarify the way you think about your writing business.