Sunday, November 12, 2017

On being a full-time writer

During November, National Novel Writing Month, I blog about writing. In past years, I’ve focused on craft or business. This year, I’ll be more autobiographical.

I have worked very hard to become a full-time novelist. For thirty years I’ve been working at writing, writing for years only in the mornings or nights in addition to a day job, and now I'm full-time as a writer.

And so it seems that after all that work, I should be 100% thrilled with having finally won my way through to success. (No, not Janet Evanovich/Hugh Howey levels of success, but I pay the bills with writing, which not a lot of novelists can say). And yet, here is what this looks like to me:

Is that image of a well-dressed lady from the back? Or of an old hag’s face? Youth? Or age? How you read the drawing depends on your perspective. And how I view my full-time writing status depends on my mood, what I still have to get done that day, what pressures I’m feeling, and how hard they press upon me.

If I simply detail my day for you, it sounds no worse than any work day at an office:

  • Check email, respond to fans (who are the most important people other than me in the whole deal!)
  • Do the heart of the work (about three hours): writing or revising or outlining the next
  • Deal with non-fan and complicated emails
  • Do other administrative tasks--uploading the books, dealing with covers, proofreading, and formatting, updating the web page, learning something new about the business, checking sales, accounting, advertising, and so on
  • Interact on social media or IRL with other writers
  • Read/research for future novels
  • Check emails again, clear inbox one last time, and done

I often work from 6:30 a.m. until 11 a.m., take a break, and then finish up by 2:00. That’s seven days a week, not five days. I try to take weekends between phases of a project (as between finishing a draft and starting revision) and an “easy week” while my proofreader has a book. But I can’t always relax because there are always administrative tasks piling up, so sometimes my “weekend off” is more like an afternoon off.

In a sense, the work is never done. When you run your own business, you can’t just shut off your brain and relax. If a good idea--or an item to add to the to-do list--pops to mind, you need to go deal with that, at least to write it down. If a crucial email comes in, you have to answer it. And writers are always thinking about books and characters, even in our “off” hours. We don’t watch a movie but that we take notes on how it did a dramatic thing well, noting a technique we might be able to adapt. We go to a picnic and while other people are having fun, we take mental notes on gestures, arguments overheard, what a tree limb looks like in the breeze, the games the kids are playing, and all sorts of things that might go into our novels.

A confession about my to-do list. I used to have a huge one. Produce audio books, get started on translations, transfer author site to wordpress with a snazzier design, figure out how to do X kind of advertising, and so on. But that list really started weighing on me. I added to it often but seldom crossed a line out. I finally gave up on it except for a post-it note sized to-do list, which usually is only of things to do this week.  I would not have done audio books ever had audio book companies not contacted me, for it was far too much work to do myself.

I know that if you’re not a pro writer, and you think you want to be one, that you’ll doubt this: but it’s harder work once you’re full-time than it ever was before. It’s hard work to stay where you are once you’ve arrived at a certain level of success. You must run as fast as you can up the down escalator, or it will dump you ignominiously on the ground while other, hungrier, harder-working writers pass you by.

Some days, you think, “I’m going to quit. This is too much work. Too much pressure.” Some days you look at yourself in the mirror and say “What the hell was I thinking?!?”

The only thing that saves me at such times, that keeps me marching forward, is the writing itself.

I love to write. I love to invent characters who seem as real to me as the people walking down the street outside my window. That’s the thing that makes me keep doing it, that the work is its own reward.

I also love to make readers feel something--especially to feel nervous and worried about my characters’ safety.

Still, back to my original thesis from last week: Being a full-time writer is not easy. It’s a real job, with a lot of dull and tedious chores. It isn’t much like your earliest, most naïve dreams of it. For me, it takes up about 330 days a year. You never really “arrive” at a destination. You just keep working harder and harder.

To my readers, thank you so much for reading.

To my fellow writers, I'm betting that one day (even if you doubt me now), you'll know what I'm saying. There's a whole lot of boring work to being a full-time writer.

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