Debut Author Lessons: Should you be a full-time writer?

A lot of writers have a goal of being a full time writer. I think there’s this image of your life continuing exactly as it is, except that now your job is writing. Sure, you know you won’t go into an office, but it will be so nice to have no demands on your time, except writing.

Yeah… so, about that.

Writers are freelancers.

As someone who has spent most of her adult life as a freelancer, let me speak to those of you who have conventional day jobs. How comfortable are you with not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, or even how big it will be?

Being a freelancer means that you have to constantly be hustling to get work. You get big checks when you turn in projects and nothing in between. Royalties? Twice a year and unpredictable in size.

When you are not writing, you are unemployed.

If this idea makes you uncomfortable, think very carefully before quitting your day job.

Your quality of life will change

You no longer need to leave the house. You won’t see people unless you make the effort to do so. Ah…. solitude. At first, yes. It’s glorious. But if you are even a minimally social creature… it can get really isolating really fast.

If you are a midlist writer (likely), you will have less money for indulgences. You might have to move to somewhere less expensive. Or travel less. Or you might have to travel more to promote the book. The only thing that is certain is that your life will not look the same as it does with the regularity of a dayjob.

There is no guarantee you will sell the next book.

This is the depressing thing that terrifies every writer. There comes a point in a writer’s career when they try to sell a book and can’t. Yes. Even New York Times Bestsellers. Even people who have won multiple awards. Don’t assume that you will sell books at the rate at which you can write them. I’ve sold seven novels, but I have three novels sitting in the trunk that we can’t sell. The only book you can count on income from is the one that you have already sold.

Diversify your income stream

One of the things a freelancer learns is that they must diversify their income stream in order to survive. This means having multiple clients and, often, having multiple types of work. For instance, as a puppeteer, I could sell my services as a performer, a designer, and a builder. I also did art direction, and occasionally gardening.

As a writer, my income stream comes from fiction, audiobook narration, puppet building, and teaching.

I could also have opted to do non-fiction, or editing, but the key is that I have money coming in from more than one source so that if one of them goes away, I have another way to pay the bills.

The side-effect of the multiple income streams is that you have multiple competing deadlines. Don’t like having more than one boss? Welcome to your new life. You now have a bajillion of them making demands on your time.

You don’t have to go full time.

It is totally okay to have writing as a second career. Anyone who sneers at you for keeping your dayjob for security is a judgemental prat. All a dayjob is doing is diversifying your income stream and giving you the ability to turn down work you don’t want to do. Believe me, there’s nothing as unpleasant as having to craft your way through a story you aren’t interested in just because you need the paycheck. Have I done that? Yes. Will I tell you which story? No.

But– is that part of why I record audiobooks? Yep. Sure, I enjoy it, but it also means that I don’t have to write things I don’t want to write.

How do I decide if I should quit?

Ask yourself these questions.

  1. Do I consistently have more paid writing work that I want to do than I have time for?
  2. Am I comfortable with a freelancer’s lifestyle?
  3. Are the changes in quality of life acceptable?

If the answer to ALL of those is “Yes” then by all means, take the leap.

But if you answer no, or hesitate… then I would really, really think twice before quitting the dayjob.

But my dayjob is soul sucking!

The answer might be to find a different day job that gives you more flexibility. If your job is eating up your energy, that’s a problem. But here’s the trick, you don’t have to have upward ambition in two different careers. If you want to be a writer and that’s where you want to focus your energy, then find a job that doesn’t require all of your attention. Be open about the fact that you are a writer when you are applying for a job that you’re over-qualified for so they understand why and that they won’t lose you to a better job.

During of the two periods in which I had a day job, I was a receptionist. As long as I got my work done, my boss not only didn’t mind the fact that I was writing a novel, he actively encouraged it.

Did that mean I was a part-time writer? Yep.

And being a part-time writer is totally okay. It’s fine to write one book every ten years. When people tell you that you won’t have a career that way, what they mean is that you can’t support yourself. But if that’s all the writing you want to do, then writing one book every ten years does not invalidate you as a writer.

So, should you go full time? I don’t know. That depends on you and what will make you happy.

(If you’ve made the jump from part-time writer to full-time writer, I’d love to hear about how and why you did. And if you ever regretted it.)

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14 Responses

  1. Judith

    Best advice I have ever heard about freelancing full time and/or working a part time day job. I’ve done both. The steady paycheck is so much easier and anybody can find a couple hours a day to write if they are passionate about it.

  2. S. J. Pajonas

    All this is so very true. I’m on a completely different path than this because I gave up my day job to have kids and then decided to go back to my first love of writing. I’m lucky to have a husband who supports all of us and gives us health insurance. I made this decision (kinda) to be a freelancer when I became a stay at home mom. It was tough! But the partnership made it reasonable.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      See, I would argue that being a parent is equivalent to a full-time job.

      That’s part of why my husband and I decided to not have children, because balancing that and a freelance lifestyle wasn’t going to work without changes to our quality of life that weren’t acceptable.

      So, if you are balancing parenting and writing? That’s a heckuva lot of effort and I commend you. Even with a partner who brings in a steady paycheck, you still have more than one job.

      1. S. J. Pajonas (spajonas)

        It certainly is a full-time job but one that leaves me with a free window of time everyday now that the kids are in school. So it’s a bit scaled back after a while of full-time EVERYTHING 🙂 lol. I know kids are work but it’s never been the same to me as working in an office. I’m glad to have deadlines and projects once again!

      2. Alissa

        Thank you for this, Mary. Many disregard parenting as work, and the adjustments to lifestyle are huge. Now that I’m looking at being close to submitting my first manuscript to agents, I’m worried about how much time that freelance lifestyle will take from my family. Although, since we’ve already adjusted our lifestyle so that I don’t *need* the paycheck, I can say no to excessive travel and whatnot. I’ve also decided to substitute teach now that the twins are in kindergarten so that I can have a day or two to write during the week…theoretically.

        Deadlines do worry me. I’m not sure selling a book before it’s written is a good choice for me because deadlines will always come second to family, and I don’t think the stress of making that choice would be healthy for me. But since I haven’t crossed that bridge, this is all speculation. But I appreciate these posts because they help me to think ahead and make plans that will work for my family. Knowledge is power. Thanks!

  3. Michael J. Martinez

    This, this, a thousand times THIS.

    There’s very sound advice in here, so thank you, Mary! Going full-time as a writer can be a scary thing for the day-job crowd. I have two novels published, a third coming in May, and there’s no way I could quit my day job. For one, I like what I do, and for another, I’m paid quite well to do it. I’d love more time for fiction, but I’m unwilling to make the (nigh radical) changes to my lifestyle to accommodate the loss of income.

    If there are folks out there considering the leap to full-time writing, more power to you, and I hope it’s awesome. In addition to answering Mary’s three questions, I’d also highly recommend taking a hard look at current finances. Really, having six months (minimum) of your current salary in savings would be wise, given the vagaries of freelancing and the erratic nature of advance and royalty payments.

    I know that’s not feasible for a lot of folks, but food and shelter is important, y’all. Has to enter the equation!

    Again, great piece, Mary. Thanks for posting it.

  4. Gabriel Squailia

    My “day job” is a night job — I’m a DJ, which means I work a lot but keep weird hours, mostly in the summer and fall. So when I decided to take writing seriously, I was able to swing directly into 30+ hours of writing each week, close enough to 40 that I can consider myself a full-time writer without quitting much of anything. I’m a father, too, with 2-3 days each week spent with the kiddo. I’m not sure where the time comes from, just that I don’t sleep much. My wife has a stable, full-time job, which makes all of my freelancing less terrifying than it would otherwise be.

    There are times when I long for a steady paycheck, but I’m a morning writer, useless after a shift is over. (When I had a steady job, I could only write on my days off.) For now, this feels like the best arrangement I could hope for, and I don’t know that I’d change it significantly even with steady book sales. I’d feel like I was tinkering with a creative process that’s been proven to work.

    1. Margaret

      It’s so funny- we have vastly different routines–I have a day job 3 days a week and no kids–but I connect with your being a morning writer and your wariness of tinkering with something that is working. It’s like Jenga–don’t touch! lol

  5. Ryan Colvert

    This post is classic M.R.K. — full of awesome and amazingly sane at the same time. It’s easy to climb out on a ledge made of my own expectations, and I appreciate posts like this for talking me back down.

  6. Burt Abreu

    Thanks for this Mary. I went back to school at 48, got a degree in animation, and worked for 10 incredibly satisfying months at a studio. When we lost a major client 26 artists were out the door. With my relatively small portfolio, narrow skill set and (I believe) the oddity of an older guy applying for work* as a beginner artist resulted in almost a year without work. Freelance was a nightmare. The few jobs I got I were either severely underpaid or unpaid when the client just vanished.

    I am trapped in the crazy soul sucking job, but being unemployed and having had my family living with one foot in the street, taught me that what you say is true. In my wildest dreams I am a full time writer living a better than ‘scraping-by’ life. In my more realistic dreams I hope to make enough money so that I can cut my regular work hours from 50-60 down to 25 and write to make up the difference.

    *I could tell you the story of when I went to apply to a major game studio in my shirt and tie, and several programmers and 3D designers came to interview me with ripped jeans, studs in their faces/ears & noses and looks of incredulity or outright hostility when they saw the stiff sitting in the chair. I had no problem with them but all they saw when they looked at me was Mr. Potato in a tie.:)

  7. Robbie Knight

    Gabriel, that’s interesting! I’m a DJ as well.

    Mary, thank you for the fantastic dose of reality! I find it comforting and validating because radio is very like the career in writing you describe. People visualize radio personalities with their feet propped up in the studio spewing any old thing into the mic, only stopping the free-association blither to snort some horrifying variation of drain cleaner off a rock star’s guitar. It’s not like that.

    I’ve done many things in between radio jobs to make the bills, including voicing below-the-belt medical ads and hoisting 50-pound bags of mulch all day.

    It’s good to know that if I DO ever get published I shouldn’t expect life to change that much. It would be too much pressure. But I hope to put out a good book every year or three-while keeping a good job.

    Thank you for writing this blog and for the pearls of wisdom, which I will gladly sweep up for an hourly wage and then wield on the page. Sorry for the horrible mixed metaphor.

    Robbie

  8. Alexander

    I so, so agree with this. Writing is a very risky job and we all want to be George R R Martin or Brandon Sanderson, so hugely popular they don’t have to worry about money anymore, because there are plenty of people who are willing to jump on board when they’re starting a new project. But only very few people make that.
    Writing is a risky job, something that I’ve always been aware of. Which is why I’m currently in university. If it would be safe, would I give it all up to be a writer? In a heartbeat. But it’s not.
    Not to say that I don’t love my master’s. It’s kind of like my back-up plan if writing doesn’t work out – I still have qualities that can get me hired at places and it’s something that I don’t mind doing for the rest of my life, with writing next to it, hopefully selling a book or two.
    I’d love to be as succesful, but I know that chances are slim. So until I am 100% certain that it’s safe to make that move, I won’t. And I’m perfectly aware that that certainty might never come. And I’m fine with that.

  9. Margaret

    Great post! Now that I’ve stumbled into the last of the series, I’ll have to go back to discover the others!
    I left a 9-5 to ‘be a writer’ but discovered in less than a month that I needed a part-time day job to both calm the anxieties of being in a world with no rules, as well as pay the rent, and make friends in a new place. Three things that are pretty necessary, all while still having half my time to write (or do all those non-writing tasks necessary to ‘be a writer’! 😉

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