Okay, I understand the desire to be a full-time writer.
What a cool thing, right? No day job. No waiting on tables or making fries. No retail. No nine-to-five office work in some dank cubicle with one’s behavior monitored by HR dictators. No wasting one’s time and energy at some profession like law or accounting or engineering in order to make a decent living and raise children in a family-friendly neighborhood.
None of that shit. Just …. writing. Creating. While MAKING MONEY. Wow.
Note that what I am talking about here is the full time fiction writer/novelist version of full-time writer. Because, really, there are a lot of ways to be a full-time writer. Journalists and reporters are writers, for sure, but they have bosses and schedules and human resource departments to deal with—all the usual job stuff. Same with a lot people working in advertising, marketing, public relations. Those people write their asses off and have to be very creative under sometimes extreme pressure. But, again, they are still working a job.
Also, think of all the credits people like me (who watch TV and movies incessantly) see on the screen for ‘writer,’ or ‘written by’ or ‘created by,’ or ‘screenplay by,’ etc. These are names of actual writers who create content of widely varying levels of quality who, nonetheless, are quite often making a living as a writer. They are full-time writers. (And so many of them are actually pretty big deals in our culture and arguably bigger deals than most notable fiction writers. Just think of the men and women who write all those great shows on HBO and FX and Showtime and AMC. That shit can be so good and it really captures our hearts and our imaginations. And people talk about those shows the next day. At their jobs. It’s important to us.)
I think the dream of being a full-time fiction writer is so strong that I bet even many of those writers I’ve just described are only engaged in those wonderful writing jobs because they haven’t yet figured out a way to be a ‘real writer.’ The kind with no fucking job.
I’ve read a lot of essays and social media posts and blogs recently about this subject. Written by writers who have jobs and because they have jobs they really can’t be the writer they were meant to be or want to be. Or, written by writers who don’t have to work because their spouse has a good job. Written by writers who appear to be successful because they’ve had many books published by mainstream publishers who marketed the shit out of the books and who got onto best seller lists and won awards and everything and who confess that, they too, have to have a JOB in order to pay the rent and cover day care and diapers and get medical insurance and all that crap needed to live a half-way decent material life.
I think it’s safe to say for a lot of writers, one has either made it, which means they are making enough from their fiction writing to support themselves, or, they haven’t, which means they still have to have a job. It’s as simple as that. It’s also safe to say that when a writer or an aspiring writer says that they can’t really get much writing done and that their ‘work’ or their ‘art’ is suffering because they have a job, almost everyone sympathizes and understands. Such an idea is not really challenged. Or, at least I haven’t seen that attitude challenged very much, if at all.
I want to propose another idea. Not that I think it is better than what I’ve been describing or that there is anything wrong with wanting to be or being a full time novelist. It’s another way of looking at how to be a grown-up person AND a writer.
It’s two steps, really.
Step one: get a job.
Step two. Write books.
Use the job to make a living. Show up everyday with as much enthusiasm and creativity as you can muster and do the job. Get the paycheck. Pay the rent. Buy decent clothes for yourself and your children. Get the insurance so your kids can get good dental and orthodontic work. Live a normal life like everyone else. Deal with bosses and coworkers and boredom and stupid red tape just like the rest of the world. Get pissed off and then deal with it, get over it, and show up again the next day. Or, quit in a huff and then reboot and hustle yourself in the market again and again until you find something you can stand to show up for. Day after fucking day.
But you’re still a writer, right? So that’s step two. Write. If you really want to write something, something that comes from inside you and that touches people and that readers can relate to and are moved by and that is creative and original, if you really want to do that, you’ll do it. You’ll find the time. You’ll get the words down.
Now, you might not get a chance to write every day. The time and energy you have for writing will come and go. You’re living in the normal work-a-day world and you got stuff to do. A lot of stuff. All the time.
Still, sometimes you might find a niche in your daily life that makes doing quite a bit of writing very possible even while working full time. For example, you get up two hours early every morning and you write a thousand words or more every day, and in six months you have the final draft of a full-length novel. Not bad for a person working a regular job and supporting a family.
Or, maybe, you can just put down a couple hundred words a couple nights a week and then squeeze in another thousand on the weekend. Add an occasional weekend with better output, and you got more than 65,000 words after a year. Maybe take another six months to a year for more drafts and polish and in two years you’ve got yourself a novel. And that’s probably a worst-case scenario. Three hundred words total from Monday through Friday and then 1k over the weekend. Even skip some weekends and you still get 60K in a year.
Some people who work full time jobs may find that they can do a lot more than 1k a day. Maybe the kids are grown or haven’t come along yet. The nights are long, you have no social life, there is lots of creative energy and writing is done hours each week. Shit gets written.
Or, of course, there is the other extreme: for months at a time there is just too much going on. Too many hours at work. Kids needing a lot of help getting to and from their busy activities. Crises in the family and or personal life. Illness. Burnout. These times happen. That’s life, right?
My point is, having a job doesn’t have to stop a person from being a writer. From writing. From writing good stuff. A job can take away time and energy, but having a job doesn’t mean a person can’t write, can’t be a writer. It just doesn’t.
Okay, so you’ve done steps one and two. You’re a writer with a job. So what? What is so good about that? I bet it sounds pretty awful, still, to a lot of people. I don’t think I’ve described some wonderful, cool, hip, way of life. None of this is what you dreamed of as a child or while in college or grad school. Right?
Here is what is good about my idea: your job is your sponsor, your benefactor, your MacAruthur genius grant. Your fucking Kickstarter. Because you have a job, because you have a way to pay the rent and feed the children, you can write without the pressure of finding mainstream success. You don’t have to grub at the feet of agents and publishers. No need to try and figure out what is selling, what is marketable to those publishers and agents. Those freaking gatekeepers between you and the big money deals (if they even exist anymore beyond some kind of lotto fever dream anyway).
All that scrambling is gone. Done.
Your only job is to find your voice. Find your story. To find out the kind of shit you want to write, what you want to say without the pressure of also figuring out if it’s the kind of shit that makes money. And then write it.
As work gets produced that is from this voice, from the heart, from passion, from desire, from that original place that only you have—send it out. See where or if it fits. Could be what you want to write and can write best is exactly what people want to read by the thousands or millions. Could be agents like it and publishers love it and readers gobble it up. Or, it could be that your stuff is a perfect fit for small indie publishers of noir or bizzaro or experimental/literary or BDSM erotica.
It’s also possible that you won’t be able to find a home with a large or small publisher so you learn how to self-publish, and, with the right marketing and networking, you find some readers here or there. Maybe one or two or a dozen or a hundred.
Whatever the number, it’s possible to write something, get it out there and have a pretty good chance of it getting read and appreciated by someone, somewhere. Even actual strangers. And if it isn’t, if no one likes it ever? So what, you’ve still got your goddamned fucking job. So you’re good. And since you’re a writer, you’ll keep trying and maybe with the next book, you’ll connect with more people.
The other thing I like about my plan is that this writer-with-a-job person I am describing might have a better chance at having something to write about, something that other people with normal lives can relate to. You know what I mean? I’m not saying that a person who for whatever reason (trust fund, marrying-well, early success due to phenomenal talent and luck) goes straight from high school or college to writing full time without ever having to work and scrape to make a living can’t write, or has nothing to say. No. Some people are just talented and whatever experiences they’ve had up until their late teens through mid-20s when they bloom as writers is plenty to draw on. It’s very possible.
But, I like the idea of the low/middle/upper-middle-class worker writing books about their lives for people who live similar lives. Or, books with just the right kind of plots and characters and fantastic settings that serve to pull all of us out of our mundane existences in ways that only we might be able to understand. Written by people who aren’t doing it to make a living, but rather, to connect with as many readers as possible.
It’s a cool idea anyway.
I even have the feeling that if more writers worked this way, there’d be more books out there that actually had the power to startle a reader, to make him or her think, to see themselves or the world in a new way all of a sudden. Work that is less sentimental. And, okay, more dark. More sinister. More absurd and funny in a cutting insightful way. Writing with less need to only have ‘likable’ characters in stories where everything turns out okay in the end. (Yuck.) Less need for fiction that tells people lies about love and death and families and relationships and religion and god and the devil and their very selves. Less fiction that is agreeable and unchallenging to all the common shit we all want to believe but deep down don’t even realize is a big lie.
I know, I’m getting a little nuts here, but there’s a chance, right?
I guess it’s time to talk about myself and how I fit into all of this.
First, I’m a writer and I have a job. I like having a job and I like seeing the job as the thing that gives me the means to be a grown up person with a home to write in. And the freedom to not have to write just out of the desire to somehow make a living at it.
For the last three years, while working (with a few brief intermittent periods when I was underemployed but looking for work) I’ve written about 30 stories, two novellas, and a novel.
Most of the stories were published either online or in some kind of print anthology and for most of those stories I got some kind of feedback—several people read them and spoke with me about them in some way. When I collected the stories into a self-published ebook, it sold about 400 copies at 99 cents a copy. And, that ebook got a lot of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, some good, some bad. But, it definitely gave me a feeling of connecting to a number of readers.
My noir novella, What Happens in Reno was published as an ebook only by a start-up publisher that was trying to market genre novellas. They needed crime novellas for their marketing plan and they liked mine so they published it. This novella got some good reviews and some shitty reviews but a lot of people told me they really liked it (and a lot of people didn’t give a shit about it but so what). It is still selling on Amazon as far as I can tell and I think it’s maybe sold 200 copies though I’m not sure. I haven’t been paid and I only got one kind of confusing and I think inaccurate sales report last summer. But all that isn’t real important to me, what is important is that I wrote the book I wanted to write with no censoring whatsoever. The book is quite dirty and dark and things do not turn out well and no one is likable and there is even a guy who kind of rapes another guy by beating him up and then jerks him off as a way to show dominance. So, sure, a lot of people just think the whole thing is gross and depressing. Again, so what? That was the book I wanted to write and I got to write it and publish it and some people read it and had a positive reaction to it. Lou Boxer, one of the people behind NoirCon, called the book “The Best-Kept Secret in Noir.” I like that. That’s a good result. And, it’s out there.
My other novella The Scent of New Death, is not exactly noir, but it is a very a dark and violent crime story. There is some kinky sex, graphically described. Lots of violence. Child abuse. Mass murder. And a main character who not only practices zen meditation while robbing banks and killing folks, but who also has a vividly described satori/enlightenment moment. It’s an odd book, I think. And, again, it has been well-received by a lot of people and it has turned off a lot of people. It grossed out my father. But to me it was a beautiful experience. I loved writing it and I love looking at the paperback version. It was put out by Gutter Books, an indie crime publisher and I think it has sold somewhere between 100 and 200 copies. No big deal I know, but, still, a nice experience for me.
I also wrote Tussinland, a full-length novel that is still somewhat short. It’s another book that is a bit violent and graphic with a lot of detailed depictions of sex, but it is in a lot of ways much lighter and funnier than the other two books. It was published by All Due Respect Books, the indie press Chris Rhatigan and I started last summer (which is, like my writing, a part-time deal born out of a passion for pulp and noir and not a living in any way). Tussinland could almost be called a hit, I guess. Maybe not. But, it’s been out since October 8, 2014 and it consistently sold about 10 to 15 copies a day on Amazon the first couple of months, and since then it has kept selling between 5 and 10 a day. It has been on the Amazon/kindle/noir top 100 list since its release, usually varying between the top 30 to the top 60 day-to-day. So far, it’s never left the top 100. A lot of people seem to like it. It’s gotten a lot of Goodreads and Amazon reviews, mostly good or really good, and some horrible, which is okay because that shows it is getting read by a wider audience.
While that is satisfying to me, because my main intention is to get the work out there and connect to somebody at whatever level I can, on a mainstream level all these books would be considered dismal failures. Ten to 15 sales a day? Like, what is that? Well, to me, that’s 10 to 15 new readers every day. Ten to fifteen humans who want to read my freaking book. That’s just great. And, yes, since I have a job the fact that sales like that will never make me a living doesn’t matter. At all. I just don’t care.
Tussinland is crime fiction definitely. It’s about criminals doing crime. There are cops and there are robbers. But I really don’t think it fits squarely in the genre, in a way that it would sit comfortably with other crime/mystery books in the shelves at the airport, the supermarket, or Barnes & Noble. I really don’t think the big five would want it, and I don’t think an agent would take me on as a client after reading it. (I did send the first ten pages to one agent and she said she couldn’t connect to the characters. I also sent it to an indie publisher who didn’t care for it and after that I withdrew it from another agent and a couple of other publishers because Chris and I were starting the company and he said it was good.) The main character is not very heroic and is basically a loser and he’s victimized throughout the book, and there really isn’t any mystery because the real killers are revealed on the first page. But it’s the book I wanted to write and I like how it turned out and it expresses how I see the world in a certain way that was very satisfying to me artistically. So there.
When I write here about finding one’s voice and writing original and unique fiction, I’m not talking about just writing for yourself. I’m not talking about self indulgence. I’m just saying that if a writer has a job and a living then he doesn’t have to write to the market, to the publishers and to the agents. But I’m still talking about connecting, about communicating with readers, with other people as much and as well as possible. With my books and stories so far, I’m very consciously trying to make the books as easy as possible to read and follow. I’m writing stories about the world and the people and the situations I see, I’m writing about the feelings I’m feeling and what I think the people around me are feeling. I want to get to the point quickly, I want there to be a lot of cool, exciting stuff happening all the time, I want there to always be very high stakes for my characters, and I really want to surprise my readers as much as I can by showing them something, hopefully, they’ve never seen before in a book. I don’t know how well I succeed at all of that, but that is what I’m trying to accomplish.
I really wonder if we’ve come to a time where the idea of being a full-time novelist living solely off of royalties will stop being realistic. I don’t know. It could be something that was possible briefly, from about 1920 or so until maybe 1990ish. Before then, very few writers made a living from book sales. Right? There were writers/novelists in the 19th century who were popular and sold a lot of books but even a lot of them made their living in other ways or were rich somehow or had some kind of sponsor or something. At this point, clearly, it’s nearly impossible from to make a living from book sales (either print or ebook), though I know some people are doing it, especially certain self-publishers who’ve managed to creatively find readers that the mainstream publishers didn’t even know about.
I don’t think we are at a time though where people don’t want to write or read fiction that is original, unique, exciting, and fun to read. That isn’t padded and long-winded and perfectly written and edited to satisfy a big five publisher’s idea of the mass market. A lot of those books are boring, right? Not all of them of course. I love a lot of that shit, but I’m reading less and less mainstream crime (my favorite genre) and more and more of what is coming out of indie presses or from talented and stubborn self-publishers. Because, often, it just feels … new, you know?
As I think about all of this, I’m realizing how many of the books I’ve read in the past couple of years that I’ve just loved were written by people with full time jobs. Most of them, probably. I’m pretty sure nearly all of the people whose wonderful books we are publishing at All Due Respect Books have jobs. So, more proof that it can and is being done. All the time.
Recently a person who knew I had some books available online asked me an interesting question. Since I was sitting there at her dinning room table and my 2002 Hyundai Santa Fee with 120,000 miles was out front in her driveway and she knew I lived in Modesto and worked as a paralegal full time, it was clear I wasn’t a ‘successful writer.’ Clearly, I wasn’t making a living from my books.
She said, “So what is your dream? It must be to get big book deal and have a best seller, right?”
I told her that I didn’t have a dream. That I was already doing exactly what I wanted to do. And, man, it felt good to say that and to know it was the truth.