Mark Terry

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Thoughts On Writing For A Living

July 17, 2007

For all the years I wrote in the evenings and weekends and worked a "dayjob" I wished I could be a fulltime writer. It's the standard wish for all aspiring writers and even the legion of published writers who still work dayjobs. One of my fellow Inkspotters recently lamented along the same lines, saying, "Oh, if only I could do this fulltime so I could write all day."

I thought, from my perspective, I would throw out a few thoughts on the subject and I think they apply to freelancers, fulltime novelists (there aren't that many) and those of us who do both.

1. You don't write all day. Sorry. I doubt if very many fulltime novelists do either. I suspect they work several hours, then spend the rest of the time catching up on correspondence, reading, researching, marketing, and in general, wasting time. From my perspective, I can put in a good hour or less and get 5 decent pages of novel written. Even when I get odd breaks in my writing where I can say, "Okay, this week I'm just going to work on fiction," it's amazing if I get more than 2 to 4 hours of actual novel-writing word-on-screen writing done. I think that's typical. And as a freelancer I often go days without writing, although I'm often researching, setting up interviews, conducting interviews, transcribing interviews, editing, etc.

2. Give up your ideas of fame and fortune. Yep, there are some rich and famous writers out there. How many compared to rich and famous actors and rock musicians? Less. Much less. And in a world where your local TV weather bunny can be famous over a 6-county area for reading a TelePrompter (yeah, I know, some of them are even meteorologists), let me share my conclusion that more people in the Detroit area know who Shay Ryan or Jerry Hodak is than knows who Elmore Leonard is. And most of them wouldn't recognize Loren Estleman if they ran over him with their car. That isn't to say you might NOT get rich and famous, just that, like in most areas of endeavor, it's not likely to happen. But you might be able to make a living.
3. It's a job. Yeah. It is. And unlike many jobs where you essentially get paid for showing up, with writing you get paid for actually producing. You can spend 8 hours getting that page written or 1 hour, but you get paid the same no matter how much time you spend on it (unless you're doing a particular type of writing where you get paid hourly, but you still make your bids prior to the actual work). Treat it like one.
4. It's not always fun. I love writing for a living. I love the lifestyle even more. That said, not even the novel-writing is fun all the time. Here's a great example of why I say this. I'm working on a piece about a Demonstration Project that Medicare has to make happen as part of Medicare Reform (of 2003), to try and set up a competitive bidding situation among the clinical laboratory industry. This thing has been dragging on for four years and the only thing it's really succeeding at is organizing the clinical laboratory industry into agreeing on something, which is that this demonstration project is a nightmare waiting to happen. Yesterday, after finally putting together a draft of the bidding package, Medicare put on a 2-hour open forum that I listened to via teleconference. The first hour--I kid you not--was two wonks from a consulting firm droning word-for-word through a PowerPoint presentation that took me 10 minutes to read. The last half was Q&A (actually, it ran over by 35 minutes and could have gone on forever, because the 400 people listening weren't happy and wanted to make that clear to the CMS). But hey, it's a living, right?
5. It's a business. When you're at your desk it can be art. Once you send it out, you're a business. Once you send it out to be published, it ceases to be completely your own and other people have legitimate interest and investment in the product, both financial and emotional, and you need to be aware and prepared for that.
6. This is a job without tangible benefits. I think writing for a living has a significant number of "intangible" benefits like more or less flexible hours, no commute and the deep satisfaction of doing something you love. But, and this applies to freelancers and novelists alike. By the standards of so-called "real" jobs, this is a job that sucks when it comes to what real jobs would call benefits. Here are the things you DON'T have making a living as a freelancer or novelist: job security, a regular paycheck, paid time-off, paid vacations, year-end bonuses, health insurance, retirement plans/pension. The money can actually be pretty decent (well, maybe not for novelists, but that's a different topic), but from time to time even on my happiest moments I might think, "I've really got to put more money into my retirement fund."
And I want to make an example here about this "regular paycheck" thing. I'm making pretty decent money, 50% to 90% more than I was making when I worked at the hospital. This year I'm primarily working for 3 clients, one of which accounts for about 80% of my income. I'm paid in pretty large chunks. $20,000 or so all at once, with another $10,000 coming later, another $7500 coming later, etc. This requires a level of money management--because you have to pay taxes quarterly, even when your income is jumping around--that can be tough to get used to. We were thinking of going up north for a couple days this weekend and we're having our kitchen floor replaced next week. But when we needed to make the decisions about this, I was owed around $11,000 and it hadn't come yet. So we flat-out canceled the vacation days and warned the floor people we might have to postpone. The money came (half of it yesterday) in time to keep the floor deal in place, but we had to be flexible about the time off.
That, my friends, is the reality of writing for a living.
But I do love it.
Mark Terry


Blogger BMACK said...

But Mark, after I left the office last night I fought through traffic to get to Borders to buy YOUR new book. So score one for you.

11:07 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I was going to comment on the regular paycheck thing, but figured a fifteen-paragraph rant might be a little much for a comment.

I yearn for a regular paycheck like you wouldn't (or would, LOL) believe. That's not just a writing thing, but a self-employed thing. I yearn to not beg for my paycheck, for it to come when agreed, for it to come at all!

But in the end, I absolutely love that "with writing you get paid for actually producing." I love that. I don't mind working my ass off to produce. I don't care how long it takes compared to others, either (except I always wish I could go faster).

11:58 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Bmack--cool. Hope you enjoy it.

SS--well, I have my days, that's for sure. My wife is a brilliant money manager, so that helps. One thing I find is that if I get too stressed about WHEN the money is going to come, it makes it harder for me to write, so I push it all off on faith and keep plugging along. Plus, you figure out which clients are reliable and what their payroll schedules are like pretty quick.

12:12 PM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

When I have some big projects going, which take a long time to complete, I can go six months between paychecks. If, like many people, someone is in the habit of spending whatever they have as soon as they get it ...well, forget about self-employment.

I think I'd benefit from full-time writing of fiction since I've never managed to be able to make the mental adjustment to work all day on a legal article and then spend an hour or two on a novel. The way I work, generally, is to spend a day writing a scene. If it is short or goes easily I might spend a few hours, but more often it means writing the scene *all* day. Once I've been writing for a few hours I begin to think of things that hadn't occurred to me before I started, usually the most interesting bits. Just writing an hour that rarely happens.

1:24 PM  
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