Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Wednesday is all-about-writing day, no 3: "don’t give up the day job"

Yes folks, this is the grim one. If you’re an aspiring writer and you’ve been reading articles and information around the Internet, you are likely to have seen the phrase: “don’t give up the day job.” I used to hate it, every time I saw it, it made me pout. Talk about a rude awakening. How dare they shatter my dream? Well, here I am, repeating those nasty old words. Reason is because I think you have to be practical, know the realities of making writing a career, and plan for it.

When I first heard the phrase I figured it meant don’t assume that you will ever get published and earn money at this job. Boo hiss. Well, yes. That is the first level of meaning. When I sold a few short stories and felt positive about my longer story writing, I thought about it again. I was still getting rejections, as well as acceptances -- I still do, luckily there are more acceptances now. I realised the second level of meaning: just because I had sold one thing didn’t mean I had cracked it. I might never sell again, I might not be able to pull off a whole novella or novel. I had to find editors who liked my work; I had to watch out for when they put calls out. In other words, I didn’t know when the next payment, however small, was coming.

You might be lucky and get a three-book NY deal right away, but that still doesn’t mean cash in hand. Level three of the meaning is the real clincher, something I never even considered. You might have heard other authors saying you’ll have to live on your advance for a long time. Let’s break that down a bit more. You sell a book to a big publisher. Hooray! Thing is, you don’t get the advance right away, and when you do get it might be split up into chunks, one on signing the contract, one for delivery of edited version, and one on publication. Publishing schedules run a year to three years ahead in many cases. You might not even see the third part of your advance for a couple of years down the line, let alone anything else. For my own part, I work on the basis that the advance is all I have. Royalties are an unknown quantity, but in an ideal world we hope we sell truckloads and get a bit extra as well as the advance. From what I’ve heard, it can be another year before you see any of those royalties, after publication of your book. So, if we go back to the day when you were signed, this is potentially three years later.

There are ways around it, of course. Small presses tend to turn things around quicker. If you get published with an e-publisher things move much faster and e- publishers pay regularly, so you've got a baseline monthly wage coming in there, and the more books you publish, the more significant that is. Your overall aim is to get more contracts all the time, so that while you’re at the various stages of collecting bits of money on sale No 1, you start to get bits of money on sale No 2, and so on.

Hunt down every publishing opportunity, make your writing work for you, and create a snowball effect with your earnings. It’s a bloody hard job, but I am proof it can be done, if you work at it. My lovely man’s faith in me was crucial. When the time was right, I whittled my day job hours down to gain more writing time, but we’ve taken some big sacrifices to make it happen. We used to go on three holidays a year. We haven’t been on a proper holiday for over two years. That’s just one example of how we changed our lifestyle. It has been worth it, but there were absolutely no guarantees I could pull it off when we started out... Scary! Over on my tips for aspiring writers page, I say that if you enjoy the basic act of creative writing you will always have that to carry you through the hard times. You have to love writing, first and foremost. It always comes back to the writing. Be realistic, it's a slow business, that’s the bottom line, folks. Next week I’m going to talk about being a writer-hermit, and keeping the balance in your life.


Celia Kyle said...

Awesome post Saskia! It really brings reality to the forefront and definitely something to think about as an aspiring writer.


Heather Waters said...

Excellent advice, Sasha. If you read my comment on the Berkley loop recently, you'll have seen how long the process has been for me. If I had been counting on getting paid once I'd lived up to my end of the contract, I'd be living on the streets right now.

The truth is, we have no control over the money (Unless your name starts with N and ends with A). We can be on time or early with everything we do, but our pay remains in the hands of our editors and their schedules/tastes/priorities. This does not make for job security.

Saskia Walker said...

Thanks, Celia! It's so important not to be dazzled by the success stories we see in the news, but also to know it *is* possible to make this thing we love work for us. It just takes time, and determination.

Heather, I was thinking of you as I was writing the bit about scheduling! I was lucky because HEAT was just launching, so things moved quicker for the authors who were taken on there.

Alison Tyler said...

Hi Saskia,

You have such a great way of "telling it like it is." :)

Also, thank you for your post on my post... I'm glad you liked Sticky Fingers!!


Saskia Walker said...

Thanks, Alison! I try to find a poistive slant, no matter how small ;-) It frustrated me as an aspiring writer that I didn't really understand how all these things worked, so I figured it might be useful to chat about it.

Sticky Fingers was a great read. The plot was wound so tight I pinged when it all fell into place. ;-) Not to mention DAMN HOT.