This week, I was doing the goal-setting thing everyone should from time to time. One of the things that came out of that was where do I plan on going with my writing. Do I want to do it full-time, given the opportunity? Or is it, in fact, something I’d rather keep part-time?
To give context, as well as writing I run my own consultancy. I manage my own hours, I set my own targets and I’m able to blend writing with my work needs very well. It also, crucially, provides something writing doesn’t – security. Coupled with that, I enjoy it and have a number of close colleagues.
Writing is incredibly time-consuming. Not just the writing, but the promotion, the networking, the producing enough words on a screen to maintain visibility. It’s hard to maintain on a part-time basis, especially once you have books out in the wild.
Which got me to thinking about what other writers aspired to. Being all scientific, I put the question out on facebook, on my own timeline and in a couple of groups where writers I know congregate, and I got 53 responses* back (thanks to all!)
*I have had a few more since, but percentages hurt my head so I didn’t redo the figures.
The break-down went like this:
Currently full-time writers – 10%
Would like to be full-time writers – 66%
Part-time writers and happy to remain so – 20%
Undecided – 4%
Which was pretty clear – over three-quarters of the writers who responded either were, or wished to be, full-time writers. But the richness came in the responses, which allowed me to extrapolate some themes. (If anyone is interested, the main survey was carried out on my facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008251124985 – and marked to public.)
15% of the aspiring full-time writers felt it was a pipe-dream. As Thomas Watson put it, he was resigned to the “inescapable necessity of having a fallback.”
Of the full-time writers (5 in total) some were at the point where retirement from work was a possibility or, indeed, a necessity.
“I got my wish when I found that I was unemployable. Like they say, one door closes another hits you in the face.” – P J Strebor (and given how his first book has flown off the kindle shelves, the opportunity has paid off, big time.)
The inverse-Maslow (copyright James Worrad and Jo Zebedee – aka our ticket out of here) was popular.
Maslow describes a pyramid of hierarchical needs which must be filled before we can reach the peak of self-actualisation. What came from some of the responses was that writing filled the self-actualisation component (and some of the belonging needs) whilst jobs were being used to fill the lower tiers, paying mortgages and buying food.)
As James put it: “My plan, such as it is, is to slowly pour the writing down from self-actualisation into the lower tiers.”
Those who wanted to be full-time writers had differing insights into why they aspired to that.
Some were around what the writing meant to them and how much the process brought them:
“I love that I don’t have to leave my home and can spend hours in my head” Michael R Fletcher
“I want people to think and feel” Larry Heydorn
Some expressed the need for writing that was rather more worrying:
“Full time. Cause if I have to do anything related to my day job forever, well, I’m going to have to find a way to sell my soul to some dark spirit for powers so I can take over the world.” -Wade Garret
(I think everyone reading this should buy Wade’s books immediately. In fact, buy ten. The world is at stake…)
Others had taken the gamble and tried going full-time but found it didn’t suit them as they’d expected, or hadn’t been possible:
Igor Goldkind summed up the level of risk involved in taking the gamble of going full-time:
“I would like to write full time and spent around 18 months last year both writing and producing and then another 6 months promoting my published work. The residuals from the sales were supposed to keep me writing on a modest stipend. But unfortunately, in spite of positive responses, lots of interest and great reviews nobody bought it; or by the time they did the sales price was so diluted by the booksellers, it was merely a whisper. In hindsight, it needed better marketing from the publisher and money spent placing it somewhere people would actually see it. Internet sales bring as many headaches as it solves, especially if you want to make a living. Everyone considers themselves an author now because of the relative cheapness of self-publishing and print on demand. Not to mention ePublishing which is so cheap and unprofitable, people give their ebooks away for free. What that generates is allot of noise through which to get a signal. So I will continue to write so as to have a reason for living and doing the kind of petty crime that passes for work these days in order to eat while I’m living.”
This was reflected from others – that making a living from writing is so hard alternate work is returned to.
“I see my future in blocks of paid employment and blocks of writing” – Angeline King. (This model appeals to me as it is a possibly good mix with consultancy income.)
But there were other reasons for finding the full-time life didn’t suit:
“I became a virtual hermit – going back to a day job provides a much-needed balance” – Lisa Hall
I think, to be honest, that is a real concern and one that was picked up by some of the writers who are currently part time:
“Writing can be lonely and anti-social. I prefer having the split with a day job where you’re interacting with other people.” – Mark Lynch
“Maybe I could do writing 4 days a week, then 1 day a week go into the office just because, you know, having human interaction on occasion is probably healthy” (Em Tett)
24% didn’t aspire to full-time writing, which is a pretty significant number.
As well as the concerns around the possible isolation, Martin Owton had an interesting, and pragmatic, reason for wishing to remain part-time (one that appears borne out by the amount of time I fart around instead of writing when I do have a whole day to get on with it):
“My experience is that given loads of writing time I produce no more than when I grab an hour in the evening.”
Alexander Wallis also commented that: “without other experiences my writing would suffer too. It needs ‘real life’ to feed it.”
I think this is important – inspiration so often strikes when I’m out and about, more so than in the house waiting for the muse to saunter up the driveway.
Hobbyists often had a range of passions, with writing being only one of them
Those who cited writing full time had a clear passion for it. But some of the respondents had more than one passion, or others that they wished to spend the time on.
Mark Yon put it simply that “if I wrote, I wouldn’t have time to read.”
Susan Boulton put forward the argument that “to become a full-time writer is like any other dream, you have at some point need to find courage to be selfish”
This is something I can very much relate to. If I had devoted my writing time to working my family would have been in a better place economically. If I’d devoted it to my kids, they’d have had a hands-on stay-at-home mother (rather than the one currently typing this at the kitchen table while they scavenge for food). But there is, perhaps, something intrinsically important about being selfish and pursuing a dream – and I like to think I have given an example to my hunter-gatherer kids that it’s okay to pursue their dream.
For some, it’s not just about work, but other responsibilities
Several of the respondents had their decision taken for them – with caring responsibilities they had no option to go full-time, even if they wanted to.
“Yes, full-time writing is the dream. However, the reality is that I am an almost-full-time carer, and that means my writing time is divided into tiny chunks” – Kerry Buchanan
“I have a load of home care to do and a home-educated child, which leaves me with sporadic bits of time if I’m lucky. However, if my brain is in the right gear, I do like to write, and I think I would finish a big project with a good run up, and decent immersion without distractions” – John Valentine
For them, it seemed to be about snatching the moments to write – but I wonder, as well, if writing is a form of escapism? (Answers on a postcard below, oh carers…)
A life plan
So many of the respondents had a plan to increase writing in their life, related in many ways to the inverse Maslow.
Carol van Natta’s was beautiful in its simplicity and daring:
“My 5 year plan is to be a full-time indie author. I like the indie author business, because I like charting my own destiny (my risks, my rewards).”
Steven Poore was another with a plan, hoping to be able to drop work, perhaps by a shift a week, to find additional writing time – and this was reflected throughout the survey, that people wanted to find a way to write.
Being realistic. This was another theme. Richard Romero summed it up well:
“Recommend developing your skills and amassing a strong stable of tales while focusing on making a living and building up your retirement funding. Then, when you have the means to support yourself, rededicate yourself to writing and authorship. If, in the interim, you are fortunate enough to become successful as a published author, evaluate whether you should ensure your future (one successful book may not be enough by itself) or take the leap.”
Some of the authors who responded are writers who are writing, are published, but still not full time.
Emma Maree Uruqhat expressed some of the reasoning behind that very well:
“I’d like to be able to do it part-time: writing income, with all its uncertainties, bolstered by a stable day job income.”
Based with that amount of information (and a lot more that I couldn’t include or it would have been the longest-blog-post-ever) were there any conclusions to be drawn? Outside of the fact that full-time writing is the aspiration of most writers?
I think, firstly, it shows how tough it is to make a living as a writer. The writers know this, of course, and the annual report on author’s income (http://www.thebookseller.com/news/typical-author-earnings-dropped-11000-2013) presents a more and more difficult picture each year. But when faced with trying to carry out a complex, time-consuming and mentally exhausting process, and continuing with a job to pay the bills, I wonder how many give up and how much the reading world is missing out on. (Gives a gentle pause to salute those who have fallen.) All those lost books….
It also shows the resilience of writers. They are finding ways to write. They’re taking part-time jobs to allow some writing time, they’re making life-sacrifices, to do what they love. That raised me up as much as the last point brought me down.
My main conclusion, though, is that there is no single model. What works for one person, doesn’t for another. For some people full-time writing is what works, for another it would be too constraining. For me, for the foreseeable future, the part-time model will continue to be the most viable. What I do hope is that those who find their way through the years of striving, make it, and that the value of creatives – not just the writers, but those in the various fields* – is recognised and more viable models open up.
*I had responses from podcasters, from audio narrators, from publishers. All faced the same hurdles.
I’ll just send out a big, big thanks to those who responded. I didn’t expect anywhere near the responses I did but I think this has been really useful in terms of capturing the reality for writers today. And I’m very glad that my reality is shared by so many – the road isn’t easy, I find, but in supporting each other we seem to get to the end a little quicker.
Jo Zebedee writes science fiction and fantasy, both on the streets of her native Northern Ireland and in her Space Opera world of Abendau. Author of three books to date – with several more in the pipeline – and numerous short stories, more about her can be found onwww.jozebedee.com. She can also be followed on twitter under @joz1812.
When not writing, she works as a consultant, wrangles not-that-tiny-children and pets. Mostly, she’ll do anything to avoid housework.