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Get a Real Job

It’s an interesting paradox. As a writer with four novels in print, one of the most common questions I get is “When are you going to quit your day job?” On the other hand, take a writer who has done just that and runs into financial trouble. One of the first questions they hear is “Why don’t you just get a real job?

Writing “professionally” is a real job.  It’s more work than any day job I’ve had.  There’s the actual writing, the rewriting, the communication with editors, agents, and fans, the paperwork (contracts, taxes, etc.), and that’s before you decide to go to that convention or booksigning, or try to do some publicity for your work.

The real question is “Why don’t you get a safe job?”  One that would provide you with stable income, health insurance, and everything else you needed to avoid this mess.

Of course, “safe” jobs aren’t all that safe, especially these days.  I work for state government, one of the most stable employers around.  My first unpaid layoff day is Friday.  Right now, we’ve only got six of them, but next year’s budget is ugly, so we’ll see.

There’s also the assumption that anyone can find a job if they try.  Having watched motivated, intelligent, educated people try for years to find full-time employment, I can’t completely agree with this one either.  Moving to where the jobs are isn’t always the answer either.  I watched a friend in college move 2000 miles to find the job he had been promised was now gone, leaving him stranded.

It feels like victim blaming.  “It’s your own fault you’re struggling financially.”  If your problems are your fault, I can feel better about my life, because I would never make the bad choices you did.  Yay, I’m safe!  As a bonus, I don’t have to feel guilty for snubbing you.

Some people do make mistakes and bad choices.  Others make all the “right” choices, and things fall apart anyway.  Much as we’d like to believe we can predict and control everything, life doesn’t work that way.  It used to be that auto factory jobs were some of the best out there.  Great pay, great benefits, with multiple generations working in the plants. Living in Michigan, I can tell you these safe jobs are now disappearing all over the place.

I’ve yet to meet a writer who quit their day job on a whim.  I’m not talking about people who sell one story and rush off to tell their boss they quit.  These are people who have spent years developing their skill and thinking things through. They ask other writers for advice, and they ask themselves questions like:

  • Do I have a partner with a stable income?
  • Do I have preexisting health conditions?  Can I get coverage for myself if necessary?
  • How stable is my writing income, and have I made a budget?  (Remember that your $10,000 advance will be divided into several payments, spread out over a year or more, reduced by 15% for the agent commission, and taxed.)
  • Am I disciplined enough to go full-time?
  • Do I have other outlets to get me out of the house so I don’t go crazy?
  • Is my writing important enough to be worth the risk?

It occurred to me that these are the same sort of questions a couple might ask when trying to decide whether one parent can stay home full-time with a new child.  Another thing people tend to think of as not being a real job.  (Having taken several weeks to play single Dad while my wife recovered from knee surgery, stay-at-home parent is harder and more draining than either of my jobs.)

I’m currently working both the “safe” job and the writing career.  That’s the choice I make to provide for myself and my family, based on my situation (diabetic, young kids, writing income which is decent but not yet stable).  It’s the choice that’s right for me.  I look at my peers who have ditched the day job, and I envy them for what looks to me like a luxury, one I might never be able to afford. But does this  gives me the right to look pass judgement on their choice when they have trouble?

The Internet makes us more aware of writers hitting bad spots.  We hear about health bills wiping out this writer, a laid-off spouse making that writer the sole income source, and so on.  But as we’re blaming these people for their ill fortune, what about those writers who made the same choice and won?  I remember reading about Piers Anthony deciding to go full-time, talking over the risks and deciding to go for it.  Whatever you think of the man’s work, he’s a highly successful writer.  The risky choice appears to have been the right one in his case.

Maybe I’m the one who made the wrong choice.  Maybe I should have moved to Canada and started the citizenship process so I could get my health benefits and write full time.  Maybe had I done that, I’d have a much more prolific and satisfying writing career ahead of me. But if you come along and second-guess my choice, trying to tell me what I should have done, I’m likely to sic a goblin on you.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 113 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jun. 17th, 2009 03:05 pm (UTC)
*applauds wildly*!
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:14 pm (UTC)

I wrote fulltime and worked fulltime for about 15 years. I'm now writing fulltime and working 2/3 time. Had I quit the day job and just focused on writing, perhaps I would have had time to write more satisfying books. But we do as we must. I had 2 children to support on my own, and the struggle for health coverage was always difficult. It's been a very hard road.

You're doing REALLY well juggling so much.

If you can obtain health care through a job, it's an important criterion. And no matter how many books you've written, the publishing industry is so awful that you really can't count on longterm sustained income ('m snickering just to write the phrase "longterm sustained income" HA!)

Jun. 17th, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC)
Thanks. Yeah, health care is huge, especially when 3/4 of my family have chronic health issues going on. Pbbt!

Ironically, I'm watching several of my friends struggling with dips in their careers, where orders and advances have dropped through no fault of the authors. A lot of it is the economy, but it's also the nature of writing -- there are good years, and there are not-so-good years.

I do think you can make a living at it in the long run, but it's danged hard, and in most cases seems to require some branching out. (Fiction + paid blogging + nonfiction work + whatever else you can find.)
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:14 pm (UTC)
Exactly that, yes.
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:18 pm (UTC)
Have I mentioned lately that I love you? By which I mean, your thoughtful intelligent spot on reasoning. Yet another excellent post. It makes me want to work harder. I'm at 67k and growing.
Jun. 17th, 2009 07:34 pm (UTC)
::Grin:: Glad to hear it, and good luck on the book! (I'm getting ready for rewrite #3, which means my word count is currently ... 0. Bleah.)
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:21 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this level-headed post. Great advice and well-put.
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:23 pm (UTC)
Applauding with aplomb....

an author who's looking for work and writing
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:24 pm (UTC)
You're so right that there's no safe job. You try to make the wisest decisions you can, taking into consideration not only pragmatic concerns but also spiritual ones and emotional ones, too--e.g., maybe a job at a company 2,000 miles away makes sense financially, but not emotionally if it means leaving behind your sick parents, or a supportive school environment for your kids. Or other times, maybe you do make just that decision in spite of the sick parents and the supportive school environment--but there are lots of factors you try to take into account.

But you can't plan for everything. So you just try to take each situation as it comes, and find help where you can find it, and offer help when you can offer it.

I don't see people being judgmental about other people's choices--not online, at least. Do you? Maybe I'm lucky--I only see cases of people rallying around others and trying to help them. (Maybe they snark in private?)
Jun. 17th, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC)
"I don't see people being judgmental about other people's choices--not online, at least. Do you? Maybe I'm lucky--I only see cases of people rallying around others and trying to help them. (Maybe they snark in private?)"

*Most* of what I've seen has been very supportive. The explosion of support for Cat Valente was mind-blowing. But I've also seen some of the "Get a real job!" response too. From reading Cat's follow-up, I get the sense some of that is e-mailed in private as well.

I'm sure a lot of it is done with the best of intentions. Not trying to snark at the writer; just trying to offer advice which wasn't actually asked for. Unfortunately, I don't know that it's useful or helpful advice, and I can't imagine anyone saying, "What? Get a real job? Now why didn't I ever think of that?"
(no subject) - asakiyume - Jun. 17th, 2009 07:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - green_knight - Jun. 17th, 2009 11:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:30 pm (UTC)
I've met writers who view "safe jobs" as beneath them because they are "artists." Nothing is a bigger slap in the face. I feel like I should remind them that the money I use to buy their books or donate to help them are because I work a "safe job."
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:47 pm (UTC)
That's not an attitude I've run into, nor is it one I can wrap my brain around. I know people who have chosen not to go the safe(r) route, but it hasn't been because the jobs are beneath them. Could just be I haven't met the write authors.

Presented with that attitude, I'd feel pretty insulted myself.
(no subject) - mroctober - Jun. 17th, 2009 03:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - leahbobet - Jun. 17th, 2009 08:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pickledherring - Jun. 17th, 2009 03:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - coppervale - Jun. 17th, 2009 07:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:34 pm (UTC)
Well said. I'd add more but I'm posting this via phone...
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:49 pm (UTC)
::Tries desperately to avoid smart-ass remarks about authors phoning it in::
(no subject) - suricattus - Jun. 17th, 2009 04:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tsubaki_ny - Jun. 17th, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jun. 17th, 2009 05:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC)
Great post, Jim. (And I trust you saw mine over on Cat's blog. Can't believe the nerve of some people...)
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:51 pm (UTC)
I think many people are offering the advice for her to take a safe job out of compassion. That was my motivation.
(no subject) - ex_rolanni - Jun. 17th, 2009 04:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jun. 17th, 2009 04:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - georgmi - Jun. 17th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jun. 17th, 2009 05:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 17th, 2009 05:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 17th, 2009 07:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC)
Very well said!

I think a lot of people that ask questions like these have a misguided idea of how much a typical author makes per book and how the publishing industry works with royalties and such. They hear about the Stephen Kings and J. K. Rowlings of the world and assume writers are raking it in.

Jun. 17th, 2009 03:48 pm (UTC)
Yep. Aren't all writers rich and famous, living in their own castles and doing book tours in New York, London, and Paris?
(no subject) - coppervale - Jun. 17th, 2009 07:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 17th, 2009 04:56 pm (UTC)
Few guarantees, but I don't have to worry about whether a client folds or cuts back. I have many friends that are freelancers and I hear their tales of woe. Many say they envy the steady paycheck my day job affords.
(no subject) - kyrielle - Jun. 18th, 2009 01:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 17th, 2009 04:11 pm (UTC)
People who think the world is one-size-fits-all really haven't been paying attention.

Aside from all practical considerations, what if a writer likes their day job? Some people do!

Some people are comfortable with being full-time freelancers. The uncertainty of cashflow and health coverage is awful, but these are, among my friends at least, people who hate having a boss or sitting in a box all day.

Other people (me, for instance) really like the dependable paycheck and doctor visits, and don't mind having a boss or sitting in a box all day.

Lawrence Block had some interesting comments on this subject. His first observation was that he had always been a writer. He started young (in college) and so was able to live on the pittance at the outset. Most writers never achieve his success, but they are able to be full-time writers because they simply kept the lower standard of living they started out at.

He has recommended that people who really want to be full-time writers should never take a job above subsistence level. That will keep the writer motivated to produce and push and sell.

I would have to be offered an amazing contract in order to be able to give up my day job and yet maintain myself in the style to which I have become accustomed. And I'm not going to feel at all bad about that choice. Maybe I'm just not as motivated as other writers (true dat!), but there are plenty of people's books on my bookshelves who have full time jobs and still get contracts and produce one book per year. I would be perfectly content with that setup.
Jun. 17th, 2009 04:22 pm (UTC)
I should clarify, since I was really only responding to one tiny part of your post, Jim.

These are the choices I have made. I admire my friends who are full-time freelancers without the spousal safety net (which, as you point out, isn't a fully dependable net). Those folks have iron nerve, and far more self-motivation and drive than I. Not a one of them is lazy, or living in a fantasyland. (Well, no more fantasyland than the rest of us.)

I suspect were I to lose my job, I would run straight to the nearest fast-food joint and beg for work, just to have something dependable. Others might view this as being responsible. I view it as being chicken, but I'm comfortable with being chicken in this particular fashion.
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 17th, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - mroctober - Jun. 17th, 2009 04:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 17th, 2009 04:16 pm (UTC)
All self-employment is rough, but creative self-employment seems to get it in the chops from people who don't understand it's a real job. Lip service they may give, but unless they do it, they don't really "get" it.

The final nail in the coffin of creative self-employment is that you're usually working from home, which makes you seem to have more time and flexibility than someone working in an office. But really, what you have is just extra chores.

Doesn't matter how much you get paid for it or what the job is, self-employment is one of the hardest, poorest-paid working states there is. No one's got your back, there is no overtime, the benes are strange at best but don't include health insurance, and when worse comes to worst, most people think you're just goofing off.

*looks at writing* I need more coffee...
Jun. 17th, 2009 07:49 pm (UTC)
I'm actually hoping to slip away to my parents' house on my layoff day Friday, because I know I won't get much done if I stay home. My wife is great, but the kids -- particularly the 4-year-old -- don't understand yet. Not that you can really expect it from a 4-year-old.

It would be nice if more grown-ups got it, though.

And of course, self-employment tax seems to be higher than if you've got one of them "real" jobs...
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jun. 17th, 2009 08:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - katatomic - Jun. 18th, 2009 05:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - green_knight - Jun. 17th, 2009 08:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 17th, 2009 04:21 pm (UTC)
That's really no one's business. That's between you and your family.
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Jim C. Hines


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