Monday, November 11, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part IV (Managing the Day Job)

Today, in Part IV of our series about how to be a writer, we're going to discuss one of the most hated aspects of being a creative of any type: The day job. I know, we've all been fed the image of the professional writer who flies off to make movies of his work and has a huge mansion and a private plane and gobs of money that would make Scrooge McDuck envious, but that's not how it actually works for the vast majority of us.

Of the thousands of writers in the world today, according to many sources, only about 300 of them can actually make a living at it. Think about that for a moment. Judging by the numbers of attendees at writers conventions that I go to, that's like one out of every thousand or so. Or more. So what chance to do you have? Same as anyone else, I imagine. And, while it's noble to say "I will be the exception!" and go whole-hog into it without a net, most folks have to do things like pay rent (and the electricity bill for your laptop from part one of this series) and like to do silly things like eat. So what does that mean? You need the dreaded day job.

I've been fortunate my entire working life in that I've worked (with very minor breaks) in university settings. Currently, I work for Texas State University and Seton Hill University. Why? Because they give the predictability of a steady schedule, health insurance, paid vacation, a retirement plan, etc. But working for a university is just not an option for some folks (trust me, I know how lucky I am). So how do you navigate both careers at the same time? The key, of course, is planning.

If you work hourly, let's say retail, without a fixed schedule, you need to make sure you take time for your writing career. It may not be every day, but you need to make it a priority in your life. For example, let's say you work the morning shift (8am - 5pm) M-W-F. That means that on M-W-F, you need to carve out a block of time when you get home to do your writing. T-TH, you have all day. Does that mean you can just write whenever? Theoretically, yes, but I find it better when I have a set schedule. That's me, though. What if you work mornings one day, evenings the next? Besides trying to find a new job, the same thing applies. You need to carve out a time when you can work. Wake up early to get it done. I don't recommend staying up until all hours because that becomes a vicious cycle of self-abuse. Since I work from 7:30am to 4:30pm every weekday, my writing schedule is easy. I get home at around 5 or 5:15pm every day, and I decompress for about thirty minutes (pet my dogs, sit on my porch), then I eat dinner. After dinner, I go into my office and bang away until I get 1000 words written (more on that in a future blog).  On weekends, I actually still do work, but I also take time out to be with friends and family, pet my dogs and ride my motorcycle.

The point is, I know it seems impossible, but it isn't. With planning, you can accomplish juggling the two careers. It's difficult, and it sucks, but only until you get used to it as your "new normal." Once you figure out the whole scheduling thing, it becomes a question of discipline and drive. Think of it like this: If you want to lose weight, there's a very simple calculus for doing so - Eat right and exercise. Every now and again, you have a "cheat day" where you can eat carbs or pizza or whatever, but then you have to have the drive to get back in the gym and hit it hard. Writing is the same way. You want to write that novel? You have to put in the time. You have to set a routine. It's okay to take a day off every now and again, but once that day off is done, get back into your writing gym and hit it hard.

A few other tips:

  • Do not write at work on work-owned equipment - Check your contract, if you have one. Chances are, anything written on company-owned equipment becomes owned by the company, and that includes your novel.  Dropbox is a great thing, but if you put it on your work computer to access your work, then guess what. Everything in your dropbox could be argued to become company property as well. Want to take the guesswork out? Just don't do it 
  • Do keep a notebook at work - You don't need to write the whole plot line, but keep a notebook and a pen handy and make notes when you get ideas. I keep a pocket-sized composition book in my pocket when I'm at work, and it's full of random little notes that wind up in my books later. 
  • Read on breaks - Part of being a writer is reading. It's a thing that we all do, and it's a way to continually stay sharp in our genre and take ideas from other genres. On your lunch break, have a seat, eat your lunch, and read a chapter in a book. It's good for a brain break. 
  • Post your schedule - I don't just mean your work schedule, but also your work schedule. Put it on your refrigerator. 8am - 5pm, work. 7pm - 9pm, writing. Post it so you and everyone else you live with can see it. 
  • Don't talk about the book you're writing to just everyone at work - Sure, if you have a friend at work, that's great. But people don't want to hear about what book you're writing. Especially ad-nausium if you're just now writing it. From experience, depending on where you work, mentioning that you're a hopeful writer will get you a combination of snide comments, pithy nicknames, and outright jeers. 
  • Do tell folks when it gets picked up - Folks love to pick up books by people they know. Just be ready to educate people on what it's really like to be a writer (i.e. my first book got picked up and, no, I'm not a bazillionaire yet).
  • Join a writers organization - Seriously, whatever genre you write in, there's an org for it. Horror? Join the HWA. Romance, RWA. Sci-Fi/Fantasy? Join SFWA. Why? Because these organizations are there to help their members succeed. Some even offer health insurance discounts. No kidding. 
Being a writer with a day-job (full or part time) is manageable. It's a pain, but manageable. The hardest part is to never let your day-job-self crush the ambition of the writer-self. With discipline, determination, and planning, you can do this.

And one more thing... This image made me think of this entry.

Next time, we talk about making routines and setting goals.

Until then, write on!


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