So… as I said recently, the Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the world get advances in the tens of millions of dollars, and their publishers don’t make their money back on the deal. But they have a star to hang in their firmament.
And the mid-listers – the ones you see on the bestseller lists and don’t recognize, or the ones you don’t see, but who have enough of a following to hit sell-through on their novels – they are the publishers’ bread and butter.
But for everyone who is making it as a writer of novels, there are thousands like you and me at the bottom of the pyramid, still writing, still striving. Why do we do it? Some of us are still reaching for the brass ring, some because we can’t help ourselves. And for some of us… both.
What of our bread and butter?
For those of us who haven’t made it yet, we have two choices. We can either spend our time writing under the largesse of some kind of money stockpile – something we’ve saved, a government grant we managed to cadge, a working spouse, or a little nest egg from a rich relative.
Those of us who can do one of these things are the lucky ones (although not quite as lucky as the ones who can live off of their novel earnings). I know a writer who tried to make it while living on an inherited nest egg. Unfortunately, his growth as a writer didn’t move fast enough and the money didn’t hold out. In spite of a couple of journeyman novels published by a small press, he ended up having to resort to other means, – although later he was picked up by a major publisher, but he didn’t hit the midlist heights.
I got to do the thing with the working spouse for a time, and I blessed her every day for it. I didn’t hit the midlist during that time, either, although according to my agent, I was “a solid midlist author” – but that may have been typical agent hyperbole. Anyway, my wife’s gestational capability kicked in, and I voluntarily said I would resort to other means.
And those other means? A day job, of course.
It’s a time-honored thing. Somehow we think less of those folks who wrote brilliantly from high school on and wrote their breakout novel in college. Or the pampered wife of the moneyed husband, who turned to writing to ease the boredom of her soul, and mirabile dictu! She turned out a bestseller!
No, the stories we like are Stephen King, finishing Carrie in the closet of a mobile home after his wife fished the manuscript out of the garbage. John Grisham, tied to a soul-crushing law firm, writing A Time To Kill on legal pads in stolen moments. J.K. Rowling, taking her last few pounds and pence to buy time at a coffee shop where, for the price of a tea, had a table available to scribble out the adventures of a boy wizard.
When I started shooting for a day job, I aimed at advertising. Why? Because first, it was something interesting to me. Second, I always planned to make my living as a writer, and this seemed a good place to start – even if my plans were to make my living writing novels. Third, I had done a lot of research on advertising in high school, and I saw a lot of interviews with copywriters who said they had basically taken that job so they could make a living until their novel was done.
Those poor, poor fools. And what about me, the poor lad they led astray?
One day when I was working on the college paper, the editor and I were talking about our futures. The editor, a wise sage and good friend, made the suggestion that I should get a day job that did not involve any writing or creativity at all. His theory was that, after a day of being creative on demand, I would be drained and too emptied out to work on a novel. I thought that was a great theory, although I didn’t particularly relish the thought of being a plumber.
That might be the case for others – certainly, it’s something you want to think about – but it never did seem to effect me that way. It’s like there was a two-way switch in the Writing Box in my brain, and it allowed me to easily toggle from DAY JOB to MY NOVEL. And, during the time I worked at The Place Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken, I found a third setting – MY NOVEL (OVERDRIVE) – because I was determined to write my way out of that place.1 Maybe you’re that way, too. There’s only one way to find out.
I have actually had more interference from everyday life than the stringent requirements of a job. My writing life looks more like Mr. Holland’s Opus than any of the other movies I’ve seen about writers. And I’ve always defaulted to family in matters of time, because it just wouldn’t be worth becoming a Fabulous, Bestselling Author (TM) if my mother, my wife, and my kids all ended up writing books about what a creep I was in real life.
So if you have to have a day job to support your writing jones, take heart. For one, look at it as a rich source of material. When I worked at a Sheriff’s Office, I was occasionally asked by Deputies when I would write my Big Novel about life in Law Enforcement. “Never,” I would joke. “When I leave here to become a bestselling author, I am going to forget all of you.” Of course, the first novel I wrote after I left was The Mushroom Shift.
There’s one other benefit, too. Haven’t you ever looked at the author’s biography and seen stuff like, Dirk Manly has been a salmon fisherman, a Disney tour guide, a Manhattan taxi driver, a hotel detective, and sailed around the world on a tramp steamer. This is his 150th novel. Didn’t you feel a little twinge, like you should be doing all of that to build up your writer’s cred?
Guess what, my friend? You are. You are.
Remember that next time you’re forced to say, “Would you like fries with that?”
- And it worked. My agent sold Ferman’s Devils which got me a contract to write the other half (which became Boddekker’s Demons), and my boss used that sale as one of many bogus charges to get me fired because she thought all writers made Stephen King’s money.