Of Dreams and Day Jobs

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that many PubCrawlers had the same dream I did as a little kid: to grow up and work as a (full time) author/writer. When you’re six, seven, eight–heck, even a teenager, you don’t realize exactly how complicated that goal is. By that I mean, you most likely aren’t thinking about the everyday reality of being self-employed and tackling all of the headache-inducing aspects of it. You’re thinking of the fun stuff… you know, the actual stories you’ll tell, traveling to events, interacting with readers, etc.

My parents were always very careful in how they encouraged our dreams. I always say that they were “realistically supportive,” meaning they were all for me writing and querying agents while I was in college, but they also wanted me to have a parachute to pull in case it took years for something to materialize. My dad was almost ruthlessly practical about life and finances. When I did sell my first book, he sat down with me and we calculated exactly how much money I would make based on that advance and how many copies of the book I’d need to sell in order to earn through it and start making money on royalties. We talked through the actual probability of me selling another project in the course of the next year. It was very obvious from the get-go that unless I moved home and lived with my parents, there was just no way I was going to be able to live off that money and write full time. At that point, the Affordable Healthcare Act hadn’t kicked in, and I was pretty quickly kicked off my Dad’s health insurance plan after graduation. (Lucky ducks who get to stay on their parents’ plans until 26 now!) I realize that all sounds very… uh, unromantic since we’re talking dreams here. 😉

And so, I went to New York and participated in the Columbia Publishing Course. I had my first job for about a year and a half as an editorial assistant in children’s publishing before realizing, in that time, that a job in editorial was not super conducive to being able to work on my own projects. I went that whole period without selling another book–which totally validated the earlier conversation my dad and I had about one of the hard, sadder realities of making writing full time work: you aren’t guaranteed to sell another book just because you’ve already sold one. Just before I switched companies and moved over to marketing, one of my coworkers (shout to Maria!) was there to really encourage me to finish the project I’d been working on over the course of the year—this being The Darkest Minds, then called Black is the Color. Like, she scheduled Outlook appointments in my calendar every Friday that summer with subject lines like “GO HOME AND FINISH WRITING YOUR AWESOME BOOK” and “BUY YOURSELF A MOUNTAIN DEW AND START WORKING.” And, sure enough, I finished it and sold it a few months later.

After that deal, I sat down and did the same exact calculations I did for my first book, and realized it would still take me a while to live comfortably off writing income because of the way the payments were scheduled, taxes, and agent commission. At this point, I didn’t really care because I loved my job, the work load was manageable, and I really could do both and live as happily as one can in a place like New York City.

But after five years, earlier this month, I finally quit my day job.

Here is Happy Alex on her last day, walking out with two huge tote bags of art, books, and random desk crap I managed to accumulate (don’t worry, I sent about ten boxes of books home to myself beforehand!) earlier this month:

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 9.47.59 PM

What I don’t have a picture of: Alex Crying Like a Baby As She Gave Her Notice. To give you a clear picture of the scene, I walked into my boss’ office for my weekly meeting with her, sat down, said, “I have to tell you something,” shut the door… and immediately burst into tears. All five of the bosses I’ve had in my professional life have been incredibly supportive of my other career, for which I’m very grateful. I ended up staying four weeks instead of the usual two so I could go with them to the IRA convention. This week is ALA Annual and it feels so strange to be missing it!

So, what happened? I just got busy. Too busy. The kind of busy that involved me working a full 9-6 or 9-8 day, then coming home to try to cram in an hour or two of writing, then writing or editing straight through the weekend to 12 AM on Monday morning. I wasn’t seeing friends—actually, I wasn’t really getting out of my room, let alone my apartment much. Knowing that I was going to have a few killer deadlines in June and July helped make the decision for me. It’s been wonderful and so totally strange the past few weeks to keep my own schedule—I’m now one of those people I used to look at on the streets and think, “Who are all of these folks out wandering the neighborhood at 3 PM?” It’s also made it very clear to me I’m a bit of a workaholic and need to learn the definition of stop when 3 AM rolls around and I’m still writing and editing! I have also learned that it’s so much harder to qualify for an apartment in the city as a self-employed person, but that’s a story for another time.

This wasn’t a decision I made lightly at all. I talked it through with my family and my agent, and finally sat down to create a checklist of sorts for making writing full-time work.  I’m adapting it below so it applies more generally, but if you’ve made this jump, too, I’d love to hear about what were important considerations to you.

Can I write full time and not crash and burn? 

1. Do I have enough work experience that, if I never sell another book, will make it somewhat easy to return to the field I left and get hired again?

2. Has my writing income been consistent for at least three years?  Can I realistically chart my expected income for the next two or three years?

3. Do I live somewhere cost-effective? (<— Clearly I do not. Working on this for next year, when I have some time to really think my living situation through!)

4. Can I pay my estimated taxes on time and still have money to comfortably live on?

5. Will I need to purchase my own health insurance plan? (<— I’m going through this right now, and holy WOW, sticker shock. Being able to hop onto your spouse’s or parents’ plan is obviously the ideal. I’ve said this so many times, but I wish publishers offered health insurance plans along with book contracts as an incentive. ;))

6. Do I have a nest egg of savings/does our family have a second income if there are “dry years” or if there’s some kind of home disaster or personal accident or health problem emerges? Will a relative help me?

7. Can I keep to a schedule? Do I need a day job to help limit the hours I can procrastinate?

8. Am I missing out on more writing and travel opportunities by keeping my day job?

9. Do I have a backlist that could, eventually, bring in royalties?

As I said, it’s a very unromantic take on a dream! Five years ago, I never thought I’d be in this position, and I have nothing but gratitude to have arrived at this stage of my career. Whether you’ve sold a book or you’re toiling away on your first novel, my advice remains the same: give yourself a parachute, but don’t be afraid to keep taking the plane up into the sky.

13 Responses to Of Dreams and Day Jobs

  1. WendyMcLeodMacKnight Jun 27 2014 at 8:49 am #

    Love this! I left my job last year at age 50 to finally pursue my writing dream. While it is humbling to begin at the bottom and I am still not agented or published, I have never regretted the decision. Except maybe at 3 in the morning….

  2. Triona Dolan Jun 27 2014 at 9:16 am #

    Hi Alex,

    I met you at BEA where you signed Never Fade for me on Saturday – my husband arranged our honeymoon around BEA and played photographer on the day. You’re the first author who has ever signed a book for me so I will treasure it forever. I just want to say that you are so beautiful and gracious in person -it was such an honor to meet you. I’m thrilled you can follow your dreams full time and I can’t wait for more books from you. You mentioned a super exciting new project which I can’t wait for!!

    I went through a similar life decision last year after I got married, although I don’t have a publisher or agent. I’ve several years work experience behind me and enough savings to support my writing dream for a few years so I’m currently persuing it. I’ve never been happier.

    Best of luck. I’m delighted for you!! And I can’t wait for your next book! 🙂

  3. Abby Jun 27 2014 at 9:49 am #

    I really appreciate your clear-eyed, practical view on taking the plunge to write full-time. It’s (not surprisingly) one of my dreams to write full-time, but I’ve always been hampered by that need to, you know, support myself. The questions you asked yourself, and your description of the time it took to get to a comfortable place, are really helpful. Sometimes dreams have to be practical in order to work!

  4. Brigid Kemmerer Jun 27 2014 at 12:20 pm #

    This is a great post! Too many people focus on the dream and not the reality. Your dad is a smart man. 🙂 Whenever people ask me what they should study in college to be a writer, I say, “Whatever will land you a job with a steady paycheck.”

    Personally, I’m not at the point where I’d feel comfortable quitting my day job. Once kids and a mortgage are part of the equation, it exponentially raises the stakes. Single? I would have taken a stab at it. Now? The royalties are making a nice nest egg and cushion for the future.

  5. Patrick Stahl Jun 27 2014 at 2:31 pm #

    I wish you the very best of luck.

  6. Robin Hall Jun 27 2014 at 2:57 pm #

    Alex, thank you for this article and your father’s advise of having the parachute. I’ve been writing for 4 years and agented, but unsold for 2. I don’t know that I’ll ever be in a place where I can quit my day job, but here’s to dreaming big, hoping, and having my parachute firmly in place.

  7. Chris Bailey Jun 27 2014 at 3:07 pm #

    Congratulations! Thanks for sharing your plan for supporting the dream. I agree with you–and Stephen King–that some day jobs can drain so much creativity that they stunt your writing. Here’s to boring day jobs!

  8. Katie Green Jun 28 2014 at 10:02 am #

    What a timely post! I’m not in the same position at all (I’ve never published a book AND I don’t have a job), but I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can balance a career and my dream of being a writer. I recently got my Master’s in teaching. I thought I could do that and write, but after I finished my student teaching, I realized how hard that would be, as I was always exhausted at the end of the day, and I wouldn’t have weekends because of grading, so I’d only have summers. I’ve realized that teachers need to be willing to dedicate all their time to their students, and I’d rather spend my time writing. So I’ve decided that I’m going to look for a job that would be more of a day job and wouldn’t take up so much of my free time, so I could still focus on writing. My parents and boyfriend have already agreed this is best for me, but your post still helped make me feel better, so thanks. 🙂

  9. Adam Silvera Jun 28 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    As someone who’s planning on writing full-time by the end of the year, I NEEDED this, Alex. Such an amazing post. THANK YOU.

  10. Charlene Jun 28 2014 at 7:32 pm #

    Loved this post. Congratulations to you!

  11. Lindsay Jul 3 2014 at 10:29 am #

    Hi Alex,

    First of all, I really admire your courage and determination, coupled with a VERY healthy dose of reality! I am currently working full-time WHILE writing full-time (and, uhh, finishing my master’s degree… and planning my wedding… okay so I might have a problem) and your #7 really hit home for me. Sometimes I think the only reason I get writing done is BECAUSE I have a day job. It adds a lot of structure to my life, requiring me to do things like bathe and wear clothing and make eye contact with human beings, in addition to, like, earning a steady paycheck and giving me something non-book-related to focus on so I don’t obsess. Case in point–something super crazy happened at work on the day of my debut book launch, and I literally didn’t get a single chance to check sales rankings, answer tweets, or otherwise drive myself batty with release-day buzz because I had something else to do!

    But I strongly suspect–and anecdotally I can back this up from the times I’ve taken the day off to meet editing deadlines and the like–that if I weren’t working, I wouldn’t really add any more hours of writing to my day. Procrastination has a way of filling all available time, and by working full-time, I stake a claim on those hours that my less noble tendencies can’t touch. When I come home and I have four hours to fix dinner, walk the dog, reassure my fiance I’m still alive, do schoolwork, and write 1K-2K words, then by god I DO those things!

    HOWEVER, I know everyone treats their time differently, and I certainly envy your position, and I’m so glad it’s working for you! Best of luck finishing out the Darkest Minds trilogy and whatever comes next!

  12. Alexa S. Jul 6 2014 at 5:59 am #

    I wish you lots of luck in your journey as a full-time writer, Alex! There’s no doubt in my mind that you’ll succeed at what you do because of your passion and talent and drive. Your checklist is, without a doubt, pretty thorough! Thanks for sharing it, and your story too.

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