I accidentally stumbled into writing as a career after being an editor for several years. In some ways, it’s like any other freelance job. When I tell people I am a writer, I get those looks: the “Wow, that’s the coolest job ever” looks. And in some ways, it is. But unless you write the novel of the year and are raking in the big bucks, it’s like any other job in that it has highs and lows, advantages and disadvantages. If you want to start a career as a writer—meaning, if you want it to be your main or only source of income—then here are some things you should know.
1. The work schedule of a writer, like being any other kind of freelancer, is very flexible, but that can work against you as well as for you.
What that means is that you can choose to work wherever and whenever you want. You can work at home in your office, or on the couch (my preference), or at the coffee shop, or in your garden like Thoreau if your screen can handle the sun glare. You can get up to work at the crack of dawn, or stay up late at night. The upside is that I can volunteer at my kids’ schools. I can meet a friend for coffee. I can nap in the middle of the day. (Often I have been up so late the night before trying to make a rush deadline that I can’t stay awake through the next day!)
But there is a downside to all of this flexibility. Believe it or not, it requires much more discipline than working in a regular office. It means sometimes saying no to the people who think you have more downtime than you actually do. I don’t like saying no, so that’s hard. Also, if you are truly trying to make a living as a writer, that means you are scrapping for every assignment you can get, and then also trying to write and publish your own stuff on the side, so you are likely to feel compelled to work all the time. I write constantly. If I am not writing, I feel guilty. When I have a looming deadline, the laundry piles up, my husband spends a lot of time picking up the slack when he, too, needs to work, we eat a lot of crap, my kids watch too much TV, I don’t sleep much, and things like family outings and vacations have a habit of either getting postponed or cancelled or not planned at all. When we do go on vacation, it often means that one or both of us is working half the time. And when the deadline is done, there is a little bit of panic until I get the next assignment.
2. If you are trying to write and sell fiction, you need to embrace the fact that you’ll be hearing the word “no” as well as saying it.
I won’t recap the tired stories you have heard about how many rejections J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer got before they found publishers. Nowadays, competition is fierce, and as you know from the many articles Wolf has posted on Pubmission, most publishers won’t even look at you without an agent. You will get a lot of “No” answers. Getting the no isn’t even the hardest part, actually. It’s knowing how much work you did trying to get yourself noticed, and finding time to do that again and again, because it takes so much time away from the actual writing you need to do.
The tweaking of your cover letter, the research, the knocking on agents’ doors, the revisions to your work to match comments from different reviewers or to fit different publishers’ needs—sometimes it seems like you do more work on selling yourself than you do on actually creating. And if you come to the end of your journey with a particular work and have to accept that, as it is in its current form, you can’t sell it, then it’s a sad day indeed. Which leads us to the next point…
3. Sometimes it is impossible to judge your own work.
I can definitely take criticism on my work—feedback doesn’t hurt my feelings much. I don’t have a thick skin in many other areas, but I can tough it out as a writer. I have been in this business too long to be so in love with my work that I am resistant to changing it in the name of making it salable, but I am at that point where, if you are having me make changes, it better be for good reason. But sometimes I feel like, when I asked others to read things, the feedback and reviews I got were just wrong, or…strange. And my responses have been pretty definite, as in, “No, I specifically did it this way because of this reason. You don’t understand that X, Y, and Z means I really need to do this.” And I ended up not knowing whether my convictions were truly right, or whether I was just being hardheaded. Either is possible, but as the writer, it is hard to have the perspective to make decisions sometimes about your own writing, because that means putting on the editor hat. It’s tough to do both. In the end you have to go with your gut, but it can be really hard to when you are unsure of your reasoning versus what someone else who knows what they are talking about is telling you. Expect to straddle this line a lot. It’s not a great place to be, and sometimes you can only be sure you made the right decision long after a change is made.
4. No matter how thick your skin is, feedback will hurt a little sometimes, and in the most unexpected ways.
Most of the time this isn’t the case with my writing now, but I can’t say I have never gotten my feathers ruffled. Publishing your writing can be very, very personal. And getting criticism can be very, very hard. People don’t much care anymore what they put in writing. Just look up any book on Amazon and read some of the one-star reviews, then imagine reading those reviews about yourself. If you get published, in this age of dwindling civility, most likely you will read the nastiest, most hateful comments about your work that you can dream up. You will be called all kinds of names. You will be called ignorant, a bad writer, an idiot, or worse. No one gets universal praise. Don’t believe me? Look up a favorite book and find the one-star reviews. Be ready for it. Somewhere out there will be a person that hates your work, and you, and everything you represent. Your writing and that person’s subsequent review will be a blip on this person’s radar screen, but if you let it, their words will burn your hide forever.
Which isn’t to say that the kind words don’t last, too. A good review can make you feel like you have climbed a mountain. It’s almost as good as getting that email that says, “We want to publish your book!” But somehow, the good reviews don’t quite take the sting out of the bad ones.
5. Despite the negative comments above, and the relatively low pay for many of us, and the late hours and hard schedule, I still really love doing this.
Yeah, really. I do love it. I look for extra things to write about so I can write more. If you are really a writer, the born-to-do-it kind, then you will just write anyway, despite what else is going on, the lack of time, the lack of pay, the fear of bad reviews. I write instead of reading good book, instead of watching movies, and instead of listening to music. I write because it’s the best thing I do for myself. It’s my job, my hobby, and my favorite pastime. How do I know this? Because of my last point:
6. When I finish a big assignment, the relief lasts less than a day.
This is perhaps the hardest part of being a freelancer. I want that glow of finishing up all the hard work to last a couple of weeks, but it never does. A check is coming, I accomplished something big. Hooray for me. But unfortunately, as a freelancer, I almost immediately start to worry about the next job. Where will it come from? How soon can I get it? Once I turn in a book or article or another project, I rarely take more than a few days before I start angling for something else to do. No matter how tired and burned out I am, I have to start looking for the next big thing.