Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Saturday, April 28, 2012

What It Means to be a Full-Time Writer

by Kristina Wright

Every month or so, I receive an email from an aspiring erotica writer. Often, they haven't read anything I've ever written-- they just Googled 'erotica' or 'sex stories' or something similar and up popped my blog, which is probably the least sexy blog ever written by an erotica writer. But they write to me anyway, inquiring about how they, too, can quit their day jobs and write erotica full-time. Or write anything full-time as one person told me: "I'd write anything if I could quit my job, erotica or science fiction or children's books, whatever." Which seems to me to be more about hating the current job than about a love for writing. And by "full-time" they mean make at least as much as they're making at their current full-time job, if not more.

I'm a bit boggled by these emails, coming as they from strangers not familiar with me or my work or even  an idea about what it means to be a "full-time" writer. I'm equally boggled by the comments from friends and acquaintances alike (and sometimes strangers, too), who alternately joke about my "smut" writing or say things like, "I don't want to get a real job when I retire. I want to be a writer." Sigh... But I do know what they're trying to say, I really do. What I do is not "real" to most people and I realize that. From the outside, what I do looks easy. Fun. Not work. Not effort. I try to explain the realities, but their eyes glaze over. Writing in and of itself is a very boring occupation to hear about. Writing is to other careers what golf is to sports. No one wants to hear about it, but from the outside it looks easy enough for anyone to do. What's the big deal, right? You just write your fantasy or your dream from last night or an updated version of some story you read in high school. It's as easy as hitting a little white ball into a little cup in the grass. How hard can that be, right? Until they attempt to do it. Then they're looking for the magic backdoor into the world of being a full-time writer. The fun kind, of course.

I say I write full-time and I do, but it's not 9-5 or 10-6 or Monday through Friday with weekends off. It's when I can, as much as I can. It's 11:30 AM until 4 or 5 PM, Monday through Thursday and sometimes 8 PM to midnight on those nights, too. It's a few hours on Friday when my husband gets off work early and Saturday from the time the babies nap until Starbucks closes at 9:30 PM. It's some Sundays when I'm under deadline, it's even when I'm sick or tired or invited to go do something more fun. It's staying up 3 AM writing a proposal on Thanksgiving morning when I have to get up at 7 AM to put the turkey in the oven. It's thinking about and plotting stories when I wake up in the middle of the night, when I'm driving, when I'm playing with the two year old or putting the seven month old to bed. It's cobbling anywhere from 30 to 50 hours a week from my schedule to do the only thing I've ever wanted to do. That's what writing "full-time" means to me. And sometimes I long for a regular schedule, normal hours, weekends and holidays off, not to mention a steady paycheck and vacation time and health benefits.  Full-time writers don't get any of that. Sometimes we don't even get a royalty check-- I've seen royalty statements with negative signs in front of the numbers on the bottom line. Has a non-writer ever seen one of those from their full-time job?

I don't think my schedule is what people have in mind when they say they want to do what I do. Not most of them, anyway. They don't want to hear about the hours, or about the sheer hard work that goes into writing. Or about the rejections that come for stories only I love. They don't want to know that they might put in six months of hard work into a manuscript that will never see the light of day. I have several manuscripts like that. Books that taught me a lot about writing but will never be published, which means I will never make any money on them. That's the other thing aspiring writers are most interested in, after the easy and fun work schedule-- the money. They envision bucket loads of cash raining down on them from the New York publishing gods. The polite ones assume I make more money than I do, the rude ones ask me outright how much I make. The answer varies from, "Not much" to "Enough to keep me in coffee" to "I can't complain" to "How much do you make?"

Here's the harsh truth none of them want to hear or believe about their own future-fantasy writing career: precious few full-time writers are just writers. We are freelance copyeditors and proofreaders. We ghostwrite memoirs and write advertising copy for the local freebie newspaper. We do technical writing and text book editing. We are fact-checkers and researchers. We are librarians and bookstore managers. We are anthologists and bloggers and artists. We teach three sections of College Composition at the community college each semester and we teach Writing the Personal Narrative at the local literary center. We hold writing workshops in library meeting rooms and we review books for a dozen different magazines and websites. We design blogs and websites for other writers and creative types and we do lots of things that have no real name but are somehow writing-related. Sometimes we do many of these things in any given year-- and we still don't make enough money to buy a new car or take a proper vacation.

Aspiring writers don't want to hear the harsh realities of the easy and fun job of hanging out at Starbucks all day. They want to be the next Stephen King or Suzanne Collins or E.L. James. They want to be famous. They want that Glamour Shots photo they had taken five years ago (or that photo of them on that yacht that one time in St. Thomas) to be on the back of a shiny hardcover book in the front of Barnes & Noble. They have already chosen their pseudonym, it's a combination of their mother's maiden name and their favorite Jane Austen character. They spent a lot of money on a shiny new MacBook Pro but so far the only thing they've written are Facebook status updates about their muse and how they love the writing life. Mostly, they play Solitaire and drink $4 espresso drinks and send vague query letters to agents about the book they're going to write if the agent can get them a three-book deal. When they haven't gotten a response (much less an offer of representation) from an agent within the week, they write Facebook status updates about how the publishing industry is a clique, a dinosaur, a closed door to talented newcomers. Then they play another round of Solitaire and tell themselves they need to self-publish like what's-her-name who made all that money on Amazon writing those vampire stories. Except they never bother to learn the ins and outs of successful self-publishing and none of the writers they have emailed randomly will tell them the secrets of being full-time writers. They assume it's because those writers are intimidated by someone more talented-- they never assume those writers are too busy writing, editing, teaching, etc., to tell them the truth: the only way to be a full-time writer is to find a way to write full-time, even if you also have a full-time "real" job, even if you have kids and a house and a chronic illness and elderly in-laws and, and, and... The only way to be a writer is to write. That is not what they want to hear. So they write a shitty review on Amazon for a book they never read, write a Facebook status update about how author X is a hack and her book is illiterate trash, then they go back to playing Solitaire, smug in the knowledge that when they do finally get around to writing and self-publishing their book, they will have the last laugh.

Does that sound harsh? A hack smut writer in her ivory tower pooh-poohing the brilliant aspiring writers who only need a bit of advice and an introduction to my agent, editor or publisher in order to become The Next Big Thing that I can never hope to be? Yeah, you caught me. Sorry. God knows I make so much money and I'm so wildly successful that any question about how to obtain my fun and easy lifestyle is to be perceived as a threat and immediately condemned. My apologies. Let me make it up to you and buy you a coffee while you tell me about your muse. What's her name again?

What do I tell those questioning souls who email me for advice? I tell them all the same thing and, oddly enough, not one of them has ever written me back to thank me. I guess I didn't tell them what they wanted to hear. But here is what I tell them: read a lot. Read everything. Read in the genre you want to write, yes, but also read outside of it. And write. For the love of all that is holy, write your ass off. Don't write erotic romance because it's the hot new (old) genre right now. Don't write horror because you have a lifelong crush on Stephen King (I did and I do). Don't write children's books because they're short and therefore must be easy to write. Write what you love to read. Write what inspires you and makes your heart go pitter-pat. Write the story you're carrying around in your secret heart even if it doesn't fit into any genre category. Write without thinking about the money, because the money might be years in coming if it comes at all. Hell, write without thinking about who might read what you're writing. Write to please yourself. To turn yourself on. To scare yourself with how far off the deep end you've gone. Write with your real name at the top of the page, to remind you of who you are, not who you want other people to think you are. Forget about finding an agent or submitting your manuscript to a publisher until you actually have a manuscript to submit-- a manuscript that has been written, edited and proofread, then read by a few trusted souls and edited again. A beautiful, as good as it can get manuscript that is representative of your very best work as a professional writer. Don't have that yet? Then you're not a writer. 

There are countless books and magazines and blogs about How to Be a Writer and I encourage all aspiring writers to read and understand as much about the craft as they can. But at the end of the day, the only thing you have are the words you have written. And if you haven't written any words, you are not a writer. 

Oh, and one last thing: that word-- aspiring? It's bullshit. You either are a writer or you're not. Which are you?

32 comments:

  1. This, this, a thousand times this.

    Thank you for a thoughtful, well-written article, Kristina.

    I too get occasional emails asking me to pass on markets/contacts/tips. I used to reply in depth (now I just point them to ERWA) but gave up when the same people would come back months or a year later asking the exact same questions (What? You think it's got easier in the meantime?!).

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  2. Well said.
    People hear I have seven or eight novels in print and assume I must be rolling in it. Then I say. "Sure. I made thirty dollars last month."

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  3. Terrific post.

    Many years ago (okay, decades,) when I started writing, I dreamed I would be a full time writer. I had a good day job that I was happy enough with and made good money, but wouldn't it be wonderful to write for a living? Just get up every day and write stories?

    I mean, really, how hard can it be?

    And I did try to write what was "hot" at the time.

    I found I can't write what others like, and I found what I love to write. I've learned just enough about the writing business to know that the transition to being a full time writer would be a very hard one.

    I am fortunate to have a job that I do like, and that pays the bills, freeing me up to write what I love.

    And I am fortunate that there are real writers out there, holding down the fort, making things happen like making exceptional anthologies, or managing websites, that I can submit to, and in some cases, get my words out there.

    So I say thank you, and whether those wannabe full-time-writers know it, they owe you a debt of gratitude for being honest with them.

    It took me years to learn what you told them.

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  4. This is by far the best article on this topic I've read. Yeah, it's harsh, but it's the truth. Your last line is worth printing out in 180 point type and hanging on the wall.

    I've got to go send this some people!

    Thank you!

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  5. "The only way to be a full-time writer is to find a way to write full-time, even if you also have a full-time "real" job, even if you have kids and a house and a chronic illness and elderly in-laws and, and, and... The only way to be a writer is to write." And you, for sure, are a WRITER. "...aspiring? Bullshit. You either are a writer or you're not."

    Lisabet's right. This is the best, most concise, explanation of being a writer I've ever read. Me? Acquaintances I know are beginning to call me an overnight success story, after all, I've got two books up on Amazon in two months. Yeah. Overnight. After twenty years of books in the closet (written from stolen moments between the full-time other job and raising three kids)some of which will never see the light of day but were utterly necessary to write in order to learn the craft.

    Fabulous post.

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  6. As a full-time writer, I can relate to a lot of this. My big pet peeve, which you mentioned, is when people ask 'How much do you make?' They'd never ask that of a person with a 'traditional' job. But it's like they think writers don't have any right to privacy, or common courtesy. And I kind of get the impression that whatever you make, they don't think you deserve it. Like instead of working like a regular person, you found some magic loop hole to cheat at making a fortune.

    Of course, everyone reading this post probably knows what a joke that is. LOL In reality, I work significantly more that 40 hours a week at my writing, and it's certainly not easy (although I do really enjoy it).

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  7. Excellent post! I so related to the challenges of fitting in the writing into the rest of my life and to your experience with "aspiring" writers. And wow, yours never say "thank you" either? I thought it was just me :-). Maybe it's because "writers" do seem as fictional as their characters to some. Or, if you haven't introduced them to your agent and decided to give up your own writing to promote their career, you're not worthy of thanks?

    As for the definition of a writer as someone who writes, I've experienced that from the other direction, as someone who hesitated to call myself a Writer, or at least a "real" Writer, for a long time until I met some undefined measure of success. Eventually I realized it is simply the writing that matters. Perhaps no one call tell you this, you have to live it?

    Again, great post!

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  8. Kristina, this is brilliant. Amen. Years ago, I was a "writer in residence" for one week in a local high school, where I was approached by various teenagers who wanted to know how to become famous writers, overnight. At least they had the excuse of being young and naive. One lad seemed disappointed to hear that being a writer involves doing a lot of writing. Who knew? :D

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  9. @Rachel Green - ha. I hope you will have 7 or 8 wildly successful novels in print some day, but your writing career is Exhibit A for Kristina's case. Great writing but a shocking shortage of fame.

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  10. @Rachel Green, your writing career goes to show that fascinating books don't necessarily attract fame. :(
    I hope you will have 7-8 wildly successful novels in print some day.

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  12. Great post, Kristina! I was a full-time writer for 9 months, while I was laid off from my day job, and it was fabulous. It meant only working 40 or 50 hours a week, instead of the usual 80 or 90 I do when I'm employed full-time at the day job. Because, in reality, I work two full-time jobs between the writing and the day job. Throw the editing in and--well, I don't want to think about it.

    Every vacation I take is to read and/or sign books somewhere or go to a conference or writing event. I just took three days to have an actual, honest-to-god vacation where I only wrote a little bit and only checked my mail a few times. It rocked!

    Yep, writing is a very glamorous profession. Thanks for telling it like it is. People simply haven't a clue.

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  13. Amazing post - and the honest truth can be harsh - but it doesn't change the fact that it's the truth. Many people assume that I'll be able to quit my full-time job soon because I have a few books out there. Unless I start learning to love living in a tent and eating dried noodles - I doubt soon is very soon. And for those who are crushing on Stephen King (me too, for years - lol)he offers very similar advice in his must-read guide for writers, "On Writing". You have TO WRITE.

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  14. I loved your post.

    I do not write stories. I read. Anything and everything. And yes, I CAN tell when a writer loves what they are writing or if they are just following a " formula". When a story is well researched or written from the heart it shines. You forgot to mention all the hours of research that go into a book because if there is a mistake in any fact, location or detail, a reviewer or reader will point it out.

    Writing is harder than working two jobs, raising children, taking care of a home or any regular 9 to 5 position. Their boss is the worst. Themselves.

    Thank you for telling many who do not know what a writers reality really is.

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  15. I'm an aspiring writer, alright, though I hope I never pestered anyone about it... but it's not a nice term, no, Danielle found a better one for me: I'm a lady writer. It's true, for now, anyway, and I will have to live with it until some more drive comes along.

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  16. Thanks so much for all your wonderful comments. I know it seems harsh, but there really is no easy way to be a full-time writer (or a full-time anything, really, right?). It's hard work and belief in yourself and perseverance and rejection and writing, writing, writing.

    And Jo, you are most certainly a writer. I've read your stories. You're a brilliant writer.

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  17. Oh my gosh. All of it is so true. My mother-in-law told me I must spend a lot of time daydreaming. I gritted my teeth and said yep, even when I'm driving you all over kingdom come.

    Thanks so much for this truth.

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  18. Truer words have never been written, Kristina! Thank you for this fabulous post!

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  19. Simply echoing what others have written, though it's no less true for its repeated message: thank you for nailing down in words what I'm often too frustrated to tell clueless (often "I have a REAL job" smug) non-writers.

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  20. There is just no way to say it better than this. From one writer to another...Bravo!

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  21. Ha! What a terrific post. And I say this as it's after one in the morning and I'm finishing a manuscript. I too am a full-time writer, and it never fails to amaze me how wrongly stereotyped the writing life really is. Good on you for clarifying. :) You really hit the nail on the head.

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  22. I decided to be a writer when I was twelve. Although I've had short scripts produced, now and then, my first published novel (it is an erotica novel) was published in 2006.

    People often ask me why I am so low-income when I am a published author and a writing tutor. I simply say, "I don't get paid much." In fact I make a lot less than I used to, because the Canadian dollar is so strong and because the pay for short stories, at least, has, in the main, dropped.

    My mother taught me,"Never be a nurse." (she was a nurse.) I taught my kids, "Never be a writer."

    They've tried to heed my words but one has got the bug. There's nothing to be done, now, but STOP telling her not to do it and edit, comment, proof - provide what help I can as she moves away from her Math major and toward her Literature minor.

    Somehow, Kristina, you've managed to present the harsh truth without whining. Well done.

    It's important to remember, even when we are no longer able to do anything else, that somewhere along the line the choice was made.

    My lifestyle, my partner (also a writer) my rather bleak future as an old person, all of this is my choice.

    And by the way, there's no shame in being a reader. Thanks for pointing that out, orelukjp0.

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  23. Wonderful You said it all. Everything we writers wanted to say.

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  24. I absolutely love this post.
    I'd forward it to everyone who asks me ridiculous questions about how many hundreds of thousands of copies I've sold, where my new Mercedes is, if I've "done" everything I write (wink-wink, nudge-nudge), but those people wouldn't read it. Wouldn't be any fun for them...just like my answers to their questions!

    Again, loved the post! :)

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  25. Great post, Kristina.

    It does fascinate me that I encounter so many people who fantasize about being writers, having some hollywoodized view of someone churning out masterworks in a morning.

    Mostly what I encounter is simply laziness. People who are unwilling to read enough, polish their grammar, read their own work with a critical eye and edit and rewrite.

    I used to respond to those kind of emails. Now I just say... I'm not a successful writer - please forward your inquiry to someone who is.

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  26. Thanks so much for all the lovely comments. I've been overwhelmed by the response to this piece-- and gratified to see how many serious writers (whether part-time or full-time) feel the same way about the so-called "writing life."

    I've been inspired by your comments. Thank you!

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  27. You're preaching to the choir! Loved this blog. Whenever my husband tells people "my wife is a published author" they invariably reply, "Oh? How much does it cost to do that? My wife wants to write a book, too!" I've been writing more than 20 years and still have to sweat over every sentence. We've all tried to explain the process to people, but their eyes glaze over. It would be like asking Bill Gates, "How do you become a billionaire? Because I'd like to do that!"

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  28. Thanks for the great advice on this blog about being a full time writer. I'm new to this but I want to do more writing and yes I'm not fool enough to believe that I can just write a book and then I'm rolling in money. For me it started out as a hobby for some friends at a game site. They told me I could tell a hot story. I know I talk big about making lots of money but it's just that talk like a nice daydream. I care for my dad that had a stoke so sometimes I would write things and realize it is something I really enjoy doing. i don't always have much time and fit it in when I can. I want to be a writer because enjoying writing as much as I enjoy reading. So I don't expect to be published right away or get rich. I just want to be successful. To me that means that I can enjoy what I'm doing and have readers enjoy my writing. I know it is hard work and I say bring it on because I want this. I'm not looking for the spotlight. If truth be know I would rather not be in the spotlight. I'm happier in the shadows. I wanted to say something here because I might be one and there could be others that know life as a full time writer is not as easy as some may think. So thanks again for the article.

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