Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Business of Writing Full-Time

by Olivia Knight

‘Are you listening?’

‘Yes,’ said Tiffany.
‘Good. Now… if you trust in yourself…’
‘…and believe in your dreams…’
‘…and follow your star…’ Miss Tick went on.
‘… you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Goodbye.’
The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett

Straight off: hold the tissues. I sodding love my life. This is not a sob story about how writing full-time is actually hard, painful, agonising, difficult, and full of unseen obstacles. Some evenings, curled on the sofa, I suddenly stare at the walls struck with realisation: tomorrow I’m going to make things up all day, and this is my job, this is my life, and it rocks. Anyone who describes writing as torture should take up temping. What would you rather – create worlds or be shown how to operate a kettle safely? That said, I’m about to not-write for six weeks and a deep sense of relief fills me at the thought. (Partly because I won’t, in fact, be temping.) This isn’t What I Wish I’d Known Before I Started, it’s Handy Things To Know. And all the advice beneath boils down to two things: money = time = writing, and be schizophrenic.

Money = time = writing

If you want to live your artistic dream, you can’t be artistically dreamy about money – but keep the equation in the right order.

Getting there: making a butterfly net

This isn’t about how to reach the point of writing full-time, it’s about being there, but here’s one useful tip… What does it cost you to stay alive, each month? Open Excel, work it out: the non-negotiable expenses (rent/mortage, bills, etc), the variables (food, wine, clothes, toiletries), the optionals (entertainment, holidays). How much money do you need to feel secure quitting the day job – three months’? Six months’? More? If you had a windfall of £5000 tomorrow, would that be enough? Believing in your dreams doesn’t make them happen; being able to recognise them as they flit past does. Keep that figure; refine it. When you’re writing full-time, you’ll need it, full-time.

Working hours

Regrettably, I don’t lie in bed until eleven playing with myself then swan around in pretty negligées, dashing off immaculate sentences as they occur. Perhaps I should. I worked out early on I can do four to five hours’ writing a day maximum, and it’s the same quality whether I space it out between nine o’clock and five o’clock or sleep in until one then write solidly from two till six, except for feeling like a Bad Person. My Protestant upbringing has much to answer for; enjoying a good spank is the tip of the ice-berg. I have, Martin Luther aside, accepted I can’t write before 10:30, even if I get up at 6 a.m. and swim the freezing Isis. So learn how much you can write a day and find the hours that work for you. Evenings are actually my best time and I’m indifferent to the existence of Saturdays and Sundays… but I’m also damn fond of people and that’s when they want to play, so I’ve accepted working weekdays.

Protect your time. For everyone else, “at home” means “free time” and now you’re at home all the time! They’ll tap on your windows, ask you to babysit, arrange tea dates, have flying weektime visits to your city, until you tell them not to. I don’t consider writing “work”, but for the sake of others I’ve learned to call it “working”. Sample exchange:
“Olivia, what are you doing on Thursday afternoon?”
Blink in surprise. “Working.”
Easy to say, until it’s you saying it to a close friend.

Protect your rest. You throw yourself into your work, get lost in it, get absorbed in it, write up a storm, all good; you secretly know you damn well need to finish this to get your next payment, not so good; you reckon you’re saving time by writing twice your usual amount a day – maybe not. Overstrain yourself and you take the saved time and half as much again in exhaustion. This is full-time: you need to be able to do it again tomorrow, next week, next month. Your energy levels are a debit card with an extortionate rate of interest; be wary of overspending them. Instead, stop while you know what happens next – dash off a few notes about the rest of the scene and go do the washing up. I use the Radio 4 comedy at 6:30 as a final cut-off time, to force myself to stop.


How do you know if you’re doing enough? Two ways: you know what you need to earn; you know how much you can write a day. But a novel’s a great big shapeless thing to jump into, so with one hand you’re frantically flagellating yourself about laziness while the other waves despairingly at your inability to take the time you need to create, like a saddened fairy godmother. Break it into bits. The ultimate goal of completing a novel sustains you for – ooh, two or three chapters, then your inner toddler stamps its feet and demands sweeties now! You need interim goals: that chapter, this part, by such-and-such a time, which means about there this week… And you know you can write 2000 words a day, so in four weeks you’ll have written 4 x 5 x 2000 words, right? Uh-uh. You need planning time, some days are rubbish, sometimes you write wonderful stuff which has, unfortunately, stepped into the wrong novel. Set realistic goals with generous margins.

Keeping track of my progress, by week and by month, and the sheer love of writing, is enough discipline for me… with a few extra sweeties. Champagne for finishing a novella. Red champagne and a week off for finishing a novel. All planning-time in coffee shops, because it’s pissing down with rain and you’re not in an office, you’re having that croissant and cappucino you always used to yearn for as you trudged to work. Felt-tips and gold gel pens. Stars. Give yourself carrots.

Recognise the non-working work time and protect that too. Does your mind teem with ideas in the shower, out walking, chopping vegetables for a two-hour stew, watching the tiles steam as you marinade in the bath, stamping your feet and spinning in a night club? Will you still allow the time for those long walks and leisurely baths, those nights out? Discipline your discipline: it doesn’t have to look like work to be valuable.

Financial pressure

A week off for finishing a novel? And that’s generous. Before you think about writing full-time – it’s a fine thing to make your living writing, but what if you have to write, to pay your bills? The novel’s crumbling in your hands, sagging everywhere, you need to spend a week pulling it apart, a week thinking, and another three weeks recreating it, and if you don’t finish it in the next two weeks you can’t pay next month’s rent. Still sure? What’s more important – the writing or being an official writer? Write full-time if you have to. Both Janine Ashbless and I tend to throw ourselves out top-floor windows if you put us in offices; we have no choice. Some don’t; some do. But think carefully before you make your dragon a beast of burden.

As Adam Nevill said in his interview, “there are just so many opportunities for female authors right now in erotica and romance, which has led to a decrease in the quality of submissions from new authors – too many are writing too much.” He’s right – and the better you get, the longer you take. Not only does good writing take time; you need creative rest. You can’t finish one novel on Friday and start the next on Monday; you can’t even do that with a novella. And it’s unlikely, as a new writer, that you can afford a fortnight’s holiday between every story. So don’t be afraid to do other work. “Being a writer” is bullshit; the writing’s the thing. I swore, a year ago, I would never again churn out wordcount because I needed the next payment; now I don’t. Maybe your staying-alive cost can be met working part-time. Look at your other skills. Find something you can do in your “down time” between books that’ll pay and give you a creative break. Some people can write a novel a month; I don’t want to be them.

Lead time

You’ve finished your novel, it’s accepted – show me the money! Seven paragraphs as a full-time writer and you’re already as mercenary as me. You get half your advance when the contract’s signed and the other half when the novel’s published – about a year later. Even magazines will often pay six months after accepting a piece. Yay! Acceptance slip! You’ll be in print! In 2012!... Oh. It always takes longer than you think.

Never mind, c’est la vie. You’ve been accepted, that’s the main thing, so crack the champagne anyway. The ball’s rolling, time does pass, you don’t cease to exist – or write – in the meantime. Like juggling, keep throwing more balls into the air until you have a flow.

Be schizophrenic

Writing full-time, you’re self-employed. You have to be business-like. But God help you if your writing turns business-like. Harness schizophrenia, instead.


Creating a story and assuming people want to read what you write is mad, arrogant, wilful optimism. If a writer receives a rejection, she will weep; its words cut into the very ability to write. Try starting a sentence when someone’s said your last three hundred were crap. Don’t let the writer see that! Besides, writers have minds on higher things than posting letters (or writing them), reading checklists, managing deadines… and so they bloody well should. Create The Administrator. When a story is finished, the writer dusts her hands and drinks champagne (yes, it’s a theme); The Administrator takes over. And here’s what she does…

• “Ready – Aim – Fire!” Not “Fire! … spend years wondering why it didn’t work” or “Ready… still ready… still ready…” or “Ready – Fire – Aim!”, which I tried too.
• “Ready” means you’re happy for the story to go to print as is. Not sure? Edit every story on paper. Still not sure? So send it. Don’t sit on ten years’ worth of writing. If you want it discovered, don’t let it be from under your corpse.
• “Aim” means find out who you’re sending to. You’ll get enough rejection slips as it is; don’t add to the pile by submitting apples to a pear shop, however green and wonky they are. (Don’t pile rejection slips at all. Set fire to rejection slips.) All magazines say to read them first – so you don’t, because there are twenty magazines at £3.70 each and you can’t be bothered, and then they say no and you’re devastated, and then you find the magazine and realise why, or they say yes and you buy a copy and hope no-one ever finds out you’re printed in it.
The Writers and Artists Yearbook and The Writer’s Handbook list UK and US publishers, agents, and magazines: buy it; use it. Read the guidelines: trawl through websites, read examples, work through their checklists. Check exactly what they want and precisely how they want it submitted. It takes hours. Aim carefully if you want to hit your target.
• “Fire!” Putting stuff in envelopes isn’t hard. Placing your dreams in the hands of strangers who might trample them is appalling, so don’t. Just put stuff in envelopes. Give yourself a goal of submissions: 3 a month, 4 a month…

Be professional

You’re self-employed and you’re working with businesses: you have to behave accordingly. For your publisher – submit well before deadlines when they still have energy to read, meet proofing deadlines, and send short emails. If they need 10 000 words taken out, fine. (Actually, if you work carefully at it, the novel will be better for it.) Writers may be wild, wanton, erratic, tortured souls – but this is The Adminstrator’s domain. They’ll judge your writing by your writing, so you’re free to be as professional as you like. Put The Managing Director in charge of finance. Find out the self-employment things and do them: file expenses, record earnings, set aside your tax, save yourself money by paying it promptly. As soon as you're published, even in a magazine, register with the Author Licencing and Copyright Society or your country's equivalent - they collect money from copyright licences and may have some with your name on it.

The other writing

Create The Editor. Around your beautiful perfect novel is a package of other writing, equally demanding.
• A blurb for the back cover: 100-200 words.
• A nutshell for cover letters: 1 sentence, usually in this formula: “Title is a [word count] [genre] novel set in [time and place] about [character] who…” For example, “The Ten Visions is an 80 000 word erotic novel set in contemporary Oxford about a postgraduate student who discovers her occult powers.”
• A synopsis: 1-2 pages (the publisher will specify an exact length – trim down to that) saying exactly what happens, in present tense, all the way to end. (Yeah, giving away the ending sucks piles.) Write it with articulate precision, but not poetry.
• A one paragraph summary for cover letters: halfway between the blurb and the cover letter, it’s more enticing, but unafraid to give away secrets.
• Cover letters: as business-like and briefly as possible, give your nutshell, your one-paragraph summary, a brief bio if they ask, and what you’re enclosing.
While you’re writing, all these are so enviably clear in your head… so make some notes. Afterwards, collapsed on the shores of post-novel exhaustion, you’ll want them. And then, best of all, you get to choose pull-quotes for the back cover and strap-lines, because you’re into marketing-land…


A new character in your internal cast: The Marketer. Have fun; step outside yourself; project the dream. Few writers get the all-singing all-dancing publicity routine and of those who do, it doesn’t necessarily earn out – better by far is word-of-mouth, which this century is dream-easy. Build a website, consider a blog. Walk into every bookstore and front-out your book (place it cover out, with a few behind it), and tell your friends to do that too. Arrange readings with local bookshops and festivals, if you can bear the spotlight – if you bask in it, like me, so much the better! You probably don’t need business cards… so what? They’re free! Major bonus: The Adminstrator gets a tick and the writer wiggles with glee.

Forget the money

Now you have a whole cast of multiple personality disorder: The Administrator, The Managing Director, The Editor, The Marketer. They all exist as lackeys to one person and to protect one person: The Writer. If the writer’s working to finance them, something’s rotten in the state of Denmark. They will administrate, manage, edit, and market the writing; but – and this is a personal belief – make sure you always have at least one project that is nothing about money at all, to hold onto your soul, so you have a yardstick against which to measure the soulfulness of all your writing.

Here endeth the lesson.


Janine Ashbless said...

Oh, I recognised a lot of this Olivia. Multiple personalities - oh yes.

I love being a writer. I love it beyond words. Being a recovering depressive (with permanent potential for backsliding), it has literally saved my life. It is My Thing - and knowing what Your Thing is must be the most important thing anyone can learn in their life, whether it be writing, teaching, motherhood, accountancy or anything else.

I do wish I made a viable living out of my work. I wish I could pay back Mr Ashbless for the little things like feeding me and keeping a roof over my head! But in the meantime I'll stick with being incredibly grateful - to him and to every person and circumstance that has made it all possible.

Janine Ashbless said...

And on a more practical note -

If you are British, register as Self-Employed and pay those smaller National Insurance contributions. After a year or two you should be put on the short-n-easy tax form (4 pages). Save every receipt you can possibly offset against tax. Fill in the form well in advance of the deadline - set aside a week in June for example.

Doing my tax-return now takes one day a year.(And a certain amount of swearing, I'll admit, but then it's all over.)

Vincent Copsey said...

My writing hours are basically the same as school hours, which isn't necessarily what I'd choose, but...

And I'll second, Janine. File the Tax Return early, and then forget about it for another year. I file mine online and it calculates everything instantly. I particularly like it at the end when they decide they need to give me money.

Amanda Earl said...

this is brilliant, Olivia. thanks for an informative and entertaining post. i especially love the idea of creating other characters to handle rejections, marketing, etc. i see too many writers take rejection personally; the idea of having an administrator personna would really help.

Megan Kerr said...

Thanks, Amanda! I did once let my guard down and the writer opened an email by mistake... It was from United Agents, a new UK agency with many of the cream agents, and informed me coldly that "None of us are sufficiently passionate about your prose to consider representing you."

Wow. Talk about a stake through the heart.

I frantically emailed Adam, demanding emergency praise (yes, very professional!) and wept all weekend. On the Monday, Adam's reply came: apparently, that's just another standard-issue reply...

I do, literally, set fire to rejection slips. First I mark the response on my database, then their nasty scrap of paper & my matches have a little visit to the sink. I hope someone builds a widget for burning nasty emails! But mostly, I keep submissions as a very process-goal, not result-goal: the aim is submit X amount per month. That's it. Responses irrelevant. Julia Cameron has lots of advice in The Artist's Way on protecting the artist.

Jeremy Edwards said...

Wow, this is so comprehensive, so brilliantly road-mappy, and yet so delightfully witty a read. Olivia, I wish you'd rewrite my road atlas.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous. I recently joined the ranks of the full-time erotica writer (as wel as stay-at-hom mom), so this is extraordinarily helpful.

Megan Kerr said...

Thanks, Jeremy! Oxford's street map, happily, doesn't need rewriting, what with Pusey Street, Friar's Entrance (a back alley), St Mary's Passage... But I dare say I could give yours a go!

Jamaica - great news, and an incredibly brave move! The combination of child-care and writing has always seemed a terrifying one to me, partly because I kill people who interrupt my train of thought and the law looks unkindly on that. Glad it's useful to you :-) I had so much more I wanted to include, of both advice and information, but I managed to stop myself - just - from writing a book-length post!

GLBT Promo said...

I am an article writer, a ghost writer, an author, and an editor. I am a full-time writer! I used to get up at 5 in the morning, get on the train with the rest of the sheep, work for a demanding boss and then get on the train to go home with the rest of the sheep. NEVER will I do that again if I can help it. Writing full-time is a dream come true for me. Last night I went to bed at 1 a.m., but I got up this morning at 9 a.m. Who knew that you can actually get 8 hours of sleep, be productive and still do what you love? LOL Not to mention the fact that now I exercise on a regular basis. When I used to work for the demanding boss AND try to write when I got home, exercise took a back seat. I'm losing the weight I don't want on my body and looking better every day. I love my life. I'm proud of the fact that I can pay my bills with the writing I create. I'm a happy woman.

Megan Kerr said...

YAY, Jolie! It is wonderful, isn't it? One of the nicest things I've found is that I finally have time for past times again. All my free time, when I worked for a wage, was oriented around writing and all my other enjoyments were squeezed out. Then, when I started writing full-time, I realised I'd better get them back and quick, especially those that didn't involve the computer - so as well as web design and databases, I have time to paint, collage, play guitar, decorate...

And yes, I'm prouder of being able to support myself like this than I've ever been of a salary.

Nadir said...

Oh, my god, this is just what I needed!


*sticks to the wall*

*pulls it down*

*reprints in larger font*


Anonymous said...

Thanks for an awesome lesson! It's very much appreciated! :)

Madeline Moore said...

Nicely done, Olivia. I admit 'the writer' in me takes rejection hard.
Luckily I have a buid in administrator - Felix - who dismisses rejection with a wave of the hand.

Today I had annual blood tests etc. (and a cardiogram. huh?) Anyway my doctor is in the Superstore, a huge grocery emporium. I had to fast, so no coffee, no food, no leafing through the newspaper or checking email and blog - just off to give the blood tests and then - horrors - hang out in the superstore while Felix performed one of his favourite functions - grocery shopping.

And I was tired. I was FORCED to be up and around hordes of people when I was tired. This never happens to me, anymore, because I'm a full-time at home writer. My grumpiness was replaced by gratitude, because I remember so many times in my life when I had to at least pretend to be alert.

Coffee helped, of course. But best of all was coming home and getting back to my routine. I love being a writer. I marvel at the idea that my raw materials are FREE.

But the freelancer needs organization and a certain amount of solid time-at-the-keyboard as well as time to simmer ideas and turn them into something more.

As it turned out, I hadn't expected a cardiogram (huh?) so I had body lotion on and the rather dour female tech had to wipe it off to attach the ... jeez whatever they're called...little sticky things with wires coming out of them...anyway as she was performing this task I wondered if I could turn it into an erotic short story.

As you know, guys are appearing in my 6th floor windows and on my balcony, fixing the brickwork. Now there is a story! I think, rather than have him climb in and do her in her apartment, I'll have her climb out and do him on the scaffolding. The danger! The excitement! The thrill of the new!

Hmmm, now I'm writing a post length comment. I'll be using your suggestions as I tackle my third Black Lace novel, which is due January 4. (counts on fingers)
Isn't that four months, rather than the customary six? Hmmmm...
I had best get to work!

Unknown said...

I'm impressed that you have it all planned out so efficiently-so great for new writers or um organized people.

I'm lucky I get to stay home and write-apart from having 4 kids who apparently 'expect' things from me like food, laundry, rides to school etc etc.

Realizing I could write was like finding the last piece of the puzzle that was me. I might moan about deadlines and crummy pay but I seriously love my job and treat it as a career-you're certainly right about that Olivia.

One other important thing for a writer to do is to build a team around themselves who supports them, nourishes them and helps them succeed in the horrible world of publishing. Get good supportive friends, a good agent and good relationships with your publishers-all of them should be working with you to ensure your success. (ooh I sound all Californian)

And unfortunately, some of us 'do' have to finish one book on Friday and start a new one on Monday-that is if they set themselves stupid deadlines-note never ever ever do that again...

Lucy Felthouse said...

Thanks Olivia! This is all mega helpful stuff!

And all you lovely lot who have left comments... you've just made me want even more to start writing full-time, instead of squeezing it in around everything else! x

andiether said...

I'm still figuring out how to write full-time. I'm working at the comm office of my church, and it involves some local newspaper writing (which isn't all that discerning or selective, I have to say), but I still lack a great deal of experience that'll get me hired. I'm also checking craigslist almost compulsively for freelance editor positions, and I have at least one that's likely to get me somewhere by the end of the month. But you have to charge so low in order to compete. I also check out, ACESjobs, and publisher's marketplace.

What is the advice for becoming a full-time writer/editor?

The post is good for how to maintain being a full-time writer, though. :D I have two personalities: the writer and the editor. The editor deals with everything that the writer doesn't.

Dayle A. Dermatis said...

Brilliant post! I'm about to dash off on a trip so I don't have time for deep comments, but I did want to point out a UK/US difference--if you're a US writer, save those rejection slips! They are crucial in case of a tax audit. Electronic files are not enough; the tax man/lady needs to see orderly rows of paper files filled with submission cover letters and responses.

(I have friends--full-time well-respected writers--who've been audited twice. They were so well organized that both times, the auditor gave them tips for even better tax benefits. I aspire to be them!)

Megan Kerr said...

Goodness, Dayle! It seems so strange to have to file things where no money is actually made or spent. I have been audited and they did want paper copies of everything, which simply meant printing everything off because only electronic files existed. (Try getting a paper receipt for your webspace!) Thanks for pointing that out, though.

Magdalune - getting there could be a whole nother post, or possibly a book... I think everyone's route is quite idiosyncratic, but - unless you've hit the bestseller lists for a few years running - it tends to be a mix of things, and stay a mix of things. Look at all the things Jolie does, for instance. (And that seems less than ideal at first, but then - as I point out - six months into writing fiction full-time and you're gasping for a creative break, so those other strings to the bow are more than financially necessary.)

Madeline Moore said...

Felix devotes an hour each morning to research online, including poring over Craigslist. No joy for a full year, but recently he scored a lovely gig writing for an upcoming website. He sends me the stuff I might be interested in (hey! my own market researcher!) and I submitted a work sample to a new series for teens, to be a ghostwriter. They chose someone with more experience but I received a lovely rejection letter and a promise to keep my resume on file.

You never know when market research will pay off. So keep the faith, magdalune (which should be easy as you work in a church...)

Olivia, I like your suggestion of keeping something 'from the heart' going at all times. I'll give that a try.

Oh, and belonging to a group, like Lustbites or B(uy) the Book or any of the many, many organizations out there now, can really help alleviate that fear that maybe you're the only one with writer's block/conflicting deadlines/too many distractions, etc.

I love Lust Bites.

Megan Kerr said...

For erotica, Scarlet magazine in the UK accepts submissions and pays well, and don't forget that Black Lace is crying out for quality erotica. (And remember: Read The Guidelines.) For freelance, consider non-writing work as well - it can help balance out the time you spend writing.

andiether said...

I may have missed it in my two or three readings of Black Lace guidelines, but do you accept American writers. It just says to write English with proper spelling and grammar, but across the water, things are a little different. :)

Madeline Moore: I'll keep looking. And I may work in a church, but I'm also an atheist. It's just that no one knows. Shhh... :)

Olivia Knight: I'll keep plugging.

Megan Kerr said...

Magdalune - YES, they do; at least half the Lusties are American! The guidelines are online. And don't forget to reread Janine's interview with the editor. I think there may be a few short story collections coming out too ("short story" for BL is 6000 words, not the 1000-2000 most magazines want).

Janine Ashbless said...

There are currently 3 short-story-collections accepting subs at Black Lace. "Liasons" has a deadline of October I think, "Misbehaviour" has a deadline of December, and "The Affair" has a deadline of February sometime. 6000 words each time. Full details are available if you sign up to the Black Lace Chat board (widget at right). You've got to be female.

Anonymous said...

Tax levied on an individual’s earnings and other income and paid to a government, which uses the money as revenue Personal income tax.