Notes from OryCon: I Quit My Job to Be a Writer! What Have I Done?

Anne Bishop
Matt Vancil
Jim Kling
  • Background
    • JK: Quit day job in 1992 to go to grad school. In 1995, decide he didn't want to complete PhD in chemistry, eventually decided to science writing internship. Then went on to do freelance, and has done it ever since.
    • MV: Screenwriter and filmmaker. Have a day job, but it's a writing job. Got that as a result of a string of other writing. First time he's had a consistent gig.
    • AB: Author of multiple series. Pretty much a full-time writer. Working on 18th novel, but still have a day job, two jobs a week. 
  • What is the writing life like?
    • JK: 
      • Currently have home office. Had an outside office, but stop using it. 
      • I don't get dressed or shower until noon. Doesn't keep regular hours.
      • Had a regular job briefly, hated the regular hours. Would rather work when he wanted to in order to be happy and healthy.
      • Deadlines dictate when he needs to get certain work done.
    • MV: 
      • Required to have bit of structure because of the company he works for.
      • To work at home, he prefers a place that quiet, cool, and calm.
      • But at work, he's forced into an environment that loud and chaotic.
        • because of this, he's abandoned the idea of structure, and just embraced the chaotic nature of the work.
      • On his own work, its about a routine: an outline and a quota. Because at the end of a day of work, the last thing he wants to do is write.
    • AB:
      • I like structure. I treat it as a job I have 5 days a week.
      • I don't get dressed for the office.
      • I throw on clothes, make coffee, and as soon as my brain is engaged and start working.
      • The less time between waking and getting to the keyboard the better.
      • The less input, less sensory, the better.
      • I set a weekly word count equal to 1,500 words a day. This is what is needed to make the deadlines for the size of the novels I write.
      • I sit down from 8:30 in the morning until about 1:30.
      • At that point, it's time to meet the day. Get cleaned up, and tend to all the other stuff. Nobody gets time in the writing slot except for the characters.
  • MV: The development is actual work too: sometimes its not just typing characters into a keyboard. It's deep thinking about motivation before you're ready to put words on the page.
  • AB: No matter what the process is, you have to be willing to produce the end product.
    • JK: You have to be willing to deal with the self-doubt. As a hobbyist, there's no external pressure. If you never send off the novel, the editor doesn't even know. But if you're self-employed, you have to finish it and send it off, because you need it for the check, even if you're worried that its a piece of shit.
  • AB: Know your writing style. Are you a sprinter or a marathoner? All of these are valid ways to get to the end-goal. But know what it right for you.
  • How do you deal with writing time vs. all the other things you can do?
    • MV: Ultimately it's about holding yourself to a quota. And what helps you make that quota is an outline. Problems in Act 3 are almost always due to problems in Act 1 that weren't resolved because there was no outline. Also, give yourself permission to suck. 
    • AB: There's a difference between 10 minutes of minesweeper to rest your brain and an hour of minesweeper to avoid writing.
  • Q: If you get blocked somewhere in the first draft, do you ever go back and edit as a way of making some progress?
    • AB: I do what I call musings. I open up another file, and just start typing about what I think the problems might be, what the characters might be thinking about. Sometimes this is like warming up after you've had an injury: you have to get the muscle warmed up.
      • Give yourself an ultimatum to do the chore you hate the most or write a 100 words. I guarantee that you'd rather write 100 words than to scrub the kitchen floor.
  • Before you quit your day job, what do you need to get from your writing?
    • AB: I've gradually decreased my hours at my day job down to two mornings. This has been very good to be able to gradually decrease.
      • If you hope to quit your day job and pay your mortgage and feed your kids, you should be writing under contract long before you give up your day job.
      • Don't give up the day until your fiction is earning enough to pay all of your bills for a year.
      • Ideally you need to not only pay bills, but also put aside money for emergencies, savings, etc.
      • Agents will say you should have ten books in print before you consider it…
    • MV: It's better to have a job and work some minimal hours than to simply quit. Determine how many hours a day you need to write, and then try to find a job that will support it.
      • You have to be prepared that this is a long haul… I went to a film school and they beat into your head that you'd need to do this for at least five years before you'd be able to make money at it.
      • Embrace any job that helps you further your goals: e.g. a tech writing job that gets you access to publishers.
    • JK: It's hard to do this and it requires some luck. But it also requires being willing to embrace a different lifestyle. If you want to drive a new car, have new clothes, eat your meals out… then don't quit your day job.
      • There are some, but not very many.
      • Be willing to scale back the lifestyle.
      • AB: Leave lean.
    • MV: If you're writing you are probably doing it because you love it. Be prepared that at some time it'll feel like a job, and you'll hate it. Remember why you started doing it.
  • Q: What's a likely amount of money to make?
    • AB: First advances are lucky to be $5,000, except for an exceptional few. And that comes in 3 payments over about 3 years, so it's not a lot of money. 
      • If you have 10 books in print, then royalties will start to add up, but it's still a live lean lifestyle.
    • JK: I have a second income in the form of my wife who works.
  • How do you force yourself to get dressed and leave the house? How do you avoid feeling isolated?
    • AB: Why do I want to leave the house?
    • JK: It is isolating, and sometimes it bothers me, and sometimes it doesn't.
      • I go out and meet with other writers every other week.
      • I get sick of being at home and go out.
      • My dogs force me to take them out.
  • Q: You've talked about the income, what about the expenses particular to writing?
    • AB: You need a computer, paper, electricity and time. The expense of writing is not great except that it is time.
    • MV: One cost is that you'll have a scary credit history if you don't have a steady income. 
    • AB: Self-employment tax: the other 7.5% you need to pay into social security.
    • MV: Keep very clear records of your sources of income. I have 8 sources of income.
    • JK: Deduct everything you can.
  • Q: How does it work between writing and film-making?
    • MV: Over the last two years, I didn't have a day job. When I had a film, I could film it. Now I have to negotiate the time off work from a job I want to keep.
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