Career

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Many years ago, when Hector was a pup (look it up), I made the fateful decision to start writing full-time. Sounds like a dream, no?

Well, in some ways, it was. But several things made that transition possible. First, I had already enjoyed some success as an author, having published my first book and contracted (if I recall correctly, and that’s never a given) my next two books.

Second, one day I got two phone calls within minutes of each other; each one offered me a few paying writing opportunities. I had said yes to the first call, but told the second caller, a BIBE (“big important book editor”), that I’d have to get back to him. I was confident I could accomplish the first caller’s projects while working my low-paying, time-consuming, full-time job; but the two callers’ projects combined seemed too much. I would have to turn down the second caller’s projects.

Upon hanging up from that second call, I was a bit crestfallen. My wife sat next to me on the couch and, after I related the content of the calls, asked, “If you were writing full-time, would you be able to do it all?”

“Well, yeah,” I said.

“Did they mention money?”

“Yes.”

“Would the money support us?”

Altogether, the combined contracts exceeded what I was making in my full-time job. “I’m pretty sure.”

She might’ve rolled her eyes. “Well? What are you waiting for?”

A few days later, I gave my notice; and a month later, I was a full-time writer. But there was one more factor that contributed to quitting my “day job.”

Third, I wasn’t making much money at my day job.

Those three factors—a bit of a track record, a few solid offers, and the fact that we’d been living around the poverty level already—made me a full-time writer. And I’m happy to report that, since then, I’ve added to my track record, continue to get occasional solid offers, and continue to flirt with the poverty level.

But my story is merely descriptive, not prescriptive. I routinely warn writers against quitting their day jobs. It takes a long time to build to a point where some combination of advances, royalties, work-for-hire, and plasma donations supply enough income to pay the rent (or, in my case, the Dunkin’ Donuts line-of-credit).

Around the time I started writing full-time, I was chatting with another author, a novelist who is much smarter and more accomplished than I am. He said that when he made the decision to write full-time, he took a page from his family’s experience starting and running a restaurant. He said that, for the first two years, a startup like that meant 12- to 16-hour days, every day, 365 days a year, in order to build the foundation of a successful business. So that was roughly the kind of schedule he set for himself in order to produce the output that would blaze the path for his later writing efforts.

I said, “Wow.” After further thought, I said, “Wow.”

That’s not a route everyone could or should take. My brain doesn’t function a full 16 hours a day, let alone 365 days a year. But it apparently worked for him; he’s published something like a bajillion books and won a number of impressive awards.

So, having written all that, I’ll conclude with the answer I sometimes give when someone asks, “When can I quit my day job?” I say, “When you’re making as much money writing as you are at your day job. Or maybe more, since you’ll have to buy your own health insurance and fully fund your FICA contributions.” Not exactly Solomonic wisdom, I grant you. And maybe not all that encouraging, either. But consider the source, and take it or leave it.  

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