The Rambling Writer quits teaching—well, almost…

I knew from an early age that I would be a writer. I wrote my first (illustrated) science fiction story at six, and when my Grandma Sara played the card game “Authors” with me, I vowed to be a Real Author like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. So I understand and celebrate the undeniable passion to write. But how do we pursue the dream?

We’ve all heard the standard advice to aspiring novelists: “Don’t quit your day job.” And the advice from life coaches: “Commit fully to your dream; if you build it, they will come.” So if your dream is to be a successfully-published novelist, which advice do you follow? From what I’ve seen, the answer seems to be “either” or “both.” And it depends on how you define “successful.” One size does not fit all.

First, think about your dream. What does “successful” mean to you? Will you write and publish the Great American Novel to critical acclaim, and not worry if it doesn’t earn you huge royalties? Do you “want to be a paperback writer” who makes a living writing genre fiction with a reliable reader/fan base? Would you be happy self-publishing ebooks online and finding a modest number of readers willing to pay 99 cents a pop? Or do you envision writing the next blockbuster bestseller that goes viral with huge sales and a movie deal, enabling you to retire on your earnings?

Your dream, of course, may evolve as you write and mature and write some more. But it’s probably wise to start out with a realistic grasp of the challenges involved in achieving your particular version of being a working novelist.

From Randy Ingermanson on his blogsite Advanced Fiction Writing:

“A very few writers do stupendously well, earning millions of dollars per year. The top 1000 novelists make quite a good living at fiction writing. Everyone else struggles. They have a day job or a working spouse or an inheritance or they live in poverty.

“There is no way to change that, because the market for fiction is a free market, and free markets reward only the top performers extremely well. There are fields where you can earn excellent money for mediocre performance. Fiction writing is not one of them.”

Of course, the publishing scene is changing so rapidly, it’s hard to predict what conditions are going to be for novelists in 5 or 10 years, and a lot of writers are indie publishing these days, finding readers online and usually selling their novels for low prices. With minimal costs if they don’t pay for editing or cover design, many are happy making even modest amounts of money, or simply getting readers to enjoy and respond to their writing they might even be giving away for free. But for those determined to make a living with this indie approach, there’s a lot of dedication, discipline, and work involved—not to mention investment of dollars in editing and cover-design services, etc., to produce professional, quality books. They must promote their books and find readers, with a lot of competition. If you want to make money, you’ll need to be a go-getter with a business plan.

Mindy Klasky, bestselling novelist and Book View Café member, has just published a terrific guide to managing the business of writing: The Rational Writer: Nuts and Bolts. Check it out, especially if you’re going the indie route.

More statistics from The Guardian:

“Figures show the vast majority of authors, both traditionally and self-published, are struggling to make a living from their work. The publishing industry has never been so sharply divided. In the week when the erotica writer Sylvia Day signed a staggering eight-figure two-book deal with St Martin’s Press, a survey reveals that 54% of traditionally-published authors and almost 80% of go-it-alone writers are making less than $1,000 (£600) a year.

“More than 9,000 writers, from aspiring authors to seasoned pros, took part in the2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey, presented at this week’s Digital Book World conference. The survey divided the 9,210 respondents into four camps: aspiring, self-published only, traditionally-published only, and hybrid (both self-published and traditionally-published). More than 65% of those who filled out the survey described themselves as aspiring authors, with 18% self-published, 8% traditionally-published and 6% saying they were pursuing hybrid careers.

“Just over 77% of self-published writers make $1,000 or less a year, according to the survey, with a startlingly high 53.9% of traditionally-published authors, and 43.6% of hybrid authors, reporting their earnings are below the same threshold. A tiny proportion – 0.7% of self-published writers, 1.3% of traditionally-published, and 5.7% of hybrid writers – reported making more than $100,000 a year from their writing. The profile of the typical author in the sample was ‘a commercial fiction writer who might also write non-fiction and who had a project in the works that might soon be ready to publish,’ according to the report.”

The huge gap between the splashy big publishing deals and the majority of small advances or indie earnings seems to reflect the growing gap in our society between the “haves” and “have nots,” but that’s a topic for another day. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the devaluing of books, perhaps related to the ease of digital and indie publishing, with accompanying reader expectation of low prices (and perhaps low quality control), so that issue might also be factored into your consideration of your dream route to becoming a novelist.

If you decide to commit to making a living as a writer, with no day job, be prepared for the pressure to write quickly. Most professional novelists must write and publish multiple novels every year. In genre fiction, you might be funneled toward formula plots and characters in order to keep up the output, which is fine as long as you’re happy with those projects and the profits. Do be aware that book contracts or freelance writing usually don’t come with a safety net of benefits, and certainly not a steady paycheck. In the case of a major illness, accident, or other disaster, the dream could become a nightmare of frantically searching for extra freelance work, begging, or borrowing. (I know; I’ve been there, and have seen other authors hit the wall.)

So, if you take the advice to get a day job (or maybe two, these days), you’ll have more job security, and usually you can pay the rent. The downsides?

Your job will be top priority, in order to pay the bills, and you might not have the energy and focus to write during your off hours. Your family might unreasonably expect you to spend time with them! And you would be locked into a work schedule that would rarely allow flexibility to travel for inspiration and research.

In my own case (after some years living on minimal book advances and/or “collecting writing material” by traveling, teaching scuba, and taking other odd jobs), I finished an advanced degree in English/Creative Writing and followed the common advice of taking a teaching job to support my writing. The problem with that tactic is that teaching—especially teaching creative writing, which I’ve done for 15+ years now—sucks up a lot of creative juices and emotional energy, and I found that I wasn’t doing a lot of my own writing. In academia, most professors/instructors are writing shorter pieces, because it’s hard to find enough focus and down time to conceptualize and complete a complex novel. Most academics don’t expect to make much money publishing their pieces in university or literary presses; it’s more a matter of “publish or perish” within the system that pays their wages. I’m somewhat of an odd duck in that environment, writing commercial novels.

What I think the ideal writer’s job would be is a physical, perhaps even monotonously routine job that would provide exercise and space for thinking out plots and characters. Then go home and write! I’m thinking a walking mail-delivery route might be perfect. For your health and sanity, try to avoid the all-too-common jobs that would have you sitting at a computer for eight hours a day, then expecting to come home and sit at a computer writing your opus. You’re in this for the long haul, so please take care of your body’s needs as well as your creative mind. I know that Kevin Anderson, a fledgling author along with me back in the Jurassic Period and now a wildly successful bestseller, maintains mind/body balance by dictating his novels while he’s out hiking.

As for quitting my own day job: Through a combination of factors—enough retirement funds in the bank, a terrific husband to share the load, and enough money coming in from my books and part-time editing–I’m phasing out teaching to focus on my own writing. My new novel-in-progress is underway.

There are so many creative options for following your dream. So take a breath, visualize and plan, then go forth and write!

sarahawaiibiggestAuthor’s Bio: Sara Stamey returned to hometown Bellingham, WA, after treasure hunting and teaching scuba in the Caribbean; backpacking Greece, South America, and New Zealand; operating a nuclear reactor; and owning a farm in Chile. Just retired from teaching creative writing at WWU, she offers independent editing services. Her novel THE ARIADNE CONNECTION won the Cygnus Speculative Fiction Award; ISLANDS won Chanticleer’s Paranormal Suspense and the Hollywood Book Festival Genre Award. “A stomping, vivid ride.”(Statesman Journal)

See and her Rambling Writer blog at