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aMissingSignal asks: How can one afford to be a writer?

I’m not trying to be twee here, I promise, or give that greeting-card-sweet writing advice that causes me to twitch and strike my teeth together, but I honestly believe that you should go “into” writing only if you feel you have no choice—like you can’t afford to be anything else.

I’m also sort of assuming that by “writer” you mean novelist. Because there are many types of writing that one can very much afford to be, because they pay pretty decently. Many corporations, for example, employ technical writers. That’s a skilled, salaried profession. There are copywriters and news writers and educational writers and various other kinds of writer that are all writers, and you can make your living there.

But if you do mean novelist (or let’s say “book writer” to encompass non-fiction writers and graphic novel writers, etc.), then making a living becomes a lot trickier. This is where one conjures up the mental image of two hobos sharing one bean.

The reality is that the VAST MAJORITY of book writers do not make their living solely from writing books. The reality is that many advances are small, and you only write so many books in a lifetime (with the possible exception of V.C. Andrews, who has written over sixty books since her death as opposed to the six or so she wrote while alive, which is VERY IMPRESSIVE WORK). The reality is that a lot of books never earn back those advances.

Should this cause you despair? No. Not really. Why no despair? Because the world is full of good things to do, and not even writers write all the time. Full disclosure: I do, as of this writing, make my money from writing books. I’m very lucky. But it also took a quite a few years to get to this point. And once you hit that point, a certain amount of your day is spent in the business of writing. My inbox is full of the businessy type emails that I used to get when I had a job at an office. It’s still cool and awesome and all of that, but I don’t want you to get the impression that we just sit around in colorful floppy hats, reciting poetry all day long. That is only on Thursdays.

Every day but Thursday.

So, how do you afford to be a writer? Here is how I did it for a long time:

1. FREELANCE WORK: Freelance work is your friend. I used to pick up freelance jobs in the same careless way that some people pick nuts out of a bowl. “Oh, I can take on all of these,” you think, scooping up the cashews. Why freelance? Well, freelancers are often paid more, can work completely weird hours, and can work from home. And if you work REALLY HARD, you can, for example, do a project that should take ten hours in two hours. You get the same money, but you don’t have to sit and spin in a desk chair all day, and you can be WRITING instead. Be warned, though. Freelance jobs can be INTENSE sometimes, but you can get good stories out of some of them. I offer this example from my life.

2. OFFICE JOBS: Also these. I did a lot of these. I answered a lot of phones and did a lot of filing and wrote up a lot of notes for some very understanding employers who seemed to know that I was actually spending all of the time at my desk WRITING. On a good day, they got about an hour’s worth of work out of me. My most understanding employer actively encouraged me, in fact. This does not normally happen, and usually you have to write on the down-low. (TIP: If you firm has templates for memos and things like that, open one of these and write your story in it. That way it looks like work from a distance.)

It looks like work from a distance.

That was the same firm where we had all these fancily framed collages on the wall of manila folders and black lace. I used to have to stare at these while at the copier. They drove me nuts. So one day I said, very loudly, “What are these? It looks like someone ran over Stevie Nicks with a file cabinet.” I was then informed that the works were VERY EXPENSIVE PIECES OF ART created by one of the partner’s wives, who was currently having a art show in Belgium. That was ALSO the same firm where I was working the front desk one day while wearing a very long sundress that had buttons all the way up the front, and the president of the firm walked in, and I quickly wheeled my chair over to reach for a fax to give him and the hem of the dress got stuck under the wheel and THE ENTIRE DRESS CAME OPEN AND BASICALLY FELL OFF as he approached me.

So my two major points of advice on office jobs are: don’t comment on the artwork and don’t wear clothing that can fall off.

3. HAVE ANOTHER SKILL: This applies to every type of creative person I know. Develop another skill. One that pays some cash money. Because you can’t reply on sandwiches left over from status meetings as the main source of your nutrition.

4. KEEP WRITING: This is the key. Write whenever there is time. Make the time. Commutes, lunches, evenings, mornings, weekends . . . hand it over. It belongs to the writings. If you don’t feel like doing this, the writings may not be for you AND THAT IS FINE. But if you do want to write, you will make the time. You will do what you need to do.

erin_bowman asks: How do you tackle editing? What approaches do you find work best? (I always end up getting overwhelmed by this process)

I am not a military commander. I just want to make that clear up front. But I imagine that, say, Napoleon, when looking at campaigns to take on, didn’t use the same strategy every single time. He probably looked at the terrain, the situation, the people he was fighting and developed his plan based on those facts. Or Churchill, when fighting back the Nazis . . . he was constantly surveying the situation, getting creative.

This is how I think of editing. I have heard of people who have ways of going about their edits, methods they use over and over. I admire this, but I can’t do it. To me, each campaign is different. Sometimes I am going over mountains, and sometimes I am crossing seas.

The first question I ask myself is: HOW MUCH TIME DO I HAVE? This is the key factor in my planning. If you have no deadline, I suggest you impose one on yourself. It helps. That gives you a goal and a boundary.

The next question is: WHAT IS THE MOST BROKEN THING ABOUT THIS BOOK? Because they are always broken. Never worry about that. Don’t think that your situation is hopeless because your book is dragging ass and coughing up smoke and barfing fire. That’s all fine. Get in there, dismantle it, and find out what’s burning. I hack my books apart with chainsaws in drafts two and three and four. The scalpels come much later. Don’t be afraid to EDIT BIG.

Remember: THINGS ARE NEVER AS HOPELESS AS YOU THINK. Despair over a draft is healthy and normal. I worry about people who walk around saying, “My draft is amazing!” I’ve never met anyone who did that, and if I ever do, I am going to capture that person and hand them over to SCIENCE. Because either they are on to something HUGE, or they are a clueless egomaniac.

At some point, it will feel like this.

At the same time, realize that you may never be 100% satisfied. At some point, you must let go. It takes time and practice to know when. It also helps considerably to have an editor just take it from you. If you don’t have an editor, maybe you can arrange to have a friend STEAL the book from you on a certain date? I think that would work as well.

Also, DON’T TAKE ADVICE. Ignore everything I’ve said. Find your own way, and it will be right. Probably.

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Posted: Friday, October 8th, 2010 @ 11:59 am
Categories: The Tiger Diaries, advice, publishing, services to literature, unpredictable behavior.
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  1. shanella Says:

    I feel that this is more an ASK MJ than MJ Advises post …

  2. Miss_Tammy Says:

    I had my skirt fall off while book talking to a teen and her father once, but the whole dress in front of your employer? That’s something special.

  3. Andrew Says:

    Not only can’t you reply on sandwiches left over from status meetings, you also can’t rely on them, either (point three, question one).

    Most annoyingly, and repetitively (across social networks and blog comments, alike),


  4. Odd Says:

    This is most helpful! Thank you for posting it :)

  5. Dawn Kurtagich Says:

    Will you move into my attic if I promise to feed you every day? You could be the other hobo to my bean! :)

    Great post Maureen, as always! I must remember not to wear my flimsy sun-dresses to work anymore. Just in case.

  6. Marisa Birns Says:

    Ok before I don’t take your advice just want to say it’s good advice. Trick is to find freelance work. *looks and looks*

  7. Maggie Says:

    Aha! Excellent advice. I don’t know why it helps so much to hear that everyone struggles through rewrites, but it really, really helps.

    I finally figured out to rewrite a chapter at a time instead of trying to comprehend and transform the entire book. But I might have a pumpkin for a head, so….

    Anyway, thanks!

  8. Erin Says:

    First of all, thank you for weaving my question about editing into this post. I’m always looking for the perfect solution, and your advice about tackling each “campaign” as necessary is super helpful. Very common sense, and yet I hadn’t thought of it that way. I’ll be sure to take that advice (or not take it), and figure out what works best for my situation.

    Also, side note — that picture of George Bailey stumbling chaotically through the snow is EXACTLY how I feel when I sit down to edit a massively broken chunk of my MS. I’ll figure it out though… eventually… and maybe then Clarence will get his wings.

  9. margosita Says:

    This is a great and funny post. I appreciate the humor and the fabulous story about the dress. It gives practical and memorable advice!

  10. Anna Hailey Says:

    Holy crazy wardrobe, Batman. What interesting black satin bracers on the office girl!

    Anyway, great advice, MJ! Personally, I went the become-a-stay-at-home-mom, take-up-writing-to-stay-sane route, but that’s just me. It’s not for everyone.

  11. MesserFan Says:

    When I worked as a retail manager, I wrote short stories on receipts. Now as stockroom monkey I write them on sticky notes and keep them in my back pocket.

    As a writer slogging through the gross bits trying to reach the other side, (where I hope I can shower off the muck) I’m clapping all by myself with tears welling in my eyes. I’m going to print this out and put it at my workspace because it’s spot-on advice and I want to hug it.

    Thank you MJ. Like a bunch of bananas. :)

  12. Jessie Carty Says:

    As a writer, I love this! And as a poet, I make nothing :) So I teach, which I love, which was much better than years of that office work. I used steno pads so it looked like I was taking notes hehe

    Great advise on the editing. I’m gonna share that with my students!

  13. Anne Says:

    This is incredible.
    I am very (very) amateur. I have ideas, but am very disorganized. I’ve started two projects in the past only to have them die at 30,000. One I’m still a bit attached to, but unable to face it anymore. I did finish a 46000 “novel” (middle-grade type) one type. I’ve written some poetry. I’m not sure if I should just tackle short stories for a while until I can get these “bigger ideas” sorted or what. I’m very confused! I don’t do well with outlines. I don’t know my true voice. Any thoughts?
    Reading this was very nice. I like to learn more a long the way, its great. Will be reading your site more regularly now.

  14. Erica Henry Says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks

  15. David Gillaspie Says:

    Writer to non-writer: My story starts with a bang but now the climax is too weak, resolution too short. I need a strong opening that doesn’t over-shadow the big scenes and I don’t tie everything up in the end. My readers have a brain and like to figure things out.

    Non-writer to writer: Sounds good…how ’bout them Cowboys.

    Writer to non-writer: Romo is the second coming of Danny White.

    Wife to writer: Get a haircut and get a real job. And ditch your Cowboy pals.

    Thanks Maureen, great stuff.

    Now where’s that subscription block?


  16. Anne Says:

    Maureen, I hope you don’t mind any question. I understand if you cannot respond. But what is a typical day like for you? I am dearly trying to be organized.
    I have ideas, but I can’t get them outlined into something more. I have completed a couple of previous things, but they are very amateurish and one of them I lost my magic or desire for.
    I’m struggling with creativity because I’m in a tight spot (for the last few years now). So experiences and stuff? Not much. Other than a lot of worry, sadness, isolation, etc. And to write about those things, I find is where I can do well – but I don’t want to. I just want to be a kid and playful and creative.
    Anyway, any organization tips? Someone starting from the beginning with nothing but a buzz in the head. Sit down to the desk…and what. How to get the straight and the ideas outlined and kept in simple, efficient order?
    (SOrry for the hijacking. I understand if you can’t respond. I hope this is confidential (my email not published).

  17. mary Says:

    so great post & I love the pics, I know the last 2 are from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington & It’s a Wonderful Life? got a Frank Capra fan on our hands…. or is it a Jimmy Stewart fan? but what movie is the first one from?

  18. Dr. Sallie N. Cheinsteen Says:

    Okay, Dr. Laura, here’s the deal.
    You are awesome. But me? Am I awesome? I struggle with this question every day. Am I good? But then, I think, I don’t care. I want to do this, so here I go.
    Here’s what you need to help me with, Dr. Laura. What if I don’t always have a burning desire to write? I want to write to make an impact on other people and to fix myself, make myself better through language and perseverance. Once I finally sit down and write, then I’m usually okay, for awhile. I love to read. But if I don’t always have that burning desire, if I sometimes want to run away from my project, although I love words and books and ideas more than anything else, am I cut out for it? Or am I one of those people who ought to do something else?
    Help me Dr. Laura. You’re my only hope. :) Sweet pics, by the way.

  19. Jen Says:

    *puts sweatshirt over buttoned blouse* Phew, thanks for that piece of advice… we could have had a huge disaster!

    So basicall you’re saying you don’t know what the hell you’re doing but it works. :)

    Great advice, or non-advice.

  20. Aj Says:

    Hey Maureen, great post! I was wondering, how do you not go crazy insane while waiting for a reply from an agent?

  21. Patricia Says:


    I always think my draft is amazing when I finish it. But the next day, I go back, and it is broken again.

    I <3 your blog.

  22. HJ Ducky Says:

    luv your blog <3

  23. WritingLeigh Says:

    MJ, why are you always trying to crush my dreams?? Writing my novel was supposed to buy my family a vacation house on Maui!!! *grumbles* But, seriously, thanks for the post. They’re all excellent points, and I now know never, EVER to purchase a full-length button-down sundress.

  24. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon – Novel, Writing and Thoughts | jessiemac.com Says:

    [...] Ask MJ: How Can One Afford to Be a Writer? (via Maureen Johnson’s blog). [...]

  25. Random Little Tidbits #15 « i heart constance Says:

    [...] Maureen Johnson addresses the question: How Can One Afford to be a Writer? I definitely think that this advice (although written specifically for novelists) completely [...]

  26. Exal (amissingsignal) Says:

    So I’ve been reading this entry over and over. Deliberating over what my following steps should be, and trying to determine if I have the courage to leap into another period of uncertainty and exploding eye blood vessels.

    I can say honestly that I can not afford to live without writing. I graduated college two years ago, since then I’ve been struggling to find jobs to pay my excessive amount of loans and bills each month. Living as such, eats at you. It slowly dissolves your innards till digestion is impossible and food becomes anything but a source of nutrition and sustainability.

    What I’m trying to get at is; Thank you Maureen for this blog. It has given me the push that I’ve been looking for. Also, if I fail, it’s completely your fault… I’M JUST KIDDING-uh.

    So here I go, taking the first steps to something greater than myself. Ultimately, I think that’s what most creative people want to discover, higher existence that cannot be contained within a human vessel.

    Or at least that’s my understanding, and very well may be could be completely flawed.

    Oh well, I’ll return to the feel good of the year movie I’ve been watching. I hope that beautiful dog survives. He just came with a case of the rabies.

    To the future!

  27. Alisa Libby Says:

    I’m new to reading your blog and just wanted to add my note of appreciation. I’m one of those writers working on her book during her commute, her lunch break, at home after work, etc. The necessity of this can induce crankiness – I didn’t imagine that, as a published author, I would still be laboring over a draft during a long commute. But that said, I’m often amazed by how much work I can get done on the bus, of all places. We do what we must; and we writers must write!

    Thanks again for your honesty,

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