Writing vs Career vs Writing Career

One of my blog readers and (beta reader :)) brought up an interesting topic, and I think it was worth it’s own blog post.

So this is only vaguely connected – but I’d like to hear people’s opinion and it has a bearing I think on Lindsay’s situation. I think a serious writer who is earning a living from other work (not writing) can have a job but not a career because there is only so much emotional commitment and energy to go around and you have to put it in to one thing.

I think this is true for nearly everyone – there are a tiny number of people who are so exceptional they can do anything fairly brilliantly – for the rest of us there is this choice.


Agree? Disagree?

I agree with part of this – that if you want to be serious about writing and aim to make a career out of it, it’s very difficult to balance that with a career outside of writing. I have a job – it pays the bills, barely. And by barely, I mean, my husband and I have just moved in with my mother in law because they jacked up the rent on our ghetto apartment, and we can’t find an affordable apartment that will allow us to keep our cats, and doesn’t require me to have a car.

But part of the decision to do that was, I admit, that I don’t want to have to get a second job to survive, because if I did that, then I would seriously have no writing time. And that would kill me. I’ve been in the have-no-time-to-write situation before, and the frustration and depression that led to was crushing. I ended up quitting, once I found another job that paid better. I don’t want to do that again, ever.

My husband knows what happens to me if I don’t have time to write. When I get grumpy sometimes, he’ll take care of supper and tell me to go write.

I could move up in the company I work at if I wanted to. I’d even be interested if I wasn’t so busy getting my manuscript together right now. The elation of having finished the revision has sunk in, by the way – haven’t been in such a good mood in a long time.

I don’t know about these fabled people who can do both, though. They say no man can serve two masters. I’ve never heard of such a person in real life. Anyone I hear of does choose one or the other.

Lots of people write as a hobby, and there’s nothing wrong with doing it just for yourself. It’s no different from taking piano lessons, or ballroom dancing. People do it because they enjoy it, and develop a skill worthy of praise. As opposed to say, spending that time playing video games. Bragging about working on endgame content in World of Warcraft just doesn’t garner the same respect and sense of accomplishment as bragging about a dance or musical recital – or writing a novel.  These people may not aspire to getting published. They might, though, and some do, and they might be happy with getting a book or two out there in their lifetimes, but these aren’t people who aspire to make their living writing. They likely find themselves fulfilled by their primary career.

Then there’s the people who want to make a living writing. I don’t think you can really do that and work on developing a career at the same time. You could already have a career, and work on building a writing career, but there will come a point where, if you want to really get somewhere and accomplish enough to have a chance at making a living writing, you’ll have to decide which is going to come first – the other career, or the writing career.

You can spend twenty years revising a novel to perfection, and it could be a great novel at the end of that, and sell passably well. But that won’t make a career in writing. Most writers who support themselves writing, they’re saying you have to have at least one book out per year, to survive, and now they’re saying even that’s not enough. That takes discipline, and it takes more passion than the hobbyist writer needs to give it.

There’s a lot of people who say they’d love to make a living writing. There’s a lot of statistics saying the odds of getting published professionally, are pretty low (the most common one I see: 1/100), and the odds of getting published a second time are even slimmer.  But there’s also a lot of people who say they’d like to get published and don’t really try, or don’t try very hard. Or they try, and then they can’t handle rejection. Or they try, but shoot themselves in the foot by not doing their research on the importance of following submission guidelines. I love those people – I don’t have to compete with them. If those statistics include all those people who won’t get published because of something they don’t do, then that means whether or not I eventually make it, is far more in my own control than the statistics would make it seem. The question becomes “How badly do you want this?” Because if you want something badly enough, you’ll do whatever you need to, to get it.

You put enough quarters in the machine, eventually you’ll get that winning black gumball.


16 responses to “Writing vs Career vs Writing Career

  1. Passion, skill, craft, discipline, and a load of pure luck is what you need to succeed in publishing your work and maintaining a carreer. A trite and obvious comment, I confess. But I suspect you get as much joy from the creative process and honing your craft as you would garnering kudos from adoring fans. Regardless of the outcome, indulge your passion, and have fun with it — Even if it means taking a (shudder) job, to support your career! 🙂

    • Honestly, sometimes I wish I was one of those people who could choose not to write, and who could feel just as satisfied throwing myself into something that made more money. 😛

  2. Speaking as the afore mentioned blogger and beta reader 😉

    I think David’s right in that there is joy in the creative process. When a writer needs to write in the visceral “I’m gonna have to write or my brain will explode” kind of way this is not for money or even the recognition, genuinely good though those things are. It is a burden as Lindsay implies here, but it’s also the sign of a true artist. If you HAVE to write / draw / compose / knit whatever, you are an artist in the best sense of the word.

    And I’m mostly with Lindsay on the whole “put enough quarters in and your turn will come”, except it’s not so much “keep having a go and you number will come up” I think it’s more about relentless effort and persistency in the craft, taking advice, handling rejection, learning and getting better.

    And then there is this really tricky thing where you have to go to work and you come home exhausted and you have something to eat, and you want to spend a bit of time with your partner / friends / family….and you want to write. Then you discover that a full belly and being tired from a day at work does not often make for soaring creativity.

    So you have to make some decisions about what goes. I, for example, am unsociable. I have a few good friends but I am not interested in socialising ‘lite’. I’d rather tap on the keyboard, and I think it’s hard to be really commited to a career and to seriosuly write. As Lindsay says, you can’t serve tow masters. That’s the kind of choice you have to make.

    My big personal exception to this is – your partner and your kids comes before your writing. This is where it gets really, really hard; some people might not agree, I guess. It’s just my personal opinion, I’d go mad if I couldn’t write and I’d go mad without the discipline and love of my family around me, but I find if you invest in the ones you really love, there’s will be time for writing after that.

  3. Hey LIndsay, nice web site. I hope you are well – long time, no see.

    I thought I would jump in and add my own insight to the conversation. As I studied my craft, I too felt disheartened, and believed that with enough work and perserverance that my work would get noticed and begin to sell. It is unfortunately not that simple. It was explained to me that if your work did not sell it was for only two reasons …. 1) it was sent to the wrong place ….2) it was not ready to be published.

    Hard work and perservenance? Yes, the time must be put in. But as Bobby Jones so nicely noted “If you keep practicing your same mistakes over and over, you will never get any better.”

    We all have had our work critiqued. But if the critiques are positive and your work does not sell, and it was sent to the proper publisher …..Refer to #2.
    When we have our work critiqued, is it for that piece? No, it is for the next .

    Do we really study our craft? Do we source out mentors? There are grants and match-up sevices for new and upcoming writers. Do we read books by credible authors who teach writing and study their process? Do we read what we write? And then examine the skill of the author and his techniques? Really, really study. Do we take advntage of Writers iin Residence?

    I believe that the time studying your craft should outweigh your writing time in the very begining.

    The point I guess I was trying to make before heading off into a rant is “That if time is at a premium, does it not make sense to use it wisely?” Obvious, yes, but if one spends 40 hours a week making the same mistake over and over and does nothing to change it, next week will have another 40 hours wasted.

    How would one know if it was wasted time? Refer to #2. If nothing is changed in your approach to your craft, do you really expect your next work to sell?

    A published author is not a sign of a skilled writer. It is only a sign of a published author.

    For those who must write … write. For those wanting to get published, keep jamming those quarters in. For those wanting to become great writers …. study.

    • I wholeheartedly agree about the people who aren’t interested in polishing their craft. I have sent some of my stuff to one of the writers in residence, and got some very healthy feedback. This was at a point when, looking back, my writing was crap, and the advice was “when you rewrite, always rewrite the whole thing into a separate document.” Thinking back, I realize it was his nice way of saying, this is crap, you need to start from scratch, but I took it in the constructive way he meant it, and when I started rewriting from scratch, the work got better.

      Another gauge I’ve had is the response from beta readers (ones who read in my genre, anyway). When I first started with critiquing, I got a “this shows promise” response. After a few years, and restarts on new projects, I started getting more and more specific feedback, when I was making fewer mistakes, and the mistakes showed up clearer. Then I started getting “With a little polishing, this could be publishable.” Then, with the more recent stuff, I’ve been getting even more positive feedback.

      It’s been a very noticeable overall shift, and it’s been coming from the same places I’d sourced critiques originally. It certainly is a result of a lot of studying online of resources posted by accomplished authors, and reading both inside and outside my genre to observe how other authors have used the elements that beta readers pointed out I had difficulty with.

      I do want to be both a great writer, and published one. I’m already one who must write. I just figure, if I must write, I might as well be good at it, and get paid for it.

  4. I’ll try and focus my reply on saving time. As you notice, I stray from topic at times.

    Not all accomplished writers can teach/instruct/critique.

    When receiving work to critique, the first question asked should always be “what draft is this?” If this is not asked or given, how can a critique be given?

    If the critique is not given in a “hierarchy”, warning bells should be going off.

    A critique of “this shows promise” is useless. I would not waste time going down that road again. The same for “a little more polish…”. Time wasted is time taken away from your writing or life.

    When seeking a critique, source out people who can critique, trained to do so, then stick with them.

    As an author, you should be able to self critique your own work to a large extent. That is where the “hierarchy of the critique” comes in.

    Focus your attention on becoming great, nurturing your passion, honing your craft. Not the money. If you want the cash, become a technical writer, a journalist, an ad man.

    I think we can agree “luck” has nothing to do with writing. Truth has everything to do with writing. Sorry, starting to stray.

    Proper, educated critiques will save time, both in the front-end and back-end of the writing process.

    • Forgive me if I’m getting the wrong impression, but I get the sense that you’re trying to say you think I’m going about it all wrong, even though you have no idea what the quality of the critiques I’ve received is. When I say people have said “this shows promise” I’m not saying that was the entirety of the critique. I can’t exactly detail every critique I’ve had in the last 15 years, to justify the variety of quality critiques I’ve had, and to explain to you how I’ve learned to tell the difference between someone who is experienced in critiquing and who is not.

  5. The wrong impression.

    The wrong impression maybe that the writers that work hard attending workshops, retreats, seminars and studying to achieve their MFA to become the best writer possible, only to hear that all they had to do is sit at home, send off work and achieve sucess when it was ‘their turn” or wait until the literary gum ball machine poops out their lucky black ball.

    I hope, I really hope you acheive the sucess on your project. But what if you don’t?
    Are you willing to go another 15 years on the same path? You struggle with the lack of time. How much time do you give, the career suffers, family life suffers, and your writing suffers. Something will have to give.

    If I understand correctly, your equation for the writing life goes like this:

    Writing / making money = quitting day job = more writing time = more money.

    Of all the writers I know, you produce the most work. Lazy you’re not. But there is a disconnect between the amount of writing you produce and your idea of success.

    As you know, I am a huge Ray Carver fan. For those of us that think time is at a premium, try writng, school (college), a wife, two children and a job. A janitor. All that after moving to go to school.

    As I stated before I wish you success. If it evades you, refer to #1 and #2 and Bobby Jones’ story.

    • Ok, cool. Just, maybe watch the way you phrase things – I’d think a writer who has studied the craft as long as you have would realize how you sound to others in writing.

      Honestly, everything you’ve said I’ve heard a million times.

      I know I’m not lazy, though one of the reasons I produce more volume than other writers you know is I write primarily novels. The form is different, and while many techniques are the same, the method of organization is different, since you’re pretty much always dealing with multiple subplots.

      I don’t expect to get rich writing – what I would like is to make enough money writing that I could, yes, quit the day job, and thus have more time to write. I don’t think I understand what you think the disconnect is between the amount of writing I produce and my idea of success – I don’t really see the connection. A short story writer might be considered successful and only ever publish as much as would fill a single novel. That short stories don’t make a writing career that one can quit the day job for is beside the point. I’m not going to try and define success for anyone else, and I’ll thank anyone else for not defining it for me. Success is subjective.

      What I will define are my goals, and my goals are mine, and they don’t have to be anyone else’s. A writer who’s goal is to get one book published in their lifetime may consider themselves successful. A writer just starting out in their career and getting their first story published in a short story magazine might consider themselves successful for that stage in their journey.

      It takes longer to write a novel than a short story, and of course you have to write, as a wise man once said, your million words of crap. But I’ve worked hard learning, and it’s not all luck, it’s skill. That’s what I mean when I say if you just keep at it, you get there eventually. And right, you don’t need a MFA to be a writer, you need to write, then look at what you wrote and figure out what you did wrong so you can do it right next time. And you keep doing that until you get to a point where it’s good enough, either for you, if you write for yourself, or for your audience, if you write for others. Those are the quarters I’m talking about.

      Am I willing to go another 15 years on the same path?


  6. I’m happy to see your tenacity is still intact.

    I was happy to read that you would not define some eles’ sucess, but sad to see that you did. I guess it is not as subjestive as you first thought?

    You may find that publishing short story collections can be as difficult and

    • How exactly is offering examples of how hypothetical people *might* (and I did us the word ‘might’ on purpose) define their own success, defining another’s success for them?

  7. Please excuse the pause in my self indulgent rant.

    You may find that publishing short story collections to be as difficult and as rewarding as a novel. And they will pay the bills(Ray Carver).

    15 years down the same road? Well O.K. The golfers that Bobby Jones spoke of…. They were working hard as well.

  8. This is a fascinating debate! I don’t know ‘al’ but I have a bit of knowledge about Lindsay.

    As a person with a partner, kids, job, I know how writers have to balance other commitments with writing. But really, if you ask someone who has writing in their blood, in their bones, in their guts, – if they are prepared to carry on for 15 years – they are totally going to say ‘yes’. I know this because I think I’m one of those people (God help me…) and I suspect Lindsay is too, and you Al might be one as well. The answer to that question probably doesn’t change when other commitments come along. And I suspect Lindsay will always want to give serious time and emotional and intellectual commitment to the craft regardless of having a partner, kids, job, pets, tarantulas(?). I tend to think that for us writers it’s a case of “what else could we possibly do?”

    This does not mean we just sacrifice other stuff without a thought, but as I said in my post above, there is a choice to make and if we are serious as writers we have to make those choices and work them out, often with other people we love, occasionally with the need to make a living; and anyone who thinks that isn’t tough sometimes as a process hasnt really tried to do it. It’s the same for anyone commited as an athlete (topical at the moment) an artist, a business person, whatever.

    I wonder whether Lindsay’s gumball analogy has misled us. I’m prettly sure she didn’t mean simply if we all write enough somehow, randomly, we’ll one day get lucky. It’s not a lottery ticket. And I know Lindsay has that internal honesty and integrity we all need to take criticism and learn from it. To see work we are damn proud of criticised – because maybe it will make our wokr even better. Also Lindsay you have taken a course haven’t you? Didn’t you do a course in how to do revision, precisely so that you can be effcicient with you time?

    All this balances with the need sometimes to just write – and get it down – and build some skill by doing the job. But in the mix you’ve got learning from others as they critique your work, sheer practice, researching the market, determination, learning from others as you critique their work, maybe a bit of training and course attendance in there as well.

    We all have our own definition of achievement, these things are personal and subjective, and change over time. Furthermore, we all have different opprotunities to hone our craft and we make the best of them. I’d probably grab the chance to do a 2 year full time writing course, but it ain’t going to happen any time soon 😉 so I’ll make do with the bits and pieces from my list above; but one thing’s for sure, I have to write, and so I have to make choices in my life about priorities – hence my original point about beign able to have a job but not a career elsewhere.


  9. Hey Andy, I tried to respond earlier but it didn’t register. So I’ll try again.

    The question is not “how long are you willing to write?” But ” how long are you willing to write, remain unsuccessful, and continue to down the same path?”
    You are just as willing to do so for 15 years or more. I am not.

    The idea that my success is due to the fact that it was “my turn”, ” the gum ball finally dropped”, ” that I had a load of luck.” is mildly offensive.

    My achievements are due to the fact that I was not willing to continue for 15 years. I stopped writing, and studied the craft.

    I hope nothing but success for Lindsay and when ( not if ) it comes I would never, never, never say it was due to “it was her turn”.

    Every “subjetively”successful writer I know have something in common….. they have studied the craft.

    Andy you ask ” what else could we possibly do?” Why try to re-invent the wheel?
    The time limitations ,which we all have, have been resolved by other artists forever.
    I cobbled an answer for mine by what others have done. The first item was, study the craft. Refer to Bobby Jones.

    I referenced Ray Carver, a writer that had more pulling on him than I ever want to experience. A wife, a job, two young children, and school. School, studying the craft, because as he said ” The one thing I knew was that I knew nothing.”

    I wish you all the “subjective” success in your writing lives.

  10. Hi Al

    Thanks for this. Much of what you say does make sense to me. Of course, I’m responding without knowing you, or your acheivements so it’s difficult for me to say anything without the risk of coming up with something that’s just plain wrong, so please bear with me. That said…

    It seems to me just from what you said that actually you didn’t just stop writing, your desire and determination made you choose a different strategy to achieve the same ends – you studied the craft. So maybe what we are talking about is not so much whether we choose to write or not, but whether we choose to get smart about our writing, for example by making a conscious decison to get trained in some way.

    When I said “what else could we possibly do” (other than not write) this doesn’t preclude being smart about our writing. The fact that I have a desire to write, deep down doesn’t replace the need to find intelligent ways to write better. But there are lots of them and everyone has to choose. I might decide to invest $500 in a distance learning course to sort out dialogue in my work – nothing wring with that. That just compliments my desire to write and write well.

    What makes me smile about this is that from my limited knowledge of Lindsay (and you might know her better,) she seems like someone who is actually determined to learn and improve, the evidence I’ve seen suggests she is not just waiting for her turn, and is actively facing the challege all writers have to face that if we are going to get better we need to do a range of things: study the craft, practice, crtitique other work, and go through the hard process of having our precious work criticised . Lindsay? care to comment?..

    On the question of luck – writers need a little bit of it the same as anyone else in life. I got ‘lucky’ early in my writing careers because I was at a very small scale book signing (and I mean small scale – six books sold!!!) someone saw me sitting on my own and bought my book because they felt sorry for me, passed it on to a friend who ran a bookshop who passed it on to an editor they knew – and more stuff grew from that. This isn’t “it’s my turn” but I did nothing to earn that, and I’m grateful for a bit of blessing in the mix along the way.

    Finally, I notice you are using quote marks for the word “subjective”, which suggests to me you perhaps weren’t entirely comfortable with that word in connection with success. I can only speak for myself on this – when I say subjective I mean that each writer has thier own defintion of success. Mine wouldn’t be yours, yours wouldn’t be Lindsays etc. And mine now isn’t mine five years ago. These things are personal and they change so for me could be called subjective.

    Anyway, best wishes to you!


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