On Keeping the Day Job

We’ve all got to make a living somehow. Some of us have to write, too. We can’t help it.  It’s a kind of compulsion. It would be great to have all day to create, to edit, to do some social media duties and never have to worry about paying the bills. But if you’re likoffice-spacee me and weren’t born independently wealthy, you’ve got to work.

So what to do? How should you make a living? And how do you square making a living with pursuing your creative avocation? Here’s a few things I’ve learned along the way. Most apply to writing, but they could apply to any creative line of work.


Rethink that Super-High-Stress Career
Maybe becoming a lawyer or a surgeon isn’t the best path for you. If you’re really dedicated to becoming a writer or an artist, you might want to consider putting away that LSAT, MCAT or GMAT test book. There’s nothing wrong with being a lawyer, doctor, etc., but you have to think realistically about work-life balance. Sure, those are fine ways to make a living, but you have to put in a lot of time (measured in years) and money (measured in the $100,000s) to get a career in those fields. And even when you get there, being a top-notch lawyer, doctor, or business manager will probably not give you lots of free time to write.

Sure, there are people who have “shot the moon” in those professions, making a lot of money and cashing out. But this is unlikely and a risky proposition. And it requires incredible self-discipline and a long wait for the payoff.

Consider a Job that Pay the Bills, but Is Flexible
Instead, you might want to consider the middle path. Not a job that’s a dead end or meaningless for you, but something that pays the bill and allows for the max time for other pursuits.

One of my best writing gigs (and realistically, probably a relic of the 90s) was as freelance ad copywriter. It paid well and left me a decent amount of time to write. On those days when I wasn’t writing ads for money, I could have a long breakfast, a couple of cups of coffee and go for a walk along the beach. Around 11 a.m., I’d hunker down and start writing for the day. It was epic.

Or take my friend, Daniel. He’s a neo-natal nurse. It can be stressful, no doubt. But the great thing? It’s three-days on, three days off. You get three solid days to recuperate and write. A nice writing gig.

I’ve heard teaching can also be a great writing gig: lots of time off in the summer and a stable income. A great combo for writing. I always personally thought that being a security guard at a car park or a warehouse down by the docks or some other low-priority target, would be a great gig for a writer. There are other great gigs out there too. Anything that lets you turn off completely, is stable and gives you the flexibility and energy to write is ideal.

Consider a Day Job that Includes Writing (or art, music, etc.)
Also, don’t forget to consider a job that makes use of your talents. If you’re a writer, consider a  writing gig. If you’re artistic, consider something artistic.

For example, Mario Vargas Llosa worked for years as a journalist, before writing his first novel. If you’re someone who’s considered writing fiction seriously, it’s probably because you have some talent at writing to begin with. Why not take advantage of that talent and look for a job in that field?

For years, I’ve made a living off of writing. Not fiction writing, mind you. But writing for companies and clients. If you get some experience you can actually make some decent money at it.

The same thing goes for artists: consider working as a graphic artist at an ad agency or company. Or for a musician: consider being a session musician or teaching. There might be a way to make a living at what you love to do though you’ve never considered it.

When to Make the Jump
Of course, there may come a time when you decide to ditch your real job. A time when you feel you’re close to success or have already achieved it. It’s hard to say when the right time will come.

But, for a writer, it’s probably when you’ve got the contract for your first novel signed, if not later than that. After all, it’s your life here and it seems to be getting harder and harder for writers to make it these days…which brings us to our last point.

Don’t Forget: Jobs Can Give You Great Material
Sure, it would be great to move to Europe, get bankrolled by your parents and write the great novel we’re all waiting for. Though it’s usually glossed over, that’s what Hemingway did when he wrote The Sun Also Rises. I can’t not support this. Hey, man, if you find a sustainable way to bankroll your creativity (parents, lovers, a sponsor) I’m all for it. You just have to make sure that it’s sustainable or that you have an escape plan for when the funding dries up.

But don’t forget one important point: you need something to write about. Some of the greatest books ever written came from experience out there working. Would Melville have written Moby Dick if he had stayed at home in Nantucket? Would Dashiell Hammett have written The Maltese Falcon if he had only read stories about detectives? Would Chekhov ever have been able to capture the despondent ennui of provincial Russia if he hadn’t been a village doctor in the same? If Ken Kesey hadn’t worked at a mental hospital, would he ever have written the brilliant One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

Conversely, would Lovecraft have kept writing longer if he had a sustainable career outside of writing? And would Hemingway have written a broader, more interesting set of novels, if he had not struck the jackpot in his mid-20s?

Of course, we’ll never know. But  it’s something to think about while you’re slaving away at that day job. Just remember: keep going.

Until next time,

Darius


What else could it be for the musical conclusion today than “God Bless the Child” by Billie Holiday?

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Sing it, Girl.

Works in Progress–Getting There

A quick update on where I’m at.


TMWSE—When last we heard about this work (a horror short story), it was 3,500 words and I was on Chapter 3 of 5. Now, I’m about half way through Chapter 4 (the climax), and it’s about 5,200 words. So…I have to knock off the rest of Chapter 4 and then do the wrap-up chapter 5. The good thing is that I already have both chapters mapped out in my mind and I just have to bang it out this writerthinkingweekend.

Hopefully, this will be the weekend it gets done. Keep your fingers crossed.

Breakpoint—After 3 previous rejections, this is off to the next magazine. It’s been there for about 10 days, so it’s just getting started in the slush piles. My last two stories got 7 and 8 rejections, respectively. So, this Baby has a ways to go.

AFTA—This manuscript is with some publishing  houses that accept simultaneous submissions. No news yet back from them. I’ll keep you posted.

See you next time,

Darius

The Craft–Grip

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

“If it was boring to write it, how can you expect it to be exciting to read?”

– C. C., esq.

That’s my friend and sometimes editor, C.C., talking. He was razzing me ever so slightly about an article I wrote. But he was doing it to make a point. Granted the article was on a snow.0111technical subject, but the problem was, I just kept it there. I didn’t bring in the people and the story behind the technology that would have made it interesting, that would have made it gripping. And you know what? C.C. was right, it was boring to write and probably boring for readers too.

That incident happened with my writing-for-a-living job a few months ago, but it’s just as applicable to my fiction writing. Even more so. And here’s a recent example I’d like to share.

I was writing my latest story, a story called TMWSE. It’s a horror short story. The first chapter was great, gripping. Full of grip, one might say. So, I started writing the second chapter. It started well, but about half way through, I noticed the characters had spent a good deal of the chapter talking about mechanical issues and getting bogged down in a rather fruitless philosophical discussion. Now, there’s nothing wrong with philosophy, but if you’re going to put it in your SHORT story, it better serve the plot, hit its basic points and move on. Mine didn’t do that. Here’s a sample of the dialogue:

“…At that time, man was obsessed with demons. They were thought responsible for all sorts of maladies. In this more…rational age we tend to blame demons less and mechanistic causes more.”

“Where are you going with this?”

“What if I told you that all this is an illusion?” Caldicott raised his hands to indicate the room, the skies and all the firmament beyond and above them. “All. That neither the world’s religions, nor modern science truly understands the Ground, the world as it really is. What would you say to that?”

“But you do?” Don leaned forward.

“No, no I wouldn’t claim to that. I know how little I—or any man—will ever know. And how blissfully ignorant the mass of men are. But I—thanks to an accident of heredity and lineage—know more than most.”

There’s nothing wrong with what’s above, it’s just sort of long-winded and doesn’t point to anything, doesn’t drive the characters and plot anywhere. At least, that’s what I felt when I reread it later that day.

So what did I do? I hemmed and hawed and thought about what to do. I realized I had not plotted out the short story before I sat down to write it. The more I write short stories, the more I’m convinced this is a horrible mistake. Why? It’s essentially because of the economy of this medium. It’s best to plot out each chapter, even if it’s only one sentence on an index card per chapter. (I find that’s all I need). This way, you know where you’re headed and where the action should go, generally speaking. (Novel writing is completely different and I’ll get to that later).

As a result, I stopped writing, pressed the pause button. I essentially stole a device from playwriting, coming up with a five-chapter plot in long hand on a piece of paper with:

  • 1 chapter for the set up. To introduce characters in conflict with one another (the plot) in a setting.
  • 3 chapters of rising action, with the final climax in chapter 4.
  • 1  chapter of denoument or wrapping up.

That was enough, just one line per chapter. I rebooted my word processor, deleted all of the old chapter 2, but retained chapter 1 because the setup was solid. Then, I started chapter 2 over from scratch, only retaining a chunk or two of old chapter 2 that still worked. The new chapter 2 had much more “grip” and it ended on a mini-cliffhanger, unlike the earlier Chapter 2. That little mini-cliffhanger not only can keep the reader interested, but it acts as a perfect break in the writing process itself. Using that as a guide, the writer can return to a piece a day, a week, even a month later and know exactly where the action left off and know where they need to go next.

So, in the end, ‘grip’ is not only about drawing the reader in and keeping them interested. It’s also about keeping the writer interested and, more importantly, driving the story where you want it go. And in a short story, that’s what you want to do. Grab the reader, pull them in and drive them and the story to a fulfilling conclusion. It’s very much like a sled ride or a roller coaster. You have to lock them in at the top, draw them up into the story and only let them go at the very end. (This is weak metaphor, but you get the idea).

In the following weeks, I plan to finish the story. Right now, I think it’s well in hand. I simply have to write Chapter 4 and 5: the final conflict chapter and the resolution chapter. But now, I’m excited to just write and see the end result. And I know if it’s exciting to write, there’s a good chance that it will be exciting to read too.

Wish me luck.

Until next time. Keep reading, keep writing,

Darius

Works in Progress–New Horror Story Takes Shape

All,

An update on my writing projects…


TMWSE—First, “Ta-da!” This now has a working title and it’s acronym is TMWSE. (I will reference it this way going forward).Slush

It’s a new, straight-up horror short story and it’s shaping up nicely. I’ve written three of five acts in it so far. I think it’s at about 3,500 words right now.  So, if I add another two short chapters, I should get  to about  6,000 words or so—just the right word count for a short.

Writing this was another lesson in plotting out your SHORT pieces before you sit down to write. I was midway through Chapter 2  and I just didn’t know where I wanted this to go. So, I backed up. Stopped completely. I thought about it, wrote down an actual plot (stealing the 5-Act arch from playwriting) and started Chapter 2 from scratch. I liked the new chapter so much, I junked the old Chapter 2 and moved on. Now, I’ve done Chapter 3 and I’m ready for 4 and 5 this weekend. We’ll see how it goes… 

I will return in a later post to why I don’t plot out novels before I write them.

Breakpoint—This story keeps up chalking up rejections. It just got its third. This time the rejection letter had some comments, which I’m taking as a good sign. The editor said that the exposition distracted from the story. I think this is a nice way of saying: “You need to show more, tell  less.” It’s a point well-taken and just when I think I’ve finally started to make some progress on the whole “Show, don’t tell” dictum, this shows I still have a long, long way to go.

Anyhow, I’ll be firing it off to a new magazine soon.  I think the story is solid as it stands, but I will definitely try to cut out the exposition as I write in the future.  

AFTA—I’ve decided to send this manuscript on to some more publishing houses that accept simultaneous submissions. No bites yet, but I’m hopeful. The last rejection letter said they found a lot to like in the piece, but that it just wasn’t for them. I’ll let you guys know if this one breaks my way.

See you next time,

Darius