We all know the fantasy. One of these days, you’ll finish your WIP. You bang out a query letter, synopsis and send submissions out to agents. Months later, the responses come in. It’s a bunch of rejections. Not to worry, you think, everybody gets rejected. It’s part of the game. But then, maybe the 12th email comes back with a request for the full manuscript. You send that in and then don’t sleep for a week until you hear back from the agent. She’s delighted and offers you representation.
While you sort out the paperwork, your agent is already warming up editors at the big five to your manuscript. Things remain quiet for a spell until the first offer arrives.
‘Hachette wants to publish my book?’ You’re melting down on the phone to your agent. ‘Where do I sign?’
She tells you to settle down and works her magic for a few more days. Suddenly, all the big publishers want your book. Further editorial meetings ensue. There will be an auction which culminates with a press release in The Bookseller in which Penguin Random House is delighted to announce to have signed on a promising debut author in a multi-six-figure deal. The article will feature a photo of you taken from your abandoned Facebook page in which you’re about 12.
Fast forward to a year later, your book comes out to universal acclaim, dethroning Neil Gaiman’s latest novel from the top of the NY Times bestsellers list. It stays there for many weeks despite Stephen King, James Patterson and Sally Rooney publishing their new books at the same time. You start selling off foreign rights and film options. You’re thinking about what you’ll say in your upcoming interview on Ellen and live happily ever after.
While this has happened in the past, you see how many rather unlikely things have to align to make a writer go from complete obscurity to superstardom in a single novel. For most of us, this isn’t going to be the case.
Most writers that support themselves through fiction alone have a back catalogue of dozens of titles which they’ve built up over many years. And until then, they had a job.
Building a professional career while working on your books is hard. Writing at 5AM before catching a train to the office has none of the perceived glamour of the literary life. It feels like abandoning your dreams, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
J. K. Rowling worked for Amnesty International. Stephen King was an English teacher. James Patterson worked in advertising. T. S. Eliot was a banker. Ernest Hemingway was a journalist. The list could go on and on. Even for the highest earners in the industry, writing fiction was a side-hustle for years. Some traditionally published writers even choose to keep their day jobs to protect themselves from the uncertainties of publishing books.
A monthly paycheck gives you the stability and freedom you need to focus on your creative projects. It gives you the ability to bounce back in case the first or the second book tank. It will help you stay in the game in case Neil Gaiman’s next novel comes out on the same day as yours and takes its place on the best sellers lists.
It’s hard writing novels while working a 9-5. But it’s a great deal harder when you’re on benefits, drowning in debt and getting your meals from the food bank every day, struggling to stay afloat.
Having a job—whatever it may be—while writing enables you to take your time to learn your craft and build an audience. It’s not a cop-out or a plan B. It’s the plan—an integral part of building a successful career as a writer of fiction.
What I Am Reading
I’m still on Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci which I’m enjoying very much. It’s a hefty book which makes it impractical to take with me to read on the tube. Sometimes, I wonder whether I shouldn’t use my Kindle more. The convenience of e-readers is undeniable. You can read almost any book you want anywhere, and if you highlight something, Amazon will save that to a notebook. I love that, but I love paper books way too much to abandon them for a sequence of bytes somewhere in computer memory which, according to Amazon’s terms and conditions, are just lent to me.
I love seeing my shelves filled with books that I’ve read, building my personal library. It isn’t practical at all, but it’s one of those things.
I read the following short stories this week:
- A Folklore for My Generation: A Prehistory of Late-Stage Capitalism by Haruki Murakami
- Hunting Knife by Haruki Murakami
- A Perfect Day for Kangaroos by Haruki Murakami
- Dabchick by Haruki Murakami
- Man-Eating Cats by Haruki Murakami
- Guts by Chuck Palahniuk
- A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story by Haruki Murakami
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