Like most writers who’ve done any research at all, I never expected to make it a full time job. After all, there’s a definite pyramid shape to writing income: at the bottom, a lot of people making small paychecks that pay for meals, movies and maybe a car repair; in the middle, a smaller number who make a good supplemental income but can’t afford to give up their day job (or let their working spouse retire from theirs); and at the tiny little top of the pyramid, a small group who get to quit day jobs, travel, write, and generally live the dream. (The ones whose Publisher’s Lunch listings say things like “significant deal” and “major deal,” generally.)
True confession: I’m one of those last people. But I certainly wasn’t always.
For the first four years of my professional career, I wrote one book a year … with one amazing year in which I had two books that debuted. And true confessions: the money amounted to maybe $5,000 a year. Obviously, not a full time job. I’ve always been a pretty fast writer, and it took me about six months to finish a novel, even with a full time job on top of it, so very workable. It meant giving up things, though. Principally, it meant giving up something very precious to me: music.
See, I was a professional classical musician. I’d worked for years to get to the level necessary to play well, and consistently, but music (like most arts) requires constant maintenance to stay at that level. So does writing. I quickly discovered that there could be no balance between work, time-consuming hobby, and … time-consuming hobby. One of them had to go.
That’s the first thing to know about being a writer: you make choices. My next choice, about 1992, was to leave a good-paying, high responsibility job and take what I thought would be a much lower stress occupation to concentrate more on my writing. Um … yeah. Not such a good call, because the financial stress consumed me, and I didn’t end up with more time to concentrate. I corrected that within a couple of years, and then realized that having a more well-paying, responsible job at a corporate level meant I needed to ruthlessly manage my time if I wanted to write. (Writing income during this period: about $10,000 a year.)
So I started devoting lunchtime to writing. Then I began coming in an hour early to write before work. Then I added another hour by stopping at a nearby coffee shop before I headed home. I didn’t write at home, because I wanted that time to be pure interaction with my husband, not me running off to shut myself away. Another choice.
Fast forward another few years, and my writing became more popular, which meant I had more opportunities to sell more books. I was at two books a year, which become three. Which became four, and sometimes five. The day job, on the other hand, continued giving me more and more responsibility (and money: writing income rose to $40,000 a year!). So I had to make more choices.
One was that I gave up sleep. Not totally, obviously, but eight hours? A memory. I slept four to five hours a night, woke up, got ready, drove to Starbucks when it opened at 5:30 in the morning, and wrote until 8:30 when I was due in the office. Then I worked a full day, normally until about 7 pm, and wrote a bit more before heading home. Weekends were a blessing not because I had days off, but because I had more time to write. Social things fell by the wayside. I tried to make time for my friends, and I managed, but it was difficult and stressful, and got worse as time went on. (But the money increased. Pretty soon, it was bigger than my paycheck, and I had a damn good job.)
Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back: my publisher offered me a chance to do a significant book tour.
You might have guessed that I was already using my vacation days writing and promoting books; holidays too. Apart from sick days, I didn’t take any days off, and often not even those. But the chance to do a tour was an amazing opportunity, and I had to make another of those dreaded choices. This one was life changing. Would I cling to that day job that offered me stable income, stress, and (importantly!) medical coverage? Or would I jump into an unknown where I had nothing to support my spouse and me but our combined artistic income that came in fits and spurts, in irregular amounts? What about medical coverage? What would happen?
I jumped off the cliff, and luckily for me, caught an updraft—a big one that allowed me four solid years of consistently rising income and opportunities. I was living the dream, man. And it was good.
The thing is, my time management skills I’d worked so hard to develop and hone? They turned to crap. I still got up early and worked, but most days instead of pure writing it was a mixture of necessary business stuff and the details of life that I’d let slip before that seemed much more visible when I was home. (Like the dirty kitchen. Oh, the kitchen, sweet fancy Moses.) And maybe not too surprisingly, when you have a very successful series like the Morganville Vampires, you get a lot of correspondence. When you have novels in 20 languages, you have a lot more correspondence—business, fan, etc.
I still have a schedule, but I’ve learned that it has to be much more flexible than I ever had before … because when I have promotion to do for upcoming releases, that has to take priority over still-distant deadlines. When I have a sudden opportunity to take a radio show, or a TV appearance, I have to reorganize everything. When I get a shot at signing on to a high-profile project, I do that. I have to make word count on planes, trains, and in cars. In short, there are a lot more targets, and they’re all moving.
It’s a good problem to have, guys. I’m not complaining, I’m explaining. As my writing life became more packed with stuff, more choices had to be made. I don’t socialize as much (though I still try). I go to the movies and watch TV less. I get to read for pleasure a lot less. I’ve had to learn all kinds of different skills and businesses, like film and TV, and while it’s awesome, it’s also exhausting.
You can balance a writing life and a job and a family. But I suppose that my ultimate message is that you have to choose what’s most critically important to you. The job was less important than time to me, at a certain financial balance point. That kitchen? It’s still not very clean. Vacuuming is a thing of the past unless we have guests coming. My office time is precious, and I don’t like spending it on the phone with telemarketers, dammit, which is why my phone is mostly on silent while I’m working. I choose to travel to promote, because that’s worked well for me; some people choose not to travel because they’re more productive at home. I hire people to do things I could do myself, simply to give myself time.
At the end of the day, nobody sees the struggles behind the book – the early mornings, late nights, family drama, health crises, financial disasters. They only see the words on the page. Ultimately, the book is judged on its own, without context. No excuses apply.
So as you’re juggling, remember that the next work needs to always be in motion. But don’t forget to take care of yourself, in whatever way works best for you—rest, relaxation, entertainment. And don’t sacrifice your family and friends. The career will, inevitably, end someday, and those you push away are hardest of all to get back.
I wish you the best of all possible writing lives.
Now go write that Stephen Hawking/Einstein space adventure, or it’s mine.
Bio: Rachel Caine is the author of more than forty novels, including the internationally bestselling Morganville Vampires series in YA, as well as the popular Weather Warden, Outcast Season and Revivalist series in adult urban fantasy. Her newest release, PRINCE OF SHADOWS, debuts February 4, 2014.