Rachel Caine — Living the Life


author Roxanne Carson at home

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.  RachelCaine-CoverMorganvilleVamps

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.

RachelCaine-CoverI 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.





10 comments to Rachel Caine — Living the Life

  • sagablessed

    A very down to earth, point-blank view of a writer’s world.
    Every aspiring author should read this and then decide.
    I have chosen. I will continue. Because I am too darn stubborn not to.

    “The thing is, my time management skills I’d worked so hard to develop and hone? They turned to crap.”
    Sounds like my life in general. 😉

  • mudepoz

    Sounds like it’s better to be on the promo end than the writing end.
    Time budgeting?
    I think my next book will be the invention of a remote control for life. A pause button, a fast forward and a replay.
    Maybe I could rewind back far enough that there wouldn’t be a smushed vehicle in the garage.

    Thank you. It’s fun to see behind the books. Okay, so I can see the wall, but, um.
    What was I writing?

  • Sounds familiar on the house chores bit. I’m always playing catch up on those when I’m finally tired of the mess. I hope I’m in your position someday.

  • Making those choices is one of the hardest things about this life. I’m one of those in the middle, slightly closer to the fat bottom of the pyramid than to the pointy top. I write, I get a new contract, I write some more. And each day I thank all the writing gods I can name for the love and support of my gainfully employed spouse. But I have chosen family. There is probably more that I could do to promote myself and my work. I could do more cons, spend more time traveling to bookstores in my region, spend nights and weekends online pushing the latest works. I don’t. That’s time for my kids and the aforementioned gainfully employed spouse. Maybe my career has suffered. That’s fine. When the second kid leaves for college, I’ll have more time and maybe I can push a little harder. For now, though, I’ve made my choice, and I know in my heart that it’s the right one.

  • Rachel, I quit my full time lab job (with benefits) this January. My output has gone through the roof (though the wasted time has gone up too). I planned out how I would deal with some of the issues–dirty house and PR among them. I hired a housekeeper to come dig me out once a month, I hired a PR team, and I hired an assistant who I pay diddly squat and she is worth so much more. I’m not big enough to worry about the radio or TV problems , and no one calls me except family. But writers who live on a stage as big as yours has become, have to change and evolve and find ways to deal the new pressures. You have done a great job of that!

  • In the last seven years, I’ve sacrificed research time to creative writing time. Given that I was working at a teaching institution with fairly little pressure to produce scholarship, but high pressure to be a strong teacher-mentor and good colleague, that suited me just fine. I needed some emotional time to back off from the scholarship anyway while I recovered from my dissertation. But now I’m finding that I made a bad mistake. My decision was good for me in the short run, but the long term implications are career endangering, especially as my school becomes more publish or perish oriented. On the upside, I haven’t forgotten how to do critical writing and I have real opportunities to do it. I wish there was a way I could cut something else out of my life so that my two types of writing weren’t constantly in competition. I know there has to be a better strategy here somewhere, but I’m having trouble seeing it.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Hello Rachel. Thank you for your candor about how you’ve juggled your writing through all the different stages of your career. However, it’s actually this sort of stuff that is the reason why I tell any friends or family who ask that I’m *not* going to pursue publication in the foreseeable future. I love my day job, it pays great, and it’s in science (though I’m now support-staff rather than a researcher), which a) I don’t think I could let go of and still be happy, and b) is almost impossible to dabble in in any way I’d find meaningful. And of course, there’s the awesome husband and two small children, plus the plethora of hobbies that become extremely whiny when I neglect them too long (almost gardening season, almost, almost!)

    My husband sometimes teases me that I’m being a wimp for not pursuing publication. But, the time is really not now. However, right now I am 15,000 words into my second-ever book and while that is great, I’m finding that biggest hurdle I next need to sort out is how to *not* spend downtime feeling bad that I’m not writing, but instead use that time to dive into all the other things that feed my creative soul.

  • khernandez

    Thanks for the peek into your life, Rachel. The part about the money raises some questions I’ve been wantng to bring up for a while… the successful people here seem to all be traditionally published, but I’ve been paying close attention to the self-publishing world, and think that will be the way forward for me – if I ever finish my novel. Does anyone have any thoughts? Can someone write a blog post? It would be really appreciated.

  • Razziecat

    To me the best part of this post is this bit: “Ultimately, the book is judged on its own, without context. No excuses apply.”

    That’s something to remember, and live by, no matter what else is going on in one’s life.

  • TwilightHero

    I know exactly what you mean about making choices. A couple years back, while I was *cough cough* unemployed, I was broke and had a minor complex about using my time productively (joking – kind of). But I also had room in my life for just about anything I wanted to do – especially writing. Now I’ve got a fulltime job, and with my free time limited, using it to write means having less for other things. I read less now, to my chagrin. And I’ve given up playing the piano. That particular skill was always a point of pride for me, since I learned it on my own, without lessons. Now I’ve forgotten almost everything. *shrug* Sacrifices must be made.

    Great post, anyway. The thought of having to organize my life to the extent of yours *bows in respect* is pretty scary. But it’s good to know what’s needed to have a career in writing.

    And I just want to say that I found Hepseba’s comment equally fascinating, since it comes from someone choosing not to have a career in writing. A view from the other side. That’s what I’ve always loved about this site, and about writing in general. So many perspectives 🙂