A career which involves writing can seem like the perfect fit, if you are an aspiring author. In a talk I gave this weekend to the Stevenage Writers’ Group I outlined some of the pros and cons, including being realistic about “giving up the day job.” Thank you to the group; it was a lovely laid-back session on a beautiful sunny day and I am grateful for the opportunity to spend some time in their stimulating and fun company.
Thank you for asking me to talk a bit about what I do. My job is to write educational features and commercial scripts of all sorts, for a children’s radio station. I get to invent characters sometimes. Other times I use a client’s own characters and put words in their mouths. So that’s my job.
My own writing ranges from TV pilot scripts, feature length screenplays in the science fiction genre, to a novel in progress. Increasingly I like short form and have played with flash fiction too. I’ve had a few wins and awards but the amount of money I’ve generated from all this doesn’t quite stretch to four figures. So I won’t be giving up the day job just yet. In fact … I don’t see a time where I will. And that’s OK. I hope I can explain why I feel this way.
Of course people do make money from their own writing, especially these days from e-book sales, but as you probably know the average working writer in the UK draws a salary from his or her writing of less than seven thousand pounds a year.
A good advance on a first novel might be 5,000UKP. Afternoon drama for Radio 4 might be around the same although you would get repeat fees for that. Screenplays are quite lucrative – get one of those optioned and you could be talking 30,000UKP or more. Sadly however getting optioned is marginally more difficult than trying to learn Polish overnight. Having attempted both I’ve had a little more success with the Polish thanks to a particularly grueling commission.
If you get that advance the carousel doesn’t stop. Only two per cent of books published are bestsellers and over eighty per cent of books published in the UK sell less than five hundred copies. Make no mistake, even as a full-time author of nothing but your own works you will need to keep writing to maintain an income from your writing.
Even if an agent picks up your novel, you get an afternoon play and flog ten features to the Guardian it may still not be enough to live on. To keep an income there will inevitably be a sausage machine aspect to your writing – which may be fine if you’re prolific. Or really really like sausages.
For the rest of us, I think we have to be realistic and accept that only a few will ever “give up the day job”. We will all have to work, as our books stories and poems take shape. Some people will build houses, others do accounts, others will teach, some will do something totally different. Maybe we do a combination of things. We’ll all do a bit of everything, and do you know what? That’s normal these days. There’s even a name for this – it’s called having a portfolio career. Bit of this, bit of that.
Some people might have careers like mine which involve writing and this can seem an appealing prospect – and that’s what I’m going to talk briefly about next.
I make money from writing. Enough to live on. Trouble is, it’s not my writing. I’m a commercial writer. I write to order. Journalists, technical authors and copywriters of all sorts fall into this category. It can seem like an attractive career … but I’d urge caution.
I idiotically thought that being a commercial writer would be a heavenly job – the perfect fit in my portfolio – earning money whilst honing my craft. Even if the topics, characters and plots… subjects… settings… style… weren’t technically mine. Even if I was writing about Jumbo Jets, Bread, um Quarries. Beef.
It’s a good job. Challenging. Interesting. But it isn’t a heavenly job most of the time.
My life is at times like an endless Nanowrimo with a set amount of words to get down every single day and the days stretch into the distance. I’m shackled not just to the sausage machine but to the to the sausages in the sausage machine. I mean, I like a sausage as much as the next girl but… you know. Sausage overload.
There are however, no doubt about it, some good things about a career as a commercial writer f you write for yourself too. So here are four benefits:
- You do make some quite good contacts
Working with magazines, or radio stations or newspapers or whatever – you may find a producer or an editor with whom you click, and who in the future you can ask to read a ms (athough I’d offer money for them to do this, as they will be busy people and not your mate) – and if they don’t utterly hate it maybe you can get a positive quotation to use in any subsequent approaches to agents. Those quotations are apparently worth their weight in gold because they make it easier to market your book.
A slight downside is that the contacts as a jobbing copy hack are unlikely to be Will Self, and more likely be with the Nautical Effluence Alliance or the British Toilet Manufacturers. I have brilliant contacts at some children’s comics. They understand me. Like me I hope. They like the writing I’ve done for them. Which is great. Except all my personal work has themes around sex drugs and violence. I could ask them to read my novel, give me a quote… but anxious about lawsuits they’d suddenly pretend they didn’t know me and start gently unfriending me on social media.
- You get really really good at starting to write. Which is the hardest bit.
You can’t claim writer’s block with a commercial deadline. Or you can but they’ll find a better commercial writer who lies and says they never get blocked. And it is absolutely possible to be blocked even if the subject matter is laid out for you in a detailed brief as you’ll know if you’ve plotted out your novel, deeply feel what you want to say…. You just… can’t say it. It happens.
However, pushed by constant terror that they will get someone else in I have got fairly good at sitting down and starting to type. After about two years of this like any muscle memory it began to get easier to start and this does translate over to my own writing. Mostly. Sometimes.
- It is quite a good way to “make money from writing.”
Which is always nice to be able to say to people. But other than those people you have told… no one will ever know you wrote all these things. Because they won’t have your name on them, they will have the client’s name. And sometimes that’s a good thing when bafflingly inappropriate sound effects or horrible illustrations are thrust betwixt your crafted words. Or when the brief changed so many times a neat piece of writing has globbed into something which looks like it was translated through four languages.
- It’s a brilliant way to cut down on your drinking in the week.
This is personal. Writing pissed is BRILLIANT when you want to purge and exorcise your life onto the page or to carve and craft a sentence and throw it all down… speak from the heart… When, however, you’re trying to accurately describe gravity in a way that an 8 year old will understand via the medium of a computer dog …. It’s not so good. You need to keep a clear head for that shit.
The best thing about my day job is not that it involves writing. The best thing is that it is I work with nice people, it is stimulating and most importantly quite flexible so that when the sausage machine is powered down for the night there’s still enough time and sanity left for me to pick up my own writing and get on with it.
It’s very unlikely that we as writers will be able to give up the day job. I do think that as long as the day job is tolerable, and buys you the time to write then in my opinion it really doesn’t matter – and it doesn’t matter what it is you do. We should look for something that buys you this time – and something that stimulates us – and if it isn’t in a writing sphere than that’s OK.