When I was in high school I attended a talk by Jeff Lindsay, the author of the Dexter novels. Naturally at some point an audience member asked the mandated question that all these events endure at some point: “do you have any advice for aspiring writers?” Lindsay’s response, without missing a beat, was simply: “learn to weld”.
Of course, there were lots of laughs, but almost a decade later, his point has never felt more pertinent. Unless you’re a hotshot screenwriter or a bestselling author there is very, very little money in writing. And the truth is if you are making very, very little money writing then you are officially better off than almost every other writer on the planet.
A few months ago I was out with friends and told them I had to leave early due to having work in the morning. One of them scoffed that my job was writing stories – I could be hungover for that. At this I was presented with a strange dilemma. Obviously the job I was referring to was not writing anything, it was selling fireplaces and trying to look manly while driving a forklift, but this friend actually thought I made my living as an author. And I did not want to correct him. To do so would be to admit defeat, to reveal that as impressive as certain things seem, the depressing reality was that I still had to maintain a dull day job in order to eat.
Of course, being not a total wanker, I explained the truth to him. He was shocked; he thought I lived off Boone Shepard royalties. Fat chance. I get $2 per book, and while Boone has been doing very well for himself, you’d have to be selling an astronomical amount of books for that to translate into a reasonable income. Shortly after the release date I was doing a school talk in a small country town, after which I dropped by the local bookstore to see if they would stock Boone Shepard. They agreed to take a couple of copies, which I wasn’t about to complain over. Half an hour later I got a phone call; several kids from the school had come in asking for the book, as such they needed twenty more ASAP. So, feeling pretty good about myself, I headed back to the store, arms overflowing with books, thinking about how much money this would make, only to remember that if they all sold it would be exactly $40. Less money than I would make for two hours waiting tables or working in a bar.
There can be very good money in writing. There have been times I have been paid over a grand for three days of work. Once I got a similar amount for a job that took me roughly twenty minutes to do. But freelance work isn’t exactly consistent and while you can feel like a total king after one of those big paydays, they’re almost invariably followed by more months of rejection letters and frustrating day jobs.
But something has sort of shifted for me. Back in January I somehow managed to stumble on a couple of those bigger paydays. And then ever since then, more money has slowly come trickling in. A little from Boone, a little from Sanspants, a little from a youth theatre company doing one of my older plays, a little from Den of Geek and so on. And for the first time, I straight up haven’t been doing anything else for a living. Make no mistake; I am broke as balls and barely scraping by. But I am scraping by. Do I have a debt or two? Sure. Can I afford to eat out or go drinking? Not at all. Am I fare evading like a champion every time I take public transport? You bet. But I am happier than I have been in years because for the first time in my life, I’m surviving purely on writing work. For the first time in my life I feel like a straight up professional writer. And while I’ve got a long way to go before I am living as comfortably as I’d like to be, I’m alive, I’m doing what I love and I’m not doing much else.
The brutal reality is that the tiny modicum of money I’m bringing in is barely enough and doesn’t allow for any emergencies that may come up. The truth is that writing work being inconsistent means that the tiny trickle I’m surviving off could dry up in a heartbeat and leave me destitute. The responsible thing for me to do would be to go back to my day job and at least make sure I’m somewhat financially stable. Yet I’m finding it very hard to be responsible when I can be happy instead.
Just some thoughts.