It’s A Job – Christopher Nuttall

*This is Sarah — my being very ill over the last few years caused me to lose a lot of my professional habits.  Regaining them is harder than acquiring them the first time, so listen to the man.  However this trick of taking a week off between books is new to me.  When my last book dragged and I kept getting ill, several friends recommended I take a week off between books.  I’ve just finished the second book of the year, two months late. The temptation is to roll right over to the next one.  I’m trying not to.  This time I’m trying to take a week off from writing.  Of course this means doing work on my hobby which at this time in my life seems to be being a wife and mother.  (It used to be full time but the kids are grown and we only have one sort of in the house.) So I’m doing spring cleaning and going over my edited manuscripts so I can put stuff that reverted back up for sale and getting websites designed and back up, after we changed providers.  Light work.  What is the difference between that and a normal workday?  The difference is that when I woke up this morning and was really tired, I had the option of rolling over and going back to sleep.  I didn’t DO it, but the option was there. Normally it isn’t, because it’s a job.  You don’t say “Today I don’t feel like going to the office.”  And neither do I.-SAH*

 

It’s A Job – Christopher Nuttall

 

As I may have mentioned before, I get asked a lot of questions about how I write – what’s the big secret.  And I say, as I always do, that the big secret is that you need to work hard, that you have to treat your writing like a job.

I’ve had a lot of interesting responses to that answer over the last few years.  Some people – mainly other writers – have agreed with me.  Others, people who aren’t writers or don’t see their writing as anything more than a hobby, have disagreed with me.  I devalue writing, it seems, by classing it as work.  I understand that attitude, but I don’t agree with it.  Here’s why.

There are generally three kinds of authors in the world; the wannabe, the hobbyist and the professional.

The Wannabe wants to be a writer.  He or she will happily tell you about their great idea that will sell a thousand copies and bring in a million bucks, but – for some strange reason – their portfolio is a little light.  They will probably never have completed a manuscript, perhaps, or they’ll talk for hours about how something they wrote was picked up in a minor publication you’ve never heard of.   In short, the Wannabe wants to be a writer, but is unable or unwilling to do what it takes.

The Hobbyist has a day job.  He goes to work, 9-5 (or whatever) and then comes home, where he sits down at the computer and churns out a few hundred words.  It doesn’t matter to him (much) if he loses a day because he’s tired – writing is his hobby, not his job.  Quite a few authors are hobbyists; they’ve written a few books, but they’re not bringing in enough cash to justify quitting their day job and writing full time.

The Professional also has a day job – it’s called writing.  Writing is his sole source of income – he needs to bring in enough cash to avoid having to find a second job.  And so the professional has to treat his writing as a job.  You cannot take more than a few days off, at a regular job, without your boss giving you the stink-eye and threatening your career.  Writing is the same, only you’re your own boss.  You have to force yourself out of bed and write because no one else is going to do it for you.  Even my wife doesn’t make me work.

A writer who wants to be a Professional has to treat his writing as a job.  I cannot repeat that enough.  He has to have the discipline to work every day, to overcome minor setbacks and writer’s block, to start a project and carry it through to the end.  He doesn’t get to goof off in front of the computer, any more than the average office worker gets to use Facebook more than a few times during the day.  (My old workplace was death on Facebook.)  He has to work.

The writer is his own boss, but also his own business manager (unless he happens to really hit it rich, whereupon he can hire a business manager.)  He must handle everything from hiring cover artists and editors to promotion and doing his tax returns.  (And if he wants to hire an accountant, he has to do the work of hiring one.)  Negotiating with agents and publishers … the writer must do that too.  The writer is fundamentally alone in the world.

In addition – and this is something I don’t think most of the Wannabes grasp – he has to maintain his professional reputation.  In a normal job, you don’t want to give your boss a reason to dislike you, let alone fire you and badmouth you to your next set of prospective employers.  In writing, you don’t want to acquire a bad reputation.  There are no shortage of horror stories about ‘indie authors behaving badly.’  If you’re a boastful braggart with nothing to boast about, people will start avoiding you; if you unload your frustration on reviewers who dare to criticize your books, people will start thinking you’re an idiot.   Going to a convention and acting badly – however defined – will impinge on your career.

The writing world is bigger than it used to be, I admit, but someone who makes a bad reputation for themselves will find it haunts them for the rest of their career.

The professional writer has to be professional.  He must write a manuscript, then have it edited … without losing his cool.  He cannot afford to blow up at an editor who is only trying to help, even if the editor is in the wrong.  He must approach his work in a professional manner, considering each suggested change carefully before accepting or rejecting them.  He must read contracts carefully – getting legal advice if necessary – and then stick to them.  A publisher who feels that an author did not live up to his side of the contract is one who will not offer another contract.  (And a publisher who feels that he can take advantage of the author is one to be avoided.)

Above all, a professional writer cannot afford to give up.

As a general rule, my alarm goes off at 7am.  I get up, stumble downstairs and pour coffee down my throat.  Ideally, by 8am I’m in front of the computer working on the first chapter of my current project.  If I’m lucky, my infant son will remain asleep until I’ve finished the first chapter; whenever he wakes, I get coffee for my wife and then feed my son his breakfast until my wife comes down to take over.  And then I get back to work.  I spend between four and five hours a day on my computer, writing roughly 9000 words.

After the first draft is completed, I check through the beta-emails and insert all the changes (or at least the ones I accept) and then send the book to the editors (or to kindle, if it’s a self-published work.)  I generally take a week off between books, but I have to work on plots and suchlike during that time.  I carry a notebook around with me to scribble down ideas, just in case something hits me while I’m out.

How you comport yourself often has a bearing on your career.  Disagreeing with the boss is fine – depending on the boss, I suppose – but being an a-hole about it is not.  Writers have opinions, just like everyone else; writers have every right to express those opinions, without being a-holes about it.  There are quite a few people who disagree intensely with me about politics, but I still get on with them because they’re not a-holes about it.  Picking fights over politics (or whatever) is pointless, when it isn’t destructive.  And picking fights with reviewers just makes you look like an ass.

Professional writers remain focused on their work.  Writing is good, editing is good, designing covers is good (assuming you have the talent to design a good cover.)  Going to conventions and suchlike is useful – I’ve made a few contacts there – but it’s not the be-all and end-all.  I’ve noticed that people pay more attention to your opinions after you’ve achieved something in the field – a couple of people I know seem to spend all their time going to conventions and none actually writing, despite which they still call themselves writers.  Let your work speak for you – offers of publication, collaboration and suchlike come in after you’ve proved you can do the work.

Like I said, professional writing is a job.

There’s nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about your job – or your writing.  I wouldn’t hold that against anyone.  But enthusiasm has to be tempered with hard common sense.  Most of the mistakes I’ve seen newbie writers make wouldn’t happen if they didn’t let their enthusiasm overwhelm their judgement.  Wannabes become professionals through learning from their mistakes.

It isn’t easy.  There’s a basic rule of thumb that suggests that each writer has to write at least a million words before he or she has anything publishable.  Too many wannabe writers have wasted too much time trying to find shortcuts.  (If you hear a story of someone’s first book selling well, I’d bet good money the author has quite a few unpublished manuscripts in his stable.)  There are too many shortcuts advertised on the web that are – at best – useless; at worst, they’re nothing more than scams.  I understand the desire to find a shortcut, but it doesn’t really exist.  The only way out is through …

 

… And the only way to go through is by treating writing as a job.

36 Comments

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36 responses to “It’s A Job – Christopher Nuttall

  1. Yes to all of this. It’s very much like being an academic researcher working on a PhD – if you don’t log the rump-in-chair time, you will not succeed. Technically I fall into the hobbyist category, since I write three-four hours/day on weekdays, more on weekends if possible, and have The Day Job. But I’m still putting the rump in the chair, even when I’m “just” going over minor revisions and edits, or sketching out characters for the next story.

    • I rather think that at present, I fall more into the hobbyist category. I do have a part-time day job, which ties me up for at least half the working day. But the other half – even if it does add up to only two or three hours of writing – I;m on my own projects.

      My million unpublished words were racked up doing basically fan fiction (buried deep in the closet on typewritten pages, and no, I don’t think there is anything salvageable from it) and in blogging – which has produced some salvageable materiel.

      • Oh, I’m definitely a hobbyist, my principle occupation at this point being “mother.” (As the toddler kicks the keyboard.) I’m also technically more of a multi-pronged creative type who does a bit better working on multiple things at once, because I am not always in the proper frame of mind for some things when I get a minute, so having lots of options helps a lot. (I currently have some work to do on an operatic adaptation—which is a PITA because I’m a slow transcriptionist. Thank goodness for computer music programs, because otherwise I would be getting it SO WRONG.)

    • Same. But as the Million Dollar Productivity book points out, even ‘minor revisions and edits and worldbuilding’ work count.

  2. Steven Pressfield call your office!

  3. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    The “Wannabe” is why I don’t seriously talk about my “story worlds” as I find it extremely hard to actually put “words on the page”.

    As it is, I completed one story and while I’m waiting to “beta reader” reports, I’m trying to think though a story in another “story world”.

    I respect people like Chris, Sarah and the other “Mad Geniuses” who are actually able to put words on the page and successfully sell their stories. 😀

    • Luke

      This.

      I’m somewhere in the wannabe/hobbyist range myself. (Where on the spectrum I fall depends on the month.)
      On the bright side, I don’t bore people with the stories I’m going to get around to writing. (Well, unless there’s a campfire and alcohol involved, but then I’ll tell stories, rather than tell about stories.)

  4. 9000 a day. You are a machine!

    My highest ever is 5000, and that rarely happens. Non-the-less, by writing regularly, I get there often enough to surprise myself. Averaging just a thousand words a day still gets you three novels a year. You just have to do it, not plan to, or swear you’ll make it up the next day, or . . . any other excuse.

  5. Tom

    Being a writer–particularly an indie writer–is like being a business owner in about a billion ways. Part of that is exactly what Chris said about making yourself work. Every day.

    When you’re the boss, yeah, you can take all the time in the world off. Ironically, though, I’ve taken less time off since I started working for myself than I did when I actually had a job. Of course, that’s because I knew I have to perform just to survive these days.

    And averaging 9K words per day? DUUUUUUUUDE. I’ve had 8K days that just hurt, so averaging 9K is impressive.

  6. One minor quibble is that I prefer to use the word “business” instead of “job,” but the idea is the same, just as you describe it. Treat it as a business, and treat those you interact with by assuming it is a business-to-business transaction. Be professional and responsible, and others will learn to trust you. If there’s work to be done, do the work. Have fun at it, by all means, but take it seriously. Full time, part time, or occasional tinkerer, self-discipline and a professional attitude help.

  7. amiegibbons15

    One disagreement here.

    The professional is one who treats writing like a job, keeps books, and gets paid, yes, I disagree with the assertion that you are not a professional if you have a day job.
    To replace my day job (estimating in higher author costs than I have now for more production, health insurance, pro fees payments, and higher taxes) I’d have to make about 70K as an author.
    This is where my disagreement lies. You are a pro once you treat it as a job, even a secondary one, and you get paid for it. Even if it’s not in the quit your day job or have a well off spouse range, you are still making money.
    There is no monetary threshold to being a professional beyond you get paid to do it. Beyond that, it’s a mindset.
    You are a pro when you act like it, and get paid to do it.

    • This. There should be a fourth category – the “second jobber.”

      The wannabe talks about it, but doesn’t get it done.

      The hobbyist gets it done, but it is for his or her pleasure, not as an income.

      The second jobber gets it done, after the first job is satisfied, but hasn’t transitioned to writing as the only job.

      The professional gets it done, as the only job, and can depend on it for their livelihood (assuming nothing unforeseeable happens).

      Now, I am in the “wannabe” category myself – and I am honest enough to realize that. I need to get to the fourth level in the long run. The block appears to be transferring my old professional habits over to the new work. (I was an application developer. I still have those habits for design and coding, and I know I do – I finally sat down to get a relatively complex macro done today that I’ve been needing for several months – and only came up for air after six hours. Doesn’t happen with writing, needs to happen with writing, will happen with writing. Stubborn, I am…)

  8. Peter and I worked out the “one week between books” as a marriage saving device. That is, there are a lot of things I want him to help me with, or to do – but his boss doesn’t believe in taking weekends off. Which means that unlike a punch-the-time-clock job, I didn’t get two days a week for him to work on the honey-do list, or go places and do things with me. While I support his career building, I didn’t marry him to solely support a workaholic who never takes weekend and leaves the burden of all chores and projects to me.

    These days, we’ve migrated to a “one week between books, and one hour a day for project/chores even on the working days, and we get a date night once a week.” It works wonderfully.

  9. mrsizer

    You are here. So I did file your books in the right place. I loved the Learning Experience series.

    Good advice. I’m definitely a Wannabe. My excuse is that my day job keeps me at a computer all day; the last thing I want when I get home is more time in front of one. That does leave weekends, though. No excuse there.

  10. 1st year: It’s not a job, it’s an adventure!!
    2nd year: It’s a job…
    3rd year: What do you mean we don’t get time off for good behavior???
    🙂

  11. First of all, just want to say I greatly admire and respect you, and you’re the kind of writer I hope I eventually become. 9K words constantly? Amazing. My personal record was about 14K, and that happened during one very long caffeine fuel writing binge; my regular daily output is more like 3K. I still need to develop better work habits.

    I think a lot of “writers” are in love with the idea of being writers rather than the long, lonely hours involved. They spout off about artistic integrity and “selling out” and daydream about winning awards and recognition. They churn out thousands of words a day – but only on Twitter and Tumblr, clamoring for attention, rather than quietly, where it’s only you and the computer screen and nobody’s going to give you a like or a retweet.

    Shortly after joining Gab, I linked a blog about the business of writing and some wannabe there started whining about how worrying about sales potential meant your priorities weren’t right and that art was the only consideration. Which is nice for someone who isn’t planning on supporting himself writing, I suppose.

    Anyways, thanks for the illuminating post.

  12. I have no expectations, based on the vast sales of my novels, of making any money, but I enjoy writing. I did, however, find the following gem on PoliticalWire.com:

    “New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) “reported his income last year more than doubled from the previous year, thanks to another round of royalty payments on a 2014 HarperCollins memoir that saw lackluster sales,” the Buffalo News reports.

    “In all, Cuomo has made $783,000 from HarperCollins for his book. The book sold 3,200 copies since it was published in the fall of 2014… That works out to royalty payments to Cuomo of $245 per book.”

  13. Christopher M. Chupik

    I am a Hobbyist . . . for now.

  14. Arwen

    I’m a Wannabe. 🙂 There are worse things.

  15. Sam L.

    Clearly, you folks are doing it WRONG. Here’s how to make big-time loot:
    http://hotair.com/archives/2017/04/19/um-ny-governor-cuomo-made-nearly-800k-book-sold-3k-copies/

  16. Kevin Menard

    I don’t write fiction but I’d have to agree. To finish anything, I have to treat it like a job, not a hobby.

  17. lampwright

    I also take a little time off between books. It is difficult. I find it hard to do, even painful…but I tend to write better after the break.

  18. lampwright

    I think there is another category… professional with two jobs. Person with a fully professional attitude and habits….but whose income ia not keeping up with expenses.

    It is exactly like working two jobs, where one is writing.

  19. When you die and reach the afterlife, NO one complains that they took too much vacation time, or too much time with their families.

    And as you get older, “de-stressing” becomes harder. One 2-week vacation will become much better at rejuvenating yourself than two 1-week vacations.

    Unless you try to apply logic to it, or your French, then none of the “rules” apply…

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