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.