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Writing for Food: The Artist as Family Breadwinner


by Wil McCarthy


(Originally published in Speculations magazine)


            You wouldn't be reading this magazine if you weren't a highly motivated artist, in lifelong pursuit of a lifelong dream.  To write, yeah.  To create worlds, to communicate.  Chances are, you've become adept at juggling this passion with the needs of your family -- most especially the need to earn a living wage, probably by doing something a lot less glamorous.  If you haven't mastered this juggling, then quit reading and go master it.  This article isn't for you, not yet.  If you're a housewife or house-husband, though, some of the same lessons apply, especially if you dream of a writing career which does eventually add to your household's bottom line.


            Fundamentally, there are two kinds of writing career.  Well, three kinds if you count starving artists, but as science fiction novelist and TV writer Steven Barnes notes, "It may be noble to suffer for your art, but it's chickenshit to make your wife and kids suffer for it."  So I will assume that the feeding and housing and clothing of your family is a responsibility you take seriously, and that your writerly ambitions take a subordinate role.  If that's not the case, then stop reading; this article isn't for you either, you callous bastard.


            Still here?  All right then, there are two kinds of writing career: the paying hobby, and the small business.  Despite obvious similarities, the two are actually quite different, and should never be confused.  They also shouldn't be seen as different levels in a hierarchy or pecking order; some of the finest authors in the world are also college professors or doctors or lawyers or machinists.  They keep their day jobs, either because they love them, because they need the money or the bennies, or because these jobs are an important piece of their personal and professional identity.


            The writing hobby typically has several businesslike features, such as its own office, and its own special pages in the joint tax return.  However, its expenses likely come out of the family accounts, and any income it generates will arrive in "windfall" fashion -- irregular amounts at irregular intervals.  It gets spent quickly, and often in celebratory ways like gifts and vacations and special dinners out.  In fact, there can be a tendency to spend the same money three times: once when a project is sold, again when the check clears, and finally when the piece is published.  So it can be a net minus to the bottom line.  Which is okay: most hobbies cost money.  This one simply happens to be self-subsidizing, meaning you can keep it up indefinitely without jeopardizing the kids' college fund.




            I do have this to say about hobby writing: if you're serious about it, and have dreams of a larger career someday, then buy yourself a palmtop computer with a thumb-type keyboard.  People seem to be really skeptical about these, preferring either Palm Pilot type devices with handwriting recognition, or much larger laptops, with hard drives and full-sized keyboards.  Neither of these is useful to a busy writer, though; the Palm is too slow to be worth the effort (although I do know one writer-editor who composes whole books this way).  The laptop suffers even greater disadvantages: it's expensive, fragile, has very short battery life, and is much too large to be carried around freely.


            But there are any number of organizers, wireless email devices, cell phones, etc. which include a keyboard, text editor/word processor, and some means of transferring data to your desktop computer.  This article, along with a plethora of books and other documents, was composed on a PSION 5mx, a British palmtop with a number of excellent features, including a high-capacity digital voice recorder than can feed .WAV files into my desktop dictation software.  The combination of thumb typing and speech-to-text means I can use this gadget anywhere: at home, at work, in restaurants, standing in line at the movies...  I keep it on my belt, just like a cell phone, so I'm almost never without it.


            Imagine all those times in a typical week when five or ten or twenty minutes is wasted, with no one to talk to and nothing to do.  Imagine having the ability to use that time productively -- not always, not to the exclusion of rest and relaxation and the smelling of roses, but when you really feel like it.  You may be surprised at how much you can accomplish with these reclaimed minutes, which can easily add up to several hours per week.  There are people who will tell you that a pad of paper is just as good, but those scribbled words need to be typed in eventually.  And forget those silly folding keyboards for the Palm -- they require a large, flat surface to type on.  Useless in the subway or the doctor's office, much less the ticket line or the park.  The fact that you can type a little bit faster does not make up for this: how much is 60 words per minute, times zero?


            Thumb typing offers the additional advantage that you can do it while lying down.  Why be chained to an office chair?  Work on the sofa, or in bed, or sprawled comfortably in your car.  In a typical day I'll do any or all of these, and I also try to get out into the great outdoors when weather permits.  Writing is supposed to be fun, and doing it in a hammock under the shade of a spreading maple tree sure helps.  But all fivolities aside, owning a palmtop is like having extra hours in your day.  Your output will amaze your friends and make other writers jealous, and if you keep the quality up then over time you can build the same sort of audience and name-recognition that full-time writers do, while also enjoying the security and emotional rewards of gainful employment.  All without short-changing your family and friends, or even all of your goof-off time.  It's the closest many of us will ever come to having it all.


The Biz


            If your hobby writing is going well enough, you may be considering the leap to a full-time writing career.  This is a fine ambition, and will certainly give you more time to do this thing you love so well.  Every full-time writer has made this transition, some more successfully than others, but one point cannot be emphasized too strongly: this is a perilous life change to undertake.  Many writers treat it as a leap of faith, and all too often splatter on the rocks below, having drained their bank accounts and maxed out their credit cards and worn out the patience of once-supportive friends and family.  This can easily ruin not only the writing career, but also the day job that was left behind, and the important relationships that make it all worthwhile.  Digging out of a mess like that can take you the rest of your life.


            On the other end of the spectrum are the overly cautious writers who cling stubbornly to jobs they don't really like, never trusting that they can have fun and make a living at the same time.  This can be a real tragedy, because it deprives the writer of job satisfaction, and deprives the world of brilliant works which would otherwise be written.  In some cases it even costs money, because the creative talent of a writer may be worth more than the factory or office skills which accompany it.


            After twelve years of watching colleagues make both sorts of mistakes, while a handful made the leap without major difficulty, it finally dawned on me that people simply don't understand the process.  Which is silly, because with the right groundwork and preparation, the proper course of action becomes painfully obvious.  To that end, I've jotted down some quick guidelines, which hopefully the readers of this magazine will keep in mind as their careers progress.


            The first and easiest step is to stop mingling your writing money with your personal money.  Deposit all writing income into a separate checking account, and pay all writing expenses out of it.  It also helps to have a separate credit card, because a successful writing career normally involves some travel, some wining and dining, some ordering of office equipment and publicity materials, etc.  With these business accounts, there's never any question whether you're making or losing money, or whether you can afford a particular expense.  And whenever you want to, you can "take profit" from the business by writing yourself a check and depositing it into the family account.  (In fact, you should do this so the family has a visible stake in your success, and doesn't begrudge the time you spend.)  Please note that a business doesn't have to be incorporated, and in fact for writers of modest income this extra step can be downright detrimental.  Costs money, for one thing, and it also generates extra paperwork.


            The next step is only slightly more difficult: draw up a realistic budget.  Not a "best guess" budget or a disciplinary "here is how we ought to live" budget, but one that reflects your actual expenses and lifestyle.  Programs like Quicken and Microsoft Money make this an easy exercise, but even without them it's something you can do at tax time, when a year's worth of check stubs and credit card statements are spread out in front of you.  Just organize them into ten or twenty expense categories, and you will rapidly assemble a picture of how much it costs you to live, and exactly where your money is going.  This is a useful exercise by itself, and will almost certainly suggest some potent money-saving strategies.  Are you dining out too much?  Driving a car you can't really afford?  Paying off high-interest debts which could easily be refinanced?  From a writerly standpoint, though, this budget provides you with another crucial datum: how much money you would need to bring in (or save up) to support a year of full-time writing.  Keep in mind that you may have to pay out-of-pocket for health insurance and other benefits which your employer presently provides.  And the 15% self-employment tax can be an April killer if you haven't planned ahead for it.


            Another excellent intermediate step is to go part-time at your day job.  Today's corporations can be surprisingly open-minded about this, particularly if you have young children.  Dropping back to 80% time -- a 4-day work week -- will not reduce your office output all that much, especially if you throw in thirty or forty minutes of unpaid overtime at the end of those remaining days.  But from your perspective, this provides you with an entire day, every week, where you're free to write, and to conduct the various writing-related business which inevitably springs up.


            Think of it not only as an opportunity, but as a personality test: if you're not able to use this time effectively, then full-time writing is probably not for you -- at least not now.  Conversely, if you can fill this one day with revenue-generating activity, then you can talk with your employer about the possibility of decreasing your hours further.  Some of the pleasantest seasons of my career have come when I was working part-time, on a fluid and gradually decreasing schedule.  Note that this situation is unstable: every company has its busy seasons, and when these come up you'll either be squeezed for more work hours, or else placed at the top of the layoff list and jettisoned at the first sign of economic trouble.  This is okay: by the time this comes up you should have a good idea whether you're the sort of writer who can go it alone, or the sort that needs the anchor of full-time employment.


            Of course, some employers simply will not allow you to work part-time, or will have no patience for multiple changes in your schedule.  Even these, though, may be open to a flex-time arrangement such as four ten-hour days, or a "vacation buy," or a series of unpaid days off, or an occasional 6-week leave of absence.  If none of these are possible, and you're not in a position to change employers, then all I can say is, make the most of every vacation day and illness.  (A palmtop helps here as well: you can get some work done even if you're too tired to get out of bed.)  The rest of my advice should still apply.


            The next step is to cultivate a sizeable backlog of business, and if possible a broad and diverse base of clients as well.  Here it's important to keep an open mind, and to avoid the kind of snobbery which is all too common in writerly circles.  I wish I had a nickel for every time I've heard someone describe him- or herself as a "fantasy writer" or a "literary writer" or a "magazine writer."  These terms are exclusionary -- designed to keep out the riff-raff -- and also self-limiting -- designed to keep insiders on the inside.  Of course, we can and should and do focus on the things we're passionate about, but the fact is that a competent writer should be capable of stringing words together for almost any purpose.  Novels, articles, celebrity expose', advertising, video games, web pages, business proposals...  The possibilities are virtually unlimited, and if you're on the lookout, the opportunities are nearly always there.


            For example, I have a friend who's an award-winning novelist of very high caliber, whom reviews routinely describe with terms like "one of the ten best writers alive today."  But on the side, he does story consulting for movie and video game companies, and is contemplating a Star Wars novel.  Not only for the money -- which is quite good -- but because these are fun projects which are better off in his hands than someone else's.  Different example: I myself am both a science fiction writer and an engineer, but it took me years to realize I could make good (and frightfully easy) money as a science writer.  Stupid, yeah, but it can be surprisingly difficult to see your own options objectively.


            Professionalism is important, both in accepting new work and in turning it down.  If you're quick and honest and polite, people will remember.  If you're snotty and unreliable, they'll also remember, and in a business as small and fluid as publishing, you can't afford too much of that.  Writing is first and foremost a business.  This doesn't mean it isn't also art, because it is, and a good writer will pour blood and sweat and mojo into any project, wringing emotional resonance from even the lamest of material.  Writing is also entertainment, and education, and a vehicle for sociopolitical debate.  Go nuts.  Have fun.  If you're professional and you love your work, you'll eventually have more than you can handle.


           The opposite condition is hackwork, where the artist ranks assignments according to their perceived importance, and applies exactly as much effort as each project "deserves."  Many hacks are brilliant writers of original material, and mediocre-to-terrible with work-for-hire.  Some are wildly successful in spite of this, but most wind up shooting themselves in both feet, by insulting and ripping off the very people they're supposed to be helping.  The very worst case is the writer who dives into hackwork before building up any other sort of reputation; even the most cynical among us should observe that "selling out" implies that you should first establish your value.


            Fortunately, there has been a broad realization in recent years that "content provider" is a real job and a real skill.  People who daily practice the art and language, the wit and inventiveness of writing, can step into a variety of projects -- some of them not obviously literary -- and make pivotal contributions.  This is where your potential clients come in, and where a good portion of your backlog can accumulate.  For the coming year I have a novel to write, a nonfiction book to polish up, and I've agreed to write several stories and articles for editors I'm friendly with.  This article, the one you're presently reading, was written purely on impulse, in a couple of spare afternoons.  In addition, I'm investing "sweat equity" consultation in two fledgling companies which may or may not hit the big time, and I fully expect that more work will materialize as the year unfolds.


            In fact, this is one of the key indicators that it's time to go solo: when your shortages are not of work or money or enthusiasm, but of time.  You may wake up one day and find that your day job -- even if you love it -- is costing you money.  At this point, it's important to know your work habits: how hard you can drive yourself, how much human contact you need, how you react to real-world disruptions.  But if you can rope in the business and draft a realistic schedule which allows you to sustain yourself even in the face of occasional adversity, then the rest is easy.


            This segues, more or less naturally, to my final recommendation: pay yourself a salary out of your writing accounts.  This makes the transition from regular paychecks a seamless one, and guarantees that your take-home pay is equal to what it was before (or else different in some known and agreed-upon way).  It also provides an easy metric for the health of your business: take the money in your writing account, minus the debt (if any) on your writing credit card, and divide it by your monthly business expenses and salary.  This will tell you how many months you can stay in business without finding more money.


            As a general rule, I would say that you don't need more than eighteen months' expenses on hand, unless you're a very slow writer or your revenue stream is endangered in some way.  If you find yourself with more than this, transfer the excess to the personal side and treat it as a windfall.  Conversely, if you have less than four months' cash in the bank, and no prospects for additional income during that time, then you should wrap up your current projects and go looking for a real job.  This doesn't reflect a loss or defeat of any kind, just a lull in your business from which you, as a responsible breadwinner, should insulate your family.  You may also find that as a seasoned writer with a thick biblography, you have easy access to fun and interesting day jobs like teaching, newspaper and magazine reporting, marketing/publicity/ advertising, and even various work within the publishing industry itself, such as editing or copyediting.


            Maybe you'll like this job enough to keep it, or maybe you'll be out of there like a rifle shot, the moment your next big contract comes through.  Either way, armed with the strategies we've just discussed, you'll be able to make the decision calmly and rationally, guided not by any fear for your family's wellbeing, but by the warm mathematics of your own happiness.