How can I develop my career in fiction without going crazy or broke?
October 4, 2019 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Can you help me make the best next step from burnt out freelance writer to balanced day jobber/novelist?

I am a thirty-something writer who has a semi-successful career flip flopping between being a magazine editor and a book publicist. My career has been brilliant but a bit scattered because honestly, all I want to do is develop my career in fiction (writing novels and short stories, and teaching creative writing). Yes it's risky but I've experimented and worked across industries, and have the discipline, perseverance, and craft to possibly succeed fiction.

After a few months of trying to freelance full time (I wish people would stop glamorising the freelance writing life... but that's another post), I find that it not only burns me out but I'm not invested/interested in developing my profile or selling myself as a non-fiction writer and journalist but only in fiction. I would prefer to have a day job that is complementary but not focused on writing and preferably not in media. Does anyone have any suggestions?

On serious note: this decision has been a source of great stress and confusion for many months leading to accumulation of debt, and social isolation. I feel frustrated that I should have pursued fiction ten years ago instead of journalism when I had the chance. I am, however, not depressed but incredibly overwhelmed. I also do not want to ask my peers, friends or family again as I usually get a multitude of conflicting answers with hidden agendas.

Thank you so much in advance.
posted by foxmardou to Work & Money (6 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This question can't be answered without an idea of the minimum income you need to support yourself. And, frankly, your age. I mean, being a barista is not a bad job but it's physically taxing to be on your feet all day if you're over 30. Bartending is a good gig but the people I know who bartend as a long-term career and make bank are actual craftspeople and make their own syrups and lead masterclasses on muddling and stuff. But the hours are abbreviated, or can be.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:30 AM on October 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Update: (thanks for the comment DarlingBri) I would need around £30K/$37K per year minimum. I ran a bar when studying for my Masters, it was great but I would prefer not to be in that environment, especially with my penchant for alcohol (I am pretty much teetotal now) and a good time.
posted by foxmardou at 7:36 AM on October 4, 2019

Yeah this is going to depend a lot on your financial needs and your physical health and other talents and skills.

I made a move out of media/marketing for family and other reasons, but it has opened up more space for writing than I'd thought of (and frankly, wasn't really thinking that hard about it except a vague kind of 'maybe I'll write more'). In my case I'm helping to manage a two-location martial arts academy.

- Other than communications stuff, I don't actually use up wordsmithing energy. So look for something that doesn't involve that
- It's more physically active in that I'm running around a lot, so I can sit still better for writing
- The operational hours are afternoon/evening/half the weekend, which can suck a lot but...makes writing some mornings possible
- Because I'm more hands on with actual people, in a professional that's not sort of all the same image-seeking kind of deal (if that makes sense) I actually have rediscovered the quote-unquote real world and I think it's enriching my writing
- My organization is really focused on positive change in the world, and I work with young people, and for me that gives me hope and lord above, do writers need a bit of hope sometimes. It's anti-cynical medication.

- I dropped a lot in salary and retirement savings could be an issue (I'd saved earlier but it sounds like this is something you might have to think about)
- Being out of corporate means that I don't have a lot of people around me to help (like freelance, ha ha)

In my writers group, I have some people who are opposite to me. They have maximized their brilliant careers in large organizations, and they use their vacation time and money to splurge on retreats. Over a year their output is about the same. So I think this nut can be cracked in various ways. However, their jobs are not really writing (except reports and things).
posted by warriorqueen at 7:42 AM on October 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

One of my most prolific fiction writer friends works in customer care for an online retailer for her day job. She has told me that it can be stressful and frustrating at times, but she says she has some autonomy and downtime during the day to balance it out, she can completely disconnect and forget about work when she leaves at the end of the day, and the benefits are pretty good. It's maybe not her ideal job, but it pays the bills and leaves her enough mental bandwidth that she can still write at the end of the day.
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:48 AM on October 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I write fiction as my main thing. I don't make my living at it though. I pay my bills by teaching an online course.
The answer to your question also depends on your preferred approach to writing. Do you do better in concentrated bursts with breaks, or do you do better writing a little bit every day?
Pros of my current situation - it's better than teaching in a classroom, (which is what I did before) as you can't do that if you're not giving it your whole heart, which leaves no room for fiction. Teaching online gives me the flexibility to fit in lots of focused writing time. About every second week, I am forced to take a break because I have to assess student work, and it can be tough to get back into the writing space, but it means that I have alternate weeks were I can focus mostly on writing.
Cons. I'm isolated. Teaching online is isolating, and so is writing. If I don't make a big effort to socialise, I can get very lonely which, as I'm a socially awkward person already, is kind of a pain. So this con is very much based on my personality.
To deal with this, I've made an effort to build a network of writing friends, both online and offline.
I've been doing this for about ten years now and am somewhat successful - my books get shortlisted for awards, I get nice letters from fans, and recently I've started seeing my sales increase. I'm a bit limited because I'm here in South Africa, and writing South African science fiction / fantasy which means my market is by definition niche. Your experience will probably be very different.
I self publish, so I'm responsible for every aspect of writing, getting an editor, getting a proofreader, formatting, cover design, as well as promoting my books - that takes up a certain amount of time as well.
posted by Zumbador at 8:49 AM on October 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

I currently make a pretty reasonable living as a sf/f novelist (traditionally published), but before that I had a 30 h/week job as an administrative assistant at a nonprofit (my husband's income was his grad student stipend, so between us we just about made ends meet). Since work started at 10 a.m., I'd go to the local cafe early and write for an hour every morning, and this worked well for me. Admin assistant was very dull work, but that freed up my brain to do other things.

Do you already know what conditions are best for you to write? I write best in the afternoons, for instance, and since I'm a full-time writer/stay-at-home parent I can arrange my day to maximize my productivity. Maybe for you it's mornings, or evenings, or writing in cafes, or at a friend's house. Basically figure out what your optimal writing conditions are, and then look for a job that maximizes your chance of getting that.
posted by yhlee at 11:28 AM on October 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

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