So here’s the thing about writing no-one tells you: the money is going to fuck with you and affect your creative process.
O-ho, there, you may be thinking, foolish Peter, there is no money in writing, and I totally understand why you’re thinking that. You’ve been hammered with that message from day one, ever since you began stringing words together to generate meaning. People will gleefully inform you that writers don’t make a living, and even those who skip that step will imply it by asking the kind of questions that make it clear your options are: a) become JK Rowling and have books in every store every time they walk in, or b) die in a gutter.
And that’s where the fucking with your process begins, because you do not want to die in the gutter. Which means your process is shaped by the perception that making a living as a writer is either a one-in-a-million chance where your craft matters not at all, or by the perception that the only way to make a living as a writer involves constantly delivering at the top of your game because only the very best of the best get to make a living.
You can probably be a competent at most jobs and make a living, but there are few where you are actively told that competence will never be enough. What we get is this: You don’t get to be good at writing if you want a career, you have to be mind-blowingly great (or, worse, you convince yourself you are mind-blowingly great and best-sellers like Rowlings, King, and Childs are merely average, and somehow you cannot make a living because you refuse to dumb your work down because readers are stupid).
You start obsessing about delivering a single book that will sweep the world as a publishing phenomenon, when the reality is that most full-time writers traditionally got where they’re going by building up a backlist and constantly moving forward.Or you assume that you’ll never make money and it can only ever be a bit of fun, and you never pursue it with any seriousness.
The money fucks with you.
Then, assuming you get past that, it keeps fucking with you as your career develops. You may start selling stories or get your first book out. You get advances and write invoices and start racking up a fair bit of bank for your words. You’re still working a dayjob to pay the rent, so that writing money is gravy. A little extra you can throw around and buy some new books, or pick up a new computer to help get that novel written, or throw on the mortgage and knock a few weeks off the end-date of the decades-long loan you’ve taken out to own a house. You’re making good cash, but your dayjob gets in the way. If only you had more time, you could get more done and earn more money.
Holy shit, you think, this writing this is great and I don’t actually need to be Rowling to get paid. Maybe it is possible to make a living with it one-day.
Let’s be clear: this thought is a trap. It’s money setting you up to be fucked with all over again.
Day jobs are fucking magic things, despite the feelings most people have about them. Day-jobs involve a nice, clean exchange of time and skills for cash. You show up for eight hours and do your job and a regular, agreed-upon amount of cash appears in your bank-account from your employer. You know when the money is coming, and how much will be there, and it largely arrives whether you’ve done a okay job or a great job or a fucking brilliant job every week. You can spend your last fifty bucks on Tuesday and know you’ll be okay because Thursday is payday and you’ll make it work.
Also, sick leave. Holy fuck. If you ever want to see a look of bewilderment, take someone who has worked as a gig-economy freelancer/contractor until age thirty and put them in a job where they can call in sick and still pay rent that week.
But this is not a keep-your-day-job rant, much as it may seem like it on the surface. What I’m suggesting here is that the system of regular-payment-for-your-job is ingrained into the way most people think, and the way our culture works. Almost all financial advice is predicted on making saving on your weekly paycheque, starting with the ubiquitous “give up your morning latte and save enough money to buy a second-hand car each year.”
The moment you’re a full-time writer, you are no longer part of that world. You become a small business owner where the payments are irregular and hard to predict, and you cannot assume that your next payday is going to arrive on line. Those big chunks of money that were gravy when you worked a day-job are now have to buy the core meat of your finances, paying rent and buying groceries and getting your car serviced.
You think you are ready for that transition, but I promise that you’re not. Because the writing that seemed so hard to get done working around your day-job suddenly has a new weight added to it, a pressure that says if this isn’t brilliant, you ain’t going to get paid. You find yourself finishing novels and thinking, if this doesn’t sell enough to find another gig, I’m not going to be able to live next year.
Couple that with the fact that you rarely have access to the data that will tell you how your books are doing, outside of a twice-yearly royalty report, and you’re effectively writing blind and hoping it will work out. To say this is stressful is an understatement.
The irregular nature of money means you start taking on more gigs, pushing yourself harder, and even with all that extra time you’ve got by leaving the dayjob behind you’re still going to be in a place where you’re delivering work that starts feeling a little rushed. Your work might not have changed, but it feels different. You’ve lost touch with that thing you really value in your writing, because money becomes the most pressing measure of success that you’re chasing. I used to be great, you find yourself thinking, and now I’m settling for good. Or, shit, am I actually just bad now? You resent the gigs that pull you away from the work you want to be doing, because if you didn’t have to take them just to pay rent, you could go back to being great. Or, at least, put together an elaborate plan to eliminate JK Rowling and slide into her spot.
Then you get sick, or you haven’t had a holiday in five years, and you refuse to take a break and recharge because it no longer matters how long you spend working and holy fuck, all those deadlines. Writers don’t get paid by the hour, they get paid when the work is done and the money is the same regardless of how long it took.
This can start putting enormous amount of pressure on you and your work, and it just get compounded if a gig falls through or a book sells less than expected.
Irregular income is a hard thing to live with and a harder thing to work through, and it just gets worse when everyone you know is still collecting a paycheque and doesn’t understand how your finances work now.
It gets so much worse again when some motherfucker on the internet talks shit about artists wanting to get paid for their art, like it’s some grievous sin, and you aren’t able to shiv said motherfucker in the eye with a fork like he probably deserves.
The money fucks with you, and it fucks with your writing process.
I have no solutions to this, beyond being aware of it. My own response to finding out how badly freelancing fucked with my process was going and getting a part-time job, so I could take comfort in a regular paycheque and still enjoy the things I wrote.
Not everyone wants to make that decision. Many people actively loathe the idea.
Still, one of the nice things about writers talking about money more often is the ease with which you can track down information telling you how to manage things, and that you aren’t alone.