Full-Time Writing: Oh, the Horrors!

I read a dead-on post from Brian Keene about a month ago, in which he discusses what it’s like to be a full-time horror writer. Specifically, he talks about how to earn a living and cope with the external world. For writers in any stage of their careers, his post is well worth reading.

I’m also a full-time writer. I’m not in Brian’s league. I don’t hang out with The Big Name Boys of Horror — although I do hang out with some of The Big Name Girls of Horror, and that counts, too. I haven’t made my living writing horror novels. Instead, I’ve made my living writing an assortment of novels and pop culture books in various genres, one of which is horror.

Still, what Brian says rings true for me, as well. I won’t comment much about what he says because I think it’s worthwhile for you to hop over to his blog and read it for yourself. But I will comment about what it’s been like for me as a full-time writer.

First, I have no job other than writing. This means if I don’t write and sell material, I don’t earn anything. Some years have been tough. For example, I had no income during 2000 other than an advance for a Star Trek book. My son and I lived on this income all year. We cut napkins into quarters. We didn’t replace light bulbs when they burned out.

For three solid months, I spent all of my time in bed, eating Fritos, watching Star Trek episodes from early morning until late in the evening. I took well over 200 pages of single-spaced notes. And this part — “the research” as I call watching endless Star Trek, playing video games, reading 50 zombie novels, reading 400 comic books, etc. — is the upside of being a fulltime writer because the money sure isn’t all that grand. It felt good to say to my son all the time, “Hey, I’m getting paid to watch Captain Kirk! I’m getting paid to play Quake! I’m getting paid to read Fantastic Four comics!” And of course, he made out well because our house was stocked with everything he liked.

This was way back in 2000, when writers could get “big” advances. Things have changed — at least, in my world, they’ve changed.

The year after Star Trek, I wrote five books. A boom year! On New Year’s Eve, as December 2001 rolled into January 2002, I turned in my fifth manuscript and collapsed. The next morning, I had to stick my head in a sink full of warm water to pry open my eyelids. They were glued shut from exhaustion and too much computer screen glare over the course of the year. I think it was 2001 during which my stomach finally started complaining about all the coffee and the two all-nighters I’d been pulling every week. The kicker was that my daughter went to college, and now that I had this “huge” income, the college forced me to hand it over to them! So my son and I went back to the quarter napkins and the single 60-watt bulb in our house.

Of course, this was back in 2001, and things have changed.

Today, writers are lucky to get reasonable advances for novels. You have to be with a big publisher, and even then, don’t expect an advance that enables you to splurge and use whole napkins. And the e-publishers? Most don’t pay advances, and they take a huge percentage of your sales… so what’s the point? Agents? Do writers still need them? I know a lot of established professionals who no longer use agents. Otoh, I know writers with fantastic agents, and these lucky folks are selling to big publishers for decent advances — yes, in 2013.

Perhaps “luck” is the keyword. You can land a decent agent. You can get a decent advance.

Or you can self-e-publish and make out very well on your own.  Sometimes, I remember 2001 and the five books I wrote in one year. Then I think about all the self-e-published authors who crank out ten books per year. How do they do it? Do they sacrifice quality? Are the books unusual, interesting, creative, written well? If I had to write a book every month, I’d be forced to sacrifice quality…or I’d simply croak from the effort.

Newcomers to the business are lucky. The options are vast compared to what we had twenty years ago.  Back then, it was very bad form to self-publish or self-promote. You sold to traditional publishers. Period. Today’s new authors can write what they want and e-self-pub it (and self-promote) without any repercussions. Indeed, many huge sales are made this way.

Times are changing. Are they better? For most authors, I think so, yes. As long as you can change with the times, that is.

LOIS H. GRESH is the New York Times Best-Selling Author (6 times), Publishers Weekly Best-Selling Paperback Author, and Publishers Weekly Best-Selling Paperback Children’s Author of 27 books and 50+ short stories. Her books have been published in approximately 20 languages. Current books are paranormal romance NIGHTFALL, dark short story collection ELDRITCH EVOLUTIONS, DARK FUSIONS (editor, PS Publishing, Oct 2013), and THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS COMPANION (June 2013). Lois has received Bram Stoker Award, Nebula Award, Theodore Sturgeon Award, and International Horror Guild Award nominations for her work.




Full-Time Writing: Oh, the Horrors! — 3 Comments

  1. Thought provoking post and I hope new writers grasp everything that’s gone unsaid. As a long-time writer, I could go on forever about this topic. I’ve been fortunate not to have to use my writing income for support most of the time. I’ve used it for college tuition and retirement savings and a few nice vacations. I don’t use quarter-napkins, although I do pinch pennies because that’s the way I was brought up. Back in the glory days of 2001, I was making more money than I ever dreamed of making, hitting bestseller lists and writing two books a year for two publishers. Those years I put my husband back to college.
    These days, I’m making more money selling my backlist than those books made when they were first print published. This won’t continue, I know. Sales go up and down based on whether I have new books in a series or a new print book out. I can’t write a book a month. But it’s exciting that I can write what I want to write and still earn more than the measly advances NYC is offering in 2013.

  2. Pingback: Nightspore » On a writing career in 2013

  3. I can’t write a book a month, either, Pat. I can manage a book and a couple of short pieces a year. At various times, I’ve also taught writing and done commercial writing and paid critiquing.

    A number of years ago, when I found myself a single working mom with not-very-well-paying skills and a troubled teen, trying to juggle life and writing, it became very clear to me that (a) I couldn’t count on enough writing success to support both of us, factoring in the cost of my kid’s psychotherapy; (b) I had choices. I could go back to school, get specialized training, and earn a more comfortable living. Or I could decide to keep driving my 200+K mile car, buying my clothes at a thrift shop (when I bought them at all) and most of my food from the 99 cent store. And write. And see where it went. In other words, I could feed my soul or I could feed my bank account.

    When I’d get panicked about money, my dear friend would remind me that I had an alternative to becoming a bag lady. We’d pool our meager Social Security incomes, rent a big old house, and set up a Little Old Lady Writers Commune.

    As it happened, the universe had other plans for me.