This is my second time leaving a “real” job as a lawyer. The first time, as I said in an earlier post, was primarily because I had baby twins, and it wasn’t really a career change, just a temporary hiatus. Writing was something I could do part time while the kids were little, and it actually paid better than “part time” legal work, which, let’s be real, doesn’t really exist. Anyway, once I was writing as my only source of income and didn’t have the “real” job, I realized that certain things were a lot harder than I expected. After about a year and a half, I figured I should return to the law before it was too late. Now, another year and a half later, with my kids in preschool, I’ve left the law job again, this time with my eyes wide open about what writing as a career will look like. Here are the 5 things I will do differently:
1. Own it as a legitimate career
The first time I left the law, I told everyone I was doing it to because of the kids (I had baby twins at the time) and wanting more time with them. This was true, and a huge part of my decision. However, I also wanted to succeed as an author. At the time, I’d barely told anyone in my life about my pen name, and I only had two books published. I don’t think I’d done any marketing for those books, aside from a couple facebook posts. The reason? Fear. If I treated my writing like a business, if I told people that I actually planned to earn a living writing books, and needed to do so for our family, then I couldn’t fail. It would somehow all be real, and what if I went for it and failed? This is all embarrassing to admit, but it’s the truth.
It also didn’t FEEL like a legitimate career. Now, lots of people work remotely from home and coffee shops nowadays, so that part I could adjust to. But when you write fiction as a self-published author, you have no clients (aside from your readers), no regular meetings, no one to answer to but vague deadlines you set for yourself, and you spend most of your day with made up characters (and, in my case, babies). It feels very disconnected from the real world, and there’s little accountability. I found it really hard to accept that what I was doing was a valuable contribution to society. (I write a little about this in my post “5 Reasons why I left the law to become an author” and how I finally realized my books matter to people).
And, the thing is, I love reading and writing, so it was almost TOO fun to count as a real job. Ridiculous, I know, but I like the satisfaction of working hard and when making up stories doesn’t always feel like work, I wasn’t sure if it counted. Because I didn’t own it as a legitimate career, people didn’t always treat it as such, which then of course, made me kind of mad. I would think, just because I have young kids and work from home doesn’t mean I’m not working hard, running a business. But then, why would anyone know this if I portrayed my writing to them as a silly hobby?
This time around, I’m not afraid to tell people when they ask that yes, I am an author, that is my career, my job. Just because I occasionally don’t leave the house for a couple of days or get out of my pajamas doesn’t mean I don’t have a real job.
2. Build a professional community.
I didn’t realize how much I needed a professional community until I didn’t have one at my fingertips every day. I had a community of other moms and friends, but I hardly knew or communicated with anyone in the writing community. On the rare occasion I had a conversation with another author, it was glorious! They got me! They understood what this life was like. But because I didn’t treat it like a real job, I didn’t think I was allowed to "waste" time connecting with other authors, or attend writing conferences, or industry conventions, even though all my peers in the writing world seemed to be doing it. Somehow, I thought, well, that’s the fun part, and I need to actually be writing. If I’m going to be away from my babies, I need to be churning out word count, not socializing with other people in my industry.
Well, it turns out that having a network in the industry is incredibly valuable. Not only in terms of building awareness of your books and author brand, but mostly because that moral encouragement is HUGE. At least, for me it is. I just need to know I’m not in it alone. And now that I’ve connected with more authors, I bounce ideas off of them about my stories or marketing, and they are so helpful! I love it when I can provide feedback to their questions too. Clearly, I’m a people person, and denying myself these connections was a poor choice.
This time around, I meet other authors at least a few times a week simply to write beside them. This might sound pointless, and two years ago I would have agreed, but it really inspires me to know others are creating stories along side me. This is especially true when I get in a slump.
I’m also going to start attending more conventions and workshops and things like that. Even connecting with people online in FB groups for authors has been great. With everything I’ve learned from others, it’s hard to believe I ever thought that engaging in the writing community would be a waste of time. I mean, I can certainly see how it could suck you in and you could spend more time chatting about writing than actually doing it, but like any good thing, all in moderation.
3. Don't expect to be able to write 40 hours a week
Again, I thought the actual act of writing words for a book was the only thing that could count as “work.” While I wasn’t actually working 40 hours anyway, my point is, every hour dedicated to “work” doesn’t have to be writing. I thought I could plan exactly how many words I would write in a certain amount of “work” time per day. I set my standard daily word count goal as the maximum amount of words I’d ever written in one day. The thing is, writing is a creative thing, and there are times when the words just don’t flow like I want them to. It’s okay at those times to do something else, like marketing, instead of going against a brick wall. Instead, I was really hard on myself when I didn’t hit my word count goals, which were unrealistic to begin with. I thought I could force it, but when I did, the writing wasn’t as good, and that is when it definitely felt like work!
This time around, while I’m treating it like a legitimate career, I don’t PLAN to write 8 hours every single day or. This might sound crazy to non-writers, but I usually plan only for 3 to 4 good writing hours a day. Sometimes I get in 8 or more, when I’m really on a roll, but most of the time 3 to 4 solid hours of churning out words is all I have in me. I do spend the rest of the day working, but on other things. There’s always marketing via social media, which again, can suck you in and kill your time if you’re not careful, but is actually important for authors to do. That’s another thing I didn’t recognize the first time around. I thought it was a waste of time. But in this world, readers, fans, other authors and industry people, want and expect to be connected on some level on social media. While I prefer in-person connections, social media is the way to reach a much larger group of people, and just because it might not be as stressful as being a lawyer, doesn’t mean it’s not important to my career as an author. If people don’t hear anything about you between releases except for the announcement of a book, they won’t feel any real connection to you. I realized that all authors do it! Some must spend 40 hours a week just on this! I suppose there’s a theme going in each of these points. Just because something is easy and enjoyable – like social media – doesn’t mean it’s not valuable or “work.”
Other “work” aside from writing includes cover design, teasers, website updates, selecting/designing book-related merchandise, research for the book (sometimes entailing interviewing people), copyright filings, learning about marketing and how to best spend dollars, editing, formatting, organizing ARCs, attending workshops and conventions, directing the making of audiobooks, coordinating sales….. am I boring you yet? My favorite part of “work” as an author is, hands down, reading.
4. [Try to] Ignore self-doubt
As I’ve connected with more authors on social media, I realized a common phenomena: even the most successful authors experience self-doubt. Alex London posted on twitter: “I’m at the part of reading my first draft where it’s obvious I have no skill or talent and no one will ever want to read anything I write ever again because I suck and am stupid. This is my 22nd book and this is the process every damn time.” Karina Halle responded that it’s the same for her and she’s on her 46th book. She’s a multiple times NY Times bestseller and the sole breadwinner in her family. I was flabbergasted. All this time I thought there must be something wrong with me! I thought I had some deep-seated self confidence issue I had to address because how could I always think these thoughts about being a horrible writer and then have people begging me to write another book? It was unbelievably helpful to know that even New York Times bestsellers have profound self-doubt.
It also helped me look at the emotion differently. It’s not a valuable feeling to dwell on. Yes, I want to make my books the best they can be and in doing that I have to recognize that they aren’t perfect, but there’s a difference between awareness and doubt. I’m making a more concerted effort to ignore self-doubt, particularly the kind that goes beyond just the story I’m working on and into the whole – how in the world do you think you can actually make a career out of this, you have no idea what you are doing! It’s pointless and unproductive, and ultimately, not true.
The first time around, I let myself listen too hard to the criticism, the bad reviews, all the external factors that might indicate I don’t have what it takes. I was eager to listen to them, nodding in agreement. Look, I know bad reviews are part of the game, but like I said in my post about why I quit the law, I’m sensitive. I internalize them and think, yeah, they’re right. Well, my sales say otherwise. My fans say otherwise. Writing, like art or music, is subjective. Not everyone is going to love the same thing. So I’ve got to just keep doing what I do, get better, and try to ignore the self doubt. Recognize it as a normal thing all authors have and just shrug it off. Don’t indulge it.
5. Success is not measured only by income.
The first time around, my only real measure of success was whether or not I earned enough to contribute to my share of supporting our family. I did, but it made me way more focused on money than I’d ever been in my life. When you have a regular paycheck, you rest easy in that as long as you show up and do the work, money shows up too. When you don’t have a regular steady paycheck, and it fluctuates dramatically, you can’t just sit back and not pay attention. You have to pay really close attention.
And with the law, I knew that for the most part, my income would only increase over the years, so I could just keep plugging away, knowing that if I did a good job, I would continue to be paid the same or more over the years and doors would keep opening. You can’t just rest in that kind of certainty as an author. You can work hard on a book, and if you don’t hit it right, it might be a total fail and no one reads it and then you make no money. It’s a lingering fear that is always hanging around. You work for weeks or months on something, and it might not pay off. Even if you have money coming in from past books, it means you can’t plan for anything significant, like a new house or a new car, because you don’t know for sure if you’re income will go up or down in the next year. And that’ just in the short term. Over the long term, I don’t know what to expect. The book world has already changed a ton in the past decade with ebooks and self-publishing, and who knows what will happen next.
All this made me think about money more than I had before. As a lawyer, or in most careers really, success can be defined by a lot of things outside the paycheck, because you know you will get a paycheck. Eventually I realized after a few books that I could at least know I’d get paid something and I had a sense of what the bare minimum would look like. Plus, I also realized that as your backlist grows, that bare minimum tends to increase, so while you can’t count on it like most careers, in general your income should increase over the years as an author as you keep churning out books.
Once I had at least some confidence that a paycheck would actually be coming in so long as I kept working, just like other jobs, I realized that I needed to start defining success as more than just the sales and royalties and the ability to earn a living doing this. Readers are entertained by what I write, and that matters. Some readers are motivated or inspired by my books, and that makes them successful too. And connecting with other authors trying to tell stories from their experiences, imaginations, and being brave facing all those fears, that’s a really cool part of it as well. So, this time around, I need to look for success in all these other areas outside of just the numbers. Sure, numbers are important, or I wouldn’t be able to do it as a career, but they aren’t the only thing that matters.