The Psychology of Being a Full Time Author

This is the first of my essays about being an author, brought to you by my Patreon page.

 The Powder Mage Trilogy went to auction between three major publishers in November of 2011. The timing couldn't have been more fortuitous. I was fresh out of a job working minimum wage as a fry cook in the prepared foods section of the worst grocery store in the world and just settling into work as a debt collector--a job I knew I wouldn't be able to handle for more than a year. Six months of unemployment prior to the fry cook job had my spirits at an all time low, and Michele was already struggling with her new job at a vet's office.

The email about the auction from my agent was typically understated, but Michele and I spent the next twenty-four hours dancing around our little five hundred square-foot rental and celebrated by going out to Olive Garden.

Don't laugh. That was fancy dining for us at the time.

The results of the auction were good enough that I had a decision to make. I could do the smart thing and stick with the job at the collection agency for as long as possible, writing in the evenings, keeping our health insurance and a steady income and pocketing the money from the auction for a rainy day. Or, I could drop the job and throw myself at this writing gig with all my gusto.

It wasn't a hard decision to be honest. I wasn't getting paid all that much, and I've always hated office jobs and structure. This was my chance to be free of them. My dreams were literally about to come true. I leapt on that chance like... well, like I would on a triple-layer chocolate cake. All our problems were over. We thought.

Thing about life though, is that no matter how awesome it is there's always a new set of difficulties. When it comes to any job these are often psychological. As far as most people go, I thought I was pretty well-equipped to adjust to the writing life. My dad was self-employed, working out of the house most of my life, so I was aware of many of those particular challenges. I'd had mentors in the writing community that gave me insight into what it was like to be a writer.

But you don't really know something for real until you experience it.

One of our first struggles was getting paid one very large check up front. Surely that's not a struggle, you say. Take it in perspective: up until this point we had both been working minimum wage jobs since college, barely getting by, having to borrow money from family at times. Then we get handed more money than we had ever made together in a year all at once. It's so tempting to buy ALL THE THINGS. That thing you hear about where someone wins the lottery then is bankrupt a year later? We didn't want that to happen to us...

...because we knew we weren't going to get paid again until book two was handed in, or book one hit the shelves, which was still sixteen months away. When Michele quit her job at the vet's office and started editing for me full-time we had to tighten up even more. As a full-time author, you don't have the benefit of being paid every two weeks, knowing exactly what money you'll have and where it'll go. You have to plan and budget out a year or more.

We had mixed success on that budgeting thing over the course of the first two years. I started diversifying income with self-published short stories and that's helped stabilize us but there's always that monthly budget review where I look at the numbers and check to see when we get paid next and give a little grimace and figure out how to pay the quarterly taxes.

The next struggle, and it's still something I deal with on a daily basis, is the dangers of setting my own schedule.

I don't have a boss. I don't have a manager. I have an awesome editor and an incredible agent that check in on me from time to time, especially when deadlines loom, but that's not the same thing. I can (and have, I'm loathe to admit) spend six weeks playing video games and then work fourteen-hour days for several months straight to hit my deadline and no one will be the wiser.

That kind of thing is not healthy. Many of the most successful authors I know have set work schedules. They get up at 6AM or whenever, have their coffee, sit down and work until they've finished 2000 words, or some variation on that daily goal.

So far, I haven't been able to make it work. This is about the healthiest schedule I've been able to accomplish:

I'm fortunate in that I write quickly. When I've got a scene planned I can bust down around 1500-2000 words an hour, so often times I'll spend the better part of the week staring at the ceiling or doing something that lets my brain subconsciously compute the various plot threads I'm trying to tie together, then get all my writing done in one or two days.

Still not very healthy.

This brings up something else about being a full-time writer. It's really hard to figure out how much time you've put in.

I used to beat myself up when I had only spent ten hours or a week writing. Brian, I'd say, what the hell is wrong with you? This is your job! You should be writing forty or more hours each week. Get to it! Chop chop!

That was really self-destructive because it would depress me and then I'd get even less done. Thing is, a full-time writer is working all the time. Driving to the store? Plotting. Laying in bed unable to sleep? Developing a new character. Even when I'm playing computer games or having a conversation I'm still filing things away in the back of my head, trying to make a scene work or considering a new detail to add. Even when you're not "working" as an author, you're still working.

And all this background stuff is essential to being an author, full-time or not. Some people plot by taking notes, or by just sitting down and writing and expecting to throw out 90% of what they've written. I like to write as few drafts as possible, so I have to get it all done in my head ahead of time and it took me forever to convince myself that all that time is real work.

Neurosis. Every author has it, full-time or not. Checking your Amazon ranking, drumming your fingers every day that your latest royalty statement doesn't arrive, peeking at a new review even when you know you shouldn't. It's just part of being an author.

We all fear that our latest book will bomb or that an editor won't want the next pitch. But when you're full-time, it goes a little deeper. You won't just take that psychological hit. You won't be able to pay your rent. Maybe you're latest contract has you set for a couple months. Maybe a whole year or two. But you're always looking forward, knowing that there's a good chance there will be a day when the whole full-time gig will end.

It's my greatest fear.

The final thing I'm going to talk about is something that took me a while to realize. I'm the youngest kid by six years, which means I was in many ways an only child. I'm introverted. Love being by myself. It was a long process, gradually seeping into me, to figure out how dang lonely it is being a full-time author.

It didn't really start until I began going to conventions as an author. I'd get to meet fans and other authors and industry people. These were my new friends and colleagues, the people I had been searching for my whole life. I'd hang out and talk and laugh and geek out. And then I'd go home and be back sitting at my computer on Monday.

Writers don't have coworkers or a water cooler. We have conventions, which all depend on guest invites or budgeting into your finances as "work." So the average full-time author is going to attend a handful of those each year and the rest of that time? Staring at the screen, all by yourself.

Twitter, Facebook, and Gchat all help. But even if you're constantly in contact, you're still lacking that human connection. I'm fortunate enough that my wife is my (literally) in-house collaborator, always there for me to bounce ideas off and to look over my latest chapter. Many authors don't have that benefit. And despite that, and the fact that I generally prefer to be by myself, I still count down the days until my next launch party or convention.

I know thousands of people dream of having the problems that come along with being a full-time author. Three years after I left my last day job, it's still a dream come true. But there is so much more to being an author than what you read about in interviews or "how to be a writer" books. Authors, even very successful ones, all deal with the fear, isolation, and neurosis that come with this strange career.