day job


I’ve been focusing on day jobs a lot the last few days. There’s been quit a few blog posts out there on quitting the day job, and how desperately hateful most writers (not just fiction authors) find their jobs.

So I thought I add another entry to the Foundation series, by defining what a day job is…and isn’t.

You might be rolling your eyes by now, thinking “what, do I look stupid?”

But it’s worth defining a day job, because it takes up a whole 1/3 or more of your daily life, and the angst and despair and fury you expend upon it can detract from the other 1/3 of your life.  If you let it get too much out of hand, it can eat into your sleep, too.

So it’s worth spending time thinking about your day job and figuring out how to deal with it. Besides, having a day job is what makes you an anchored author and is the underlying reason for this blog.

The one-size-fits-all definition of a day job is a work-for-hire arrangement where you front up five days a week for around eight hours a day, and provide services that have little or nothing to do with publishing or creative writing. In return, you’re paid a salary or wages (hourly pay), and the job is open ended: As long as you don’t screw up too badly, they’ll keep you employed until you just can’t stand it any longer, or you hit the New York Times best seller list — also known as “winning the lottery”. How to pull off the more realistic third alternative — quitting the day job to write full time — is what the rest of this blog is about.

That’s the basics. There’s a whole lot of variations that get added onto this basic definition, but these are the common elements at the core.

The variations include health benefits, vacation packages, how much you actually get paid, pensions and 401(k) plans. Your hours may differ a little, and the services you provide for your pay run the gamut from hard physical labor to abstract thinker and everything in between…except writing.

If you have a day job that is in the writing or publishing industry, you have a unique set of problems in addition to those the average anchored author struggles with. Having a job in the publishing industry is probably the worst sort of day job a fiction writer can have, especially if you’re actually writing as a journalist, or freelance non-fiction writer.

In the last couple of days I have been discussing the possibilities of jumping ship and accepting an editorial position running a couple of glossy city magazines, working from home. It sounded like the perfect job. It would open up my time and give me flexibility to work on my fiction in a way that a corporate, structured day job would never allow.

Except that they offered less than half the salary I’m earning now. For an editor’s job!

I’ve been working in the corporate world for several years now, so I wondered if it was just the publisher being scrooge-like, and did some research. It was almost a body-blow to discover that, actually, the publisher was being generous!

Pay averages in the publishing industry are dismal to the point of insult, and desperate writers working for credit only help keep averages at an artificial low. Unfortunately, the rest of the world uses pay scale as a measure of skill and expertise, so the rest of the world (and the non-writer half of the publishing industry) consistently devalue the effort and skill involved in good writing.

Writers are helping maintain their perceived poor value by continuing to accept a pittance for their work.

Then add injury to the insult: most writer-types knock themselves out for that pittance. They work long, hard hours, and produce some of their best work, all for what amounts to the glory of the by-line (which ain’t that glorious, lemme tell you. It lasts about thirty seconds, tops. Then you’re hungry again).

Writer day jobs are draining. You come home to your dusty novel manuscript and the idea of sitting down and cranking out another four pages makes you want to puke…that’s if you come home at all. Journalists and freelancers work indecently long and strange hours (which further deflates their actual dollar-per-hour pay).

Now, all this is just fine if you really want to be a journalist or freelance non-fiction writer, or whatever. In fact, you’re living your dream. Kudos to you, and I hate your guts. <kidding!>

But if you’re reading this blog and you’ve got this far in the post, I’m betting that really, truly, you’d rather be writing novels for a living, and even if you are making a living as a journalist or freelance writer, it’s still only a day job. Worse, it’s a day job that makes you not want to write your novels, takes away a lot of your spare time when you might be writing novels, plus it pays peanuts, too.

If you’re beginning to wonder where I get off telling you your day job is killing your fiction career, I can answer that I speak from experience. I had a great job as an editor of a city and a national magazine. The perks were fabulous, and that “editor” entry on my resume is great, but that’s all I got out of two years of incredibly hard work.

I spent enormous amounts of time networking, researching, attending media events, and writing editorial and heavily-researched feature articles, as well as standard editor duties like keeping the arts people off each others’ backs, and dealing with printers, deadlines, editorial calendars, and fighting the good fight to maintain editorial independence in the face of huge pressure from advertisers — and the publisher, I might add — to provide just a little bit more favorable exposure to the bigger advertisers in the roster…. (If you’re an editor yourself, you can probably quote the standard coaxing phrases verbatim).

I didn’t finish a single novel in the whole two years I was running the magazines.

It’s possible that you have a writing day job, and still find it possible to consistently produce decent amounts of fiction over the long term. If you can, and you’d still rather be writing novels for a living, then you can fall back to treating your day job as just a day job, and use all the strategies and skills of the average anchored author to get your career off the ground, and get to quitting the day job.

I couldn’t. After two years at the magazines, I quit in order to find a plain vanilla day job where I could clock off at five and go home to write.

Have a think about your own day job. Is it serving its purpose? (Namely, to provide you with life-sustaining income while you get your real career up and running.) If it isn’t, think about shopping for a new one. Yes, you should be deliberately looking for a day job that suits your needs, not just your employer’s.

As to what sort of day job suits an anchored author best…well, that’s a very long discussion. My own day job is a mid-level administrative support position in a huge non-profit corporation. I’m a nobody/flunky/gopher and it’s perfect for me. I get ignored, overlooked and taken for granted, and no-one wants me disturbing the equilibrium by demanding huge amounts of job satisfaction, or trying to carve a career path for myself. Plus, the money is good — at least twice as much as the publishing industry job I just turned down.

What’s your day job? Does it suit your anchored author lifestyle? Tell me about it. Let other anchored authors know what day jobs might work for them.

First appeared on Anchored Authors, June 12, 2008

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