Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Coping with the Day Job

By James M. Palmer
2004, James M. Palmer


"Don't quit your day job."  We've all heard that phrase, often when we're caught singing.  It's usually a mild insult, a suggestion that we not quit our full time positions on a quest to be the next Sinatra.  But for the working writer, it can be the best advice there is.  Here's why.

Let's face it -- most published authors don't pull Stephen King-level salaries from writing, so for many writers another steady job is essential.  Sometimes these jobs have long hours, offer low pay, and require us to do menial tasks.  They can wear us down, but here are some ways you can make them a help to your writing instead of a hindrance.

The Perks

A steady job offers not only a regular paycheck, but some side benefits, such as insurance -- which is expensive for the self-employed -- as well as vacation and sick time.  These last two can be a boost to your creative output.  Have you been working hard plotting that novel?  Take some paid time off to work on it.  Got a novel coming out?  Take a vacation to go on a signing tour.  If you haven't written anything else in a while, you can rest easy knowing that you'll have some money coming from your full-time job.

Time, Precious Time

Right now you're saying to yourself, "But I work all the time.  I don't have any time left for writing."  The truth is you can find the time if you try.  One writer I know who works in a bookstore jots down notes on his lunch hour, then types them up on the computer when he gets home.  Do whatever it takes, even if it means getting up before you normally would do so.  Many successful writers did this before they made it big.  

If you have a shift job, like I do, you can write before you go to work or after you get home.  I have to be at work by noon, so by getting up with my wife at six a.m. and seeing her off, I get a lot of writing time in.  There will be days when the words just won't come, but if you set aside a time to write, you will program your brain to think about writing during that time.  Then you will have days when the words just pour out of you. 

The Name Game

If you have a job where you have access to a lot of customer names, you have a great way to come up with names for your characters.  Think of the possibilities for characterization of such real life monikers as Nigel Lobo and Harlus B. Coody.  You shouldn't be using real names, but you can combine different first and last names to come up with intriguing and bizarre combinations.  Sometimes, just seeing someone's name can spark your imagination to come up with one of your own.  Let it run wild.

Reality Check

Finally, a job can give a writer a healthy dose of reality.  Sitting in front of a typewriter or computer screen all day, with little or no human interaction, is neither easy nor healthy, and venturing out in the real world on a regular basis can do you and your writing a lot of good.  Just hearing how people speak and watching how they move can help you breathe new life into your characters.  It can also help you get your conscious mind off writing, while your subconscious takes over and works on any problems you might be having with your latest project.

Working with a Net

Working a full-time job doesn't have to kill your writing career.  Properly balanced, it can help your writing by giving you a stable income, interaction with people, and time off to pursue your dream.  That's something to think about for those who want to quit the minute their first short story is published.  "Don't quit your day job" is more than just a funny saying.  It's also a good, safe way to launch a writing career.