5 Things for Writers to Look for in a Day Job

It might seem strange to have a post about what to look for in a day job on a publishing advice blog. After all, often the dream is to write full time. Day jobs are just a distraction, right?

Realistically, though, it’s hard to earn a living from writing fiction full time, and many published authors never manage it. Even those fortunate enough to be able to live off their writing income will have needed to slog for years beforehand, learning their craft, building up a backlist and raising their profile. In other words, unless you start very young and/or are very lucky, at some point you will probably have to do some other form of work to pay the rent.

sorcerer_front mech.indd Zen-Cho-Jim-author-writer

Column by Zen Cho, author of debut novel SORCERER TO
THE CROWN
(July 12, 2016, Ace/Roc Books/Pan Macmillan),
the the first in a historical fantasy trilogy. Zen was born and raised
in Malaysia. She is the author of Crawford Award-winning short
story collection Spirits Abroad, and editor of anthology Cyberpunk:
Malaysia, both published by Buku Fixi. She has been nominated for
the Campbell Award for Best New Writer and honour-listed for the Carl
Brandon Society Awards for her short fiction. She lives in London. Follow her on Twitter

I’m an award-winning fantasy author and I hold down a day job as a corporate lawyer. I like it, despite the usual annoyances that come with any job … but the fact is, I spend a lot of time glaring at computer screens, squeezing words out of my brain.

If you want to be a writer, it is worth thinking seriously about what you’re going to be doing for a living till that huge book deal comes along. Here’s five things to think about when you’re deciding on a day job.

1) Will it give you a stable source of income?

Stability is the main reason any writer has a day job. The publishing industry is a fickle beast and art is a chancy way to make a living. Even once you’ve got a book deal, there’s no certainty you’ll get another: your book may flop; your publisher may go under; your first or fifth or ninth deal may be your last.

(Should you list comparable titles in a query letter?)

Freelancing might therefore not be the ideal day job since it’s generally not as secure as employment. Equally, though, lots of writers become freelancers for a very important reason: flexibility.

2) Is it flexible enough that you’ll have the time and space to write?

Jobs where you can set your own hours are good for this. Any writer needs time and brainspace to write and create. As you publish more, your promotional duties will also likely increase, and it’s helpful to have the kind of day job where you can take off for book launches, literary festivals, press interviews or TV and radio appearances. (You can be invited to all these things and still not be earning enough from writing alone to make a decent living. I know, it’s depressing.)

You might want to run your own business since that gives you control over your schedule. Businesses are like books, though, in that they tend to absorb all available time and energy. They’re also not great for predictability.

3) Are your working hours predictable?

One way to get the time and mental space you need for writing is to have a job with a predictable routine: you know you’ll be getting off work by 5.30 pm every day, so you can plan your writing schedule in advance. If you can work part-time, even better.

Hook agents, editors and readers immediately.
Check out Les Edgerton’s guide, HOOKED, to
learn about how your fiction can pull readers in.

4) Are you moving around?

Writing involves a lot of sitting, unless you’ve stumped up for a treadmill desk. Most office jobs also involve a lot of sitting. Sitting is bad for you. If you can get a job where you’re required to move around, you’ll be doing your health a favour and will have a happier, more creative brain.

5) Is your job socially and intellectually stimulating?

This is all about balance: if you have a job that requires you to exert yourself creatively and intellectually, that can either inspire you in your writing or exhaust you such that you have nothing left for your own creative projects. Equally, a certain amount of boredom is probably good for sparking creativity, but if you’re too bored that can be deadening.

Exercising your social muscles is as important as using your brain: writers don’t get out a lot, and everyone needs some interaction with their fellow human beings. How are you going to write about people if you never actually see them?

(5 comparisons NOT to make for your book.)

It’s nearly impossible for most people to find a job that ticks all of these boxes, of course. But if you’re serious about writing, it’s worth thinking about how you can arrange your life to support that — and your day job is an important piece in that puzzle.

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