Why not being a writer is good for writers

I’ve follow Amie McNee for a while on Instagram and read her latest blog post dealing with that awful question for aspiring writers: “But what’s your real job?”

This got me thinking (and I never know where I fall on this debate so I thought for a long time!)

I find answering this question so awkward that I always say I’m a PR man who does creative writing as a hobby. So first of all: well done Amie and everyone else who proudly says “I am a writer!” It takes guts.

But there are things I don’t quite agree with – and I don’t think it’s just me being pedantic (though that has been known).

First off all a ‘job’ is whatever pays your bills, so if you ain’t getting at least some cashflow from writing, then writing ain’t your job. It can be your passion, your goal, hell even your life purpose (all of which are more meaningful than just a job) but it can’t be your job.

Secondly, just as we should be proud as writers, we shouldn’t be ashamed of our jobs. Loads of aspiring, and even successful, writers have jobs as teachers or PRs or freelancers or lawyers or whatever. If you’re in denial about the fact you’re not a full-time paid writer, then that’s not healthy.

Thirdly (and this is where my title makes sense) I think there’s a way of solving the writer-job conflict. I think we’ve got to embrace our shitty time-consuming jobs which take us away from our real passion. That’s right, cherish all of those frustrating emails and long meetings and 7-hours-a-day spent away from your novel.

I’m not just being facetious here. I genuinely think there’s merit in having a separate work life: it’s full of writerly material like characters and situations you don’t get elsewhere; it connects you to a different world in which your priorities don’t matter; its humbling; it forces you to analyse yourself and your environment.

For me, one of the worse sins that full-time writers commit is writing a novel about writers and writing. JK Rowling does it with Cormorant Strike investigating the publishing world. Richard Yates does it in Young Hearts Crying. Even Philip Roth is guilty.

These are the books in which you have a character or narrator who is a novelist or poet and they spend their time writing and thinking about writing. And it’s all because the real writer has nothing else to talk about. Professional writers have no material as compelling, no passion or drive as vital, as those of us who spend our time at some other job.

So I think we should use our jobs for our own purpose. To mine material, to make us more determined and focused. That’s what some great work-based novels do, like Heller’s Something Happened and Yates’ Revolutionary Road.

That’s why for me, not being a writer is one of the best things for my writing.

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The two times I got paid for my writing

That’s right, paid! After writing free articles for free student newspapers, and free short stories for free magazines, and doing free interviews and reviews for free – in the past year I’ve been paid twice for writing something.

So now you know that it’s not a vicious rumour that writers can get paid. Ah, but nor is it some cash-filled nirvana where you and J. K. Rowling and Stephen King just sit around writing words as money kerchings into your pockets.

This is the reality of getting paid, or at least for me it was:

1. The first time I got paid for my writing was when I self-published my first novel, Banes of Boys and Girls, on Kindle and Nook. It was the summer of 2013: they were the hottest months on record, Rolf Harris was still a national hero, and beards were still cool. And into the swell I plopped my little homegrown handmade coming-of-age novel (which had been turned down by agents the previous summer). I didn’t expect it to earn me thousands, but here are the (depressing) maths…

My debut novel

I sold 114 units at either £1 or for free through Amazon’s promotions tool. Then minus fees by Amazon and Barnes & Noble of up to 70% per unit. Then I was left with… 

Total = £22.80

2. The second time I got paid for my writing was when I submitted an article to The Writer magazine. I had kept in touch with Cathryn Summerhayes at WME, one of the agents who I contacted with my novel (see above if you’ve forgotten already or are reading from the bottom of the page upwards – weirdo). And by “kept in touch” I mean “pestered with intermittent emails”. I asked Cathryn if I could interview her about being an agent and what she looks for in submissions. Short story: the interview happened, I submitted it all over the shop, and The Writer magazine picked it up.

Now here’s the good bit… When The Writer accepted the interview they sent me a freelancer contract which said I was getting paid $400 (something like £233) for it. I figured it was some sort of bizarre practical joke, but the piece went in print and I got paid. Needless to say I submitted another piece to them again.

Total = £233

The moral of the story is that you can get paid for writing. The other morals of the story are that you might not get paid as much as you want or need. And that the amount you get paid probably won’t match the effort you put into it. (Unless you think writing an interview is harder than a novel. Again – weirdo)

Have you been paid for writing anything recently/ever? What do you think? (No need to divulge bank details.)

My interview with Richard Milward

My interview with novelist Richard Milward is in the May edition of Bookslut. You can read it here: http://www.bookslut.com/features/2014_05_020639.phpmilward

 

Richard is the writer behind novels like Apples (2007), Ten Storey Love Song (2009) and Kimberly’s Capital Punishment (2012), who I was lucky enough to meet at a pub in Middlesbrough last Christmas. He told me about his next novel The Headaches, gave some great advice about writing, and was generally a good laugh.

Let me know what you think…?