I don't want fiction writing to be my day job
I can't think of anything more stressful!
In the self-publishing world, there's this mantra that you should treat writing as a business or don't even bother becoming an indie author. The word "hobby" is almost a slur.
Writing is my vocation, but writing fiction is my hobby. And that's okay.
Its status could change in the future, but I never want it to be my job. At least, my only job.
When I started writing, my only motivation was to "just be creative". There was a thing inside of me, bursting to get out. (Not in the Alien way, but it sometimes felt like that.)
So, I wrote.
I wrote my first short story when I was 12. It was a tale befitting my moody, teenage self: about a woman who wanted to die while on a plane. And did. (Cheerful!)
Over the years, I wrote more fiction. Short stories became novellas. Then, novels which I published chapter by chapter online. This was the early years of the Internet before Kindle Unlimited was even a thought in Jeff Bezos' mind.
In those early years, I didn't think of making fiction writing my career. I was far too practical—I believed my parents' exhortation to "get a proper job" and dutifully set my sights on medicine. Later, law. But a week before enrolling in law school, I decided to do a sharp turn toward communications. This resulted in a lot of hand-wringing in the family.
Nevertheless, I survived and went on to become a journalist. And I continued writing fiction.
I had a day job that supported me and that was enough.
But one day, I shared my stories with a friend, and she remarked, "If only you had monetised these! Imagine the kind of money you would've made!"
A seed of an idea was planted in my mind, but I also felt a lot of self-condemnation. Why didn’t I monetise this? Why am I so bad at being a proper writer?
So I tried, passionately, to monetise my fiction. I even overhauled my entire life to make it happen.
Part of my drive to pivot to nursing in my thirties, besides one too many episodes of ER, was this belief that if I had a day job that didn't use my writing energy, I'd have lots left over to become a proper "authorpreneur".
It didn't quite work out that way, of course. Nursing, for one, is an incredibly physically and mentally demanding job. I had nothing left over, nothing.
Yet, I pushed on, writing in the cracks of my life, trying to force my brain to come up with stories while it was crying for rest. Even after leaving nursing and once again taking a job that "didn't use up my creative energy", I drove myself hard.
Stumbling from night shifts that my body hated, I would write thousands of words in the morning. I read writing books, and listened to podcasts about self-publishing for hours a day; I experimented with writing techniques that promised to make me produce a book a month.
To succeed in the indie publishing world, you have to be very productive, said all the gurus.
So hustle hustle hustle I did, trying to make my authorpreneur dreams come true.
But real life kept interfering. I went on a quest to find the perfect day job to complement my writing ambitions. But I kept stumbling into deeper career holes. They looked good on my resume, but these jobs were exhausting.
I should rest, but I didn't. I pushed on.
Until I couldn't anymore.
One day, I just couldn't look at or listen to another self-publishing podcast or article. I begged friends to stop sending me them because all they did was provoke waves of self-condemnation, anger, bitterness, and resentment. I felt that same wave each time I open up my novels.
So, I stopped.
I felt like if I didn’t, I would hate writing stories so much that I would give up permanently.
Sometimes, I wonder if I'm just not built to win the authorpreneur race.
I am a slow author, I hate marketing and my productivity is inconsistent. Worse, my muse is a temperamental diva that swings from great enthusiasm to despair; it opens and closes the wells of inspiration at whim.
That diva remains impervious to the writing hacks and tactics I threw at it. She will not be rushed, and she will not be forced to do anything she doesn’t want to do.
A fellow writer rolled her eyes when I shared my woes. "I write a book a month. And I'm a doctor. You have no excuse."
Of course, the underlying accusation was that I didn't want this writing thing bad enough. That fiction writing will always remain a hobby for me.
As the years passed and my unfinished novels lay cold in my hard drive, I gained enough distance and perspective to conclude:
a) that writer was a jerk
b) treating your fiction writer as a hobby isn't a horrible, shameful thing
And other conclusions:
Writers live in an algorithm-driven world hungry for their content but dismissive of their well-being.
To be profitable, you need to write fast, be a marketing demon, and be consistently productive.
Also, you may need to write in a genre that is popular (but you may not like) to pay the bills. Many a literary writer has turned to writing erotica for cash. Not that I have anything against erotica, mind you.
And then there's the fact that creative writing is an unpredictable, capricious and merciless business.
"You know, creativity's not a trade. It never has been. It's never been a safe bet. You must remember that," Elizabeth Gilbert once said. "And nobody owes you anything. You know, your obligation is to the creative process that you love. It's on you. It's on you, and it's flighty. It's unpredictable. People who are less talented than you will do better than you do."
On top of this, the business world doesn't make it easy at all for writers. One moment your novels in Kindle Unlimited are pulling in five figures a month. An algorithm change later, you're down to zero.
I can't think of a heavier burden than tying something so unpredictable to your survival.
Deciding to not depend financially on my fiction was probably the best self-care move I did for myself.
It has allowed me to experiment with my fiction. I can afford to not care for the latest book marketing tactic or wonder if I should pivot to writing (insert latest trendy genre here). I can choose to release it free on Substack if I want to!
That doesn't mean I don't want to earn a cent from my writing (earning money is always nice), but I'd like it to be one of many income streams. One that I don't have to depend on to stay alive.
One day, if fate decreed that I can no longer earn money from my stories, I hope to be able to say what Elizabeth Gilbert said: "I'm going to keep writing in my bedroom before anybody cared and I'll keep doing that after people cared."
What I’m watching
PS: That fantastic quote from Elizabeth Gilbert is from this video, Elizabeth Gilbert on Distinguishing Between Hobbies, Jobs, Careers, & Vocation. I really resonate with the message—writing can be your vocation/calling, career or hobby, and why choosing calling it a hobby isn’t wrong.
What I’m writing
Substack is giving me renewed enthusiasm for writing — especially fiction. I’ve been feeling down about my personal writing projects for a long, long time.
Substack is giving me a way to be my creative self and still be found/read (hopefully). So far, I’m enjoying the community aspect. I’m still amazed that people are actually responding to my comments.
So, I’m currently polishing my unpublished fiction. One of these was a flash fiction I wrote a long time ago: The Appointment.
There’s also Blood of Nanking, which I published years ago, in time for Halloween.
Have a read if you haven’t.
What I’m reading
In his newsletter, Substack’s Opportunity, John from Written Ward likens Substack newsletters to the modern equivalent of reading a newspaper every morning. And you know what, that’s exactly what I’ve doing!
Every morning, I will grab my iPad and read my subscriptions on the Substack Reader. I’m really grateful that the app exists, by the way. I’m not a fan of reading newsletters from my email inbox because I don’t enjoy wading through dozens of marketing spam until I find my favourite newsletter. Plus, I’m
anal a zero inbox devotee, and hate the idea of cleaning up my inbox every week.
The reader offers a clean, uninterrupted reading experience and prevents my brain from nagging me to “for goodness sakes there are 1,000 emails in your inbox you better clean it up before it gets to 2,000!”.
I am really enjoying the random, un-SEO-optimised thoughts of writers who offer me a look at their lives. The Reader is my personally curated newspaper. And it’s been thrilling.
Currently, I’m binging through the archives of these newsletters: Confessions Of A Terrified Creative, Written Ward, Things Worth Knowing, A Stone, a Web, a Story, Write More with Simon K Jones and The Novelleist.
I wish I can support them all by going paid, but coming from a country with a weak currency, I have to choose my battles wisely. And that means periodically doing so with selected publications. But I shall!
Until next time, dear friends.
Thank you for reading! If you like what you see here, do consider subscribing or recommending this to your friends.
I can’t tell you how many paragraphs in this article really resonated with me. It made me wish that I could use emojis on individual paragraphs. Then, I got to the part where you quoted me and later where you recommended my Substack. That was shocking and kind.
Substack is such a strange approach to social media. It doesn’t have a feed unless you subscribe to someone. So there’s less opportunity for random people to stumble across our writing. However when you do connect with someone it has more meaning. I have more to say but it’s time to leave for church. Be back in a few hours.
I think there is a barrier to getting people to read fiction online. It almost needs some third party praising it before some people are willing to commit. I don’t know why that it, but I think it’s true. You either have to be doing something outrageous and unexpected, be part of a collective movement where people have to read stories from several sources, or be the subject of a lot of recommendations. I’m sure you’ve heard about how The Martian by Andy Weir started off on his website as something he was writing for himself. Eventually, someone at NASA found it and contacted him to correct some of the science in the story. When he fixed it, the story spread among other people at NASA, and then from there out to other places where people enjoy science based stories, and it snowballed into a book contract, and later a movie. It seems like fiction needs some kind of external validation (albeit on a smaller scale) to cross over that barrier people experience.
Pay attention to your initial reaction next time you stumble across a piece of fiction somewhere online. Do you read it instantly or move on to the next post?
Sometimes, I wonder if including a short blurb before the story might help people ease their way into experiencing fiction. That’s what stores do. It’s also what Rod Serling does at the beginning of the Twilight Zone (if you’re old enough to have seen that TV show). These are the kind of things that keep me awake at night. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.