Thursday, September 11, 2014

Writing with a Day Job

by Lori Rader-Day

Now that I’ve launched my first novel, The Black Hour, I have one thing to say to aspiring novelists.
Don’t quit your day job.
Before you start howling, give me a chance.
The hard truth in publishing is that hardly anyone makes a living from writing. That’s the bad news. There’s plenty of good news, though, including that a job and writing don’t have to be mutually exclusive endeavors. In fact, I think a day job can be a helpful complement to the writing life.

Want a job done? Give it to a busy person.
Look, there’s no question I’d like to have more time to write. But you’ve heard the adage about who gets the job done, right? If you want to write a book, you have to add it to your to-do list and then get it to-done. People who accept that kind of challenge more often are better equipped to check things, even writing books, off their list.

One word: Deadlines.
A long, languid day of writing sounds great right now, but have you ever tried it? Our squirrelly attention spans are probably only good for a few hours of writing a day, which is why even when you have all day to write, you probably don’t. I write during my lunch hours. One hour. That plan doesn’t always work, but when it does, the rest of my day is better.

Spend money to make money.
Time to be honest. One of the reasons I think day-jobbing and book-flinging work together is because I use one to pay for the other. Going to conferences, putting out bookmarks and other marketing items, hiring a publicist—you don’t have to do all or even any of them. But you have to market yourself somehow, and that requires investment. Your investment.

A different kind of support system.
There’s no question that being a full-time writer is the romantic dream. But when that dream hits a rocky spot—a lukewarm review, creative blockage, a low-energy day where you start to question every decision you’ve ever made—having a paycheck is reassuring. You don’t have to write. You don’t have to— but you want to! And then you’re back in the game, your head on straight. Writing with a day job is stressful, but I suspect it’s less stressful than, say, trying to pay the mortgage with a late royalty check.

Day jobs as inspiration?
The Black Hour would not exist without the day job I had while I wrote it. As much as spinning tales from up in your writer’s garret sounds like an introvert’s dream…how inspiring is the inside of a writer’s garret? A day job forces you out into the world, either literally or figuratively, and puts you into contact with life. All of it can turn into words on the page, as long as you’re paying attention.
As a writer, that’s your true job: paying attention. Can you do that while you work, pick up the kids, run to the store, all while your hair is on fire? The speed at which your life is moving isn’t always under your control, but we all have the same 24 hours. Just this one day. Pay close attention, before another one passes you by.

Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery The Black Hour (Seventh Street Books, 2014). Born and raised in central Indiana, she now lives in Chicago with her husband and dog. Her fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Time Out Chicago , and others. Her next book, the mystery Little Pretty Things, will be published by Seventh Street Books in 2015. Visit her at

For sociology professor Amelia Emmet, violence was a research topic—until a student she’d never met shot her. He also shot himself. Now he’s dead and she’s stuck with a cane and one question she can’t let go: Why her? All she wants is for life to get back to normal. Better than normal, actually, since life was messy before she was shot. Then graduate student Nathaniel Barber offers to help her track down some answers. He’s got a crush and his own agenda—plans to make her his killer dissertation topic. Together and at cross-purposes, Amelia and Nathaniel stumble toward a truth that will explain the attack and take them both through the darkest hours of their lives.


jennymilch said...

I think you're right on many levels, Lori. I would never have found my way to writing suspense if I hadn't had my day job (as a psychotherapist).

Still and all, I do feel grateful not to have to juggle it any longer. That was HARD.

Props to you.

Julia Buckley said...

Count me in as someone with a very busy day job but two recent writing contracts. And yes, the former definitely informs and supports the latter.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Working while writing is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it sharpens professionalism and creates resource networks while relieving financial stress. On the other, it rips you from the characters' worlds and forces conformity on creative minds. As a teacher, I have to say my writing productivity is better during summer break, but my passion for the written word is stronger when school is in (which shows in the writing) because I crave what I can't have. Great article.

Unknown said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly. I actually made a go of writing professionally for a while, doing freelance work to pay my tuition, and the time commitment and uncertainty were just too much. Better to have a day job (or in my case, university) and write when you can.

I actually find that the hours away from writing are when I get some of my best ideas. I can sit at a computer for hours, trying to figure out how to close a plot hole, and the minute I move onto something else, the answer just comes to me.

A said...

I agree about most of it, but the day job acting as an inspiration isn't true for most of us because it is the reason behind thinking about changing careers. Thanks for sharing.

Melissa Gijsbers said...

Great article. Too many articles I've seen recently talk about how you're not a "real" writer until you do it full time. I also have a day job and am the single mum to 2 kids, and I write :) I don't use my day job as inspiration, however I do use my kids!