The Realities of Becoming a Full-Time Writer
Long-time readers of my previous LitReactor articles (or Twitter account) will recognize me as the guy who often complains about his terrible hotel job. For eight years I was employed as the night auditor for a hotel located somewhere in Central Texas. In my novel, The Nightly Disease, I referred to the hotel simply as The Goddamn Hotel. In reality, I will never reveal its true name, so don’t even ask.
In my time at the hotel, I was attacked, robbed, and thoroughly screamed at to the point of tears. Guests called me useless. Guests called me fat. Guests called me uneducated. Guests threw things at me. Guests vomited on me. Guests complained that I wasn’t plunging their toilets fast enough. Guests spit on me. Guests pushed me. Guests tackled me. Guests cried on my shoulder. Guests told me their deepest secrets. Guests had nervous breakdowns in my lobby. Guests begged me for life advice. Guests opened their souls to me. It was a very weird job.
I started out making $9.00 an hour. Three years later, I’d managed to inch up to $10. Then my general manager quit, and took half the staff with him to a new hotel, including our assistant manager—leaving the hotel without any management whatsoever. He offered me a position, too, but the payment wouldn’t have been worth the new drive time, so I declined. Then I got a very stupid idea. I called one of the hotel’s owners and informed them I’d also been offered a position at this other hotel, and unless they could match the payment my ex-GM was willing to give me, I would quit immediately (reminder: I’d already declined the position at the time of this phone call). In reality, my ex-GM had offered me $11 to join him at this new hotel. I told the owners he’d offered me $12. The next day they called me back and agreed to up my hourly payment to $12. By 2019, I was making $12.75, which was the payment cap listed for my position. I would never be able to earn a raise again. “Sorry, but that’s the maximum night audit is allowed to make,” said the people who had created this fictional cap in the first place.
Then a pandemic happened, and they laid off half our staff. I stayed on, but was expected to start doing the duties of those who had been furloughed, for no extra payment. They realized they no longer needed a laundry person when they could just make the night auditor do it. They could also let go of the kitchen person and just had me prepare breakfast for a hotel over 50% occupied. Then, when I couldn’t complete every goal expected of me, I was called useless by management. When I suggested certain safety protocols be set in place to avoid unnecessary COVID spread, I was laughed at behind my back.
And, last August when I finally had enough and turned in my two weeks, my general manager laughed with my other coworkers and jokingly said, “Haha, Max is afraid of COVID.” The person who said this is the same woman who invited her elderly mother to drive across the state last July, when COVID was arguably at its strongest, and took her out for a manicure.
It was bad enough to deal with COVID-deniers who were guests, but what was the point of trying to ask them to follow restrictions when even our management thought it was all bullshit? What was the point of trying to do anything when the person who assigned the duties didn’t respect you and routinely called you useless behind your back?
So yeah. In August, I talked to my significant other about my frustrations, and we decided—after eight years there—I should resign and attempt to make a living as a full-time writer. If I could actually do this seemed uncertain. But it was something we wouldn’t be able to figure out until I tried. The hotel had swallowed all of my free time. Even when I wasn’t at work, I felt grumpy and desolate. I was full of dread every day, even on my nights off, because I knew I would eventually return.
Then I turned in my two weeks’ notice, and the feeling of hopelessness slowly started lifting. It was replaced with a stress over whether or not I’d be able to collect enough freelance writing and editing gigs, or if my books would earn enough royalties or if people would continue supporting my Patreon, but it wasn’t as soul crushing as the previous feeling. With the hotel, it didn’t seem to matter how hard I worked. I felt trapped forever. But with working as a full-time writer, there was a sense of control. I would be doing the things I’d been fantasizing about doing for a living my entire life, something I never actually thought would be possible, as I feared I would grow old behind the front desk, never escaping, until I eventually keeled over and died in the fucking lobby. I could imagine some dickhead guest coming down and kicking my corpse and complaining about their toilet not flushing.
In the background of all this, there was some interest in a screenplay I wrote, which was an adaptation of my novella, We Need to Do Something. We had a couple production companies interested, and even some cast members, but what we didn’t have was any money. So I’d tried my best to convince myself it probably wasn’t going to happen. So many movies almost happen and then disappear before everything can fall into place.
Then, exactly one week after I turned in my two weeks’ notice, my Film & TV manager, Ryan Lewis, called and informed me we had received full financing, and we’d begin filming at the end of September (we wrapped at the end of October and are currently in post-production). Typically, you aren’t paid for a movie until day one of filming, so for them to start so soon...that was a real game changer. After taxes, I’d receive a little over what I would’ve made in one year at the hotel. Suddenly the immense stress I was feeling about whether or not I’d be able to pay our bills by freelance writing/editing shrunk. It didn’t disappear—and it still hasn’t—but it certainly didn’t feel as overwhelming as it did the previous week when I turned in my resignation.
On the morning of September 1st, 2020, I left the hotel with the intention of never returning. I got home, napped for a couple hours, woke up around noon, and thought...Okay, now what?
The thing they don’t tell you about quitting a terrible—and, frankly, abusive—long-term job is it doesn’t feel like you actually quit. The first week feels like a long vacation that you had to beg your boss to approve. The dread builds and builds, tricking your brain into thinking any day now it’ll be time to clock back in. Even now, heading toward the end of January, it doesn’t quite feel like I permanently quit. Last night somebody called me and I instinctively answered the phone by saying, “This is the front desk, how can I help you?” I realized what I did, panicked, and quickly hung up.
Then I shot my phone with a gun, just to be safe.
After quitting, it took about a week and a half before I fully adapted to a new sleep schedule. Before the hotel, I worked a year stocking at Walmart on the night shift, so in total I worked midnights for nine straight fucking years. That is...a long time to sleep like a vampire. Working on a nocturnal schedule for any length of time is going to cause damage. But almost a decade? It will rewire your brain and scramble everything into chaos. Several months since I left the hotel, I now find my ability to concentrate on tasks sharpening. Short-term memory issues that had sincerely worried me are starting to improve. I’m finding it easier to work on creative projects without losing track of my goals. I’m no longer so grumpy all the time. I actually want to wake up now, which is something I used to dread more than anything. I also really look forward to socializing with friends and doing live events again whenever...you know, it’s safe to do that.
I realize you probably didn’t click this article to read what is essentially a blog post about how my life has been unexpectedly working out lately. Maybe you are also someone who recently gambled on trying to make a living as a full-time writer, and you were hoping for some advice. That is fair. I can tell you how I’ve been trying to make it work. But before I get into that, I have to remind you much of my freelancer stress has been temporarily relieved due to the money I received for writing the We Need to Do Something screenplay. Without that paycheck, this article would probably be a bit more depressing.
So, with that said, if you’re thinking about writing full-time, it would be wise to...
MAINTAIN A SCHEDULE
One of the most important things about being a full-time writer is trying to maintain a schedule. Especially during COVID times, it’s very easy to doomscroll on social media all day or binge some mediocre streamer. Figure out what schedule makes you most productive without killing yourself and try to stick to it. And if you fail once in a while, don’t beat yourself up too much about it, otherwise—if you’re anything like me—you’ll just end up spiraling into a hole of self-doubt and depression. I still haven’t quite figured out the perfect schedule, and that’s probably because time is a flat circle, but I aim to wake up relatively early. 6:30AM is my target, although I don’t always hit it. If coffee’s brewing by 7:30AM, then I’m thrilled. If you thought that was boring, just wait until you read the next paragraph.
In the morning, I like to go out on my porch with my dog and work on my novel for an hour, have breakfast with my family, then continue novel-writing for another couple hours. Here is a picture of my very cool porch. Be jealous.
Then I eat lunch. After lunch I work on publishing-related duties, as I co-run a small press called Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing with my aforementioned significant other (her name is Lori Michelle and she is very cool). In this article I am claiming I am now a now full-time writer, but in reality I am more of a full-time writer who also operates his own publishing company that publishes other authors, too. It’s, uh...complicated. And very, very exhausting.
One thing I think is valuable when creating a schedule like this is to make a firm end-of-day time, otherwise it’s very likely you will start working the moment you wake up and not stop until you go to bed. I say this is valuable, but as of the time of writing this article I have not actually utilized it. Despite no longer having a regular job, I am still constantly behind on deadlines. At night I try to watch a movie or a couple episodes of something, plus I play a lot of card and dice games with my family during breaks, but other than that I am pretty much working on something nonstop. I also host two podcasts—Ghoulish and Castle Rock Radio—although updates kind of slowed down during the holidays. Podcast work typically happens late at night, unless a specific guest prefers an earlier recording time.
Still, though. It’s probably important to put into place an end-of-day time where you cease doing work and just...fucking relax. I am not quite there yet, but it’s on my mind, and it should be on yours, too. Sometimes we worship the idea of hustling to the point that it feels cult-like. Sometimes it’s okay just to sit back and do nothing. We do not exist to work, no matter what kind of work that is. Abolish the mindset that you’ll never “make it” if you don’t hustle 24/7. Abolish the concept of “making it.” Also abolish the police, while we’re at it. And urinals. Why do urinals still exist? There is zero reason for urinals to still be a thing. [I appreciate urinals. —Editor]
One reason creative types tend to overwork themselves has to do with our inability to stay focused. A lot of us are very scatterbrained and often find ourselves desperately trying to catch up on forgotten deadlines at the last possible moment. We take on too many projects at once and then act surprised when we feel overwhelmed. I say “we” here but I am realistically just describing myself and assuming some of you will be able to relate. If you cannot relate, then congratulations on being a perfect human being, and by “perfect human being” I literally only mean “Michael Shannon.”
Luckily for you, over the years I’ve discovered numerous methods for…
HOW TO STAY ORGANIZED
In our bedroom I have a desk where I keep my computer. It’s on the side of the room, against the wall, literally within arm's reach of our bed. The room exists simultaneously as a bedroom and an office. I like to call it my boffice. Above my desk on the wall hangs a calendar with every event noted down for the month. Obviously during COVID times I am not doing any in-person events, but I am involved in numerous Zoom calls and podcast recordings. I also have a physical event planner on the corner of my desk, where I can go into deeper details about future meetings. Physical calendars and event planners are extremely valuable when trying to stay organized. I think if you want to also mark important events and deadlines on your phone, you should, but I also think it’s easier to ignore digital event planners. If you have an actual book on your desk, you will be forced to glance at it once in a while, which will restrict how often you forget things.
Sticky notes have also proven useful. Any time I have a new task that needs to be completed, I write it on a sticky note and slap it somewhere on my desktop or my actual desk. It’s good to have physical reminders staring back at you, to say, “Hey, dude, don’t forget about this.” It’s also incredibly cathartic to complete a task and then remove a sticky note, crumble it into a ball, and shoot it into my nearby trash can like it’s a tiny basketball. It’s also probably a huge waste of paper.
Before you murder me, I exercise other methods of organization that are not harmful to the environment. Jay Wilburn recently wrote an entire LitReactor article about Trello, and I can’t recommend it enough. I’ve been using it for a couple years now, but really started taking advantage of it after committing to writing (and running PMMP) full-time. I use two separate Trello accounts, one designated for all Perpetual Motion Machine responsibilities, and the other is reserved for freelance writing, editing, podcasting, and anything else that needs to be accomplished.
With the PMMP Trello, I have 12 different lists, each titled a different month of the year. On these lists I’ve organized when books are due to be published, but also when things need to be accomplished in order to meet these publication dates (editing, formatting, cover art, review galleys, interview requests, etc).
With my personal Trello, I currently have eight lists going, titled Misc., Podcasts, Editing, Freelance, PMMP, Writing, Today, and Done. The reason why I have a PMMP list here too is more to remind myself of upcoming tasks that I personally need to complete, in case I neglect to glance at the PMMP Trello. The “Today” list is something I update before going to sleep, which consists of everything I hope to accomplish the following day. And the “Done” list is pretty self-explanatory. I admit, much like throwing a sticky note in the trash, it feels pleasant to drag an accomplished goal into the “Done” list. Trello also rules due to how easy it syncs from the website to the various mobile apps it offers, which allows me to keep track of my goals no matter which device is nearest.
Another fun eco-friendly organization trick I utilize is the power of spreadsheets. Did I just describe spreadsheets as “fun”? Yes, but we’ve been in a pandemic for almost a year now. It no longer takes much for something to seem fun. Spreadsheets are a particularly useful tool for freelance writers. In an attempt to stay on track with story submissions, I created spreadsheets for markets currently accepting short stories, one for short stories & articles I’m in the process of writing or plan on writing soon, and another for short stories & articles I’ve already submitted (a free version of DuoTrope, basically). I even color-coded them depending on how close the deadline is.
Of course, this last thing brings to mind something else pretty important for a new full-time writer.
GETTING PAID TO WRITE
I am not going to pretend like I have any secrets for getting paid. Every successful freelancer pretty much follows the same basic formula. You do your research on the markets. If you’re doing non-fiction, you figure out how to competently write a pitch. You write fast but avoid sounding sloppy or unprofessional. You hit your deadlines (my editor at LitReactor is currently laughing at this line [Yes. —Editor]). If you’re trying to get an agent, you have to research agents (clients, track record, preferred genres, etc.). If you’re going with small presses, you have to research small presses. If you’re self-publishing, you have to research how to self-publish.
There are many different kinds of writing. With myself, I’m juggling between screenwriting, novel writing, short story writing, and non-fiction writing. The majority of my non-fiction is for websites like LitReactor, CrimeReads, Film-14, and others. I’ve developed healthy relationships with some of these websites, and because of that I can pitch them an idea whenever I want. They do not always accept these pitches, of course, but most of the time I know what kind of article they might be interested in publishing. When I want to write for a new venue, I look over their ABOUT US and CONTACT US and—if available—WRITE FOR US pages. Usually websites provide plenty of information about how to pitch. I study the kind of content they typically publish and form a pitch I think they might like.
With short stories, I either receive an invitation directly from the editor, or I find potential markets by researching various websites that specialize in submission calls. Back in 2016, I wrote an article for LitReactor about this very topic, so I’m not going to bother repeating myself here.
And, as far as novels and screenplays go...that gets a bit more complicated. I’ve only sold one screenplay so far, and now I’m working on finishing more. I do not know what that journey will look like, but it probably wouldn’t be possible without my Film & TV Manager. And when it comes to my novels, that’s also tricky. I’ve published some through other small presses and I’ve released some through my own small press. With future books, I am hoping to sign on with a literary agent, which is something I haven’t experienced yet, and therefore cannot really offer any advice on.
It is difficult to make a living as a writer. Quitting your day job seems like a crazy thing to do, but I would not say it’s a stupid choice. It’s a hell of a gamble, but so are most things. Only you can make the decision. If you are going to try this, I hope you keep in mind the realities of what it means. Most of the time, full-time writers are not just working on novels. To make ends meet, a lot of full-timers turn to freelance non-fiction. They spend hours researching items for listicles about topics they couldn’t give a single shit about. Or they stay up until 2:00 AM writing about what it’s like to be a full-time writer as a way to avoid other writing obligations, then gasp when they realize what should have been maybe 1000 words at most has now long exceeded 3500, and they haven’t even proofed or formatted the damn thing yet. Oh my god, you’ll think, I am so tired. Nobody has ever been more tired than I am right now. Which will be a lie, because you were certainly more exhausted back when you worked the night shift at a hotel. And you were without-a-doubt more miserable. This is nothing. This is a walk in the park, which is something you can’t do right now because the people in your conservative town still refuse to wear masks in public.
Yes, to be a full-time writer means you have to hustle, just like you have to hustle at any damn job. But, at the end of the day, that’s what it is. A job. Do not forget about your family. Do not forget about yourself. Do not forget to relax once in a while. Drink water. Go for a walk. Listen to music. Contemplate the universe.
Then get back to the computer and hit your word count for the day.
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