JK is the Exception, I am the Rule

I haven’t posted in awhile, because the time I normally would devote to things like blogging (and housework and watching TV and hanging out with my husband) is instead used to write books, and I’ve been working like a fiend to finish a new one. This week I sent my revised WIP (that’s Work in Progress for non-writer types) to my editor and agent. And now I have some time to do other things. Like blog. And maybe clean my house. And, oh yeah… I have a husband!

I was inspired to post by this article that Susan recently sent me, about how more moms are trying their hands at writing books in hopes it will turn into a second career–one that will perhaps rescue them from their office jobs, making it possible to work from home and spend more time with their children.

The article says most of these moms are finding success elusive, and I’m not surprised.

Ever since word got out that I’m having a book published (RIVAL, a novel for young adults, comes out Jan/Feb 2011 with HarperCollins), I’ve been hearing from old friends, former co-workers, other moms, asking me for advice on how to get started on the journey to publication. I think we’ve all heard the stories about JK Rowling – how she was a dirt broke single mom who wrote Harry Potter, and now she’s richer than the queen of England. Literally.

Believe me, I do NOT mean to poo poo folks who envision the same thing happening for themselves. And I don’t mean to imply that the moms who’ve contacted me are interested in writing only because they think getting published will allow them to give two-weeks notice.

But aspiring authors need to know the truth: JK Rowling is the exception; I am the rule.

Is it possible to win a six-figure deal for a debut novel? Yes, I personally know authors who have done that. But for every one of those, I know dozens and dozens whose career path is more like mine. In the next few months, I’ll be posting some advice for moms who are serious about trying to get a book published. But first, I’ll give you a peek at my own journey:

I wrote books for about eight years before I got my book deal. I wrote three before RIVAL sold, one of which was so bad it will never see the light of day. But it taught me how to write a better book, and after practicing my craft (and doing tons of revisions with feedback from critique partners and the woman who would become my editor), I wrote a book good enough to sell.

And when did I write that book? At night, after my children went to bed. While other people are watching “American Idol” or – gasp! – sleeping, I am at my computer writing novels. Every night. It’s hard work and, really, the equivalent of a second job when you calculate the time and effort spent.

I mention this because I sense that some people assume writing must be easy. I get that vibe even stronger from folks who want to write picture books. All you have to do is jot down those adorable stories your 5-year-old tells, or the yarns Grandpa used to spin, or something about having good table manners or playing well with others, and you’re golden, right? Picture books are 50 to 100 words at the most. Plus we’re parents! We read a ton of those things so we KNOW what’s good and what isn’t. Pair up with your brother-in-law who does those funny napkin sketches at Thanksgiving Dinner, and voila! You could be the next Dr. Seuss!

Except I hear that writing picture books is even harder than writing novels. (Unless, of course, you’re an actress or a rock star or some other kind of celebrity, and then all you need is an idea. Not only will you get six figures, your publishing house might even find someone to do the hard stuff–like actually writing the book–for you!) I’ll admit I don’t know much about the picture book market but if anyone’s interested, just holler and I can see if one of my friends who writes them can do a guest post about the challenges they pose.

Anyway, after I wrote my books, I then had to go through the process of finding an agent. Querying literary agents is its own form of hell, which involves getting rejected on an almost daily basis. I won’t even start with the gory details of my agent hunt – all you need to know is that I liken it to beating my head repeatedly against a brick wall until I finally knocked it down. The good news is that I ended up with an awesome and talented young woman whose star appears to be rising in the literary world.

And then… she took my book out on the market. More rejections! Until finally, we got an offer with a great house that made me ecstatic because now my book will actually, really, truly be on the shelves!

Did you catch my main reason for being happy there? Was it the money? No. The money is 5th or 6th on my list of reasons to be ecstatic, because my book deal did not make me rich. My advance, which is pretty standard for my genre, was a little less than half of what I make in a year at my regular work. Take out taxes and the 15% agent’s fee, and I ended up with about what it cost to put a new roof on my house. I was thrilled with the money, please don’t get me wrong. But I didn’t start packing up my office.

See, the majority of authors who do quit working to write full time are ones who have royalties coming in from books already on the shelves (meaning those books are selling well). They also have other books under contract, which means that they’re writing a lot. They’re not just jotting down bon mots while their little ones nap (though we’ve all done that – nap time is primo writing time!). These authors are most likely sending their children to a sitter at least some of the time so they can get their novels done. Granted, they get to work in yoga pants and have much more control over their schedules than someone who’s at an office 9 t0 5. But earning a living as an author can be a full-time job, too!

I realize that I’m making writing for publication sound really depressing and unattractive. All I can say is that, if this depresses you, then you shouldn’t try writing for publication. I’m not saying you won’t be the exception who bangs out a masterpiece in two months, sells it for beaucoup bucks and ends up launching a franchise that pretty much takes over popular culture a la “Twilight.” If you are, then more power to you!

But it’s more likely that you’ll be like me, the rule. And that means it may not be possible to quit your dayjob – at least not immediately. It probably means working the equivalent of two jobs until you get your dream off the ground. But if seeing your book on the shelves truly is your dream, then you won’t mind the long hours, the rejection, the drudgery of having to get words down on paper when you’re exhausted after finally getting the baby to sleep. You actually will enjoy those things because you’ll be doing something you love.

And writing because you love it is really the only reason to write. Because no one can guarantee you’ll be able to to make a few bucks let alone a career out of it. You do it because you want to–because you have to. And someday, if you are able to say sayonara to the eight-hour office workday, it will be all the more sweet.

Until then, though, keep the dayjob. Especially if it has benefits. “Author” is one job that doesn’t come with a health care plan, unless there’s an exception to that rule that I don’t know about!

8 thoughts on “JK is the Exception, I am the Rule

  1. A friend of mine had her book launch last week, for her first novel. She was on a local news show and talked about the writing process a bit. She specifically mentions writing at naptime and while they were sleeping! We're proud of her and happy for her… but she's not a gazillionaire like JK either!

  2. LM Preston says:

    I am also a writer who is a working mom. I write as a vacation from the chaos of my life. Only 2 hours a day at 5:30am before my kids wake up. I do love my day job and didn't start working in hopes of being able to stay home. BTW, I have 4 kids ranging in ages 6 to 16. When I started the writing journey I didn't realize that writing is being an entreprenuer – a sales person who has to have a good product to sell in order to make a profit. You are dead on with the knock them over the head with a brick of reality post. Thanks for sharing.

  3. LM, YES! You are exactly right. (I almost wrote "write" – heh.) To write novels is basically to run your own business, selling a product. It's very healthy to think of it this way, gives you a bit of distance when those rejections roll in. You don't take it *as* personally. Plus, it forces you to think a bit more about what the market wants. Of course no writer should write for the market only, but it doesn't hurt to know what sells!

  4. E. Sheppard says:

    Congratulations on your book being sold! That is so great. I also liked this posting. It is so true that writing is a LOT of work, and most authors will not become fantastically rich like JK. But isn't it fun to dream about that?

  5. GratefulTwinMom says:

    Thanks for posting this. I like to think of myself as a writer, but I know I'm not ever going to have the confidence to try to publish, beyond the blog I write that nobody reads….It's nice to hear your journey.

  6. Sara-

    Great post! having been through the writing process I can attest that what you say is true. I am looking forward to your future posts about "how you did it". I have many friends assk me for advice too.

    The "best" advice I give is to go to a writing confernece. There you can meet other authors in yoru genre and meet with potential agents.


  7. Anonymous says:

    When I read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, I thought of JK Rowling. And I wondered what circumstances came together to allow her to have the time to write her first book. The point of Outliers is that super-successful people, in addition to talent and hard work, often had some happy coincidences that came together to help them achieve success. I read the Rowling sat in a cafe and wrote Harry Potter for hours on end. Who has time to do that?

    And so those of us who don't have the time/money/opportunity to spend our days following that obsession shouldn't feel guilty about it. But of course that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make some of those special circumstances come our way too.

    Laureen Miles Brunelli
    About.com Work at Home Moms

  8. I feel the same way about blogging. When people hear that I am a professional blogger – they always question why I still work full-time in corporate america. There's a lot of us who can earn a portion of our income from blogging and online writing… but for most of us, it's more likely to pay for few bills than cover the entire mortgage.

    Congrats on the book!

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