How to Quit Your Job and Write about Zombies for a Living
by Jay Wilburn
Don’t do it! It is a terrible idea. Go do something else. Anything else.
Now that I have given you the proper level of discouragement, you are ready to consider a lucrative future in zombie fiction. Money flying everywhere!
I taught public school for many years before breaking away to write full-time. It was a combination of disillusionment with the futility of the system versus ideals and also dealing with family needs that gave me an excuse to step away. I believe we originally embarked on me staying home with my younger son and his health needs while writing with the caveat that we would see how it went for a year. A part of me knew I had no intention of ever going back.
There is something dizzying about making the leap. I remember the unfettered feeling of driving away from my school after I had gone through the process of breaking my teaching contract. I remember the song that was playing on the radio which still represents that moment for me. I remember the first mornings of trying to figure out what I was supposed to write next that was going to change the world. I had to also figure out how to motivate myself to produce wordcounts with equal parts fear of starvation and paralyzing fear of failure at play.
I recently responded to some successful writers that gave advice at a panel at a convention that you should wait until you have a couple best sellers under your belt before you think about quitting your day job. I say now what I said in the conclusion of that response. If you are waiting on that, you might as well plan to never do it because that’s not how leaps of faith work. You will be surrounded by people who tell you it won’t work. They will tell you that you are not ready even though we are never truly ready before something begins. Once I started paying my rent through writing, they were the same people that came to me for advice. “Well, first, I didn’t listen to you …”
No one knows what works. Even successful people have no real idea for exactly why it worked for them and not others. From a position of survival bias, they can see some of the things they did. They probably know a lot that we can learn from, but they will not be able to tell you what steps worked for them. And it might not work for them now, if they had to rise from nothing at this moment in time.
“So, step two, don’t take any advice from anyone …”
Here’s some advice then. Writing full-time among the bottom feeders like me probably benefits from the same advice people give about finances. A balanced portfolio has more potential than counting on one book or one mode of writing income to make it long term.
Publishing money is slow and irregular. Even now where I make enough to pay my rent on time each month, I still don’t know sometimes a week before the due date where the money will come from. Jobs and payments come in at the last minute and then I start all over again the next month. Sometimes what I make in a month can vary by thousands of dollars.
I met Tim Waggoneer on a panel we were both on at the first Imaginarium Convention. We were discussing writing for existing series and franchises. Tim does so in his own name and I do so as a ghostwriter. He had discussed with me about talking to his students about multiple sources and creative approaches to making full-time writing work.
Armand Rosamilia referred to it as “the other thing.” We have mutual friends that want to reach a point that they can make the leap to full-time. The thing they are missing is that other thing. While you work toward your own success as a writer, you find that thing that supplies an underlying support whether it is freelance writing, ghostwriting, writing niche erotica under a pen name, or whatever else you can create for yourself.
For my portfolio of writing income, freelance writing and ghostwriting is my “other thing.” It is the faster money in my portfolio. It is the work where the effort to the output of money is direct. The more I work the more money I see right away. For me, it works because I was able to build a reputation for producing fast and at quality. I also proved I could keep my client list secret, so I took on more and more work from more sources. Clients came back to use me again. In time, I was able to catch up on back rent, pay my bills each month, pay for art and editing for my own work, pay for conventions, etc. Money is still tight, but it is making a living at full-time writing.
Self-publishing is medium money in the portfolio. It is very unsure. The burden for professionalism in art and editing is on the author. It is very easy to do this badly and successful promotion of the work is not easy. The truth is that is not easy anywhere with any kind of publishing though. It is a heavy effort with unsure return.
You control the product though. Publishers fold and promises are sometimes not kept. That is a risk we take, but if you are a full-time writer, it may be bad to have all your eggs in one basket that suddenly drops. It is good to have at least some work that is completely under your control.
Some people look down on self-publishing. They see it as the domain of hobbiests that are playing writer and can’t get their work accepted by real publishers. I have no problem with people who turn their back on self-publishing. Plenty of them have expressed problems with me. I have been to conventions where self-published authors were outright mocked to their faces and scolded for taking the “easy way.” After the convention, some of those real authors went back to their day jobs and I went back to my computer after getting the kids off to school to earn money writing.
I had steered away from self-publishing for a while because I benefited from having publishers handle the art, editing, and uploads. As I paid attention though, I came to realize that most of the people I knew that wrote full-time had self-published work as one part of their portfolio of work.
Small press is a little slower money, but it takes some of the burden of publication off the writer. Presses can be hit or miss, but there are a lot of good ones. It takes time to move through the process to publication.
There is a benefit to gatekeepers. They can give you a better idea of the quality of your work and where to improve. You can learn a lot from submitting and being rejected. It toughens up the author and sharpens the skills. This is a necessary refining process to moving into semi-pro rate markets (one cent to four plus cents per word) and pro rate markets (five cents or higher per word for horror and six cents or higher per word for sci fi). These markets can be a big part of a writing income once one learns how to produce work that these markets will accept. Getting rejected and trying again is vital to achieving this and it is worth working toward even for the indie author.
Strive upward. Going through the grinder with submissions will help you improve to refine work to submit to agents, larger publishers, and pro markets. There is always room to improve and to look for bigger accomplishments and each of these serve to allow you to reach a bit higher.
When submitting to these top markets, send your best work. Follow their rules for formatting and style as a sign of professionalism and to give your work the best reading. They are judging heavily on your first sentence, your first paragraph, and your first page. Read what they say they want. Send them work that matches what they are looking for. This is not to say that you write specifically for their market because that is likely to lead to contrived work, but don’t send them a zombie story if they say no zombies. Wait until you have something that matches. Send your zombie story to someone who wants to see it.
Collaborate, but choose those projects carefully. You will never run out of things to fill up the calendar. Being full is not the ultimate goal. Producing your best work is. Choose collaborations that expand your work and your reach.
Say “no” when you have to. A good “no” goes a long way to making room for doing your best on opportunities you say “yes” to.
That being said, say “yes” even when you are afraid. Reach for things that might seem out of your ability to grasp knowing that failing and starting over is probably the worst that can happen.
Write what you know only works if you never write about alien spaceships or unimaginable monsters. Write what you know works better in choosing what town the monster attacks. Write what you love is probably better advice.
Still, step outside of your genre. Do so as often as you are able. It will improve and expand your toolbox. Even if your first steampunk story sucks and if you never master bizarro or high fantasy, the process will make the stuff you love writing even richer. People will notice.
I was invited back to do Career Day at my old school where I used to teach. What I summed up with them after going through the nuts and bolts of being a full-time writer was the following. You do not have to follow every crazy idea that enters your head, but sometimes you can. Every once in a while, you can take a gamble on yourself and follow a dream. The worst that could happen is that you fail miserably and have to start over. People do it all the time even when they don’t follow their dreams. More people regret never trying than regret trying and failing. Every once in a while, take a gamble on you.
Every few weeks or months along the way, I reached a point where I thought I should give up. The money wasn’t working and I didn’t see the way forward. Everyone told me to quit. I considered it, but moved on and survived. Each of those moments of pushing past where I should have quit is the difference between being a full-time writer or not. The ones that do it full-time are the ones that just refuse to listen to reason and refuse to quit for their own good.
Dead Song Legend Dodecology Book 1: January from Milwaukee to Muscle Shoals
Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in Conway, South Carolina near the Atlantic coast of the southern United States. He has a Masters Degree in education and he taught public school for sixteen years before becoming a full time writer. He is the author of many short stories including work in Best Horror of the Year volume 5, Zombies More Recent Dead, Shadows Over Mainstreet, and Truth or Dare. He is the author of the Dead Song Legend Dodecology and the music of the five song soundtrack recorded as if by the characters within the world of the novel The Sound May Suffer. He also wrote the novelsLoose Ends and Time Eaters. He is one of the four authors behind the Hellmouth trilogy. Jay Wilburn is a regular columnist with Dark Moon Digest. Follow his many dark thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, and Periscope as @AmongTheZombies, his Facebook author page, and at JayWilburn.com
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The stench of frozen flesh is in the air! Welcome to the Winter of Zombie Blog Tour 2015, with 40+ of the best zombie authors spreading the disease in the month of November.
Stop by the event page on Facebook so you don’t miss an interview, guest post or teaser…and pick up some great swag as well!
Giveaways galore from most of the authors as well as interaction with them!