Best midlife crisis ever! (Or, starting your writing career mid-stream)

I’ve told the story, more than a few times, about how fantastic literary agent Sara Megibow made “the call” and notified me that The Daedalus Incident had found a home at Night Shade Books. It was my 40th birthday, right on the very day in fact. And with that five-minute call, I had a second career in the making.

So what did I do? Did I call my boss, laugh hysterically into the phone and give my notice in between streams of profanity? Did I then proceed to throw my files in the hallway and jam the copier for no good reason on my way out the door, where fame and glory awaited?

Uhhh…no. I celebrated by calling my wife, telling some friends around the office, and then got back to work. At least until it was time for cake. (For a time, my team at work celebrated everybody’s birthdays with cake. Because cake.) And then I told the team and basked in some congratulations — and cake — until I had to go back and finish my work.

Glamorous, no? Totes. The cake was fantastic.

Robert Jackson Bennett — a fantastic writer of novels and tweeter of profane non-sequiturs that invariably make me laugh — recently wrote a blog post offering some advice to writers who want to make a living off writing. It was, in my estimation, very good advice indeed — so much so that some of Robert’s readers asked him if he had any advice for older writers interested in making the leap. Since Robert has yet to encounter middle age (and damn his youthful visage), he didn’t have much.

So that’s where I come in, marshalling the gray in my beard in an attempt to approximate some kind of wisdom. 

Robert’s initial advice boils down to this: Develop some skills other than writing. Get a job that uses those skills and can be both challenging and fulfilling, and then write on the side. Do not expect to become a mega-bestseller, because you might as well just buy lottery tickets until you run out of money. Diversify your skill set and stay gainfully employed — and challenged — even as you keep writing. Eventually, you may be able to write full time, but adult responsibility should come first.

Again, it’s good advice. I’ve blogged before about the mythology of the starving, tortured writer, and I still find it ridiculous. Being hungry and anguished doesn’t make me want to create art, it makes me want to get a sandwich and a hug. You have to take care of the business of life and survival before you can try to make art and, if you’re lucky, monetize that art.

I would argue that this is doubly true and important for older writers. And here’s why.

If you’re in your 30s or more, and just starting out on your writing adventure, chances are you already have the day-job thing down pat, which is great. I mean, I really hope you haven’t spent all this time working slacker jobs and slaving away at a novel. I’m going to assume that you’ve found a way to make a somewhat comfortable living — at least one that allows you to read blogs by obscure writers like me.

I’m also going to assume that, perhaps, you have a family. If so, that’s great! Families are lovely. However, they require care and feeding, literally, and your income is certainly part of that equation unless you have the most understanding spouse in the universe. Not likely.

So here you are in your 30s or 40s — or older — and you want to finally get that bucket-list novel done. Kudos to you. And perhaps you’ll even get that book deal — huzzah! Can you now finally quit your job and become a full-time writer?

Here’s the thing. You have responsibilities now. If you have a family, you need to be sure they remain fed and housed and all that good stuff. There may be college costs down the road for your kids. And even if you’re flying solo, you have a responsibility to your future self — the future self that wants to retire some day and not work at Wal-Mart. It’s not just about being an adult now, but planning ahead as well.

So yes, you can be responsible and ensure that you have enough savings to live on before you quit your day job and go full-time. But before you do that, you have to think about your future, your family’s future, all of it. Are you still going to be able to regularly drop money in the 529 plan? Your IRA? That stuff’s important, and I firmly believe doing that should trump your desire to ditch it all and write full time if you can’t manage both.

(If you don’t know what a 529 plan or IRA is, click on the links and learn. Fast.)

Now, if you really hate your day job and have dreamed of leaving it all behind to write, well…my initial reaction is to say too bad. You’re going to need several novels — at least three, preferably more — under your belt before the royalty checks start becoming meaningful additions to your income. And that’s if you earn out of your advance, which may or may not happen. My advice there? Maybe find another day job that’ll be more amenable to your disposition while still putting food on the table. Then keep writing.

For me, I see this whole novelist thing as a long-term investment, echoing Robert’s sage advice. As I slowly build my audience and platform, I’m gathering steam. Perhaps in another 10-15 years, I may have the income and savings necessary to retire early, though that’s not something I’m actively planning. I simply want to keep writing books and build my audience. I’ve no doubt I’ll keep writing when I retire — you gotta keep busy, after all. But barring any meaningful change in income or literary status, I’m gonna stay put in my (fulfilling and quite lovely) day job until age 65.

Until then? I can manage a book a year and a couple short stories while still holding down my job and not alienating my family. That works.

Long story short: If you’re considering going full-time, especially later on in life, be sure you’re being responsible to your family and your future.

Oh, one more thing. Robert’s latest book, City of Blades, is out Jan. 26. It’s got a nifty starred review from Publishers Weekly because that’s how Robert rolls. Here’s the Amazon link, but indie stores are an excellent option as well. Either way, go buy it. He’s an excellent writer. And writers gotta eat.


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Filed under Publishing, Writing

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