Surviving a Decade as a Full-time Author No One Has Heard Of

Original image via Baihaki Hine

To be accurate, I’ve been a full-time author for a little over eight-and-a-half years, and a few people know who I am. If I don’t make it another year-and-a-half or if I become world famous, I’ll issue a retraction.

I left my teaching job in February of 2013 with no better plan than to write zombie stories for a living. That plan changed and expanded a little over the years, and I've managed to support my family with writing income ever since.

Here’s how I did it.

Believing Your Own Myth

The primary motivation for leaving my teaching job was that one of my sons was sick. He was having seizures and our options were to put him on medication or prevent him from having fevers. Being in daycare was causing him to catch everything. In an effort to avoid seizure meds during his developmental years, I decided to quit my job, pull out my retirement savings, and stay home with him. This worked out well for my son. I’m on seizure medication now, and based on the fogginess I experience, I’m glad he was spared that.

There were secondary motivations, too. Teaching in the public school system was soul-crushing. I had a promising former student commit suicide, and my tolerance for the unimportant bureaucratic nonsense dropped to zero. I was also facing my own declining health from polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder that killed my grandmother, my father, and my younger brother.

Sometimes all you learn from certain people is what NOT to do, how NOT to treat people, or how to destroy your career.

I remember the day I stepped out of the school for the last time, after being released from my contract in the middle of the year. I had no safety net other than savings and the longshot of making a living as a writer. Still, the air was fresher. Colors were brighter. I remember what song was playing on the radio as I drove away.

Eventually, I would publish a story in Best Horror of the Year Volume 5. I would be nominated for a Splatterpunk Award. I would amass a number of other writing credits along the way. All that was in the future, though. I really had nothing I could point to that would justify quitting my job to write full-time.

But sometimes you have to take a chance on yourself. You have to gamble on your own potential against the risk that you might fail miserably. You have to believe your own myth. The truth was I wasn't ready to be a full-time author. My skill level was far, far below where it is now.

It might have better served me to be practical and realistic about where I was. But to achieve my goals, I had to believe I was capable of more. I had to believe I could surpass expectations. I failed at times, but sometimes I succeeded because I fooled myself into thinking I could.

The myth that worked for me was that I’m a really good writer who is capable of moments of greatness. Looking back at my work from that time, I wonder why editors even bothered talking to me. On the other hand, I did start producing work that some people thought was good, and they gave me money in exchange for it. But I had to believe the myth before other people would.

Learn All You Can from Every Source

This is not to say that every source is equal or that you should take advice from all or even most people. Sometimes all you can learn from certain people is what NOT to do, how NOT to treat people, or how to destroy your career.

Other authors, editors, creatives, publishers, business people, teachers, and mentors carry a wealth of knowledge. You have to decide what applies to you. Decide what needs to be filed away for later use. Then, reevaluate those pearls of wisdom as you grow as a person and as an author.

Writing conventions offer classes. Universities offer programs. Masterclass has brilliant courses from famous authors. Authors write books on writing. Successful authors have YouTube channels, blogs, and Patreon pages. Some of these authors drop wisdom on their social media. When in the presence of authors talking about the craft, the business side of things, or the industry, I find it valuable to listen.

The gatekeepers who have accepted and rejected my work have improved my writing. Notes dropped in rejection emails have opened my eyes to fundamental truths about not just specific submissions, but all stories. Editors have passed on invaluable insights and course corrections both large and small. Over time, I’ve gotten better at deciding which edits I act upon and which ones I ignore. All I had to do was enter the editing process with an open mind, an open heart, and a humble attitude.

1% Improvement

As I progressed, livestreaming became a big part of my writing work and income. It was new arena for me, so I had a lot to learn. I listened and gathered insight from successful streamers who were not writers. I gleaned what I could and figured out how it applied to what I was doing.

One key point made by many streaming experts applies doubly or triply to writing—content is vital. All the other decisions you make are built upon creating content the audience wants to engage with. If you are not offering your best work, they’ll seek it somewhere else.

Another principle I’ve applied is the idea of 1% improvement. We can be overwhelmed if we start comparing ourselves to other more successful people in our field. As you take in everything someone successful has to tell you in a book, a video, or a class, you can feel like you’re trying to drink from a firehose. It’s too much, too fast, all at once.

It helps me to break things down into actionable pieces. Instead of trying to fix everything at once, I pick one specific detail. I improve that small bit first. In working on one thing at a time, other surrounding aspects of your work will improve as a side effect. With that 1% improvement and its residual effects, you’ll find yourself in a better position to work on the next thing. Another 1% improvement effort begins, and you find yourself with a much larger cumulative advancement in your quality of work.

When I first read On Writing by Stephen King, I was overwhelmed. My head was still spinning from quitting my day job, and I felt like I couldn’t process everything in the book. I reread it more recently and it seemed like a simple, practical book of writing advice. I could even see the aspects that no longer applied to me. I was a different person and writer. There were a lot of small improvements between those readings.

Diversification and Creative Financing

Like a financial portfolio, I embraced the idea of diversification. I self-published work, published work through the gatekeepers, built a platform on Patreon, did some ghostwriting, did freelance writing for various groups, and became a staff writer for a bunch of publications. More recently, I started publishing work on the Godless platform, started livestreaming my writing on Twitch, and took a shot at producing serials on Kindle Vella.

Not all of my efforts produced results. Some things were tried and left behind. Some things worked for a while and then fizzled out. There were platforms that were a slow build that I’m still working on now. Sometimes it paid off to get involved in a thing before everyone else did. Other times my efforts were lost in the rush of other writers trying to cash in.

The net result of this push toward diversification of income was something closer to stability than you normally get from a writing career. The demand was I had to produce a lot of quality work quickly. My own writing produced income slower and more sporadically. Ghostwriting and freelance income came quicker. For a time, ghostwriting was the majority of my income. About five years ago, it flipped to where more of my writing income came from things written in my own name. As I tried to rally from one loss or worked to develop a slow-building platform, the diversified sources underscored my efforts.

I had to be as creative with my finances as I was with my writing. One lesson I learned is that I can get by on less money. My family and I would be fine. The list of true needs is much smaller than the total list of our wants. When money is tight, you can cut away a lot of extra spending and be surprised how much less you can get by on. Right now, my family is living more comfortably than we have in the past, but that can change quickly, and we’ll be okay if it does.

A few years ago at a convention, a well-known author on a panel answered a question about when you should go full-time as a writer. His answer included a certain number of bestsellers, a certain amount of money in the bank, and so forth. It was an extensive list and I didn’t have most of those things in place, then or now. I have another author friend who has done very well with his writing recently. He and his wife sat down to figure out how much they needed for him to retire early, and the number appeared astronomical to me. With his writing income and what he was making at his day job, they figured they could get to that number in two or three more years, and he could then retire a few years early to write full-time.

I can’t argue too much with the logic from the previous paragraph. I did argue with it vehemently in my younger days, but that was me imposing myself on the choices of others. I didn’t want to wait that long. Others prefer to have more security and a sound financial plan. Those ideas may not be completely congruent with the notion of full-time writing.

One time I overheard two successful mid-list authors discussing what it was like to be on the bestseller list. They said every time they made the list it was like starting over. Getting back there again was just as much of a grind as it was the first time. It never got easier for them. I took comfort in that because I was used to grinding out a living as a writer. It might be one of my greatest skills when it comes down to it.

I did all these things while being relatively unknown. Many, many authors within my circle of peers are better known and wider read than I am. I don’t need to surpass them or even compete with them. Out of the vast population of readers out there, I only need the smallest fraction to buy into what I’m doing. There are a lot of doomsday predictions about the number of readers in the world dwindling. The reality is there are still millions upon millions of readers out there buying books and engaging other nontraditional platforms. I only need to convince a few of those to check me out to keep this life going.

When Everyone Thinks It’s a Bad Idea

When I told everyone I was going full-time as an author, they looked at me like I was crazy. Most of them waited until I wasn’t around to express their concerns to each other. It wasn’t like they were talking behind my back. It was more like they saw me running naked down the street or I had revealed myself to be some other lifeform. They didn’t want to upset me in my fragile mental state. A lot of the talk was along the lines of whether they should do something or what might happen to me if this was allowed to go on.

After I made it work for a while, writer acquaintances of mine started striking up conversations. They wanted the details—how I did it, and how much I was making. These conversations usually stopped right about the time they found out the thing they didn’t like. Not enough money. Not the kind of work they wanted to do, etc. I realized they were looking for the thing they could use to dismiss my choice as not right for them.

Over the years, the conversation shifted to people legitimately trying to figure out how I was doing it, and how they could make it work for them. Some were arguably more successful and more well-known than me, but they were still working a day job. I was an oddity to them, and they wanted to know more.

Family members might not be thrilled if you take this giant leap of faith. There could be a lot of trying to talk you out of it. If you have a spouse or a significant other, you should really run the choice by them first. Even if they are supportive, they might be scared.

I’ve heard a lot of stories of authors who ended up divorced, not just from going full-time, but from failing to find a balance in their lives that included loved ones. No one wants to be placed in a secondary position in the lives of those they love. I know I have neglected my family and my wife in an effort to produce ridiculous wordcounts in order to pay our bills. I’m lucky my wife has been wildly supportive and worked with me to find the right balance.

Refusing to Give Up When All the Evidence Says You Should

I firmly believe the biggest difference between those who make it and those who fail comes down to a refusal to quit. Sometimes we beat failure simply by outlasting it and plowing through.

There have been multiple moments when the right choice for me would have been to quit and go back to the day job. But then, something would work out. We’d get through it and move on to the next phase. This repeated over and over again throughout the years I’ve been writing full-time. Every time is like starting over and grinding out a life again.

Life Never Stops Throwing Stuff at You

Full-time writing has not been a life experienced in isolation. My family went through it with me. Normal and extraordinary life stuff kept happening. The events of the world still happened and impacted me. I went through full kidney failure due to my polycystic kidney disease. I got a live donor kidney transplant that changed my life completely.

Since then, I've struggled with seizures that required medication, which changed the rules of my life. I have experienced some cognitive impairment that is still being tested. It might be degenerative dementia, which wouldn’t be the best news. That would change the rules of my life yet again, and require adjustments to the expectations I place on myself. It would shift the priorities of my life and my writing. Writing with cognitive impairment may require its own article, while I still have the capacity to write it.

We all have our own challenges to navigate in life, and none of us is given a pass, no matter how grand our plans for life might be.

Figuring Out What’s Next

You may have deep fears of missing opportunities or making the wrong decisions. It can paralyze your forward momentum, no matter what you do in life. With full-time writing, it can feel like you’re always on the edge of failure and poverty. The reality is that no one thing holds sway over your progress. Most doors you go through won’t be magical portals to ultimate, unwavering success, either.

No matter how many opportunities present themselves, you can’t say yes to everything. Well, I guess you can, but you can’t say yes to everything and successfully deliver. Something will always suffer. Something will be neglected. The more things you say yes to, the more you will neglect things that are central to what you want to be doing.

As life changes around me, I find myself having to say no to more things. Things I don’t want to do, things that aren’t right for me, things that steal time from the people I love, and things I don’t want to spend my last lucid years doing will all get cut first. Then, there are things I want to do but simply don’t have the time or energy to commit to. Those probably hurt the most, but I do my best to forgive myself for things outside my control.

It doesn’t hurt to take a chance, though. Like the leap of faith to go full-time as an author, there are times when taking a gamble on yourself might change everything. When a new possibility opens up, don’t be afraid to explore it. Streaming my writing live on Twitch was probably the biggest outside-the-box move I’ve made in recent years, and it’s starting to pay off. My cognitive impairments make it challenging sometimes, but it’s one of the things I’m proudest of in my efforts to make a living through writing.

One of life's greatest opportunities is developing relationships of mutual support. This is not to say that these relationships will lead to your next big break. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. In the end, no financial benefit amounts to as much as having people in your corner. Not being alone when you face those big moments is priceless.

I’m not saying you should quit your day job and become a full-time writer tomorrow. But I’m not saying you can’t do just that.


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Jay Wilburn

Column by Jay Wilburn

Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in beautiful Conway, South Carolina. He is a full-time writer of horror and speculative fiction. Jay left his job as a teacher to become a full time writer and has never looked back. Well, that’s not entirely true. He wants to be sure he isn’t being followed, so he looks back sometimes.

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