Should I Pursue Novel Writing as a Career?
Every once in a while, a friend contacts me and tells me about a promising young man or woman who shows extraordinary writing talent. The young person would like to connect with me and get advice about being a professional novelist.
At first, I must admit, I sort of chuckle and shake my head. I’d like that advice too. I’ve published only two novels so far—that certainly doesn’t make me a publishing expert. In many ways I still feel like I’m learning as I go in this sometimes baffling industry. I hope the advice is both encouraging and realistic.
Of course, making a career of novel writing is certainly possible; best-selling authors like John Grisham are able to pull it off. But remember, they are John Grisham—and most of us are not. Few novelist get to sign million-dollar book contracts.
What am I saying? When you’re a child, it’s easy to dream big about being the next best-selling author. But something funny happens along the way. You grow up, and reality kicks you in the pants. You finish college, find a job, get married, and start having babies. And suddenly you realize this dream-making business is a lot harder than you thought it would be.
Striking the Right Balance
But along with that reality is another reality: if God wills you to be the next best-selling author, then He’ll pave the way (along with lots of hard work from you). But if that isn’t His will for your life, no amount of working hard or shedding tears will make it happen.
What am I saying? I’m seeking to balance optimism with realism. Yes, it’s wonderful to have dreams—and I’ve certainly had my share. Being a career novelist is a wonderful goal, but I think there’s an even better one: just being the writer God wants you to be, whether you’re rich or poor. Full-time or part-time. Just seek His will for your writing and follow the path He unfolds for you.
But I feel it necessary to put any wannabe novelists on their guard. So many big puzzle pieces must fall into place for anyone to be the next best-selling novelist—and really, best-selling sales are necessary to make novel writing a career. The world would call this hard work and fate. I would call it hard work and God’s sovereignty.
So what are these puzzle pieces that must fall into place?
The challenge for most authors, of course, is the Catch 22 of economics. To be a career novelist, you must have very good sales. Sales so good you can quit your day job. But to get started, you must write those best-selling novels while doing something else to make a living.
That’s the hardest part: working a full-time job while cranking out that great American novel (either early before work or late after work). If you’re a married stay-at-home woman, you may have a slight edge (perhaps you can write novels between babies or after homeschooling, if you do that sort of thing). If you’re an unmarried man or woman, you have a definite advantage: you have more time to write and fewer commitments.
What’s encouraging is that everyone starts at the same place. John Grisham didn’t start off as a full-time writer, so there’s hope.
So let’s say you burn the midnight oil and get that novel done. Now you must find a publisher, and that in itself is challenging these days. Most first-time authors I know find an agent, and then the agent finds a publisher.
So how can you find an agent? Meet one at a writer’s conference or check agent websites and find one who considers unsolicited manuscripts. Once you land an agent (no guarantees), he or she will hopefully find the right publisher for your book.
So let’s say you find a publisher. That’s still no guarantee the novel will sell well. That’s what can be frustrating about this industry. You can labor long and hard, find an agent, and find a publisher—and even get great reviews—but still the novel’s sales may stink. A lot of variables go into why a certain novel sells or doesn’t sell, and you might as well stick your finger in the air and see which way the wind blows. A lot of variables are beyond your control.
But you might make it big. Again, the world may call it fate. I call it God’s sovereignty. You just do your best and trust God to do the rest.
Okay, so maybe the first novel doesn’t exactly sell like hotcakes. Sales must grow with each successive novel until you claim enough income from advances and royalties so you can quit your day job, stay home, and write full-time. See what I mean? A lot of “ifs” with no guarantees—a lot of puzzle pieces—must fall into place to reach this goal. Many of us have been writing and publishing for several years and still wish we could write full-time.
Granted, my circumstances are unusual. I’m married with a wife and two daughters. I’ve wanted to write novels since I was a kid and showed writing potential in high school. But because I couldn’t imagine how I’d make an income by majoring in creative writing, I majored in print journalism. From there I had two gigs over fifteen years as a full-time editor. After a layoff in 2006, God moved me home, and I’ve been self-employed ever since.
I’ve been editing books for seven years. And as I find time, I write novels. Being self-employed has its challenges, and publishing has definitely been affected by this economic downturn. When the jobs are good, I make pretty decent income and sometimes work long hours (my wife works part time from home too). But when the jobs are scarce . . . well, I just have to trust the Lord to lead me to something else.
What God has laid on my heart is that though I love writing novels, providing for my family must come first. I’m not going to sacrifice work time for writing time if I can’t pay the bills. That means the difficult decision of putting my writing on hold. So for the last several months, while I was editing books and promoting my second novel, I had basically no time to work on novel number three. None. Not if I wanted to eat, sleep, and maintain my health.
It’s more important to me that I provide for the needs of my family, and writing income so far hasn’t even hinted that it might overtake my editing income. Until it does, editing has to take priority, and writing gets pushed farther down the list. That’s just the reality for many of us.
If you set out to be a career novelist—and that’s your primary aspiration—I’m afraid you may be in for a big disappointment. You’re banking on a lot of uncertain variables, and the odds are stacked against you, especially in this economic environment.
Keep the dream of being a career novelist, but find an income-generating career and write on the side. Work as hard as you can to crank out that first publishable novel. If sales are so good you can quit your day job, good for you! You’re in a very small percentile, especially for a first novel. If not, don’t quit your day job. Keep your writing in the proper perspective and wait on the Lord. Keep in mind that a lot of novelists never become career novelists, and you need to be okay with that.
Bottom line? Being a career novelist is a challenging goal but not impossible to achieve if you are among the select few. A combination of hard work, God’s sovereignty, and incredible timing must work together in synergy for this to happen. What’s important is dreaming big but also being realistic, waiting on God for His plans for your life. And being content wherever God has placed you.
If other novelists would like to chime in, I’d welcome your testimonials.
Photo credit: Old Typewriter by Petr Kratochvil
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An excellent post. 🙂 I’ve been writing for almost four years now, and I used to dream of being published (though not of having a career from it). Just lately I’ve been learning to write because it’s something I enjoy, rather than for future publishing, and to leave God room to work in where my writing takes me.
I agree, and appreciate your emphasis on the sovereignty of God in this process. One thing is for certain–success rarely (and I mean like only 1% of the time) happens nearly overnight. It can take 2-3 years to get from the “I found an agent” stage to the “I’m published” stage. The good news is that we’re living in a time when self-pubbing is an increasingly viable option, which significantly shortens the distance between finished product and readers.
Thanks for writing, Heather! Very true. I don’t know anyone who has found publishing success overnight. I think Peretti even got numerous rejections of “This Present Darkness” before he finally found a publisher. The trick is not to give up and to be sure to trust God during the entire process. Are you considering self-publishing?
Thanks, Zoe, for your thoughts! I think some folks think they can be a professional novelist just like somebody can be a professional plumber. But the comparison is like apples and oranges. Going to plumbing school equals being a full-time plumber. But going to novel-writing school does not necessarily equal being a full-time novelist. I think it’s better simply to pursue as much writing as you are able to and waiting on God to give the increase. If He provides the increase in a big way, then go for it.