Unasked-For Advice to New Writers About Money

I made $164,000 last year from my writing. I’ve averaged more than $100,000 in writing income for the last ten years, which means, for those of you who don’t want to bother with the math, that I’ve made more than a million dollars from my writing in the last decade. In 2000, I wrote a book on finance, The Rough Guide to Money Online. For several years I wrote personal finance newsletters for America Online. When I do corporate consulting, it’s very often been for financial services companies like Oppenheimer Funds, US Trust and Warburg Pincus. I mention this to you so that you know that when I offer you, the new, aspiring and dewey-eyed writer, the following entirely unsolicited advice about money, I’m not talking entirely out of my ass.

Why am I offering this entirely unsolicited advice about money to new writers? Because it very often appears to me that regardless of how smart and clever and interesting and fun my fellow writers are on every other imaginable subject, when it comes to money — and specifically their own money — writers have as much sense as chimps on crack. It’s not just writers — all creative people seem to have the “incredibly stupid with money” gene set for maximum expression — but since most of creative people I know are writers, they’re the nexus of money stupidity I have the most experience with. It makes me sad and also embarrasses the crap out of me; people as smart as writers are ought to know better.

The following advice is not complete; there’s lots I won’t be covering here. Some it is repeated from things I’ve written before but are so far down in the archives I know you’ll never find them. Some of this advice may not apply to you; some of it may apply to you but you may be too delusional or arrogant to acknowledge it, or you may decide you don’t like my tone and ignore it all because of that. Most of it is applicable to writers who are not new, too, but I don’t know how many of them are interested in taking advice from me. This is US-centered although may be generally applicable elsewhere. It’s meant for writers but may have application to you in other fields; decide for yourself.

I do not guarantee this advice will make you a more successful writer or a better human being. Follow this advice at your own peril. That said, know that it’s generally worked for me. That’s why I’m sharing it with you.

One more thing: This is long.

1. You’re a writer. Prepare to be broke.

Writers make crap. Why do they make crap? For many reasons, beginning with forces outside their control (publishers pay as little as humanly possible; lots of would-be writers willing to work for pennies, keeping the pay rates low) and working up to forces entirely within their control (writers playing with their XBox 360s instead of writing; willingness to be to paid stupid low rates for their work). Most salaried writers in the US are lucky if they get above $50,000 a year; most freelance writers in the United States (which includes novelists, screenwriters, etc) could make more money being assistant manager at the local Wal-Mart. It’s not a joke.

(But, you say to me, you’re a freelance writer and you’ve made at least $100,000 a year for the last decade. Yes I have. And I’m an outlier; I’m over there to the right of the writing income bell curve. I’m there for many reasons, luck, skill and business sense being the big three, and all three interact with each other. Skill and business sense you can work on; luck happens, or doesn’t. There are lots of writers I know who have two out of the three. Many of them make less than I do. It’s not necessarily fair. Funny how that works.)

(Also, and not coincidentally, before those last ten years were the seven in which I was making rather quite a bit less. Oh, my, yes. That income didn’t come from nowhere; I did my time in the salt mines, trust me.)

It’s possible to make a good amount of money as a writer. Most writers don’t. You should assume, strictly for business purposes, that you won’t, or at the very least, won’t for a very long time. It’s not all about you, it’s also about the market. Don’t get defensive. The median personal income in the US in 2005 was $28,500. You have a lot of company in the bottom half.

More to the point, coming to peace with the fact that writing is likely not to make you a lot of money means that you can realistically look at that money going forward, which will put you in a better financial position than someone who just blunders along assuming that any minute now people are going to start tossing money at them for their lovely, lovely writing. These people become bitter and intolerable soon enough. You don’t want to be one of them.

Noting all the above, we come to point two:

2. Don’t quit your day job.

Lots of wanna-be writers wax rhapsodic about how great it would be to ditch the day job and just spend all their time clickety-clack typing away. These folks are idiots. Look, people: someone is paying you money and giving you benefits, both of which can support your writing career, and all you have to do is show up, do work that an unsupervised monkey could do, and pretend to care. What a scam! You’re sticking it to The Man, dude, because you’re taking that paycheck and turning it into art. And you know how The Man hates that. You’re supposed to be buying a big-screen TV with that paycheck! Instead, you’re subverting the dominant paradigm better than an entire battalion of college socialists. Well done, you. Well done, indeed.

People who aren’t full-time writers tend to have a hazy, romanticized view of the full-time writing life, in which writers wake up, clock four-to-six hours of writing truth, and then knock off for the rest of the day to be drunk and brilliant with all the rest of their writer friends. They tend to gloss over the little things like all the time you spend worrying about where the next writing gig is coming from, or all the e-mails and phone calls to publishers reminding them that, hey, they’ve owed you a check for nine months now, or (due to the previous) deciding which bill you can allow to go to a second or third notice, or the constant pressure to produce something you can sell, because you’ve heard of this crazy idea called “eating,” and you think you might like to give it a whirl. The full-time writing life isn’t about writing full-time; it’s about a full-time quest to get paid for your writing, both in selling the work, and then (alas) in collecting what you are owed. It’s not romantic; it’s a pain in the ass.

Think of all the writers whose work you love. The vast majority of them have day jobs, or had them for a significant portion of their working lives, usually until it became quite clear that they were shooting themselves in the foot, economically speaking, by not writing full-time (this happens rarely). But even then, their having had a day job was a good thing, because it meant that they actually developed some life experience, not the least of which was consorting with real live human beings who weren’t writers. Yes, they exist. Try the grocery store; they hang out there and buy things.

Yes, having a day job takes time away from your ability to write. So does watching TV or playing video games or sucking on your toes or posting angry screeds on the Internet. Unlike any of those things, however, a day job gives you money, which is something you as a writer will generally find hard to come by. Your day job is a friend to your writing career (not to mention to your family, your mortage, and to your eventual retirement). Don’t be in a rush to give it up. Instead, prioritize everything else you do, and see where you can find writing time in that.

3. Marry (or otherwise shack up with) someone sensible with money, who has a real job.

Hear me now, and note well what I say to you, because I am dead serious here: The single smartest thing I ever did for my writing career was to marry my wife. And this is why:

a) She is incredibly good with money by training and temperament and handles the domestic finances for us, leaving me free to focus on making money through my writing;

b) She has a real job with benefits, which gives us a month-to-month income (i.e., a secure economic baseline), shields us from the classic American financial disaster of the medical emergency, and has allowed me to take chances with my writing career I might not have been able to otherwise.

Also, you know. It’s nice to have someone to listen to me whine, to cheer me on, and generally to go through life with. But economically, which is what we’re concerned with here, a fiscally responsible spouse with a solid bennies-laden job is a pearl beyond price for writers.

Let me note strongly here that one thing I’m not saying here is that this sensible, fiscally-responsible spouse should expect to have to support you for years and years while you fiddle away on your Great American Novel (which is code for “playing Halo 3 from 9:30 to 4:30”). Letting your spouse support you while you tinker pointlessly makes you no better than all those heavy metal bassists who spend entire careers sponging off a series of girlfriends. You better be working, and contributing to the household income. For us, that meant using a fair amount of my writing time doing consulting work (not romantic writing but pays well) as well as writing books. It also meant being the at-home parent, which saved us a bundle on day care (which kept our costs down, which counts as “contributing”).

Or to put it another way: Your spouse is giving you a gift by giving you security and flexibility. Make sure you’re making it worth their while, too. And make sure they know you know how much they’re doing for you. Don’t be a heavy metal bassist.

Let me also note that this is the one piece of advice that I suspect writers will have the least control over. It’s hard enough getting people to like you anyway; finding one who is fiscally responsible and willing to pitch in for you while you develop your writing career is a tall order. What I’m saying is that if such a person comes along, grab them with both hands, make snarly territorial noises at all the other writers hovering nearby, and then try really hard not to screw up the relationship. In addition to being likely to make you happy as a human, this person will also likely be an excellent economic complement as well. It’s nice when that happens.

4. Your income is half of what you think it is.

When you work for someone, the employer withholds your income and Social Security taxes for the IRS, pays part of your Social Security, automatically deducts for your 401(k) and health insurance, and (if you’re not an idjit) also kicks in a bit for the 401(k). When you’re a freelance writer, none of this happens. The problem is, lots of writers forget that and spend everything they get when they get it, so when taxes come due (which is quarterly, because per the earlier notation, the government quite sensibly doesn’t trust freelancers to pay their taxes in one lump sum) lots of writers go “oh, crap” and have to suck change out of sofas and the few remaining pay phones to square the debt. This is also why many writers never get around to funding IRAs or other retirement vehicles, and spend their lives hoping they don’t slip or catch cold or get hit by a taxi, because they have no health insurance.

Simple solution: Every time you get a check, divide it in two. One half is yours to pay for bills, rent and groceries, and if there’s anything left over, to play with. The other half, which you deposit into an interest-bearing account of some sort, goes to federal, state and local taxes and your Social Security taxes, and anything that’s left over goes to fund your IRA (do the Roth IRA, it’ll pay off in the end) and, if you’re not lucky enough to have either number two or three above, your health insurance (have a day job or a spouse with bennies? Save it anyway. Be one of the wacky single-digit percent of Americans who actually save something in the bank. Also, and more usefully, that money you’re saving becomes a “buffer” for the times when you have bills but no income on the way. The buffer is your friend. Love the buffer. Fund the buffer).

Yes, it sucks to take half of your money and never see it again. But you know what else sucks? Owing the IRS a huge chunk of money sucks. Hospitals playing musical chairs with you because they don’t want your uninsured ass cluttering up their emergency room sucks. Not ever being able to stop working because you didn’t plan for it sucks. All of these things, in fact, suck worse. So suck it up and put that half of the check aside.

Related to this and extremely important: The money you have in hand is all the money you have. For the purposes of budgeting, do not allow yourself to think “oh, well, such-and-such publisher owes me this, and then I should get royalties for that, so that’s more money coming in…” That’s a really fine way to spend money you don’t have and maybe aren’t going to get.

Is the money in your hands? Then it’s yours (half of it, anyway). Is it not in your hands? Then it doesn’t exist.

5. Pay off your credit cards NOW and then use them like cash later.

If you’re anything like the average American, and economically speaking you probably are, at some point or another in your life you bought into the idea that the credit limit on your credit card was actually money you could spend — and should spend! On an iPod! And a big tv! And on pizza! In Italy! — and now you have close to $10,000 in consumer debt at 19% APR which you are making monthly minimum payments on, which means that you’ll still be paying off that debt when you’re 70. Congratulations, average economic American! You rock.

Okay: Remember when I told you to put aside half of your income for taxes, and then if there was anything left, to invest it an IRA and otherwise save it? Well, if you have more than a token amount of credit card debt, forget about saving it and apply it to your credit card payment instead. Why? Because it makes absolutely no sense to save or invest money if the return rate for that investment is less than the annual percentage rate of your credit card debt. Net, you’ll lose money (especially if you’re investing from scratch). You need to buy down that credit card debt as quickly as you sensibly can. It is your number one debt priority. Once you’ve paid down your debt you can begin saving and investing. But pay that debt first.

So, now it is some indeterminate amount of time later and you’ve paid off your credit card debt. Do you tear up all your credit cards and swear never to use them again? No, because as sensible as it would seem to be, there is some benefit to using credit cards. For example, I use a card for all my business-related purchases because at the end of the year I get an annual statement, which makes it a hell of a lot easier for me (or, actually, my accountant) to do my taxes. And like it or not, regular (and responsible) activity on credit cards is useful for your credit rating.

No, what you do is you get rid of all your credit cards but one, and when you use it, you only put on it what you can pay off at the end of the month — you don’t carry a balance, since carrying a balance is the root of all credit card evil. You treat it as cash, and if you don’t have the cash to pay off what you’re charging, you don’t buy it. Simple. Personally, I use American Express because it is technically a charge card, not a credit card — i.e., it has to paid off at the end of the month, and Amex looks askance at you if you try to carry anything over. This helps keep me from overspending, and as mentioned earlier also helps me keep track of my business-related purchases.

Just remember that credit cards are not your friends; their entire purpose, from the point of view of the bank that gives them to you, is to make you a consistent and eternal source of income, forever and ever, amen. If you want to be in economic thrall to a bank until the very moment you die, that’s your business, but it’s a pretty dumb way to go about things. Especially if you’re a writer, who doesn’t necessarily have a solid month-to-month income anyway.

Related to this very strongly:

6. Don’t have the cash for it? You can’t have it.

To reiterate, the reason that Americans are as generally economically screwed as they are at this moment in time is because they bought into the fundamentally insane idea that buying tons of shiny crap they didn’t need on a high-interest installment plan made any sort of rational sense at all. And as completely idiotic as it is for the average American, it makes even less sense for a writer, who often doesn’t know when or even if they’re going to paid again. Committing to a non-essential monthly cost when you don’t have to is stupid. You need somewhere to live, so a monthly rent or mortgage payment makes sense. You don’t need a monthly charge for two years to pay for that 42-inch 1080p TV. Use your brain.

But you want that 42-inch 1080p TV! I understand; I want it too. What you do is save for it. When you save for something, it’s like you’re making a payment on it, except that you don’t have an evil credit card company charging you 19% for the privilege. I realize it’s condescending to put it that way, but, look: If people actually knew this, they wouldn’t have thousands in credit card debt, now, would they? And yes, it’s true that while you’re saving for that HDTV (or whatever), you don’t have it, and we as a nation are no longer used to the idea of not having what we want now now now now now. Well, get used to it, you insolvent jackass. Otherwise some bank owns your ass well into the next life. Really, that’s all I have to say about that.

And in the meantime, there’s always the local sports bar. Pay your $3 for a beer and watch the game on their massive HDTV. That’s why they put the HDTV there in the first place. And while you’re packing away the money to buy the 42-inch 1080p widescreen TV, there’s likely to be a bonus, in that the cost of that TV is likely to come down a bit, because that’s what happens with so many consumer goods over time. It’s like getting cash back on your purchase.

The other advantage of having to save for things, incidentally, is it makes you ask yourself if you really need it (or, at least, want it so much that you’re willing to part with your money for it). You are likely to be surprised at how many things it turns out you don’t really need if you have to wait to get them, and can actually see the mass o’ cash you’re laying out for ’em. And that’s all to the good for you.

7. When you do buy something, buy the best you can afford — and then run it into the ground.

I am not now, nor have I ever been, an advocate for cheap crap. Cheap crap sucks; it’s badly made, it breaks, and then you have to go buy a replacement, so effectively the cost of whatever cheap piece of crap you bought is twice what your originally paid for it (or more, since having learned your lesson, you didn’t buy cheap crap the second time).

I am an advocate for thrift, however, and in my life, being “thrifty” means that you buy well, and then you use what you buy until it no longer has value. You buy it for the long haul. This was something that came naturally to people of my grandparents’ generation (the Great Depression kind of drummed it into them) but these days, when the marketing folks at Apple strive to make you feel a wave of intense, personal shame that you didn’t pony up for the Mac Air the very instant it was released, this is a virtue we’ve lost track of. And it’s true enough that if every single American thought like this, the economy would collapse even faster than it is doing at the moment. But you know what? Let the rest of America worry about that. We’re here to worry about you.

I practice what I preach, here. In 1991, when I was out of college and starting my first job, I bought the best car I could afford: an ’89 Ford Escort, Pony edition (i.e., even more underpowered than the average Escort!). I paid $4800 for it and I drove it for 12 years until it could barely chug into the dealership to meet its replacement (not an Escort). In 1997, we bought Krissy a Suzuki Sidekick; she still has it 150,000 miles later. Going back to 1991, I bought a stereo system for $400; I used it until just this last Christmas, when it finally gave up the ghost as it spun a holiday CD. The TV I bought for myself in 1991 still chugs away in my bedroom; we’re likely to replace it when the switchover to digital happens next year, but then again, we might not (it’s hooked up to Dish Network, which will scale down the signal to 480p). Hell, our answering machine is seven years old; I think it may use a tape.

Point is, we’re not afraid of spending money, but we don’t spend money just to spend money; we look for something that we can live with for a long time. That usually requires spending a bit more upfront, in order to save a lot more on the back end. As long as you combine this with point six, and buy with money you’ve already saved, this shouldn’t be a problem.

It does require, as writer Charles Stross would put it, the ability to make a saving throw against the shiny; i.e., internalizing the idea that you don’t need every new thing just because it’s nice and pretty and can do one thing that thing you have like it can’t do. This is a tough one for me, I admit. I do so love the shiny, and sometimes I give in when I shouldn’t (as long as I have the money for it). But most of the time, I buy well, and buy to last — and then use it until it begs me to let it die. And then I use it for a year after that! Grandpa would be proud.

8. Unless you have a truly compelling reason to be there, get the hell out of New York/LA/San Francisco.

Because they’re friggin’ expensive, that’s why. Let me explain: Just for giggles, I went to Apartments.com and looked for apartments in Manhattan that were renting for what I pay monthly on my mortgage for my four bedroom, 2800 square foot house on a plot of land that is, quite literally, the size of a New York City block ($1750, if you must know, so I looked at the $1700 – $1800 range). I found two, and one was a studio. From $0 to $1800, there are thirteen apartments available. On the entire island of Manhattan. Where there are a million people. I love that, man.

Admittedly, mine is an extreme example; I don’t think very many writers want to live where I live, which, as I like to say, is so far away from everything that the nearest McDonald’s is eleven miles away. At the same time, between the bucolic splendor of the Scalzi Compound and the insanity that is the Manhattan real estate market is rather a lot of America, most of it quite tolerable to live in, and almost all of it vastly cheaper than the cities of NYC/LA/SF.

But, I hear you cry, I need to live in New York/LA/San Francisco because that’s where all the work is. To which I say: Meh. I will tell you a story. From 1996 through early 2001, I lived outside Washington DC, which was a great place for writing work, because I had a lot of clients in the area for consulting work, and I could fly up to New York quickly for meetings and whatnot. But then my wife decided that we needed to move to Ohio so our daughter could be closer to my wife’s family. I agreed, but I warned her that the move was likely to compromise my ability to get work. She understood and we moved. And two weeks after I moved, all my clients called and said, more or less “so, you’re moved in now? You can get back to work now?” and started sending me work. Nothing had changed.

Now, maybe that’s a testament to how awesome I am, but all ego aside, I think it’s rather more to the point that thanks to the miracle of the Internet and such, it just doesn’t matter where people are. Look, we live in an era where people working in adjoining cubicles IM each other rather than exercise their vocal cords. Leaving aside the interesting pathology of this fact, IMing someone half a continent away feels no different than IMing someone ten feet away. Distance hardly mattered when I was doing my consulting work, and now that I’m mostly writing books, it matters even less.

Don’t get me wrong: I love LA, and San Francisco, and New York. They are some of my favorite places. I’m always excited to have an excuse to visit. But we’re talking about money here. Your money — of which you will have little enough as it is — will go further almost every other place in the United States than these three cities. Your living space will be cheaper and more expansive. You will have more money for bills and to draw down debt. You will have more money to save. It will cost you less to do just about everything. People don’t realize this when they are in thrall to NYC/LA/SF, but once they leave, as if people coming out of hypnotism, they shake their heads and wonder what they were thinking.

Think about it this way: once you’re hugely successful, you can always go back. And now that the housing bubble is popping, it might even be cheaper then! Go, recession, go! But until then, find someplace nice that you like and feel you can do productive work in, and try living there instead.

9. Know the entire writing market and place value on your own work.

A few years ago I was at a science fiction convention, on a panel about making money as a writer, and one of the panelists said something I found absolutely appalling, which was: “I will write anything for three cents a word.” This was followed up by something I found even more appalling, which was that most of the other panelists were nodding in agreement.

I was appalled not by the fellow’s work ethic, which I heartily endorse (I, too, will write pretty much anything, although not for that quoted rate), but by the fact that he and most of the other folks on the panel seemed to think three cents a word was somehow an acceptable rate. It’s really not; in a word, it is (yes) appalling. The problem was, this very talented writer, and the others on the panel, had largely confined themselves to the science fiction writing markets (and other related markets), in which the major outlets pay the grand sum of six to nine cents a word, and in which three cents a word is considered a “pro” rate.

Well, not to be an ass about this, but this pro doesn’t consider it a pro rate; this pro won’t even roll out of bed for less than twenty cents a word. Anything below that rate and it becomes distinctly not worth my time; if I do it, it’s because it has some other value for me other than money (i.e., mostly because I find it amusing or interesting in some way). I can have this snooty attitude not because I’m so damn good, but because I know that out in the real world, I can get 20 cents a word (and usually more — 20 cents a word is the lower bound for me) writing other sorts of things for other markets, and so can many other writers with anything approaching a competent work record. To be sure, this can often mean doing writing that’s not typically described as “fun” — things like marketing pieces or Web site FAQ text or technical writing. But this sort of writing can pay well, expand your repertoire of work experience and (paradoxically) allow you the wherewithal to take on the sort of stuff that doesn’t pay well but is fun to do or is otherwise interesting to you.

There is nothing wrong with writing as a sideline and not worrying overly much about payment. But, if writing is something you want to do full-time, it needs to be something you can do full-time; that means finding ways to make it pay and be worth the time and energy you put in it. Part of that is understanding the entire universe of writing opportunities available to you, not just the ones that appeal to you (a Writer’s Market is a good place to start). Part of it is understanding that getting that writing gig that is dead boring but pays off the electric bill is in its way as valuable as selling that short story, or humor piece, or music review, all of which will pay crap but which you enjoy.

Be willing and ready to write anything — but make sure that you’re making the attempt to make more than three cents a word off it. Because I will tell you this: If you only value your work to that amount, that’s the amount you’re going to find yourself getting paid. Over and over again.

This brings us to our final point today:

10. Writing is a business. Act like it.

Every writer who writes for pay is running a small business. You have to create product, track inventory, bid on work, negotiate contracts, pay creditors, make sure you get paid and deal with taxes. Work has to be done on time and to specification. Your business reputation will help you get work — or will make sure you don’t get any more. This is your job. This is your business.

If you don’t mind your own business then others will do it for you — and make no mistake that you will lose out, not because the people you are working with are evil or shifty, but simply because they are approaching their end like it is a business and will naturally take anything you leave on the table. That’s business. That’s how business works.

Lots of writers miss this, or ignore it, or try to pretend that it’s different than this. Lots of writers assume or just want to believe that the only thing they have to do is write, and the rest of the stuff will take care of itself. It won’t, and it doesn’t. This is why so many writers find themselves in financial trouble: they don’t have enough money because they valued their work too cheaply, or they weren’t wise with the money they received, or they lost track of the money they were owed.

If you can’t or won’t approach writing as a business, then think about doing something else with your time. Stick with the day job as your main source of income and think about writing as a hobby or side gig. There is nothing wrong with this. Some of the best writers did their work “on the side” — as recreation away from their primary profession. Writing part-time does not lessen the work; the work is its own thing.

But if you are going to try to write as a serious profession, primary or otherwise, treat it seriously. As a writer, you’re going to make little enough as is; why give any away through negligence or lack of focus? That’s just silly. But it really is up to you. This is your work, your money, and your business. Respect the first two by paying attention to the third.

Done now.

Update 2/12/08: A rather considerable discussion of points #3 & 8 in the comments and elsewhere online compels me to write more on those points. See it here.

214 Comments on “Unasked-For Advice to New Writers About Money”

  1. This is a pretty good list. I’m going to horn in with three other items I’ve seen over the years:

    * You’re responsible for your own contracts and copyrights. Don’t assume that the nice publisher or wonderful company that wants you to do a newsletter for them will give you the most splendiferous agreement in the history of publishing, just because you’re so great and they’re so magnanimous. At minimum, this means read it before you sign it… so that even if it’s nonnegotiable, and you have to take the job to pay the rent, you at least know that you’re giving away your copyrights for three cents a word.

    * You’re responsible for what happens when you’re dead. Some people manage to avoid taxes, some of the time. Nobody manages to avoid death. And that means you need a will that designates a literary executor. It can be the same person as your main executor, but need not be; that’s a matter for you and your lawyer. I could name some really, really big names — both inside and outside of speculative fiction — whose legacies have been crushed by failure to have a will, or failure to keep it up to date. And it doesn’t matter if you’re young, either; you could get hit by a bus (e.g., Byron Preiss).

    * You’re responsible for your reputation. And I don’t mean the deathless quality of your prose; I mean the deathless quality of your meeting of deadlines (or, at minimum, getting an appropriate extension in advance), the deathless quality of your treatment of your editor and everyone else at publishers/clients/employers, the deathless quality of your behavior at conferences and conventions. It’s hard enough to get published well; becoming known as impossible to work with is another barrier, and one that’s entirely within your control.

  2. Hallelujah! Sing it, Brother!

    I gotta tell you, working as a puppeteer professionally, it has baffled me to watch the general cluelessness of writers who want to quit their dayjob. They have no idea what life as a freelancer is like.

  3. Whew. Good article, Scalzi. Having been self-employed in my construction business before picking up writing as my second career choice, I’m constantly surprised at how very little most writers understand about money management and self-employment tax regulations. I’ve been “lucky” that my life experience helped and enabled my second (dream) career to be economically viable.

  4. Hey John– I’m writing full time these days and am awfully confident about my finances (mostly because my mother is a CPA and has made it her mission to make sure I’m squared away).

    But I have a question for you about #3, which I haven’t managed just yet. This is a purely anecdotal observation with no basis in research, which is part of why I’m posting it here, so I can get some other purely anecdotal observations. So here it is:

    It is my observation that male writers have a much easier time accomplishing #3 than female writers. That is, most of the men I know who are writing full time are married. Most of the women who are writing full time are not.

    So, am I on crack or is there something going on here?

  5. Addendum: I should add that, yes, I do know women writers who are married. But it’s interesting that many of them married after getting their writing careers started.

  6. Good advice for freelancers in the software field, too. Especially the ‘divide your check in half’ bit. I tried to fudge that one quarter last year to fund, um, shiny things. (Because now that I’m on my own I need [insert shiny toy name here]!) Anyway, long story short, I am becoming reacquainted with Ramen and PB&J. Thank God I did my taxes early this year.

  7. Sing it, brother! I’m not a writer, but…

    I’ve been self-employed for twenty years without going bankrupt, and each and every single one of those things applies to the self-employed in ANY field. OK, you’ve gotta adapt them to the field you’re in, but they still apply. Going the independent route with any other game plan leads directly to bankruptcy court.

    You also learn all sorts of other skills just because it’s cheaper to do some things yourself, and in the dry periods when the money isn’t there you HAVE to do it yourself.

  8. Well done! I agree with so much of what you said. I’m a writer, but I’m much more analytical and practical than artsy. So the business side of things is just part of the package for me.

    I’m amazed that so many artists, though, don’t want to take the time to care for their finances. (But I’ve worked in academia – the same can be said for researchers.) I guess I just like more security than some.

  9. FYI – I very much doubt a TV from 1991 is capable of anything near 480p. You know, just in case you need some incentive. Oh wait, that’s not fiscally responsible.

    Also, I think you should start selling t-shirts that say, “Don’t be a heavy metal bassist.” Smells like money to me.

  10. There was the short take, a little bit back, when you asked your readers what they’d tell an earlier version of themselves. It was overloaded. Oddly enough, they all seemed to miss that key phrase:

    “Save your money.”

    It’s great advice.

    It’ll never catch on.

  11. Hmmm Carrie, sounds like a matchmaking website waiting to happen.

    “Pay your bills on time? Have a good job? With benefits? Addicted to reading? Come to Match-a-writer.com and meet your new dealer!”

  12. I’m a wannabee at this point as far as the writing goes, but I decided to get serious about it this year. One of the things I realized I would need was a job I both liked well enough to stick with, and that paid well enough to give me some stability (I actually have an interview this Tuesday for a job that seems to fit both criteria, anybody who wants to please feel free to wish me luck).

    Before I decided to get serious I basically floated from one crap job to another. But I realized I’m going to need certain things taken care of if I wanna have time to work on my writing. All of those things require money.

    If I’m constantly struggling over bills and how they’ll get paid, I’m not going to be writing, or at least writing as much as I would be if the bills were taken care of.

    I think the reason a lot of creative people have problems with money is they somehow think it’s antithetical to creativity to think about money. As if somehow money and other such material things are dross and being ‘creative’ they should be above it.

  13. John, this is amazing. Pretty much the only reason I’ve got six months worth of rent and utilities (in LA, mind you) tucked away in the bank at 21 years old is because I actually listened when somebody else gave me almost this exact lecture at 20 years old.

    It really does actually work.

  14. True gospel from Mr Scalzi. Equipped with a fiscally responsible and well-paid wife I did actually give up a perfectly good day job to ‘become a writer’ (as if some kind of chrysalis was involved). I can tell you now that the most emotionally positive and fulfilling consequence of my doing so has been the delirious sense of relief I felt when, after five years, somebody hired me again and the paychecks resumed.

    Also I realised that being a writer has more to do with whether or not you engage in the activity of writing than with one’s day-to-day, professional occupation. If you can make these two things one then truly you can balance eggs on their pointy ends for the rest of your days, but if you can’t that doesn’t mean you are any less of a writer.

  15. Thanks, Scalzi. Excellent advice, as ever. And so useful as something to point people at when they have trouble understanding “don’t give up the day job”.

  16. I’ve been running my own small animation company for the last 12 years, and frankly that post of yours should be issued with every freelancer’s bank account, and printed on the inside of the forms to establish a company name. In fact, it’s such a gem of condensed wisdom that it’s surely destined to be quoted earnestly almost as often as it’s advice is ignored ;)

    I’ve usually described the “staying solvent” process as being deadly seriously responsible where you absolutely have to be, so you can be wilfully irresponsible everywhere else. This may be because animators are more wilfully silly than writers. See, I typed that with a straight face and everything.

  17. I think #3, while it works for some folks, strikes me as a little predatory. I know it’s a common bit of advice, but I’m of a mind that that which is given you can be taken away. Relationships break up. Cover your own ass.

    Kris, still with the day job

  18. Here’s one you never hear about, and I didn’t know it until I bought my house:

    Your credit limit is actually half of what you think it is.

    Someday, somewhere, you’re going to have to use those cards beyond what is healthy, or go to the bank and say, “Yeah, can I have some of my equity back? I sorta kinda need a new water heater.”

    The bank will look at Ye Olde Credit Rating, and if your cards show a balance of over 50% of the limit, guess what happens to your chances of getting a yes.

    Not to mention keeping it at half the limit also manages any stupidity humans get themselves into. Your interest rates stay down, your payments are lower, and your minimums (which you should ALWAYS be paying over and above) are small.

    That’s not to say you now have a license to go out and buy half as much shiny stuff. But a self-imposed limit keeps you from burying yourself in shiny stuff.

  19. Kristine Smith:

    I think it’s predatory if the only reason you find such a mate is to use them for the purposes of your career. But I also don’t think most writers works that way.

    In the absence of this kind of spouse, however, a good accountant works, too.

  20. Lots of wanna-be writers wax rhapsodic about how great it would be to ditch the day job and just spend all their time clickety-clack typing away. These folks are idiots.

    But, John, do you know how much my day job sucks??? I may be an idiot, but don’t kill my dreams, man!

    No seriously, thank you for posting this. I’m always grateful for a reality check. Thank you for posting how much you make and explaining that’s actually cut in half by taxes and necessities, etc.

  21. My editor said that I sounded like a fella that should move from Indiana to New York in pursuit of glossy articles and collections of books. I told him that first off my wife would leave me and secondly, I would be a complete idiot to do so.

    In Indiana my writing career affords a pretty nice life in a 2200 sq foot home and in NYC it would afford a pretty nice cardboard box. I like not having to worry about my walls getting soggy when it rains.

  22. I think you’re esitmates of you being an outlier are off. The statistics for WHO is considered a writer is pretty vague. You wouldn’t consider law students salaries, who work part time in a law firm while attending law school in calculations of average lawyer salaries, but it sure seems that – when considering writers incomes, the equivalent IS considered.

  23. I agree wholeheartedly. I’m well over the $50 grand a year, although quite a ways from $160 grand (hmmm, I commented to my wife that I find that rather inspiring).

    I know it’s sort of uncool to link outside, but on my own blog, which can be found here:

    on Friday I finished a 9-part series titled:

    Freelancing Writing For A Living.

    I cover most of the things John did here (with, maybe, a little bit less ranting, although not much less) and went into a little bit more detail on various aspects of HOW to go about it.

    And I applaud two things here very much so:

    Put some f***ing value on your work. If you don’t, who the hell will?

    I’ve found–to my surprise and delight–that by giving myself a goal that seemed crazy-high (I see I’ll have to readjust after John’s stated yearly income here) I often SURPASSED it. Often shattering my goal. So it is possible.

  24. BTW- as far as money management goes – the average person gets 1-2 checks a month and many live check to check.

    Imagine if you got 1-2 checks per year for the same annual salary. Can you budget that? If not, don’t CONSIDER becoming a full-time writer.

    Absolutely agree with that side of it. Fiscal responsibility is MORE important than a spouse with an income and health benefits. Spouse is convenient though…

  25. Great article. The parts of general fiscal responsibility – save, use your credit cards sparingly, don’t let debt accumulate – are uniformly applicable and very valuable advice.

  26. “Well, get used to it, you insolvent jackass.”
    Made me laugh unexpectedly so that I snorted hard enough to make me choke.

  27. I would add the point:

    *Things will get much more expensive over time*

    I have seen my electricty bill sap another $100-$150 per month off of my budget, and health care increases another $100 per month. Luckily my mortgage is fixed rate so I don’t have a problem there, but there are a LOT of significant increases that you can’t do anything about over time.

  28. I find it funny that John, who lived in DC is giving other people shit about NYC/LA/SF. Ask him how much his old place in Sterling went for.

    Go ahead. We’ll wait.

    I only chide him because I live in Fairfax Co. between Chantilly and Herndon (about 10 min. from his old house).

  29. Great advice, it reminds me very much of my personal financial guru, Dave Ramsey (google if you’re interested).

    The funny thing is that while this is tailored to the writer, most of it is good advice for all of us. Who really cares if you’re driving a Lexus instead of a Corolla? They both get you to the same place when you drive them. Etc etc etc. That has been a hard lesson for me, as my saving throw vs. shiny is particularly weak when it comes to cars, which is particularly horrible in that they are invariably expensive AND they depreciate like crazy (especially when brand new).

    Also– damn John, I need to move to Scalziville. I thought cost of living was good down here in BFE Georgia. That’s a nice cost for the Scalzi Compound. Good on you.

  30. Jamie:

    It didn’t go for anything, actually. We still own the place and rent it out. But, yes, it’s worth now at least three times what we paid for it, even factoring the current bubble popping. It’s ridiculous.

  31. I do think the “writer’s life” appeals to creative people for many of the same reasons that “owning your own business” does for some of the cubicle slaves out there.

    But really . . . if you’re grown up, when has reality EVER been peachy keen complete with minty fresh rainbow hued anal breezes?

    And I heartily, nay, lusitly and with gusto, echo C.E. Petit’s point:

    You’re responsible for what happens when you’re dead. Some people manage to avoid taxes, some of the time. Nobody manages to avoid death. And that means you need a will that designates a literary executor. It can be the same person as your main executor, but need not be; that’s a matter for you and your lawyer. I could name some really, really big names — both inside and outside of speculative fiction — whose legacies have been crushed by failure to have a will, or failure to keep it up to date. And it doesn’t matter if you’re young, either; you could get hit by a bus (e.g., Byron Preiss).

    You need a decent will. Full Stop. And the person who does your real estate contracts will SAY they can do it. But they can’t. This may come as a surprise, but gasp! Some attorneys are much better than others! Gasp gasp!! Funny how what happens in every other sphere of human activity has a parallel in the providing of legal services.

    Go to a specialist. If the atty doesn’t know what a literary executor is you need to go somewhere else. Even a lot of fairly experienced trusts and estates attorneys may not be completely familiar with this, if they don’t work with clients with literary intellectual property.

    So, you’re looking for a fairly rare specialist: a trusts and estates attorney with literary intellectual property experience. The only disagreement I’d have with C.E., is that the literary executor probably won’t be the same as your main executor, because the default is surviving spouse. The literary executor should be the person best situated (and likely to be alive too . . . ) to make good decisions about your literary property in order to best benefit your family.

    Will it cost you more than Nolo Press’s “E-Z Willmaker!” Oh he** yes. But, like Scalzi says: don’t buy cheap.

  32. Word, John.

    I was shocked to find out how much time I spent not writing – meaning doing paperwork, chasing money, doing research. I used to joke that being a freelance writer meant spending my days alternating between being chained to the computer and running out to the mailbox to look for checks.

    Oh, and an answering machine (and later, Caller ID) was one of the best investments I ever made in my career.

  33. John–I’ve also seen too many apparently solid marriages/relationships break up. Blame personal experience as well, but I much prefer to be in the position to cover my own healthcare, etc. Just a personal tic, I guess.

    I also agree with Carrie V.’s point of view, and would add that it’s been more traditional for the woman to work the day job and support her husband through grad school/med school/law school/ setting up the practice. It’s almost the expected thing to do. How often does it happen in reverse–I don’t know, and while I’m guessing it happens more frequently these days, I don’t believe it’s the norm.

  34. Great advice, John. I would add to #7 (the part about cars) that once you buy a reliable car at a reasonable price, for God’s sake, maintain it properly. Don’t skimp on the $25-30 oil changes at Jiffy Lube just to save a few bucks. This may mean that you can’t buy Zoe’s Tale in hardcover, but oh well. That’s Scalzi’s problem, not yours. Those taxes he’s advised you to save for probably support a public library. Use it. :)

    This is how I currently drive a 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee with ~248,000 miles on it. By changing the oil and other fluids regularly, and other regular maintenance. I likely will get it replaced soon, now that gas is around $3.00/gal., because the mileage does suck.

  35. Kristine Smith:

    It is entirely true that I’ve had cause to observe that if Krissy and I ever get divorced, from a business point of view, I’m in trouble. I can handle my own business; she’s just better at it. We have complementary skill sets in many ways.

    Which is my point: If you are in a relationship with someone who has better management skills than you (and is willing to use them), then you should take advantage of them — also writers should see those skills as a plus in a mate.

    And yes, relationships end, people divorce, etc., but until and unless, I think it’s a good thing to utilize the advantages that a marriage (or other equally strong personal partnership) brings you. Naturally, one’s mileage may vary on this; I don’t pretend that all this advice is equally applicable to everyone.

  36. Scalzinator,

    Thank you for the humbling yet practical advice. I, for one, welcome my next I’m-a-writer paycheck, with which I can buy a sandwich. And not have all that other writerly pressure. Me likes the teaching job and benefits just fine.

  37. I’m not a writer, but I agree with the others. Most of this is good advice for anyone. One point I’d add is that dining out is also part of the shiny in Scalzi’s sixth point. It’s insane for a poor person to routinely pay other people to cook and serve them food, but I’ve known so many who do. You’re poor. You wouldn’t waste money hiring a maid, how is hiring a chef five nights a week is any smarter?

  38. Thank you for the advice. As a newbie, I need all of the help I can get.

    Do you suggest establishing an LLC? I have heard that is helpful for taxes, etc.

  39. SeanH:

    Ironically, in a some poor areas, it’s cheaper to eat badly (or to eat fast food) than it is to eat healthy, with fresh vegetables and so on, which may or may not be available where they are.


    I have an LLC. I don’t know that it’s absolutely necessary for a writer starting out. This is one of those things you should talk to a tax professional about.

  40. John,

    Thanks for this article. I find it useful even if, as in my case, writing is my second job. But I view it as that — a second job — and not a hobby.

    I’ll offer one piece of advice regarding credit cards: Sometimes, in spite of having a cash buffer, emergencies happen that require cash you don’t have on hand. DON’T USE THE CREDIT CARD FOR THESE! Instead, if possible, get a “signature” loan from your bank. You’ll pay less interest and actually pay off what you owe in a relatively short amount of time.

    We recently had a large veterinarian bill when one of our cats got sick, spent two days at the vets, went through a series of tests, and had to be put down. The bill was $700. Rather than putting that on the Visa, or dipping into our cash reserve, we got a one year loan. Payments are about $65 a month and the total interest is $63. We got a lower interest rate on the loan than on the VISA.

    We could have dipped into the cash reserve and paid ourselves back — we’ve done that before. But in this case, the extra $63 in interest was worth keeping our cash reserve intact.

  41. Another good article, John.

    However, if I may speak for NY/SF/LA…and I daresay even Boston/Cambridge.

    Ultimately, one decides what one wants. For me, I’d rather live in a one-bedroom in NY or SF or Boston than live in a house in Ohio. I like not having a car. I like being able to walk everywhere. I like cities, a lot, and detest suburbs (and I’ve done my time in the prototypical suburbs of Long Island’s North Shore.)

    It’s actually an extension of “Don’t have the cash, you can’t have it.” Saving is a priority, but one also saves for priorities, be it the big-screen TV or the new car for the kid’s soccer ball or the trip to Spain. For me, the priority is city-livin’. That said, I don’t mind living on the outer ring of a city: Somerville in Boston, the Lower East Side, and later, Jersey City, in the NYC area, Berkeley instead of SF proper. (And I’ve met plenty of people appalled that I didn’t have a 212 area code, or lived “somewhere out in the East Bay” or in “Slummerville” but they’ve always worked for me.)

    Plus, cars are the biggest nickel-and-dime scam in the fucking world. Take your car budget away and add it to your housing budget, and boom, you’re set.

  42. Nick:

    Yup, a lot depends on what you want for lifestyle, and I think the “outer ring” idea qualifies as a smart idea. In NYC, I have friends who live in New Jersey/Queens and get all the benefits of being in NYC without having to live in a shoebox or spending most of their income on said shoebox. As you note, it may not be fashionable, but the hell with that. Fashion is the enemy of personal economics.

  43. Wow, what a sad article, John. I was thinking more of sit-down dining not fast food, which I generally like having been poor myself a time or two. Fast food’s far from ideal, but when your options at home for the 10th night in a row are grilled cheese, ramen, or splurging on tuna casserole you thank God for Taco Bell or the McDonald’s dollar menu.

  44. Great post, sir. And congratulations on your sales. Loved the bit on running depreciable assets into the ground. I do that too. And then like an Apache warrior with his pony, I somehow get it back up again and ride it for 20 more miles. Then I eat it.

    I’ve got two minor additions. I’m a believer in SEP-IRAs if you’re living on a free-lance income simply because you can put more dollars into them.

    Also, if you’re completely at lost when it comes to financial management, read Clayson’s _The Richest Man in Babylon_. Wonderful book. True in 1926, true today.

    Thanks again!

  45. Thanks for posting this. It is always good to get an inside view on how things work in the freelance writing world, from someone who knows what they are talking about.

  46. Thanks, John. I’ve been a freelance translator for about twenty years now, and the advice is totally accurate (down to the number of cents per word) for that field, too.
    What I tell translators (again and again, until I’m blue in the face) is: “if that pay won’t keep you in good dictionaries and legal software updates, the rate is too low.” And I *still* see translators working at unworkable rates, subsidizing their publishers. Such philanthropy must be very gratifying.

  47. Fiona: LLCs generally don’t provide the kind of tax breaks you may be looking for. If you’re a single member LLC, i.e., you own the whole kit and kaboodle, you get taxed as a sole proprietorship . . . i.e., just like you would anyway if you ignored the LLC.

    And LLCs cost money to form, maintain, and operate. If you don’t feel like filing the informational tax returns, or paying someone to file them (and many accountants charge by the form).

    You probably won’t make enough money early on to justify the cost. Furthermore, the tax savings, may be at advanced levels. At the income tax level, there’s probably not a lot to be gained.

    This is not to say that at some future point there’s not something to be gained from it, it’s just that it’s probably a case by case basis.

  48. Outstanding article, great advice. I’m fortunate to have been married to a professional financial planner for over 30 years, and I’ve seen some horrific examples of what happens when people aren’t prudent with their money and don’t plan for their own future.

    Your article should be required reading for all new writers.

  49. Re: Thrift

    Buying a used Honda (with full service history, thanks – you don’t want one with 300,000 miles more on it than the odometer sez) is a good move. Those things can’t be relied upon to last forever, but it’s a good bet that they will. I believe Subaru, Daihatsu, and Toyota are all roughly in the same class.

    You don’t want most things made by GM or Alfa Romeo, unless you don’t mind replacing every part of it or just buying a new one once it hits 50,000 miles or so.

  50. John,

    Excellent advice. Most of it applies to writers, non-writers, entrepreneurs, and non-entrepreneurs.

    I do prefer my father’s advise over yours in #7. ‘Buy the best or the cheapest–never in between. If you buy the cheapest and need to replace it you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your money; if you buy the best, you won’t need to replace it for a long time. If you buy something in the middle, you’ll not be able to justify an upgrade without regret.’ Note that when buying the cheapest, you want to do as much research as when buying the best.

    Three examples:

    Many small business folks, including writers, feel their computer is an investment and spend a lot of money for components they don’t need and will never use. When asked for advice, I try to match their requirements with their budget and for a writer that’s not a gamer or music aficionado, I’d recommend a very inexpensive system from a reliable, name-brand manufacturer. Research brand, video quality required to avoid eye strain.

    Many people (my daughter) are notoriously bad about keeping up with maintenance on their cars. Of course the best solution would be to change the habit. Until the changed habit is proven, however, I would buy the cheap car that has good reliability and safety ratings over the ‘best you can afford.’

    Taking up exercise? Buy the inexpensive elliptical/bike/treadmill. Something that works; not total junk. If you actually USE it for 6 months or a year; upgrade when you wear it out or decide it’s going to stick. There are a LOT of $1200 – $5000 pieces of neglected fitness equipment in garages across the country. Research will show the difference between modestly priced equipment and high-end is features (unused by most) and longevity. Well if longevity becomes an issue you’ve earned an upgrade!

  51. f.d. jones:

    Agreed that in certain circumstances cheap makes sense. “Buy the best you can” works when you know you need to live with something for a while.

  52. There is a lot of good advice here, but a saying applies:

    An open mind is a good thing, like an open window, but you still put a screen on it to keep the bugs out.

    Bottom line: There are no universal truths when it comes to ANY job. I’m presently at home full time. I can’t remember the last time I drank alcohol – talk about a stereotype.

    My career was not just showing up and acting like a monkey for 8 hours, sticking it to the man. Anyone who has worked with special needs children – and particularly behavioural kids – would tar and feather you for suggesting that, and rightly so. I mean, seriously, the rote jobs usually don’t have benefits. I know. I did those for years too, working from the time I was 13, making $3.15 an hour back then, with no health care, dental plan, rrsp contributions or anything of the sort. Even many of the places I’ve worked in a professional capacity with children haven’t offered benefits – often because they’re contract positions without “official” permanent funding by the government. That’s a scam.

    When you’ve been bitten and had your skin broken, when you’ve had to defend yourself from a child attacking you with wooden blocks, when you’ve had to sit in the emergency room for six hours after the latest incident, when you’ve had to clean feces from the bathroom wall because the little girl with brain damage thought poo painting would be fun… and then, on top of it, when the bosses decide to cut their costs by leaving one staff alone with 10 funded special needs kids, who are supposed to get extra support in the form of one-on-one staffing…

    Well, hell yeah, I was sticking it to the man, wasn’t I? But it wasn’t until one girl’s dad got released from prison and turned up and she started masturbating that I knew I had to pack it in, for a while anyway.

    I didn’t go home at night and write. I went home at night and cried. And there fast becomes a point where as the second income in the house, considering tax benefits and write-offs, that the $14/hour you’re getting – without benefits, without job security – just isn’t worth the ulcer and the headaches.

    It isn’t that you aren’t making some valid points, but walk a mile before you tell me how easy I had it with my real job, or anyone else.

  53. Sandra Ruttan:

    You’ll note that I say “some of this advice may not apply to you” in the entry itself.

  54. I agree with most of the points you make, and I wish all wanna-be writers would read this post.

    I disagree with the following:

    Don’t quit the day job. Quitting the day job was the smartest thing I ever did. No more excuses. If I don’t write, I don’t eat and can’t pay the bills. And I like eating.

    Shacking up with someone with an income.
    In my opinion, if you can’t cut it on your own, you don’t deserve it. Even when I’m “shacking up” as you put it, our finances are separate. And that could be because I carried too many wanna-bes in my past before I learned that hard lesson.

    I’m also sick of wanna-bes saying they don’t want to treat writing as a second job until they’re in a position for it to be their only job because then the “joy” goes out of it. Where it is written that you can’t love your job AND be paid a decent wage?

    Anyway, many good points here. I’m not at your rate of income yet, but each month, the income grows, so I’m on my way and making the climb.

    All the best.

  55. Great advice John, and timely for me. My DH is planning on being self employed very soon, and the idea has scared me half to death. Mostly because it is a huge change for us, not having 2 incomes from “regular” jobs, and not knowing how much he will bring home is scary. Thanks for your words of wisdom on money, I’ve taken notes about some of the self employed stuff. Although being Canadian means different taxes etc, ultimately it all feels the same in the end eh?

    Did you know that the credit card companies have a special name for people who pay their bills in full each month? They call us free loaders. Yep. Because we don’t pay any fees, or any interest, because we are smart enough not to take advantage of an interest rate that is ridiculous, they call us free loaders.

  56. Devon Ellington:

    “In my opinion, if you can’t cut it on your own, you don’t deserve it.”

    You’re entitled to this opinion; I disagree with you rather emphatically. Pooling two incomes can offer both partners substantially more flexibility in their choices, which can lead to a better class of choices.

    If it’s psychologically important to you to do it without any help, fine. But saying that people don’t deserve a chance if they count on the support of a spouse (or spousal equivalent) is just plain silly. And in any event, as Bill Munny once said, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

  57. Amen, amen, AMEN.

    I have to agree with Devon. I quit the day job (or rather it quit me, but I digress). It was by far the best move ever.

    Shacking up with someone to allow you to indulge can be a mistake, too. Why? Because now you think “Oh, I don’t have to this month. He’ll/she’ll be there.” Bull. It somehow instills a false sense of security, and thus breeds a bit of a lax attitude.

    I have b$tched royally and endlessly to beginners to stop taking those jobs that pay crap. If you can’t value yourself as a professional, how the hell can you expect others to treat you as such? Three cents a word? Hell, I’ve seen wanna-be writers work for much less! Absurd.

    The point is this – it’s a business. You have to stop thinking like a writer and start thinking like a business owner. Plan that business model. Work that marketing plan. Treat this like a business. Businesses don’t give up their services for lousy-paying clients. They expect more and hold fast to their expectations. Anything less than that is a recipe for failure.

  58. Drawing on some other comments, trying to summarize: one of the things that pushed me to to quitting my day job was seeing how unstable so-called stable jobs can be. Get laid off, and suddenly all the real job benefits are gone. As Kristine said (thank you!), you get divorced, and boom, you’re on your own.

    If I’m going to be living with that kind of uncertainty anyway, I want to be doing what I love. I’m very very lucky in that I’ve had enough success to let me do this. I’m working real damn hard to keep that luck coming.

    And John is right: following your dream is much nicer and less stressful if you’re smart about it. And have a mother who’s a CPA who specializes in small business.

  59. Lori:

    “Shacking up with someone to allow you to indulge can be a mistake, too. Why? Because now you think ‘Oh, I don’t have to this month. He’ll/she’ll be there.’ Bull. It somehow instills a false sense of security, and thus breeds a bit of a lax attitude.”

    Indeed, this is why I note in the article that one should not go all leechy on one’s spouse; one should make it one’s mission to contribute as quickly as possible. Where you see a spouse as an excuse to slack off, I see one as a reminder to get work. This is a matter of perspective, I suppose. I do have a wife who wouldn’t tolerate me slacking off, which I think helps in this regard.

    Naturally, I have no problem with the breed of hardly individualist who wants to make it on their own — I hope they will. I’m glad I have a spouse who has my back, and I think in general most writers would be better off with the same.

  60. Best…Advice…EVER!

    On a more serious note, I think my parents at one point in my teenage years tried to tell me every last one of those pieces of advice (except the marriage one), and I’m only just now starting to get it.

  61. Very thorough and informative article, John. You give tough love, but worthwhile in every way.

    One of the recurrent things that I encounter in my dayjob are the number of first-time writers who call me after signing their contracts to ask “When will my first check come? I need to give notice at my job.” I give them all my version of your advice, and try to be as honest as possible about the harsh realities of getting paid in this business.

    Few writers realize that the second check that follows the on-signing payment probably won’t come their way for 18 months to 2 years (depending on how long it takes them to complete the final draft, the editor to edit it, them to make revisions, and the editor to accept it). Then there is the delay between acceptance and actual publication (again 18-to-24 months). Then the six months between each royalty accounting, where they won’t see a penny more until they’ve earned out their advance.

    For a person with an sf writer’s vision of grand futures, or epic fantasy worlds. so few see the big picture with regard to their personal financial future as a writer.

  62. Sandra Ruttan… who forced you to work with children with developmental difficulties?
    Why should anyone be asked to walk a mile in shoes that you CHOSE to wear?
    Martyrs make sacrifices for belief in principles, not for bragging rights on authors’ blogs.

  63. I don’t know that anybody else mentioned this, but somebody probably should: You know that bit about having to pay both halves of social security? You get something for the trouble of going through that–business deductions. Keep your receipts for every purchase even vaguely related to your writing (as organized as possible, please) and take them to your CPA at tax time. Even if you don’t make very much from your writing… actually, *especially* if you don’t make very much. If you’ve just sold a couple short stories or articles in the past year, then you may find that what you’ve spent on paper and postage alone could negate that additional tax burden.

  64. The one type of writing career where one’s location does make a difference is TV writing. I’ve seen TV writers leave LA, figuring that they can commute or telecommute since they’re already successful and the work will follow them. This does not work out very well, in my experience; and as for breaking into TV, I’ve never even heard of anyone doing it long distance.

    Personally, though, I’m just not happy living anywhere but a big expensive city. I’d rather buy my blue jeans at thrift stores to have more money for renting my little LA apartment than live somewhere else in a big cushy house and new GAP jeans.

  65. Rachel Brown:

    Indeed, that would be a compelling reason to stay in the area. There are reasons for writers to live in NYC/LA/SF. But a lot of writing doesn’t need to be done from there.

  66. Thank you! Thank you for validating pretty much everything I’ve been living for the past 4 years. My first novel was published in 2005 and since then, people have been confounded by my response to “When are you going to quit your job and write fulltime?”

    My response: “When I retire, so I can collect my pension.”

    I’m sorry, I LIKE having medical benefits and a steady paycheck. So sue me. :)

    Thanks again, John. I’ll be pointing people this way.


  67. Rachel: I’m with you. The convenience and pleasures of big city living are ungiveupable for me. Also because I have no car—as Nick Mamatas mentions above—my day-to-day living expenses are less than many folk out bush or in the suburbs.

    I also found that my freelance gigs dried up when I wasn’t in NYC. When I lived in the city I would run into people and wind up being offered work, but when I didn’t it was out of sight out of mind.

    I suspect Scalzi was fairly established when he left the DC area. It’s a lot easier to get established if you live close to the cities with the most work for writers. Though as Mamatas points out you can live fairly close to Manhattan (for example, New Jersey) and have cheaper rent but the same access to the city.

  68. Great article!

    As it turned out, I quit the ‘day job’ before I started freelancing (non-fiction back then), mainly because I became disabled, but my spouse had had enough of trying to be mother and father to three kids while having everyone else raise them. So I gave up my practice and stayed at home. It’s nice seeing another stay at home parent who’s proud to be there. It’s damn hard but the best job in the world.

    After two years of cranking out the fiction I’ve started submitting for pay. This is very encouraging. From what I can see you’ve done an excellent job of making this work. We’re taking notes over here!

  69. BTW, the marketers at Apple are evidently doing a crap job of getting people to buy the new cool thing because a) they command less than 10% of the market and b) people tend to use their Macs for 40% longer than PCs (5 years instead of 3).

  70. Jemmaleddin:

    Well, considering Apple had less than 3% of the market not too long ago, they’re on the right track. And what they lack in market share for PCs, they make up for in music players (and cell phones).

  71. Fantastic! I’m lucky enough to be married to a spouse with a full-time job and health benefits. He’s lucky enough to be married to me – the primary care taker to our four children, the woman who reminds him I want to grow old with him so I want him to take care of his health, the woman who cooks, and cleans, and then writes in the 6 hours that are left before the kids get home (and before they get up and after they go to bed).

    We’ve practiced what you’re preaching here, and are finally not just treading water, but beginning to get ahead.

    Thanks for a terrific harsh reality post!

  72. Damn it, I went and married another writer!

    Great advice here. My finances are kind of a mess, but they’re a much smaller mess than they were two years ago. In a few months, I expect to have my credit cards fully paid off at last — that’s where pretty much all my writing income has been going for the past couple of years (that, and to buying a new car when our old one began making alarming noises, and to financing my wife’s maternity leave… not to buying a big flatscreen TV, despite my strong desire). Honestly, even if my writing career tanks and I never sell another novel, I sold enough books to buy me out of debt, so I’m happy! Soon, I’ll be back to zero!

    I am of course hoping I can sell more books, and thus do things like have money in a savings account. And, yeah, I do scramble a little bit to pay my taxes every year, because I decided it was better to pay off my brutally high-interest credit cards and damn the torpedoes. I have a regular freelance non-fiction gig, fortunately, and most of that money just gets chucked into savings and then handed to the government every three months…

    We’re not in San Francisco, but we are in Oakland (which is cheaper, but not *enough* cheaper — at least, not in the neighborhoods where we’re willing to live). I was campaigning pretty heavily for us to move somewhere closer to the middle of the country, but then my wife’s boss made her an amazing offer (giving her some work-from-home days and a reduced schedule), the upshot of which is, we won’t have to pay for day care when her maternity leave ends. So we’re staying here for another few years, anyway, I think.

    Neither of us expects to quit our dayjobs soon, unless I sell movie rights to something (ie, win the writer lottery).

  73. Not to get completely off topic, but since you followed me down the path I’ll add one more Apple note: I don’t think they’re doing that much better than 3% (most people argue between 4 and 8%), and I think that shift has more to do with their products getting better than their marketing. I think the biggest up-tick in their Mac business is in notebooks which are above 17% market share. And the MacBook Air will certainly help that. And let’s face facts: they sell a lot of iPods and iPhones because they make the best MP3 players and cell phones for regular people (you’re not included).

    And back on point: if writers are going to follow your advice and, “buy the best you can afford — and then run it into the ground,” they probably ought to be getting Macs, which last longer (if only because they don’t get bogged down with spyware and anti-spyware and anti-anti-spyware like PCs) and will do a better job of fooling someone “When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop.”

  74. Some thoughts:

    1. You know there are people who read this and think “yeah, yeah, yeah, but John Scalzi made $164K and I can too!” totally missing the point that you should do these things ALWAYS, not ten years after you start (cause you probably won’t have a career ten years later if you don’t).
    Also, I think a clarification would be helpful for those who aren’t paying attention: Unlike a day job, you did not make that money from one job. You are a writer. That is a talent and a skill, not a job. You made the $164K from several jobs, which reinforces the point that deciding, against odds, to only write novels or only write web content or only write movie reviews will leave you far behind economically. You can do that. Don’t be surprised ten years from now if you are not making $164k.

    2. Credit cards: I agree 100%. I evangelize about it. I was fortunate to have an epiphany about credit cards in my early twenties. Every month I paid the minimum on a card I only used at restaurants. One month, when I didn’t use the card at all, I noticed my balance was over $700 and the minimum payment was $25. It hit me that I was still paying for meals I ate months before and didn’t even remember. (Food, yes, but that’s rationalizing). I paid off the debt and have lived a balance-free credit card life almost ever since. (by the same token, when I realized that my 2 Starbucks Grandes per work day were costing me almost $100 a month, I sucked it up and started drinking the office swill. I like my coffee. I like electricity more).

    3. A personal aside: while I did not have the economic hardship I sense your family had growing up, my parents struggled. If there is one thing I learned from that, it’s the value of a dollar.

  75. Great advice John.

    Personally I trick myself into behaving cash wise. Everything, from bill paying to saving is automated, and I use my credit card for my fun cash with the limit set to my monthly budget so I can clear it each month.

    Sounds kind of anal but it works for me.

  76. This is so excellent it is hard to add to it but I can think of one thing from my own experience.

    I love me those personal computers. I bought one of the original Apple II’s with a serial number of under 2000. It cost $2K in 1978 which today would be between $8K and $10K. Hey, I was single, I splurged.

    But – ever since then I have followed one rule – I have always stayed a year or two behind the technology curve in PCs. If the latest game requires the latest computer then I wait a couple years before I play that game. The game is just as good then but cheaper and the PC is a LOT cheaper.

    Over 30 years and four kids I’ve bought maybe 10 or 12 computers. There is NO way I could have done that while buying the leading edge technology. No way.

  77. Nice write up. It applies to most of us who aren’t writers too. Though as a San Fran area native and resident, I wish it wasn’t so expensive here. Oh well, if it was cheaper, all of you from Ohio would move.

  78. Speaking as the poor sod who said he’d work for three pence per word:

    There are a few things I’d throw in:

    1) The biggest is something that you touched on in passing. You and I have discussed before: A writer must be willing to take paying work–corporate work–that is outside their “choosen field”. I wrote tech. papers for the government, employee manuals, splash texts for game margins, all kind of ugly mind-numbing writing for ten years. (And, yeah, the rate on that was about 3p/w but it’s like the trained monkey side of writing and I could slash out 10k words in a day, four days a week.) For me, quitting my “day job” actually was the concious decision to stop wasting that word count and focus on what I wanted to do and health concerns played a major role. (So now I make about 15c/w but only generate about 2000 usable words a day. Did I gain on the deal? Financially, maybe not but I’m healthier.) As long as I’ve turned this paragraph into a digression about me, let me point out that I now live deep in the Ozark mountians, where the cost of living is very low, with dial-up internet, no TV, and a diet supplimented by my own garden and the meat of whatever varmit I’m able to shoot. Believe the boy when he speaks, people, John is serious about the need for “lifestyle adjustments.” I have a horrible save vs shiny so now I live where it’s an hour drive to SEE shinies. Okay, sorry about all that, back on target.

    2) Learn plumbing. I’m not kidding. Basic electricity too if you can. All those little jobs that you’re used to hiring out have to be your responsibility. One hour for a plumber is valued, conservatively, at one week for a writer. So before you give up that kind of time/money, learn some basic skills, use some common sense, and be prepared to get your hands dirty. This is something that does double duty. Not only does it reduce costs, it also gives valuable experience that translates into better, more realistic writing. And before you say “I don’t have time. I need to work on my art.” let me point out that you will not be able to spend every moment of every day at your “art”. You’ll have off days, you’ll have days when you need to think about how to rewrite sections, you’ll have days where you’re too stressed to concentrate on writing because your publisher STILL hasn’t called back. These times will get fewer as you cultivate better work habits but they will happen. And on those days, you fix pipes and dig ditches and still contribute to the household.

    3) Money is not real. John pointed out that monies you have not recieved are not real, that the only money you have is the money you have in your hand. I’d take that even further–even the money in your bank account is not real. It can be gone in a heartbeat. Even if you have a million bucks in the bank, if you are a writer, you are still flat broke. Learn to think that way. Absolutely build a buffer (and consider high-deductible catastrophic health insurance–it’s cheap) but also build your buffer out of things that are real. Tangible items you own that have intrensic value. Land, livestock, and knowledge are good examples. (Did I mention to learn plumbing? The basic design of the toilet hasn’t changed in centuries; that’s job security.) Family and friends are worth even more. Money is only worth what someone else is willing to exchange for it; it has no intrensic value. TIME is the primary commodity we exchange for money. In the process of learning to place the proper value on your word count, you must learn how you place value period. I’m one of the most mercenary capitalists you’re likely to meet but I still give away considerable amounts of time and energy for causes like the moral of the military and boy’s literacy. Because not all value is monetary.

    Let me close by pointing something out that might otherwise go unnoticed. John lobbied strongly that you understand the value of your writing and get paid accordingly. Yet he (and now to a lesser extent I) poured a massive word count into his post. It can be argued that the blog is part of his marketting and therefore contributes to net gain but even that cynical view would not justify the high word count. Does that make the post a contradiction in terms? Quite the opposite, it emphisises putting the proper value on things. Not having more authors go hungry, not losing promising writers to a preventable early death due to lack of health insurance, maintaining the general “well-being of the tribe” as Holly Lisle would put it–this is something of value worth the word count. If for no other reason than that we each stand on the shoulders of the giants before us and, having learned from them, we are obligated to repay that debt to another generation.

    As always, my apologies for appropriating so much of John’s bandwidth.


  79. Correlary to #10: Writing is a business. Act like a professional.

    In my vast experience as a freelancer (hey, it’s one whole year this month!), the thing that’s always blown my mind is how few of my colleagues treat this business as, you know, a business. There are some very simple rules that it seems many people don’t want to follow. Among them: Turn your assignments in on time. Correspond with your clients in a businesslike fashion. Don’t turn down work without a good reason. Be available.

    Some really common-sense stuff that is apparently not terribly common.

  80. All this is sound advice no matter what how you make your money.
    But there is also the learning curve.
    I have been in my first consulting role since November and I am just now learning the in’s and out’s of being 1099. I am still trying to figure out what I can write off and ….and….AARRGH!!!

  81. OK, so you already have 90 comments. What do you need mine for? You don’t. But I’ll comment anyway. I became a freelance writer less than a year ago. But as far as your advice, I am 100% with you. I have no credit card debt. Our car is paid off and our home will be paid off early. Thanks for the confirmations…they’re hard to come by. The way people live can be so deceptive. Do I really want what my neighbor has? He probably doesn’t own any of it. He’s in debt up to his eyeballs. I’m not. Great post! ~Karen

  82. To concur with # 91–present yourself as a professional, too.

    I recently attended a local writer’s meeting for the third time. I was dressed in slacks and a sweater. One long-time member came up to me during a get-to-know you exercise and told me how OVERDRESSED I was.

    Well, yeah, compared to the ill-fitting jeans and sweat shirts of some of the other attendees. I also noticed that the few people there who have a few titles under their belts looked well-groomed and were dressed about the way I was.

    I think presenting yourself as a professional is important, too.

  83. M. Keaton @ #90: Learn plumbing. I’m not kidding. Basic electricity too if you can. All those little jobs that you’re used to hiring out have to be your responsibility. One hour for a plumber is valued, conservatively, at one week for a writer. So before you give up that kind of time/money, learn some basic skills, use some common sense, and be prepared to get your hands dirty.

    OMG, ECHO LOUDLY. It’s not rocket science. If it takes you four hours to do what it takes a pro an hour to do, you’re still WAY ahead of the cost curve. Being self-employed taught me plumbing, basic electrical work, auto mechanics, carpentry, roofing, masonry, and a host of other things, because when money was tight and my time was only pulling in a few dollars an hour, it was do it myself or do without. And some things you cannot do without.

    Scrounging becomes second nature. I got a “new” car last year. It only had 100K on it, it was near-perfect condition (fleet surplus from a college), and I paid under half of Blue Book at auction. That enabled me to sell my other two vehicles, which were aging into undependable. Between them they had 600K on them. Lucky to find it? Hellz no, I kept my eyes open for months and lost out on several other vehicles because they were just over what I had saved to buy a “new” car, or just not in good enough shape for me to shell out the cash.

    I haven’t bought a new computer in a decade or more–but I’ve built over a dozen. Twice the quality for the price, no manufacturer’s bloatware or cheap parts.

  84. First, thanks John for another wonderful article. Just like your older “Advice for Writers” post from way back when, this one can be brought into Word and Find/Replaced “artist” for “writer” and it applies just as well.

    I live in Los Angeles and really like it, and I used to live in northern New Jersey; a few tips for living inexpensively around LA and NYC:

    1. Living Arrangements:

    If you don’t have the great Significant Other with the steady income, one word: ROOMMATES. Yes, they can suck. Yes, you need to find the right ones. But you’ll save a crapton of cash on rent. (Best case is actually that you can stay at your family home – if you’re obviously making a herculean effort to sock cash in the bank and advance your career, you’d be surprised how little your family will mind.)

    2. Transportation:

    Near NYC (NJ, CT, Boros): There’s this amazing thing called mass transit permeating the Tri-State Area. When I lived in Parsippany, NJ and was under my record deal with BMG, I could get from my apartment into Manhattan and back for $10 (less than gas and tolls at the time) on the Rt. 46 express bus – and then walk to the BMG office building at Times Square.

    In Los Angeles: mass transit isn’t so great, but the LA Metro system is, surprisingly, a hell of a lot better than most people think. You can get a transit pass for less than $60 a month that will get you to most places in the area from Long Beach up to Oxnard and east way out past Pomona. The downside can be looong trips, so you need to plan ahead, but $60 a month for transportation is ridiculously cheap.

    If you are careful about where you choose to live (and hopefully do your day job), you can set things up so that you almost never need a car – even in Los Angeles. Just ask Harlan Ellison, he’ll tell you all about it. At length. With a great deal of commentary, emotion and gesticulation.

    The few times you do need one, you can Rent-A-Wreck, ask a friend for help or a borrow.

    On the other hand, if you absolutely need to get places fast in Southern California, there is only one single solution: ride a motorcycle. Spend the $200 for the AMA/MSF Ridercourse, get the M1 endorsement on your driver’s license, and get yourself a decent bike. For beginners, there are a number of brand new motorcycles that cost between $3,000 and $5,000. Wonderfully, these same bikes can usually be had used – and with pretty low mileage too, as people with “starter bikes” generally trade up within 3 years – for half that or less.

    Most of the smaller bikes (400 – 600cc) get between 60 and 80 miles per gallon; your fuel cost will likely be less than $40 a month. Also, they’re pretty cheap to insure. You’ll pay something like $500 a year for full coverage on a non-“sportbike.” Add another $500 if you want the medical coverage included. But remember, you only paid $2000 or less for the bike, or maybe you bought it new and your payment is $99 a month or less. Trust me, you will spend a lot less on a bike.

    Other major benefits: In California, it’s legal to “lane-split,” or ride in between the lanes of slow or stopped cars. This turns the freeway into a “zoom-zoom” experience, even in the worst rush-hour traffic. My commute is only 10 miles, from Hollywood to the West Side; in the car it takes an hour, sometimes more. On my bike, 20 minutes. This is NOT for the faint of heart, of course… but if you can master the skill and focus it takes to ride a bike safely, you can get a lot of hours of your life back.

    It’s also legal to use the diamond carpool lanes on the freeways if you have a bike, and you don’t need the fancy sticker. So you can live a bit farther out and still keep a commute much shorter.

    With a bike, you will never have trouble finding a parking space. Never, ever. There’s always a “paint triangle” nearby, and many of the paid garages don’t charge for motorcycles. Even if you have to pay, you’ll be able to park right by the door – and usually right by where the security guard is, for extra security. I love parking right in front of any bar or club I go to and having the door security guys say “hey, nice bike, we’ll keep an eye on it for ya.”

    For some reason, certain types of bikes are somewhat invisible to law enforcement. If you’re not riding a crotch-rocket or a big loud hog, and you’re wearing proper riding gear, the cops (in LA anyway) seem to assume that you know what you’re doing, and they leave you alone. Also, the small size of bikes makes them difficult to get on radar when there are also cars near them, as the radar gun only gives the speed of the strongest signal return; if you’re doing 80 passing an SUV that’s doing 65, the gun will almost always get the SUV – you are like a B-2 bomber. :)

    Lastly, bikes are much more environmentally sound than cars.

    In my case, I have a 900cc Honda bike. I bought it brand new in 2002 for $8,000 even. My payments were $176 a month for 48 months, my insurance was and still is about $500 a year (I have over 20 years of riding experience, YMMV), and even with gas at $3.20 for regular, my fuel bill is about $30 a month. (As an added bonus to me, the thing performs like a jet fighter. 0-60 in 2.9 seconds. Yes you read that right.) It currently has 36,000 miles on it, and I expect to get at least 60,000 more out of it over the next 10 years.

    Alternatively to all the above, you can learn the value and become the master of the $500 Car. There are a lot of $500 Cars out there (maybe with inflation that’s an $800 Car now), and although they are usually on their last legs, if you get a Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Mazda (it used to be Chevys, sigh) you’re likely to get quite a bit of use out of it before it blows up. Sometimes you get lucky; I had a ’77 Chevy Malibu that I bought for $500 and drove for five years before it blew up in a way that wasn’t worth fixing.

    See, that’s the key with a $500 Car. If something breaks on it that will cost more than $500 to fix, it’s time to buy another $500 Car. You can stretch that car out a long way if you learn to do the regular maintenance and various repair work on your own.

    My car here in LA was a 1982 Honda Accord Hatchback. I bought it for $500 with 160,000 miles on it. I put about 30K on it over 6 years before someone hit it while it was parked and totaled it. It got 29 MPG and I did all the work myself. It cost $600 a year to insure. What a great car that was… but now I just have the bike, and access to my girlfriend’s 1992 Honda Civic sedan (thanks hunny), which is also an awesome and inexpensive car on which I can do much of the maintenance.

    3. Food:

    PB&J. Ramen. Mac n Cheese. Hamburger Helper. Canned or frozen vegetables. Beans, rice, tortillas. These things will keep you alive, very very cheaply.

    Happily, for just a little more money, you can eat a lot healthier than that! You just have to learn to cook. It’s not hard; if I can do it believe me so can you.

    Make your own salads, don’t buy the bag ones. Get a big tupperware to put it in, so you have salad for a week (Good tupperware is very important to a food budget). Pasta is cheap, and you can learn to make your own sauce in bulk – it keeps pretty well. Use frozen vegetables still, but get some fresh ones here and there. Potatoes are nice and cook in 10 minutes in the microwave.

    I wound up learning to cook in a wok that I got from IKEA, of all places. You can make a lot of food very fast and put most of it in the tupperware; you cook on Sunday night and you’ve got leftovers for the rest of the week. When I was struggling, my food budget was $125 a month, and I stuck to it.

    OK I’ve gone on way too long. The point is that if you use a little thought (and perhaps a bit of teeth-gritting) you can live in NYC or LA or SF on a very small amount of money. Not saying you’ll live well, but you’re chasing your dream, right? A little bit of Spartan-ness will do you good.

    I used all the above to help dig out of around $40,000 in credit card debt that I ran up trying (and failing, for many of the reasons John alludes to above) to be a freelance artist. I found a decent day job and sent more than half my income away for 5 years until I was debt-free.

    I don’t recommend you do it that way… wish I’d had this to read before I tried that! :)

  85. I have a day job as a technical writer with a growing freelance load and my wife is (as she likes to call it) a full-time kept woman. We sat down at the beginning of our marriage and calculated out how much we’d have to pay for things like maid, housecleaning, daycare, etc. if she was to go back to work. It’s *far* cheaper for her to stay home and manage finances, plus *I* know how much she’s contributing back to the shared economy.

    And boy, has it been a life-saver the last few years. Right after 9/11, I was unemployed for 16 months and lived off of every penny I could bring in. Needless to say, the IRS was unimpressed and we’ve had to work hard to clean up our credit and get that all paid off. With hard work, we’ve been able to do it — the IRS bill is the last major bill we have to pay off and we’re on track to do that this year.

    Here’s the funny thing (and the real point of my comment) — all of that communicating about money and finances has helped strengthen our marriage. I know she’s not a leech or free loader — I can tell you exactly how much money she’s saved us over the past few years by ensuring that bills get paid on time, our checking account doesn’t go under, and so forth. Our quality of life is better than ever — as is our marriage, because *we have a built-in reason to talk to each other every day*. We get the finances out of the way and then have time to talk about more fun stuff — but more importantly, talking about money isn’t the source of stress that it used to be because we don’t wait to talk until things have really gotten bad.

    Note to all of the people who think John’s off-base; his advice isn’t just good for economic health — it advocates an attitude of healthy respect and partnership. This attitude is essential to actually making a relationship work in the long term.

  86. Most salaried writers in the US are lucky if they get over $50,000 a year….most freelancers in the US could make more money working as assistant managers at Wal Mart

    *raises hand* And uh, which Wal Mart would that be? My father might like to transfer to that one.

  87. This was a great reality check. Not only was it enlightening, I was glad to see that a) much of it is stuff I was already doing or planning to do and b) I still want to write, even after this.

  88. Er, John? Any idea why a link to this article was posted as a reply in my blog to an entirely-unrelated post?

  89. Cheap crap sucks; it’s badly made, it breaks, and then you have to go buy a replacement, so effectively the cost of whatever cheap piece of crap you bought is twice what your originally paid for it (or more, since having learned your lesson, you didn’t buy cheap crap the second time).

    Ah yes, the Samuel Vimes Theory Of Economics:
    A rich town watchman may buy a thoroughly excellent pair of handmade, custom-fitted leather boots. These boots will cost 60 silver, but fit like a glove and last well into the next life.

    A poor town watchman can buy a pair of crappy boots for 10 silver. They will give him blisters, the soul will wear through, and they will fall completely apart in 2 years. Over a 20 year career, the poor townwatchmen will spend 100 silver on crap boots that never fit well anyway.

    Excellent list, Mr. Scalzi. If I wasn’t thankful that my girlfriend is getting a cushy government job (full Bennies), I sure am now.

    /snarly, territorial noises

  90. A lot of that information is good not just for writers, but professionals in general. I’m an IT person, specializing in things like SANs, fibre networks, Linux clustering, etc.

    I always thought the “good jobs” were in places like San Francisco & DC, so that’s where I went. I worked private industry out in Cali at a company doing large scale clustering, and as a Navy contractor at Dahlgren, Va’s Integrated Weapons System Lab (SE of DC). One day I was approached by a small company located in Cincinnati, Oh., of all places … and what they had to say was extremely interesting.

    So, two years later, I’m still working in Cincinnati, Oh., making literally twice as much money as I was in Va, and enjoying a cost of living less than half of the DC area. But best of all, I realized that I found my “dream job”. Not even Google was able to entice me away a few months ago.

    Moral of the story … look for gems in odd places. You’ll occasionally come up with a diamond.

  91. Great, outstanding bit of an article.

    I’ve been freelancing in 3D animation for the past two years. And while doing that, I published a novel and I’m working a full-time job. I guess that’s the difference between being young with no dependents and old with dependents; young guys can save more money.

    So I’m young; drive a 1984 Benz…have a credit card with no debt on it…and maybe one day I’ll get somewhere.

    Great article by the way if I didn’t say that before…and hiya Mark, thanks for pointing this out.

  92. Great article. I’ve been talking about the cost-of-living issue with the Significant Other, since we’re in the Silicon Valley and know that, while we’re making more here than we would elsewhere, we will have to buy a small run-down condo for twice the price of my grandparent’s large Illinois house.

    We could probably do without the museums and cultural events (going to Cirque on Friday! Woot) But what we keep going back to is the food. In a 5-mile radius we have 1 Afghani place, 2 Italian, 3 Thai, at least 2 Chinese, Japanese sushi, Japanese without sushi, 2 other Japanese places we haven’t even tried, Persian, at least five Indian places, our favorite hole-in-the wall Mexican restaurant, and tons of other non-ethnic or fusion restaurants. And that’s only if we go out! If we decide to make something at home we have access to Indian and European grocery stores nearby, plus tons of specialty produce stores and pasta shops and so on. Since eating is a favorite shared passion, the variety means a lot to us. My grandmother may live in a cheap house, but she’s stuck with Bob Evans meatloaf once a week.

    (Quick spousal support story about Dean Koontz. He was writing on evenings and weekends while teaching during the day. His wife offered to support him for five years to see if he could make it as a full-time author. At the end of the five years he was doing well enough that she was able to quit her job and become his business manager. Alton Brown also credits his wife with supporting him through a radical mid-life career shift. Yay career couples!)

  93. Keith DeCandido linked to this post in his LiveJournal, and I had to some read it. I’m lucky enough to be a salaried writer (I write distribution articles for an SEO marketing company), with a spouse who has a “regular” job. I also have 17 years of mortgage industry experience. Let me tell you, that after getting up close and personal with Other People’s credit, you become hyper-sensitive about your own. (I recommend the freezing your credit cards in a jug of water method for people who REALLY can’t stop shopping.)

    Anyway, thank you for posting this.

  94. Terrific advice John, thanks so much.

    For anyone who is overwhelmed with the very idea of paying down credit card debt and isn’t sure where to start, here’s some advice I got from a financial adviser years ago.

    Start with the card that has the lowest balance. Pay it off, using whatever amount you’ve worked out in your budget.

    Take the amount you were spending on lowest balance card and add it to the monthly amount you were paying for second lowest balance card. Repeat until all loans are paid off.

    This way you don’t spend more than you originally budgeted and it’s somewhat painless but still accomplishes your goal.

    However if you’ve got one card with a much higher interest rate you might want to take care of that card first.

    Also from what I’ve gathered working for National Mortgage News and it’s sister websites for eight years, including moderating a discussion board for mortgage brokers, closing your credit card accounts will have a negative affect on your FICO score. The best thing is to pay them off over time, demonstrating your ability to pay, then keep the balance below 35% of the balance, without actually closing them.

    Of course if you just can’t keep from using them I suppose you would want to go ahead and close the accounts but be aware it will negatively affect your credit score, which is particularly bad if you’re about to take out a mortgage.

  95. Phil Plait:

    Hey! Love your work. I pimp it in my own astronomy book.

    I bet it has been an interesting transition, but I’m glad to see you’re making it work.

  96. Wait wait wait!

    Your own astronomy book? Why have I not heard of this?

    OK, that’s yet another book on my wish list. I should write it on a Moebius strip; it keeps getting longer faster than I can scratch books off. Android’s Dream and Old Man’s War are on it, too. :)

  97. If you’re savvy enough to have enough left over to fund the IRA and then some, look into a Solo 401k. In fact, since you put pre-tax income into it, it might be even better than the IRA. With some firms, you can even borrow against it if you have to (not a good idea, but reassuring when you don’t know what next year’s income will be).

  98. Good article, and funny.

    The point that struck home for me was your exhortation to value one’s own work sufficiently to seek and demand fair payment. I was just shredding an old file tonight and found an old “contract”–really, a sucker permission that I had signed years ago. It allowed a person I shall not name to use an article I had written in a book that then was sold under that person’s name. And to my knowledge, all of the articles in the book were “acquired” by that person merely by asking for written permission from the various authors. With no hint of payment involved. And that person made good money on that book.

    Why the heck didn’t I at least ask for payment? Because I was so thrilled to be asked that it never occurred to me that serious money could be involved. Because I didn’t value my writing enough to risk the rest of my business relationship with that person to get fair treatment on that issue. Because I had other things going on in my life that seemed more important than fighting over an article. Because I was willing to give away my writing to see it in print. And because that person was very shrewd in approaching writers who had just that kind of hesitancy, lack of business sense, unwillingness to negotiate, low self-esteem, or whatever. I’m sure each of the article authors had a different reason for just signing. In effect, giving this person a book.

    So, yes, for god’s sake, value yourself as a writer. I don’t sit around gnashing my teeth over this experience. But I got taken for a ride once, and once is enough.

  99. One small addition; make the credit card you use like cash be a rewards card. You should be able to find one with at least a 1% rebate in some form, either cash or merchandise points, that doesn’t charge a fee. Yes, even Amex; I have one via Costco that does 3% on restaurant charges, 2% on travel charges, and 1% on everything else with a yearly rebate check due this month as it happens.

    Also, a while back in his blog, Scott (Dilbert) Adams wrote about his theory of how to be successful you could either be in the top 1% in a field…or in the top half or higher in multiple fields that, when combined, make you extremely good and/or hard to find in the combination.

    For example, what I and probably a number of others would consider a good day job would be as a tech writer for Google (and there are several writers doing such). Well, as it happens, I was the first general Engineering tw hired there. I don’t claim to be anywhere near the top 10% in either writing or programming skills…but, based on reviewing a lot of resumes and doing interviews later, it’s rare to find someone who’s good at both and wants to write rather than program. And I was hired because I could do both.

    So I’d suggest that in addition to just being a writer, try to find a field of knowledge that you can become a domain expert, or at least advanced layperson in, and do so. Preferably, of course, an area that needs and will pay good wages for someone who actually knows and understands what they’re writing about. Don’t just depend on being able to put words together well; know something about an area that’ll give you a leg up on the competition.

  100. Yes, yes, yes! This is awesome advice for anyone going into writing. I’ve been freelancing full-time for 8 years and all of this is true.
    Especially the word rates. I have complained loudly that three cents, (even 5 cents) a word isn’t a pro rate. I’ve made $2 a word for articles for gawd’s sakes.

    Much applause!

  101. Additional advice to Georgiana’s at #110: As you are paying off your credit cards, call the credit card companies and ask them to lower your interest rate. You’ll be surprised how often they’ll comply if you’re a decent risk and have a sizable balance. This doesn’t work as well when you’ve paid them down a long way.

    I write on the side so my wife can write full time. I work not only to bring regular income into the household, but – almost more importantly – so we have medical insurance. Just to skew the numbers a bit t’other way. We’re closely tracking what the Democratic Presidential contenders are saying about universal health care.

  102. Before I could afford to pay stuff off, my strategy for credit cards was to constantly transfer balances between them every month – basically using them to pay off each other. (They routinely send out offers for free balance transfers – those can be very useful.) Then, once I did have the funds, I transferred all balances to the one with the lowest rate. That left me with only one big bill to slowly pay down, instead of having to track several.

    About diversity of restaurants. Those can be had in places other than SanFran, LA, and NYC too. I’m living in Savannah GA and within my immediate area (circa 5-10 blocks in any direction) I have Chinese, Japanese (with and without sushi), Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Jamaican, Mexican, Italian, and a small ‘Murican-looking diner that sells awesome gyros. There are Hispanic, East Asian, and Indian groceries nearby as well. And I don’t live anywhere near downtown, where all the real fun diversity is (they have Moroccan, Greek, and Irish there). I also drove past what looked like a future Afghan place a few weeks back, opening in the other other side of town. Also, east coast seafood pwns west coast seafood any day.

    I can’t imagine that Savannah is uniquely stellar in its diversity of restaurants outside of the Bigname Three Cities. My point is that dining needn’t be a deciding factor on where to live.

  103. Boy, did this come at just the right time.

    Most of this I’d already done and I’m nowhere near ready to be a writer full-time, but there’s a lot here to chew on.

  104. Scalzi: Don’t bother with the first edition; it’s now out of date.

    Pluto, eh? Silly dwarf planet.

  105. You can find great diversity in dining in ANY medium-sized or larger city nowadays. As in a quarter-million population or up. If you can afford to eat in them frequently, you’re not all that financially insecure (or you’re planning on dying BEFORE you retire).

  106. Hell, where I live it’s 11 miles to the nearest McDonald’s, but it’s only 12 miles to the nearest sushi restaurant.

  107. I’m a visual artist and this is dead-on for us as well. In fact, I’ll be referencing it next week when I’m part of a panel discussion at the University of Michigan’s School of Art on making an art career work so thanks!

  108. Question – what percentage of your income over the years has been from non-fiction? Is that percentage declining? It’s a lot easier to make money in non-fiction, but a lot of folks who write don’t (or won’t) look at non-fiction.

  109. Just a note on the not needing a car in the city thing. You don’t necessarily need a car (or more accurately need to use a car) outside the city either. It depends on your version of not city. I live in a midsize town where a move-in condition 2,500 square foot home can be had sub 150,000 which means sub 1,000 mortgage.

    I do own a car but quite often go weeks without getting into it because nothing in town is more than three miles away from me. I can walk or bike almost everywhere. Further, I’m less than an hour from a big metro area (St. Paul/Minneapolis) with all of its amenities. If I really want to see world class theater (The Guthrie) or go to one of thousands of restaurants, I can. Mostly I don’t because 95 percent of what I need is within walking distance of home, but the city is right there whenever I need it.

    I actually used to drive a hell of a lot more when I lived in the metro than I do now.

  110. Coming late to the party (but having linked this from my own LJ, as MissMeliss said above), I just wanted to echo the points made by Justine and Nick. A good chunk of my income as a full-time freelancer (which I’ve been doing for ten years now) comes from editorial work that I simply would not get if I didn’t live in the NYC area.

    And the car thing is huge, especially in these days of $3/gallon gas. Your check into Manhattan apartment prices created a very misleading impression, since you ignored Westchester County, Nassau County, Suffolk County, southwestern Connecticut, northeastern New Jersey, and also, in terms of surface area 90% OF NEW YORK CITY. *laughs* There are four other boroughs, and they’re all cheaper than Manahttan.

    I live in the Bronx. If I want to go to the supermarket, the drug store, the dojo where I study karate, the bank, the newsstand, a coffee shop, or take the cat to the vet, I walk. Other things are walkable but may require a $2 bus ride back (Target, Staples, etc.). And others are only accessible via mass transit to and from, so it’s $4. And I don’t have to pay for gas or insure my car or maintain my car, which is a MASSIVE financial drain.

    Plus, it’s New York City. Yes, I could live in a cheap big house in Ohio, but then I’d have to live in Ohio. Living in New York City is part of who I am. I’d shrivel up and die living anywhere else. (Note that I’m not knocking folks who hate NYC or who like living in Ohio. I’m just talking about my own soul here, not anyone else’s.) On top of that, my entire family’s here.

    Also, as someone above said (I can’t find the post now), it is literally impossible to work as a screenwriter if you don’t live in Los Angeles.

    Finally, it’s all well and good to talk about shacking up with someone responsible, but the real world doesn’t actually work like that. You can’t control who you fall in love with, and the advice you give on the subject is a frighteningly short step to “stay with this person you married in your 20s because they provide financial security, never mind that staying together is destroying both of you mentally and psychologically.”

    The rest of it’s good stuff, though. *laughs*


  111. See what happens when he finishes a book! We appreciate that you write stuff for us at 0 cents a word, dude.

  112. KRAD:

    So, what you’re saying is you have compelling reasons to stay in NYC. You’ll note I carved out just such an exception in the advice. I’m not hostile to people staying in NYC/LA/SF. It does seem a lot writers, however, are under the impression a writing life is not actually possible in other places. I want to assure them this is not the case.

    As for “you can’t control who you fall in love with,” I don’t feel the need to object to that statement, although I would say that when one looks for a relationship, there’s more than that to it. I love my wife, madly, deeply and truly, but it’s not the only reason I married her. Conversely, there are people I love, and could be romantically inclined toward, but would be hesitant to be in a relationship with, because there’s some fundamental disconnect on another level that, while not as exciting as love, is still nevertheless critical in a long-standing relationship.

    That said, and I will expand on this, I think, in another post, I don’t recommend marrying someone solely for their mad business skills, or rejecting them for the lack of the same. But, should you find yourself in the happy position of loving someone who also has these skills (and the desire to use them for your benefit), remember the chocolates, and the backrubs, and etc.

  113. Quoth the Scalzi: “I’m not hostile to people staying in NYC/LA/SF. It does seem a lot writers, however, are under the impression a writing life is not actually possible in other places. I want to assure them this is not the case.”

    Very true — again, with the exception of LA and screenwriting. Despite advances in technology, you really do need to be physically present in the greater Los Angeles metro area if you want to actually write for TV or movies with any seriousness.

    And, again, your apartments.com search was skewed and biased. NYC =/= Manhattan below 125th Street, which I suspect is where all those thirteen apartments were. (I know for a fact you can get a place bigger than a studio for $1800 or under in Inwood and/or Washington Heights, for example.)

    (Me? Hypersensitive on the subject of the outer boroughs being ignored after living in the Bronx most of my life? I have no idea what you’re talking about…. *cough* )

    Anyhow, this has prompted good discussions, so thanks.

    And because it bears repeating, and might get lost in the hugger mugger: WRITING IS A BUSINESS! WRITING IS A JOB! TREAT IT LIKE THAT!



  114. KRAD:

    “And, again, your apartments.com search was skewed and biased. NYC =/= Manhattan below 125th Street, which I suspect is where all those thirteen apartments were.”

    Well, I included the entire island. It’s entirely possible apartments.com doesn’t have magnificent coverage in those areas, but their omissions don’t imply my search was biased, to the extent that I checked off all the available neighborhood on the island, which on the options, definitely did go above Morningside heights.

    That said, I did specifically limit the search to Manhattan. I do think most people think of NYC as Manhattan + a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn; I would entirely agree with you that this is a skewed way of looking at the city. It also remind me that in all the times I’ve visited NYC, I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who lived on Staten Island. Is that just me?

  115. Many good points in there. I do raise an eyebrow at the “Get the hell out of NY/LA/San Francisco” bit, though.

    For one thing, my husband is a techie. When he’s working, he’s in the $120K per annum range. He is not going to make that if we live in West Armpit, Flyover State, USA. Silicon Valley is half an hour down the road, and Silicon Valley is where they keep his job market.

    And at the writing end of that spectrum, I disagree even more strongly. I’ve lived in London, New York and out in the country. The only place I’ve been able to write is in San Francisco. You’ve left the creative seed out of your advice.

    We got lucky; we’ve had our house here in since 1994. While I wouldn’t advise a writer to move to any of the Big Three you mentioned, the bottom line is that, if you’re writing fiction, you need to be able to process stuff that isn’t purely left brain.

    Short form: if I can’t breathe there, I can’t write there. If I can’t write there, why would I want to live there?

  116. Folks:

    I know you’re very focused on the “get the hell out of NYC/LA/SF” clause of the sentence, but I do bid you to consider that the first clause of the sentence “Unless you have a truly compelling reason to be there” may be equally relevant.

  117. 127 I hope you’re driving that car at least ten miles once a week. If you don’t, you’re going to end up paying a lot more due to bad oil, radiator problems, fouled water pump, etc. And then there’s the battery. Cars have a lot of lubricants in them that need to be distributed every so often, and seals that need to be exercised every so often. (Note: That’s why your gas-powered lawnmower is so much harder to start first thing in the spring than it was last fall.)

    132 I can’t speak for Staten Island, but every time I visit NYC I end up meeting people who “live” on Riker’s Island. It might be just me, though.

  118. Deborah: I have to disagree about the tech job situation … I worked in the SF area (Fremont, to be precise), and I too am a techie. There are jobs outside of Silicon Valley and Washington DC, it’s just a matter of looking for them. No, they’re not going to be in the same concentration as the Valley, but the jobs are out there.

    I’m currently making more than $150k a year (not to mention truly fantasic benifits that far exceed anything I was offered in SF or DC, including international travel), in what is basically rural Ohio. The difference in the cost of living is substantial, to say the least. I purchased a 5000sqft house this year for about $300k … I shudder to think of what a 5k sqft house goes for in the proximity of Silicon Valley.

  119. 136, I drive it about 130 miles once every two-three weeks and my mechanic calls it one of the best maintained cars he works on, so I must be doing something right.

  120. James, two words: ” rural Ohio”.

    I was in Cleveland to do two book appearances; it happened to be in the middle of an ice storm. I was basically sequestered in my hotel, me and a laptop.

    Zero writing done. I ended up reading instead.

    Point is, the prerequisite in your situation seems to be “money is here and I don’t mind where I live.” We’ve found that, after 25 years together, the pivot point is that we both seriously do mind where we live. I couldn’t write in rural Ohio, and he wouldn’t want to live there.

    I’m looking at “the first clause of the sentence “Unless you have a truly compelling reason to be there” may be equally relevant” and thinking, yep, that’s absolutely right. Problem isn’t that we’re all focused on it, it’s that the tone of the original advice doesn’t seem to leave room for the concept of creative breathability.

  121. I know it’s just for emphasis, but I sincerely hope that you do not use italics as much in your paid writing. I once read a book where the author did that on nearly every page, and by halfway through the book it was driving me nuts!

    Great article overall.

  122. Something else that bugged me about the LA/NYC/SF bit. (I’m on a roll, here. Sue me….)

    You said: “From 1996 through early 2001, I lived outside Washington DC, which was a great place for writing work, because I had a lot of clients in the area for consulting work, and I could fly up to New York quickly for meetings and whatnot. But then my wife decided that we needed to move to Ohio so our daughter could be closer to my wife’s family. I agreed, but I warned her that the move was likely to compromise my ability to get work. She understood and we moved. And two weeks after I moved, all my clients called and said, more or less “so, you’re moved in now? You can get back to work now?” and started sending me work. Nothing had changed.”

    Except that the reason why you were able to continue to get all the work you got was at least in part due to the fact that you spent the previous five years making the contacts and doing the work and establishing yourself, which you probably wouldn’t have been able to do as easily from Ohio.

    This may seem like I’m picking on you, but I’m not. Obviously that one particular bit just hit a lot of bad buttons for me. *chuckle*

    I reiterate that I’m nitpicking here (on the Internet? really?), and that the overall point’s a good one.

    —KRAD, who will probably shut up now

  123. KRAD:

    “Except that the reason why you were able to continue to get all the work you got was at least in part due to the fact that you spent the previous five years making the contacts and doing the work and establishing yourself, which you probably wouldn’t have been able to do as easily from Ohio.”

    Yes, but what does this have to do with New York City, Los Angeles or San Francisco?

    The point here is not that I have some unreasoning opposition to metropolitan areas, and that I feel we should all live, as I currently do, in Jeffersonian agrarian splendor. The point is the NYC/LA/SF are madhouse expensive to live in, and writers need to ask themselves if what they get out of living in these three specific cities outweighs the substantial costs, particularly when these writers are not likely to make vast sums of cash.

    And yes, I did make lots of contacts and established myself, and now benefit from that. But I did it first in Fresno, and then I did it in DC, neither of which is NYC, LA, or SF. Really, it’s just about these three cities.

  124. Folks,

    A friend of mine told me to check out this blog. John Scalzi gives good, sound, prudent advice, especially on personal finances. However, I’m well past the half-century mark and have never lived even one year of my life like John advises, except maybe two things: I recognized early on that to be a successful writer or artist I had to be a business person, and to be free I had to live within my means. Here’s what’s worked for me as an artist, writer, businessman, father and husband, one who has lived life at full speed. Maybe some of this will make sense and be of use to you.

    I started writing professionally in the seventh grade when I won cash award in a statewide writing contest. I got paid for it so it was pro. Right? I’ve been a successful entrepreneur, founding and selling three companies, two of them internationally based and have always done all of my own ad and marketing copy. I’ve also been a working journalist and too many other things to mention in this short note.

    Been rich, been poor and everything in between. Some years I’ve made well into the middle seven figures, others less than the middle five figures. I’ve never saved more than ten percent of my income and have always given away, or spent on others, more than I have ever spent on myself. On occasion I’ve given away more than I made and counted on making up the shortfall later.

    I’ve raised three kids of my own and a couple of informally adapted others, and financed an orphanage in a Third World country. My wife of thirty three years and I have drug our kids all over the planet with us, in total living and/or working and traveling to over thirty countries on four continents and we’ve never, ever worried about the future or hedged our bets.

    Do give up the day job. A day job is a fallback. If you have a fallback odds are you’ll fall back. Everything I’ve ever done I’ve done with full commitment. Anything else is dogging it. Learned that as a paratrooper, sometimes you just gotta go for it.

    I take each day as it comes, live intemperately, drink too much when I feel like it and nothing when I don’t, sometimes overeat, sometimes don’t eat. I’ve always lived where I wanted to live, not where I could afford to live, an island monastery in the South China Sea, a 5000 square foot home in the Hollywood Hills, a flat overlooking the harbor in Hong Kong, a room over a bar in a Spanish beach town, a nipa hut in Bali, a VW camper for a year on the road from Zagreb to London, another year in a green tent carried on the back of my motorcycle, tepees, yurts, sailboats, a cattle estancia, a firebase.

    After years of running international busineses I have returned to writing fulltime, simply because I don’t want to go to the office anymore. No, I don’t have a bunch of dough saved, gave most of it away like I said above, and yes I quit the day job. I don’t expect to get rich again from writing. On the other hand I don’t expect to not get rich from writing. I don’t expect tomorrow to bring me anything other that what it always has: a new day. Whatever will come will come. And I will damn sure make the best of it.

    Oh, one other thing Jon said that was totally correct: get enough dough for your work. Three cents a word? Good Lord man, get up off your knees! You’d do better with a tin cup on a good, or not so good, corner. Don’t, for Dog’s (sorry, I’m a little dyslexic) sake let anyone turn you into a total worm. Here’s some advice from a guy who’s negotiated contracts with Chinese Communists back when American’s were Running Gods (dyslexia again) of Capitalism:

    1. Others will value you at the value you place on yourself.
    2. Everything is negotiable.
    3. Be prepared to leave the table.
    4. There’s always another market for any product.

    Also, look up the history of “free-lance.” A free lance was a free man, a solider for hire, not a bond servant or a slave. Don’t ever grovel. Once you start it’s hard to stop.

    Since I quit going to the office and started writing full time (well sort of fulltime, I was too sick to work for some months and now I play a lot) I’ve made enough dough to live on by applying the above principles, and by living within my means. If I don’t have the dough I don’t buy it. The exception is if someone else is in severe need. In that case I will earn, borrow or hustle the dough to help the less fortunate.

    There are many folks who could benefit mightily from doing exactly the opposite of what John recommends. Little is ever accomplished by caution. I’ve buried more friends and family than I care to count. I was fortunate to sit with those who were gifted with the time to say goodbye. Not one of them ever said, “I wish I’d saved more money, or worked harder, or spent more time at the office, or been more careful or prudent in planning my life.”

    What I have heard, with heartbreaking regularity, is, “I wish I had gone to Florence, Paris or Afghanistan. I wish I had taken a chance and asked that girl to marry me. I wish we had bought that boat and sailed away. I wish I had started my own business, or had children, or….” You fill in the blanks. Life is short, live it to the fullest. Someone wrote that if life isn’t an adventure it’s not much at all. Amen brothers and sisters.

    Nothing is certain. Tomorrow is guaranteed to no one. If a home in bucolic country and a quiet life brings you happiness, then good on ya mate. If you want to go to New York and kick up a storm, then get thee hence, now. Plan and prepare a bit and then go for it. When you fall, as you will, no whining allowed. Just say, “next” and get on with it. And when you get to the top of the hill know that the only place to go is down. Up or down it’s all part of the same ride so enjoy the trip.


    Morgan Ayres


    It’s not much of a site, not much up, just got started.

  125. Heh, y’know there’s only one compelling reason for me to stay in Los Angeles: I actually LIKE it here. I could do what I do in Seattle, Dallas, Austin, even Edmonton Alberta if I was lucky enough to get hired by Bioware.

    But I don’t want to live in any of those places, unless I absolutely have to.

    Jeffersonian agrarian splendor is not for everyone. I already did the “homesteading” thing when I was a kid. Maybe I’ll do it again when I’m really old…

  126. Totally agree with the part about the credit cards. That doesn’t even seem to be an area specific to writers. Your description of how people use credit cards seems to fit everyone in the country.

  127. John: as a convention-going author, what’s your take on the cost-benefit analysis of spending money to go to cons, especially early in one’s career. Even if an author gets in free, there’s still transportation and lodging costs.

    Frex: Assuming a mass market paperback first book is 7.99. Full price royalty is a generous 80 cents. Then assume transport, food and lodging is a cheap $500. That author would have to sell 625 books to break even–which is a pretty hefty expectation from a single con. The numbers are likely worse, because the royalty is likely lower and the cost of travel likely higher. The tax write-off doesn’t justify it alone–the money isn’t taxed per se, but it’s still spent. So, from a purely business perspective, are cons worth the expense?

  128. Good for you, John! Also, you are picking up the tab in the hotel bar next year, right? Kthx.

    I hadn’t seen this post, but early this morning I got inspired to write on my LJ (I’m ellameena on Live journal) about getting started as a freelancer. I guess I’ve been doing it for 3-4 years, so although I was embarrassed at first to not have made $164,000 last year, I felt better knowing that I still have time to beat you to the six figure mark. :-) Which, by the way, ain’t what it used to be. (I’ve got a post going up momentarily on exactly that subject over at Wise Bread, my official blog home, which I have pimped above.)

  129. Great article. You are right about the money, the responsibility involved and NYC. Our friends live in an 800 square foot apartment that is appraised twice as much as my 3,500 square foot house in NC. Yet they will do anything to live there, thinking I live in the back- woods. I’ve worked as a full-time writer for five years. I do without a lot, mostly going out to eat. Amazing how much money eating in saves, not to mention meatless dinners several times a week. But my speaking engagements (about my books) also help pay the bills. I have to write every day-books, articles, blogs to stay afloat, but it beats a lot of other jobs I’ve had.

  130. I really, really enjoyed this article and I haven’t even read through all the comments (although I did read the updates on #3 and #8). Thanks very much for writing and posting it.

    (I found your blog via Jim Hines blog, who also posted on the subject of writing and making money.)


  131. You left out, though, that there is a very different lifestyle necessary to write really high quality American writing. First of all, you should live in a tiny room in a cheap SRO hotel with a single naked lightbulb dangling overhead from a frayed cord. You should wear a stained, sleeveless t-shirt and old slacks, always keep a fifth in a paper bag nearby, and constantly have a cigarette either in your mouth or in one hand. And you should type everything on a 1931 Smith-Corona with the e and the t keys going. That will give you the proper ambience and motivation to produce truly fine, soul-searching, important literature. Anything else is hackwork.

  132. This is a great list and I relate to so much of this. Being a writer myself, I try to practice much of these items, and sold my business 3 years ago to write full time. I support myself and my 2 children with my writing and money is a great motivator! Now that the economy is faltering I also came up with a list of things authors and writers can do to survive during a “recession” and wanted to share some of those here with you.
    Authors are sometimes already struggling to make ends meet so when the threat of a recession starts to become something to worry about, authors can panic. There are some things authors can do to survive a recession with a positive outlook and some specific actions.

    1. Network online and offline: Networking is something many authors shy away from, now is your time to get out there and meet people and keep yourself in everyone’s minds.

    2. Invest in education: Continue to learn all you can about writing, marketing your book or articles and read every day. Read anything, newspapers, magazines, books about how to market your book, but make the time to read.

    3. Follow the market: Read the papers or watch the news, know what is happening and stay on top of it.

    4. Pay off debt: If you can pay off any debt, now is the time to do it. Dealing with a recession is hard enough, but if you have a boatload of debt on top of that, your stress level will go through the roof and you might not be able to pay it a few months down the line. Pay cash for anything you need, if you don’t have the cash, ask yourself If you really NEED it or do you just WANT it? Put your credit cards in the freezer or cancel them and cut them up.

    5. Cut back on extras: Do you spend more money than you make at the café where you like to drink coffee and write? Is there anything in your life you can cut back on, such as extra features on your home phone or cell phone, can you cut back on going out for meals, or carpool to events or meetings?

    6. Build your online presence: Every author should have a website, blog, newsletter, articles and even a press kit available online. Join online networking groups with other authors and exchange links and ideas.

    7. Specialize in something and give free talks about it: What do you write about? What is your genre? If you write romance novels, call your local library, schools, rotary and chamber and ask if you can give a free talk at a meeting or a luncheon about romance and valentines day, which is coming right up. Pull something special from your book and focus on that, specialize and you will gain a greater target audience.

    8. Create bundles and sell them on your website: If you have published more than one book you can bundle them up and sell them on your website, offer a savings. You can also offer them as an e-book or you can take excerpts and give them away or sell them to potential customers. If you have one book, or a special report or some articles, approach another author in your genre and see if they want to sell your book along with their book and you do the same. For example, I have two other authors that write the same type of books as I do and we all sell each others books along with our book on our websites as a “book bundle” It is all done in e-book format, but someone can get all three books for one price lower than if they purchased them separately and we each pay each other quarterly. If you do this be sure to have a signed contract with whoever works together.

    9. Update or make your press kit: upload it to your website, print some out and put them in clear report covers to send to your local papers and genre related publications. Get new author photos taken now if you can.

    10. Market to past customers: Use your mailing list of people who have bought your books, signed up for your newsletter or showed an interest in you or your book. Use email or direct mail to offer a coupon or discount. If you don’t have a mailing list, start a newsletter or quote of the day or tip of the day relating to your genre and advertise this in your email signature, on your website, and on everything you mail. As people sign up for this you add them to a list and use that to keep yourself on their minds.

    11. Follow up on any new leads and all old leads: Pull out all the business cards you have collected from trade shows, chamber meetings or any networking event. Get back in touch with everyone on your list. Send them an email asking them what they have been doing and telling them about your work. Just get back in touch and maintain those relationships.

    12. Offer outstanding customer service: If you sell and distribute your own books or articles, focus on having the best customer service out there. This will help you stand apart from the crowd in a huge way.

    13. Aggressively work on your marketing plan: Send out press releases about everything you are doing, keep yourself in the eyes of your target audience during the recession. Since you may have less work and less money than is normal, this is a great time to do this. Nothing may happen now but in six months you will see results and six months after that you will keep seeing results. Never stop marketing.

  133. Thanks! This is a great article, and has made me realize that I need to start paying off my defaulted student loan, and that my day-job teaching in a private school is not such a bad gig (made possible, of course, by the spouse who’s got my back with a higher paycheck, benefits, and great handy-man skills).

    I live in Ohio, too, and our house payment is less than $700 a month. It’s not the greatest neighborhood, but it’s a nice big three-bedroom house. The biggest drawback for me, though, is that it is hell not being able to drive. This area of the country is built for cars, not people! But still, it’s cheap, cheap, cheap to live here.

    A note on cheap, healthy food– community supported agriculture. We signed up on a nearby farm’s organic produce program and March-December, we get a great big box of organic produce for about $20 a week.

    Thanks again. Finances aren’t something I like to think about, but this article made a lot of sense.

  134. I just had to say *thank you* for the unsolicited, and well-established advice. I just graduated with a professional writing degree (business minor) from a state college… which I consider a quality education, but already I’m worrying it might have been a waste! The economy is terrible and job searching is a chore. I don’t have enough experience, according to the places who care to respond to my pleas for editing/writing/researching jobs, and of course no one wants to give it to me.

    However, I’ve managed to get a couple of commentaries published in major newpapers, and have been thrilled to receive the paychecks… I’ve really reconciled myself to wanting to freelance, and work in the meantime. Do you encourage new writers to try to get positions somewhat related to the field?

    I am seriously considering a move east (not necessarily NYC) to improve my chances of working in a job I can live with AND heightening my chances of getting writing work… but right now I’m just experiencing a lot of doubt.

    I don’t really expect anyone to respond to this – but man, it felt good to get it all out! Thanks again for the post.

  135. 148 Mark DF,

    I attend conventions (as a fan, not as a guest or dealer), and I find the $500 figure to be a little high. About the only way I get near that figure is if I fly in, don’t share accomodations, spend three nights in the hotel, and eat at the hotel restaurant.

    Whenever possible, I split the room with at least one person, drive, and often bring food (like meal-replacement bars) to cover at least one meal per day.

    Some conventions are just more expensive. (Dragon*Con, I’m looking at you.) But you can save quite a bit of money overall.

  136. John,
    I appreciated your pearls, though my reasons are quite different from most here. I’ve been at the business a bit longer than you, and, my income has been substantially higher for the past 15+ years than what you discuss in your intro .

    So, why comment? I don’t read writer sites,for three reasons: 1) I don’t have to read them. 2) 99.9% of all sites by and for writers are crap, plain and simple. 3) Writers write. That’s all.

    A colleague sent me a link to your site, with a note that said, “here’s a guy who actually knows what he is talking about, one who is doing some good for writers.”

    I agree. Just wanted to give you a pat on the back for being straight with folks who want to be real writers.

    Oh, and this: if you truly want to make a living as a writer, find a niche. Own it. Protect it. Exploit it.

    And enjoy it.

  137. Hey John,

    Great advice. However, you miss some important facts about living in NYC. I live in Brooklyn (third floor walk-up) and as opposed to my Arizona friends my age (who are buying houses, the crazy kids) I don’t pay for heating, water or homeowners insurance. My electric bill is less than a third of theirs. I don’t own a car ($78 a month for unlimited metrocard!) so I don’t pay for that, insurance, gasoline or breakdowns (greener too!). I can’t buy anything that doesn’t fit in my apartment either, so there goes a lot of “shiny” stuff. Also, I only have four rooms to clean (less procrastinating!).

    I will admit though, New York does make you want to shop. But you have to consider what you DON’T pay for in New York when you factor in what you have to pay for.

    But I still have the day job.

  138. I’m working on becoming a full-time writer, when I retire from my day job. Write as much as I can, get my foot in the door, in twenty years, it might just work. Pretty much doing all the rest of your advice, but then, raised by Depression children myself, I lived that way all my life.

    Thanks, this is hard hope, but hope all the same.

  139. Regarding #4 – your income is more like 60% of what you think it is. (Assuming you live in the U.S. – other folks should heed his advice.) Anyway, when I was freelancing, I put 30% away and was easily able to pay taxes with a fat stack left over.

  140. I would add (and I wish someone had told me):

    If you must quit your job, or even if you don’t, have a cushion. Not $500, but $5000 or $15000. Have it bearing interest, but have it there for those long gaps where nobody pays you. And when they do pay you, repay the cushion FIRST. Because they day after you got paid is the first day of your next dry spell.

  141. John, this is all genius advice. Not just because it agrees with what I told my kids, either … but because I can now cite *you* as I express my parental admonitions. Heh heh.

    I’d just triple underline (1)The Buffer, and (2) Save to buy. When life is more troughs than peaks, TB smooths them out. It’s so much easier to say NO when you’ve got that secret bulwark.

    When the alternative is paying high interest (which wings away to Nevermore), savings allow you to save (& eventually to spend wisely) more: I love that idea. That, and the expression on the bankers’ faces. The best part: a dozen years ago when I was sitting on a big chunk of change and put it into a CD earning 9.2%. HUNDREDS a month in interest was WAY cool.

    When TB and STB get big enough, you can start to flirt with ideas about magical purchases/travel without undo nocturnal visitations from the Archetypal Grandfather … and because there are *no finance charges*. Ahhhhhh.

  142. Regarding the first item on your list – “Prepared to be Broke”; I believe you meant the title to read “Prepare to be Broke”. You might want to add “triple check your work before submitting” to your list.

  143. John:

    While your specific financial advice for writers is excellent, your argument of “don’t quit your day job” (never heard that one before) is the same hackneyed idea that’s been peddled by a thousand writers before you.

    The fact is, if you look at every writer that has been able to make a living from his/her writing, they ALL eventually quit their day jobs. (Many before they were making a living from it.) If you know this is what you were born to do, you don’t have much choice, and keeping the day job just to keep the day job ends up sapping your energy–energy that you could have put towards a concerted effort at a writing career. Sooner or later, you have to do like Cortez and that’s burn your ships.

    For 15 years after college I held day jobs as a high school history teacher, technology manager for Merrill Lynch and adjunct English professor, but eventually my day jobs stole too much of my time, and I had to make a choice. I chose to be a full-time writer.

    I make between $75 and $100 per hour as a script- and speech-writer for corporations, but I would never have been able to make that kind of money if I’d stayed on the “safe” amateur track. Going pro has also made me a better fiction writer, and after years of going nowhere, I now have an agent and am getting my novels read by publishers and movie production companies.

    The main fallacy in the “don’t quit your day job” arguments is this:

    What if Jackson Pollock had wanted to become a stockbroker? Chances are, during the dark times when he wasn’t making anything from his painting, people might have encouraged him to do so. It’s a double standard; people with “safe” day jobs are told never to quit their day jobs to be writers, but we would tell those same writers that it would be prudent to quit writing if it meant they could have “safe” careers as teachers.

    What if Bill Gates had taken the “don’t quit your day job” advice and not dropped out of Harvard to found Microsoft?

    What if Einstein had remained a patent clerk?

    All of the greats in this world have been risk-takers of one kind or another, and these are just a couple of examples.

    The other fallacy inherent in the “don’t quit your day job” argument is that becoming a full-time writer–unlike every other profession–is possible without a full-time commitment. This is just ridiculous.

    There’s an old joke among writers. Maybe you’ve heard it. It goes like this:

    A novelist goes to a heart surgeon for some tests. During the exam, the doctor says, “Hey, could you give me the name of your publisher?”

    “Sure, why?” says the novelist.

    “Well, I have a six-month sabbatical coming up, and I’d like to write a novel and see it published.”

    The novelist thinks about this for a moment before replying.

    “Sure, sure,” the novelist says, “I can do that. But do me a favor, will you?”

    “Name it,” the doctor says.

    “Well, I have six months free myself, and I’ve always wanted to perform open-heart surgery. Could you talk to your hospital and set something up for me?”

    The moral is clear: Being a writer (especially a novelist) requires the same, if not more, commitment, self-discipline, education and training as any other profession, and to think that you can become a master writer without a full-time commitment is self-deception of the highest order.

    Again, your financial advice is excellent; your advice to writers not to quit their day jobs isn’t.

    If you’re really a writer, folks, you’re going to write no matter what.


    Chris Orcutt

  144. Chris Orcutt:

    “The fact is, if you look at every writer that has been able to make a living from his/her writing, they ALL eventually quit their day jobs.”

    No. Wallace Stevens, one of the great poets of the 20th Century, kept his job as VP of an insurance company his entire life. He was one of the few poets who could have made a living off of his writing, but liked his job just fine. Indeed, he was offered a professorship at Harvard, if I remember correctly, and decided against it because he liked his job better.

    Likewise, there are any number of non-fiction writers who do not give up their “day jobs” simply because they can afford to; this is particularly the case with scientists. I could run you down a whole list of scientists who still teach and do research even as their writing income obviates the need to do so.

    That said, you don’t seem to have read the “Don’t give up your day job” section particularly carefully, because if you had you’ll have seen this bit:

    Think of all the writers whose work you love. The vast majority of them have day jobs, or had them for a significant portion of their working lives, usually until it became quite clear that they were shooting themselves in the foot, economically speaking, by not writing full-time.

    i.e., there may come a time when it makes sense to go full-time. When that time is depends from person to person. Scott Adams was famously still working at Pacific Bell after he became a millionaire from Dilbert.

    I don’t object to people leaving their day jobs to write — it’s their lives, let them do what they want — but the focus of the article is on the economics of writing, and economically speaking, most people are better off having a day job while they develop their writing skills.

    Aside from the economic issue, your posits of absolutes here suggest you’re confusing what you think is right for you for general laws regarding writing, particularly regarding your posit that being an excellent writer requires a full-time commitment. In fact there are quite a few really excellent writers and novelists who, for whatever reason, either can’t or won’t write full time. I know quite a few of them, which why I know that, empirically speaking, your assertion is wildly incorrect. Sorry about that.


    Fixed. Try to come off less like a pedantic twit the next time you spot errata.

  145. Patrick M:

    Post all you want. Try not to plink on the other commenters, however. That’s best left to me.

  146. Thank you for that; i was in need of one of those “be Professional, dammit!” ass-kickings that i usually get by re-reading The War of Art.

    Points #3 and #8 cancel each other out for me, though. I live in one of those top 10 expensive world cities and frankly i don’t even like the place much. Hell, I can’t even afford to go to any of the thousand restaurants or bars that surround me. Unfortunately, though, my extremely supportive wife needs to live here for that lucrative job of hers. It’s a tough call.

  147. Congratulations, John. Not only have you convinced me of the rightness of your position, you’ve reminded me of why I shouldn’t waste my time getting into debates on blogs. It’s like Hemingway once said:

    “When I was a young writer, the debate was this: ‘altogether’ or ‘all together’–one word or two? How’d that turn out anyway?”

    Have fun with the debate.

  148. I hear what you’re saying about living in the middle of nowhere. My wife is from out your way, little further north (Celina). Even over here in Columbus, houses can be had for a decent price. I gripe a lot about living on the “frontier” but it’s nice to have money in the bank.

    Great article, especially the part about keeping your day job. Bennies are important.

  149. As a freelance writer, full time for 22 years, I agree with most of what you say.

    However…you get out of bed for 20 cents a word???

    And still make $167,000? This does not compute.

    I consider a dollar a word to be low these days.

  150. sjnanner:

    “However…you get out of bed for 20 cents a word???”

    For writing short fiction? Yes, because it’s a good rate there (particularly for science fiction). I do relatively little short fiction, however. Most of my magazine work starts at $1/word, and my consulting fees begin at $150/hr.

    That said, most of that money this last year came from book advances and royalties, the income distribution of which does not conveniently track to cents per word.

  151. I’ll leave it to any experts who see this comment to decide if I’m making a (pre)rookie mistake or not, but concerning the day job issue, I’ve recently imposed an additional rule:

    I will not write another word until I’ve solved my general unemployment problem. So no matter how far ahead this story races ahead in my brain (wow, look at that, she got drunk at a memorial service) I won’t put any more of it on paper or disk until I get another “day job”.

    I’ve found that I write more when I’m employed anyway. Admittedly, I’ve identified a couple contributing factors for this, but that’s a whole other rambly issue.

    And concerning rule #7…

    “When you do buy something, buy the best you can afford — and then run it into the ground.”

    …I’d tell people to overshop. Or, specifically, do your homework before you shop. I tend to do a lot of research — specifically with looking at expert and consumer reviews (including relevant gripes) — and know what I’m buying before I buy it. It’s kind of a time-consuming consumer strategy, but I usually make wise and satisfying purchases that stick around for a while.

  152. I wanted to add a word about quitting the day job to this discussion. When I quit practicing law, daily interactions stopped with everyone except my dogs, my computer and my husband (now ex). I feel that I became stale, and my writing suffered. I also valued my writing time less and didn’t get as much done.

    IMO a part-time job, especially one with bennies, is invaluable.

    BTW, great article!

  153. This ought to be require reading to *everyone*, not just artists/writers. My parents were depression-children and taught me a few lessons early on, while my age-mates were busy buying everything they could at the mall.

    1–live below your means
    2–food/shelter/clothing (incl bills) first. Then save. Then if there’s anything left, you can buy ‘toys’.
    3–translate anything you want to buy into how many hours you had to work to purchase it

    Advice I have lived by since my first baby-sitting job at age 11.

    Regarding a marriage/partnership–I supported Hubby though the first 5 years of our marriage when without me, he would have qualified for food stamps. Now that his income is greater than mine, I am able to work part time, provide the after school care we don’t have to pay for, and have time to pursue my writing.

  154. Mr. Scalzi, I am a woman and find that the husband supporting me as a writer/artist was a no go. Thus, I found a well-paying job where I can get away with writing at work!! Solves the problem quite neatly. Benefits, paycheck and artistic freedom in a nutshell. And I don’t have to do anyone else’s laundry!

  155. Great post, John. I rack your ass a lot. Sometimes justifiably and sometimes just for joy. But I give you props on this one. Rock on, young liberal.

  156. Scalz: It’s it okey-doke if I pick on Sandra Rutten a bit? I thought her little recount of travails in the classroom came out of left field and was self-promoting. Do you mind if I troll her a bit? Or should I hold off in case she bites my hand?

  157. TCO:

    Well, she posted a while back and then wrote on her own blog that she wouldn’t be back here, so I don’t know what good it will do you at this point.

  158. Ok…I’ll restrain myself, but if she gives you any trouble in the future, remember I’m ready to start hand biting in your name.

  159. Brilliant! Common sense advice for the most part, and reflective of lessons learned from my parents. But it’s good to be reminded every so often of the basic principles.

    Personal summary: Almost 10 years as a professional writer living and working in Australia. Now living in a small town (<5K people) some 3 hours from the state capital and some 75 mins from the nearest large town. Working for a company on the other side of Australia for only 3 days a week yet earning a very decent income. So I’m working less, earning more, and spending MUCH less on day-to-day stuff than when we lived in the city just over 12 months ago. After I’ve covered my tax and insurance commitments and paid paid myself a modest salary, I make sure I maintain a 3 month ‘on the bench’ buffer to cover my modest salary, then I put away something like 60% of my company’s annual income into my retirement fund. Our cars are 10 years old (and we really only need one now, though we still have two), and, had it fitted into our modest house, we’d still have our 25 year old microwave to go with our other old but working appliances that wouldn’t win any ‘shiny’ awards.

    Much of this would not have been possible without the internet and general availability of reliable telecommunications—and a solid network.

    One other thing: Park the ego. You tend to get paid more if you do writing or artistic work for hire, than if you want to own it all and see your name up in lights. My main writing is technical writing, specifically online Help for niche software. Pays well, no byline. I can live with that.

  160. Thank you. Worth it for ‘Well, get used to it, you insolvent jackass’ alone… but some other good advice buried in there.

    I must take exception however to your thoughtless and ignorant maligning of heavy-metal bass players everywhere. The rhythm section is the living, beating heart of good metal, even if the guitar players get all the glory. Which makes the bass player the ventricles, or something.

    Regardless, William Murderface will be by to have a word with you.

  161. After years of being a techie (working for $BIG-COMPANY) and also running my own moderately successful business (which means I don’t technically need to work), I’ve moved industries into management of techies in the Financial Sector. And I hate it.

    I’d like to write for a living but rather than playing Wii or whatever, I write copiously on my blog.

    Perhaps I should be focussing this on the Great Irish Novel….

  162. re: the day job.

    As a non-writer, I’m always surprised at those who quit their day jobs, find a place far out in the country and eke out a starvation living as hermit.

    Skip the economics. Where do they get ideas, background, people skills etc. needed to put together believable stuff? Let alone non-fiction? I’ve done quite a bit of design (another creative art) and without the outside world for stimulous nobody produces much of quality.

    I’ve done ditchdigging to businessman. It’s all grist for the mill. (Cliche but true.)

    At some time, depending upon the situation jumping off without a parachute is a reasonable choice. But it must be a understood to be a business choice.

    Great summary. Applies to anyone.

  163. Science fiction writers accept the nominal rate of three cents per word for a perfectly valid reason.

    They’re smart enough to realize that every time we write something, those very words spawn an entirely new universe in which its creator has complete control and is revered as a god.

    And so while you’re being worshipped by the features and benefits of some bloated software package that you’ve been paid to write about for $0.20/word and up, the sci-fi guys will be cavorting with triple-breasted shapeshifters while glibly obliterating planets with phasotronic megablasts out of their eye sockets.

    But hey, hope you have fun on Planet Parsimonious.

  164. Yeah, but I write science fiction and get paid more than three cents a word for it. So, you know. I win.

    But thanks for playing.

  165. I just finished reading Old Man’s War on the recommendation of a friend. Thank you for writing it. The story was incredibly enjoyable. Also thank you for allowing it to be published in ebook format. I haven’t found the Ghost Brigades available for sale in ms reader, or mobipocket format yet, otherwise I’d own it right now. (I’m going to keep looking to see if I can find it for sale somewhere. Not because I believe it exists, but because I’m just that stubborn.)

    I also wanted to agree with your point that valuing your work correctly is important. My wife was a graphic designer for many years and is now a full time artist. Many people in both fields undervalue their work. Fortunately my wife has reached a place of relative financial success largely due to not under valuing her work early on, as well as being patient in finding the right audience. Now a steady stream of commisions allows her to get to the right price by simply raising her price until the waiting line stops getting longer. Artists tend to have a tough time valuing their work based on what it’s worth to the purchaser rather than what (they believe) it costs them to make … which is another area where having a spouse can help.

    In the software field there is a great post by Joel Spolsky that outlines a blunder in the area of ‘pricing’: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2004/10/26.html

    In that post Joel also recommends a great book: “The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing” by Nagle and Holden. I found it enjoyable, but then not everyone enjoys reading text books. Reading that book is what convinced me to encourage my wife to hold tough on pricing her own work.

    (Yes, in my head, this doesn’t seem off topic.)

    Thanks again for writing such an enjoyable book.

  166. This was a fantastic article (sad it took me so long to find it). I think your ‘marriage’ point is well taken – in the absence of a spouse, I found a good friend willing to support me while I got my feet under me. Going to someone who is committed to you and your ambitions and asking for help is a great move, though a little ego-shaking. I think being in a marriage is a little less stigmatized since being someone’s spouse implies ‘functioning adult’ whereas living in a friend’s house implies ‘bum’, but hey, it’s an option. I just wrote on it myself. Thanks for the inspiration!

  167. This is great! (The only thing I disagree with is keeping the answerphone. When you’ve ignored their email requests, the psychotically persistent ones who want you to write for nothing keep leaving messages on it. So I tossed mine away.) Terrific piece, John.
    Graham Joyce UK

  168. Wouldn’t it be nice if all our brains went oh, marketing that’ll be fun – instead of humming in discordant montones and shutting down faster than windows on a new operating system.

    BTW apart from that. I did everything right – almost- how was I to know my husband would be completely emptyheaded when it came to money. I thought only writers were supposed to be that stupid. And then there’s the kids… no I’m not dumb enough to give them money, but I had the choice between spending 8,000 bucks a year on school or having a completely insane child. And then there’s the special diet…
    So while your advice is all very perspicacious I’m hardly moved. I know art, and I know broke, and I know how credit cards work. It’s trying to get my head around an entire book at midnight that makes me think that working sucks … esp because then I get sidetracked on … this…. argh!

  169. Great article. More writers need to realize this. Getting started I didn’t know much about the business aspect, but I learned really quick, because after a couple 80 hours a week at $4 an hour (yeah, I know, I was a grade A sucker early on) I knew that was too much work for too little pay. Thanks for going into detail, I hope more writers stumble on this one.

  170. This is really good advice. Really good. It’s also very funny!

    I do want to make one comment though: It is possible to live in a place in NYC for under $1,000. You just need to rent a cubicle sized room and live with roomates (maybe 3 or 4 roomates). Oh and probably be single, because I don’t think two people can fit in room that small. Its not ideal, but I’m doing it. (I can’t completly open my bedroom door…arg) I’m not living there just for the glamour of it though… I’m going to Grad school (for my soon to be day job… which won’t be a day job ’cause I love doing it too). I’ll save more by going to this grad school than others, because it isn’t all that expensive compared to the other choices I had.

    As for me… I hope to get published in fiction, but I’m not going to be poor, no way. Been there, done that. Since I want to be a teacher, I am thinking that I could work during the summers as a fiction writer.

  171. Very good advice for the five percent that will actually make something of themselves.

    The rest of them will do writerly things like hanging out at the coffee shop reading the local alternative weekly and paying good bread to attend chronic community center writer’s workshops filled with tweedy, perverted MFA beardos and 60-year-old patchouli-reeking hippie chicks (with names like StarChylde Aquarius) and the whole bleeding lot of them will spend months trying to impress each other discussing new and even more convoluted ways of wringing every bit of overblown nuance out of their friend’s new, trendsetting teenage gothic ninja spy novel.

    Many will submit over-the-transom rubbish to magazines, generally along the lines of “a day in the life of my cat as told by my cat.” And then there’s my favorites–the “business” writers who spend half their time churning out generic dreck and the other half sending it out to trade magazine editors with the blanks in the copy filled in with the appropriate noun to describe the audience of the magazine, at least according to a 5-year-old copy of “Writer’s Market.”

    My unsolicited advice as a 30-year magazine and book editor to the 95-percenters out there? To put it kindly I’d say that having a computer and MS Word doesn’t make you a writer any more than owning a camera and knowing how to press the shutter release makes you a photographer.

    To put it unkindly? Go start a blog–get it out of your system and spare the professionals your talent. Seriously.

  172. Wow, this is fantabulous advice! I’m so glad I followed over from Twitter. I know I’ll definitely be back… :-)


  173. Excellent column, but a note to Sandra (#60):

    “I’m presently at home full time. I can’t remember the last time I drank alcohol . . .”

    I believe that’s one of the flags for a serious drinking problem. You should probably seek professional help if you suffer any more of these blackouts.


  174. How dissimilar do two works need to be in order to avoid infringing the copyright of another?

    I just sold two books to my publisher. Too many problems with him. I would like to re-write both books and have them published under new titles with a new publisher. Is this legal?

  175. Ha ha ha ha,

    Excellent article. I consider myself a creative and also am responsible for doing many of the things you have outlined in the past.

    However I am much more responsible now and trying hard to cull those old debts and get my head straight. As of now things are working out quite well.



  176. I am impressed with your points and advice on writing for money. I’m actually working on a creative writing website, I’ve interviewed a few successful writers, Piers Anthony admits if it wasn’t for his wife supporting him, he wouldn’t be where he was today.

    I agree that writing is a business. And I will admit I am a person who dreams about writing full time, perhaps it’s only a dream, but that’s my goal. I plan to build my website business as my meal ticket to being able to write full time. So thank you for sharing that detail on how hard it is to make money writing.

    I managed to work part time writing for a few months and made about $700 a month writing non-fiction articles. My heart wasn’t in though, as I like fiction better, which is even harder to make money, so thanks for showing me that I have to work really hard to succeed.

  177. I’ve read this about 6 times over the past few years just to help me stay on track. Thanks for posting this!

  178. Thanks for this, it has some really helpful pointers.

    I wanted to ask if you’d considered asking Charlie Stross if you could link this in some way to his terrific “Common Misconceptions About Publishing”?


    I think if they were linked or combined in some fashion they’d provide an invauable reasource to young, naive or starting-out writers (or any combination of the three).

    I feel bad asking you this because I realise it would generate yet more (unpaid) work on your behalf, but I guess…. er… it would make you Even More Awesome?

    All the Best,


  179. I absolutely loved all of this. I’m in the situation where I have a paltry amount of regular income coming in from past jobs (not writing), and I’m now writing full-time. I’ve almost finished my first novel. It is wonderful to be able to do something I have always wanted to do.

    I say, if you can find any way to write full time — do it. Life is short. However, this will require sacrifice on your part, and if you can’t handle that, then get some other income coming in.

  180. Bravo! While searching the internet for information about writing for money for a class I am teaching to would be real estate investors I stumbled upon this article. I absolutely loved every aspect of this article. Your comments about “treating your writing as a business” was/is priceless. Although I am a full time real estate investor, I picked up writing to support my speaking events and it literally exploded, My (writing) income has grown more than 10x the previous year to ($195k). It’s a shame that what you shared isnt taught in journalism programs. Oh well i think I just provided you with yet another stream of income. Good job!

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