Sandra Ann Miller talks about the Mathematics of Writing.
Let’s be honest. Few of us can make a living off writing alone. Especially in the beginning. Especially if we’re living alone. Day jobs are required and if that day job is writing for someone else, all the better, right? Being a full-time writer gives one a sense of credibility. You are a writer in the true sense of the word, earning your keep doing what you love…some of the time, anyway. But while that writing pays your way, does it cost you your own work?
I found that working as a writer left little writing energy for me. Call it muscle fatigue or a greedy muse — or the soul-crushing exhaustion of having to churn out mediocre copy because that’s what the client wanted — the less I worked as a writer, the better off my writing was. Even with gigs as a ghostwriter or editor, my word count remained low. I needed to find something that would support me financially and spare my creativity. To my surprise, I fell into bookkeeping.
I can’t quite think of anything less artistic than accounting, can you? And that was the draw. I graduated with a BFA, but I’ve always had an organized, systematic, business-y side that a lot of writers possess (especially of the independent ilk). I liked the structure and simplicity of the work — and the fact that it was far removed from my true occupation. Four years ago, I landed a bookkeeping position at a solid mom-and-pop company. The stable income was a relief. Holidays, vacation days and sick days were a bonus; the health insurance was a blessing. But with all that wonderful stuff came a new challenge: My creative energy was overflowing, at times bursting to get it all onto the page, and I had to go to the office.
A day job like that takes away the luxury of writing when you’re “in the mood.” Creativity can be tricky in how it comes raging at the most inopportune times (I can’t be the only one who’s dashed out of the shower, dripping shampoo all the way to her desk, to jot down an amazing idea). There’s a constant push-pull of tamping down the story so you can get out the door on time, then prodding it out when you’re finally available. “Bookkeeping” soon had a double meaning for me, with its plusses and minuses waiting to be reconciled. In order to bring the work and my writing into balance, I resorted to some basic math.
Addition – Gather the tools you’ll need to support your writing. If you’re not already mobile, this would be a good time to pick your platform. I switched to Scrivener so I could take advantage of any downtime by writing on my phone. If you’re not an Apple user (though, Scrivener is rumored to be working on a Windows version), there are other options, like Pressbooks, Google Docs, or even emailing yourself notes or new pages. For formatting and publishing, I went with Vellum (sorry, that’s Apple-only now, too). It was a bigger investment but the time it saves and the ease it provides makes it a real plus. Whatever you need to make your writing time more successful, add it to your arsenal.
Subtraction – It’s important to factor in the times you’ll want/need to check out. All of that work and writing comes at a price, and you can’t do your best work if you’re exhausted or stressed out. Schedule days off and allow for periods of procrastination. View that time away from writing not as a loss but a welcomed replenishment of your creative coffers.
Division – Figure out the times that work best for writing and divvy up your days. Some people can wake at the crack of dawn to tackle a few pages before work. I cannot. Luckily, my start time is 10 AM so I can get a few paragraphs down with my coffee, but my preference is to write at night and on weekends. That shrinks the social life, but my loved ones make that allowance and I make sure to set aside time for them, too.
Multiplication – They say that if you want something done, give it to a busy person. If time is limited, you’re forced not to waste it and end up squeezing much more out of it than you thought possible. When you do the basic math — adding in what you need, taking time away for yourself and dividing your day so that it’s more efficient — the result will be a proliferation of pages. In the past two years, working just shy of full-time (clocking 30-35 hours per week), I’ve published two novels, created a Young Adult edition of my first book, and edited three client manuscripts. Currently, I’m writing two novels, which clearly spells disaster but neither story will leave me alone so I don’t have a choice. A likely side effect of surplus creativity and one that I’m happy to have.
Another plus of having a day job in a different industry is gaining a broader perspective. Writing can be isolating and insular (look at the number of authors whose main characters are writers). Going into an office in an unfamiliar field can invigorate your imagination, exposing you to new worlds, character quirks and storylines. And did I mention paid time off?
This kind of day job might not add up for everyone but if you’re writing more for others than you are for yourself, you may want to check that math. Sometimes, changing what you do can help you get more done. No matter how you make your living as a writer, it’s your writing that has to come first.
Helen Clark won the lottery and lost everything. While it wasn’t the “mega” jackpot, it was enough to change her life — quit her job as a starlet’s assistant, start a new business and have success. However, her partner’s poor decisions brought that dream to an end, and Helen was left with less than nothing.
But Helen Clark is a lucky lady. With a job offer from a former colleague, Helen finds herself in charge of permanent placement at a temporary agency specializing in the insanity of Hollywood. As she rebuilds her life, her past mistakes cast a shadow on her future and jeopardize her relationship with a proverbial unicorn. Through success and failure, love and heartbreak, one lesson Helen has learned is to savor the good and let the bad pass because, at the end of the day, everything is temporary.
Sandra Ann Miller is an active author, sometime screenwriter, intermittent blogger and independent publisher living in Venice, California. A native of Los Angeles and graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, Sandra toiled in the film industry as an assistant…and the stories she could tell if not for the confidentiality agreements.