On Quitting Your Day Job

The following are my notes from a keynote speech I delivered at the 2017 Surrey International Writer’s Conference:

OK, so here’s a thing, no matter where you are in your career, I’m betting a lot of you have heard: Don’t quit your day job.

People LOVE to tell writers that. Like they’ve uncovered some big secret that was being hidden from artists of all stripes. Don’t quit your day job. You’ll never make a living doing that. You’re throwing your life away. Why don’t you go to medical school like your cousin?

…wait that one might be just me.

But here’s the thing: Success isn’t an accident. Success doesn’t just happen to you. Success is a thing you aim for. Something you work for. But before all that it HAS to be something you dream of.

Ambition is really important. It’s the inciting incident of the story of your career.

Let’s back up a sec. I want to talk about the difference between a writer and a professional author.

Here’s what a writer is: someone who writes. You are ALL writers. No one can take that from you. If you put your butt in a chair and put words on the page you get to call yourself a writer.

That is a true achievement and something you should genuinely be proud of.

A professional author is someone who publishes their books into the world with the intent of generating revenue from the sales of their books. A professional author is someone who chooses to monetize their work and participate in the structures of the publishing industry.

The skills you need to be a writer are craft skills. How to write compelling prose. How to create engaging characters. How to plot, how to play with reader expectations.

The skills you need to be a professional author are business skills. Marketing, promotion, networking, business development, pitching, contracts. SALES.

There are people, people like me, who will help you with all of those things. But you’ll need to have some facility with each of those things if you want to succeed.

Those skills are things you can learn. And conferences like these are opportunities to do just that. Part of what we’re doing here is giving you exposure to the industry side of things so you can develop those skillsets.

If you choose to make the transition from being a writer to being a professional author. And I know most of you are here for exactly that reason, but, as an aside, I think it’s important to say not all writers can or should make the transition.

Know why you write and writing for yourself or for your friends is OK. Everyone’s gonna tell you to publish and that’s not always the right call. Ask Emily Dickinson. Ask your favorite fanfic writers. There’s tons of ways to find artistic fulfillment in your work without chasing the bestseller list.

Know why you’re doing this. Know what your goals are.

But if you do choose to make the transition, what you need are those professional skills. You need to learn to be a professional in addition to being an artist. It requires that you approach your work and the publishing process with intention and focus to grow your skills and build a career.

And that starts with a dream. That starts with having ambition.

Here’s WHY everyone will tell you “don’t quit your day job.” And this is the most blunt, unvarnished truth I have for you: Most of you will not succeed.

Not because you’re less than. Not because you’re not a good writer. Not because you don’t work hard.

But because that’s how markets work.

Publishing isn’t a meritocracy. Publishing isn’t fair. It’s a business and like any business some succeed and many don’t.

Thousands of books are published every year and only a handful gain the kind of attention required to build a long-lasting and sustainable career. Especially debuts.

But some do. Dozens do, hundreds do. And if you want to get there. If you want to get to that place, that starts with having a dream. It doesn’t end there, lots of things have to go right after that. But success starts with having ambition.

And ambition isn’t something to be embarrassed about. I’m tired of talking to writers who sell themselves short. If you don’t believe in you, why should I?

Now, I’m not saying to not be realistic. Do your homework. Do the math. I’m certainly not saying it’s easy to become a massive bestseller. But if you shoot for that and you fall short, maybe falling short does pay your mortgage. Maybe falling short of stardom, means you win awards and ten years from now you’re still publishing books.

You have to reach before you climb.

So here’s what I say. To new writers. here’s what I say to people trying to make a career of this. “Don’t quit your day job… Today.”

Dream of the day you quit your day job. Plan for the day you quit your day job. Train for success. Build for a future where your words are your job because that’s the job you dreamed of. And what I’m telling you is if you want to get there, Be ambitious.”

But don’t quit your day job. Yet.