Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Making the leap

When I met author Loretta Ellsworth at the Kentucky Book Fair, I knew I wanted her to write a guest post. Here it is.

As writers we dream about having the schedule of, say, Stephen King: “Mornings belong to whatever is new—the current composition. Afternoons are for naps and letters. Evenings are for reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait. Basically, mornings are my prime writing time.” —On Writing

Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? But most of us work a day job in addition to squeezing in time for laundry, cleaning, cooking, shopping, taking care of our families, and hopefully, a little time to write during that busy day, while hoping to make the transition to full-time author sooner or later. And it’s usually difficult to decide when and how to make that leap.

My own decision to make the leap didn’t involve much rational thought. I decided to quit my teaching job with the publication of my second book. Part of my decision was based on my desire to have a more flexible schedule. I have a disabled son and I wanted to be around more for him. My father was diagnosed with cancer and given less than a year to live, and I wanted to spend time with him as well.

My husband provided the majority of our income and all of our insurance and health benefits, so I didn’t feel as though I was giving up much in that area. I hoped to replace my salary with advances and royalties, but I had no timeline, no plan, and no idea how soon I could expect that to happen. If I had based my decision only on my ability to reproduce my current salary, I would have realized that I needed to wait to quit until I had more books published. I would have drawn up a business plan and looked at all the factors that needed addressing. I would have been more realistic, in other words.

After quitting my job I discovered that I don’t work well under pressure. At first I had trouble with a job where there were no guarantees in income and no promises that I would continue to be published. When I gained other means of writing income, such as school visits and speaking at conferences, I felt less pressure, thus freeing up my creativity, which helped me write more.

I also discovered that just because you have more time doesn’t mean you’ll write more. One thing I did do more was read, and that helped me with my writing. I also went back to school and obtained my MFA in Writing for Children. It helped me gain perspective and feel more confident about my craft, and I was part of a great community of writers.

It’s taken me almost four years to replicate my teaching salary. I’m not going to sugar-coat itthose four years were hard. There were times when I thought of going back to teaching. I still do think of it occasionally during those times when the writing isn’t going as well as I’d hoped, but I continue to work hard. I’ve now sold four books and won a few awards, and my books have been translated into other languages. All of that motivates me to keep going.

I know that Stephen King didn’t start out with the above schedule. He was a high-school English teacher, and finding time to write was hard: “By most Friday afternoons I felt as if I’d spent the week with jumper cables clamped to my brain. If I ever came close to despairing about my future as a writer, it was then.” It wasn’t until paperback rights of Carrie were sold that he was able to quit his job. For most of us, it isn’t a huge book sale that allows us to quit our day jobs; it’s more of a gradual increase in our advances and royalties. It’s school and library visits that we’re paid for. It’s hard work, but it can happen, and by preparing ahead, by looking at what we have to face, at what we’re ready and capable of doing, we can set ourselves up for successful careers as full-time authors and make the transition easier.

Oh, and we can still dream about that huge sale, too.

Loretta Ellsworth is a former teacher and a graduate of Hamline University’s MFA Program in Writing for Children. She is the author of The Shrouding Woman, a BBCB Choice and Rebecca Caudill Nominee; In Search of Mockingbird, a Teen’s Top Ten nominee, an ALA and IRA Notable, winner of the Midwest Bookseller’s Choice Honor Award for Children’s Literature, and named to the New York Library List of Teenage Books; In a Heartbeat, a Midwest Connection’s Pick and ALAN Pick; and Unforgettable, which received that elusive Kirkus star and was a Kirkus Critic’s Pick for September. She appears at numerous book festivals across the nation and teaches writing to young people as well as those not so young. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Teaching writing

Here’s one thing I’m going to miss about having both a teaching career and a writing career: those rare opportunities when I get to combine the two. I’ve done this a few times already, once when I gave a presentation at an academic conference on the Classics in children’s literature (got a deductible trip to London and Wales out of that one!), and another time when I was on a panel about young-adult literature set in the Middle Ages, at the fabulous International Congress on Medieval Studies.

I’m in the middle of doing it again right now. I’ll be teaching a First-Year (=Freshman) Writing Seminar on writing for young readers at my university next semester, and I’ve devoted the beginning of my Thanksgiving break to finalizing my first rough draft of the syllabus, which I've been picking at for weeks now.

Just as those of us who write hoping for publication are told to read, read, read, my students too will have to do a lot of reading before and while they’re doing their own writing for young readers. I’ve been browsing all sorts of lists, reading books on teaching writing to undergraduates, talking to people who teach both children’s literature and writing for children, trying to figure out how to cram a lot of information into the students’ heads in a short time while keeping the process enjoyable. 

I’m really curious about what kind of work the students will turn out. I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised at the quality of their work, but I hope even more that I can help them improve it, either from abysmal to bearable or from good to terrific. In the meantime, I'd love to hear from anyone who has taught a course like this—or any kind of creative writing, for that matter.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Flex Time

When I stop teaching, I’ll be trading a full-time job (teaching) and a part-time job (writing) plus a busy volunteer commitment with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for a full-time job (writing) and the same volunteer commitment. I’ll have more time for promotion of my books, including making school visits and going to book fairs both here and abroad.

You might think that I don’t need any more time. I get a week off at Thanksgiving and in the spring, a few weeks in the winter, and of course, four months in the summer.

The problem is that this schedule is inflexible. If I take a day off at some time than the scheduled breaks, whether for illness or because of a writing commitment, I have to scramble to find someone to cover for me, or adjust my syllabi so that my students aren't shortchanged. College professors don’t have a pool of substitutes to call on—there aren’t many people out there who can come in at a moment’s notice and teach a class in, say, Italian Composition—and we pack a lot into a semester, so it doesn’t take long to fall behind if I need to go to a conference or make a school visit.

I teach in a very cool building.
I'm grateful that my department chairs have, for the past few years, allowed me to arrange my classes so that I have one day off a week. This is great for local school visits, but it still makes travel to other states difficult, and weekend conferences and book fairs impossible, if I need to take a weekday for travel to wherever the event is being held.

Fortunately, some of these events take place after my semester has ended. In the last ten days of April, starting pretty much the second that classes end, I’ll be in four different states doing book fairs, conferences, and school visits!

A lot of associations have conferences and workshops where I could learn more about writing and promotion, and where I could potentially make a contribution of my own. So, what events are on my wish-list when I have the freedom to travel during the school year?

News flash: After I had compiled this list, Kristin Tubb sent me a link to a state-by-state listing of book fairs. She's also writing an article about them for BorderLines, the SCBWI-Midsouth newsletter.

Writer friends, what am I missing?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Is it worth it?

When the lovely and indomitable Tracy Barrett asked me to write a post for her blog about giving up your day job to write full time…well…I had a number of first thoughts.

The first being…give up? Give up my day job? I didn’t give up my day job. I left it at a run, cheering my head off. Quitting my corporate (soul sucking drudgery) day job (as a UI Web Development Manager for AT&T Labs) was the best thing I ever did. Okay, maybe not the very best thing as that sacred spot should be reserved for things like marriage and having a child, but definitely one of the best things. Ever.

Except, you know, for the paycheck thing.

I had been around the industry enough through my years doing occasional freelance work and founding YA Books Central that I knew writing was not the fast or easy way to the big bucks. That, in fact, the big bucks more than likely would never come even if I did get published. My modest hope was that I could make enough from my writing that I could justify continuing to write—perhaps not just to myself, but to my husband. After all, it was only through his largesse (and good job) that I was able to write full time anyway.

Well, fast forward roughly five years later and I’ve had two books published with a third on the way (Cat Girl’s Day Off, Spring 2012). We’ve also moved three times, including last year’s international move to London, England. And we had a baby, who is now most definitely a little boy—he’s started school (okay, it’s more like nursery and it’s just half days…he is only three and a half, but it’s still like writing time on a platter)!

My first two books have been translated into multiple languages (Spanish, Czech, Croatian, and French). They’ve been awarded some nice honors (like a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers). I get some (amazingly lovely) fan mail pretty much every day from all over the world. I’m on my third agent (having sold the first book without one at all) and I’m working on an entirely new YA (not funny, but kind of a creepy paranormal) novel now.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

But the big bucks? Um.

It’s depressing, but I have to admit that I’m still making less as an author than I did on my first (rather crappy) job out of college. Actually, I might be making less than my first job during college. And a lot of writers are in that same boat.  It’s definitely not unusual, especially when you get paid so infrequently, not to mention we’re in the middle of a huge change in the market. E-books, E-readers, Indie Authors Everywhere….Oh my!

So, for those of you reading this and wondering if you should take the plunge…yes, it can absolutely be the best thing in the world. But plan for it to take a long time before you are earning a comfortable amount of money (or have a really great spouse who makes enough to support the family). Me, I probably really did it backwards by quitting before getting established. It’s a hard choice as you obviously have more time to write without the day job (though time has a mysterious way of disappearing once you have a child…in fact, I should probably say I’m a full-time mother and part-time author if I’m being honest because there’s really no alternative when you have a toddler in the house).

Ultimately, I don’t regret it and would still leave my (high paying *sniff*) day job in a minute. Should you do the same? Only you can answer that.

P.S. I really hope I don’t sound too doom and gloom. Being a writer is the best thing ever (okay, after marriage and having a baby).

Kimberly Pauley is the author of the award-winning Sucks to Be Me, which was honored on the YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers list. The sequel, Still Sucks to Be Me, was listed on the VOYA Best Science Fiction Fantasy List of 2010. Born in California, she has lived everywhere from Florida to Chicago and has now gone international to live in London with her husband (a numbers man) and the cutest little boy on any continent (The Max). She wrote Cat Girl’s Day Off because she wanted to share what cats really think with the world. Visit her online.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


I wrote a post a while ago asking for help coming up with a list financial perqs that people lose when they leave their jobs. I guess it was pretty complete, because I received only one addition (stock options).

How about the flip side—the savings you’ll reap when you’re no longer going to a day job? Again, I’m looking for a complete list, so I’ve included items here that aren’t relevant to me. For example, anyone who has been on a college campus lately knows that my savings in the wardrobe line will be minimal. While some professors do dress up, “business casual” is a bit more formal than what most of us aspire to. Transportation for me means a new pair of walking shoes every six months. It could help my colleagues, though, as the cost of parking at my university is over $300 a year!

So—most people who quit their day jobs might expend to spend less money on:
  • day care
  • pet care
  • wardrobe
  • transportation
  • meals
  • Depending on how stressful your job is, you might be able to cut down on your drinking once you're no longer going there every day (oh, I'm kidding)

Wow, that list is a lot shorter than the one detailing what perqs people stand to lose! I suppose I could add that every time that work commitments force me to turn down a speaking engagement or postpone writing I'm losing money, but that hardly seems fair; until I trade one kind of work for another, of course I'm not availing myself of the income from the second.

So what am I forgetting? Please help!