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. 

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