Monday, June 3, 2013

Should I, Should I Not?

I'm delighted to welcome to Criminal Minds this week Susan Shea, a friend and a wonderful mystery writer.  Susan C. Shea moved from an early career in journalism to a second one as an executive and then head of her own consulting practice.  She ran marketing, fundraising, and communications programs for a variety of prestigious organizations, picking up good stories along the way.  In 2006, she made the break she had been dreaming of, quitting her day job to write fiction full time as a third career.  She's a member of the board of the northern California Sisters in Crime, and a past board member of Norcal's Mystery Writers of America.  Susan's a transplanted New Yorker, and a lover of exotic places, fine art, great food, and sparkling events—just like Dani O'Rourke, her series protagonist.  She lives in Marin County, California.  You can visit Susan's website at

Susan's new Dani O'Rourke mystery, The King's Jar, is getting glowing reviews.  Kirkus Reviews call it, "[w]ickedly funny" (and we know how picky they are).  Library Journal says, "This San Francisco–based cozy is fresh, fast-paced, and great fun. Shea's characters' professional and personal foibles are done especially well." 

By Susan C. Shea

It took me five years and three writers’ conferences to write five chapters of my first book while I worked as an exec in higher education. Then, with the love and support of my S.O., I quit my day job. It took me five months to finish the book, which became Murder in the Abstract.

The pros of keeping your day job are easy. You won't have to sleep on the street, you can feed all the hungry mouths in your nest, and you’ll be able to buy designer jeans with holes in the knees that make it look as if you were sleeping on the street. When someone asks you what you do, you’ll have an answer that makes both you and the asker comfortable, that puts you in a safe, predictable niche. Unless, of course, your day job is wringing chicken’s necks or serving as O.J. Simpson’s newest lawyer. Either of those two jobs might give you some great ideas for a thriller, however, so that’s another plus.

There are tradeoffs for those designer jeans. You’ll have to get up at four a.m. or stay up until four a.m. to find the time to write your three-hundred page book. Alternatively, you’ll have to do what a fine, published writer said she managed for years: Go out to her car for thirty minutes at lunchtime and write. Every day, rain, sleet, or hot sun, sitting cramped in the car. Not so much fun.

If you have a job, as I did, that includes schmoozing at odd hours and the need to write persuasive, even manipulative, memos and reports, the time suck is enormous and – worse – you have to shrug off the style of writing so familiar in business when you turn to your manuscript. Your protagonist can’t leap into a room, gun held smartly in front of her at shoulder height like a cop in “The Wire,” and shout, “There is a plethora of good reasons why you should consider complying with my proposal to relinquish this course of action.”

I can’t complain about having had to work for many years. It gave me a chance to save my pennies, and to practice the fine art of getting the first chapter right. It overloaded me with ideas for characters, settings, story lines, and potential victims. (I’m still searching for just the right way to kill an I.T. guy I knew…) There were those conferences, where I met other struggling first-time writers, listened to great authors tell us they had started right where we had, and worked up my courage for the ultimate step off the cliff.

Some superb writers never do quit their day jobs. They have managed to avoid the worst of the drawbacks or to barrel right past them with their talent and drive. They publish lots of books, win awards, and dazzle readers. I’m afraid I’d still be stumping through the revisions of the first book instead of celebrating the publication of the second and tearing my hair over the revisions for the third.

Speaking of that second book, The King’s Jar, which was published May 1, I’m offering a signed copy here to a commenter chosen randomly from those posted before midnight June 9th. Good luck.


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Welcome, Susan! I roared at: “There is a plethora of good reasons why you should consider complying with my proposal to relinquish this course of action.”

As a paralegal, I also had to relearn how to write when I started in fiction. Now I work at keeping my legal writing skills from gobbling up my creative writing skills.

Mark Terry said...

I've been a full-time freelance writer and novelist for 8-1/2 years now, making a pretty good living through a combination of my novels and damn near anything else I can get paid to write - magazine articles, newsletters, website content, brochures, white papers, press releases, etc. It's wonderful and I couldn't go back and don't want to - but... I'm not sure it's for everyone. I always dreamed of writing full-time, but I never really envisioned how stressful it can occasionally be when money is owed and is slow to show, when the business slows down, when, yes, as a matter of fact, it seems like a grind just like any other job and you wish you were able to just show up at a job and get paid for it (with paid time off, paid holidays, vacations, sick days, health insurance and a retirement plan!). If you tend to live day to day and paycheck to paycheck, this isn't the life for you. And man, the world of distractions out there when you're a full-timer. I was probably more productive when I worked full-time with a long commute and wrote on the - because I had to crank out a specific number of words in a short period of time.

Still, I'm happy with it.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations to anyone who has an "s.o." or who can afford to ditch their day job to write. I have no s.o. I am my bread winner, and unfortunately I can't just ditch my job and still expect someone to pay the mortgage. I also cannot earn in my writing (yet) what I need to pay said mortgage. So, for me there is no "choice". I think for most writers that is true.

Anonymous said...

Yes. Real life vs writing...I had a terrible time finding the urge to write when I was working at a soul-destroying job that sucked all creative solutions out of me just to keep my minions happy. Alas, I was diagnosed with MS. Hooray! This meant all the time in the world to write! Sadly, it also pulled the legs out from under my brain. And so it goes.
I think we all struggle with time and priorities and focus - but I loved the way you described having to shift tone. I used to write public health campaigns - you know, those ones that are so scraped clean of any controversy they could be uniformly grey. Still recovering.

Susan C Shea said...

Sue, you amaze me. I read your FB posts about squeezing in time to write 3000 words in a day and gasp.

Mark, you describe it so well. I was a freelance journalist for years and that was, indeed, the tradeoff. And motivating oneself is no simple thing, is it?

Anon., I should explain my dear S.O. was an artist and the love of my life. He made the choice to be an artist at 25 and lived with the uncertainty for decades. His support of me was by believing in me, and by showing me how to live simply but joyfully.

Dorothy, you're a wonderful writer: "pulled the legs out from under my brain." Perfect.

Catriona McPherson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Catriona McPherson said...

I mangled my syntax! Meant to say "Wonderful post, Susan, and very gracious handling of the "congratulations" from the anonymous commenter." Cx

Chris said...

Thanks for stopping by, Susan!

If I might address our anonymous commenter for a moment, you'll note that Susan was not suggesting all would-be writers quit their jobs, nor that doing so is either a necessary or sufficient condition for writerly success. She was merely sharing her own experience, and offering free books up out of the kindness of her heart.

I think you'll find, Anonymous, plenty of 'Minders (this one included) are fully day-jobbed, and nonetheless find the time to write. It's true, we're not graded on a curve for working two jobs, but it's also true writing's not a zero-sum game, so perhaps your ire toward those with the freedom to write full-time is a tad misplaced.

And just think of the writing time you wasted commenting on this post...

Sheila York said...

Ah, if only I'd had the foresight to be born with rich parents. Your question is provocative indeed, as it raises immediately the issue of the yawning gap between writers who have family money, SOs with good jobs or have had the good fortune of a good other career that left them with enough in savings to quit, and those who have to depend on themselves entirely. Most writers couldn't live in any sort of comfort -- let alone save for the future -- on writing income alone. I would offer two big pros for the other job, in my case: 1) the relative security -- regular pay, 401k, health insurance -- and 2) contact with other humans. I am by nature a bit of a loner/hermit if left to my own devices. It's hard to write about other people if you don't get out and see them. But then I enjoy my other career.

Susan C Shea said...

Sheila, For some of us, it's all in the timing. With no rich parents, and kids to raise, I held my day jobs (days and man evenings, and not a few weekends) for decades and enjoyed them. But I had a dream. When you can visualize yourself clearly in the other life, it ceases to be a dream and becomes a plan.When the day came, I had the stepping stones in place. But everyone's path is there own and none is better or worse than anyone else's! The writing's the thing.

Susan C Shea said...

Sorry about the typos: "many" and "their". The screen size in this comment box is about 2 points and combined with my crummy typing...

Jim Jackson said...

It's great that you made a decision that after all these years still feels right. Many make major changes in their life for the wrong reasons.

I had a saying that those who retired from work usually died early. Those who retired to something had enjoyable "retirements."

Best for the future.

~ Jim