There is a phrase that’s often used in fiction writing: “the lie your character believes”. It’s something a character believes at the start of the book that is, in some way, a flawed vision of the world. It can be big or small, but at the start of the story they are certain of its truth – something so deep that they never even question it. And by the end of the story they will have not only seen it, but been forced to realise that it was untrue and move forwards. For example, at the start of The Hobbit, Bilbo describes adventures as nasty uncomfortable things that make you late for dinner. By the end, having adventures is his defining characteristic (at least to the other hobbits). Of course, not all character arcs can be thought of like this, but it can be a helpful tool.
As someone who is always writing stories in my head, I have kept that phrase in the back of my mind to apply to my own life. I often ask myself: what is the lie that I am believing? And it turns out I’ve been telling myself a ground-shatteringly big one for the last ten years.
Before I tell you what the lie is, I just want to break the analogy between real life and a story narrative. Of course you can craft a story out of you life and sometimes life is so full of coincidences that no one would ever believe it written down. But equally it is much easier to craft a narrative looking back on parts of life. So if you sit around waiting for the training montage or whatever element of fiction (like the mysterious mentor or a stranger come to town) that should move your life forward, you’ll never get anywhere. Or rather, you might be very disappointed.
And the reason I say this, mostly, is because I recently went on a great big walk across a part of America. There is such an archetype for ‘finding yourself’ by going on an adventure that I want to state explicitly: I did not have this revelation on my walk. I had it about 3 months earlier, sitting in my kitchen one average afternoon. Which, though it would have been boring to read, meant it was fantastic to live. I could start taking action immediately and spent those 3 months looking forward to America, but also looking forward to coming home and getting started.
The lie: that you can’t make money as a fiction author.
A Quick Recap on the Story so Far
The full extent of the story of me and writing stories goes back to when I was 11. But since that (linked) blog post was written, I’ve come to this journey in a different light: one of self deception. I was on the straight and true up until I went to university. Took a degree I hated, and had to abandon writing to be able to get a good grade. I succeeded, and I was amazed to discover, going back through my fiction drafts, just how long into university I was still trying to get published. (My memory has dimmed out a lot of those four years, which might have been a coping mechanism.) I was still sending letters to agents in 2012 – my second year, when I was living in an exceedingly mouldy house and scrabbling to stay afloat academically. Which means I only actually stopped writing for two years. It felt like an age.
Anyway, what went wrong is that I got back from university in an utter mess and embarked on trying to make money. I put aside my stories to go on the quest of earning a stable living and doing “what I was supposed to do”. And I wasn’t even doing it the way I was “supposed” to be doing it. I had a new job every 2 years, interspersed with adventures. I was trying out all sorts of random business ideas (one of which was Intrepid Magazine, most never intersected with the Venn diagram of this blog).
I got a job as a staff writer, but I wasn’t writing books or fiction. I quit my job to allegedly go freelance. Which is kind of true. But really I quit my job to try to claw back time and creative energy to write my novel. But I never put the novel first. Instead, I ran around doing what I’d said I wanted, trying to “be a freelancer”. Which in my case meant ping-ponging around the world as a travel writer – great fun on the face of it, but with very little stability (to sit down and write) and a very inefficient way to get paid. That created a sense of passive panic, that meant I was always working or trying to pitch new work or chasing invoices and never felt like I could let myself just sit and write the novel. I was sacrificing the one thing I’d always wanted to do for instant gratification: the sweet shop of adventures I was being invited on. It was stupid and I can see that now – and I’d like to apologise deeply to my 11 year old self for doing her so wrong.
But here we are. I now understand that if I want writing and publishing novels to be something I do full time. Then I’d better start putting that first, whatever that takes. Not just saying it, but actually doing it – acting like it is a priority, rather than waiting for some unspecified date when I’ll be able to start.
Examining the Lie
And back to the lie: I have been acting like I can’t make a living out of writing fiction. I’ve been trying to keep something going on the side, be that a job or career or a freelance business. Creating something that earns good money while also trying to create this book. And with the mindset I’ve been in, that meant try to earn money first, do book later. I’ve been stuck on the final draft of Swords of Randas since July 2022. Not because I’ve been stuck but because I’ve been unable to just sit down at a desk and write the damn thing. Rather than be distracted by every other work opportunity.
Can you make a living out of writing fiction? You certainly can. Some people are managing it. I watched Mia Kuzniar take a year off work to write a children’s novel which turned into her writing career. She’s writing full time and published four books since I first started following her online. Then there’s people like Brandon Sanderson, who’s books I have never read, but who raised $41 million on a single Kickstarter for books. And he was definitely in the millions even before that, with his own publishing company and merch. That’s writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Sure, two examples doesn’t mean everyone makes it (and of course there are far more). But, to use a mathematical way of thinking, it does prove that it’s not impossible. A solution exists. It could be me.
If you’d asked me before, I would have said that you could make a living as a writer. Perhaps what I believed was that you couldn’t really be very successful financially as a novel writer. Because I grew up in that huge whirlwind of publishing when JK Rowling was becoming a millionaire. Every statement of wanting to be a successful fiction writer was cautioned by “yes, but what’s happening now is not normal”. But I feel like the publishing industry has opened up so much more since then that, if anything, it is more possible now to do well as an author. There are so many more tools for selling direct to consumer.
How I’m moving forward
So, what am I doing? Other than publicly saying: hey look at me, I’m writing fiction and hope to do well. (In fact I’m barely doing that, because I’m not sure anyone actually reads this blog anymore. This is much more of a record for me!)
I am making a way that I can have time to write fiction. Being a freelancer, especially as an adventure travel writer, is a very inefficient way to do that. Having lots of savings or having a husband with a stable job are both options other novelists have used. But since it’s just me and I have wasted my 2 years on freelancing, I need to act. I’ve got a part time job. Not a high paying, cerebral, office based, time-sucking job. A job where I am paid on attendance not on performance. Where I know exactly what is “enough” work because I have hours. A job I don’t have to sit in front of a computer for nor commute for miles. I’ve got a job in a local shop.
It’s minimum wage, but I have enough hours to pay my mortgage and other expenses. And it’s still part time enough for me to write. I can’t faff around and waste those free hours on other things though. I need to write like I mean it.
I am making a stable base upon which to function. It’s taken me a while to realise that not only is it really difficult running a household while working (aka the modern ‘have it all’) but I don’t want to. So many authors have a significant other to support them by dealing with all the other stuff while they write. Not to say they don’t help out, but there’s someone else to lean on. I don’t have that, so I need to use systems and planning instead.
I kind of enjoy cooking, but I don’t enjoy having to do it every few days and the washing up after. And frankly I’d be just as happy eating a cold camping meal as a hot roast dinner or a microwave curry. It doesn’t mean as much to me as other things. So I have taught myself how to batch cook (slowly! This took me over 2 hours) and I’m pre-cooking enough varied meals for 3 months, packed into single portions in a chest freezer. Sure it might not taste as nice, but it frees up so much of my time. And stops me getting to dinner time and realising I’m too hungry to wait to cook and don’t have any food in the house anyway…
Similarly, I’m creating a system around household chores and writing them into my diary as items. That way, again, I don’t have to be constantly thinking about it. When it comes up in the diary, I do it. Then get back to writing.
I am actually doing the writing. So far, this has worked pretty well. Having the headspace to know that my bills are covered and that I don’t have to do logistics for 3 trips and organise 101 projects, I can simply sit and write. At the moment I’m managing 4-6 hours a day when I’m not working in the shop. Suddenly I have a framework to live off – and I like it. I’m not going to stop doing adventures (please, dear reader, don’t worry!) but my work days are now simply split like they used to be at school. Either I’m at the shop or I’m at home at my writing desk. Or it’s a weekend and I’m renovating a kitchen or spending time with friends.
Is this a Full Reset?
It’s easy to slip into thinking of all this negatively, as having wasted the past 10 years on a single mistake. In fact, it’s quite hard not to! Because this feels like a full reset. On the face of it, I’m doing now what I probably ought to have been done when I first escaped university. But there are so many things I’ve gained from the past decade, albeit sporadically.
I have a home which, despite being mostly owned by the bank and still feeling like a construction site, is a place I can be and write and live however I choose. That is incredibly liberating. I have lots of experience of business and marketing and publishing. And as for writing, we only get better with time. My list of writing experience, publications and awards will certainly put me in a much stronger position when pitching my novel to literary agents. At the very least, I’m in a stronger position than when I was still in education.
And so, all that remains to be said is that if you want to follow the fiction side of my writing journey then I have started a Substack for that. It’s got almost nothing on it yet and I don’t know what I’ll write, but that’s where it’ll be when I have something to say. Everything else will remain as is on here and I’ve got such a back catalogue of adventures that I didn’t get time to talk about in the past two years, you should barely notice a difference. I just need a little minute to finish making that platform I’ve been talking about and I’ll be straight back blogging.
Anyway, if you’re reading, I hope this was in some way interesting or insightful. And if you’re me reading from the future, I really hope we did it. I will do everything I can to do the good work and take the right actions to get us there.