Part-time writer doesn’t equal full-time failure – Tilly Tennant

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By Tilly Tennant

Sometime in 2007 after I had written my first novel, I had a dream. I suspect it’s the same dream many other new authors have: to quit my day job and write full time. I said as much to anyone who would listen and I set about making my dream come true. ♥

I worked hours into the night, every night when I’d done at the desk job. I wrote at weekends and bank holidays, I got up at the crack of dawn to take advantage of the times when the kids were still in bed, and I even squeezed the odd paragraph in during my lunch break at work. I thought of little else but plots and perfect sentences. I crunched the books out and though I hardly had time for my family for what amounted to a good year, I kept telling myself that it was for their sake, and that it would make life good for us because eventually I would be able to work from home and I would be around a lot more for them. In truth, I was kidding myself, because, now that I look back on that year, I realise that I was quite simply obsessed with the goal I had set myself, as if being a full-time author was some holy grail of success.

I sent out manuscripts to publishers and agents, and like most other writers, I got plenty of rejections. I was crushed by each one, but even worse was the time that they took to come through, which could be months. I was impatient, not getting any younger, and my dream was slipping further away with every passing week. I got sick of the rejection treadmill and started to self-publish via Amazon, seeing so many other authors succeed by themselves and getting the life I craved.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post now if that foray into indie publishing had made me rich overnight. My experience of that was good, and it taught me a lot, but, like many other authors, it didn’t give me the salary I needed to pay the mortgage. Still, I persevered, obsessed over reviews and rankings, I looked at what my peers were doing and obsessed over how much better they were getting along than me. I didn’t like the person I was becoming. All I could think about was how much the next royalty cheque would be worth, whether it was enough to quit work, would I be able to sustain it, how come everyone else was earning all this money and I wasn’t? Then it started to hit my confidence. The measure of success had shifted from how pleased I was with a finished book, or the kind words of readers, to how much money it had made. This wasn’t what writing was about – surely? This wasn’t why I had started to write in the first place.

A curious side-effect of all this began to emerge. Instead of writing what I wanted, what I loved to write, and hoping that readers would like it too, my creativity became stifled by the notion that it didn’t matter what people thought, or whether I had loved writing it, but only that it sold. That was when it started to feel like a slog and the joy disappeared, until there were days that turned into weeks where I simply did not want to write at all. The writing dropped off, and I came to terms with the idea that the day job wasn’t so bad.

I made more time for the kids and we had one glorious summer break where we did what other families do – went out for walks, had holidays and lie-ins and barbeques and trips to the cinema. I didn’t worry about my word count or how much money my latest book had made that month. While I’d been busy chasing that elusive dream where I got to stay at home every day and spend more time with my family, I’d forgotten to spend time with my family, and I’d also forgotten just how much fun that could be.

Then I had an epiphany. Worrying about making an income from writing good enough to replace the income from my day job had actually become counterproductive, and while I worried about it my writing would suffer and never be good enough to achieve that goal. As soon as I began to relax, to pace myself, to accept that if I was good enough, things would come together in time, that maybe working at the day job was a safety net worth keeping, I suddenly wanted to write more, but this time it was fun again. The notion that I was somehow a failure as a writer because I wasn’t doing it full time was forcing me to take it far too seriously and killing my joy for the thing that I loved.

Now that I’ve accepted I’ll need both jobs in my life for as long as it takes, I’ve never been more content. Without the pressure of production for profit hanging over me, the writing is enjoyable again and much better for it. The strange thing about all this is since I started to relax, success has started to trickle in. I met my agent quite by chance at a self-publishing conference, and she, in turn, has brought lots of opportunities to my door. The royalties have crept up, and I often wonder if it’s time to take that leap.

So I chat with my agent whenever my mind turns to leaving work, about whether I should quit yet, and we always come to the same conclusion – that I’m just better with a foot in each world until I’m really, absolutely, completely ready, and that there’s no reason to rush it. I used to worry about how it looked to others that I didn’t make my living as a writer, that it somehow made me less of a writer, but now I take the extra income gratefully, and I spend it on my kids while the day job salary takes care of the bills. We struggled before, as many families do, and it’s lovely now to be able to treat my loved ones once in a while.

I’m not saying that I’ll never give up the day job, and I’ve just been given a six-month career break to write my next novel, which feels like the best holiday ever, but life is pretty good right now doing both, and I don’t see a reason to change that just yet. I have to admit that it still drives me a little crazy when I tell colleagues that I write books, and their response is utter confusion. ‘You’re a writer? What are you working here for?’ What they want to add, but are too polite to, is: ‘If you were any good you wouldn’t need a day job, so I’ll assume you’re crap.’ I try not to let it bother me now, and I give them a polite smile and walk away. I’ll take the plunge one day, I’m sure, but when I do it will be on my terms.

Tilly Tennant was born in Dorset but now lives in Staffordshire with her family. After years of dismal and disastrous jobs, including paper plate stacking, shop girl, newspaper promotions and waitressing (she never could carry a bowl of soup without spilling a bit), she decided to indulge her passion for the written word by embarking on a degree in English and creative writing. She wrote her first novel in 2007 and also works as a freelance fiction editor. Her latest novel, The Little Village Bakery, is out now from Bookouture.

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