Tom Pollock: Writing Around A Day Job

And now, a guest post by a really amazing author: Tom Pollock. Tom wanted to talk about how he maintains both a writing career and a day job at the same time, and that felt like a very useful perspective, indeed. I don’t necessarily agree with everything here — if I’d taken some of this advice to heart, I suspect I’d not have the career I have at present, but I’m also, er, fortunate enough to have never liked any of my day jobs all that much. The only day job I ever wanted was to be a full-time author — but some of what Tom is putting out there is vital for those who want to keep their current work while writing on the side.

So, with that all said —

Everyone say “Hi, Tom!”

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Maybe this is a place to mention this, but I’ve always felt a little weird about giving writing advice.

This isn’t just because, as Patrick Ness so rightly puts it, ‘no-one can tell you how to write, they can only tell you how they write’ it’s also because I can’t even tell myself how I’m going to write the next book. Every time I start a novel it feels like the first time.  I’m sitting down to write my fourth one right now, and it still makes me feel like a nervous virgin who’s just realised he forgot to take off his socks before his trousers.

I know one way I’m not going to write it though: full time.  I’ve written three novels in three years around a day job that I really like, and I’ll do the same with this one. People sometimes ask me for practical tips on how I fit it all in, so here’s how:

(Disclaimer: your mileage may vary and your domestic circumstances may differ from mine. In particular, I am aware I have no kids. Still, I hope some of this is useful to you.)

Plan your time.

This is the biggie, if you take nothing else away from this post take this. If you’re effectively trying to do two jobs at once, then time is likely to be your scarcest resource, and like any scarce resource, you’ll need to budget. Plan your week ahead, know when you’re writing.  Have a routine. Compartmentalize like a fiend.

For example: I write on Monday nights, Wednesday nights and during the day on Sundays. The rest of the time I see family and friends, eat cereal, rage against the dying of the light, answer email, eat more cereal, make terrible puns on twitter and watch Netflix.

I find it helps (though it’s not essential and I understand this can be tricky) to have a general idea of how fast you write, so you can know how much time you’ll need. I turn out about five hundred words an hour when I’m first-drafting. That’s roughly two-hundred hours to a first draft. Writing eight hours a week, which is more or less what I do (two hours each in the weekday evenings and four on the weekend) gets me to a 100k first draft in six months, another six for revision and that’s a finished novel in a year.

Yes, a lot of people write every day. You can if you want to. You don’t have to. I don’t.  A lot of people (like my gracious host, Chuck) write more than one book a year. You can if you want to. You don’t have to. I don’t. (Spoiler: this will be a running theme.)

Stick to your plan.

Once you’ve got it planned out, do it.

If your buddy Alex asks you if you want to go see Guardians of the Galaxy on Wednesday? Sorry matey, I’m writing. I find getting out of the house to write helps here. Work has its own place, writing has its own place too, and when I’m at home I’m at home: off duty. This keeps me from being tempted to pretend I’m writing while I’ve got an Elementary marathon on in the background.

It’s not just your writing time that’s sacred, either. The point of compartmentalisation isn’t just to keep writing safe from the rest of your life, but to keep the rest of your life safe from your writing time, this helps with…

Don’t let writing turn you into an asshole.

If you’re anything like me then about three months into the book, a nasty, Gollum-like voice will whispering inside your head. It’ll suck its breath in through its broken teeth like it’s reluctant to give you bad news and then it’ll say something like:

‘I hate to tell you this Tom, but there are only so many hours in the day, and you’re already spending so many of them at the day job. You keep seeing on Twitter how everyone else is writing every spare second of every day (I mean, even Stephen frickin’ King says you need to write every day, and he’s Stephen frickin’ King).  What if everyone else is getting ahead because you’re not focussed on your game? Everyone’s talking about how tough the market is right now. Maybe it’s time to make the writing the priority, even ahead of some of the people in your life. They’ll understand right? This is your dream. Everyone has a right to follow their dreams. Hell, if they don’t understand, maybe they don’t deserve you.’

Do not listen to this voice. This voice is a massive dick, formed out of your own paranoia at falling behind some imagined curve and cloaked in just enough statement-of-the-obvious to make itself look reasonable. Yes, there may be times when you need to prioritize, and you know what? Prioritize the people. They’re more important.

For one thing, you can afford to — you’ve got a day job covering the income. For another, you won’t actually get any more done if you’re worrying about how you’ve fucked up all the human connections in your life. The fact that writing is not the a1 priority in your life does not mean you won’t get it done. So stop panicking and bake a goddam cake for the real love of your life.

Enjoy it.

Internet legend Ze Frank put it best: ‘life isn’t just a sequence of waiting for things to be done’. You are entitled to expect to have fun. Not that every minute at the keyboard will be as 100% pleasurable and frustration free as an orgasm on MDMA. It won’t, but on average, overall you ought to enjoy it, and find it satisfying. And if you don’t? If for some reason you’re labouring away at a pastime you hate because you’re invested in the idea of being a writer, but detest the activity? It’s okay, you can stop. You kept your day job, remember?

Frankly, everybody who writes, day job or not, ought to be having fun with it, otherwise why bother? But this is one of those areas where keeping the civilian occupation can be a positive boon. If you aren’t looking for this book to pay your gas bill, it frees you up to write whatever the hell turns you on. It pulls some of the teeth out of the ‘is this commercial enough?’ vampire.

Aaaaaaand that’s all I got. I assume a lot of you guys are writing around day jobs, what helps you cram it in?

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Inventor of monsters, hugger of bears: Tom Pollock is a long time fan of science fiction and fantasy who steadfastly refuses to grow out of his obsession with things that don’t exist. His Skyscraper Throne Trilogy (The City’s Son, The Glass Republic, Our Lady of The Streets) has been shortlisted for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle and British Fantasy Awards. The Skyscraper Throne is probably the most urban fantasy you’ll ever read. The first volume The City’s Sonis about a teenage graffiti artist sucked into a world of runaway train ghosts, glass-skinned streetlamp spirits, wolves made of scaffolding, and demolition gods with cranes for fingers. Things get weirder from there.

72 comments

  • I’m amused that he says “this will be a running theme” about the “You can if you want to. You don’t have to. I don’t.” phrase, and them promptly forgets to ever mention it again.

    Overall, useful advice. I’m working a day job, and also have two kids to raise, mostly on my own right now. I’m lucky if I get an hour of downtime at work to cram in a few hundred words. Nights and weekends… I never have the mental energy to put words to paper.

  • Gracias, thanks, merci…
    These words of advice really help. I have started and stopped so many times because of the day job. I know this can be done. It’s about discipline and structure.

  • Ha! I have the Gollemy Massive Dick voice speaking to me all the time (it goes along with a sense of panic). Thanks for this!

    Now my internal mantra will be “Don’t be a massive dick.”

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