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!”

* * *

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?

* * *

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 am so bad at doing this thing you are discussing that I have no place to comment, buuut…

    I find writing at lunch is brilliant. You’re not obligated to be working for a solid half an hour, the time is roughly consistent every day and a small notepad and pen easily fit in your pocket.

    Meetings are great too, if you’re in one where your presence is superfluous. This may displease your boss, but it could also help you stay awake during a particularly dull presentation.

    Mowing the lawn is a great time to muse on ideas and let your mind wander while you stand behind a giant white noise machine. Be prepared to stop and jot down any brainstorms that might hit.

    As to scheduling: I have a one-year-old son, and he does play merry Hob with any attempt at planning. I resolved last week to write every night from 10-10:30, a training wheels goal. The first night my son woke up at 9:55 and stayed awake until 10:32 on the dot. The second night he stayed asleep, but my wife needed my help with something, again during the magic half-hour. By Thursday I was refactoring my schedule, and I’ve yet to solidify it.

    • I hear ya, David! I have done some wordsauce on breaks. This is why I snack as I work (a no-no, hehe) and I don’t eat on my break. That way I can either write or work on an outline for my coming rough draft. I have a crazy life, so I get it. And it will be a while before my boks are paying bills so I need all the help I can get.

  • Awesome perspective, Tom.
    And you’re so right – I have to remind myself if I’m not enjoying this, then why the hell would I keep doing it? I have a day job. One novel per year is enough, already.
    For me, the thing that helps me cram everything in is the scheduled writing time. Two hours at least three nights/week. then Saturdays. Helps me exorcize the demons from the day job.

  • I’ve found a free place to write in New York fuckin City of all places! I do it before work. I get up at 7:00 – 7:30 have a coffee and breakfast and slug my sleepy ass down to wall street. Then, I have another coffee with a pb & j (great writing fuel) and sit among the homeless people talking to themselves, the wall street medium-shots (the big shots are already in the office – running on pure self will and greed), and the tour guides with their gaggles of foreigners-for-the-day, and I write. Then, I navigate the gauntlet of bovine tourists on my way to my day job as a paralegal at a law firm.

    My goal is to write for an hour every morning. Sometimes, all I can achieve is, “well, at least I scribbled something in my notebook”. I haven’t started counting words, yet, lest that leave me feeling depressed I’m not accomplishing much.

  • Thanks for this. I do feel guilty on myself for not getting around to the writing I “need” to do, but then I remember that I’ve got the family and the job that have to come first.

    As for making it all work… yeah, I haven’t got all that figured out yet.

  • As someone who writes books and also has a day job, I found myself nodding my head at this. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who isn’t quitting my job to commit 100 percent to authorship. I like my day job … and I believe in safety nets. Again, great post with a lot of good reminders.

  • I have a day job which involves me writing for 8 hours so it’s really tough to carve out time to write for myself. I hear that voice in my head all the time because I do have a great many friends who are authors and they just seem to be flinging out their work all the time while I am plodding away at it. But I love my day job and if you can do it Tom, then so can I! Thanks for the positive and realistic words!

      • Me too (other kind of writer by day). It makes me wish I worked in a coffee shop. I don’t love my job, but it’s okay. I can’t make myself write longhand, though I like the idea.

        • I thought that for ages too, Melissa. It seemed so unnatural, and so SLOW. And how do you edit? etc. But now I’m doing it I can’t believe I waited so long. You can write by hand absolutely anywhere, you don’t get distracted by twitter, it’s worth writing just for 15 minutes while the pasta water boils (seems too short a time to turn on the computer). I have another friend who switches to a typewriter for fiction writing, but I can’t handle how loud that is.

  • Couple of things to add that just came to me:

    – The above worked really well for me when writing my first book, when the second and third came around I fell off schedule a bit so I had to write every night for the last couple of months. Some of that slippage was because of the editiing/copy-editing/promoting etc.

    – If I’m honest though a lot of the slip was just me doing a lot of faffing and fretting and *not writing* earlier in the year. So if you miss a day or week, don’t beat yourself up, just get back on your favourite quadrapedal cliche. You can make it back.

    • I think this is the most comforting part of your message, that we don’t need to beat ourselves up, or descend into self-gollum-ing. We can just get right back on the elephant (that is where you were going with the quadriped thing, right?).

      What I’ve done with my writing of late has benefited from the techniques I learned at the day job: prioritisation, making one central list of tasks, and revising this on a daily basis. This way I’m setting manageable goals, and have a constant sense of acheivement even on a time poor week.

      That said, I’m still struggling to get the balance right, and so thanks for the insights!

  • This is great! Like you (and a bunch of people up top), I still have my day job. I’m fortunate enough that my day job also is a writing job but still… it ain’t writing novels. I
    appreciate the income and the ability to look out-ward. I also like honing my skills as a writer — not just a novelist.Sometimes, I think,’Wow, it would be cool to write full-time.’ But then, I like the salary, the getting out of the house, the people who inspire your characters (who you wouldn’t meet at home), the salary (yes, I said it already but it’s that important since I’m not really interested in downgrading the way I live) and the muscle you create from having to multi-task your day. Thanks for sharing!

  • August 11, 2014 at 3:08 PM // Reply

    I really appreciated the final point, about writing however much works for me. I’ve been beating myself up a lot for not doing a better job of writing every day (or at all, since returning from my extended vacation), partly because I don’t have a full-time day job. Of course, I have a part-time paying job and two or three volunteer positions that take a fair amount of time, not to mention being chief cook and bottle-washer to a family of four. But oh, why can’t I manage to write three or four hours a day??

  • Brilliant post. Thanks, man. Sometimes those of us who can’t write every day just need to hear that we’re not freaks!

  • Fuck me that’s an awesome post. I have elderly sick parents who live a three hour drive away and a 6 year old. I write like a fiend during school days. In the holidays I turn into Mumzilla. Through it all Gollum sits on my shoulder berating me about the amount of snail, tortoise, he’ll even glacier dust I am eating. I write fantasy, too and it’s also a bit odd. I didn’t want to write about dwarves and elves and the like because I thought I’d spend my life trying to write authoratitive sounding replies to emails from people who thought they knew more about elves and dwarves and the like (and probably did) than I and who thought I was doing it wrong. Your books sound ace. I’m going to go and look at them now.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • Excellent post. I’ve written two (almost three) novels while doing my day job, and I think the key is definitely time management. When I got my agent, I promised my wife the priority would be family, day-job, then novels. And really, other stuff gets in above novels, too.

    The trick in time management, I think, is learning how you write. Do you write well only in long stretches and find it takes you 20 minutes just to get warmed up? Set aside the long marathon for a half-day on Sunday or something. Can you be productive in little half-hour to hour-long sprints? There’s your lunch break.

    But don’t try to be a writing-sprinter if you’re a marathoner, or vice versa. You’ll end up feeling unproductive, when really it’s more about fitting your time to your style.

  • Have to agree with David on this one….I have written on lunch breaks for the last 10 years in full time jobs and I am currently working on my seventh book. I find its a great habit to get into when you re trying to keep home for your down time :)

  • This taking your socks off before your trousers is news to me. Wonder what else I’ve been screwing up? Just kidding, I look pretty good in black dress socks.

    Great post. As I read it and drank my afterwork beer, I thought … I should be writing, or compartmentalizing, or getting another beer and then writing. It’s nice to see other people’s methods. Thanks.

  • You have no idea how much I needed to hear this today. Novelling is my dream job. But I also enjoy and get a lot of satisfaction from my day job (instructional writing). I tried giving it up to devote 100% of my time to story writing and hated it. Hated turning the novel writing into a job, Hated the big, really big drop in wages. Wasn’t having fun with writing any more and eventually went back to instructional writing and am now much much happier.

    Slowly I’m getting back to novel writing for fun, but can’t manage to write everyday and was really feeling like a complete failure until reading this. At the moment, my goal is 7000 words a week which for me is only about 4 hours writing time (thank you mum for insisting on secretary training as a fall back plan).

    Reading your post left me feeling normal. Reassured me that even with small targets and only writing on weekends I can do this. I can have fun and really enjoy the process. I’m off to get your books this weekend. Anyone who, with just a blog post, can make me feel this much better about my dreams is bound to be a writer who I’ll enjoy.

  • This is the sanest, real-est most useful writing advice I’ve read in ages. This is advice for real people who have to live in the real world and I think it’s great. Thanks so much. Also, your books sound incredible.

  • Adding my thanks to this – and just like Jane, I needed to hear this. I’ve been trying out Chucks no-fuckery 350-word plan of late, but have struggling to find time to write even that amount more than three days a week. I once had a plan to write at work on lunch breaks, but I fell out of the habit. Gonna get back into it and mix your advice and Chucks together. This lunch break, right after reading this, I hit my 350 words for the day and I’m going to try for another 350 at least on the train home tonight.

    Thanks again.

  • Thank you for this! I run a nonprofit during the day (which is a job and a half in itself) and tutor kids in the evenings. So all I can do (while now working on my first novel) is basically write for an hour nearly every night before bedtime, then a marathon half-day writing session on Sundays.

    But it gets the job done. It’s snail-like but at least things are moving along.

    I reckon that keeping things moving along is the key here…

  • Great post, Tom. I am currently working a day job and writing, and I think this advice is excellent. My biggest problem is trying to stick to the plan right now, but I’m working in it.

  • I think this really speaks to those of us busily working away for corporations, while in our free time we harbor thoughts of getting out and into the world of writing. I agree in principle on writing everyday, but after I come home from work have spent the day running round after everyone else, my mind is not in the best shape for then delving into my novel and beginning to expand my fantasy world. I find that writing fantasy gives me one benefit when I do decide to write…..it lets me forget about my job and I can lose myself in my little world, safe in the knowledge that I can return only when I want to. And a key point about how fast people work, books are all about the quality not the quantity. Sure you do need to know when to stop faffing with it and decide it’s finished. I have managed 60,000 words in the last 5 months. We should be proud of what we are writing, not constantly comparing ourselves to others and thinking “Is this normal?” Normal encompasses everything in the book world from 50 shades and whatever chick lit is out there all the way through to werewolf and raith infested earth of Colin Meany.

  • I do much the same thing, though I wish I could devote more time to marketing.

    The real challenge for me begins in a week and a half when school starts up again. Write AND day job AND finish the degree I should have finished during Reagan’s last year in office?

    And all that other stuff we do? Somewhere in there is football season and the return of Game of Thrones and training for a half marathon.

    At least I can DVR GoT (Spoiler alert: Tyrion did it.)

  • I’m lucky, I have no life to speak of. I’m going to school full time, but I also manage to write 1500 words a day (2500 on the weekends). I’ve written 50,000 in just less than two months, which puts me roughly half way through my book. I figure on being done with it in about six weeks. (Fingers crossed).

  • I found this perspective helpful, but having two kids does increase the degree of difficulty by a couple of notches. As nice as finding a place outside of the house to write sounds, I don’t think that would work well. I do think I could probably find a better place within the house to make my writing space.

    Thanks for this and best of luck with all your efforts.

  • Tom, thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. I have been facing this dilemma for the past eight months or so, when my day job became overwhelming. (I used to write every day on my lunch hour; now I no longer have a lunch hour.) My writing has fallen dramatically by the wayside. I appreciate your advice more than words can say. If I’m careful & plan everything just so, perhaps my latest manuscript will be complete by the end of the year.

  • This is excellent advice. My biggest problem is stress: I teach, so I get off a full day’s work at a fairly early hour and it’s impossible to sit down every day and just write. It’s so much easier to just go home and have a drink with some Game of Thrones, you know? Compartmentalizing solves that. My day job ends at 3, but if I treat the next two hours like a second job and spend them writing at the library it gets a lot easier. And I actually get something done.

    The other helpful thing: not all my writing time has to be spent writing. If the words absolutely refuse to come to me, I can spend that time working on the plot structure or developing backstory. It’s surprising how much that can help dislodge writer’s block, and it keeps me sticking to my schedule even when writer’s block kicks in.

  • I have a day job that I like, but it isn’t at a desk so I can’t write until I get home. Un/fortunately,, my husband works in the evenings, so often we don’t see each other for days at a time.

    But what this has done for me is, any night he’s not home is a writing night, whether I worked that day or not. I’m home, there’s no one to bother me except me, I have no excuses. I try not to set insane goals for myself, just an hour or so of research and an hour or so of writing, and I usually set a word count goal that I don’t achieve. Any night my husband is home, I’m off the hook. I don’t let myself feel bad for not writing, and it’s a nice break from the grind of two jobs.

    To those of you with children, I salute you. That would count as a third job, and I don’t know if I could do three.

  • This is incredibly reassuring. It’s all too easy to assume you’re the only one in your situation. Gollum visits often, usually to perform his ‘you’ll-never-make-this-work-unless-you-commit-and-actually-you’re-rubbish-anyway’ routine.

    Like others, I find it helpful to be prepared to write whenever the opportunity arises: early in the morning, when the office is empty; whilst waiting for the arrival of a train or relative or pizza; when the kitchen is finally clean and Lady B. has dozed off in front of Battlestar Galactica. I try to stash notebooks everywhere and have a dedicated-but-ancient laptop for travelling with.

    As long as I’m doing something related to my writing – even spending ten minutes correcting unwitting crimes against puncuation – then I’m making progress, however slow. It’s tough, though, and doubly so when you hear of the prolificity of others.

  • I love this! For so many of us it is impossible to write every day. I almost gave up on my dream because of that sort of advice. Now though, I too have decided to have fun with it and write what I like and when I can. So I plan to fill the world with more shape-shifters, zombies, apocalyptic angels, demons and whatever else strikes my fancy! :)

  • I’m so glad to be in the company of folks with day jobs and writing goals. And cheers to the commenter who said to write longhand! I sit in front of a screen all day as an editor and like to switch gears when I write my own stuff after work. Pen and paper make me feel less analytical and more able to let the words flow. I set a minimum goal last month for my writing time: 15 minutes a day, five days a week. I’m not always thrilled when I start, but the structure helps. And it’s only 15 minutes. I can get a lot done in a short amount of time, but it’s also not a huge commitment out of my day.

  • This is awesome! I work full-time and attend grad school half-time. Even though it’s hard and I get off my schedule sometimes, I still dedicate time for writing. It’s usually Wednesday and Thursday mornings when my partner goes to work in the morning, and I go into work at noon. I also write on Tuesdays which is my comp day for working the weekend and my partner is at work. I really liked what you said about a friend asking you to hang out on the night you schedule for writing. I try to do that too. No matter what, this slot is for writing. Right now I am in the editing stages of my novel, so I don’t always write within that slot. Sometimes I draw what I’m picturing in my head to be able to flesh out the words. Lately, I’ve been working through my friend’s comments and suggestions. I’m glad you have nights to hang out with friends, watch Netflix, etc… because I usually feel guilty when I do that. But you’re right, I think we all need those things. We need to stop beating ourselves up.

  • This is a really good blog post Tom so, at risk of sounding like we’re in some kind of therapeutic setting and all holding hands, thanks for sharing.

    The ‘enjoy it’ part is what I’ve always had the most trouble with, as I have a tendency to get distracted easily and so I usually put quite a strict plan in place which I then force myself to stick to.

    For example, I wrote most of my second novel in the following way:

    I’d get to work half an hour early, and write. When my lunch hour rolled around, I’d cram a sandwich into my mouth and give myself indigestion so I would then have 45 clear minutes to write. Then I’d stay for 2 hours after work and continue writing. I managed to keep this up every single day for around 2 months before I decided I needed to either give myself a break or check myself into an asylum. Not only was I not enjoying it at this point, I actually started kind of hating it.

    Once I realised this and forced myself to take things a bit easier (I actually allowed myself to leave the building to have lunch at one point, crazy huh?), I started enjoying writing again, which was better for both me and the novel itself.

    For what it’s worth, I did make an observation with this kind of piecemeal writing. I found that I could write a first draft in these smaller chunks, but that editing was an entirely different matter. For editing I needed larger periods of time (at the very least an hour or so), rather than stolen 30 minute windows here and there. Factoring in the inevitable time it takes to adjust between ‘work’ mode and ‘writing’ mode, I found it nearly impossible to properly edit or adequately assess the flow of my writing when I was editing for 30 minutes, then doing 4 hours of day-job-work, then editing for 45 minutes, then day-job-work again etc, etc.

    As you’ve rightly said above, there isn’t a single ‘correct’ way to write, so these are just my thoughts on what worked for me, for what they’re worth.

    Which admittedly may not be much…

  • Chuck said, “I’m also, er, fortunate enough to have never liked any of my day jobs all that much.”

    Amen to that. Having a passionate distaste for “working for the man” provides a heck of a lot of motivation to making this whole writing gig work out. I really shot myself in the foot when I got to the level where my wife could quit her day job. She’s now as feral as I am…both of us have been in the wild too long to go back to the “work world” (shudders). I guess I’m just going to have to keep writing…and I’m glad to do so.

    • Man, I love my job like a bad case herpes. I am really hoping that when my MS is done I can start building my way out of working this kind of job. For now I am stuck with the job I hate. Writing is where it is at for me. I am just that crazy. But even if I did like my job, writing is still what I want to do for a living. But like I said, I am just that crazy.

    • I am “fortunate” enough that I’ve never been successful at day jobs. Four years out of college, I’ve only worked part time, and I’ve never made more (on average) than $600/week, and usually quite a bit less. It’s pretty good inspiration to write as well as I can, but it also makes writing more stressful. It feels like writing is the only way I’ll ever be successful.

  • This reminds me a lot of the book “Eat that frog!” by Brian Tracy. The advice here is not only sound, it’s emotionally uplifting, and I really like it. I myself, am currently spending most of my time researching, as my next project is a huge one in a different genre from anything I’ve ever written before, so I’m teaching myself the basics.

    And I don’t think it’s mentioned in here, but perhaps something about multitasking? Because it’s so very easy to read while doing your morning/afternoon commute to and from work. I ride my bike to and from work, and listen to audio books put out by my local library. My local library has an app that allows me to check out digital versions of the books, and listen to them from my phone, which is ever so useful!

  • 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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