21 Nov 2016
There is nothing quite as wonderful as money.
— Monty Python
Money makes the world go round.
The scary thing about owing your own business is the yawning gap between what you can control and what you can’t. And that fear is doubled when it comes to money.
For example, you can’t control how much you’ll earn. A good month could be followed by drought. Several bad months in a row could be followed by a fantastic month that makes up the deficit. And it’ll happen for a reason you’ll never know, chances are.
The one area you have the most control over is how much you spend. Which leads us to CIA’s first law:
It’s not how much you make, it’s how much you spend.
It’s easy to forget this law when you work for someone else. Unless you’re a salesman on commission, you’re earning the same salary whether you’re working like a demon, or walking around the office shaking your hands. Reliance on a steady paycheck makes it easy to follow a variation of Parkinson’s law: expenses rise to meet your income.
When you’re relying on your wits, the rules change. You’re solely responsible for your income. You’re responsible for living off it.
Since you have no control over your income, you have to be smart about expenses. And chances are, you have not been taught how to do that.
Once upon a time, schools taught you about money. You’d learn about making a budget, opening a checking and savings account, and how interest is calculated.
Unless your parents took you in hand, you learn about credit cards when you’re offered one when you’re 19. You’ll be encouraged to get a debit card, discouraged from saving money. You’d be taught to go into debt to get the bright shining fun you want now (and to spend years paying off, with interest) instead of saving your money and asking yourself “do I really need this?”
You’ll also be taught about how hard it is to save money, how you should lease a car and rent a house instead of buying and paying off. Even how it’s impossible for one-half of a couple to work while the other stays home with the kids.
Now I’m not saying that it’s possible for everyone to do these things. I’m not going to pretend it can be done without sacrificing something. Much of life is about making choices and weighing options. But I’m not going to say it can’t happen either.
In the end, it’s all about the choices you make and living with the consequences without blaming anyone other than yourself (something this culture finds impossible to do, which is why I’m pointing this out).
When you run your own business, you learn this lesson the hard way. If you’re going to rely on your income from writing you’re going to make your artistic decisions with that in mind. Maybe, you’ll take on work-for-hire projects. Maybe you’ll switch to a popular genre, or take on a penname.
You may also want to learn about cutting your expenses. That’s what this chapter is about.
1. How much money do you need?
Anybody can write, but few people have what it takes to be a professional writer.
What does that mean?
It means taking a professional attitude to your work and your profession. It means treating it like a job that you go do on a regular schedule, produce material on a regular basis, and put it in the marketplace.
It means taking a more serious attitude toward your work than the guy at the party who has this great idea for a novel if he could only get someone to write it with him. Or the high school student who wants to enter an M.F.A. program in the hopes of “becoming” a writer, without realizing that she should already be one before doing so.
So what does this have to do with money?
Because like it or not, you have to have a serious attitude toward money as well.
Do you remember when you were at your first job and you got your paycheck? Wasn’t it fun to blow most of it on a weekend of fun? And did you go through another week and look forward to your next check, so you could do the same thing?
I did. When I was working at Avalon Hill in Baltimore, I had enough money so that every weekend I could go to the comic book shop and drop a couple hundred dollars on comic books.
Those times are long gone, and if you want to be a professional writer, you’ll have to make your own accommodation with money.
This is not a struggle between the ant and the grasshopper. You remember that story? About the ant to worked hard to save up for the winter while the grasshopper played in the sun?
What I mean is that one piece of advice doesn’t fit every author, only that you have to decide how much risk you want to take on. While it’s better to be frugal, not all authors, even successful ones, would agree.
Take Lawrence Block. Over the course of his long career, he has been wealthy (well, comfortable) and he has scrapped for every dime he could find. He hustled and he wrote his ass off and he did whatever he could do to keep body and soul within waving distance of each other.
But when he had money, he indulged in his two favorite pastimes, eating well and traveling. He loved fine dining, and he loved seeing new places (which he worked into his fiction, so he got a double bonus as well).
But he had his limits. When his accountant called him up and said he was running out of the filthy lucre, he stayed home and he wrote. No luscious dinners; no packing a bag and flying overseas.
In a way, the food and travel acted as a feedback loop that encouraged him to work hard. He could remember the great meals, revisit his favorite places, and knew that if he could finish this story, sell that book proposal, work a little harder, he would earn the right to indulge again.
So it isn’t necessarily a matter of saving every nickel until Jefferson turns blue. It’s more like finding a comfort zone where you can work, even if it’s on the edge of the fiscal cliff.