It’s a cliché that so-called overnight successes are many years in the making, but it’s also true. As you plug away at your day job and your manuscripts, year in and out, it’s easy to get discouraged. It’s hard not to feel nothing’s ever going to happen for you. And when you read about some hot new author du jour you’ve never heard of who got a six or seven figure offer, landed a spot on Oprah and got a full-page profile in The New York Times, it can seem impossible to be happy for her. In that moment of—let’s be honest—bitter resentment, it is impossible to imagine your dreams coming true. But if they ever do, it will be due in large part to all the time you spent waiting for it to happen, and how you spent that time.
I queried agents on a novel of mine for the first time about thirteen years ago. I was fortunate to land a great agent in that first round of queries, and I thought my writing career was well on its way. Thought is the operative word there. The novel didn’t sell. I wrote and submitted a second novel, which also didn’t sell. Most frustrating of all, the reasons for the rejections had nothing to do with the quality of my writing, which New York editors said was very strong. It came down to what those editors thought they could or could not sell up the chain. So I back-burnered my writing dreams for a while and got on with life: marriage, kids and jobs. It was just a few years ago that I became an advocate for the indie author movement, and I won’t have a book out from a trade publisher until next year. But looking back on it, I can honestly say all the time I had to wait, and how I spent it, were instrumental to my eventual success.
Marriage and becoming a parent have informed my work in authorship to an extent that can’t be overstated. This isn’t to say I think you’ll be a poor writer unless you get married and have kids, I’m just saying that the experiences I’ve had in those two areas have changed the person I am, caused me to abandon many of my formerly-cherished views, and caused me to look at people and the world differently. Others can get the same benefits from relationships with family and friends, romantic partners, travel, or any sort of life-changing experience.
My day jobs have all had their part to play as well. Working as a technical writer made ‘writing tight’ a reflex for me. Being a software engineer ingrained discipline and attention to detail, both of which are critical skills for any writer. Managing software projects taught me the value of organization, working to a plan, and prioritizing my time and effort. If I hadn’t learned those lessons, there’s no way I could’ve found the time, energy and will to pursue my goals in authorship with everything else I had going on in my life. Working as a web developer and database administrator paid huge dividends when it came to launching and growing my author platform. And continuing to work those day jobs exposed me to all manner of personalities and experiences I could draw upon later, whether in terms of creating a composite character for a story or working with peers and industry people on the business side of things.
What if that first novel had sold? I would’ve been thrilled at the time, but once the initial fanfare died down I think disappointment and failure would’ve settled in pretty quickly. The publisher wouldn’t have lavished a big offer and promotional budget on me, and I wouldn’t have had the money, skills, discipline or maturity to tackle promoting myself and my book on my own. I wouldn’t have had the first idea how to map out a project plan, assemble the necessary talents I lacked (if I even recognized that I lacked them in the first place), or network effectively. My novel most likely would’ve faded from store shelves pretty quickly, and I’d be damaged goods as far as publishers were concerned. Even if the story had been much brighter, if the book had been a surprise hit, I doubt I would’ve sustained a writing career for any length of time. How could I cope with this new, ubiquitous thing called the internet if I’d spent all my time holed up in my comfort zone with a word processor? Given my naiveté, relatively sheltered life to date and ordinary, suburban upbringing, what more could I draw from the well that would inform, entertain or inspire readers enough to keep them buying my books? How could I write about loss, the brow-beating yoke of responsibility, or the push and pull of adult relationships with any authority?
Some of you may already be protesting that there have been plenty of young, breakout writers. But ask yourself this: how many of them have had solid careers that spanned decades, and how many had a hit book or a single hit series, then never struck gold again? There are probably so few exceptions to this that you could count them on one hand, and in every one of those cases the author in question was most likely a true prodigy. For the rest of us, being made to wait till we’ve lived a little longer and experienced a little more of what life has to offer isn’t a bad thing.
Having to work a day job while you’re doing all this living and experiencing isn’t a bad thing, either. If you’re a cashier, bar tender, waitress, salesman or customer service rep, you’re learning how to comfortably interact with strangers and that will serve you well when you’ve got a book to promote. If you’re a worker bee in a tech field, author platform is going to be a walk in the park for you. If your job is the type that isn’t terribly interesting or intellectually demanding, such as assembly line work, driving a bus or working a fast food grill, be glad you have all that mental freedom to ruminate over your ideas and characters for hours a day; just keep a notebook and pen close at hand so you’ll be ready when inspiration strikes. If you’re a teacher or a caregiver of some sort, your daily interactions with the people you serve will enrich your characters and strengthen your dialog in a way no amount of creative writing seminars ever could. No matter what your day job is, it’s keeping you solvent and improving your writing. It, and the wait, are helping to ensure you’ll be ready when opportunity comes knocking.
So don’t hate the wait, and don’t resent your day job. Embrace them, and welcome all they have to offer.