My hardworking husband can only laugh at the reactions he gets from people who learn his wife is a published novelist. The comments vary, but the gist is predictable: Wow, you must be rich!
In writing, as in every field of endeavor, some people do actually get rich. Sometimes they're so brilliant they couldn't help but be hugely successful, artistically as well as financially. Other times--think Fifty Shades--they're both lucky and, I have to say, canny. Still other times they are the kind of people with a gift for making money, for working the markets, for finding the most profitable way to do their work.
For most writers--and by 'most' I mean a huge percentage--making a living at our art means working hard. Really hard. Every bit as hard as my husband does.
I have a special insight into the working life of artists, since my first career was in classical music, and I worked seriously hard, sometimes going months without a day off. As with the field of writing, there was a slim percentage at the top of my field, a smallish group of people who were so talented or/and so lucky that their careers maintained themselves. For a much vaster number of us, working as a classical musician was a constant round of auditions, letters, phone calls, rehearsals, performances, and a teaching job to keep the income steady. One year I made enough that my family spent a month in Italy. Another year I showed a loss, and didn't pay a dime in income tax.
I'm not complaining in the least. While I would love to have a breakout book, and hand my husband a nice cushion for retirement, I'm absolutely cognizant that many people long for just the sort of work I've been doing. Not only that, I enjoy every moment of the creation, the promotion, the hours at the keyboard, the flashes of insight or the searches for a turn of phrase or a plot resolution that keep me awake at night. It's work, but it's work I love.
I share an attribute with most of the writers I know, and it's one that can ruin your life if you don't channel it. We're obsessive. Compulsive, even. We write every day. We write on vacation, on airplanes, in moving cars, on our back decks, in our recliners. We carry notebooks (or, now, smart phones) in case we get a great idea. We read everything we can get our hands on. We analyze the numbers on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and then try to forget them. We balance day jobs, family demands, exercise, and friendships, always striving for an extra hour free to write. We go on retreats, which feel better than Christmas, when there's nothing to do but write and talk about writing. We publish our work with high hopes, but we know our job--since we're not Dan Brown or Elizabeth George or J.A. Jance--is to get right on with the next project.
Jance, by the way, began just this way. She worked a day job, raising two children alone, and got up before dawn every day to write. Such a life is only for those of us blessed with an obsessive drive to DO IT.
When I was a musician, a singer, I once asked one of my teachers if I was good enough, or if I should quit. Her answer has stayed with me all of my life: "If you can do something else, go do it. There are no guarantees."
That's artistic life, as I now understand perfectly. It's hard, and it's demanding. It's often frustrating, and occasionally thrilling. It's not always profitable, and yet . . I'm eternally grateful I get to do it.