Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the tags at the bottom of the post to find the entire list). These posts accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.
Approximate salary range for your type of role: £0 – JK Rowling
When I was ten years old, I decided I was going to be a novelist. Then, as with many of the best-laid plans of ten-year-olds, it didn’t go quite as I’d hoped. Writing felt very easy as a child, and horribly difficult as a teenager. Like most adolescents, I became increasingly aware of my own inadequacies, and by the time I was applying for university, I’d all but buried my childhood dream.
I studied English Literature as an undergraduate, then went on to complete a PhD in Film Studies, but in both cases, I had no clear idea of what I’d do afterwards, no career plan to speak of. I saw the PhD, in particular, as a self-contained three-year project that I knew I’d find fun and stimulating, but from the start I was unsure that I wanted to work in academia in the long term. By my final year, I was certain I did not.
It wasn’t that I disliked being a PhD student. In many ways, I loved being a PhD student. I loved the freedom it offered – the freedom to pursue my own interests and work to my own timetable. I enjoyed doing research, and, of course, I loved all the writing it entailed. I know for some the idea of writing up, of producing a 60,000-word-plus thesis, is the most stressful and intimidating part of the PhD, but this was never the case for me. To an extent, it was writing up that renewed my desire to write a novel – and gave me the confidence to do so. It confirmed to me that I could happily spend seven or eight hours a day doing nothing other than writing, week in, week out.
If any of this resonates with your experience, then the good news is that there are few (physical) barriers to writing a novel. But there are plenty of skills and personality traits it helps to have – many of which may already be in place, by virtue of being a PhD candidate or researcher.
Above all, you need to be self-motivated and disciplined (dedicated might be a more accurate word; writing a novel is a long, painstaking process, and if you’re not one hundred per cent committed, there’s little chance you’ll ever finish). You need to be comfortable managing your own project for months or years at a time, and you need to be happy to spend much of that time lost in your own head. If you’re fortunate, you’ll get to work with an agent or editor eventually, but for the most part, writing is a solitary, and sometimes isolating, pursuit.
You have to be resilient, too. Trying to get a novel published for the first time is extremely difficult, and setbacks and rejection letters are par for the course. I’ve spoken to many other novelists over the past five years, and no one’s path to publication was easy. Perseverance and a willingness to keep on improving are crucial. Of course, you also have to have some, natural ability with language and storytelling – that goes without saying – but I wouldn’t want to overemphasise this aspect. Learning to write creatively is like learning to play a musical instrument: talent will take you a long way, but if you want to be a professional musician, you have to put in hours and hours of practice (literally thousands).
If you’re an aspiring novelist, you might be feeling a little despondent at this point, so it’s worth stressing that there are huge rewards if you do reach your goal. As with a PhD, you get to be your own boss. You have the freedom to work from home (no daily commute!) manage your own timetable, and fit your work around your lifestyle. (If you want to start work at 1am in your pajamas, that’s absolutely fine.) If you’re successful, you might get to travel, too – over the past five years, my work had taken me to Germany, France, Poland and the Czech Republic – and you’ll certainly meet lots of interesting, like-minded people. But above all, you’ll get to spend the majority of you’re working hours doing something you love, and I’m sure that’s the number one thing most people aspire to in their careers.
Unfortunately, there’s a flip side, too – as with any job. First and foremost is the level of financial insecurity you’ll likely have to suffer. It’s hard to get published, and it’s even harder to make a living from it. Most novelists have to work a second job to pay the bills, and even if you’re fortunate enough to earn a decent salary from writing, you’ll never get sick leave, or maternity or holiday pay, or anyone else paying into your pension. Basically, unless you manage to write a runaway bestseller, you have to be prepared to live with financial uncertainty.
It’s beyond the scope of this blog to write about the publication process, but I’d urge anyone who’s interested to read the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. It’s available in most libraries, and contains everything you need to know about writing for publication. There’s also a wealth of information (and writing tips!) available online. But when it comes to writing a first novel, my firm belief is that the best way to learn is through practice. Try to write a novel, make lots of mistakes, and learn from them. Then repeat the process over and over again!
It can be scary chasing a dream; in my experience, it’s the things we care about most that are often the hardest to achieve. There always a nagging doubt, the voice that says what if I’m not good enough, what if it all goes horribly wrong? But my advice to anyone with any sort of creative aspiration is this: you’ll probably regret not trying far more than you’ll regret trying and failing. If you have the chance to turn something you’re passionate about into your career, you should always give it a shot.