Business Musings: Writers And The Hamster Wheel Of Doom

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One of my hobbies is trying to figure out what motivates other people. Sometimes they tell you. Often, they do not. I’m most curious about successful artists. Because, if they handle their money well, they don’t have to work again.

(Yes, yes, I know, artists and their money are easily parted. Let’s ignore that aphorism, and only look at artists with money in the bank.)

Despite the success, writer after writer, musician after musician, painter after painter, actor after actor, all keep working, all keep practicing their art.

What motivates them?

As far as I can tell, what motivates them is the same thing that got them started as an artist—the desire to play, to enjoy their art, to give their life to whatever it is that they do.

I’m talking about anyone in the arts, but from here forward, I’m going to discuss this as it pertains to writers because 1) writers are what I know and 2) this blog is for writers.

Most writers start out working for free. They take their spare time and write stories or novels or plays. Writers sometimes spend a small fortune learning their craft, often with no hope of financial return because there is this horrid myth that writers can’t make money at their art.

Over time, those writers sell something. They start making money. And writing becomes a job kinda sorta—the source of financial independence, funds, whatever you want to call it.

In the bad old days of traditional-only publishing, a lot of writers ended up writing tie-in novels or doing work for hire or writing ghost novels in addition to their own novels just to make ends meet. Those writers got on what I called the hamster wheel of writing—they wrote to make money, but they weren’t writing their stories. They were writing someone else’s stories.

In those bad old days, some very successful writers were forced onto that same hamster wheel by their publishers who refused to publish anything but the kind of book that made the writer famous. Those writers wrote the same book over and over and over again.

Some writers actually enjoyed that. But not all of them did. The complaints I used to hear from them were awful, and the tales of novels blocked by agents/editors were horrifying.

At a certain point, though, some writers made so much money writing that they weren’t on a hamster wheel at all. They could tell everyone to take their opinions and shove it.

But those writers didn’t and don’t quit, because they love writing, and they love putting their writing out into the world.

I’ve watched these folks with awe, because writing—storytelling—is the core of their being. They write in the same way beginners write—for the love of the task, not because it’s their “day job” or because they have to or because their fans want them to. They write because they love to write, and they get to tell their stories—and really, what’s better than that?

I mention the bad old days of traditional publishing because there was a period of time in the 1980s and 1990s when writers like Nora Roberts and Stephen King had to prove to their publishers that books that were not what the reader expected would sell as well as the books the reader thought they wanted.

Thanks to writers like King and Roberts and Koontz and Grisham and a dozen others, writers who have become mega-bestsellers in the traditional arena can write something other than what’s expected. (Except at Penguin Random House, which is returning to the bad old ways.)

When many of us jumped over to indie publishing for our novels, we got the same kind of freedom. We can publish what we want, when we want, and how we want. If we communicate clearly with our readers, our readers can choose which books to support and which ones they prefer to ignore.

I love that about the new world of publishing—both as a reader and as a writer.

But so many indie writers have built their own hamster wheels and are running faster and faster and faster on them. Even worse, a number of those writers made all of their money following trends, which is the indie equivalent of work for hire and tie-in writing.

Those of you who’ve followed my career from the beginning know that I did a lot of tie-in writing, mostly to repay Pulphouse debt. I kept writing my original novels too, and quit writing tie-ins the moment that our finances evened out.

So I have some experience with the hamster wheel, although I never let it overtake my writing. (Dean did, and has blogged about that.)

The problem with the hamster wheel school of writing is that at a certain point all of that love of writing, all of that joy in storytelling, goes out the window, and writing becomes drudgery. It’s not fun to write the same story over and over again. It’s not fun to write stories on topics you hate. It’s not fun to write in genres you loathe.

So many writers are doing that, though, and have no idea how to quit. They want to make a living at writing, but the only way they can make a living at writing is to turn the writing into a terrible task, one they hate.

If those writers don’t leave the hamster wheel on their own, they will leave involuntarily. At some point, they will burn out. It happens to everyone who works 10 hours per day at a job they loathe.

Most people can find a different job. But writers, their day job was once their dream. When writers burn out on writing, they lose more than a paycheck. They lose something that used to give them joy, something they started doing for free because it was fun.

I feel for them, I really do. And I know most of them won’t be back.

But for those of you still on the hamster wheel with no idea how to stop running in unpleasant circles, let me give you a few tips.

There are ways off the wheel. You might not like them. But you can do them.

Here they are in no particular order, along with the upside and the downside of each method.

  1. Saving. I suggested this one in the blog titled “Overcapitalization and Hamster Wheels.” You bank a percentage of the money you earn every month until you can afford to quit working on that hamster wheel. It’s like saving to quit your day job. Writers do that all the time.

The upside: You’re making a living from writing.

The downside? You’re still on that hamster wheel and you could burn out before you make enough money to jump off.

  1. Get a real day job. Yep, go back to whatever you did before you wrote full time. If you’re on a hamster wheel from your indie books, they will continue to earn money for you, just not as much as they did when you were goosing them with new product. Put that money aside so that you can quit your non-writing day job at some point in the future.

The upside: You’ll be able to write what you want without worrying about sales, just like you did as a beginner.

The downside: You’ll have less time to write and, if you’re not careful, you’ll do a lot of negative self-talk about failure. The truth is that in the bad old days of traditional publishing, writers went on and off day jobs all the time, depending on contracts and income. You can survive this, with the right attitude.

  1. Cut your expenses to the bone: And jump off the hamster wheel. With luck, the residual income from your indie books will cover those minimal expenses.

The Upside is that you’ll have time to write the books you want to write.

The Downside is that you might not be able to pay your bills—and you’ll have to get that real world day job anyway.

  1. Write a “book of the heart” every other book. Romance writers call the book that writers really want to write (but think won’t sell) a book of the heart. So you write a hamster-wheel book, then a book of the heart, then a hamster-wheel book…you get the idea.

That’s what I did, not because I had a plan, but from sheer cussed stubbornness. I was writing the work for hire to pay the bills, and writing the books I wanted to write because otherwise I would go crazy.

I’m telling you to do it as a plan, not because you stumble into it.

The upside is twofold—1) you’re writing books you want to write, and 2) the books of the heart become a carrot, making the hamster-wheel book go faster because there’s something fun at the end of it.

The downside is that you’ll be working harder than you ever did. You’re adding in other books to an already full career or you’re cutting back on those lucrative hamster-wheel books.

I’m sure there are other ways to jump off the hamster wheel and if you’re one of the writers who has done so successfully, please share your method in the comments. But these are the suggestions I’ve got.

It’s really hard to get off that wheel, and even harder to prevent the burnout, but it can be done.

You just have to plan.

My goal with these blogs is to help writers have decades-long careers, just like those mega-successful writers do. They’re still writing because they love what they do. There are a lot of other really famous writers who stopped writing in public because they couldn’t handle the pressure or because they were forced onto a hamster wheel or because they burned out.

The ones who survive love the work. They probably don’t even call what they do work. Most of them have more stories in their head than they’ll ever get to in one lifetime, and they’re on a different kind of wheel—one in which they’re fighting to tell all of their stories before they reach the end of their life.

Note above that I worried about the lack of joy that hamster-wheel writers experience. I worry about it because there’s no real reason to pursue your art—any art—if you hate what you do. There are plenty of easier, more lucrative jobs that you could hate and make a small fortune at, jobs that will give you retirement accounts and health insurance and paid time off.

Writing is something you should do out of love. It might be difficult on some days and it might be challenging. But you should always derive enjoyment from it on some level. Writing should, at its core, be fun.

So, if you’re on one of those hamster wheels, figure out how to extricate yourself. Remember what brought you to this profession in the first place. Recapture the joy.

Take the time to become one of those writers who would still be telling stories even if you no longer got paid for it (or never had gotten paid for it).

It’ll be hard to retrain yourself, but you can do it.

If you do, you’ll still be around ten, twenty, thirty years from now, publishing your work, and writing the stories of your heart.

Isn’t that why you became a writer in the first place?


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“Business Musings: Writers And The Hamster Wheel of Doom,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / indomercy.


10 thoughts on “Business Musings: Writers And The Hamster Wheel Of Doom

  1. What I see in the Indie world is it’s a race to publish a novel every month to feed the Amazon beast. These are Amazon/KU authors. One I follow puts out 2-3 in a month. She is a major best seller and I don’t know how she does it with out getting burnt out. I think she is writing a bit to market but still likes the genre she writes in. But the pressure to keep putting out must be stressful. I read a comment on her Facebook page where a reader was complaining that the one series she writes in isn’t coming out fast enough and wishes she could write faster. Really? She puts out one a month as it is beside two more in other series. I don’t know but that is a never ending hamster wheel that just keeps spinning and spinning.

  2. Spot on, Kris. The ability to quit your dayjob also depends on the money you need to live, which depends on the place where you live. I think it’s the method you call “cut your expenses to the bones”. I was able to quit my dayjob in 2014, because of an inheritance which allowed me to pay back my mortgage, and because I had carefully evaluated the money I was making handselling my books, and my ability to sell in new places around my home, self-publishing them.

    In a way, handselling my books is my hamster wheel, but it’s a hamster wheel that makes very much sense to me. One could think that I make a living only out of the pity I set off among people. Maybe it’s the case for the majority of the books I sell, but I live for the books that bring joy to my readers, and it’s always a pleasure when I get emails from people who enjoyed what I write.

    I think it all amounts to the way each author handle their self-esteem. Some authors would loathe the way I am making a living, as I loathe the fact that these authors’ careers depend on their publisher. All the toadying it entails, for the authors who are not tenured best-sellers.

    I would also be very wary to depend only on Amazon’s algorithms to making a living – I don’t see where is the independance, when you have to depend on a single platform.

  3. “Take the time to become one of those writers who would still be telling stories even if you no longer got paid for it (or never had gotten paid for it).

    It’ll be hard to retrain yourself, but you can do it.”

    I burnt out really badly 2 years ago and it’s taken me a long time to get back up on my feet. I’m slowly trying to find the joy in writing again, but it’s hard. Lots of fear and I have a lot of retraining to do. Do you have any ideas on how to approach that retraining?

    1. Remember what made you want to tell stories in the first place. Maybe try a different venue for storytelling, like video or stand-up comedy (seriously). It’ll make you a beginner and put you in touch with pure storytelling. That’s what I mean. Also…therapy helps shut off that critical voice (if you get a good talk therapist).

      Don’t think of it as retraining. Think of it as play.

    2. I had a period where I burned out, too. Everyone told me that the only way I could make money was to write for Hollywood and that I would need to produce a lot. I wrote a script a week, which included sitcoms, dramas, and movies. I think I did about twenty or thirty, and I went dry for two years. When I started writing again, I got my feet wet with fan fiction. It was really a pretty safe environment then, because all the other fans wanted was the stories. They didn’t care how good or bad the stories were as long as they got to read them. I had a lot of fun writing the stories, and did it until I got tired of writing someone’s else’s characters. Then I was able to return to my own writing.

  4. I’m actually glad of this post. I’m writing consistently (and other than the I suck moments), enjoying what I write. If I wrote more, published faster, I’d probably be able to quit and live off my writing – BUT – if I can stick it out at my day job for 7 more years, I’ll be able to retire at barely 55 with full benefits, pension, 401k and health insurance through my company until medicare kicks in.
    People keep saying quit and go for it, but when I weigh what I would be losing (even given how much I hate my day job some days) I can’t see that it is worth the risk. Plus, if I wait until I retire I don’t have to fret if a book of the heart flops or if I have a month of no sales. I’ll be writing just for me.

    So unless I hit the lottery with one of my books – I think I’ll keep balancing both and try to remember this should be fun. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but then I drink coffee. Grins.

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