Money advice for writers

John Scalzi has some excellent advice for writers who are trying to make money out of said occupation. Go forth, read, take notes.

While I strongly agree with most of his advice, I have issues with two of his points:

3. Marry (or otherwise shack up with) someone sensible with money, who has a real job.

This is something that worked really well for John. I’ve met his wife, Krissy, and a more formidable, fun, amazing person I have yet to meet. And she knows from money. Seriously smart about it. I wish I had married Krissy.

But, really, this is Scalzi confusing his own excellent good luck with general advice for everyone. Not everyone’s going to meet a Krissy. I suspect there’s only one and she ain’t leaving Scalzi anytime soon. Not everyone has any interest in getting married or shacking up. And, call me a romantic, but taking into account someone’s money management skills is not something I was thinking about when I fell in love.

Not to mention the salient advice my mother gave me which was to never depend on some man1 to look after you. Make your own way in the world. Earn your own money.

8. Unless you have a truly compelling reason to be there, get the hell out of New York/LA/San Francisco.

Rubbish! Big city living can be cheaper than being out in the burbs or the bush. Food is usually much cheaper, clothes too. Pretty much everything, really, except accommodation. That’s a very big except, I admit, but the notion that everything is cheaper outside big cities is rubbish. Sure NYC and Sydney have some of the most expensive restaurants and produce in the world but they also have some of the cheapest.

Living in New York or Sydney or Melbourne or any European city also means you don’t have to have a car. Cars are hugely expensive and they’re only going to get more expensive (price of oil ain’t ever going down, people). You live on your big property in Ohio or wherever and you have to have a car. I am a strong advocate of car-less living.

Cities are where a lot of the writing work is. We are still monkeys and face-to-face interaction is often more effective than emails or letters especially when you are starting out. Obviously, contacts aren’t everything: you have to be talented and hard working. There are many writers who have built careers without ever living anywhere near NYC or Sydney or London or wherever. But contacts can lead to work and there are more of them in cities.

There are more people in cities which means you’re more likely to find people like you. Living someplace where you are the only person of colour/writer/science fiction fan/nudist/australian/sculptor can really really suck. Sure you can find those communities online, but a real life community is pretty wonderful too.

And, lastly, cities are fun. They’re bursting with entertainment and great people and awesome food and all sorts of unexpected joys and pleasures. All of which I find incredibly inspiring for my writing. I’m not even sure I’d be a writer without all that wonderful city stimulation.

Ironically, I write this from a rocking chair in the country watching red-bellied woodpeckers feeding. I don’t hate the country; I just don’t want to live here.

  1. or woman depending on your inclinations []

31 comments

  1. Mary Anne Mohanraj on #

    Okay, but Justine, you could come live in Chicago, and get all that great big-cityness for a third (or less) the cost of housing…

    I don’t think Scalzi was slagging cities in general — just the three of them in the U.S. with truly insane housing costs.

    Admittedly, it’s cold here.

  2. Justine on #

    My point is not just about cheapness but about the choices you make to live where you want to live. Living somewhere that makes you unhappy isn’t worth any amount of money saved.

    I don’t want to live in Chicago. It’s not the centre of publishing in the US. Also it’s not a city you can live in comfortably without a car. (You couldn’t pay me to live in LA either.) NYC is the only city in the US for me because it’s so livable for those of us who don’t drive. Not to mention, as you say, Chicago’s even colder than NYC, which is already too cold.

  3. Veronica on #

    Yes, take it from me. I’ve lived in Philadelphia. It is nothing like NYC. Admittedly, Chicago is much better than Phillie, and I like it a lot–I have family there. But it’s no substitute. And it is insanely cold.

  4. Justine on #

    Veronica: You don’t have to convince me!

    Though I really don’t want these comments to turn into a which-city-is-best thread. There are many wonderful cities and towns throughout the world.

    My point really was that living where you want to live—where you’re happy living—really can be worth paying more in rent. Especially as there are other areas where you’ll be saving on account of having no car etc.

    I know heaps of people who are miserable living in NYC. And Sydney. And any number of cities that I happen to love.

    Live where you want to live! But choosing to live in a city known for expensive real estate and rentals is not necessarily crazy at all.

  5. tiffany trent on #

    I am so excited b/c guess what book came home w/me from the library yesterday? One with your name on it! :)

    Also, re: marrying for money/taking care of oneself. I agree w/you on both counts–definitely did NOT marry for $$–and would be uncomfortable with being supported by my man, except that I’ve supported *him* for the last ten years and I believe turnabout is totally fair play in this case.

    As to cities, Hong Kong beats them all hands down. If only the publishing empire would move there! ;)

  6. Mary Anne Mohanraj on #

    Actually, I have to disagree on the car front; I lived in Chicago for years without a car, and most of my friends here don’t have cars. It’s fine. Our transit system isn’t the equal of NY’s, but it’s not abysmal either.

    But that said, I wasn’t trying to argue that those three cities don’t have their own benefits and reasons you might choose to live there. Just that I kind of agree with John that on the money front alone, it’s hard to argue that the amount is costs you to pay for your housing is money you’re likely to recoup through additional writing opportunities.

    Maybe if you’re good at networking and really put yourself out there and meet agents and editors and the like. But most writers I know don’t actually do that, so living in NY doesn’t benefit them financially in that way.

  7. Eric G. on #

    big cities! Bah! Small college towns are where it’s at! (Justine, are you up here in Ithaca? Just guessing based on the Cornell Labs link.)

  8. Justine on #

    Mary Ann: And like Scalzi I would use my own career as a counter argument. I have had many many opportunities that directly come from living in NYC. My writing income is bigger than my living expenses. I save even. Those opportunities would not have come my way living elsewhere.

    There are also more jobs of every kind available in the cities John named. As one of his key pieces of advice was not to give up your day job that’s more than a little pertinent.

    There are also many parts of the city that don’t have crazy expensive rents. I know several people who pay less than a thousand a month for their places. You can also live in parts of New Jersey and be as close to Manhattan as you are living in Brooklyn with much smaller rent.

    There are lots of examples that support either side of the argument. But I still think Scalzi’s advice on this matter is wobbly compared to all his other pieces of advice which are rock solid for pretty much everyone. (Except the marriage thing.)

    You cannot get around in Chicago in winter without a car. Not unless you’re part some-animal-impervious-to-cold which I am not. But I’m someone who doesn’t think any city is livable with winter temperatures that drop below 10C (50F). Including NYC. Which is why I usually go home to Sydney. (I’m aware that option is not available to most people.)

    Which is the point I’m making: people make many choices when they pick where to live. Cost of rent is just one of the factors that go into that decision. Paying more rent in exchange for more opportunities in the field you’re trying to break into is not a crazy decision.

  9. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    I’m with you on this, Justine. There are upsides and downsides to living ANYWHERE. You can’t discount a certain place because of just one factor, you have to look at the balance and which aspects of place appeal/dis-appeal to you, and for what reasons.

    It’s what my mom and I have been going over as we look into relocating. She wants a small town, I want a city. We’re compromising by looking at a medium-ish town within distance of a city. She gets the small-town feel, I get the big city energy. Happiness.

    ~Mary

  10. Mahek on #

    London is the worst city to live in. I’m telling you people: the average house costs £400,000 in London. In US $ that’s $800,000.

    South East England is the worst place to live if you are short on money. You’ll go bankrupt within a week or maybe a month. Depends if you have a job or money to even start off with.

  11. Lauren on #

    But London has free health care and pubs both essential for the writer.

  12. Mary Anne Mohanraj on #

    I’m not arguing that writers *can’t* find opportunities in NY that they might not find elsewhere. Obviously, you did, and others might. But I think for a lot of writers (artists/actors/musicians/etc.), they move to NY thinking they’ll find those opportunities, pay punitive housing costs, and then don’t find the extra gigs that make it worthwhile. If you’re trying to simply be fiscally stable as a writer, and it’s hard for you, it seems reasonable to consider moving someplace else.

    I’m not really trying to defend John — he makes much more sweeping statements than I’m comfortable with. But I do think it’s worth telling new writers that if they move to NY thinking it’s going to make them lots of money though industry contacts — it easily could not. And it’s likely to cost them, housing-wise, either in space, or money, or distance from work. They have to decide whether it’s a worthwhile trade-off, of course, but it helps to go into the decision with clear eyes.

    And on another note, I know quite a few artists of various stripes who have left NY because they couldn’t find spaces to perform (do readings, etc.) — there was just such competition, such a concentration of artists in NY, that the performance spaces were glutted. It’s another aspect of the job that you don’t necessarily think about when you’re a newbie.

    And I really do hate the cold with a mad passion, but dealt with public transit in Chicago for years nonetheless. Even though we have a car now, we try not to use it, and take the train/bus as much as possible. It’s a trade-off I’ve chosen to make, for good jobs (two academic jobs in the same place, very rare) and lots of space in my city home. Not arguing that anyone else should make the same trade-off. :-)

  13. Amanda Coppedge on #

    My husband and I both have the same unfortunate belief that numbers are far trickier and harder to pin down than words are. (They change on you when you are not looking, you know.) We often joke that we need to marry a third person, one who has a head for figures. And enjoys doing the dishes.

  14. Justine on #

    Amanda: Impossible! No one likes washing up!

  15. Laura Anne on #

    As someone who just moved _back_ to NYC, my first rection was that saving money isn’t the only concern in choosing where you live. You’ve got to feel comfortable, too. If you are a city-dweller by nature, moving somewhere rural/suburban to save money isn’t going to work, because you’ll be too unhappy to create your best work.

    IME, anyway.

    Also, don’t confuse “New York City” with “Manhattan.” I live just outside Manhattan, still on the mass transit line, and didn’t have to sell my soul for housing [good thing, too, as I aready sold it to the publishing gods back in 1990…]

  16. Caryn on #

    You have a good point about city living, especially when you bring up cars and culture. However, I expensive cars are not always necessary, even outside of a city, and there is plenty of stimulation in other places, too. Hubs and I live in a very small tourist town. We own cars, one of which is entirely paid off, and the other not exactly an exorbitant purchase. Most of the time we walk or bike everywhere. As for stimulation, we have plenty of it where we live–two national parks, a state park, a national forest, a mountain range, and a world famous river, to mention a few. So I think what it comes down to is this: live in the city or in a small town or in the country. They all have their advantages and their downsides. But consider carefully what works for you, both financially and culturally.

  17. Tim Pratt on #

    I like doing dishes. It’s when I do most of my thinking about plotting. Busy hands, free mind. I’ve actually resisted getting an apartment with a dishwasher, which rather bewilders my wife…

  18. Patrick on #

    I always hate the spouse thing or keep a dayjob thing. That’s so stupid.

    Being a fulltime writer is no different than being an independent consultant or small business owner or ANY OTHER SELF EMPLOYED JOB. You need to understand taxes, health insurance, cash flow, etc.

    Sure having a spouse who provides a basic cash flow, whether that is enough to cover everthing or just some of the monthly bills and insurance helps, but to say it is a necessity is just wrong.

    And where you live is irrelevant. It’s all about managing costs and cash flow. That’s all.

  19. Christopher Barzak on #

    I live in a brokedown former steel town finding its way into a new identity as a college town with arts and entertainment and tech building up at the moment. I can bike to work at my university in ten minutes, or walk in twenty, or drive, if I so choose, in a few. I’ve had the same car for 8 years, so it’s not been a part of my expenses in forever, and because I can get around fairly easily by bike or public transit or simply walking in better weather, I have no problems here. I don’t write the sort of books that are going to make me able to live in New York City or comparably large cities, most likely, but in a town with a ridiculously low economy I write what I want to and still do well. I even purchased a home, a really nice one, for the price of cheerios basically, because the economy in general is bust. This works for me. It won’t work for everyone. People have different wants (I don’t say “needs” here because it really is about want, in this case. I grew up with considerably less amenities than I have now, and had a happy life then, too, out in the provincial wilderness of Ohio. I think there are a very different ways one can go about being a writer and making it work, and the only thing one can do is consider their own wants for a living environment, as well as what it is they want to write–some kinds of fiction are more commercially viable than others, in my opinion–and make decisions based on that.

    And what you said about not depending on a significant other for money–sound advice from your mum.

  20. Adrienne Vrettos on #

    I *LOVE* the fact I don’t need a car in New York City! The only wrinkle is once you have a kid, having your own transportation to costco for diapers becomes a constant fantasy. And I was lucky enough to marry for love to someone who actually checks our bank account balance before buying stuff, which makes one of us.

  21. Ellie on #

    Yay for carless living. I’ve been complaining about the need for cars ever since I was told I needed to drive to be able to live. If only I had the money to move to New York because then I really wouldn’t need to drive.

  22. rebecca on #

    i’m definitely a city girl. *sigh* but i love mi carro. i wish she was electric.

    i know all the writers live in new york where the publishing houses are, but i probably wouldn’t be happy there. it is very very big. it would swallow me.

    i think i have found a good city though. yay, austin! if only it weren’t in the middle of the biggest republican state in the u.s. we are the only oasis. ;)

  23. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I like John’s advice because it goes against the grain of the standard, “Want to be a writer, MUST live in NYC,” advice people kept pushing on me. It was vastly, VASTLY annoying to be at a cocktail party in Florida, where I was working full time as a writer for a local paper, a job I’d LEFT NYC to take, so I didn’t have to work the horrible non writing job I had there, and keep being told by a series of ignorant jackasses that “if I really wanted to be a writer, I’d move to New York.”

    Yes, there are many happy writers in New York. But when I lived there, I met mostly people who insisted they had to come to NYC to be writers, and had given it up b.c it’s really hard to do it in NY. So I became a happy writer elsewhere.

  24. Justine on #

    Okay, it’s becoming clear that I set this whole thread off on the wrong track by the way I phrased my objection to Scalzi’s insistence writers have to get out of NYC/LA/SF. I should not have wasted time defending cities and NYC in particular. That’s irrelevant.

    The real point is that the advice that to make it as a writer you have to get out of NYC is as stupid as the advice that to do so you have to live in NYC.

    As this thread confirms where you decide to live is dependent on a whole series of different factors and people have “made it” as writers (whatever that means) in many different ways in many different places.

    My objection to Scalzi’s two pieces of advice is they are not nearly as widely useful as his other pieces of advice. Whereas “don’t max out your credit card” applies to all of us, “marry Krissy” only applies to him.

  25. Kelly McCullough on #

    But Scalzi doesn’t say you have to get out of NYC. To claim that he does is is to ignore the first half of his sentence: “Unless you have a truly compelling reason to be there…” It’s a conditional, and a reasonable one because it doesn’t define what a “compelling reason” is. There’s nothing to suggest that being happy in NYC isn’t a compelling reason to stay in NYC.

  26. Justine on #

    He completely leaves the “compelling reason” out in what follows. And, frankly, I was very unpersuaded by his arguments. He had me with all his other points but not those two. They really just amount to very personal experience that doesn’t apply broadly enough to others to count as good advice. It’s like me advising everyone they should marry another writer and live half the year in one city and half the year in another. Great for me, but who knows whether it’ll work for others.

    I’ve seen writers’ lives completely transformed for the better upon moving to NYC/London/other big publishing hub; I’ve also seen the reverse.

    But advising writers to be careful about their finances and not to quit the day job prematurely (if ever)—that’s very smart advice that’s generally applicable.

  27. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Justine, I think it’s very likely that because you have not attempted to be a writer elsewhere in this country (I am correct that you have not lived anywhere else but NYC in the US, right?) you have not been subject to the CONSTANT advice from well-meaning folks that you’d “be doing better” if you lived in NYC.

    I also agree with Scalzi about the marrying someone with a steady job and bennies as being a boon. I talked about that and other issues on my blog (I was talking about what it took to quit your day job), and I got roundly trounced for it. People may not like these facts, but they don’t make it any less true. If I had kids who needed security, or health issues that needed better benefits, or anything, I woudln’t have quit my day job.

  28. Justine on #

    Just because you’ve been hit with lots of bad advice does not mean that the opposite of that bad advice is therefore true.

    Again, for lots of writers getting married at all is bad advice. Extrapolating something that has worked out personally for one writer and saying that’s good advice for everyone is not helpful.

    Lots of people never get married or wind up in long-term relationships. Let alone in such a relationship with someone who’s financially successful. Giving that as advice for being a successful writer is ridiculous.

    Unlike the advice about money management those two pieces of advice (get married to someone money smart; don’t live in publishing hubs) are not generally applicable no matter how applicable they are to you personally.

    I’m very happy married to another writer and living in two different cities but that does not mean I think it’s essential to my success as a writer. Nor would I advise anyone to follow my lead.

    Scalzi is confusing what worked for him personally with generally applicable advice.

  29. chris. on #

    Scalzi has a decent piece of advice in the whole “get out of the city” bit — Housing can be your biggest expense, so be careful how you spend it. That’s good, general advice. Even his caveat that living in NYC/wherever can be expensive isn’t necessarily *bad* advice, per se, but trying to apply “get out of the city” as a broad truism just doesn’t work as well as the rest of his advice.

    Also, he kinda messed up by saying “get the hell out of New York/etc” and then only talking about apartment prices in Manhattan. To channel a friend of mine from Queens: “Manhattan is not New York City!!”

  30. Carrie V. on #

    I for one thank you for your response to #3. Scalzi has mentioned this a couple of times as “good advice for writers.” As a full time writer who’s single, I kind of resent it. The same way I resent it when I go to weddings and people ask me “So, have _you_ found anyone special yet?”

  31. Justine on #

    Chris: Absolutely, whatsmore there are even writers who live in Queens and the Bronx and Staten Island. NYC isn’t all Manhattan and Brooklyn. Not to mention the parts of New Jersey that are practically a sixth borough.

    And it’s worth remembering that NYC is one of the few cities left in the US with rent control and rent stabilisation. I know folks living in supposedly expensive parts of NYC who are paying less than a thousand a month rent. Sometimes way less.

    Yes, those apartments are hard to come by but they exist.

    And yes, Chris, my point was not about whether NYC is or isn’t a good place to live but that, as you say, the get out of NYC/LA/SF advice doesn’t work as a broad truism the way the rest of his advice (except the marriage) thing does.

    And I believe on that note I’ll close comments because we’re all starting to repeat ourselves.

    Carrie V.: I’m married and it rubs me the wrong way! I hate the whole culture of everyone must be wed and singles are all miserable. What rubbish.

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