At the end of this post I have a list of my four main projects and how far I’ve gotten on them. But for those who are interested I will first give an explanation of how I’ve managed to become a part-time writer.
Over the past two years I’ve been working on two novels, a non-fiction philosophy book, and a computer game. These are all huge projects. Someone once compared writing a novel to swimming across an ocean. This description is certainly accurate. That I’ve made any significant progress on these projects is due to support from both my wife and my employer. Every morning I get up at 5:30 a.m. and write until 8:30 a.m., including weekends and most holidays. The makes me effectively a half-time writer, as I’ve been for about a year now. Getting to this point was not easy.
When I first quit grad school and returned to Utah with my wife and son, I had the desire to write but I knew finding employment was my first priority. In early 2012, after landing a steady job in tech support, the idea struck me that perhaps the main function of sleep was to conserve calories, and that if I ate an additional meal in the morning I could get by with five hours of sleep, and win three hours of writing time between 5:00 am and 8:00 am.
My hypothesis was probably incorrect. Over the course of the next several months I made tremendous progress on my second novel (Poisons the River Anigrus – unpublished), but exhausted myself physically and mentally and ended up quitting my job because of wrist problems. The next nine months I spent as a middle school science teacher, which left almost no time for writing. Finally, in spring of 2013, I was hired on as a programmer with a normal 40 hour work week. I knew that sleep was essential, and I didn’t want to sacrifice too much time with my wife or kids, so I limited my writing to 1.5 hours every morning. It was during this period that I made most of my progress on First King of Montana.
The reason I focused all my energy on my post-apocalyptic novel was that I felt it had the best chance of making it big so I could become a full-time writer. This way of thinking depended entirely on a faith that my ideas were good enough that if I just applied myself wholeheartedly, a career in professional writing would automatically open up and provide plenty of cash.
This faith was gradually worn down to a faint hope. I was writing science-fiction. The bestselling science-fiction novel of all time was Dune. Frank Herbert had spent ten years writing it and was rejected by dozens of publishers before being picked up by a small motorcycle magazine that could have easily botched it. He was lucky enough to win the Hugo right away, but it still took ten years of spectacular international sales before he could quit his job and write full time. More recently, Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game has been a bestseller and an award winner, but Card warned in his how-to-write books that science fiction writers can never expect to quit their day jobs. The average money a person makes per novel is about $3000-5000.
I already felt that I was sacrificing some of my deeper philosophical themes to write First King, and after a year (I don’t know why it took this long) it finally struck me that I was going about the whole thing backwards. Realistically, writing a novel was by far the worst and most risky way one could go about achieving financial independence! And why did I want financial independence in the first place? So that I would have more time to write. The basic illusion underneath all of this was that writing a novel was a good way to make more money in less time. But the opposite is the truth.
What I actually needed was to reduce my daytime work-hours so I could increase my writing hours. With this clearly in mind as the goal, I was liberated to consider endless possibilities. Whatever career paid the most per hour, that needed to be my new direction.
With some research I found that software development was already one of the best fields to be in. Freelance developers could often work just half the year. So I started looking into starting my own business.
Oddly enough, no sooner had I started looking than I spotted an opportunity and pounced. A friend from college had helped start an stock-trading company that needed good computer programmers. He told me, “For 26-weeks out of the year we need someone to monitor our systems and—”
“Perfect!” I said.
“—the rest of the year we would need you do full-time software development.”
“Sorry, I guess I’m not interested then.”
But we kept talking. He kept offering me more money but I kept telling him that I only cared about time. I told him to half his proposed salary and half the proposed hours and he would have a deal. He agreed and managed to convince the other partners in the company that this would work.
So I incorporated myself, registering a one-man LLC, and was suddenly an actual free-lancer. I would be on-call for two weeks, working 60 hours a week, and then off-duty for two weeks, during which I wrote 40 hours a week. The one downside to this was that by the end of each pair of weeks I would be either burned out with work or burned out with writing.
Eight months later my last employer called and told me they needed me back. I refused to listen unless they agreed to a reduced-hour schedule. Again and again I had to tell them I wasn’t interested in more money, only more time. So we made a deal and now I’m back with my original company, and I have a better schedule: 32 hours a week of work and 20 hours of writing.
I tell this story because I think that it’s important for writers—and anyone with personal goals—to know that it is possible to push back against corporations for the most valuable resource that people seem to have forgotten about: time. We keep sacrificing our time for more money when we don’t really need more stuff, but more solitude, more togetherness, and more creativity. Solitude, togetherness, and creativity don’t need money, they need time.
Let me share a glimpse the fruit of the leisure I’ve fought for:
Project I: Wisdom’s Thousand Jilted Lovers
Description: A philosophical novel. Half the chapters are semi-autobiographical, based on the story I told in the first few dozen posts of this blog. Interleaved with these are chapters I’m calling “vignettes” short stories based on the lives of scientists, philosophers, poets, and mystics. The theme of the novel is overweening love of wisdom and the tragic alienation it engenders. Along the way I develop my own philosophy of value and evolution.
Work done so far: (1) first draft outline complete, (2) first draft manuscript complete, (3) second draft outline complete, (4) second draft manuscript 20% complete.
Progress to Final Completion: 53%
Project II: The First King of Montana
Description: A post-apocalyptic novel. Washington D.C. has been destroyed in a war of independence waged by Mexico allied with rebels in the Southwest. Jack, a marine returning to Montana in defeat, finds his state in the grips of tyranny and anarchy. He is forced to confront a dysfunctional democracy and unite a fragmented populace made up of Amish, Mayans, white-supremacists, and assorted nihilist thugs—and give them something to believe in now that comfort is a distant memory.
Work done so far: (1) first draft outline complete, (2) first draft manuscript 30% complete, (3) second draft outline 60% complete.
Progress to Final Completion: 45%
Project III: The Cultivation of Wisdom
Description: A non-fiction philosophy book. I am trying to follow in the footsteps of Aristotle and lay out a full system of philosophy. My current outline calls for the following chapters: “Cosmology,” “Philosophy,” “Logic,” “Physics,” “Systems,” “Evolution,” “Ecology,” “Civilization,” “Mysticism,” “Metaphysics,” “Story and Myth,” “Religion and Value.”
Work done so far: (1) 5-page outline complete, (2) 50-page outline complete, (3) first draft “Introduction” complete, (4) first draft “Cosmology” complete, (5) first draft “Philosophy” complete, (6) first draft “Logic” in progress.
Progress to Final Completion: 25%
Project IV: The Eldar and the Fallen
Description: An ecological-sandbox, fantasy computer game. The idea is to have a persistent world with about 1000 characters split into several tribes. Fantasy elements like magic and magical artifacts will also be included. The characters can fall in love, have children, forage, farm, wage war, and enter political relationships. Ten thousand animals and a million plants will also have the basic functions of eating, reproduction, and death. Ecological balance is essential to the game. When a tribe or hero becomes too powerful, it throws the ecology out of balance. The idea is to help your tribe survive and not succumb to the destructive seductions of power.
Work done so far: I’ve successfully generated a world, including trees, grass, rocks, and water, that to have your character walk across takes about 2.5 hours. I use pseudo-randoms seed to store the unique local landscapes, so that the entire world doesn’t have to be represented in computer memory at once. A few variables (climate, vegetation) suffice to keep track of what can change off screen.
Progress to Final Completion: 18%
It has been fulfilling to finally sit down and plan out these projects, and to carry them so far. Without a looming sense of urgency to “make it big” I can focus on quality. I really don’t care if any of these projects become bestsellers. What I do care about is writing something that is truly inspiring and can stand the test of time.
Working on a single project too long, I’ve found, can be unhealthy. So my fallow time has fallow time so to speak—I let myself spend half my mornings meditating, thinking, reading, writing blog posts, or writing short stories for fun. Next week I will post one of the fruits of this—some ideas for a university of the future.