My Dream Job: Embracing the Full-Time Author’s Life

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

I didn’t used to like thinking about contracts.

As a law student, Contracts was the only class in which I earned a C. “Earned” being an interesting choice of verb. And to be candid, I received that C largely by the grace of Professor St. Antoine—a legend in his field who truly deserved more of my attention.

I could point to the fact that this core requirement at The University of Michigan Law School was scheduled at 8 a.m., and until my thirties, I didn’t believe in doing anything before 10 a.m.

I could also point to my staggering absentee rate for the first hour of my first year. I believe there are new attendance rules that no longer permit such lackadaisical behavior.

But nevertheless, there it was. The C. Which, even at a school that sneered at rampant grade inflation, was a sign of a less-than-good performance. A far from stellar one.

Certainly, nothing to bank on.

It’s perhaps a sign of God’s sense of humor—or sense of irony—that these days I make my living by securing one contract after another to connect my manuscripts to readers.

I have an absolutely fantastic agent, who handles my negotiations (and so much more). But it seems only logical that I pay attention to the business side of my, well, business. So I do my best to keep up so I can ask thoughtful questions, make the occasional suggestion, and pinpoint (or at least stumble upon) new opportunities.

Focusing on publishing as an industry takes precious time. It’s occasionally boring, sometimes tedious, and in the current economic climate, too often discouraging. Moreover, it wasn’t part of my dream of becoming a full-time writer.

Don’t get me wrong, I was never one of those people who wanted to have written instead of dedicating myself to writing as a process.

Some writing days are more challenging for me than others, but ultimately, they’re what make the creative journey more satisfying.

I also realized early on, that for everyone who thought they had a book in them, only a relative handful of us had the gumption and work ethic to make that happen. I was determined to be in the roaring minority who could finish a competitive manuscript.

What I hadn’t realized was how many fronts I’d have to tackle after an editor said “yes” and offered–you guessed it–a contract to seal the deal.

Yes, suddenly, a contract had become a reason for celebration! A contract seemed like the most wonderful thing in the world! But before long, I wasn’t only a writer any more. I was an author, too.

As an author, I’m still writer. But I’m also a publicity, marketing and public relations professional, a public speaker, a teacher, and a student of a rapidly changing industry. Doing all that gradually led me to more than double the time I allocated to my career. Meanwhile, the challenges of building an audience required me to pick up the pace on the creative front. Since I broke into publishing just over a decade ago, expectations for authors have risen across the board.

Of late, I’ve prepped for the release of my first graphic novel, chatted with an app developer, and done market research on the use of QR codes. I’ve also reviewed publisher art notes for my second graphic novel, continued rough drafting my next prose novel, read a handful of manuscripts by other writers, and I’m reviewing first-pass pages this week.

At some point I realized that if I was going to do this full-time (and eat), I’d have to continue to push myself to grow in my job.

And that’s what it is: a job.

It’s not merely a dream, it’s my day-to-day responsibility.

Among other things, that means I have to say “no” to a lot of other competing opportunities. It means I have to sometimes disappoint people who don’t understand that working for yourself means that you typically give much more than if you worked for someone else.

I’ve learned to make the most of the blessing of flexibility while shouldering the burden of being my own boss. And I’ve learned that those who’re truly rooting for me understand and support that.

I may not enjoy every moment of it, but I can think of countless ways that other hard-working people make a living that I’d prefer less.

In fact, there’s absolutely nothing in the world than I’d rather do than write books for young readers.

It’s not a purely creative pursuit, and it forces me out of my comfort zone. But I still love it.

I know I love it because I’m willing to work at it, because I’m willing to accept that I have to change sometimes, too, and because it welcomes me again and again into the magical world of books and the people who care about them.

Come to think of it, this job is my dream come true.

Cynsational Notes

You don’t have to write full-time to be a successful author. What’s more, you don’t have to be a published author to be a successful writer. There are a myriad of journeys and opportunities in a writing life; it’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

I’m a little intense, which is how I ended up at law school in the first place.

My choices are informed by my own goals, the fact that I’m not independently wealthy, and those areas in which I elect to focus my attention.

In fact, my own strategies have changed over the years and, I’m sure, will continue to do so. For example, I’m on an extended leave from the Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty and only taking the occasional private student. However, I’ve taught part-time in the past and will do so again.

Or, put more succinctly, your experience and priorities may vary, and that’s totally okay.

I will now refer to myself in the third person…

Photos by Cynthia Leitich Smith, class of 1994, of The University of Michigan Law School.

Cynthia is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, as well as the forthcoming Tantalize: Kieren’s Story and Diabolical. Her award-winning books for younger children include Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, Rain Is Not My Indian Name and Holler Loudly. She also has published several middle grade and young adult short stories. Her very cute husband is author Greg Leitich Smith.

22 thoughts on “My Dream Job: Embracing the Full-Time Author’s Life

  1. I don't know how you do all that you do – but I love that you do it!

    I have been full time for nearly four years. When you said, "working for yourself means that you typically give much more than if you worked for someone else," this is so true!

  2. You are such an inspiration – you make doing all those things you do look so easy! Thanks for sharing the story about the contracts class – I think it illustrates how doing something you don't LOVE can be such a struggle, but doing the thing you do LOVE may be just as much hard work (or more) but it is so much more enjoyable 🙂

  3. As a former law student who used a good part of his free time in his third year to write his first MG manuscript, this was pretty inspiring. I hope to be in your position one day. Back to the work-in-progress while I wait on editors!

  4. P.S., I'm sure it was time well spent! And in case it's heartening, there are a lot of lawyers/children's writers. Here in Austin alone, we also have my husband, Greg Leitich Smith, Jane Peddicord, Sean Petrie, Louis Sachar, Jacqueline Kelly… Good luck with your manuscripts! I'm rooting for you!

  5. Don't ask my folks about that one haha! But at the very least, law school forces you to become resilient very quickly, and that's something that carries over to writing in a major way! Thanks for the encouragement, and hopefully one day my passion will turn into a full-time profession!

  6. And having read all that, yes I still aspire to be a full time published writer and all that it, as you so carefully identify, can entail. Thanks for the candid, and encouraging, look at a kidlit writer's life.

  7. Thanks, Joanna! I'm glad that it didn't scare you off. 😉 At least for me, it helps to really own it as a job because no job is perfect and all them entail people to stretch, prioritize, and do things that sometimes they'd rather not.

  8. I'm honored, Lindsey. You're so sweet.

    I don't want this blog to ever be all me, all the time (I love shining a light on other book folks), but I will be making an effort to feature my own voice on Cynsations a bit more.

  9. You're so right, Cynthia. The true work begins after you sign that contract – publicity campaigns, marketing, speaking, school visits leave very little time for writing. Being an author is more than a fulltime job.

    Congrats on all your success!!

  10. I loved this post! It always inspires me when an established author recalls their roots and gives an inside glimpse of their journey. Thanks, Cynthia!

  11. Cynthia, fess up. You just don't sleep. Either that or the days on Planet Austin are longer than 24 hours. Seriously, congratulations on all you do and do so well.

  12. Glad to hear it, BookGeek! I likewise find it helpful to consider other writers' journeys in making decisions about what steps of my own to take net.

    Uma, I appreciate your vote of confidence! More days that not, I suspect most of us feel like we're chasing our tails (forgive the metaphor; I have a cat here doing just that). But there is something to be said for thriving in the art and surviving in the business. On those dual fronts, you're certainly one of my role models.

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