From January – March 2019, I took a three-month leave of absence from my day job to write full-time. I’m so grateful to my employer BookBub for giving me this opportunity. And while the experience is fresh in my mind, I’d like to do a little project post-mortem on how it went and what I learned.
My three goals were:
- Finish All Your Twisted Secrets developmental and line edits.
- Write the complete first draft of a novel (2019 Thriller WIP).
- Recover from significant burnout.
Yeah. They were ambitious goals. Even the last one (which kinda contradicts the other two).
Before I dive in, let me just say that being able to take an unpaid leave of absence from a full-time salaried position is an extremely privileged thing. Yes, I’ve worked hard all my life — employed since I was 14 at part-time jobs after school, with an internship (or two!) each semester of college, and a FT job ever since (always while hustling on some side project) — but I come from an upper-middle class background and have been very lucky. My advance covered the time off, I’m on my husband’s healthcare plan, and I have no children or dependents. It’s important to be transparent about this. I know not everyone has this sort of opportunity, but I wanted to share my experience and learnings in case any other writers out there are considering something similar or even *gasp* quitting their day job altogether.
Alright, let’s do this. First, here’s a breakdown of what I accomplished (including extra marketing things):
- Finished and submitted proposal for 2019 Thriller WIP (pitch, outline, 4 chapters).
- Wrote a blog post/newsletter: How I Outlined All Your Twisted Secrets
- Brainstormed adult thriller idea, wrote the pitch, plotted it, wrote ~3k words.
- Developmental edit #2 for All Your Twisted Secrets (~3 weeks total).
- Helped HarperTeen brainstorm titles for All Your Twisted Secrets, previously called The Last Hour (this took way more time than I expected; titles are hard).
- Line edits for All Your Twisted Secrets (4 days total).
- Took an online course on Facebook ads.
- Wrote 43K words of 2019 Thriller WIP, bringing the total to 50K.
- Created a title reveal campaign for All Your Twisted Secrets (included a blog post, email newsletter, and Instagram graphics for the pre-reveal and reveal).
- Took a weekend trip to Savannah, GA (which ended up inspiring a new book idea!).
- Started creating #bookstagram inventory for growing my Instagram.
- Tested running Facebook ads to grow my mailing list.
- Launched my street team.
- Found out 2019 Thriller WIP needs to be put on hold until at least 2020. (Yeah… that’s how publishing works.)
- Realized I was still burnt out as all hell, and I better take some time to focus on my mental health.
- Caught up on sleep, watched an excessive amount of TV.
- Went to Paris and Lisbon for 10 days.
- Developed five YA thriller pitches to send to my agent and editor.
- Started developing the proposal of the pitch my editor liked best (the idea from my Savannah trip! Yay!).
- Taxes. This was my first time filing with author income and it was confusing, so this totally counts.
- Wrote this blog post/newsletter (what you’re reading now).
Ok, so. Did I accomplish my goals?
- Finish All Your Twisted Secrets developmental and line edits. Yes! I was hoping to complete copyedits too but haven’t received those yet, so that’s out of my control.
- Write the complete first draft of a novel. No. I was actually on pace to do this. It was going to be a stretch; after finishing my outline and projecting each chapter’s word count, it was going to be a 93k-word manuscript. That’s quite different from a 60K-word draft! But then I learned I needed to set this project aside for now.
- Recover from significant burnout. Errr. Somewhat? I’m a workaholic. For instance, I have a cold right now. Instead of resting, I’m writing this post. Do I have to complete this writeup in the final hours of my sabbatical while I can barely breathe through my nose? No. But here we are. Still, I feel better than I did in November/December, so I consider that a win.
So, speaking of setting that project aside… let’s dive into what I learned:
Publishing is utterly unpredictable.
I already knew this from being on submission four times before getting a book deal. But this experience reminded me that there’s no guarantee a project will sell — even after you sell your debut. My progress on my 2019 Thriller WIP absolutely wasn’t wasted time; I’ll publish it eventually! But when my current publisher wanted new ideas, I had to decide what to work on in March: continue plugging away at this draft, or brainstorm new ideas. Since I’d like to publish a book every 1.5 – 2 years, I decided to prioritize brainstorming.
This was a difficult decision. Devastating at first, really. This was a once-in-a-lifetime sabbatical, and I was crushed I wouldn’t have a full draft by the end of it. It turned out to be a good decision; I was able to give my brain the rest it needed to percolate ideas and write five pitches. I wouldn’t have been able to do that so quickly while working full-time.
I will never be happy with my progress.
I am a hopeless overachiever. I mean, look at that list. I completed a HUGE developmental edit for my debut novel (plus line edits!), wrote six pitches total, wrote more than 50k words total, and did lots of marketing things, and I’m still unsatisfied with what I accomplished. In my mind, there will always be more I could have done.
Having time off was crucial for developmental edits.
For my first round of developmental edits in November, I had zero free time whatsoever. I’d go to work during the day (at the time, I was writing/launching an entire ebook for my day job, hahahaha), then I’d go home and edit at night, and for 12 hours straight on Saturdays, Sundays, and Veteran’s Day. Just typing that makes me laugh out loud. I have no idea how I survived it. It wasn’t just about the hours I put in… that edit was freaking hard. When I started it, I cried. I had no idea how I’d pull it off. I still have no idea how I did. And let’s just say, when I finished it… my anxiety hit rock bottom. It wasn’t a fun time for my brain. At all.
The second round in January was much easier — the edit itself was still very challenging, but I treated it like a full-time job, where I worked for eight-hour days, Monday through Friday, and I had my nights and weekends off. It was incredible.
There are only so many words I can draft in a day.
For my previous books, I wrote in sprints — an hour here, an hour there, wherever I could spare them. But now I had lots of hours. So each day, I set a goal of 2k or 3k words. But even when I had all the time in the world, I always hit a wall 2-3 hours in. Still, I’d agonize over hitting my word count goal, obsessing over my progress graph in Pacemaker. On days where I couldn’t hit my goal, I’d spend the remaining hours of the day lamenting over how much writing I should be doing. And the guilt would spill into the following day. It didn’t matter if I’d taken extra time on a particularly visceral description or quippy bit of dialogue. It was never enough if I didn’t hit that goal.
This was absolutely the wrong way for me to draft. For some authors, it works great! But I am not a fast drafter, especially early on when I don’t know the characters well yet — even when I have an outline. Yes, this was my vomit draft, and vomit drafts usually suck (at least, mine do); but sometimes I found myself continuing to write a scene I knew was awful just to hit that freaking number.
Now I know I work best when sitting down to write for a sprint (e.g. four half-hour blocks, for two hours total), and whatever I write or edit during those sprints is my accomplishment for the day. I also now know not to resent a day job for keeping me from writing, because hey, ~2 hours is the creative writing limit for my brain anyway. Now I can be content with my 1-2 hour drafting sprints in the morning before work. This one takeaway made the entire sabbatical worth it.
I got stir crazy.
I’m an introvert who loves working from home. I loved not fussing over my hair/makeup each morning. I love the quiet my apartment offers (working at startups means dealing with open office layouts, which aren’t conducive to writing-heavy roles). Also, I’ll avoid TMI but I have some health issues, and it was wonderful to stay home on days I didn’t feel well without feeling guilty.
But working from home every single day got to me after a while. It wasn’t complete isolation — I still went out with my husband, met up with friends, and took a couple of trips. I also worked from cafes for a few days (but in Boston, this is very difficult; it’s a college and startup town, and the cafes here get packed fast, and I’m too impatient to stand around waiting for a seat to open up). As an introvert, sometimes I need a nudge to get out the door — a nudge that conveniently comes in the form of a job. And I missed my coworkers! So even if someday in the distant future I do decide to write full-time, I think I’ll want a part-time gig or volunteer work as well.
Getting away from my desk inspires me.
Again, I love working from home. But my moments of inspiration usually come when I’m out and about — on walks, getting fresh air, or on a trip where I see something unique or fascinating. The proposal I’m working on now was inspired by a ghost tour my husband and I spontaneously booked while in Savannah. My very first novel (which isn’t published) was inspired by something I saw happen on the Paris metro while on a business trip. If I hadn’t been in that exact train car at that exact moment, I might have never had the inspiration I needed to start writing at all.
These moments always come unexpectedly. I never know what I’m going to see out in the world that sparks an idea. So I need to get away from my desk more often, and keep my eyes wide open.
My cat was living her best life.
I thought she’d get sick of me, but she was basically glued to my lap.
Would I do this again?
I probably wouldn’t take an unpaid leave like this again unless I had a contract for a project with a really aggressive deadline.
The one thing I would absolutely take time off for is developmental edits. Those are a TON of work with very short turnaround times and a lot at stake (the quality of an entire book!). Taking just one week off would make a world of difference. I wish publishers would provide authors with timelines upon signing the contract for when they’ll receive editorial letters and what the revision deadlines will be. This would make it so much easier for authors to arrange time off with their employers and to give them ample notice — whether they’re using vacation days, taking unpaid time off, or arranging for extra child care (kids are a FT job). And let’s face it; most of us have day jobs.
As for my mishap of temporarily shelving basically all of my progress from February… going into my sabbatical, I toyed with the idea of developing 5-6 proposals (pitch, outline, first three chapters) instead of writing a first draft (since the 2019 Thriller WIP wasn’t under contract). But I decided to take the risk and write the first draft. In retrospect, I wish I developed the proposals instead. But there’s no point dwelling over it. Everything happens for a reason.
This was an incredibly valuable learning experience. I learned a lot about my ideal writing habits. I got a lot done. I recovered from my burnout — not 100%, since I was still working most of the time, but I’m in a better place now. All-in-all, it was worth it.
This wouldn’t have been possible without the support of:
- My amazing employer BookBub, and my incredible colleagues who took on my workload while I was out.
- My husband Bryan, who encouraged me to do this in the first place, and rooted for me every step of the way.
- My parents; while I’m definitely old enough not to need their approval, having them enthusiastically cheer me on was lovely.
- My agent Jim McCarthy for his excitement for my projects and his unbelievably fast turnaround times.
- My editor Catherine Wallace for timing that second round of developmental edits perfectly and for being an extremely fast communicator.
- My cat Kitty, for being the perfect little writing buddy.
I know I’m lucky. I appreciate you all so much. Thank you, everyone.
Want to share this post? Here are ready-made tweets:
Click to tweet: Author @DianaUrban shared what it was like to take a sabbatical to write full-time. Is this something you’d consider doing? #writingcommunity http://bit.ly/2U03hUU
Click to tweet: A fascinating look at how one authors took a three-month leave of absence from her day job to write full-time! #writingcommunity http://bit.ly/2U03hUU