On Writing,  publishing

The Fear of a Real Paycheck

Economic Basis for Fear…

Last week I asked some basic questions, the premise being that I am questioning why I made simply writing for five days on that last novel something special.

And on Thursday I asked a number of questions that got some fantastic responses.

It is pretty clear that it is fear in one form or another stopping or slowing down or influencing most fiction writers these days. In all sorts of areas. Lots to talk about this week.

And I believe some of the fears are just bogus and some have some pretty solid basis in reality.

So I want to address a fear I have fought since I was a kid first and that is very real. And still, to this day, after forty years in this business, tiny elements of this fear creep into my decisions. This fear is very, very real for more writers than anyone ever thinks about.

Best way I can think of describing this is:

“Fear of No Perceived Security.”

J.D. Brink said it very well in a comment…

I have to agree with Colleen and Ellen: money/support/stability is a big fear factor.

Personally, my biggest fear is not having the stability of a “real” job to support the family and pay the bills. In my dark corner of reality, and especially in my family, everyone works their whole lives, never gets far, is afraid to retire because they’re not sure they can make it not working, and then dies poor. (Depressing I know — sorry.) But one “myth” I don’t know if I can get past is that there are people who *don’t* exist in that shadowy reality. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that anyone could write *for a living*. Blows my mind. And even though there are obvious examples to the contrary (like Dean and others here — though maybe you’re all just phantasms in the internet ether…?), I’ve never known anyone that didn’t live and die clutching at jobs they hate to go to every day.

So for me, believing I can let go of the edge of the pool and swim on my own, while still preventing my family from drowning right along with me… Just hard to accept. But that’s the dream!

I think J.D. described it perfectly.

I grew up very poor, with the attitude that you worked a job for eight hours that you hated, made just barely enough to get by most times, and kept doing that until you were 65 or older or until you died. Weekends and vacations were to be treasured and made special.

(That “special” word again… hmmmm.)

But luckily for me, early on in my life I had the ability to look around and decide I wanted nothing to do with that path. (Disliking my parents and family helped that.)

So when I was young and had nothing to lose, I tried to not follow that route. And every time I got tired of a job or a career (as in skiing and golf and architecture and law) I quit and moved on.

At one point I was homeless, living in my car for a long time, and even after I went back to college, got a masters, then went on into law school, I did the same. I dropped out of law school with just a couple tests to finish my third year. Instead of being a lawyer, I continued to tend bar.

Now the pressure to not do that was so intense from everyone around me that I had at the age of 34 fixed my place in life as a failure in everyone’s mind. (The pressure was so intense I even went back and signed up for that last semester two times in the next two years and dropped out again both times. Yes, I paid for four years of law school and never got a JD.)

And by that time I had been through two marriages as well and was close to homeless once again, living in a room in a hotel.

I pretty much considered myself a failure by everything I had been raised. A successful person would be working a “real” job, raising a family, saving for retirement. A successful person didn’t work as little as possible to give myself more time to type made-up-stuff on a typewriter.

The concept of being a fiction writer was so alien to how I was brought up that I didn’t even realize until I was almost thirty that real humans wrote all the novels I read.  Yet I loved the challenge of telling stories.

And I think I loved more than anything that making up stories wasn’t a “real job” that people would accept. My estranged mother, right up until the day she died, thought I had wasted my life.

“Wasted my potential” as she used to say.

And by the time she died I was a major bestseller. Didn’t matter. To her way of thinking, the real job way of thinking, I didn’t really work.

I didn’t get a paycheck, cash it, try to make it stretch until the next paycheck. Therefore I was a failure. Period.

The very real fear of not having a real job if you were raised in that kind of thinking is almost impossible to break. To this day I honestly don’t know how I escaped it. And I haven’t escaped it completely.

So What Do You Do?

The first thought is to make writing a job. DO NOT DO THAT!!!!

Let me repeat that.


If you make writing your job, in the way of thinking we were bought up, the job becomes something to dread, something to escape from, something only bringing in money. You make writing your job and the writing drys up quickly. Seen it happen to a lot of people, myself included until I realized what I was doing.

Start catching yourself when you say you are “going to work” when talking about your writing. Danger! Danger!

—Keep writing the fun place to play, the place to escape from the job.

This is a critical attitude. When I was young, my family thought going up to a nearby lake on a warm summer afternoon was the height of getting away.

I try to keep my writing in that same feeling. When I get to go sit down and tell a story, it is an escape. It is fun. It is something I don’t want to leave.

—Keep the money out of the real life.

As you do more and more writing, you will make more and more money. Don’t spend it on rent and food and such. Keep it in its own business account. At first, when the money is small, when you have a little extra writing money after some expenses, do something fun and special with it.

And do that fun and special thing with the family. Make sure they know that it is your writing money paying for the special thing. That helps them support your fun hobby.

Extreme caution with the money from writing because money is tied to that old attitude of barely getting by.

—Get professional help as the money increases.

And yes, I am talking about counseling. Suck it up. If you want to ever get out of the day-job grind, you have to retrain a ton of crap in your head. Go get help. (I did for years and years.)

—Get your family in on the fun.

Include them in your writing as much as possible, get them helping you like they are in on a giant conspiracy. “Dad (or Mom) is doing some thing strange and it’s really fun. Shhh, don’t tell anyone.”

Make sure you let them know they help and that the entire thing is fun.

—Do not make escaping your day job a goal for your writing.

I hear this all the time, but the pressure is too much on the writing because the day job, the “real job,” is what makes everything tick.

But don’t worry, if you keep the writing fun, keep your family supporting you, keep learning, eventually the money from the business side will overwhelm the day job money. And by then you will have gotten help to deal with it all mentally, right?

Just don’t make the writing so important, so special, that it threatens the “real job.” If it does, you will grind to a halt fairly quickly because how we were all raised doesn’t allow threats to what pays the bills.


If you are starting to understand that fighting this problem of growing up lower class, working a day job to survive, has some real problems, realize that I’ve only been talking about one area. You will also need to learn business and how to take risks with your business, two things not taught in that “real job” thinking.

Step back and look at yourself and your life. If your background was the “real job” world of paycheck to paycheck, some of your writing problems may be coming from that background.

Keep the writing fun. That really is one of the major keys to solving so many of these fear issues.

So go have fun.


You can support this ongoing blog at Patreon on a monthly basis. Not per post. Just click on the Patreon image. Thanks for your support.


  • J.M. Ney-Grimm

    Dean, this is an utterly awesome post. Growing up, my family always struggled to have enough money at the end of the month. Basically, my reality was: “There is never enough money to pay the bills.” And, honestly, after reading your post, I can see that I am still living with that belief. I never saw it so clearly before. Now that I see it, I can start to do something about it. Thank you!

  • Liana Mir

    Wow. You articulated so many of my issues with writing when I tried the first time to make a go of it. I made it a job, and it failed spectacularly as soon I’d exhausted the fun.

    Thank you for this post. It’s a print it out and hang it on the wall kind of post.

  • Jason M

    It’s cold comfort, Dean, but I’d wager a week’s salary that your mother would’ve been unhappy with you no matter what route you took in life. So there’s that. Just flat out bad luck being born into that family. Some of us are much luckier in that regard.

  • Franklin Kendrick

    This one hit home for me. I’m bad at checking how much I’ve made, and I need to just quit doing that so much when it comes to the writing side of things. Writing has always been my escape – my form of imaginative play – and like your story, Dean, my family didn’t always understand why I write what I write (it’s gotten much better recently) I felt the pressure to write certain things, or do things a certain way based on those old “career job” ideas. I even found myself working three jobs at once last year, and that didn’t include my writing time. Needless to say, I am glad that I gave up time at one of the jobs to put towards my fiction writing. It has been much more rewarding.

    Things have been easier since I made another decision to focus on acquiring less debt and more on saving for dry spells. My mind used to be gripped with fear if the slow season arrived, or the car needed a new tire. But, since I chopped down my debt – and monitored my spending on material things – the creative brain doesn’t worry about money to the same degree. I’m waiting on the creative money to grow in the coming years, and chugging ahead on the next novel in the meantime. I may give your five day writing challenge a go and see how far I can get. Writing fast is so exhilarating!

  • Marion

    Thank you for this post, Dean. It is an important reminder that we should keep the writing, “fun” and not let it become drudgery. Also, I will admit that I’m hoping to leave my day job and become a full time writer soon. However, I appreciate your perspective of not wanting writers to rush to get rid of their day jobs because they hate it. I don’t hate my day job at all and I like working with people I do….but I will write that my mind (outside of the task at hand) wanders to my stories and writing. Looking forward to the rest of your blog posts about the fears that writers have.

  • Fred Aiken

    This post hit home for me Dean. When I graduated from college fifty years ago, I took a job as a Process Engineer for all the wrong reasons. One reason that I took that job was that the Company was in the glass business. My dad worked in that business so I found a little comfort by being in the same inducstry as my father, whom I highly respected. Being young and naive, with no support system to assist me, I did not realize the stess around me in living with this choice. After about nine months, I found myself becoming sick on the drive into work and a remarkable recovery on my drive home.

    I was finally put out of my misery by the plant manager who fired me. At the time, it was a horrific thing to experience – failure. But, in retrospect, it was the best thing to have happened to me. The experience made me realize that liking what you are doing is the key component to enjoying what you are doing.. If I didn’t like the job, I would change my posiition to find one that I liked better.

    The second job was one in which I felt dissatisfaction with what I was doing. My third job introduced me to my life’s work. Even though this job was ideal, I found that it provided the income to allow me to pursue one of my other activities that I truely enjoyed – working on poltical campaigns. My friends and I would work eight hours on the day job and spend a second eight hours working on the campaign during the week and twelve to fourteen hours on Saturday and Sundays. Our feeling was that the day job provided us with the resources to pursue our real passion, the activities that we really liked to do.

    Now that I have retired from the eight to five daily grind, I have the time to pursue my passion without much worry where my next meal will be coming from. Yes. Enjoyment of what you are doing is the key to a long and healthy life.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Patrick R

    Dean, so much in this. Thank you for putting it down.

    Before I mention a few bits, first, to acknowledge J.D. Brink. Well put, and thank you for doing so.

    I suppose most of us has this in some big way or such, for how many come from rich backgrounds where passive income cash flowed into a family that was always kicking off for chill space?

    Not to make this long, Dean, I want to mention a few things that jumped out to me. This like:

    – “I wanted nothing to do with that path. (Disliking my parents and family helped that.”

    This made me wonder from the opposite perspective. Might it be that many writers (and people, generally) who haven’t that position or ability then finding they kinda replicate and perpetuate family approaches to things? Caught, unknowingly, and cycle goes on…? Otherwise that’s like saying your folks weren’t good enough, or loved you enough…and that is a whole host of stuff.

    – “making up stories wasn’t a “real job” that people would accept,” ….. “I didn’t really work.”

    Possibly, then, writing was/is seen as having no reality, no weight or heft or usefulness or consequence in the real world. So, it is an utter waste [of potential…and time and talent and energy…and money foregone]. Writing is not valued. Isn’t real. Fluff. Dreams.

    Heck I’ve even seen that in the infrastructure sector. Lots of engineers hate writing. But pay a writer who knows shit to help…hell, no…they’ll struggle on. Writing isn’t valued. [ahem…something that I’m working on ]

    – “Go get help. (I did…”

    What are the broad questions to reflect on, here….?

    – “Just don’t make the writing so important, so special, that it threatens the “real job.” If it does, you will grind to a halt fairly quickly because how we were all raised doesn’t allow threats to what pays the bills.”

    Oh, yes. Another question, therefore: did indie boom and e-books rise mess with aspiring writers heads more than create opportunities, so far. It’d seem most beginner writers weren’t primed and ready with heads, emotions or finished words to ride the wave up…and struggling, differently, on the flattening of the wave, or fall.

    – “Fun”

    That comes up so much. How does that play from poor backgrounds? There’s something big in this.

    Thanks for all this discussion, Dean – and everyone.

    • Patrick R

      …in further reflection….

      Separating any income from writing into a ‘fun jar’ is really quite something, it hits me more and more. Simple, and yet draws lines.

      Why is this coming more into my awareness a day after reading the blog, and having first jump-out connections? It is play money. Builds up.

      However, the indie/ebook gold rush brought up feelings that suddenly anyone who wrote and published could be full-time with lots of cash, the dream found…or, heck, not even that – but part-time with all the cash needed! At last!!!!!

      Waves hit the beach. This one did quickly. Lot of floundering. Cue greeting anew over money, affecting output, and the merry-go-round restarts…

      So, a questions on maths: If step 1 is to have a play money jar, what are the sensible (to head and emotions) that get a writer to ….eventually …. find it no longer needs to be the play jar but truly, finally, is the real income jar? (I won’t say ‘real job’ jar).

      Of course, keep writing and releasing. But then should it be a case that you keep going in your real job until the play jar on the shelf is aways at least the same size as the real job’s jar next to it? Only then there’s an options.

      Or, should the play jar be twice the size, for a few years? [That security thing… ;)]

      Of course, the size of any jar depends on an individual’s and family’s circumstances, (And ensuring IP/copyright is protected), so no figures mentioned here.

      Whichever way, I’d add that I was cautious over trying to size the jar first – e.g. I need the Alt.Jar to equal income needed. That way, the focus becomes more of ‘lack of” unless and until it is filling and filled. Not so energising.

      Enjoying, and benefiting from, this great discussion.

      • dwsmith


        No wrong way to look at it if you keep the money separated if possible. If you have this issue.

        Many writers were raised in a different background. Many grew up understanding small business with parents who ran businesses. Or who talked openly about money.

        I started earning my own money when I was 13 and actually had a number of small businesses before I was 24 and went back to college. When I was 26 I started a used bookstore (only one in the region) that still exists to this day. I think I have started more businesses than I have written under pen names. And each business taught me something about business.

        Kris and I don’t take any money out of our publishing company, instead letting it just reinvest the money back into the business to grow. (Call that a jar if you want.) I sell it collectables at times for the stores, but I do all the workshops for free and we get our stories out through WMG Publishing without taking immediate money. (We will down the road, trust me.)

        So the key is if you need this kind of thinking and what you conceive of as a “jar.”

        • Patrick R

          Hi Dean

          The concepts widen yet again. All sorts of “jars,” indeed. Freedom.

          Jars: Create them, but don’t clutch at them.

          With a business hat on I imagine then the goodies can flow between jars (e.g. one loans to another that spring off into real estate, or …)

          Duster and Bonnie are loaded. That is fun, and they are doing timeline jars! Repeatedly, and not for that purpose, but recognising in, I guess, the freedom and possibilities to adventure that come from filling jars. 🙂

          On each writer’s fiction, then each stand alone novel and series and so on…they are all jars, as understood before (as micro-cashflow streams, potentially), but the new understanding is not to touch them, to make them employees having to support the writer. And, perhaps, not to touch them also can mean not to give them time once created & played with: let them go, and grow, as they will.

          Eventually, stuff will come back from all these kids, these jars. But not draining them.

          Ah, there is another level again! Jars are not to be drained. For how, then, are they assets, cash-flowing.

          So enjoying these layers of reflection. Thanks, and to all!

  • Sheila

    Wow. I grew up really poor, like, the paycheck won’t stretch to the next one so we did without a lot of times. It really does affect you mentally and emotionally. I guess I just never realized it could be something that’s holding me back, though I would often say I have a fear of success. DOH! Eyes opened, mind blown.

    Got to work through this, because I’ve wanted to be a writer since I knew there were such things (first grade teacher told me), and I’m determined to make a living at it while still having fun telling my stories.

  • Kristi N.

    Dean, a caution might be warranted with the advice for therapy–don\’t settle. If the therapist says \’You can\’t (make a living writing/be a writer/keep up the production level)\” find a different one. Trying to make the treatment work when the therapist is convinced that you are delusional for wanting to be a working writer can be damaging to your confidence. If your therapist is more interested in protecting his/her ego than giving you the tools or insight into being a better you, find a different one. I am fortunate in having family in the health industry, and blessed that a relative recommended a book that has helped fill in the holes until I can find a therapist who is a good fit. I have unnaturally bad luck in therapists, but I can say that if the treatment is making it worse in a full-stop-you-can\’t way, don\’t hesitate to fire him/her.

    • dwsmith

      Kristi, super advice and I agree completely. Help means someone to actually help you get to your goals, not turn you back. Thank you!

  • Linda Maye Adams

    I always wanted to write full time right from the start (I started writing when I was eight). There was a writer in our family who started writing in the pulp era but never was able to make enough money off it to support a family (Ernie Rydberg; he wrote only children’s fiction). That, plus everything else I heard about writing was that you did it on the side because no one made a living off it. Even my father did a day job he didn’t care for to pay the bills and did his side hustle of using computer programming to try to discover fusion. He told me when I went into college that if I wanted to write full time, I would have to do something that paid better, like journalism or script writing. I tried both, but really they weren’t for me. I found journalism rather dull; screen writing was fun, but not the same as fiction writing. So I sort of wandered in college and ended up without a major because if I had to pick a major representing what I wanted to do, it wasn’t there.

    I have to work on keeping “escaping the day job” from being a goal. I’m in a job where it expanded so fast that it’s overwhelmed me,it really should have 2-3 people doing it, not just mean (and that’s after we farmed some of it out to 9 other people). It’s interfered with my writing over the last few years because there is so much of it that it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. I’m finding now that I do not want to deal with magazine deadlines because I deal with too many of them at work. I also have to respect that I do need down time that doesn’t involve writing, and not feel guilty for not writing when I could be. One of my goals for the first three months of this year was simply to make sure there is a boundary between the two.

  • J. D. Brink

    WOW. Good to know I’m not alone!
    I can definitely see how adding the pressure that “my writing must keep my family alive” could ruin everything. So, as much as we’d all love to move on to supporting ourselves fulltime, there’s no huge rush. Making sure there’s a reliable structure in place before yanking the scaffold out is probably a good idea.
    And I, too, have had the attitude all my life that, “My parents hated their jobs, I’m not going to be trapped that way.” So I’ve had plenty of jobs and various career paths as well, and have never been afraid to take the risk of a major life change. Of course, I was a bachelor into my 30’s, so that helped. I could live in a closet on a shoe string budget and be okay. Adding the fam, though, adds multiple dimensions to the everything.
    But this has all be great therapy! I feel more relaxed and less pressured. (Of course, I put all the pressure on myself. I used to be famed for falling asleep within 20 seconds of hitting my pillow. Now it takes me several minutes while my mind rifles through everything I still need to do and didn’t accomplish enough on… Hmmm, I think I’m find the problem here…)
    Thanks again, all.

  • Philip S.


    This post hit hard because we have a lot in common. I’m pushing 38 and just got into indie publishing because I’ve written and wanted to be a writer since I was 11. I also grew up poor or, in better years, working class, I guess. I have 2 exes, 2 kids, child support, and I bounce from temp cubicle to temp cubicle. (Fun fact: this is after I actually finished the JD! I’m a licensed attorney and boy does it suck. Be glad you never finished. The funny thing is I didn’t write a word in my 20s because I worked a cubicle dayjob and spent 4 nights a week in law school classes because I had decided to be a “success” would be to upgrade to what, a nicer cubicle? If I had it to do over again, I would have stuck with writing. I didn’t have the same balls as you.)

    I treasure time with my kids, but I’ve let my health slip (referring to your excuses post.

    I just want to thank you for this post because I’ve slowed my writing lately because I keep chasing writing to market to escape my day job and I eventually abandon the manuscript because it’s not fun. This gives me new perspective.