“More and more I was finding that my heart wasn't in it, yet I was still working just as hard. Something had to change.”
What work were you doing previously?
I worked in the world of advertising, as an account handler. Firstly a five year stint in London when I was fresh out of university, and then in Bristol for a further three years.
What are you doing now?
I'm a full-time writer and the author of two novels: 'The Book of Summers', and 'A Heart Bent Out of Shape'. I'm currently working on my third.
Why did you change?
I loved a lot of things about agency life, but eventually its demands didn't suit me. It's a pretty relentless industry and can be all-consuming. It's in my nature to be conscientious, and I always give a lot of myself to whatever I'm doing. But more and more I was finding that my heart wasn't in it, yet I was still working just as hard. Something had to change, and for me that meant leaving London as a first step.
When was the moment you decided to make the change?
There were several defining moments for me, and all of them add up to where I am today. The first was when I quit my London job to go and live in the French Alps, working a snowboard season. One winter turned into two, and that time away from everyday responsibilities gave me the freedom to decide what I really wanted to do with my life. I returned to the UK in 2007 and settled in Bristol, determined to write my first novel and work as hard as I could to get it published.
I took a job in an agency, at a deliberately more junior level, hoping that the pace would be slower than that which I was used to, thus affording me more time and headspace to write. However that wasn't really the case, and the job was still more consuming than I ever intended it to be. So I went part-time and my bosses were flexible enough to accommodate it, which was great. After about a year and a half of working four days a week I took a further step, and decided to have a self-styled sabbatical; initially for six months, then becoming twelve months, with a job in a book shop three days a week. Together with the last of my savings this just about supported me. This turned out to be the decisive year, a kind of make or break. I finished my novel, and submitted it to agents. The following spring an agent took me on, and not long afterwards I got the book deal I'd dreamt of. It was a two-book deal, so I quit my role in advertising, and settled into writing full-time. That was two years ago, and sometimes I still have to pinch myself that I'm actually doing this.
Are you happy with the change?
Thrilled. It took me some time to get here, but I feel as though all of my steps were moving me slowly but surely in the right direction.
What do you miss and what don't you miss?
I enjoy encouraging creativity in others, and that was a stimulating part of my job in an agency. It's certainly tougher when you're both motivator and motivatee. That said, I love and appreciate the autonomy of writing. I enjoy being solely responsible for my own working day and the output at the end of it. While I'm sociable and always enjoyed the dynamics of working in an office, I don't miss that side of things as much as I thought I might. I love waking up slowly! That's my greatest luxury, having always been a slave to the alarm clock in the past, and starting out my day with a coffee at my laptop in my pyjamas. As a writer, or indeed with any kind of creative pursuit, you're putting yourself out there, exposing your work to criticism and opinion, in a way that just doesn't happen in a lot of jobs. That can make you feel quite vulnerable on a very individual level. Occasionally I'll crave the simplicity (rose-tinted spectacles truly on!) of an occupation where you work as part of a team and don't get a star rating at the end of the day. But then I'll remind myself of all the wonders of my life as a writer, and really, there's no contest.
How did you go about making the shift?
As soon as I had the book deal, it was a relatively easy decision to leave to write full-time as I would have struggled to give my best to my second book if I didn't commit myself wholly. I was fortunate that it was a viable option financially, and again, that was down to the strength of the deal. However I probably always would have taken the plunge anyway. It felt like too good an opportunity to pass up. I had a publisher who really believed in my first book and wanted to promote it widely, along with a deadline and editorial team eagerly awaiting my second. I've quit jobs in the past with far less concrete incentive.
How did you handle your finances to make your change possible?
I worked out roughly how much I needed to live on per month, and did my sums accordingly. I viewed my publication advance as, quite literally, an advance on 'salary' rather than considering it as a lump sum. I worked out how long it would sustain me for, and went from there. My husband is a comic book writer, and his income is always made up of a series of much smaller projects, so it's harder for him to be certain of finances. So the day he went full-time (which was back in 2008) was truly deserving of applause. Being confident in where your money is coming from makes shifting career that much easier.
What was the most difficult thing about changing?
If you've thought it through, believe in what you're doing, and are pretty sure that it'll make you happy, then I don't think it is that difficult. You just have to have the self-belief. The changes I made throughout my working life (leaving for France, working part-time, taking a sabbatical) all impacted hugely on where I am now. Quite simply, I wouldn't have written a good enough first novel without them. I think you just need to keep up a dialogue with yourself, maintain your sense of reason, but allow yourself to dream a little too. 'Follow your heart, but keep your head'. If I had a motto, then that would probably be it.
What help did you get?
My husband and family have always been supportive of my decisions, and that makes a huge difference to me. My mum always says that health and happiness are the most important things in life, and she's right. There's luck in the first, but the second is in your own hands.
What have you learnt in the process?
I've learnt that persistence pays off, as does hard work. But while luck definitely plays its part in finding the right agent, the right publisher, and getting noticed, I do believe that you can stack the odds in your favour.
What do you wish you'd done differently?
Sometimes I wish that I'd started writing seriously much sooner. I suppose that would be the only thing. That said, I don't regret the years I spent in another career. Those jobs equipped me with a set of skills that are useful to me today, gave me some wonderful friends, and offered me great experience in the wider sense. I do think that if you're in touch with yourself, you'll make the right choices at the right times. You just have to listen to that voice inside.
What would you advise others to do in the same situation?
Everyone approaches writing differently, but for me writing my first novel required a lot of time and application. Simply, I felt like I needed to empty my head of other things in order to give my book space to grow. I struggled to fit writing in around my demanding day job, and was fed up of making excuses for why I wasn't doing enough, so I changed things accordingly. I'd say decide on your ambitions, understand the way you work, and adjust your life in order to make it all fit together. There are no guaranteed riches in the writing life. Many writers earn very little, so you need to be in it for the love, not the money.
What resources would you recommend to others?
For writers, I'd recommend an Arvon Foundation writing course – a week spent with them will inspire you for months and years to come. I'd suggest owning a copy of Stephen King's book 'On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft' for brilliantly no-nonsense and insightful advice on getting words on a page. Read widely and read well, learning from the writers you admire and the books you love. Above all, write for pleasure, not for ideas of financial gain. Write about the things you care about. Self-expression should be an enriching experience, so the greatest resource of all is yourself; your imagination and your desire.
What lessons could you take from Emylia's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below.