My first love was in a band. His advice about music translated easily to the writing life—or I made it fit, those nights I was killing time backstage in dive bars during sound check. “Leave them wanting more” was his advice on playing. So I won’t drone on when I give readings, erring on the side of reading too little.
“All money made by the band goes back to the band” is another one of his sayings—easy to follow when I made only $10 here and there publishing poems. My first three books were poetry, published because they had won contests.
I put that prize money back into my band—back into my writing—using it to print postcards, to enter contests, and, importantly, to acquire gas and food as I traveled around giving readings. That was back when writing wasn’t my full-time job. It is now, by necessity. And the world is different now, fueled by a gig economy seemingly hell-bent on driving us into the ground with exhaustion.
Elizabeth Gilbert famously used her book advance to travel while writing Eat Pray Love. V.E. Schwab says she spent her (more modest) first book advance on, “in order: Rent. Groceries. Bills. Self-promotion.”
Schwab was responding to a Twitter thread on advances. Writers’ responses to what they had spent or would spend advances on included college, a new roof, and an adoption, as well as on evergreen expenses such as bills and insurance and paying down debt. Michelle Belanger said her “book advance story speaks to the failure of U.S. health care”; she spent it on oral surgery, which she had to pay for out of pocket.
These responses were overwhelmingly practical. And the responses overwhelmingly came from women.
The idea is that you spend your book advance on the living expenses accrued while writing the book. But many people have already finished a book before it sells. And most of us aren’t paid enough of an advance to live off it, or at least not for very long—not in our era of sky-high rents and insurance costs.
After publishing my poetry, I earned three book advances for fiction. My debut adult novel, The Grower, will be published Sept. 1, 2020, by Mira, and I haven’t spent the money for it—or I can’t tell you what I spent it on. Just rent, insurance, bills, etc.
A few months after the novel sold, I was laid off from my job. My coworkers and I were in the process of joining a union, and I didn’t receive severance. As soon as he learned I had been laid off, my literary agent, Eric Smith, suggested I polish up the next book he knew I was writing. He said we could sell it on the strength of sample chapters and an outline. And he was right.
The idea of spending all of a book advance with the expectation of future earnings that may or may not ever come is dangerous. But I did spend every cent of an advance once. And it was the smartest thing I have ever done.
That advance, for a novella, was the first one I earned. And I can tell you exactly what I spent it on: I hired a lawyer. Because of that advance, I was able to get a divorce, get custody of my child, and get child support established. That advance saved my life.
Women’s financial lives are different than men’s. We earn less, of course—women of color earn least of all—and we also save less. We are often forced to drop out of the workforce for years at a time because of caregiving. We are less likely to have credit cards, bank accounts, cars, property, and utility bills in our name. We are less likely to have an established credit history because we often have to leave jobs or are forced out. We are more likely to be financially abused or to be trapped in relationships that are controlling, dangerous, or even deadly. Escape from such relationships is not only emotionally and physically difficult, it is also expensive, with women’s incomes declining an average of 20% after divorce (which is itself costly), according to research conducted by a London School of Economics professor. For many women, poverty after divorce is chronic.
My advice for all women writers: save your advance. Save every single penny you can. Because your survival is not guaranteed—as a writer but also as a person who is still thought of as less than in this world.
The last advice I remember from the musician? Your first act needs to be the best. Your second act? Make it even better.
This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit (founded by Barbara Ehrenreich) that funds stories about inequality in America.
Alison Stine is the author of the novel The Grower, which will be published by Mira in September 2020. Her other books include the poetry collection Ohio Violence. She lives with her son in rural Appalachia.