Monday, March 21, 2011

Confessions of a Girl Who Quit Her Job to Write a Novel


I have the great pleasure of hosting Beth Orsoff, charming storyteller and bestselling writer who tells us with humor, irony and wit, how she became a writer.  Here is her story...

Beth Orsoff
"If you were an entertainment lawyer circa 2001, or you just knew a few entertainment lawyers in L.A. back then, you’ve probably heard of me. Not by name, of course. You just heard of the lawyer who quit her studio job to write a novel. I was infamous, for a short while at least. Even several years later, when I’d gone to work at a different movie studio, I would be on the phone negotiating a deal with another lawyer when I’d admit that I was a writer too. There’d be a pause then, “Are you that lawyer who quit her job to write a novel?” And I’d have to fess up. “Yes, I’m that lawyer.”

Prior to December 2004, it wasn’t much fun to admit that because I hadn’t yet sold my first novel. Luckily it did sell, eventually, and was published by Penguin/NAL in 2006 as “Romantically Challenged.” Believe it or not I didn’t love that title when I first proposed it to my editor (along with thirty or forty other possible titles). I know better now. But I digress.

Most people don’t ask me why I quit my job to write a novel. All they want to know is how.

It was 2000, the new millennium. The world hadn’t ended, but I had managed to pay off my law school loans in record time. Why? Because I hated feeling like an indentured servant. How? I lived cheaply (no BMW for me) and diligently sent every extra dollar I earned to the student loan companies. Five years later I was still driving my 1989 Honda Civic, but I was debt free. The first thing I did was buy a new car (1999 Mazda Miata, which I’m still driving). The second thing I did was open a savings account.

By this point I was a veteran of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and had several unfinished stories on my hard drive. I briefly considered going back to school for an MFA but I realized I didn’t need a degree to be a writer. What I needed was time off to write. Thus the savings account became my Beth Orsoff Gets a Life Fund (dubbed by my then-boyfriend, now-husband, as my Fuck You Fund).

It took a little over a year to save a year’s worth of living expenses plus a little extra “just in case.” (Did I mention I was used to living cheaply?) I quit my job in March 2001. Giving notice at work was easy. The hard part was telling my parents. I had nightmares about it for weeks beforehand. I played the conversation over and over again in my head, trying out different speeches, different inflections, different tones. Ultimately I chose fear. I put the fear of God into them. I think this part is best told in dialogue:

I chose our weekly Sunday morning phone call to spring it on them. I knew if I called mid-week they’d suspect something was up. This way I caught them off-guard.

“Mom, I have something to tell you. Please put Dad on the phone too.”

“Why?” Mom asked. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” I replied, “but I only want to do this once.”

“Do what once?”

“Mom, will you please just put Dad on the phone!”

“Okay, you don’t have to yell!”

As soon as my Dad picked up I launched into my well-rehearsed speech. “I have something I need to tell you. No, I’m not pregnant. And no, I’m not dying.”

“Then what is it?” Mom asked.

“Phyllis, will you just let her tell us,” Dad said.

“That’s what I’m doing,” Mom replied.

[Parental argument deleted.]

“I have something I need to tell you and I really want your support. Not financially,” I quickly added, knowing my father’s thought process, “just emotional support.”

“Okay,” Mom said, her tone skeptical.

“And before you answer, I just want you to know I’m going to remember this conversation for the rest of my life. So think before you speak.”

“Okay,” Mom said again, except this time her tone was guarded.

“I mean it, Mom. The rest of my life. The rest of your life. You really need to give the ‘A’ answer here.”

“And if we don’t?” Mom asked.

“Not only will I remember this conversation forever, but I will never, ever forgive you. Ever. Not even when you’re a decrepit old lady in a nursing home begging me to come and visit you. NEVER.”

Silence on the other end of the phone.

“I’m quitting my job to write a novel.”

“Is that all?” Dad said.

I’m proud to say that both of my parents gave the “A” answer that day. And I am forever grateful to them for it (while acknowledging that I didn’t give them any other choice).

What did it feel like to quit my job to write a novel? Terrifying. I felt like Wile E. Coyote when he runs off the cliff, turns to the camera, then pulls out the Help sign. I had no idea if there’d be a net at the bottom of the canyon or if I’d just go splat.

That first Monday morning was the worst. I woke up the same time I always did, even though I hadn’t set my alarm, and my first thought was Oh my God, I have no place to go. For the first two weeks all of my friends were supportive. “You deserve a break,” was the common refrain. Around week three or four it switched to, “Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” By week six it became, “Are you ever going to write this novel?”

That was the problem I hadn’t anticipated. I knew I wanted to write a novel. I knew I was tired of listening to myself whine about not having enough time to write a novel. I knew taking the time to do this so I didn’t spend the rest of my life saying What if? was the right thing to do. What I didn’t know was how to actually write a novel. So I went back to the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and signed up for Novel Writing I. Then I started writing.

One year and two weeks later I had written the first five drafts of “Romantically Challenged,” had progressed from reading How to Write a Novel books to How to Sell a Novel books, and had sent out a handful of query letters.

Ten years later I have three published novels, another one sitting on my hard drive that I might publish someday after a good edit, and in January of this year I actually made more money as a writer then I did as a lawyer. Am I ready to quit the day job (again)? Not quite. I have more responsibilities now than I did back then. But I am cutting down my hours at the day job to part-time. That’s progress too."


Beth Orsoff is the author of humorous fiction including “Romantically Challenged,” “Honeymoon for One,” and “How I Learned to Love the Walrus.” She lives in Los Angeles with her husband.

Beth Orsoff website