Amy Gentry, PhD is the bestselling author of the thrillers Good as Gone , Last Woman Standing, and Bad Habits, available now. Bad Habits is an academic thriller: A whip-smart psychological thriller, in which a grad student becomes embroiled in a deadly rivalry that changes her into someone unrecognizable to her struggling family, her ambitious academic friends, and even herself.
Praise for Bad Habits: “If you’ve ever wondered how the Talented Mr. Ripley would fare in a Ph.D. program, Bad Habits is the book for you. With deft, crisp prose and unerring wit, Amy Gentry charts a singular young woman’s perilous ascent to the academic firmament—and then unravels all the secrets she had to keep to get there. By turns wicked and tender, ghastly and hilarious, Bad Habits is Amy Gentry’s best book yet—and the most fun I’ve had in ages.”—Elizabeth Little, Los Angeles Times bestselling author of Dear Daughter and Pretty As A Picture
Read more about her path from PhD to novelist here
When people ask me how I became a novelist after grad school, I have a hard time knowing where or when to start.
If I tell the story chronologically, it feels long and boring. The short version—I took odd jobs, with a growing focus on freelancing, while at the same time joining a writing group and working on a novel—doesn’t come close to capturing what it felt like. There were moments of extreme excitement: the giddiness of landing a pitch, the words of advice and encouragement from published authors, the surreal, soul-swirling moment when I opened and read the offer email from my now-agent. But in between the phone call with Good Advisor and that offer email, five years elapsed. My novel only took about two years to write. What was I doing all that time?
A bunch of things, it turns out. To make them as helpful as I can, I’ve distilled them under seven main pieces of advice.
1. I marshalled my resources.
This was my first and most important step. It’s also one of the hardest to talk about, because it highlights the fact that we are not all starting out from an equal playing field. Some begin with huge advantages of health, wealth, and connections. We all know this. But an important part of transitioning to a creative field is identifying the resources you do have, that you might not be used to thinking of that way.
What do you have going for you? A supportive parent? A couch to crash on? Editing skills you can sell or barter? A friend who’ll babysit for free? A chosen family that will buy you drinks when you can’t afford them and let you cry on their shoulders? Undergraduate professors who liked you? Connections to anyone, anyone at all, being published? Friends who want to write? A wide variety of interests you could write about? A city where there are free literary events, a local bookstore, a regional writing conference? List all your assets—not just your money, though heaven knows that’s at the top, but every single non-money thing you can think of that might help you stay afloat long enough to figure out the next step. Keep the list accessible so that you can add to it as you think of things, or as people offer to help—which they often, surprisingly, will.
For most people, the hardest part is making yourself take advantage of these resources. It can feel painful asking for a loan, calling in a favor, setting up an online fundraiser, or—this is no small one—having a difficult money talk with a partner. But rest assured that the people who come into writing with connections and money do not think twice about using every asset available to them. Your job is to think about yours, and, when the time comes, use them.
My biggest asset was a supportive partner who believed in my writing. He didn’t make a ton of money and I made less, but I was able to get on his insurance and that was huge. He is also a capable budget master, which turned out to be vital. We sat down frequently, sometimes in tears—money is stressful!—and discussed exactly how long we could afford to let me chase butterflies before our financial situation became dire.
2. I chased butterflies.
Chasing butterflies doesn’t mean “not working.” It means working as little, and as flexibly, as you can get away with, while letting yourself explore every passing interest and imaginary future job.
After grad school, I waited tables, moderated online content, sold stuff on Etsy, reviewed books, covered local literary events, taught high school, wrote a weekly style column, and freelanced wherever I could. All of these jobs were part-time, and I always held multiple jobs at once. Over the years I juggled and reshuffled them, letting go of the less relevant gigs as I gradually built up my freelancing career. I also applied to lots of full-time jobs in lots of fields and, unsurprisingly, was rejected by all of them.
But those were money butterflies. Just as importantly, I read The Artist’s Way with some friends, doing all the woo-woo exercises that help you brainstorm forgotten pleasures. I took improv classes, sketch comedy classes, improv singing classes (all subsidized by bartering my writing and editing skills). I investigated the idea of going back to school to become a therapist or a certified life coach. I played my guitar in coffeeshops and wrote some new songs. I decorated wedding cakes and even met with a baker friend to discuss going into business with her. I went ice skating. No butterfly was too silly. But some were serious, too.
3. I got involved.
The least predictable connections happen when you’re just out there being passionate about something. During my butterfly chasing phase, I trained to be a volunteer advocate for rape victims in the emergency room and protested for reproductive rights at my state capitol. None of these things made me a writer, but all of them played some part in my journey toward writing—often in unexpected ways. And, by reconnecting me to my core values, all of them made me feel more like a real person, with something real to contribute to the world.
4. I set quarterly goals.
There’s the long game—What do I want to be doing next year?—and the short game—What should I do today/this week? But may I suggest the medium game—taking stock of your life in three-month increments, or quarters? Three months is long enough to make one significant change and watch it play out, but not so long that you risk getting stuck in a rut with no end in sight. It’s a season. (Unless you in live in Texas, where some seasons are six months long, but I digress.)
When I was juggling odd jobs with writing, I took stock every three months or so. I’d reflect and decide if I needed to stick to my guns, gently course-correct, or make a major change. Those were often the times I sent out a new round of applications, researched a fresh crop of stories to pitch, or shook my head in despair that I hadn’t written for three months and tried to figure out how to change that. Knowing there’s an end in sight can motivate you. My butterfly-chasing phase was carefully budgeted to last no more than three months, but I found that halfway through it, I was already finding more direction. Without that time limit, the idea would have seemed too nebulous to be feasible.
5. I found my people.
Networking is a daunting and humorless word. I urge you instead to gather your people. Be on the lookout for those who look like they have the career and life you want—but don’t email them asking to pick their brains! Not yet, anyway. Instead, add them on social media, put their names in a file, and start showing up in places where people who share your dreams and aspirations go. If you’re trying to be a writer, that probably means attending literary readings and meetups in your city. Even if you’re too shy to talk to someone at the event, note the date that you attended—if you ever do need to talk to that person, you can mention that you saw them there. Take a writing class and actually get everyone’s email address, and follow them on social media, too. Follow literary journals, writers you like, and professional associations in every genre—even ones you’re not sure you’ll ever write in. Avoid snobbery at all costs. Snobbery is the enemy of good networking and will always, always come back to bite you in the ass. (Let’s just say there are writers who were nasty to me, or in front of me, when I was a lowly arts journalist. Let’s just say I will never forget their names.) And always, always be as generous and polite as you can possibly be. It’s just good manners.
One piece of advice I don’t often see is that when it comes to direct networking—i.e., cold emails, informational interviews, coffee dates etc.—you should set your sights on someone just a couple of notches ahead of you. A Pulitzer winner is good for inspiration, but chances are she’s forgotten some of what it’s like to be at your stage, and a lot may have changed since she came up. Find the person who did what you need to do yesterday, last week, or last year. That’s the person whose advice you can actually use.
Do not be shy about finding peers and pressing them into service as a writing group. My weekly writing group is the reason I completed my first novel. Not a critique group—ex-grad-students have had quite enough critique, thank you. A good writing group can critique when you want them to, but more importantly, they can offer years of mutual support and cheerleading as you work toward your goals. That is far more precious. (How do you meet them, you say? Ask around; take a class; get their digits.)
6. I wrote for an audience.
I am convinced that even a small audience of eager readers is a healing thing for academics accustomed to toiling over lengthy projects that only a few humans will ever read. I found my audience through freelancing, but a blog or writing group works just as well. When I was first offered my weekly column, I wasn’t wild about the fact that it was a fashion column; but in the end, the content mattered less than the deadlines. Meeting them meant letting go of perfection and developing my own voice instead. Every week I churned out something imperfect, and every week people read it—not because they were paid to, but because they actually wanted to! Besides building my confidence, it also trained me out of the grad student habit of thinking of writing as a way to prove my smartness to my professors, or my worth on the academic job market. Instead, I began to think of writing as communicating something vital to someone who desperately needs to hear it.
My first two novels are feminist thrillers; they tell stories about trauma and female experience I need to tell, and believe urgently need to be heard. My latest, Bad Habits, is about grad school. Go figure.
7. I did not despair—much.
Life is a big ship, and it takes time to turn. There are going to be missteps and follies along the way. (I couldn’t possibly list all mine here; I would die of old age or embarrassment first.) But failure isn’t a sign that you’re a screwup. It’s a sign that you’re learning.
In my grad program, not knowing something was a felony, and misunderstanding it entirely was a capital offense. That environment is antithetical to learning. It’s why I went through six years of graduate school trying and failing to understand certain concepts—and then a year or two out, when I revisited them again, I finally got them. The atmosphere of fear and status anxiety is useful for short bursts of intense, even Herculean achievements; it is deadly for true learning.
When you’re looking at a long game, you don’t need every moment to go your way. Take a deep breath, do something nice for yourself, take stock of what you’ve still got on your side, and keep moving. Nothing is wasted, truly. Embarrassment and frustration, even loss and sorrow, are all part of the process. After a long time has passed, you might even start to feel that way about graduate school itself.