Recently, two extremely talented writers, Catherynne M. Valente and Tim Pratt, started writing fiction online in return for donations. Although this may indeed be one of the waves of the future for author transactions on the internet, both writers were forced into it by extremities of circumstance. In Valente’s case this situation occurred because of many months of unemployment for her partner and other factors. In Pratt’s case, the bottom fell out suddenly when his wife lost her job, which also wiped out his main source of freelancing income. (Go to Valente’s page and Pratt’s page to read and donate. Also, Jeremy Tolbert’s post on his aunt’s situation.)
Both situations scared the crap out of me, and my first reaction was a selfish, self-preservation one of “that could never happen to me!” But the fact is, it could happen to me. It could happen to any writer out there, save those who are making so much money that they’re largely impervious.
If you’re a typical fiction writer–just in the sense of the range of money you make–you live off of a series of (small to medium/large) jackpots otherwise known as advances for various books from domestic and foreign deals, filling in with income from short stories, teaching, book reviewing, etc. Right now, about 70 percent of my income comes directly from books and 30 percent is filled in by the rest. Some years that 70 percent will be higher; I hope it never goes lower. My wife has a full-time job, but our incomes are completely separate–if, god forbid, she ever kicked me out of the house (possibly for using the word “squid” too often), I could live on what I make. (I wouldn’t survive, because Ann gives me so much else, but that’s a different post.)
You try to do the things you have to do, but you know that when you choose this life–and it is a choice; many many awesome writers never get the opportunity to even try to live off of their writing–there’s a certain element of chance. You simply cannot control the ebb and flow of life, and it’s only when you relax into this knowledge that you truly become a freelancer. You have to be as comfortable with one month’s income in the bank as a year’s worth. You have to not feel too glutted and self-satisfied when you’re rolling in dough, and you can’t feel too starved and poor-me when you’re looking at an old dusty bread roll and a jar of peanut butter.
You understand, I hope, that it takes an effort to say this, because it means admitting to a certain vulnerability, and there are wolves out there that’ll tear you apart for showing any weakness.
So…you try to do the things you know you need to do. What are they? Here’s a partial list. None of this is really more than common sense.
(1) Diversify your client list. One small advantage freelancing holds in a bad economy is that if you work for many different gatekeepers–book editors, book review editors, etc.–it’s very difficult to lose everything in one fell swoop. This requires being proactive. It’s hard work, but I can say without a doubt that the only reason I’ve survived the last nine months–during which one huge book contract evaporated right off of my desk–is that I have the ability to change the emphasis of my writing to lean more heavily on some clients and less on others.
(2) Diversify your skill set. Writing and editing contain a myriad of different niche jobs. Every year, I try to add at least two new skills to my repertoire. Sometimes this dovetails nicely with my interests–writing a comics script for “The Situation” this year really enhances my fiction writing in general and positions me for other opportunities–and sometimes it doesn’t. For example, being an expert at analyzing educational materials for national standardized tests is challenging work but not among my core interests. That’s not the point of diversifying your skill set. The point is that you’re preparing for the “break glass in case of emergency” scenario to cover any rough spots.
(3) Minimize your monthly expenses. When I started freelancing, I analyzed my spending and I found that the minimum amount I needed to live on each month was actually an incredible $1,500 less than what I had actually been spending. Indeed, one of the big mental blocks to my not turning freelance sooner was this idea that I had to make X amount of money per month. (And, the reason I’d been spending so much is that I had a day job that paid well and writing money coming in, so I’d gotten into some ridiculously bad habits; oh how I now wish I’d just salted that writing money away.)
(4) Relax about money. Here I mean that, as noted above, you need to chill out about where money’s coming from and when it’s coming in. I’ve had absurd, absurd days when I’m looking at a spreadsheet with $40,000 in receivables and everybody’s late paying up, and the bills are due in two weeks and I’ve had to begin thinking about dipping into that emergency fund also known as savings. If you don’t relax about these things, you’re going to freeze up to the point of not being able to get new work done, and incur the price of incredible stress, which can have mental and physiological effects. It’s only over the last nine months that I feel I’ve finally reached a place where I can relax in such a situation, and that’s helped immeasurably. (I’ve had other stress, but not about cash flow.)
(5) Don’t relax about money. That lucrative book contract I mentioned that fell through because of the economy? Worst thing that ever happened to me, freelancing-wise. I relaxed about money, stopped hustling, stopped thinking about other book projects. I made the almost-fatal assumption that something which existed as an abstract would definitely become concrete. But until the abstract is concrete, you cannot count on it as a freelancer. The effect of that body blow lasted until just a few weeks ago, when I finally felt like (a) I’d compensated for what I’d lost to some extent and (b) I was once again hitting on all cylinders in terms of exploiting all opportunities. (Did you know this, dear reader, while reading this blog oh these many months? No, you didn’t. And if not for thinking being transparent here might be of use to someone, you wouldn’t. I don’t think it’s professional to whinge in public, for the most part.)
(6) Listen to Kristine Katheryn Rusch. My former Clarion instructor has blogged a series of four posts about freelancing and money that should be indispensible reading for anyone thinking about freelancing for a living.
But again, you might do everything listed above–and still wind up in trouble. That’s the only thought that keeps me up at nights sometimes. And that’s the last thing you have to let go of as a freelancer: the idea of anything being permanent. If you can get used to that general flux and uncertainty, it gives you a kind of freedom that’s very rare in life. A kind of letting go that gives you control. (Which also makes me have to say: it’s all well and good to help writers when they’re in trouble–you should–but the best way to help writers overall is to be more supportive of them before they get to that point.)
All of this advice and discussion of freelancing does hide a couple of key issues, however.
First of all, when it comes right down to it nothing other than my intense desire to write full-time–to scratch and claw to keep doing it–is stopping me and many other freelancers from returning to a day job (whether in my field or not–necessity doesn’t allow for the luxury of choice). A day job doesn’t even mean the death of your writing. I worked a 40- to 60-hour exhausting day job for many years and still wrote many books.
Second, although some people think writing full-time is a right, I humbly disagree. Possibly those who think this have never really had to work a full-time job–and sometimes crappy ones, in the best tradition of writers throughout history. But in my humble opinion, writing full-time is a privilege, and one not to be taken lightly.
Let me repeat that: If you’re writing for a living full-time rather than holding or looking for a day job, you’re privileged. You are not entitled to such a life, no one owes it to you–yes, you earn it, and you keep earning it daily, but in today’s world, you are, again, getting an opportunity. You keep it through will and talent and luck, but you try to remember the privileged part as well.
I’ve been freelancing for over two years now. It hasn’t killed me yet, but there’s still plenty of time…