The Full-Time Writing Life: If It Doesn’t Kill You First, It’ll Kill You Second

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…

18 comments on “The Full-Time Writing Life: If It Doesn’t Kill You First, It’ll Kill You Second

  1. Matt Peckham says:

    I’ve been freelance creative-non-fiction writing (my euphemism for opinion journalism) since late 2005 and making a reasonable living in–I don’t mind sharing–the $40k per year range. I’ve had the option to make at least a third more, but after that first crazy, paranoid, terrifying year clapping shut the doors on my social and recreational life, I started turning gigs down to win time back.

    Diversification is as Jeff says very important. On the other hand, unless you can turn out inspired copy fast–I can’t, and need to revise endlessly–your balancing point, i.e. how much you can juggle simultaneously, will and ought to be different from the next person’s. You’ll know you’ve found it when you’re getting to sleep at a decent hour and making it through to the next morning without waking four or five times in a panic.

    The upside of sticking with it and putting in those initially grueling hours, is that I’ve seen kind of a cool work-to-remuneration ratio inversion. In 2006, I had to write something like 150 articles, reviews, features, previews, etc. to hit my income target. In 2007, that halved (fewer gigs, higher payouts). In 2008 and 2009, the number’s decreased to a fraction of the 2006 tally.

  2. Matt–absolutely. In a different context, I would’ve also stressed the importance of turning things down. Very important point. I’ve also only been doing it for two years. I am sure that in another year I will have had more experiences that give me more perspective.

    One thing I have noticed is I now have a kind of sixth sense for b.s. Like, I know almost from the beginning if a project is iffy. I’ve bailed on a few things and been vindicated by seeing a company or whatever go out of business or discontinue the project shortly thereafter. I’d guess you also can sniff out when an opportunity is actually going to turn into a trap?

  3. J. T. Glover says:

    Great post, Jeff. That anyone, anywhere gets to do full-time creative work is a wonderful thing. That some people are so driven that they try to make creation their economic mainstay obligates no one to make that possible. I like supporting artists when I’m able to do so, and I prefer not to see people frustrated and unable to do what they want with their lives, let alone suffering, but somehow I don’t think the majority of the world actually enjoys farming, working in factories, entering data, etc. The opportunity to spend the bulk of the day pursuing your passion is exceptional in every sense of the word, whether you get to do it for six weeks or sixty years.

  4. JM says:

    Would like to also point out Scalzi’s excellent post on topic too:

    Over at Dan Simmons’ forum some writerly folks are discussing their writing habits and some of the freelancers have pointed how it is actually -more- difficult to get the writing done when quitting the day job. I can empathize as having too much unstructured free time requires a lot more personal discipline to make things happen than when you’ve only got a few short stretches between work, dinner, and sleep.

  5. Yep–this is true, and thanks for the link. You can lose sight of the writing in doing the piece-work you fill in the gaps with. However, I’ve found that I’ve produced more fiction not less as a freelancer, in part because you need to make those big chunks of money that only a book advance can provide. I’m actually spending the same amount of time on novels as I did when I had the day job, but in a more concentrated period of time.

  6. Matt Peckham says:

    Re: Traps. Your six senses at two probably outmatch my five-and-a-half at four, especially since you’re grappling with all different angles of the biz, from editing, fiction, and non-fiction, to blogs, magazines, journals, and the other nine-tenths I’m probably failing to list. :)

    I’ve probably been luckier than insightful, though I’d love to claim insight got me this far. If I had to get up on my tree stump and bang a pan, I’d probably list the times I’ve turned down a handful of lucrative offers to do advertorial work (something I wouldn’t touch–in all sincerity–for a zillion bucks). But traps… Most of what I’ve done comes out short form, so at most, feature-length, i.e. 4,000-5,000 words. I can move quickly from project to project and walk away after any one.

    But if I may, the thing about adjusting your spending habits that you outlined? I think that’s the real secret. It’s amazing how little you need to live on, to live reasonably well if you’re really clever about it (that, and it really-really helps if you live in the Midwest). I was pulling six figures as an IT director before I jumped–had a nice little reservoir of “just in case” money saved up in the event I failed–and ended up touching none of it. I pretty much laid out a budget with my superhumanly supportive significant other that had us living at an income level roughly two-thirds of our worst-cast income projections. That, more than my successes getting work, guaranteed my ability to keep doing it.

  7. Well, it’s true I’ve got a sixth sense for mags and anthos failing. I’ve never been wrong about pulling out of a situation in that context. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much, though–as when I pulled out of a rewriting-the-Bible-for-teens project when the head guy said, “Think of Adam as being like Batman, but with parents” and “The snake is called Stevie and tells fart jokes. The kids, they love the fart jokes.”

    The spending habits thing can’t be overstated. It’s a legacy of a spend-spend economy that we often have no idea what we can actually live on–and I mean live on and be comfortable/contented, not totally deprived or anything. One thing that helps me is that I’m largely indifferent to money–I like nice things; there’s no point in buying a crappy cigar, for example…but I’m just as happy when I don’t have the dosh to spend on stuff. Doesn’t really matter to me or affect my state of mind.

  8. Mur Lafferty says:

    This is just what I needed to hear. I just lost the biggest regular freelance check I get; 1/4 of my monthly income, and i’ve been a little stunned and trying to figure out where to go from here. Non-complacency and diversifying income sources are apparently the way to go.

  9. undeadbydawn says:

    I am absolutely a part-timer. I put stuff on my website when I have the time to complete something enough to post it. I burned through some £40,000 a couple of years back ppurely because I could afford to do so, and am now in £16,000 debt. HELL YEAH do I wish I’d saved some in the good days, because now I can barely afford a few hours a week to focus on writing. I’m making up for this by posting reviews *just to keep up practice*.
    Not that I expect to make any money off the ‘site. That’s not the point. If I can get up to 100 regular daily visitors I’ll be overjoyed simply because it means some people want to read what I’m writing.

    Then I’ll start putting a serious effort into getting my first for-sale works out.

  10. Andrew says:

    “Sometimes, it doesn’t take much, though–as when I pulled out of a rewriting-the-Bible-for-teens project when the head guy said, “Think of Adam as being like Batman, but with parents” and “The snake is called Stevie and tells fart jokes. The kids, they love the fart jokes.”

    It takes a lot for me to laugh out loud on the internet. And I almost fell off my chair. I almost don’t believe it.

  11. Andrew says:

    The serpent in the garden of Eden… “my name is Stevie…” and then tells fart jokes to Eve.

  12. Transfiguring Roar says:

    As a reader of your works and blog, I appreciate this post very much.

  13. Thanks for this, Jeff. What I hadn’t put into words makes me smarter, and what I already knew I feel more confident about now for having seen it written “out loud.”

    Minimizing my expenses was the #1 trick to getting by. We’re still in debt from school, etc., but I’ve bought myself some time to slowly scale the freelance existence — with the understanding that this may be a mountain without a top — and every year’s a little better than the last. Just watching other freelancers in action has taught me one of the vital, ugly skills: work has to be done well more than it has to be done the best you can absolutely do it. Some projects must be delivered or rejected just to protect the long game, strange as it feels. (There’s a suited-connectors metaphor here from which I’ll spare us all.)

    The biggest hurdle, which still trips me up sometimes, is the one that tricks me into thinking that every job I do will be the last one I am offered. Do it well, and keep moving, and more contracts will come. Fretting leads to paralysis, and I can’t work that way.

    Mur, I’m sorry to hear about the lost gig. ‘Tis the season for those, it seems like. I’ve no doubt you’ll find plenty more to replace it — your upward momentum is undeniable.

  14. Thanks for this post, Jeff. I have many days when I’m staring at a list of things that are “coming in” and projects that are “coming up” trying to create a budget, trying to see how much income is actually coming to me. I can get into a panic because there’s no money coming to me yet, but the projects all project a great sum… I gotta work on that “savings” thing—just haven’t made enough to have savings yet… But, too, I do need to work on the cutting down thing: making coffee at home vs. lattes (my vice). It’s reasonable to believe they would be the first to go, but alas, I gave up TV instead.

    I still apply for the bigger day jobs, hoping for security, but secretly afraid that I’ll have to leave behind any plans on writing anything larger than a few short stories… it’s a different kind of panic, but just as stultifying.

    I appreciate knowing that what I’m feeling isn’t an isolated case—it is completely normal. I’ll just have to live between the panic that inspires work and the letting-go that inspires peace. Not an easy task.


  15. Lee says:

    I’m not even sure that writing fulltime makes you the better writer. There’s a lot to be said for doing something completely different for part of your day/week/life.

  16. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I’m not advocating it one way or the other, although I do a ton of different things every day. The point, for me, is that I am a natural-born writer. I’ve wanted to be nothing but a writer since I was eight. So the idea of going back to a day job is horrifying.

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