Thursday, February 19, 2015

Anecdote from a Writer's Life

I went full time freelance writer and editor on July 29, 2011.

At that time I had what Valerie and I thought was an adequate cushion in the bank, monthly bills were at the lowest they'd been since our first child was born, and I had a couple of writing and editing jobs lined up. Part of this calculation was the fact Valerie earned enough as a safety specialist that our family's survival did not depend on my writing income alone (though our budget required I have an income). I did okay but not great those last five months of 2011. Valerie and I ended the year with the sense that while full time writing was not the fast track to riches, it was doable.

The next year caused us to reassess that conclusion.

Quick lesson in freelancing and publishing to explain why: The presses at big house publishers need lots of lead time, so book packagers – who provide print-ready manuscripts to publishers, thus saving the publisher a lot of time and money – will reserve a slot in the publisher's production queue before the book is written. Occasionally – not as rarely as you might think – a "name" author delivers an unusable or incomplete manuscript and can't (or won't) fix it in time for its scheduled printing. If the book packager is not willing to give that slot up, she will hire a freelancer to rescue the book. The freelancer is paid by the word to complete the manuscript on time in the style of the "name" author; the freelancer receives no royalties, her name does not appear on anything related to the book, and she is contractually forbidden to even drop a hint about her involvement.

In 2012 a desperate book packager trusted the recommendation of a colleague and offered me a high-ticket rescue. I delivered, earning enough to have the back yard fenced in and pay cash for the newest used car I've ever purchased. The packager said she was impressed with my work and would henceforth give me first crack at anything similar that came along. My wife and I agreed going full-time freelance was the best career decision I'd ever made.

Nothing that paid remotely that much has come my way since.

The next year, 2013, was okay. It started out slow, but that was the year I added editing doctoral dissertations and masters theses to my list of services. Over the last five months of 2013 I earned slightly more than I did over the same months in 2011. I figured that indicated the cruising speed for my income stream – anticipating that to be economic baseline for the duration.

2014 was horrible.

I was focused less on income-producing projects in professional markets and more on finishing up my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and writing a young adult novel on spec for a small press, which the small press decided not to pick up. (Still looking for the right small press, so, y'know, call me.) I was also a nice guy and let not one but two struggling candidates (a masters and a doctorate) defer payment. Both of them stiffed me. Net result was I made less in all of 2014 than I did in the last five months of 2011 – and 20% of that came in the form of a single check on December 29.

How did I get by? How did I hold up my end of the family budget?

I became a semi-regular seller at the local flea market, acquired legendary status for my chef-ly skills in braising cheap cuts of meat and creating stews out of found objects, and through study of amateur tutorials on YouTube acquired the skills to repair (sometimes correctly) a lot of things I would have previously taken to the shop, called a repair man to fix, or simply replaced. I signed with a temp agency and earned money with an irregular series of one-off jobs like setting up banquets, preparing paper records for storage, and sorting metal things I've never seen before or since according to size. For a few months I had a part-time job at Target and spent a few nights a week keeping up with guys one-third my age unloading trucks and stocking shelves. All without sacrificing my status and as a full-time freelancer.

Because sometimes, usually more than once in your career, you will find in the story of your life as a writer schools of anecdotes about the things you did to enable yourself to write.


Jewel Amethyst said...

Welcome to the real world of writing! The only thing consistent about writing is its financial inconsistency.

Try putting your MFA to use as an adjunct professor at a college. Not much pay, but way more consistent and as it is part-time, you still can devote your time to free lance writing.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've struggled most of my adult life to try and get more time to write. Everytime I think I might get that time something has happened in the family that has prevented me from taking time off from work and has, generally meant that I must work even more. I have thought about the freelancer's life but being responsible for the health insurance of three people and myself has just made it impossible. And now, the family health issues are indicating that I won't even be able to retire at the usual time.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Oh Charles, I feel your pain. Hang in there.

Liane Spicer said...

I also feel your pain, Charles. Sometimes life dictates a path other than the one we'd wish to take, and take it we must.

Kevin, interesting parallels here. Editing postgrad theses helped me over some rough spots last couple of years. Also, I learned the hard way that nice guys get screwed. Payment in advance, please (unless I already have a relationship with the client).