Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Full-time Writing: Ready or Not?

I am not ready to make a living at writing.  Far far far far far from it.  Before I got laid off my plan was to write seriously for two years, and then get serious about the business, and then start thinking about things like making a living at writing.

And yet, unprepared as I am, I am dancing in the streets anyway.

The truth is, even though my writing business is not ready, I am ready.  I've been preparing for this for a while.  I talked about this in some earlier posts:

But there are some other things that I've done that aren't mentioned in those posts.

Previous Freelancing and Entrepreneurship

Everyone in my father's family had a side business.  They were farmers and teachers and they lived in a place with a seasonal economy, so they did all sorts of other things too.  That's just how you get by.  You pack stuff away for the dry times, and you pick up work where you can, and you make and buy and sell a little something on the side: whether it's spare berries from the patch, or home crafts, or copyediting.

When I was in high school, we boarded horses on our farm to help support my horse. Then my dad converted one of the pastures and built three professional level clay tennis courts.  He did it by hand, totally on a shoestring.  Wheel barrel, shovel, a bit of screen on a frame to sift the clay. He'd buy some hardware here, and hire a local farmer with a backhoe/bulldozer to do a little digging or smoothing there.

We didn't have much in the way of cash. My dad was a teacher in a poor district.  So every summer, my parents would give tennis lessons, and hold tennis tournaments -- every single weekend -- and maybe rent out the courts to some up-and-coming player who was looking for more experience on clay before a big time tournament. We had two antique pop machines which we used to sell pop to the trickle of customers.  We also spread a sheet on the tennis court fence and projected 16mm film to have movie nights, with popcorn and hot dogs.

I have an uncle who made (and lost and made again) many fortunes with bigger versions of that sort of thing, but for us, it was just the way we lived.  Just a way we could have a life we wanted. Boarding horses meant I could have a horse.  Tennis lessons and tournaments meant my dad could play with dirt and play tennis all summer.  Selling pop out of a machine meant we had pop.

And so that just seems to be a natural way to live for me.  I never had a lemonade stand, but instead of comic books, I liked to read Mother Earth News, especially the "bootstrap businesses" column.

So it was perfectly natural for me to start a business selling buttons at science fiction conventions when I was in college, and especially after college. It paid for the computers I used to design and create the buttons.  And the car I used to transport them to the cons.  It was also natural to take the job as a noon-time playground supervisor, and do tutoring, and help people write their resumes and fix their computers, not to mention freelance script analysis, and um, you know... writing fiction for magazines!  I did these things in lieu of regular work, and in supplement to it.

So I never really saw any source of income -- even my Day Job -- as anything but another income stream.  The Day Job was like showing movies on that tennis court: it was fun, rewarding, and it kept me in hot dogs and chips.

So I was never emotionally dependent on that job.  It was never my identity.

What that job did for me, though, is allow me to become financially complacent.  Sure, while I worked there I still designed t-shirts for Printfection, or wrote SEO articles for eHow on the side.  But I didn't need to, and so I didn't do it "for reals."  It was more experimental than lucrative.

I never made a lot of money at those other activities, and one thing this 25-year temporary job did for me was to give me cash for investment. Which is the other thing that makes this transition go better.

Investing and Saving

Because of my squirrel-like upbringing, I have a tendency to pack stuff away for winter. It's not just my bank account, and my IRA, and my brokerage account.  I have nuts buried all over the place -- from penny jars and first edition books, to tiny amounts of stock in direct investment programs.

My investment secret is this: Stock is a cool toy.  If you feel like buying yourself a cool toy (like, say, a wireless mouse) buy stock in the company that makes it instead.  (Or some other company you've already vetted.)  If you buy a toy, you'll have some fun, and then a year or two down the line, you'll have junk to get rid of.  If you buy stock, you still have the value of the stock.  Even if the price goes down, you've got more than you had with the toy.  (And over time, stock prices trend upward.)

And because I am a squirrel, I am always thinking of what value something could have later -- in the long term.  Amusing anecdote from work: long ago I had a coworker who was a neatnik. He noticed that when he threw things away, I'd often pull them out of the trash and stick them in my crowded office (not everything, just a few key items).  Then later, when we had a crisis, I'd pull out one of those items to save the day.  After a while, he started asking me to assess the hidden value of items before he threw them out.

These assets I pack away include my writing and art.  My blog posts are savings bonds.  I don't have time or energy to convert them to cash right now... but down the line, I have some potential books or booklets out of it.  That sketch I did of a policeman and a trench-coated reporter way back at the beginning of this blog... that could adapt into an interesting book cover.

I have a freezer full of rice, and you'd be really shocked at how much you can get out of even 10 square feet of garden, if you work at it and go vertical. (Also if you're home and not too busy to notice whether the beans are setting seeds. Whoops.)  I know how to grow cucumbers and how to bake great bread from scratch.

I think one of the reasons that going over to the freelancing lifestyle is hard for most people is because it's not just about schedule and time. It's not about what you do, it's about how you think -- and that way of thinking takes years to develop. It takes years to know what works for you and what doesn't. Sometimes you do something for one reason, and fail, but you find some other value in it.

In some ways, the freelancing lifestyle is about always making lemonade.  You fail constantly, so you recycle.

It also takes years to acquire the tools you need for that lifestyle.  Whether it's a spading fork or a Kitchenaid stand mixer, or Adobe Photoshop -- or a computer -- or the knowledge to use any of the above; having the tools to do your work makes that work possible.

So you could say this post is a warning to others.

I'm going blithely into this not because I expect to make enough money at writing.  That's a very big question, with no proof of concept at all. I am blithe because I have layers of options, including that of being incredibly poor.

But even with all my options, it takes time to sort things out.  I'm taking October to sink into the new lifestyle.  Next Wednesday, I'll post new goals, and talk about the transition -- changing habits.

See you in the funny papers.

If you read this blog, and find it useful or entertaining, buy a book once in a while, or make a donation. 

Here's a link to a list of my books.  And ... hey, look at that!  There's a donation link right below this sentence. (Donations are via Paypal)


Carradee said...

Freelancing definitely requires the right mindset. I've tried the day jobs, liked some of them, been laid off from or quit all of them, and I find freelancing no less stable.

When I started freelancing, I loved that I could work 100% online. But that would require a website, so I taught myself HTML and CSS to build a site. When I wanted specific features, I learned the JavaScript and PHP necessary to build my own scripts.

This year, I switched my site to a WordPress installation, but I hate it. I've been putting off redoing my site by hand again because I want to give WordPress a fair trial.

It's now tolerable, but I find myself missing some features that I used to have on my site that don't seem doable with a WordPress installation. I expect I'll go back to coding by hand.

But I also came up with a business idea recently that I'll be saving up to pull off—something that gets me off the computer and on my feet, so I need that. It'll also take minimal investment, so that's good. (I often come up with ideas that require more money than I can come up with.)

However, I've spoken to others who keep getting laid off and such, including my own father. My parents both have business ideas, but neither of them feel qualified to run a business. Although they have family members and friend who run businesses, people they could ask for advice if they wanted. But they're overwhelmed by the idea and don't want to start.

The mindset can make all the difference.

The Daring Novelist said...

Yeah, even if you are used to it and know what you're doing, starting a new business can be overwhelming.

There's a tremendous amount of overhead work; things like designing a website, oh, and _learning_ to design a website, and writing blurbs and figuring out who your target market is.

I think part of the secret is to learn to be blase about disaster. Then you can simply look all those problems in the eye and say "wait your turn, I'm not thinking about you until you come up in the queue."

Because you can't swallow a watermelon whole, but you can eat it one bite at a time.

David Michael said...

Yeah, you have to learn not to get too stressed about the possibility of failure. It helps, I think, to actually live through a failure. Or two. Then you see, "Oh. It's not *that* bad. I can live through this." And you have to be willing to let the standard of living drop a notch or three--which is probably the hardest part of all.

I don't follow the freelancer model so much as the starving artist model. =) I make stuff, then try to sell it. I got lucky and one of the things I made and tried to sell has been making enough money to live off for quite some time now (though not for the first few years I was hoping it would do that). The trick has been doing that *again*. As well as keeping that one thing still earning in the face of changing technology and demographics.

Thomas E said...

I’m watching your experiment with interest. Truth is, I am far from ready to be a full time writer personally. I’m just not good enough at writing :)
It’s always seemed to me that DWS method of learning to write is essentially a good one, but even if you follow his method exactly it still takes years to learn. After all, it took DWS more than a decade from his first short story sale to his first book sale.
The catch-22 of becoming a full time writer is that it takes several years of full time writing before you can do it at a professional level – and several years of writing at a professional level before you can make enough money to depend on it as a full time income source.
I’m lucky. I have other skills I can use to make my money quickly, I can live very cheaply, and I have no dependants. (I am also in a state where healthcare is free at point of use; if I were in America it is likely I could never contemplate going full time).
I can spend a lot of my time writing each week. But even so with all these advantages I am less than two years into writing seriously, and I plan on it taking a decade before I am where you are.

The Daring Novelist said...

David: YES! The starving artist model. Or maybe we should call it the Subsistence Model. It is different than the classical freelance model, which is more... um... businesslike. I will probably talk about this later on the blog.

Thomas: Dean will show you how to succeed, but you always have to translate what he says into terms that fit your own life.

However, that's one of the differences in what David said about the "starving artist" model. Dean is very much into the Running A Formal Business idea -- but you can also be a hobbyist who makes a little money here and there.

As for making the leap from the lion's mouth: yeah, the biggest issue is finding a way across that chasm. Investing and saving and finding other income streams that writing can be a very good way to ease that change.

Anonymous said...

I've been meaning to drop by and say something about you being laid off. That's just crazy. You seemed to take it so easy.. or at least in stride. But dancing in the streets? Yikes! I'm glad you get to embrace full-time writing though. That's the dream we all have.

For not being prepared, you sound like you've got enough packed away to help you get started. That's a big blessing. I really hope this new adventure is a productive and joyous one.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Ryan. It's all about being prepared. (And also helps not to have kids. Unless of course you are a slave-driving subsistence farmer who uses them for cheap labor.)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I think you've got a great stock tip. :)

And you've got the right mindset about writing-related income. You're so down-to-earth and rational about it all that I know this is going to work out well for you.

The Daring Novelist said...

Yeah, the "stock is a cool toy" strategy really worked for me.

And thanks for the support.