Guest Editorial: Surviving as a Freelancer
by Lucy A. Snyder
Many writers dream wistfully of the day when they can quit their tedious day jobs and write full time. This is not a pipe dream. I know several writers who have done just that, and I am nearly a year into the freelance writing life myself. It is simultaneously wonderful and terrifying.
If you’ve been thinking of making the leap, you probably have an idea of the wonderful parts. Assuming you don’t have other schedule obligations, you get to sleep when you want and work when you want. You get to wear what you want; there’s no boss telling you that you can’t dye your hair electric purple. There’s no commute and rush-hour traffic stress; there’s no driving at all unless you prefer to write at the library, a coffee shop, or a coworking space. If you want to take a break in the middle of the day to go to a park or go get ice cream, you can do that. If your muse has you firmly in her grasp and you want to write all night long to finish up a story or novel, you don’t have the prospect of an 8am job to force you away from your creative burst.
But there are certainly downsides. Working from home can present real challenges if you have needy critters or small humans who demand attention. And if you don’t have family or roommates, freelancing can quickly make you feel lonely and out of touch. It’s easy to get stuck inside your own head and stop making the effort to be presentable to the outside world. Many a writer has gone feral after a few months of working in isolation.
Furthermore, you’re your own boss. This means you’re handling taxes much more intensively than before. If you don’t have a spouse who’s willing and able to take extra deductions out of his or her paycheck to offset your own tax burden, you’ll have to file quarterly and keep a very close track of your income and expenses. While some fiscally-minded folks have turned this into “Save the Receipts: The Super-Fun Strategy Game”, I don’t know a single soul who looks forward to paying quarterly taxes.
But it’s not just taxes. As your own boss, you’re now responsible for employee morale and productivity. If you’re not at a point in your career where you already have paying gigs (and accompanying deadlines imposed by other people), motivation and time management can become serious problems. If you can do anything you want with the hours in your day, the temptation to spend it chatting on Facebook, watching movies, or playing video games can be overwhelming, especially if you have ADHD or get hit with a bout of writer’s block.
If you suffer from anxiety or depression, as many writers do, the odds of writer’s block increase alongside financial pressures. It’s hard to stay creative when the little voice the back of your head that’s angsting over how to pay the rent next month stops whispering and starts screaming.
And this cuts to the absolute worst aspect of being a freelancer: financial insecurity. Too many publishers don’t pay when they’re supposed to. Other freelance clients can and will ghost you with no notice. It’s difficult to manage your life when you don’t know what you’ll be making from month to month.
Ideally, before you make the leap to writing full-time, you have money saved up and a spouse who’s earning enough to float you both during lean months. But that’s not reality for a lot of writers; my own spouse can’t work, and his disability income usually only covers his own medications and a couple of utility bills. The mortgage and other major bills are still on me. That’s the kind of pressure that keeps a person awake at night.
I take a two-pronged strategy to survive these uncertainties. The first element is a social strategy, and the second is a financial one.
The social aspect is crucial: I need to stay in regular contact with other human beings or I’ll turn into a weird, nocturnal, gibbering creature straight out of some Lovecraft tale. My mental and physical health is at stake. I take time to go out with friends and force my introverted self to dress up, attend parties and interact pleasantly with strangers. I have a workout buddy who hates the gym so he’s sure to bug me until I go with him. If I took this a step further, I would seek out a writing accountability buddy: someone who would check in and prod me to complete deadlines, and who would count on me to do the same for her.
The financial aspect is simple in concept but challenging in execution: cultivating multiple writing income streams. I do everything I know I can do well – but only things I don’t think will make me miserable – to bring in freelance money. I enjoy teaching and helping other writers, so I’m adjunct faculty in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program. That pay is steady but only about 20% of what I need to live on. As an adjunct to my adjuncting, I do freelance writing critiques and coaching. Technical nonfiction pays much better than fiction, so I regularly seek out gigs like medical editing and RFP writing (searches on Indeed.com using the keyword “remote” are helpful here). And of course, there’s the writing I most want to be doing: fiction and poetry. The key with all of this is that I don’t lose sight of my fiction and poetry goals in the quest for more lucrative freelance opportunities.
Recently, my social and financial strategies converged in the form of a Patreon I launched in August: https://www.patreon.com/LucyASnyder. Through that crowdfunding site, I’m offering supporters my stories, poetry, chapters from novels in progress, writing how-tos, monthly chats with industry professionals, and manuscript critiques. Some people back my Patreon because they like my writing, or they like my husband’s writing and know about his chronic pain condition and want to help. I’m focused on providing my supporters a good value in a way that doesn’t become a drain on my time and energy.
The key with a Patreon, as with any other crowdfunding venture, is that it’s not enough to create it and mention it once or twice on Twitter. You need to keep talking about why you started it and what you hope to accomplish with it and what people will gain from it. It helps to have a compelling personal story. If that sounds like work … it is! I’m treating my Patreon as seriously as I would any other job, and already I’m bringing in almost as much from it as I do from my adjunct faculty position.
But of course, if you’ve done the math, you realize that 20% + 20% is only 40%, so I have a way to go to close the financial gap. I’m confident that I’ll get there, but I must keep hustling in the meantime. From a business standpoint, all this makes sense: it takes the average start-up company a couple of years to turn a profit. We freelancers aren’t any different, and we all need to create our own plans (and backup plans) to survive the difficult first years.
Lucy A. Snyder is a five-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author. She wrote the novels Spellbent, Shotgun Sorceress, and Switchblade Goddess, the nonfiction book Shooting Yourself in the Head for Fun and Profit: A Writer’s Survival Guide, and the collections While the Black Stars Burn, Soft Apocalypses, Orchid Carousals, Sparks and Shadows, Chimeric Machines, and Installing Linux on a Dead Badger. Her writing has been translated into French, Russian, Italian, Czech, and Japanese editions and has appeared in publications such as Apex Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Pseudopod, Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, Scary Out There, Seize the Night, and Best Horror of the Year. She lives in Columbus, Ohio and is faculty in Seton Hill University’s MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction. You can learn more about her at www.lucysnyder.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @LucyASnyder.