Mark Terry

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Consider the Possibility

December 7, 2006
Ever hear this?

WRITERS DON'T MAKE ANY MONEY.

How about...

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO MAKE A LIVING AS A NOVELIST.

Or...

ONLY BESTSELLERS MAKE ENOUGH MONEY TO LIVE ON.

Hmmm...

Ever hear this one?

IF YOU'VE GOT A NOVEL PUBLISHED, YOU MUST BE RICH.

I worked at Henry Ford Hospital in the cytogenetics laboratory for 18 years. I am also the editor of The Journal of the Association of Genetic Technologists and I've edited the AGT's salary survey twice and also written about pay rates for medical technologists and genetic technologists and I can say with utmost confidence that if you want to make a lot of money or get rich, get the hell out of this field. NOW! (That said, the income is decent. I wouldn't want to support a family entirely on that income, which is typically in the $40,000 to $50,000 range, but it's do-able, and quite solidly middle class if you have a spouse making similar money).

The fact for me has been that I made the same amount of money my first year freelancing as I did my 18th year as a cytogenetic technologist, and in my second year freelancing I nearly doubled it (I had a good year).

I was interviewing a guy recently who just came out with his first nonfiction book and he makes a living as a librarian and freelances on the side. And he said, "As you know, there's not much money in freelancing."

And I thought but didn't say, "There can be."

My oldest son wants to be a writer. (He also wants to be a band director/music teacher and movie director, but I see him as a writer because he actually does that on his own and doesn't require me nagging him). My wife and I were talking about this a bit and I commented that if that's what he wants to be, he probably can be. It's not like her or my parents (in the case of mine, children of the Great Depression), who believed the only route to income was by working a stable 9 to 5 job for some company.

I've finally made the acquaintance of a number of people who make a living as freelance writers of some sort. To name a few:

Eric Mayer--attended law school, got laid off, now writes full time and is also a novelist with his wife, Mary Reed, also a freelance writer. (I have no idea how you guys handle health insurance!)

Doug Stanton--freelance journalist, author of the bestseller "In Harms Way."

Jeff Cohen--been freelancing 22 years, novelist and aspiring TV and scriptwriter (had options apparently).

John Ramsey Miller--fulltime novelist

Joe Konrath--fulltime novelist

Lee Goldberg--TV writer, novelist, former journalist and freelance writer

The list goes on, and I think one of the things I would have benefitted from 15 years ago was having real contact with writers who were making a living at it, just so I could get it through my head that yes, you CAN do this, people do, and they make a decent living at it. In some cases, a very, very good living at it.

Although I'm a rather long ways from being a fulltime optimist, I don't think you can accomplish much by not believing that whatever you're trying to accomplish is possible. I had a friend who was a photographer and he worked in the genetics lab with me doing digital imaging and photography, absolutely hated it (and had a meltdown and wrote "I QUIT" on his badge, dropped it on his desk and walked out, never to be heard from again) but couldn't seem to imagine himself making a living as a photographer. I could never quite figure that out, because a photographer willing to do weddings and portraits can make a decent living. They have to hustle, but that's bread and butter work while you work to build up your art or commercial photography on the side. But he looked down at that with disdain and could only see all the things that could go wrong, not all the things that could go right, and so when he had his meltdown he went and worked at a camera store.

Anyway, enough about him. Here's the point, so crack open today's Fortune Cookie:

Before your dreams WILL come true, you have to believe they CAN come true.

Best,
Mark Terry

11 Comments:

Blogger Dakini said...

I've been around, reading your writing life. And I have to say that I'm starting to really like it here. I'm from Portugal, so please excuse my english. :) Anyway, today's fortune cookie is for me. It really is. :) I needed this post. Thank you.

7:29 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Yes, writing generally doesn't pay well but it offers a lot of freelancing opportunities. Of course some would be freelancers might not want to expand their definition of "writing" to include editing newsletters or doing articles for legal encyclopedias. I'm sure it is a lot easier to make a living by some sort of technical writing rather than by, say, selling feature articles. And it helps to have a background in the field if you want to do technical writing. On the other hand, there are also people who gradually make themselves into experts in certain areas by incessantly studying and writing about their interests.

As far as my bread and butter legal freelance writing goes the "freelance" part might be more attractive than the "writing" part. The writing allows me to be self-employed which suits me.

As for how we handle health insurance -- well, we pay through the nose. (Hope the insurance will cover the nose operations we're both going to need at this rate)

One other comment -- my dad taught high school art. Generally people dismissed art as being of any use. No one could make a living at it. Yet lots of his students did. Sure, there were loads of teachers and professors, but one guy did well painting vans, another went to New York and ended up selling paintings for $30,000 each. There are ways to make a living doing practically anything you want to do.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

Preach on! It's funny you should mention the Depression Era mentality. It's especially true in our neck of the globe, is it not? The UAW curse is that three generations have now grown up believing they need a large company to provide for them and a union to protect them from the large company. In my own experience as a plant engineer I encountered dozens of very bright people who have no desire to do anything else but put in their 40 plus OT and go home to watch Survivor. My kids have expressed interest in writing as well. And jet piloting. And veterinarying. And painting. God help me if I ever say "Get a REAL job!" Because the real jobs aren't real at all. It's only real if you fought for your own success and love what you do.

P.S. the word scramble is a tough one today. Hope I get through this.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Dakini,
Welcome from the far side of the globe.

Eric,
I think having some expertise is helpful, but I had a great paying client who was hiring me to write about plumbing. That's dried up (no pun intended), but I was getting $1 a word. I spent a lot of time my first year trying to break away from writing about clinical lab stuff, and now it's turning out to be my big area, although more of the business end than the lab end, and it's paying so well it's looking to be about 85% of my in come. I chafe at this a bit, but I also remind myself that things change and it may be where I'm working today, but not next year or the year after.

Ron,
No kidding. Both Leanne and I grew up in Davison, which was a company town if there ever was one, entire generations dependent on the auto industry. Since we both graduated from high school in the early '80s, when the auto industry was coughing up a hairball (kind of like now), neither of us has been impressed with any security the auto industry might pretend to offer. I have a sense now that I have enough writing skills and published clips in enough areas that I will always be able to find work, and if all hell broke loose in the freelancing world I could probably find work out of state writing for pharmaceutical companies, medical advertising companies or even a newspaper or magazine as a staffer if it came to that. But I hope and pray it won't. Like Eric says, the freelance life suits me.

And I just need to add that I don't think the freelance life would suit everybody. It can have paralyzing moments of fear and doubt when the work slows down or dries up and you've got to deal with insurance and retirement issues on your own. If you can't work like that, if the idea of not knowing when your next check is coming or how much it's going to be, then I would strongly recommend keeping your dayjob and writing on the side.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Shannon said...

This definetly is the land of opportunity, and I do believe anyone can be anything they want to be. It comes down to how stubborn, passionate and willing to grow you are. Make money at anything? That's a whole different question. I think writing is one of those things you can do for a lifetime and find personal fulfillment and purpose but may never make a dime. That would be okay with me, but then again...I'm not my family's sole bread-winner, so I guess that gives me a different perspective.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

You're kidding! My depression era parents have been begging me to be a secretary for years! Ohmigosh, I went to a top conservatory, got offered a chance to be put through law school, and I swear to dog, my mother will not be happy until I cut my salary by at least two-thirds and get a nice job as a secretary.

Whatever.

Honestly, I've never known anything but freelancing. I had a six-month stint with a real job, and lots of little part-time jobs in college, but that's it.

Eric? Mark? Who said that you can make money at anything? I believe it's true. You just gotta get out there, and not be too, too picky. My plan is to shift the balance of my income from a music majority to a writing majority. Slowly and surely.

'Course, I got that lotto ticket in my pocket ...

11:08 AM  
Blogger The Scarlet Tree said...

Well, it is 10am here and I have been trying to decide if it is the right time to ditch my bead business and concentrate on my writing full time. I feel inspired! Thanks! If off to plan a closing down clearance sale!
(of course it is always easier if your partner makes a decent bread n butter wage, which he does. Gives you a safety net)

3:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Good luck, Scarlet Tree.

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