Mark Terry

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Should You Quit Your Day Job?

April 14, 2007
Who doesn't want a fulltime writer's lifestyle? After all, we can go to work in our pajamas, work when we want to, shave or not shave, or, in general, have all the personal hygiene and social skills of a rabid wolverine, and nobody will care except possibly our spouses or family.

Well, oddly enough, I don't do any of those things. I dress casual, but that usually means jeans and a sweatshirt in winter, shorts and a T-shirt in summer. I shave every day except Saturday, and I value my personal hygiene, if not my social skills.

I was thinking about this because of John Scalzi's blogpost about taxes and quitting your day job. As John notes, his wife makes a very good living that includes health insurance. Amen, brother. I am so there.

In addition, John writes quite articulately about Q1 of the new year, in which you may possibly owe the government additional monies from the previous year (I got some back from the federal government, but owed the state several hundred--it never seems to matter how much I pay the state. Every year I increase my quarterly payouts to the state, and every year I still owe them money), just about the same time you owe them for your first quarter. As Ross Perot said, "Hear that giant sucking sound?" For a freelancer, it's all your savings going whoosh.

As John comments as well, he's owed a lot of money by a lot of people.

I'm not too bad in that regard. Still, on the fiction front, I'm still awaiting money from my agent from part of an advance (that by rights should have come months ago, but the first check to my agent disappeared somewhere in the mail), and hopefully will be receiving a royalty check soon. I've got money coming from a magazine I write for regularly, whenever they get around the publishing the last article I wrote for them. It didn't get pubbed this month, so if it gets pubbed in May, I'll get the money sometime in May or even later. On the other hand, I signed a contract early in January for three big writing gigs and received 50% up front. Now I have to complete these things in order to get the rest. Hopefully I'll be on target with the first one so I can get $6000 or so in June, and the second one is smaller, but I can't do it until they complete their surveys, and the third one isn't due until September. And I'm trying to complete the manuscripts of the 4th Derek Stillwater novel so I can turn it in for the remainder of the advance, assuming the check doesn't get lost in the mail somewhere between my publisher, my agent and myself.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying a freelance writer's life isn't all pajamas and late nights. In fact, primarily what we give up (bosses and benefits and commutes, oh my) is the security of regular income. Yes, I actually make more money as a writer than I did as a cytogenetics technologist, but one of the positive things about working for "da man" was that every two weeks I knew how much money I had coming in.

So should you give up your day job?

Hey, if you wanted to make $40,000 a year and you suddenly got a book contract for one book for $40,000 (congratulations, you're doing great), I would suggest you don't give up your day job. Your agent will get a cut, the government will get its cut (boy will they) and the money will be split up into 2 or 3 chunks, most likely, and although you may know when it's coming generally, you sure as hell don't know when it's coming specifically. And there's a really big assumption that you'll get a second contract and even if you do, that you'll get it exactly 12 months after the money from your first one runs out. (Good luck with that. I don't know any writers who live that way).

Although I love being a freelancer, I've discovered that for my psychological survival I need to develop a sort of faith-based approach to money. I let Leanne handle it and I keep the faith that checks will come in when I need them to (more or less). It helps to have more than one source of income (or at least one that is very reliable and regular), although too many revenue streams can become a headache (I've been there, too--nothing like having 8 deadlines in one week to convince you you need to restructure).

When I think about my writing income, I often think about Rockefeller's response when asked what the stock market was going to do. When asked, he said, "Fluctuate."

Mark Terry


Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Every published author tells me I will probably never be able to quit my day job. (Blah!) I would only do it if I was out of debt, house, bills, college tuition for the kids....
I can dream, right?

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Mary and I just sent off those taxes and quarterly payments yesterday!

Everything you (and John) say about freelancing is absolutely true. Mary and I had figured out our quarterly "estimated" payments pretty well this year so we were able to not only pay off what little tax was still owed but also send a big first quarter chunk. As if most freelancers can really "estimate" their income.

Keeping several sources of incoming going can be difficult. I constantly have to turn down work from one client because it conflicts with something I've already taken on for another. But I don't like to put off any client too often because then they tend to vanish. There's also the problem of sometimes taking on work that doesn't pay as well as other work which might be available in order to maintain alternate sources for some income, just in case.

However, the bosses I worked in-house for make such problems seem minor.

It should be mentioned that a lot of people cannot deal with not having that regular paycheck. I've seen people leave the horrible company I worked for because they just couldn't take the abuse any longer (so they said) and yet, within months, they returned. The uncertainty was even worse to them. One person returned (incredibly to me) because she discovered that left on her own, she couldn't motivate herself to get any work done!

2:24 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Gradually transitioning was the key for me. I gradually cut back my day jobs (although, I only technically had a "real" job for about six months) to start my musical freelancing career, and I'll do the same for writing.

If you've got some momentum and you're almost there, there's something to be said for taking a leap. The universe has a way of filling in needs.

Like Eric said, freelancing is scary. Getting a paycheck every two weeks, always on time, sounds like a wonderful dream to me. Heck, I fantasize about it all the time.

We still struggle with budgeting when you don't know when you're going to be paid. People don't believe in paying bills on time anymore. That's one important thing to realize before completely quitting the day job.

It used to be, people would starve before they paid their bills late. There are a few golden people out there, but ... that's not the way society is today. The most frustrating thing about freelancing is that a lot of people could care less when or if they pay you.

6:55 AM  
Blogger Joe Moore said...

Willing to only get paid twice a year. Amount of paychecks unknown at this time. Apply to any publishing house.

6:58 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Of course, I love it. I was making about $12,000 a year, maybe a little less, when I went part-time writing. The lab I worked at had a lot of part-timers, so there was plenty of precedent. I had a couple of steady, regular freelance clients that guaranteed something like $6000 or so a year, and I had picked up at least one big client that was paying me $.85 per word for big articles. That was the financial tipping point. I went down to 20 hours a week at the lab (2-10 hour days) starting in June 2004.

What happened was that in the next 4 months, I built up clientele fast (to my surprise and pleasure) and by October decided to quit the hospital entirely. I have absolutely no regrets about that decision.

But I do recognize that freelancing isn't for everyone. There are probably 2 issues that stand in the way.

1. Financial insecurity. I include health insurance in this. If I had to pay for it myself, I could do it now, but I wouldn't have been able to do it the first year or two. Too expensive. And as I mentioned before, some people can't live with not knowing when or how much money is coming in.

2. Lack of motivation. I don't have this, but a lot of people have said they don't know how they would get anything done with all the distractions at home. My feeling is if that's how you feel, then you're probably right, you shouldn't go work out of the house. Some freelancers rent office space (I'm too cheap and besides, why add any kind of a commute?) and for a lot of novelists they seem to set up in a StarBucks (again, I don't get it, but that's me).

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