Going freelance, an embarrassing tale

I’ve been writing stories since I first learned how to write a sentence. But I did not become a full-time writer until 1 April 2003.1 In those many many years before I became a full-time writer I wrote in between doing other things. In between going to primary school, high school, university, and my various jobs. I’d always have at least two documents open when I was at uni. One was the essay I was supposed to be writing and the other was the story or novel I was writing on the sly. When the going got tough with one I’d switch to the other. Writing was something that I snatched time to do. It was my secret joy and I never had as much time to do it as I wanted.

A while back I solicited opinions on whether a friend of mine should go freelance or not.2 One of the interesting things mentioned in the comments was how hard the transition from part-time to full-time writer can be. Hope said:

She might find, disaster of all disasters, that when she quits and has all the free time in the world, that she can’t get any work done. If she is writing successfully now, it might be because the structure of her life encourages it. Sometimes, we get more done in 15 minutes, when we know that that is all the time we have, then we would if we had all day.

Garth Nix chimed in to agree:

When I first became a full-time writer in 1998, I actually wrote less over the next year than I had when I’d been incredibly busy with my day job.

Diana Peterfreund agreed:

Oh, and tell your friend that if she *does* quit, expect it to take a year or more to get into a professional schedule. It’s been that way for me and for a lot of writers gone freelance I know.

The rhythms of writing full-time are entirely different from writing part-time. When I went freelance the same thing happened to me. Suddenly I had all the time in the world and my writing came to a grinding halt. Procrastinatory habits of a lifetime scaled up to unprecedented levels. To the point where all I did was faff about. It was insane. I didn’t write a damn thing.

I did try. But I just couldn’t. I’m not sure what was stopping me. But it felt like fear. Here I was doing what I always wanted to do. But I was so completely terrified that I’d blow it that I . . . well, froze. Thus leading to the very strong possibility that I would fail at doing what I’d always wanted to do.

But then through pure luck I had a chance at a ghostwriting gig. Scott encouraged me to go for it, seeing as how I was doing nothing on my own projects. He thought it would be a good learning experience.

It was. But not in the way he was thinking.

Dear readers, I blew it.

I continued to faff. I missed deadlines. I wound up having to write the book in a matter of weeks. It was as good as a book can be that took two weeks to write. Hint: Not very.

I was given a kill fee, which was less than the advance. As in, I had to return part of the money I’d been paid.

My first professional writing gig and I blew it.

Not long afterwards I was given the opportunity to pitch my Magic or Madness idea. Miracle of miracles, Eloise Flood went ahead and bought it from the proposal. The ghostwriting debacle had left me ashamed and demoralised. This was my chance to prove to myself that I wasn’t a complete washout, that I could do this full-time thing. I had grave doubts.

I wrote the first draft of Magic or Madness in eight weeks and turned it in six months ahead of the deadline.3 It was a vastly better book than the ghostwritten one. At least partly because I’d written that poor broken shell of a book. I’d had a practice run at writing a YA. I told myself that the ghostwriting disaster was ultimately a good thing. Without it Magic or Madness probably wouldn’t have been as good.

That may be true but it doesn’t change the fact that I blew my first pro writing gig.

It’s taken me a lot longer than a year to learn how to write full-time. I think it wasn’t really until last year—2008—that I’ve exhibited anywhere near the kind of discipline necessary for this gig. I still faff but in a more controlled manner. I’ve not missed a deadline since Magic’s Child in 2006.

More importantly I’ve never again experienced the paralysing fear that almost nuked my career before it began. By the time I finished that first draft of Magic or Madness in January 2004 I knew I could do this full-time writing thing. I’d also learned it was a lot harder than I’d imagined.

I’m still learning. When I’m in writing mode very little can distract me. However, getting into writing mode remains a struggle. I seem to have lost the ability I had when I was a part-timer to write in between other things, to get a useful amount of writing done in short bursts. Now I need at least three clear hours and the first hour is often spent pushing past my resistance to writing. But it’s so much better than that first year. I’ll take it.

Happy sixth anniversary to me!

  1. Wow, this is my sixth anniversary. How bizarre. []
  2. She didn’t. []
  3. Which tragically meant they just moved up the publication date. []


  1. Lizabelle on #

    I’m so glad you took your second chance. And I always appreciate your honesty on here. 🙂 Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy.

  2. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    Happy Sixth Anniversary indeed. Shaky start or no, you’re obviously doing something right. Plus you still have time to keep the rest of us informed, which is most appreciated. Do you write to music? I find that when I’m having trouble getting into “writing mode,” a pair of noise-canceling headphones plugged into some Bach usually does the job. Mozart’s Requiem if I’m really struggling.

  3. Kelly McCullough on #

    Oh yes, it’s the starting the day’s writing that’s the killer, not the writing itself. I totally agree with that one even after more then ten years of having the luxury to write full time.

  4. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    When I was still in school, and had a part time job to go with it, I wrote all the time. I could write 20k to 30k words a month on a regular basis. I was working on a few different stories, but still, I was writing and I was writing a lot.

    But when I finished school, and had only the part time job, my writing slowed. About 7k to 10k words a month.

    Then we moved and for a while I had no job at all. And my writing dropped off completely. Whole months went by without a single sentence.

    Now I’m back to work…and back to writing, too. Not tons, but steady, a little every day. Go figure. 🙂


  5. hope on #

    “…getting into writing mode remains a struggle. I seem to have lost the ability I had when I was a part-timer to write in between other things, to get a useful amount of writing done in short bursts. Now I need at least three clear hours and the first hour is often spent pushing past my resistance to writing . . .”

    When I was a bright young thing, I thought the people who talked like this were just self-indulgent wankers who needed to get their acts together. Now I think, “Hey, me, too!” I find it unnerving. Is it old age? Maybe your technical skills have improved, but the edge has worn off your creativity? Is it going to keep on getting more difficult to write until I sit in front of a computer screen for eighteen hours in order to write four sentences before I fall asleep on the keyboard? What I am most afraid of, though, is that I really am just a self-indulgent wanker. Sigh.

  6. joe on #

    Thank you for sharing this! (And thank GOD it isn’t just me, he thinks, skulking back to his book…)

  7. Another Justine on #

    Thanks for that very honest post. It’s refreshing to find a writer talking about what went wrong as well as their success!

    And I’m glad to know that it’s not just me that finds it hard to get into writing mode. I find I write best in short spurts of a couple hundred words, with procrastination in between.

  8. Melinda on #

    Thank you. Its a huge relief to read this as I have struggled for the last few years with a continually slowing pace of writing. I like the idea of allowing yourself time each day to push through the resistance and that it has taken you a long time to get into the groove of writing full time. I will not panic yet about how long it’s taking me!

  9. Shveta on #

    Thanks for this, Justine.

  10. Carrie on #

    I love this post – thank you!

  11. Kristan on #

    Thank you. For being honest and telling us what your journey was like.

    Obviously, in the end you didn’t REALLY blow it. And that’s what counts. 🙂

  12. claire on #

    I read this last year and didn’t want to hear it. Just re-read it now and am actually hearing it. I’m celebrating year two of freelancing, actually April 1st-ish as well, and I’m finally realizing why I haven’t written my own projects in so damn long. Thanks for posting all this stuff and being so clear about it.

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