Today is the fourth anniversary of my becoming a full-time freelance writer. That’s right, on 1 April 2003 I stopped getting a regular salary and set about trying to earn dosh with the words I write. What more appropriate day than April Fool’s day?
It was Scott who convinced me to do it.
For the previous eighteen months my regular salary as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Sydney had been the bulk of our income, but Scott’s earnings as a freelancer were on the rise. It would be more than enough, he asserted, to support both of us while I found my legs as a writer. There were several academic jobs I could have applied for, but Scott convinced me not to. It wasn’t hard, while I preferred being an academic to any other job I’d had, I liked writing way more. “It’s the only thing you’ve ever wanted to do,” he told me over and over again. “Now’s the time to do it.”
I thought he was mad.
I was right.
The next three years and a half years were filled with financial anxiety: loans were taken out, credit cards were juggled, and tonnes of panic was panicked. Two freelancers living together is not for the faint of heart. It’s not even a good idea for nerves of steel, lion-hearted types.
I received my first freelance money—the advance on signing for the Magic or Madness trilogy—in December of 2003, which was eight months after I’d gone freelance. It was my first professional sale. The offer came in September so by publishing standards I was paid very quickly. But it was an awfully long time to be bringing in no money. In the meantime Scott signed up for two separate three-book deals (the Uglies trilogy and the three Razorbill books—So Yesterday, Peeps, and The Last Days) to keep us from going under. Problem was those books were on top of the Midnighters trilogy he’d already sold.
Suddenly he was writing three books a year and experiencing the joys of shingles. All because I’d gone freelance prematurely.
Do I regret it? (The real question is: Does Scott regret it?)
No. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. In my first four years of freelancing I’ve written four books, edited another one, and published four: the Magic or Madness trilogy and Daughters of Earth. I sold my first novel only five months after going freelance. Not bad, eh?
Of course, I’d been trying to sell a novel since 1999, so it was four (almost five) years from first finished novel to first sold novel. And I’d been trying to sell short stories for much, much, much, much longer than that (way back into the eighties). I still haven’t had a pro sale for any of my short stories.1 And since I’ve pretty much stopped writing them, or sending them out, that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
Although the trilogy hasn’t earned out (bloody joint accounting!) it’s close and with the foreign sales of the trilogy (thank you, Whitney Lee) I’m now earning enough to support myself.2
But if someone who’d never sold a novel asked me whether they should go freelance I would tell them no.
No matter how talented or promising you are, going freelance without a single professional sale is madness. Perhaps you have a partner or a parent or a patron who’s willing to support you—it’s still dangerous and scary to try to make a living at something you’ve not proved yourself at. And there’s no guarantee that your partner or parent or patron will continue to support you. They might one day get jack of the whole thing. You might never make a single sale. Lots of extraordinarily talented people have failed to make a living as writers.
I have no idea what the future will bring. I’ve seen too many writers with stalled careers after even the most brilliant of starts to be sanguine about my own. The young adult market is thriving right now and advances seem to be going up all the time, but who knows how long that will last?
Yet despite the financial insecurity, the never knowing if my next book will sell or not, and the destruction of Scott’s health, these have been the best four years of my life. All the books I’ve published are the very best that I could make them at the time. There’s no book out there with my name on it that I’m ashamed of.
Turns out that I love being a writer. It’s what I’ve always wanted, and now I have it, it’s better than I imagined. Fingers crossed that it lasts.
Happy anniversary to me! And thank you, Scott, for everything.
NOTE: I apologise for the complete absence of April First Foolery. Fortunately others in the blogosphere are more than making up for my seriousness.