Everybody’s free (to be freelance)

It’s approaching eight months since I gave up my office job and became a freelancer. For lots of people, I think, the freelance life is one of the big attractions of becoming a writer – I know it was for me. So what’s it really like working for yourself? Freelancing has its ups, its down, its insecurities and joys. Here’s my top ten facts about freelancing

1. You never have to leave the house

Now winter is coming (as the Starks would say), this is a particular joy of the freelancer. Shuffling downstairs in your cosy slippers and jumper, strapping on your mittens, and looking out at the falling rain. Ah, bliss.

The downside: when several days can go by before you realise you haven’t unlatched the front door, your personal style and social skills start to deteriorate. When your cohabitants/significant others come trundling in from their days, they’ll find you hunched over your laptop, grunting and surrounded in dirty soup bowls and crumpled-up post-its. When you go out in the real world, people may start to edge away you as you’ll bend their ear for hours, starved of conversation, or you’ll have completely forgotten what constitutes normal discussion (‘Ever thought about how long a body takes to decompose? Mm, this dip is good.’

2.You’re your own boss

Brilliant, eh? No one telling you what to do, no long ‘supervision’ meetings, no ridiculous targets, no doing anything you don’t want to do, no one to impress…. Oh, how I thank the universe every day for the gift of no longer having to go to meetings.

The downside: It’s all down to you. If your career isn’t going well, no one’s going to pull you out or get you back on track. You have to decide what to do, when to do it, and when you’ve done enough. It means being your own manager, employee, HR officer, health and safety assessor, IT support, accountant, and tea-lady. Oh, and you’ll still have targets and meetings, they’ll just be far more terrifying as you can’t write your novel on your legal pad while nodding along to a discussion about stationery budgets.

3.You don’t have to say hello to anyone in the mornings

I’m terrible in the mornings. The fact of not having to talk to anyone is, in itself, enough to make me relish working alone in a room by myself, forever, till the end of my days.  No need to be chatty! No need to make anyone else tea! No need to hear about other people’s gastroenteritis or sympathise when their goldfish has the measles!

The downside: There’s no one to talk to. There’s no one to moan to when work isn’t going well, because no one else knows what’s going on inside your head. It can be a very lonely job. You may be tempted to get yourself a pet for some ‘company’, but trust me, you don’t want to start talking to them TOO much, or asking them how they like their tea or where they want to go for the Christmas do. And while colleagues can be annoying, they don’t usually sneak under your desk and try to lap your tea from the mug (except for that one time).

4.You can do what you love all day

This is probably the best thing about freelancing. You can spend all your time working on what you care about. Even during the hardest edits, I’ve never yet woken up and not wanted to write. No need to clock-watch as you fill in spreadsheets or give thoughtful consideration to the level of dpi on an image.

The downside: You feel you have to be working all the time. I work ten-hour days most of the time to fit everything in, and I still feel guilty when I’m not writing. The other week I ‘treated’ myself by stopping work at four p.m., and I still felt horribly indulgent. That’s not to complain, as I love doing it, but when you say it’s a full-time job it doesn’t mean 9-5, Monday to Friday. It means ALL THE TIME. I even dream about my plots.

5.Your house is your office

Remember in the film of ‘One Day’, where Emma sat at her beautifully arranged desk being pensive and tapping a perfectly sharpened pencil from her jar of many? Imagine surrounding yourself with soft lighting, the music you choose, the bunch of fresh flowers, the drawer of Mont-Blanc pens. No more ugly filing cabinets, uncomfortable desk-chairs, or angle-poise lamps. Because your home is not just your castle, but your workplace. And sometimes you can get an extra room as a tax write-off. Result!

The downside: your office is your house. Try getting inspired when you have to move aside stacks of newspapers, dog treats, dirty dishes, and unironed clothes. And even if you go all Virginia Woolf and get a room of your own, chances are it’ll be cramped and used to store the futon for when Aunty Mary comes to stay, as well as your significant other’s collection of Pigeon Fancier magazine and some never-used free weights. And you just know said significant other will also want to ‘work from home’, ie standing over you shouting into their phone, or leaving their running shoes on your desk.

Oh, and you have to clean it yourself.

6.You have flexible working hours

Fancy taking the day off to wander round a museum, visit a friend, or just sit in a café and drink lattes? Well, you can. Your time is your own and no one’s going to make you feel guilty for doing with it what you wish.

The downside: You can do all this as long as you also work till 3am some nights, plus evenings and weekends. See point 4 about feeling guilty for having days off. Oh, and no bank holidays, sick leave, maternity pay, or any other kind of leave. So if you happen to be ill, pregnant, caring for someone, or adopting, tough cheese. You can stop work when you’re DEAD, chum.

7.There’s no dress code

Think of the money I’ll be saving this year by not buying nice clothes. My saving on tights expenditure will be enough for a nice holiday in the sun, and I won’t have to wear high heels more than once a month.

The downside: you’ll lose all appearance of personal style, hygiene, or sanity. It’s not pretty, but some days I get up and think: ‘should I put on something nice? Nah, I’m not leaving the house. Holey jeans and muddy fleece it is.’ As I also have a small naughty dog, if I put on something nice it’ll be 4.5 nanoseconds before he jumps on me with muddy paws/hair/slobber.  Sometimes when people come with deliveries I have to explain my dishevelment by pretending I’ve just been in a freak clothes shredding/mud storm incident.

8.Your office, your rules

Goodbye, dusty catering packs of Tetley. Hello, finest leaf tea of China. Farewell, writing your name on the lids of out-of-date tubs of marg filled with other people’s lunch-crumbs. Greetings, home-baked macaroons that I don’t have to share with anyone else (unless the dog licks them).  Want music? It’s up to you. Want the heating on? Up to you. Want to work in the nip and parade about declaiming Tennyson? Your call, but maybe check the neighbours are out first.The downside: you have to buy all the tea and milk and cups yourself, and if you run out of cake, there’s no one to blame. Also, you don’t get a pension. Oh dear. I’d forgotten to worry about that one.

9.Your commute takes three seconds (four if your stairs are steep)

No more battling onto delayed trains, standing on snowy platforms for hours with no information. No more elbows in your side, no more altercations with people who think their large bag has more right a seat than you. No more listening to the tinny R&B emanating from other people’s iPods, as they risk permanent inner-ear damage. No more breathing in cold germs or touching the Tube hand-rail after the sweaty greasy man’s been holding it.

The downside: the aforementioned issues with working-hour creep are exacerbated by working in your own house. It’s really, really hard to switch off most days. And there are a looooot of distractions at home. Such as – wouldn’t now be a great time to put up all the Christmas lights (in October)? I cannot write my book until I’ve taught the dog to tap out the greatest hits of the Beach Boys with his paws! Or – I think I better sort out my taxes. Oh, wait. I’d never be bored enough to want to do that (which is another issue). And never moving from your desk means the bones in your spine start to fuse. Goodbye cardio-vascular fitness; hello, lifetime of pain. And you can’t even blame it on your office’s ‘health and safety’ rep. Because in case you’ve forgotten, that’s you.


10.You don’t have any colleagues

Colleagues can be lovely. I have some lifelong friends made toiling side by side for the greater good. But as Sartre said, Hell is other people, and your colleagues are other people who are always bloody there. Listening to your phone calls, peering over your shoulder when you’re trying to have a quiet game of Solitaire, microwaving broccoli in the communal kitchen and always using your margarine even though you wrote your name on the lid, damnit!

The downside: It can be a wee bit lonely and crazy-making working alone all day. Probably why so many writers are a bit mad, addicted to Twitter, and cling to each other like Rose to that raft at the end of Titanic.

Happy freelancing everyone! We don’t have to worry about our pensions and benefits because we don’t have any! WOOO!

The Slow Train

When is it good to write slowly?

I’ve talked about NaNoWriMo a few times on here. This is because I do think it’s really valuable to let go of your inner editor and write like the wind. Especially if you need to start – or finish – your first book, I highly recommend this technique for getting past the blocks we all have. You know, the voices that say, this is no good, I don’t know where the plot is going, and I can’t even write.

When it comes to writing, though, you can make up however many rules you like, but the opposite will always be true, too. The only rule that really matters is this: do what works for you. And make sure it’s good. Maybe that’s two rules (see what I mean?). This week I’ve been thinking the opposite of my usual approach (ie write first, ask questions later). What about a spot of planning? What about some slow, ponderous thinking? Why not actual consider character, setting, and theme in advance? So, after all my talk of writing fast and not worrying about what you’re doing, when is it good to write slowly?

I signed up to do NaNoWriMo this year out of curiosity more than anything else – I liked the idea, and the collaborative and supportive atmosphere. I’ve no intention of actually writing 50,000 words this month. It’s just not the right time. Because having followed my own maxim, I’ve done the writing and now (sadly) it’s time to ask the questions. I have several things in need of editing and to write something else would actually be laziness (the edits being the truly hard part) and procrastination. Instead I’m doing a few hundred words a day of something very new, a large and ambitious idea. It’s nice to have no pressure of deadline, either from myself or others, and very soothing after bashing away at edits not to worry about where it’s going or what on earth’s going on. Writing as relaxation, in a way. I’ve found even my style is different this way– longer sentences, more description, less dialogue than usual. Slow fiction. Yes, there are lots of times when it’s good to write slowly.

So if you’re finding a novel in a month just isn’t working for you, don’t worry. Maybe you’re in a slow period. Maybe it would be better to spend the time thinking, or planning, or just staring into space with a furrowed brow.  So don’t worry about ‘winning’ (Is it just me or this kind of childish anyway, like giving every child in the class a prize? Be proud of finishing by all means, be hugely and deservedly proud, but writing’s not about ‘winning’.**) And hey, if you feel like doing the headlong-rush approach, there’s always next month. And the next.


**Unless it’s winning a highly lucrative and prestigious literary contest. Please.

Pre-publication Paranoia

As a soon-to-be-published writer, people often ask me: what’s it like waiting for your book to come out?

Actually, that’s not true at all. No one often asks me anything, and never this. But people do ask, ‘When’s the book coming out?’, and when I say February, they say, ‘Oh, you must be excited’. To this I usually smile and reply, ‘Oh yes, very excited.’ But recently, if you look closely, my smile has been more of a rictus of terror. Put simply, I have pre-publication paranoia.

I could never have imagined what this was like before I had a deal. I’d have thought every day waiting to be published was just one step closer to nirvana. But as I’ve said before, you can get used to anything, and during the waiting time, doubts do creep in.

Pre-publication paranoia can take the following forms:

It’s too late to fix anything that’s wrong with the book. Any mistakes or errors are there for good. What is someone writes in to tell me I’ve got something wrong?

What if no one likes the book? Soon, people who haven’t given birth to me are going to be reading it – what if it gets bad reviews?

What if it gets no reviews at all? What if literally no one buys it? I can get my head round people who know me taking a punt, but I still find it very hard to imagine a complete stranger picking the book up in a shop.

OK, so what if it does well and everything’s fine but no one likes my next book? What if I never get another deal? What if I have to get a job in Starbucks? I’d smell of coffee all the time, and I really hate coffee. Maybe I should get a job in Tesco’s instead….(this stream of worry can go on for a while).

Other people have books coming out next year too (I know, how rude of them). They have nice covers and fun blurbs and things. What if their books are way more successful than mine? What if they win prizes and get film deals? What if it’s made into a film starring Ryan Gosling and it gets nominated for an Oscar and they get to go to the Oscars with Ryan Gosling? Obviously, it would be nice to be a big enough person to feel nothing but serene well-wishes towards all the bestselling Oscar-nominated Ryan Gosling-meeting authors out there. But screw it, I’m only human.

In short, it’s easy to slip into a swirling mass of paranoia and doubt. If you’re not careful you may find yourself clutching the bottle of washing-up liquid and shouting, ‘The Oscar should have been mine; damn you, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences!’ I don’t know if it’s always like this, if even the most famous authors suffer from worry, or if it’s just the peculiar state of the first-time writer – working as a professional author but not yet with any public profile to bolster you in times of doubt. Hopefully I’ll find out soon. In the meantime I have nothing but admiration for all the other writers coping with the worry and doubt and new people getting deals every year – they are nothing but kind and welcoming. I think perhaps I still don’t fully believe it’s going to happen – maybe I won’t until I see my book in a shop, or until someone I don’t know reads it and gets in touch. Less than three months to go now. Perhaps then I’ll feel like a real writer, and approach publication day with nothing but a casual shrug. ‘Oh, yes, I have another book out. I’d get excited if only I could look up from my champagne and caviar. Ryan, please fetch the ice-bucket.’