Thursday, March 16, 2006

Taking the Plunge

Most professional writers start off squeezing in writing time around full-time jobs, and take the plunge to full or part-time writing once they get a break. Some people go the whole hog and work full-time right away, others work part-time initially and then gradually, as the work comes in, go full-time. There are numerous different motivating factors in making the decision to depend on income from writing, wholly or partly, but the common factor is that they are all risky. You might give it all up on the basis of that big-break, but you might never get the next break.
When I left university, I spent about a year constantly moving around and doing various temp jobs with small periods of unemployment in between. Writing was impossible in those conditions, because the circumstances were so unsettling and for a lot of the time I was literally living out of boxes or suitcases, with my temperamental but beloved laptop in storage or packed away beyond reach. Finally settled in one place, I took on a full-time job out of necessity - rent and bills needed paying, and writing wasn't going to do that. The idea was that I would do the job for a year, pay off the crippling debts getting an education in the UK incurs, enjoy the financial stability that a full-time job would give me and put aside time to write that I couldn't do before. The job had nothing to do with scriptwriting but it was an incredibly creative environment with interesting people who were knowledgeable about all things cultural, and I loved it. The problem was, the longer I was there the more responsibility I took on and as staff left, I gradually become the person that other people assumed knew all the answers, even if I didn't. Exciting though it was, it was also an very badly managed organisation with low morale among staff. What seemed on paper a fairly routine job soon became demanding and emotionally draining. My writing was sporadic and as much as I enjoyed the job, I wasn't happy wasting my expensive education and, more importantly, putting aside my creative aspirations. I thought about leaving many times until, eventually, the stress of the job combined with a sustained and overwhelming personal turmoil was the trigger I needed. I spontaneously handed in my notice without having any other job to go to, something that goes against just about every fibre of my being. I'm a cautious one!

Thankfully, I had been 'moonlighting' as a script reader for a while and having a direct, paid involvement in scriptwriting again gave me direction. I found a new part-time job and took on more script reading work which I did, and still do, from home. The couple of days I have working from home cuts out commuting time which has become writing time. There's financial pressure of course, as although I made a point of finding a part-time job that paid more, pro-rata than my previous full time job, script reading doesn't pay that much and I have to read a lot to make ends meet. Still, the time that working from home has freed up has been worth it in terms of my overall wellbeing, because I'm just happier when I'm writing, however little.

So, leaving a 'proper' job in favor of writing or script reading is a huge risk. Even though my decision was impulsive, it was something I had been quietly considering, and, true to my cautious ways, had set myself certain targets I needed to achieve before doing so. In the end I knew that for me setting these targets was just another way of putting off something I really wanted to do, because it was scary, so I'm glad certain circumstances collided to give me the kick up the arse I needed to move on. I haven't looked back and even though it is difficult always being broke, I wouldn't change a thing. I've learned some valuable lessons through trial and error and these are my tips to anyone about to, or thinking about taking the plunge to freelance work:

1) Consult your spouse/significant other. Their support is invaluable and if your income or lack thereof affects their life it will put a huge strain on the relationship.

2) If you want to work freelance full-time and have the means to, do it. Only take on part-time work if you need it to make ends meet. 2 or 3 days a week in a job you are not passionate about, when you have another job you are intensely passionate about, will soon become a horrible endurance test, and 2 days can feel like 5 if you want to be somewhere else doing something else. If you lack commitment to your part-time job, you may find yourself day-dreaming a lot about your freelance projects, and using the internet to look up things relevant to your freelance job when you should be working. In no way, whatsoever, not even a tiny wee bit does this apply to me and my part-time job. Absolutely not.

3) Have a good long think about what motivates you, when you work best, what factors you need in place to be able to work. If you need a quiet space where you are left undisturbed for hours, a conversation with the aforementioned spouse/significant other is needed, especially if there are other issues such as childcare to consider. If you work best in the afternoon, and need a part-time job, think about doing the 'proper' job in the mornings. Or use the mornings for researching or planning out work for the afternoon, whatever. Just find a routine that works for you and stick to it.

4) It's an obvious one, but contact the tax man. He gets cross if you are self-employed for more than two months (I think its 2 months, maybe less) and don't tell him. He doesn't like to be left in the dark and he punishes you by charging you money you most certainly won't have, just for ignoring him. The tax man also likes paperwork. Make sure you give him all the paperwork he demands, when he demands it. If not, again, you will be punished.

Those are my pearls of wisdom. And now, I have a rather inviting looking bottle of wine in the fridge, the PC to myself for the rest of the evening and at least two hours before I'm overcome with fatigue so I'm going to put it to good use by doing some writing.

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