The hustle

I wasn’t going to mention money in last week’s blog. The bit about losing out on the cash for the cancelled game project? That was a last-minute addition. I put it in because to not do so seemed both dishonest and to ignore my immense good fortune. To some people, losing out on a substantial chunk of earnings would have a massive impact on their lives – indeed, one of my would-have-been colleagues has been hit that way. I personally never had the cash down on my mental balance-sheet because privilege.

My main job, financially, is 20 hours a week as a library assistant, a job I enjoy and which keeps me in the worlds of books and people. That’s my day job; that’s my main earner. I also work as a freelance editor. This work comes and goes and is hard to rely on as an income stream, but I’ve been averaging £4-5k for the last few years: a useful sideline. Those jobs together take up most of my time and (sort of; see below) keep my head above water.

What doesn’t earn me money is creative writing. My novel-writing – the thing I’m really here to talk about – has earned me a grand total of precisely £2k. That’s £1k as an advance for each of my professionally published novels. I’m not sure if I should say that that £2k is over four years (since I was first published in 2018), or over 14 years (since I started writing seriously) or over the course of my whole life. All are true, all are accurate. From that perspective you’re backing a loser here, folks.

New Gods, my self-published novel, still hasn’t earned out the cost of its cover.

I’m not saying this to complain. I am happy with life. I am still producing good stuff here, writing I believe in. But, financially, the hierarchy is clear: day-job, sideline, then writing last of all. It’s clear that, if money was my main motivation, I should try and either get more hours in the library, expand my editorial business, or get another side-hustle – like the writing for computer games biz.

Clearly, money is not my main motivation.

And this is where my good fortune comes in. Because I can afford to make that choice. I can afford to be not heartbroken when a gig falls flat. I can always rely on having a roof over my head. Why? Because I married well.

Now I hope it goes without saying that I married for love. My wife is, in all ways, best. It just so happens that she has a proper job. She earns decently. She pays the bills and I do more moderate things like cover the groceries.

I am a lucky man though, like all lucky people, I sometimes forget this and feel undeserving pride in my own achievements.

A lot of people aren’t as lucky as me, can’t roll off a paying gig with the sort of ‘easy come, easy go’ attitude I can. A lot of people can’t make time to write for themselves because they’re so busy trying to keep their financial heads above water. And that’s a tragedy.

I hope you’re fortunate enough to be able to put your heart and soul into something you really care about. Just be aware that, if you’re a writer, the odds are that you won’t be able to make a living from your words; certainly not at first and maybe not ever. Keep your day-jobs. Cultivate your side-hustles. Write because you love it, because of all those wonderful stories you have to share with the world.

As for me? Another edit has arrived on my desk, and I am both yearning to get my teeth into it and cursing because of imposter syndrome it means that Breathing Fire gets delayed again.

Someday I will learn to say no to work, to prioritise my own writing; maybe when I start to earn from it, when I have deadlines for my own work. I will only be able to do that because I have financial security.

Without leaning even further on friends and family, the dream of being a professional author remains just that: a dream.

Turn left

Things have changed, and the change, as such things often do, happened quickly. Last Thursday I was a moderately unsuccessful writer, a wannabee, a striver with a nearly completed second trilogy I’ve been struggling to place, and a freelance editor. Then, come a series of DMs on Friday, I find myself as a (paid) writer on a computer game.

How did this happen? I guess it comes down to ‘friend of a friend’ thing. Or networking. Or being, to some extent not for me to judge, ‘nice’. Put another way, I got lucky.

What does this mean? Well, that’s a little more complex – I don’t really know. In simple terms it means that I have to combine a new job alongside my existing part-time employment, my editing, and my childcare duties and general familyship. I’d also like to keep a little time for working on my own projects, but we’ll have to see how it all breaks down. Basically I’ll be writing to order, composing text on someone else’s outline and characters.

But I had to accept the invitation. Not just for money – in fact, money was one of the least considerations, so long as I’m not being exploited or doing other writers out of their fair share – but for my own ambitions. It’s a new opportunity – a chance to learn, to experience a new form and field of writing.

When I was a teenager, besotted by all things Games Workshop, it was my deepest dream to be a games designer. This is not that job. But it’s the closest I’ve come, writing dialogue and helping shape plot on what will hopefully be a not inconsiderable commercial release. It’s a chance for me to trial the field, see if it’s something I want to delve deeper into.

It’s also my first real experience of team-writing; of being part of a group all trying to be heard and to shape the narrative together. How can I turn down the chance to test these waters and see if it’s for me?

Part of me feels like I’m betraying myself, and betraying you, dear readers. This might wipe out my own ego-driven ideals and ambitions and ultimately – for a year, at least – halt my attempts to get a release with my name on it. That’s still what I really want.

I’m still me. I’m still going to be doing my best to get this blog out each week – hopefully finding interesting things to say (no promises). But today feels a little different. Like I have, in fact, been changed by circumstance; hard to quantify the qualia but it’s there, like it never was when I became a published author. Then I was just another jobbing author whose primary emotion was disbelief that anyone could take a chance on me. Now I feel like all the certainties have been washed away.

The job won’t start in earnest for a few weeks, so for now it’s time to finish up on the deadlines and try, try, try to get Breathing Fire at least within spitting distance of completion.

it’s down to me to make sure I’m not taking on too much, that I still have time for my family, that I don’t ignore my own writing brand on the journey.

However things go I’ll do my best to keep you posted, my wonderful friends.

Getting into editing for fun and profit

red pen

I’ve been doing commercial editing work for a few years now. Mostly it’s been sporadic, just a few clients a year. Recently, however, I got a Big Score: I’ve been added to the approved copyeditors list of a significant name in the SFF field.

And it occurred to me: maybe you’d like to know how I did it? Not that I’m exactly sure myself, but if you’ve ever had the urge to go down this road, here’s my idiot’s guide (because I’m an idiot) to getting a toe into the editorial world:

  1. Get good at writing. Of course you’re all way along this step already. You’re reading this blog for a start, which suggests you’ve an interest in writing. That’s good. Keep it up. Read much, write much, practice, grow.You DO NOT need to know every single grammar term. You don’t need to have read English at university. Knowledge always helps – grammar-language is a shortcut for those in the know – but I struggle with anything beyond nouns. It’s not essential.  Similarly, most editing work these days is done with Track Changes on MS Word. You don’t need to know all the proofreading symbols, though they are fun.
  2. Join a writing group. Not only will this help with Point 1 but it’ll help you get used to taking and giving critiques. Start with critiques of manageable length and with giving feedback pitched at the level (and confidence) of the writer.
  3. Give full manuscript critiques. I did a lot – over a dozen – as part of a group who did reciprocal feedback – I’d read theirs, they’d read mine. Practice. Get used to going through a manuscript and seeing what strikes you as wrong and what works well. And listen to other people’s critiques too.
    If you can’t find people to exchange views with, look online. There’s always people looking for beta-readers.
  4. Be poor. I needed a way to monetise my skills, and, as these are limited, I was looking for a way to turn words into cash.
  5. Find a mentor. This isn’t essential but it does help. My writers’ group contained a retired proofreader who very generously offered to act as my guide. In practice I didn’t ask much of her, but she did put me in touch with my first paying customer, which is always a bonus.
  6. Find advice. Search Twitter for editors. Ask them for help. I was very lucky to stumble upon Dan Coxon of Momus Editorial; he gave me the names of two key reference works and was generally kind and encouraging. People – me included, though I’m mostly a doofus – are kind and will help if they can.
  7. Learn the differences between different kinds of editing. There are a lot of different terms – structural edit, proof-editing, developmental edit and so on – but the two main types are proofreading and copy-editing. See this guide for details, but bear in mind that each website you search will tell you something slightly different. Trust nobody! Especially not me!
  8. Do a course. Having decided that I wanted to go down this road, I decided to pay for membership of SfEP and to do their ‘Proofreading 1’ course. I’m not sure if it was entirely worth it – it was a little basic and I’ve not made much use of SfEP’s other services – but there are courses out there if you’re interested. At the very least it may give you some confidence and allows you to flash this handy logo sfep-badge-[entry-level-member]-normalat prospective clients. And there’s a pricing-guide to tell you how much to charge and fora upon which to ask questions.
  9. Be nice. Assuming you have a social media presence, use it for good, not evil. If you’ve been to one (or both) of my book signings you’ll know of my story: that the aforementioned Dan Coxon ended up proofreading Night Shift. Good relationships with people in the industry – built over months, not minutes – will eventually bring opportunities
  10. Advertise. Create a webpage or add a page to an existing blog. Get business cards (I didn’t do this until the night before Sledge-Lit and missed off half the necessary information) and look for conventions at which to hand them out.
  11. Email publishers. And this, folks, is how I got my business. I simply cold-called publishers until I got a break.What swung it was my knowledge of genre-fiction, and the fact that the publisher in question was kinda desperate. But until these people have heard of you there’s no way they can give you a chance.

There’s more, of course. There always is. You might be asked to do a test or trial, possibly for little or no money. I was lucky enough to get paid for my debut proofreading, upon which I was so anal that I was immediately shunted into the ‘copyeditors’ file.

literally

And this is only my experience. I’m sure there are many other ways of getting into the editorial field that I’m almost totally ignorant of.

But I can only speak for my experiences.

If you’re thinking of getting into proofreading or copyediting, it’s only fair that I give you a few harsh truths before we part. Because it’s not the land of milk and honey that you may be thinking:

    1. You will not get rich. Publishers, especially the smaller ones who are more likely to take you on, count every penny. You may well be paid by the job rather than by the hour. My first job for a publisher (as opposed to dealing with the author directly) saw me work for around £5.30 per hour – way below minimum wage and certainly not enough to live on.
    2. You will have to work to deadlines.
    3. You will be a freelancer. You will not have a pension, holiday or sick-pay. You will have periods where you have too much work and – more likely – you’ll have periods where you have nothing on at all.
    4. This means that you will, at least at first, need another source on income. You also have to be ready to put your real life on hold. You may have to work evenings and weekends to get things done.
    5. You will need to have a few basic business competencies: time management, producing invoices, keeping accounts and so on.
    6. You’ll also need to register as self-employed with the government and be prepared to pay tax on your earnings.

 

This is a lot of info and I’m sure I’ve left reams out. And, I stress again, this is a story of how I did it; it’s not the only way, and I very much doubt it’s the best way. Hopefully it will give you at least a rough idea of how to go about it. If you have any questions I’ll do my very best to answer them.

I’ve been lucky. I look around and see where I am and I blink in astonishment.

This is a low

I am tremendously lucky. I’ve got it so easy. My fiancée works full-time and pays the rent and the tax whilst I work half her hours and get to write in the gaps. My parents are writers and provide free proofreading services. I’m friends with writers and I can turn to them in hours of creative need.

I’m very lucky. And what it means is that I feel a real pressure to achieve. Because I know I should be spending time looking for better jobs and sending off applications. I have a future to think about, a wedding to plan. There are so many more things to do than write; things more important, more worthwhile. And I waste them doing this damn hobby of mine.

I like writing. I love those precious moments when you get in the zone and there’s no effort, the words just pour onto the page. I like the intellectual challenges where most of the work is done pacing up and down, deciding which leg of the trousers of time you’re going to push your protagonist down.  Somebody shoot me but I even like the editing, going over the same old piece for the umpteenth time.

But how long can I keep doing this for? I mean, it’s not as if one day my ship will come in and I’ll get a six-figure publishing deal. Unless I’m astonishingly lucky I’m going to be raking in pennies, just a little pin money for the end of the month. The most I can hope for (dreams are different) is to make enough to make my total earnings up to full-time equivalent. Why not just skip the writing altogether and try that ‘career’ thing?

Or, alternatively, why don’t I self-publish now? I’ve got product, I’m clued up enough to do a bit of computer-based promotion. If I’m only ever going to get pennies, why not get them now? I seriously wonder if part of the self-publishing boom isn’t generated by an increased awareness of how the publishing industry works. People are less willing to take all the time and effort in getting first an agent and then a deal when they know that it’s almost a closed industry, what with all these celebrities releasing novels. No room for the rest of us. So why not just get those pennies and squeeze out a novel a year?

Isn’t it time I grew up? I want a family, I want to live comfortably and repay my debts to family and friends. I’ve been living this semi-respectable, semi-bohemian lifestyle for over ten years now. Isn’t it time I got my act together and picked up on one of those ‘future’ things?

But I live writing and I want my work to be read by as many people as possible. That’s my ego right there. And I think my ego is best served by taking the traditional publishing route. And I love what I do enough to keep me going every day, despite the uncertainty of the future and despite the doubts about my ability.

Damn it, though, real life can’t be put off forever.