Making the transition to full-time writing. Planning and pitfalls.
Let’s suppose you’ve sold your writing consistently for a while, and you really want to take the plunge and become a full-time writer. Most importantly, you need to get out of that horrible situation your friends insist on calling your ‘real’ job. What do you need to organize?
More than you think—unless you’re independently wealthy you’ll setting up a writing business, and you must be ruthlessly businesslike while you do it. While the precise requirements will vary depending on the type of writing you intend to pursue, and especially on your financial and family circumstances, there are some common threads.
One way or another, your finances are going to change forever. There are some precautions you can take to make life easier. Since you won’t have a regular income, it will become much more difficult to engage in rentals, hire purchase and the like. You’ll also have problems if you want to arrange credit card relationships. So, while you’re still an employee, set these things up. Bear in mind, for example, that your main working tool is a computer—it may be quite an advantage to rent or lease one rather than buy it outright, because it can be upgraded through the rental agreement without significant amounts of money leaving your account.
The hardest part of the transition to full-time writing, of course, is to actually make the decision, and it’s a decision which must be discussed with your family. They and your friends will probably have already decided you’re crazy, weird, or at least strange—because you are a writer, and writers are by definition rather odd people. Most likely you’ll need to lead the family discussion away from their predictions of disaster and the stupidity of throwing away the secure job, towards the practicalities of the change which will take place. Whatever your income and family circumstances may be, the important thing is to prepare for the discussion by considering the issues from the perspective of each person, and to be ready with some rational and cool-headed replies. They have to understand and accept that there’ll be some significant life-style changes as a result of your actions.
Having—we hope—sorted out the family emotions, you can move onto to the nuts and bolts changes. The first, and in many ways the most important, is to establish your working environment. You must want to go and work at your business, and for various reasons it may well be that your previously-chosen part-time writing environment doesn’t fill the bill any more. Remember, you’re going to be in ‘the office’ for very much longer as a full-time writer. Ideally, you’ll have a room set aside. The reasons for such a separate room are simple, but perhaps not obvious:
Firstly, you need to separate yourself from whatever’s happening in the home—a psychological as much as a practical requirement. The family need to understand that, as a writer, they should take the view that you’re almost as much out of reach as you were when you were working in the old job. To put it another way, your proximity doesn’t mean you’re continuously on hand to kiss bumped heads or wipe noses and bottoms. Writers are a group who work in their heads, and interruptions don’t fit in with deep thought.
The second reason for a separate room is that most likely you’re going to need the space. Just how much space you’ll need relates directly to the kind of writing you’ll be doing, but at a minimum you’ll need an area large enough to take a table for your word processor, a chair, and another table for current documents, pictures, maps—whatever. You’ll also need space for at least one filing cabinet, and shelves for reference books. If you prepare articles for magazines or are into journalism, there’s rather more clutter. In the same way as you don’t need the family interfering with your work, the family doesn’t want your work as part of their furniture.
Your computer may be rather more than just a word processor, and accessories might take up space, too. You’ll at least need a space for a printer, and a place to store consumables—toner, paper and the like. If you work with pictures your office equipment may extend to an image scanner. Whatever you do with your computer, be absolutely sure your software isn’t pirated.
It’s best for a journalist to arrange a separate telephone and line, with fax and internet facilities. If you don’t think an additional line is required, imagine how you’ll feel if you start to email an article to a publisher to meet a deadline and your teenage daughter picks up the other telephone on the same line two seconds before the end of the transmission to talk to her beau. And imagine how she’s going to feel when you’re doing research work using the internet while she’s worried about the possibility of a call from someone really important. An option is to keep the one telephone line and invest in a broadband link, which allows simultaneous voice and data communications.
When your work area is established, you need to establish yourself—to develop a routine. You have no supervisor other than your own conscience. Remember, you are the final arbiter of your success. The rules are simple:
The number one rule is—always have several projects running at the same time—you can’t afford not to be busy, and neither can you be cliff-hanging, waiting for approval from a publisher on your only current work.
Rule two is—give yourself a break. Every couple of hours. Pat the dog, put the washing in, vacuum the carpets, take a walk. Doing minor odd jobs around the house is also a method of dealing with writer’s block—the chores allow your mind to wander while you wander. Solitary work can be very tiring. Try working with a radio playing for company you’ll keep up with current events and may get some good ideas or breaks.
Rule three is—avoid creative avoidance. There’ll be times when you hate yourself, when you’ll do absolutely anything to keep out of that office. Work on at least one of your projects every day. It’s simply a question of starting ...
Businesses need organization and yours is no different. Keep your accounts up to date daily. You don’t need a special accounting program or complicated books, but simply a clear record of purchases, income and expenses recovered, with a few notes of explanation for your accountant. Don’t take a shoe box filled with receipts to an accountant and expect them to be pleased at the prospect of sorting them out for you.
You’ll find your filing will soon get into a mess if you don’t clear it up once a week. The best filing system is the simplest. Try this one. It works well using either file cards or a computer database:
Identify each of say, one hundred, manila folders with the numbers from one to one hundred. Stack them in your filing cabinet in numerical order. When you want to file something, place it in one of the folders. Make a record of what you filed and the number of the folder, using the computer or the file card—you can cross-reference with as many cards or computer entries as you choose. You’ll be able to find anything quickly and, most importantly, you don’t have to remember anything and everything. If you longer need a document, you simply throw it away and use the manila folder again with a new card or computer entry.
Track your activities. Keep a business diary and a vehicle logbook. The two actually work together for you as a form of cross-referencing.
You’ll need insurance—you no longer have the protection of being an employee and may well have the potential threat of defamation if you’re involved in journalism. Talk to a broker about personal accident, liability, office equipment, transportable equipment, and fire and theft insurance. Beware. It’s expensive.
There’s another form of insurance too—buy the hardware and software to back up your work, and store the backups in a safe or away from your home, or preferably both. Data backups are soon out of date, so arrange some form of prompting to remind you to do them regularly. Don’t forget the insurance provided by a computer virus detection program. It’ll be inexpensive to buy and could save your business. It doesn’t matter what you do, eventually you will have a computer failure of one kind or another and lose your current data, email addresses and other important information.
You may need to advertise yourself. The simplest advertising is word of mouth, followed by using a business card. Develop a network of publishers and associated groups—perhaps a writer’s group. It’s possible to arrange free or nearly-free advertising over the internet—but if you set up a website keep it simple and professional. Try to get the protection of a union or writer’s organization.
There’s another issue too. Editors come and go—don’t rely on individual relationships. Always be on the lookout for new opportunities. A browse through a newsagent’s could make a big difference to your outlook. You need to be able to think laterally because when you become known, you don’t have any idea in which direction your next assignment might take you.
It’s most likely that if you’re considering becoming a full-time writer, you’ll be familiar with and confident about approaching editors in writing or by telephone, and that you’ll know how to present submissions and suggestions for articles and stories. One of the major reasons for a rejection is the wrong type of approach, or poor presentation of your work. No matter what else you do, remember that.
Two heads are often better than one in business. As well as an accountant and an insurance broker, consider making contact with a financial adviser—to manage your retirement fund if nothing else—and a solicitor. Many writers also link with a writing agent.
Finally, be prepared for the disappointment of rejection slips and for delays in publication and payment. You may believe that you’re finally your own boss, but in reality you’re the more or less willing slave of each of your publishers. If you have the resilience to understand that reality, then you’ll be happy and successful, the envy of your friends and hero of your family. The very people who decided you were crazy!