From September 2013 to September 2014, I’ll be taking a year out from my dayjob in order to go freelance as a writer. This is a series of blogs tracking that, which (as long as I have things to say) I’ll be adding to every Friday. I had thought about doing this on the weekends, but there’s too much fiction to be written then.
Last time, I promised to come back and answer the question of why. Why do I want to try full time writing at all? I’ve been doing this semi-professionally for years now – I’m a professional hobbyist, I suppose – and I know how tough a life I’m aspiring to. The constant uncertainty about where your money is going to come from and what you can afford, the self-discipline that needs to be in place, the isolation and the rise and fall of motivation that comes with a lack of structure. Obviously, I know writers. Lots of them. Several are full-time freelancers. A lot more cling to their dayjobs with good reason.
I pointed you to this post by Gary McMahon last time. I know Gary mostly online, though we’ve met at a couple of conventions too. He’s a good guy, and a genuinely visionary horror writer (and one who, I hope, won’t mind my using him as a sort of counter-example). In the last five years or so he’s become a sought after author, with good reason. Unlike a lot of horror stuff, his stories can genuinely hollow out a reader. His prose is often beautiful, he embraces levels of darkness that a lot of storytellers stay clear of, and there’s a heart to his fiction that can be in turns inspiring and terrifying. You’ll often see reviewers citing this or that story that ‘transcends its genre’. Gary never does this. He’s rooted in horror even as he reinvents it. Gary’s writing can change your opinion of what horror fiction actually is, and what it can do. It celebrates the genre’s roots and history without apology, at the same time as it blows away all of your preconceptions about the genre’s limits.
As you can tell, I like Gary and his work. More than that, I admire him. His work ethic is something I aspire to, and on a creative level… I’d be envious, if there was any point. What Gary achieves artistically is simply beyond my grasp. To an extent, it’s also beyond my desire, but more on that in a minute. His sales? Whether he feels prolific when alone with his writing is a moot point – to anybody outside looking in he certainly looks prolific. The short story anthologies that I buy (good ones, basically) more often seem to have a new story from Gary than not. In the last few years he’s had two novels and a collection published featuring his character Thomas Usher, three more novels published to make up his Concrete Grove trilogy, and as I say his stories crop up regularly in the best possible places (including in standalone collections from some excellent publishers).
I’m not jealous of Gary’s sales. He’s got the skill, and does the work. It’s usually the case that the luckiest people in any given industry also happen to be the ones who are working harder than everyone else. That’s not a coincidence.
Yet for everything he has going for him, Gary no longer aspires to making his full time living as a writer. He’s got a family to support, and has no interest in taking the risks I described earlier. More than that, he has no interest in compromise. Gary’s writing is one of the ways in which he defines himself, and the thought of (say) writing a tie-in novel for a lucrative franchise instead of laying out the ideas that come purely from his own heart appalls him. He’s not making a judgement on other writers when he points that out. He’s just describing himself*.
It’s to do with definitions of success (there’s an excellent article about this in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s freelancing book). Gary’s definition of success doesn’t involve turning his passion into something that has to pay the bills. Gary’s definition of success, at least as I read it (feel free to comment if I’m wrong, Gary – I’m being horrifically presumptuous) involves the pursuit of something that money doesn’t touch. He’s an artist at core, and at present has little interest in the compromises that might lie in monetizing that. This is a good thing for readers, because nobody pursuing art above all else will ever produce something that satisfies their desire. That means that Gary will be unable to stop trying, which as a reader makes me very happy.
I’m not an artist. If I ever do anything remotely resembling art, it will be a pleasing by-product of other things.
That doesn’t meant that I don’t want to explore ideas, or that there are functional limits to what I want my stories to achieve. My own explorations as a writer take me all over the place – but I relate to the description ‘storyteller’ far more than I do ‘author’. I make stories, and when I do I want to escape into them. That escapism is something I want to share with you too. If you walk away from my story having left your troubles behind for a bit, I’ll be very happy indeed. Sure, we might look at some ideas together along the way (ideas can be pretty interesting, after all) but only when they serve the story.
When I was a kid, that’s what I wanted from books. I wanted to escape somewhere, see new things, explore new territories, and be lost for a little while. It’s taken me a long time to understand that, for me, that’s what writing is. It’s what I look for as a reader too – immersion. Stories. People and places that thrill me. Journeys. I can forgive a book for being shallow, if I’m having a blast as a reader (I can even, sometimes, forgive it for not making much sense if the ride is good enough or a particular character gets their claws into me). I can rarely forgive a story for being weak or a scene dull, regardless of what deeper things are happening.
I just want to tell stories, lose myself in them, and offer other people that escape too.
None of which answers the question of why I want to do this full time. Gary is pursuing art, and all the shades and layers that go with it. He may well have decided that the pursuit is something best served by keeping a dayjob to eliminate the stresses and concerns of how he’s going to live while he explores the things he’s really interested in. There’s a huge cultural pressure on writers to aspire to a full-time writing life. Even when a writer doesn’t judge their own success in financial or lifestyle terms, you can bet everybody they know will try to do so for them, and that’s a huge subconscious force. That Gary’s looked at those things and realised they’re irrelevant to what he wants to do is impressive, and very self-aware.
I don’t define success in the same way. When I think of what full time writing means, it’s an opportunity for immersion. Yours and mine.
It’s quite a broad remit, too. I’ve already found that my definition of success easily encompasses a broad range of fiction writing. Working with other people’s characters? Not a problem** – some of the short stories that have pleased me most in recent years are the ones I did for the character Iris Wildthyme. I have no issue with telling my stories and asking my questions (and immersing) through the worlds other people create as well as my own. That sort of thing is an unacceptable compromise for Gary, a distraction from what he’s about, but for me it’s an opportunity. It’s another story to tell, and a new place to immerse.
When I’m on my deathbed, what will I regret? Every writer should have a slightly different answer to that question (and it’s taken me this essay to work out mine, after nearly two decades of writing stories). For me, it will be that I didn’t lose myself in enough stories. That’s what drives me to what to spend more time at this – all my time. There are dozens, hundreds, thousands of worlds I can lose myself in if I only have the time. And it will never, ever be enough.
Good then, that’s the dream sorted. Escape to all the places. Open all the doors. Invite as many people along as I can. The practical side is necessarily more complicated. It interests me though, because it’s a constant problem. I like problems.
I’ve been asked whether I want to write full-time because I hate my dayjob. I don’t, at all, although sometimes my low boredom threshold makes things difficult. The times I really come into my own in the dayjob are when there are problems to be fixed. I respond well to that, even though it’s more stressful, and often seek those problems out to give myself something to keep me interested.
Running my own business, which is how I see freelance writing, appears to me to be a neverending series of problems that need solutions. I like that. It’s not the thing that motivates me to try freelancing (there are plenty of dayjobs that provide constant difficulties, but with the promise of a monthly salary), but it doesn’t scare me either. I look forward to those challenges, particularly because they mean I’ll finally be using those skills for my own benefit.
There you have it. Why I want to write full time, how I define success (note that riches and awards have nothing to do with it – I’m chasing neither), and why the practical aspects of freelancing intrigue rather than terrify me. Before I started writing this entry, I didn’t know the answers to those questions. Now that I do, has my desire to do this changed?
It has, actually. It’s gone through the roof. Bring on the stories.
So, what about you? What is it that makes you pursue the dream you have, and have you thought about what you mean when you say the word success? Let me know in the comments, if you’re willing to share.
*as should be obvious to all, I’m making increasingly extreme guesses about what drives Gary McMahon, mostly so that I have a counterpoint with which to look at what drives me. Don’t take these assumptions away with you – they’re made solely for the purposes of argument, extrapolated from a single paragraph on his blog. Do buy Gary’s books and see why they excite me so much. Obviously, the only person who knows what motivates Gary McMahon is Gary McMahon.
**not usually, anyway, though last year saw me collide with a project featuring other people’s characters that for some reason I couldn’t immerse myself in as a writer, even though I have done as a reader. I still don’t quite know what happened there.