“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then you gradually get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
Octavia E. Butler
On Friday afternoon I handed back my laptop and staff pass from my last (ever!?) Day Job. I’m writing this on my second day as an Officially Full-Time Freelance Writer. That still feels a bit weird to say! It’s been a long time in the making and the reality is still sinking in.
To understand what a big deal this is to me, you have to understand that it’s something I’ve wanted since I was 14 and wrote my first attempt at a screenplay (I later learned I am absolutely not a screenwriter, but that’s another story.)
As I’ve ramped up towards this endgame in the last few weeks, I’ve been asked a few times how I got here. So I thought I’d give you a quick rundown of the journey to making my living from words.
My favourite lessons at school were the ones where we got to make up stories. I don’t remember when I started writing for fun as well, but it was pretty early on. Before we got a computer at home, I used to borrow my grandad’s laptop as often as possible and add new chapters to an increasingly unruly saga about a toy horse that came to life at night.
Later, when we got a family computer and then eventually I got my own, words poured from my fingers. Bad stories, worse screenplays, cringeworthy teenage poetry, and even a few ill-advised attempts at songwriting.
I tell you this because you have to understand that I wrote a hell of a lot of absolute crap before I wrote anything good. Thankfully, most of those early efforts have vanished into the mists of time.
I went to University knowing I wanted to be a writer but knowing almost nothing about how to go about it. I got a Bachelors Degree in Creative Writing, then a Masters Degree, then started a PhD.
At some point, I realised there was virtually no money in fiction. If I waited to hit my big novel break, I might be waiting decades… and even then, it might not make enough to constitute a full-time income. Fiction will always be my first love, and I still write it and occasionally send it out into the world, but it’s not what pays the mortgage.
The first time I got paid for words I’d written, I was 26 and the pay was a tenner. But in some ways, that tenner changed everything. It indicated that someone thought I could write well enough to pay me for it.
A few tiny successes followed. I won a short story competition. Took on a few bits of editing work here and there. Got my first proper client in early 2019 (I still work for them now and I ❤️ them.) But, amazingly, it was during COVID-19 lockdown that this whole “writing for money” thing really took off.
When I learned that my fixed-term job contract wasn’t getting extended, my prospects were bleaker than they’d looked since I graduated into one of the worst job markets ever in 2012. With that in mind, I started wondering if – finally – the time had come to take the freelancing plunge.
I put myself out there. Applied for a regular editing gig and got it, which led to being put in charge of content management and ghostwriting for two six-figure businesses. Joined a networking group and got another regular writing job from that, plus some bits of ad-hoc work. People started recommending me to their friends and colleagues. Suddenly I wasn’t just saying I’d be a proper freelance writer one day – I was one!
While I still had my day job, I worked 60-70 hour weeks, often typing and typing and typing all weekend, turning off the computer some nights at 1 or 2 in the morning.
I suppose what I’m saying is that while it feels like this whole adventure went from very 0 to 60 in the last four months, becoming a freelance writer has actually been fifteen years in the making. Half my life, more or less. Countless hours. Millions of words.
And you know what? I’d do it all again in a second.