I’ve decided not to do an Arisia 2012 roundup. It was a great con, but not particularly literary, and I’ve already tweeted most of the coolest costumes and party shots. I did have one great panel on the future of science-fiction, which felt a lot like sitting around with a bunch of old friends and kibitzing about something we all knew and loved (the best con panels are always that way), but I’ll let that stand. I think it’s C.S. Lewis who advises you not to cling to tightly to the things that bring you joy.
A few people have asked me to blog about how I make full-time writing work financially, and I think that’s a really interesting topic. I won’t go into details on specific dollar amounts, but I think what I am doing could be scaled to fit anyone’s desired lifestyle. There are two things I want to point out before I get started:
- I have been a full time writer for only 9 months now. That’s not a long enough time to gauge whether or not this is working or will work long term.
- I am not comfortable with my current lifestyle. I accept it because I want to be a full-time writer really badly. I live in a run-down building in a somewhat unsafe neighborhood. My apartment is tiny. The building is noisy and reeks of marijuana. Kids occasionally deal in the stairwells. The hot water is intermittent and so is the elevator. My walls throb with my downstairs neighbor’s reggae well into the wee hours. I am convinced that the one reason I’m safe (so far) is because my whole bearing screams COP from 300 paces. People, totally unbidden by me, routinely call me “sir” or “officer.” While that’s technically true (Coast Guard are federal police), I sure as hell don’t have jurisdiction in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Now, I know this lifestyle is far, far better than a lot of folks out there. I have my own apartment. I have enough to eat. I have medical care. The vast majority of the world would look at that as the height of luxury. I try to be cognizant of that and constantly remind myself how lucky I am. But I’ll admit that I can’t help but compare my current life to how I used to live: in a well-appointed condo in one of DC’s hipper neighborhoods, with enough money to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, without a second thought.
But it’s absolutely worth it.
I’ve never been so happy in my life. The only thing that I am unhappy with is how much money I am making. Contrast that with my life before, when I was fine with money, and unhappy with everything else. I can figure out money, now that all the hard parts of the equation have fallen into place.
Here’s how it’s possible:
- I have completely downsized my life. I spend roughly a quarter of what I used to (I’ve calculated this) in a given year. I live in this neighborhood because of the price and the proximity of cheap shopping and a cheap gym. I don’t own a car. I have sold most of my belongings: no TV, no stereo. I don’t even own a real bed. I sleep on a jury-rigged futon, which is slowly destroying my back. When I go to cons, I always have a roommate, and frequently stay at hotels some distance from the actual con hotel, which have cheaper rates. I go everywhere by bus, even though it sometimes mean I’ve got a 9 hour ride awaiting me to get to con when it would be 3 hours by train or plane.
- I rigorously track expenditures. We’re talking down to the penny. I have a spreadsheet that goes by the week. Every dime I spend goes on there. I know exactly what my outlays are by the day.
- I saved money before I decided to go on this grand adventure. I was a GS-14 on the federal pay scale when I was still traditionally employed. The mercenary business (while I was in it) was obscenely well paid. I was single, had no children, and had a car that was paid for. I socked a lot of that money away and added to it when I went full-time by practically selling everything I owned. I am currently living on that nest egg. It’s enough for 3 years with NO income. But I have SOME income, so I might be able to go even longer. The goal here is to give myself enough time for the writing career to take off and become financially self-supporting. If the money runs out after that 3–5 years, then it’s time to admit defeat and get a job (or raise my hand and go on full-time active duty, which is what I’ll probably do).
- I have a budget, broken down by the week, based on the nest-egg I just described, and I stick to it. In fact, I usually beat it by a good margin each week. Whenever I beat it, that money goes into a virtual “reserve” (not an actual separate account) on which I draw for large business expenses (like hotel and transportation fees for going to conventions). The reserve is also the cushion against sudden, unanticipated expenses (my computer dies and I need a new one, etc …)
- The reserve. This is my saving grace. My commission in the reserve allows me to work part-time (one weekend a month, plus two weeks a year) and earn an income (how muchI make is publically available, I put on O3 in a couple of weeks or so) that isn’t enough to live on, but just about covers my rent for the year. More importantly? I have full coverage dental and medical insurance, the full-time artist’s holy grail, for a nominal cost. I always say that being in the reserve is tailor made for full-time artists, and I think everyone should consider joining. Not only does it have all those practical advantages, but it also gets me up out of my chair, allows me to contribute to the common good, and gives me stuff to write about. When I’m on active duty (mobilized), I make a full time salary that’s actually pretty good. I got off duty recently after I was activated to augment staff and respond to Hurricane Irene, and that stint of full-time work gave my bank account a much-needed boost.
- Sub-rights. So far, I have sold sub-rights for the SHADOW OPS series in the Czech Republic and the UK. We have an audiobook deal. SF Book Club is doing a special hardcover edition. A Hollywood agency has picked up the manuscript and is shopping it around. All of these things trickle in (or could trickle in) money (never enough and never quickly), and helps to extend that 3-year breaking point out into the future. Hopefully there will be more sub-rights deals coming. It helps that I have the greatest agent in the world all over that.
- Odd jobs. After years of being a fairly high-powered government official, it’s tough on my ego to scrape for odd jobs, but pride isn’t the path to success. When work is offered, I take it. I have friends in publishing who occasionally throw me work, ranging from low-end office tasks to more creative/challenging stuff. The work is infrequent and low-paying, but I always say “yes, thank you” when it comes my way. Most folks now know I was a “fighting extra” in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. That was grueling, horribly underpaid work that resulted in my getting physically injured daily for a week. The cool-factor of being in a Batman movie wasn’t remotely worth it. But I did it, and I asked the casting agency to keep me on file now that I was theatrically fight trained in case they ever wanted to use me again. The day may come when I can turn down freelance money, but today is not that day.
NOTE: I do NOT list royalties here. I have no expectation of the SHADOW OPS series ever earning out its advance. It would be great if it happened, but I do not plan on it. I consider the advance (and any sub-rights advances) to be the only money I’ll ever earn on SHADOW OPS. This is a.) realistic and b.) motivates me to produce new fiction that I can hopefully sell for another advance.
And that’s how I do it. We’ll see if it’s sustainable for the long haul. I realize that my method may not work for everyone, but I hope that people considering full-time writing can get some ideas here. People always tell you that writing is a financially fraught life, but folks rarely explain the down-in-the-weeds details of how they survive. I guess this is the blog post I would have liked to have read a few years back, when I was planning out how I’d make a go of it if I ever got a book deal.