Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Time

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Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Time

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Of course. I’m starting the section on time late. Late in my writing day, late in the course of the Guide. I probably should have had this closer to the front. But as you can tell, I’m avoiding the topic.

Why am I avoiding the topic? Simple. When I write about time, I have to face what I’m doing here. And, if I were to look at this Guide in a 100% businesslike fashion, what I’m doing here is an extremely inefficient use of my time.

I’ve mentioned this before, but let me delineate it out. I write under deadline on many projects, most of which pay me half up front or right after I finish the project. When I do write on spec, I usually do so for people who buy my work 80 to 90 percent of the time. I do the rest of my spec work quickly, on breaks from other paying projects. So if you were to look a chart of my work year, divided by paying projects, possible paying projects and completely wild hair projects (what the romance writers call Books of the Heart), you would find that less than 5% of my time gets spent on projects that have no guaranteed payment.

So at the urging of my friends Michael Totten and Scott William Carter, I decided to add a donation button to this Guide. Honestly, the donation button has kept me posting. I’m getting just enough money and support to make this project worth an hour of my time every week. Of course, that means I’m donating 4 to 5 additional hours of my time, which means that for 2009, the percentage of my time devoted to projects with no guaranteed payment on that fictional chart has gone up to at least 10%, maybe more. (To be clear, that’s for the donated 4-5 hours per week, not for the paid-for hour.)

As I’ve mentioned before, I could have quit the moment I had three chapters and a viable proposal. That would have taken me to the end of April.

Had this been a novel, I wouldn’t complain quite as much. I’m known for writing novels. I haven’t been known as a non-fiction writer for twenty years. Plus, I’m posting on the web, which some publishers still consider to be an iffy proposition even though it has incredible benefits that I’ll get to in a moment.

So I’m taking a three-way risk, writing a spec project in a field in which I am no longer well known and then posting that project on the web in a chaotic publishing time.

But I mentioned other benefits, right? Yes, there are intangibles, which I’ve discussed before.  I also get e-mail comments about them.  So let me answer some question that came in via e-mail this week:

1. Do I plan to publish this as a book? Yes. My agent has the proposal now.

2. Will I publish a PDF version or an electronic version? Eventually. I need to know what rights the publisher (if there is one) will buy before I can make a firm commitment on what form such an electronic version would take.

3. Will people who donate get that electronic version as a bonus? If I manage to retain the e-book rights in any future publishing deal, then yes. But at the moment, there is no publishing deal, and I’m not sure what form any of this will take. I simply have good intentions.

Although, let me say here, formally and on the record, that there will be a book, even if no major publishing house takes the Guide. You’ve all shown me that there is a market for one, and the changing publishing technologies mean that if no outside publisher wants this thing, then I’ll publish it myself.

But—and this is an important but—that’s at least a year down the road. Right now, you get my website and the newly added Freelancer’s Survival Guide page.

You see, when I spend my time writing something, I want that something to see print. I’m a working writer—a professional writer—a person who makes a living from my writing.

That’s a really important distinction. A lot of people write for free or just because and dream of getting paid. I don’t dream. I have to get paid or I don’t eat. I’ve continued to learn my craft and the business side of this profession so that I can rightfully claim that I’ve been a full-time writer most of my adult life.

And yep, it can be a damn hard way to make a living.

You have to be vigilante about…your time.

Because that’s what any business boils down to. Time. I learned this quite young. I got paid by the hour (by the minute, really) at my very first long-term job as a waitress. That timeclock, with its time stamp, clocked in every single moment I was on the job. If I clocked in at 6:05 a.m. and clocked out at 1:55 p.m., I did not work eight hours. I worked seven hours and fifty minutes, and that’s what I got paid for.

I really learned the meaning of time when I worked in radio. Everything in broadcast news is measured in seconds. Years later, after I became a science fiction writer, a television interviewer pulled me aside and said in surprise, “You’re the first writer I’ve met who speaks in thirty-second sound bites.”

Gosh, guess where I learned that.

I also learned to watch the clock. If the news had to be on at seven, you couldn’t be five minutes late. It was seven or there would be the catastrophe of catastrophes—dead air.

Time isn’t just about deadlines. Time is about efficiency. You see, we’re only allowed so many hours on this earth. In fact, Clint Black has a great song about this phenomenon called “No Time To Kill,” which I’d quote to you if there weren’t copyright issues preventing it. Instead, check it out here (scroll down to the sample section).

No matter what we do, we don’t get additional hours. Our days are 24 hours long, no matter what. The week lasts for seven days, no matter how hard we try to change that.

We can shortchange other parts of our lives to get more time. We can sleep less, spend less time with friends, or give up things we love, but those are only short term solutions. If you do that for too long, you’ll blow. You’ll either get sick or have some kind of breakdown or (my explosion of choice) quit whatever it is that has taken all your time in a loud and dramatic fashion.

The best way to “gain” more time is to use what time you have more efficiently. There are a wide variety of ways to do that.

Here are some of the most common:

1. Work harder. Years ago, a friend of mine who manages an entire division in a corporation told me that corporations factor in worker downtime. In other words (and I’m making up the statistics here, being too lazy to look them up), corporations figure that for every hour an employee is at the job, he works only forty minutes. The rest of the time is spent on the phone or in the bathroom or gossiping with coworkers. So in an eight-hour day, a corporate employee probably only works 5.3 hours.

When you work for yourself, there’s no one to track your productivity. You can goof off until bedtime if you want—and newer at-home professionals often do. You think you have an entire day, and suddenly that entire day has gone by.

It’s especially easy these days to waste time and feel productive while doing so. Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, and surfing the web feel like writing work to me, but if I spend all day typing Tweets and long letters to friends, I’m not getting any paying work done. Yet I’ve been writing all day long.

This is why I have no internet access whatsoever in my office. I won’t even allow myself to bring my nifty new iPhone in here because that way lies inefficiency and financial death.

In fact, over the years, I’ve weeded all distractions out of my office, like games on my computer and other people’s fiction. Now if I want to waste time, I have to leave my office—a real clear sign that I’m not doing my job.

2. Work smarter.

This is the category that worries me with the Freelancer’s Guide. I can’t write it any faster than I do. So I hope, in the future, that all of this time I’m spending on the Guide will pay off in other rights sales, a real hardcopy book, and on and on.

But I’ve had some intangible results, ones that matter. More people than ever now come to my website, and many are unfamiliar with my fiction. I get several letters per week from folks who’ve read the Guide who are now going to pick up a novel that I’ve written. (I hope you enjoy it!) So I’m gaining an added benefit here, one I didn’t expect. I’m writing something that’s turning into a loss leader.

A loss leader, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, refers to something a business gives away or sells at a discount that will bring customers to the business. I did not expect the Guide to be a loss leader.

Nor, honestly, did I expect it to generate much money in the website form. I have stated that I’m doing this for people to read now because the recession is forcing a lot of people to go to work for themselves before they’re ready. I’m trying to help with that.

So when I started the Guide, I fully expected it to be a complete waste of time and money (for me). I looked at it the way I look at the volunteer work I’ve done: as something I’m giving back to the community, not as something that will bring me any benefits.

The fact that there are benefits surprises me immensely.

Let’s assume, however, that the Guide wasn’t an experiment for me. Let’s assume that it was something I had done before, like most of my fiction is. I would have done what most business call a cost-benefit analysis.

If I spend x time on this project, I should get y benefit from the project. Together x and y should equal or exceed z. If x and y together are less than z, then the project is not worth doing.

Let’s put this in more concrete terms. If I spend a week writing a short story, and receive $100 plus publication in a reputable magazine, is that worth my time? Not usually. Because if I spent one week writing and only get $100 for my work, then I’m earning $2.50 per hour, which is well under minimum wage. The less tangible benefits would have to be off the chart for me to work for that amount of money. Honestly, I can’t even think of what those off-the-chart benefits could possibly be for me to work so long for so little money.

One writer friend of mine, a long time professional, told me that if he wasn’t earning a minimum of $500 per day on his writing, he had a bad day. Imagine what his response would be if someone asked him to spend a week writing a $100 short story.

I have my own hourly number, under which I generally do not take a project. That hourly number includes the pain-in-the-ass tax we talked about in previous posts. In other words, I’ll work for some difficult clients but my fee is double or triple what it would be for other more easygoing folks.

I also factor in time. I’ll take a lower paying job than some writers because I’m a fast writer. I’ll finish a project four times faster than most writers because of my broadcast training. I get things done. What this means is—to keep with our example—if someone asks me for a short story and can only pay me $100, I’ll do a gut check. Does the story interest me? Yes. Do I want to be in that market? Yes. Can I write the story in an hour or two? If the answer to that final question is yes, then I’ll take the project.

Often, however, the lowest paying clients are the ones who demand the most work.

So you, the professional, must work smarter. You must factor in all of the benefits for each job, and then give a realistic estimate of your time. If the tangibles and the intangibles add up to something greater than it would appear at first glance, then take the project. But if they mean that you’d be short-changing yourself either in money or in time or in reputation, then turn the project down.

Here’s the flipside. I’ve turned down projects that seem—on the surface—to be high paying surefire winners. I’ve watched the writers who’ve taken those projects suffer and lose money.

What happened?

Usually the pain-in-the-ass factor. The project, that should have taken three months took three years. Three awful years of full manuscript revisions, four-hour conference calls which accomplished nothing, and a lot of wasted work. (Not to mention the hair-pulling agony of redoing a task over and over again for an unappreciative client.)

Nowadays, I can see these projects coming. I know which one will be a headache and which one won’t. I’ve been doing this, as I said, for more than twenty years.

But I learned how to see these projects clearly because I made the mistake of taking some of them. I’ve suffered through them, and learned my lesson. I’ve learned that it’s better to take the $5,000 project that requires two weeks of work than it is to take the $50,000 project that will suck two years from my life. You do the math. It’s really not that hard, when you think about it.

In order to work smarter, you need to know what you want from your business and/or from each project that you do. For example, I want several things from my business. I want to continue my writing career. But I want to do it on my terms. I don’t want to be a writer-for-hire, someone who writes what other people want. Nor do I want to be constrained by expectations (I don’t want to be pigeon-holed). (For more on these concepts in writing, see Dean’s blog for the week.  Check it out here.)

I want to continue funding my business. It must pay for itself and pay for my own living expenses.

I want to continue living in this little resort town by the sea, in my lovely home, with my wonderful husband. This life here in this little town costs me a certain amount of money every month—just like your life in your hometown costs you a certain amount of money every month.

So I have a monthly nut—the amount it takes me to live every single month. Multiply by twelve months in the year, then divide by 52. I now know what I must earn each week. (That’s easier than trying to figure out if there are 4.5 weeks in a month or 4.3 or 4…) If I divide that weekly number by 40, then I know how much I must earn per hour, if I work a 40 hour week.

I now know what my hourly wage is. Then I must accurately figure out how much time each project will take. Take the amount that the project pays, and divide it by the number of hours it’ll take you to finish that project. If you will earn your hourly wage plus some, take the project. If you will earn less than your hourly wage, turn the project down.

That’s a simple formula, which you can adjust for intangibles such as bringing more people to your website. But if all of your projects pay mostly in intangibles, you won’t earn enough to pay your bills.

Let’s go back to the 5K/50K example.

Let’s say you need $10 per hour to make your nut. (I know, most of you need a lot more, but $10 makes the math easy.) You figure the 5K project will take three weeks.

You need to earn $1200 to make your nut in three weeks. But for this three week period of time, you’ll earn $5000. Or to put it in hourly terms, you’ll be earning $41 per hour when all you need is $10. That’s $31 per hour profit.

But that 50K project: You thought it would only take one year, which means it’ll pay off. You need to earn $20,800 in that year (52 weeks times 40 hours per week times $10 per hour). You’ll make $50,000, more than double what you need. You’ll earn $24 per hour—less than you’d earn on the short 5K project, but still good wages considering what you need to earn.

But if this 50K project extends over three years, then you will have lost $12,400 on this deal. (Your three year nut is $62,400. You’ve earned only $50,000.) And we’re talking if they paid up front. If the client pays the balance on completion, you might earn even less. (Go back to the money posts and look at the cost of delayed payments.)

Even if you got a lot of intangibles, such as good promotion and new clients coming to your business, they wouldn’t make up for that devastating loss which is more than a half a year’s income.

Work smarter. Understand what each project will cost you in time, energy, and money.

3. Hire help. I know, I know. I just spent two posts telling you not to hire an employee unless you need one.

But you might need one to help you become more efficient. Let’s look at the 5K example. Let’s assume you have one other project that also need completion in that period of time. It pays $20 per hour and will take 60 hours total. That’s an extra twenty hours during the week—so you’ll have to work a sixty-hour week for three weeks. Tough life.

Now let’s assume that you must keep up this pace for the next six months. You can’t afford a new employee at that rate, but you can afford someone to baby-sit the kids for a few hours during the week or someone to clean your house or cook your meals so that you’re not constantly eating take-out.

Or maybe, like me, a 60 hour week doesn’t scare you. But imagine if that stretches to an 80 or 100 hour week. At some point, you’ll burn out. So you need to figure out how to cut your hours without losing income or clients.

Sometimes that means hiring a secretary or an assistant who comes in a few times per week. When the new owner of our old collectibles store realized that she needed to be onsite 7 days per week, eight hours per day in this resort town’s busy season plus put items on eBay in her off hours, she realized she couldn’t handle all of that for the required five months. She brings in another employee one day per week, and has added a computer in the store, so that she can do eBay in her downtime.

She added a short-term employee for the season and decided to work smarter by adding eBay time into her store hours.

And that’s what you have to do.

You need to figure out what your time is worth. You need to factor in the intangibles as well as the tangibles. (I don’t take a lot of pain-in-the-ass projects; nor do I take projects that’ll require me to leave home for months at a time.) You’ll need to make sure you make your monthly nut plus some profit. And you’ll need to factor in how much work you can actually do versus how much you think you can do.

(Usually self-employed people overestimate how much work they think they can do. They also overestimate how much work they think their employees can do, which leads to problems down the road. See the employees section for that.)

Here’s the key to time: Make sure you get paid your hourly minimum on every single job. No exceptions. That way, you’ll always pay your bills.

(And as she types this, the writer cringes, knowing that she’s not following her own rules—even with intangibles—for the Freelancer’s Guide. So do as I say. Not as I do.)

Defend your time. Make sure those around you understand that you’re doing paying work in those hours.

And finally, if you work harder and smarter and still aren’t making your monthly nut, then you need to reassess your business. Because something isn’t working. Either you’re taking the wrong projects for the wrong reasons or you’re not getting enough good paying work.

Go back to the money sections and look at what happens to businesses that don’t make their expenses month after month after month.

Then reassess.

If you’re doing this right, though, you should make a profit on most of your projects. People who know what their time is worth tend to do well in business.

Value your time. Charge for it.

You’ll be glad you did.




“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide:Time,”copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

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10 Comments

  1. Excellent advice. I’m lucky that I have another job and the writing has been just for fun. The royalties were mostly a nice little extra. But with the economy being what it is, selling my books and videos has become more important because it’s often easier and faster to get income through them than finding new clients.
    To do that, managing time is crucial. I’m not always on top of things in that department but it’s gotten better over time.
    Your chapter here is a great reality check and offers solid advice. Thank you. I’m passing this along to others.

    Wim

    Reply
  2. Great one, Kris. I think we’re all glad you decided to take a risk and bend your rules a bit to do the Guide. Great stuff.

    Reply
    • Thanks, y’all. Much appreciated.

      Reply
  3. Scott above convinced me to reply. As in, I’m repeating what he said. Thanks, very much, for doing the risk of the Guide. I’m a little surprised that you hadn’t thought you would get that much of a reaction. People like John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow certainly show that the internet really heightens exposure.

    In another comment, I had mentioned that you’re answering things I never would have thought – and, actually, some years ago, I had been working as a freelancer, but had no idea what I was doing with it! I had already /done/ some reassessment, but the Guide helps so much.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Ryan. I know that John & Cory get a lot of response on the internet, but they’re both gadflies as well. They are deliberately provocative, and they use that too good effect. I never realized that simple information would have a similar response. I’m glad it does! But it is a side effect.

      I’m so glad the guide is helping you. That’s what it’s designed for, so I really appreciate the feedback.

      Reply
  4. Katherine, thank you soooo much for these articles! It’s like kismet that they’ve appeared in my life at the right time. I’ve found myself on disability and writing my first novel and loads of medical bills so I had to do *something* while I sit home. I was asked to help a friend do some editing while she was on maternity leave. I found I liked it. She gave me the client. Then I was asked to copyedit for a local micro-publisher. I like that too. Then others have become my clients. Then, through the networking God, I got some part-time editing. Yesterday, on a whim, I applied for a job as a part-time freelance writer for an online zine (pays) and they accepted me today. Now, I have to ask myself, what is my time worth, how do I balance jobs, how do I schedule jobs, all this and continue with my own (unpaid as yet) novel writing, and can I do more? etc. It’s all new to me. So, you see, your articles on these topics have been tremendously valuable to me. You betcha I’ll be donating. Keep up the great work! I look forward to every single post. All the best… Alley

    Reply
    • Congrats, Alley. I’m glad things are starting to work out–and the Guide can help with the planning. Good work. And thanks for the support.

      Reply
  5. Boy, if you could give some tips on spotting those pain-in-the-ass clients before working with them, that’d be gold. I’ve been lucky, but relying on luck doesn’t cut it, so I’ve had a few I should’ve turned down. And I didn’t see them coming. Help?

    Reply
    • Usually, I can’t tell. But I turn down the second project and any future project with them. However, sometimes the PoA clients reveal themselves in the negotiation phase. They change their mind about what they want, about how much they’ll pay, about what they told you just last week. Run from them. Run. :-)

      Reply

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