The freelance scramble happens when the cash doesn’t flow the way that a writer expects it too. Longtime freelancers have learned the dance that I call the freelance scramble, which is mostly about replacing expected income with something else.
Last week, I explained how the scramble actually takes place.
But the week before, I explained why freelancers have to scramble. Most of that post, which I encourage you to read now, dealt with cash flow. Here are the salient points for those of you who refuse to click your way to enlightenment.
Freelancers must plan how they will get through a year financially. Which means they need four cash flow charts. Now, realize, when I’m talking about cash flow, I mean how the money owed will arrive. It generally will not arrive in one lump sum.
So here are the three charts that I listed in the first freelance scramble post:
The first chart shows how everything might flow.
The second chart shows how it probably will flow.
The third chart shows the absolute worst case scenario…assuming the freelancer does get paid.
For more explanation of those charts, please read the earlier post. In it, I also recommend a reserve savings account to get you through the hard time, and paying off all of your debt. That means a paid-for car, paid-for house, and paid-off credit cards, among other things.
After I laid out those first three charts, I mentioned that there is a fourth chart that every freelancer has.
The Fourth Chart shows the true worst case scenario—what happens when no one pays.
Does that happen? Oh, sadly, yes. Especially to new freelancers. Freelancers who’ve been at it longer usually know how to mitigate the circumstances, which I’ll discuss in a future post.
How can no one pay?
Well, let’s look at it from the new freelancer perspective first.
New freelancers often give their work away for free. Not just online and in ebook venues, but in all sorts of places “for the experience.” The problem is that sets up an unprofessional attitude on the part of the freelancer from the beginning.
Freelancers who do this generally have day jobs. So they, subconsciously or not, view their writing as a hobby. Everyone knows that hobbyists pay out of their pocket for their hobby. No one pays them to do it.
There’s a rule for writers which is a really good one:
Money flows to the writer.
(Yes, yes, I know. There are some gray areas now because of indie publishing. The short version is this: If you’re in traditional publishing, all money should flow to the writer. If you’re indie, the writing income should flow to the writer, but you’re also a publisher, and as a publisher, you will have reasonable expenses.)
Think of money flowing to the writer only in terms of doing work for companies not your own. If you’re writing short stories for a magazine you don’t own, then that magazine must license your copyright on those stories and pay you for that license.
They must pay you. Got it? Do I have to repeat it again?
(And if you don’t understand what I mean about licensing copyright, go buy The Copyright Handbook right now. If you don’t understand copyright, then you should not be a freelance writer. Period. You have no idea how the fundamentals of your business work, so you will [I repeat will] get screwed because of that lack of understanding. Repeatedly screwed.)
Do not volunteer to write anything for free. Ever. You make your living as a writer. Do you go to your day job and tell them they don’t have to pay you for your efforts this week? Then why in God’s name would you ever do that as a freelancer?
Value your work so that other people value it as well.
The problem of undervaluing what you write isn’t just a traditional writer problem. It’s also an indie writer problem.
In the United States, the myth is that artists (writers, painters, actors, musicians…) starve. And so anyone who chooses the lifestyle of artist, it follows, should expect to do a lot of work for very little money.
That attitude is what causes so many writers to undervalue their own work. Indie writers do it more than traditionally published writers. Most traditionally published writers have at least gotten the memo that they should, at worst, get an advance on their novel.
Most indie writers will often put their books up for free to “build an audience.” I deal with this a lot in Discoverability. (Pick up the book here or free on the website [albeit out of order].) There is a few right ways to use free as a loss leader, but there are a million wrong ways. Most writers do it wrong.
So there are writers who are or want to be freelancers who give away their work every single day. If you want to be a professional, you do not give your work away. (Except as a short term promotion, used correctly, and even then, you don’t give away all of your work.)
Indie writers often get little or no money despite thousands or tens of thousands of sales. These writers can’t freelance, and don’t have a base on which to build their finances.
In these cases, the indie writers aren’t receiving monthly income because the writers have undervalued their product.
Those are the mistakes that beginning writers make which keep those writers from launching a fulltime freelance career (or harms the career they started to build).
But what about the rest of the freelance community? Every so often, we all experience a complete breakdown in which we do not get paid.
When I say (as I did above) that no one pays the writer, I mean not a single one of the writer’s current clients pays.
Sometimes the reasons are obvious and catastrophic, like the example I used in the first scramble post. September 11, 2001, had a wide impact on freelance novelists (in addition to all the other people it harmed). Dean and I did not get paid by any of our New York traditional publishers for six months after 9/11, even though some of that money had been due since July. In some cases, we went more than a year without payment from our usual sources. We survived because of the freelance scramble.
Major crises happen, from the stock market crash to the fall of the Berlin wall. And sometimes those crises have an impact on freelance writers (as a group).
Other times, though, it’s just a series of bad circumstances that keeps every client from paying the writer. One client goes bankrupt. Yet another shuts down his business for good. A third decides to pay a different writer instead of you.
Everyone is late, significantly late, for a variety of different reasons. There are techniques to get money from each of these clients, and I’ll give you some techniques later in this series, but for the sake of argument, let’s say you know you’re not going to get any cash for the next six months, despite what’s owed to you.
If you’re a longtime freelancer, you’re prepared for this contingency. You might hate it, but you’re ready. You have a plan.
The plan, simply put, is this:
You use your reserve funds to pay this month’s bills. And then you find new work. That new work will not pay as quickly as the work you’ve already done should have paid. But it will eventually pay.
You just need to hang on until the new money comes in.
These events are why you have a reserve fund. They’re also why your house should be paid off, your car should be paid for, and your credit cards should be paid down. This is why you don’t have gym memberships that debit money from your account monthly, why you don’t sock money into accounts that you can’t reach without accruing a huge penalty.
You need ready cash to get you through the crossover between the work that should have paid and the work that does pay.
Here’s the tough part, though. You must reset all of your writing priorities.
If a client tells you he can’t pay you for another six months, but he still wants the project you’re working on next week, you have to say no. He’ll get the next part of the project when you know he can pay you. He might not like it, but deep down, he’ll understand.
You move your late-paying (or non-paying) work down the priority list—way down—and immediately do the work that will pay the bills. Sometimes, the new work will pay a lot less than the old work, but here’s the thing: the new work pays. And money in hand is always better than money promised.
If you’re stuck in this fourth chart, then you have to realize that these are emergency measures. You’ll be doing some things here that I normally would not advise freelancers to do. You will probably take on more work than you can do, which is why I recommend reprioritizing the old stuff.
And you might end up burning some bridges. We’ll get to the ways to handle that later in this series.
Mostly, though, the fourth chart is all about you and not about them. The non-paying clients are dealing with their own crises, whatever they may be. Let them. You have to get through what we call in our household “cash-flow hell.” You’ll probably have some sleepless nights, particularly in that first month. You’ll end up reprioritizing your workload three, four, five times before it all ends.
But if you scramble and work hard, it will end.
The key to handling this fourth chart well is an early diagnosis. You need to be able to look at your finances—and the money that everyone owes you—with a cold eye. You need to figure out—quickly—if the problem is something you’re making up (because you’re skittish about money) or if everyone really will have trouble paying you.
Usually, a writer is just skittish. Generally speaking, you’ll be in the third chart a lot more often than the fourth. The third is that payments are significantly delayed but they will be made. The fourth is that you might never see the money. Ever.
I’ve only been truly in that fourth chart once in my career. We handled the failure of one of our businesses wrong and therefore didn’t manage the accounts receivable properly. We had to shut down the business with $250,000 still owed to us, money that we never collected.
Twice since, I’ve thought I was in that fourth chart. One of those times was 9/11. Dean thought so to. So on the day that everyone else was watching their televisions in horror (or trying to find out of their loved ones were safe), Dean drove to Portland to sell some collectables so that we had cash to survive on for the next three months. Good thing he did too, because the place where he sold those collectables closed its purchasing window at the end of that day and didn’t reopen for another month.
We’re used to the freelance scramble, and sometimes that scramble means liquidating assets for quick cash.
We did get paid after that crisis, but that money was very late, and it was a hard winter.
Here’s the other thing you need to realize, my fellow freelancers. It doesn’t matter how much money you are earning, whether it’s tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions, if you suddenly stop earning, the money you have put aside will run out—especially if your expenses match (or exceed) your income.
A few commenters two weeks ago mentioned taxes. Taxes, at least in this country (I can’t attest to other countries), have caused more artists financial problems than any other single thing. Why? Because, as someone said, the taxes are due a year or more after you’ve earned the income.
So you made $200,000 last year, and will make $50,000 this year. You will still have to pay taxes on that $200,000 this year. If you didn’t save for it (or pay estimated), then you will have to pay those taxes out of that $50,000.
This is why, in addition to copyright, the other thing writers need to learn to maintain a long-term career in this business is how to work the tax system to your benefit.
Because a good half of my readership for this blog are not in the United States, I am not going to go into a long tax discussion here (or in the comments). Suffice to say that you need a good accountant who works with non-traditional clients—particularly musicians and other writers. Because the tax law is different for those of us who freelance, run businesses and/or make a living as artists. There is no one-size-fits-all tax preparation and no one-size-fits-all answers to tax questions.
If you need a way of thinking about this fourth scenario, think of it like this: You got fired from your day job and you have no prospects for a new job. You still have to pay your bills and cope with the day-to-day stuff, but you have no unemployment coming in and no safety net except the one you build for yourself.
That’s the scenario I’m describing here.
Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it might happen to you.
The key to surviving it isn’t to hide your head in the sand. The key is to plan for it. Expect it, at least once in your freelance career, and then when it hits, do your best to find new work.
And again, sometimes that new work is a day job.
But honestly, the best way to survive this fourth scenario (besides being prepared for it) is to replace your old paying clients with new better-paying clients. Sometimes “better-paying” means actually paying you. Remember, as I said above, it’s better to be paid a medium amount in a more-or-less timely fashion than it is to be paid a huge amount maybe never.
A bird in the hand, and all that.
Now that we’ve discussed how the cash might or might not flow, how to scramble for work, and the worst case scenario. Next, we’ll discuss how to make sure you’re actually paid for the work that you’ve already done. There are ways…and things you must understand…and bridges you never really want to burn.
If you want more information on money management and the freelancer, please look at The Freelancer’s Survival Guide or the short book (a section from the Guide) How To Make Money. You can find the original posts on freelancers and money here (marked money): Remember these are for the general freelancer and business owner. What I’m writing right now is for the freelance writer. And yes, when I’m done, clearly this will be another short book.
I have no idea why I thought a single blog post on the freelance scramble would be enough. Not paying attention while working on other things, I guess. Part of my own scramble, apparently.
Thanks to everyone who has been commenting and emailing suggestions. I also greatly appreciate the donations as well, since the money is what determines how I prioritize the blog in my writing list of priorities.
So…if you learned something or if you like what I’m doing here, please leave a tip on the way out.
Click Here to Go To PayPal.
(Yes, White Mist Mountain is my company name)
“Business Musings: Freelance Scramble Part Three: The Unthinkable,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
But the meeting makes matters worse. Even though it’s 1989 and Rosaura looks to be in her early twenties, she claims to have danced for Evita Perón. Linameyer knows that’s not possible, yet Martina insists on the truth of Rosaura’s story.
Martina wants Linameyer to believe the impossible. But doing so could change everything both hold dear.
“Precious Moments” by USA Today bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, and from other online retailers.
“I was shocked,” Sandusky said. He leaned back in the pale blue booth and pushed his half-eaten eggs away. The café smelled of coffee and burned toast. “I mean, there were these delicate little creatures pirouetting on the stage and they were gorgeous. I always thought Russian women were like East German swimmers—big breasted, dough faced and too tall.”
“That’s racist,” Martina said. She hadn’t eaten anything. Her small hands were wrapped around an oversized coffee cup.
Sandusky and I always had breakfast together after the morning show. He did the news and I engineered, and after four hours of live, crazy radio, we would be wired. That morning we invited Martina. Actually, I invited Martina. Sandusky didn’t like her much, but I had always been attracted to women who had bristly personalities. Sandusky said that was because I was out to change the world. Maybe. I thought it was because I liked a challenge.
I frowned. “What about Olga Korbut? I had a crush on her when I was in the sixth grade, and I’ve liked tiny women ever since.”
Martina didn’t catch the hint, but Sandusky did. He made a face. “Olga Korbut wasn’t fully grown, Linameyer.”
“She is now and she’s still tiny.” I took a bite of my scrambled eggs. They were greasy and undercooked. Sandusky had been right to leave his. I pushed my plate away.
“I’m talking about my impressions here,” Sandusky said. “I don’t care if they’re right. I go to the ballet with Linda, I learn something.”
“Bully, bully,” Martina said to me, her black eyes snapping. “He learned that his racist stereotypes don’t always hold up.”
“I’m not being racist.” Sandusky grabbed his own coffee cup and held it over the back of the bench into the booth behind him. The waitress, who was pouring coffee for the couple sitting at that table, filled Sandusky’s cup without a blink. “I’m not talking about blacks or Indians.”
“Jesus.” Martina reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out three crumpled dollar bills. “How did this guy get a job at a listener-sponsored radio station? We’re supposed to be left wing—or at least open-minded.”
“He is open-minded, for Wisconsin.” I put my hand over Martina’s. Her fingers were dry and warm. “Let me get that. I’m the one who talked you into coming after the show.”
“It’s been quite an education,” she said and then she smiled. Her entire face lit up. I loved it when Martina smiled. I had been watching her ever since she started at the station three months before. She did the morning news with Sandusky. I wondered how many arguments I missed, trapped at the board, listening to Johnson babble while I spun the tunes. The program director claimed that engineering the “Morning Show” was too difficult for an announcer, so I had to engineer. I could have announced and engineered that program in my sleep and still done a better job than Johnson.
“You haven’t finished your coffee yet,” Sandusky said. His ears were red. Martina’s comments must have hit a sore spot. Sandusky was a little ignorant and a lot naïve, especially for a college graduate in his early thirties, but he did try to learn. Unfortunately at the station he had absorbed the left-wing rhetoric, but not the ideals that characterized the most interesting radicals. Of course, open-mindedness didn’t exist at the station. The feminists fought with the environmentalists who fought with the Native Americans who fought with gays, all of whom claimed their issues were the most important issues. Sometimes I wished I was a conservative. They seemed to have only three lines of ideological bullshit instead of two hundred.
“You don’t get it, do you?” she said. She hadn’t moved her hand from beneath mine. “You think you’re open-minded. You think you’re liberal, and yet you sit here and say Russian women—and it should be Soviet women, if you want to be precise—Russian women should be tall with big tits. American women come in all sizes. Why should the Soviets be one-size-fits-all?”
The flush was traveling down Sandusky’s neck. “My father was a farmer. He had a sixth-grade education.”
“You say that every time I pin you,” Martina said. “You have a master’s degree in history. You’d think that would give you a little more perspective on the world.”
“I didn’t know you had a master’s degree.” I took a sip of my water. It tasted like soap. I didn’t know why we came here every morning. The food was always terrible.
“You’re no better, Linameyer,” Martina said. She pulled her hand away from mine. “You’re real good at helping people write copy with nonsexist language, and you never insult anyone. You always say, ‘Native American,’ and ‘Differently Abled,’ and you can spout party line with the best of them, but you don’t have an open mind either.”
“I think you’re a little out of proportion, Martina.” I was secure in my open-mindedness. I was the one, not the station manager, who everyone used to settle disputes. Linameyer sees the human side, Johnson said once, and the entire station agreed that it was true.
I did see the human side. I saw all sides, and I could explain them clearly. Maybe that’s why I was doing talk radio: I could understand everything and never had to take a side, never had to make an action on my own.
“I’m very clear-sighted.” She straightened out her money and set it under her full water glass. “You do real good at spouting party line and picking which party line is appropriate under what circumstances. But if you ever were confronted with something really odd, you would deny it because it doesn’t fit into your neat, tidy little world.”
“Give me an example,” I said, leaning forward.
“I’ll do better than that.” She grabbed her coat from the side of the booth and shoved her arms in the sleeves. “I’ll let you prove yourself. You’re hosting ‘A Public Affair’ next week, right? Interview my roommate.”
“Who is your roommate?”
Martina glanced at Sandusky. He was clutching his empty coffee cup and staring at her. “She’s an Argentinean ballerina. She was famous once.”
“How did you get a famous ballerina for a roommate?”
Martina shrugged. “Twist of fate, maybe. Interview her.”
I took a deep breath. Most of my ‘Public Affairs’ were scheduled. I hosted the talk show one week a month and I planned for it weeks in advance. This time, though, Thursday was open. “Give me some background on her and I’ll see.”
“Is that open-minded?” Martina asked.
“It’s protecting my show. I like doing that program. I want to host it daily, not monthly.”
“Okay.” Martina slurped the coffee off the bottom of her cup, then set the cup aside. “I’ll bring her in for a prelim interview, how’s that? I’m sure she doesn’t have any background papers.”
“Sounds good,” I said. I grabbed the check, took Martina’s money from under the water glass, and threw the bills at her. “I said I was buying.”
“I’m not your date, Linameyer.”
I slid out of the booth. “I’m feeling guilty for bringing you here. Let me be a good American and clear my soul by throwing money at the problem.”
She laughed and stood beside me. Sandusky grunted as he climbed out of the booth.
“So, you never said. Was the ballet good?” I asked.
“Linda said their lines were off.” He took his coat off the back of the booth. “But I thought their lines were just fine.” There was enough of a leer in his statement to make Martina glare at him. He shrugged, the picture of innocence. “Then, what do I know about ballet?”
I had the large reel-to-reel on edit and held both reels with the tips of my fingers, my gaze on the tape brushing up against the playback head. Senator Kasten slurred his words. I couldn’t find the beginning of the sentence. Somehow the senator managed to make the phrase, “Such a stupid bag of wind. He had no right to win a primary let alone an election,” sound like “Suchastupid baga windy dino right to winaprimary letalone anlection.” I’d been struggling with that foot of tape for nearly fifteen minutes, trying to find a place to cut it. A truncated version of the Kasten interview was supposed to air at six. I would be lucky if I had it done for the next morning.
Sandusky had tried to talk with me for three days about Martina. I didn’t want to hear him. I wanted to make my own decision about her—and Sandusky seemed to want me to think like he did.
The studio door clicked shut. I turned, prepared to defend my studio time—I had had the four hours blocked off for nearly a week—when I saw Martina. She leaned against the door and smiled at me, almost hidden by the rack for the cassette player and the Dolby equalizer.
“My roommate’s outside,” she said. “You want to do that prelim interview now?”
I wound the tape back, then played it forward. “Can you hear where this breaks?” I said.
“Kasten has a southern Wisconsin mush-mouth. It could take you all day.” She advanced to the console and leaned against its side like a kid on his first station tour. “I had to work real hard to get her here.”
I sighed. I still hadn’t scheduled anyone for the Thursday show. And no one but that night’s producer would care if the Kasten piece was fifteen seconds shorter than planned. “All right,” I said. “But it has to be quick. And let’s do it in here. I don’t want to lose my studio time.”
“Gotcha.” Martina gave me a thumbs-up and let herself out the door. I bent over the reel-to-reel, rewound it, then moved very slowly. Finally I heard something that could pass for a pause. I marked the tape with a grease pencil, slid the tape forward and placed it on the cutter. The door creaked open as I ran a razor blade through the white grease mark. Then I pressed “Play” and listened to Kasten finish that stupid sentence. I made another grease mark and pushed away from the machine.
Martina stood next to a small, willowy woman who looked tall because she was so thin. “Ben Linameyer, this is Rosaura Correga.”
I held out my hand. After a moment, Rosaura took it. Her fingers felt as brittle as sticks. “It’s a pleasure,” I said.
“Gracias,” she murmured.
“Have a seat,” I said, indicating the plastic chair on her side of the console. After a quick glance at Martina, Rosaura sat down. “You do speak English, don’t you?”
“Si, señor.” Then she smiled a little. “Yes, Yes, I do.”
Her English was not heavily accented, something important if I were going to do an hour-long call-in program with her. “Did Martina tell you what we’re thinking of doing?”
Again Rosaura glanced at Martina. Martina smiled her encouragement and leaned against the soundpad on the far wall. “She said an interview.”
“In a few days, on our show ‘A Public Affair.’”
“People will call?” Rosaura said.
I nodded. “And ask you questions. But today I want to see if you and I are compatible.”
She clutched her hands together and set them on the edge of the table. I scooted my chair over and pushed the mike aside. She was young, with the elastic skin of a teenager. The laugh lines around her eyes added about ten years to her age, though. If she had come from Argentina, she had probably lived through a lot. “Martina tells me that you used to dance in Argentina.”
“Si. Yes. I danced with Compañia Nacional de Argentina for many years, the last as prima ballerina.” She gazed down at her hands, but her words were filled with a quiet pride. Her accent was as clear as I had thought, and she seemed to have no fear of me. I would ask a few more perfunctory questions and then get back to Senator Kasten.
“Did you do the traditional works, or was the company more experimental?”
“Before the coup, we did Argentinean work. El Perón insisted on it. But Evita, she had us do Swan Lake as a secret. She had never seen it.”
El Perón. Evita. I glanced at Martina, remembering our conversation from a few days before. “You danced for Juan Perón?”
“And his wife.” Rosaura still did not look at me, but her voice was soft, a little husky. Her black hair fell in waves around her face. There was not a gray strand in it.
“Eva. Eva Perón. She was beautiful.”
Eva Perón had died in the early fifties. Juan Perón was overthrown a few years after that. He returned to power in 1973 and died a year later. His third wife, Isabel, took over for him until she was ousted by another coup in 1976. I remembered that from a special we did on Argentina a few months before. Rosaura could have danced, as a young woman, for Isabel thirteen or fourteen years ago. She hadn’t even been born when Eva died. “How long ago was that?” I asked.
Rosaura shrugged. “It seems a long time now.”
I glanced at Martina. Her face was very somber. She sat on the floor with her arms wrapped around her knees.
“Did you have trouble leaving Argentina?”
Rosaura shook her head. “We were here when they announced the coup, performing in Chicago. Argentina was not the same without Eva, and we were part of El Perón.”
“It would have been dangerous for her to return,” Martina said.
“So I stay.”
I folded my hands in my lap, feeling a slow anger burn in my stomach. Perhaps this was how Sandusky felt when Martina baited him. Martina presented me with an obvious impossibility and expected me to accept it. “How old are you, Rosaura?”
“Ah—veinte-ocho—ah, how you say—?”
“Twenty-eight,” I said. “Eva Perón has been dead for nearly forty years.”
Martina hid her mouth and nose behind her knees. Only her eyes peered at me, studying me darkly. I wondered if I was failing her test.
Rosaura laughed. “I still dance,” she said. “I could not dance if I were so old as you think.”
“I hope I didn’t offend you.” I stood up and extended my hand. This time she took it as if she were a head of state and I, her servant. She rose slowly. “I will contact you about the show.”
“Did we—ah—are we compatiable?” Rosaura asked. Her eyes had a dark fire, and her skin was as pale as a dead woman’s.
“We are compatible,” I said, correcting her pronunciation. “We’ll see how the week’s schedule works out. I enjoyed talking with you.”
“Thank you,” she said. She turned for the door. Martina opened it for her, then opened the door to reception.
“I’ll be with you in a moment,” Martina said. She waited until both doors closed before turning to me. “You’re not going to use her, are you?”
“For Chrissake, Martina, she’s nuts.”
“That was easy.” Martina took a step toward me, moving with what Sandusky called her bantam walk. She looks like a little banty rooster, he would say, out to pick a fight. “I would expect a comment like that from Sandusky, but you claim to have an open mind.”
“You expect me to believe that that girl, who looks no more than twenty-four, is actually fifty-eight and still dancing?”
“I expect you to believe that she is twenty-eight and danced for Evita Perón.”
“Eva Perón died in 1952.”
“Everyone gets older. I don’t appreciate practical jokes, Martina.”
“This is no joke,” she said. “People can get stuck in time.”
I sighed. She said she had something that would test my open-mindedness and this certainly did. “If I believed you, what would you have me do?”
Martina put her arms behind her back. “Put her on the air.”
“This program is really important to me. And it’s obvious that she’s not operating with a full deck.”
“She’s very rational.” Martina spoke slowly, as if to a child. “Don’t ask her age, and you will be fine.”
“But she looks—”
“Too young. And no one can see her over the radio.” Martina nodded toward the reel-to-reel. “Senator Kasten waits. Such a limited worldview you have that allows the existence of dipshits like him and refuses the presence of an Argentinean prima ballerina.”
“I know she exists,” I started, but Martina had already turned her back and disappeared out the door. I unclenched my fists. Open-minded did not mean jeopardizing something I had worked for, at least not over something silly like Rosaura Correga. Martina should have understood that.
I went back to the Kasten tape and stared at the grease mark. Kasten was a jerk, and I couldn’t believe that the people of southeastern Wisconsin had elected him to the United State Senate. But I had done nothing about it. I hadn’t taken any risks for anything I believed in since my last year in college.
I shook my head. The argument I was having with myself was silly. I didn’t believe Martina’s roommate. And no one should have to take action for something he did not believe in, no matter how open his mind was.
Or how open he believed it should be.
I checked the facts in the campus library the next morning. Eva Perón had died in 1952, as I had thought. She had been dynamic—a radio and movie actress—and beautiful, just as Rosaura had said. The Compañia Nacional de Argentina was performing in Chicago at the time of the 1955 coup. Then the company disappeared, missed its next performance and was never heard from again. Press speculation at the time assumed the company members had gone home to join the rebellion, although many were known Peronistas. None had applied for United States protection or a green card. One newspaper had a photo of the group’s prima ballerina. Rosaura Correga, as she had looked not twenty-four hours before.
People can get stuck in time.
I walked out the main doors onto the campus mall. A chill October wind blew leaves across the concrete. Students rushed from building to building, heads bent, under the gray sky. It felt as if the rain would start at any minute, but it had felt that way for days.
I stuck my hands in my jacket pockets and walked down the hill toward the lot where I had left my car. The students looked younger to me than they had ever looked before. Not that I felt old at thirty; I no longer felt naïve. I had lost that searching, hungry look that the best students had. The world was no longer a place of wonder. It had become a familiar, dirty place, like a spacious penthouse apartment—lived in, but not clean.
Martina was trying to give that back to me, that sense of wonder. And for two brief moments, once when Rosaura was speaking and again when I saw her photo, I held a belief that what she said could possibly be true.
If I interviewed her, the interview would center on the dancing and the Perón years. I would have to screen the callers somehow, or not open the phone lines until late in the show. If anyone asked her her age, my credibility—and my chance to be a permanent talk-show host—would vanish.
And then I saw her, walking kitty-corner along the hill, the same small willowy woman who had stood in the studio the day before. Her hair streamed behind her in the wind and all the grace had left her movements. She walked with the stalking ease of a young lion. I ran until I caught up with her.
She didn’t turn when I called her name, so when I reached her, I grabbed her arm. “Rosaura.”
“What?” She pulled away from me. Her accent was pure Midwest. Waat?
Her face was the same—eighteen years old except for the crow’s feet around the eyes. Her manner differed. She didn’t drop her gaze and look away. She stared at me, and color filled her windburned cheeks. “What the hell do you want?”
“You’re not Rosaura Correga?”
“Do I look like a Rosaura? Give it a rest.” She didn’t seem to recognize me. Not one flicker of fear or nervousness touched her face.
“You’re not a dancer then?”
“I’m on the crew team. That’s exercise enough.” Even the voice was the same. The same tenor, the same tone, only the accent differed. I knew voices. I worked with them intimately every day.
“Do you have a sister or a mother named Rosaura?” I asked, thinking that the look might run in a family.
“No. My mother’s name is Brigid, and I doubt my Gaelic ancestors would appreciate being confused with the Spanish.” She brushed her hair out of her face. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a class.”
Probably an acting class. She would go far. She was good. She was damn good. I watched her walk away, her slight body looking tall in the wind. Martina had almost convinced me, almost got me to jeopardize my show for a bit of silliness.
Thing was, standing there on the campus hillside, the October wind tousling my hair and bright-eyed students milling around me, I felt suddenly lonely, as if a part of me had flown away with that long-haired girl disappearing in the crowd.
I pulled the last cart, signed the charts, and handed over the board to Dick, the 9 A.M. to noon programmer. The “Morning Show” had gone without a hitch, but I had half wanted something to deal with, troubleshoot, to take away some of the nervous energy that had been part of my mood.
I took the albums back to the record library. The stacks were quiet—no one was previewing new albums or pulling records for another show. I was tempted to shut off the station speakers and blast some music of my own—my own private rebellion—but I decided not to.
“There you are.” Martina was behind me, her hands on her hips. “Sandusky wants to go to breakfast again. You game?”
“Not today,” I said. I moved into the jazz section, away from the door, pretending to put music away. Most of the albums I held were old-time rock and roll, the stuff that hadn’t been remastered yet, but Martina didn’t know that.
She blocked the front of the aisle. “You haven’t said anything about Rosaura yet. Have you got a show for Thursday?”
“I saw Rosaura yesterday.” My hands were shaking. “I decided that I didn’t want her on the program.”
Martina tilted her head to one side. “You saw Rosaura?”
“On campus. Only she’s got Irish ancestors and she talks like someone from Waukesha.”
“And it was Rosaura.”
“No doubt.” I set the albums down. I suddenly wanted to face Martina. “You almost had me believing you, you know? I actually went to the library, checked the facts, and I probably would have put her on, if I hadn’t seen her cross campus with all the books under her arms. Theater major, right? Your roommate.”
“No.” Martina gripped the record shelves. “She was telling you the truth.”
“Yup.” I leaned against the Count Basie. “Let me tell you a little truth. Your stunt, demanding that I prove my open-mindedness, probably did a lot more to close my mind that anything else could have. The next time someone brings me something that seems to be straight out of the Twilight Zone, I’m going to be a hell of a lot more skeptical. You proved your point. I’m not as open-minded as I like to think I am.”
She sighed. “I actually thought you were a little different.”
“What does it matter to you?” I had raised my voice. I hadn’t raised my voice in years. “It was a stupid conversation over breakfast a few mornings ago. Sandusky’s the Neanderthal, not me. I didn’t deserve this.”
“Neither did I,” she said softly. She touched my cheek. “I really liked you, Linameyer.”
Her use of the past tense deflated my anger. “That sounds final.”
She shrugged. “If your world doesn’t have a place for a twenty-eight-year-old ballerina who danced for Eva Perón, it certainly doesn’t have a place for me. I think I’m going to tell Sandusky to buy his own breakfast. See you, Linameyer.”
She waved and disappeared around the shelves. I followed her, but she was gone by the time I reached the classical section. I should have followed her out of the station, but I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to know what she thought about herself that made her even more special than Rosaura Correga.
The café still smelled of coffee and burned toast. I tried to talk Sandusky into a different restaurant, but he was a regular at the café—and a regular was a regular no matter how bad the food had gotten.
“What the hell did you say to Martina to make her stomp off like that?” Sandusky clutched the battered menu. “She was going to buy me breakfast.”
“Why would Martina buy you breakfast? I thought you two don’t get along.” I pushed the menu aside and decided that I’d try the oatmeal. The worst it could be was lumpy.
He colored. “We don’t, but I had a fight with Linda last night. I guess Martina thought she owed me some sympathy.”
“A fight about what?” I wasn’t really interested in the answer, except that it kept my attention off of Martina.
“The ballet. I told her I liked the ballet, I liked seeing all those beautiful women spread their legs—”
“—and she said that was not what the ballet was all about. She said it was about the impossible. That the dancers were trained from childhood to do something impossible, and then they’d do it, and we should applaud them while we could because they would die young and their spirit was forever encased in their art, or some kind of weirdo female bullshit like that.”
“Linda really said that?” The waitress stopped at the table. I waved my empty coffee cup at her, gaze still trained on Sandusky.
“Yeah. And she said that I didn’t have the sensitivity to appreciate art.”
“She should have known that from the moment she saw you.” The waitress poured my coffee, and I realized that the burned-toast smell came right out of the pot. I pushed the cup aside.
Sandusky added milk to his. “So what was Martina all huffy about? You two got something going?”
“No. She decided I wasn’t open-minded enough.”
“That roommate thing.” Sandusky slurped his coffee. “Can’t say as I blame you. That old woman was enough to give anyone the creeps.”
I jerked, nearly spilling my cup. “You met her roommate?”
“Sure, that day Martina brought her to the station. Tiny and bent and some kind of cock-and-bull story about dancing for Juan Perón. If I know those Latin American dictators, she wasn’t dancing for him. She was letting him dance on her.”
“You don’t know Latin American dictators, Sandusky.” I leaned back, feeling tired. Martina had shaken me more than I realized.
The waitress set my oatmeal in front of me, along with a lump of raisins on the side. Sandusky’s eggs looked like they had a few days before, the morning we had come with Martina. I frowned.
“You’ve been saying weird stuff went on in the newsroom. What were you talking about?”
Sandusky poured catsup over his eggs and hash browns, then stirred them together as if he were making a stew. “I don’t know, Linameyer. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
“Kinky predawn sex before the UPI machine?”
Sandusky glanced up, flushed to his ears. “I don’t like her, Linameyer. And besides, I would never do that.”
I nodded. My attempt at levity failed. “I’m sorry. You’ve been wanting to tell me this for days. I’m ready to hear it.”
“Martina and I, we got along okay in the beginning.” Sandusky took a bite of the red egg mixture and grimaced. He washed it down with a sip of coffee. “I would correct her grammar and she would correct my politics. Then, one morning, I caught her looking at me as if she could see all that secret stuff you don’t tell anybody, you know? And I felt like I did when I was fifteen. The summer my dad died.”
The flush had stayed in his face, and his voice had become so soft I could barely hear him. I stirred my oatmeal, waiting until the emotion had passed. “What makes that weird, Sandusky?”
He took another bite of the eggs, this time chewing as if he couldn’t taste them. Tears floated on the rims of his eyes. “She got me to tell her something I never told anybody else, not even Linda. And the next thing I knew, we were fifteen minutes behind schedule. Only I didn’t feel like I told her, Linameyer. I felt like I showed her. Like I took her back with me.”
“Some memories are strong enough,” I said. “They hold the power to sweep us with them.”
He nodded, and wiped at his eyes. “God, this shit is terrible,” he said, pushing his plate away by way of explanation. “That wasn’t the worst of it, Ben. It was after that. She treated me like she didn’t respect me anymore. Here I’d shared something crucial to me, and it was as if I no longer met some hidden standard.”
I took his hand and squeezed it. He pulled away and sipped his coffee. “And that’s why you don’t like Martina.”
“It’s as if she’s got a label for the whole world. I mean, I make mistakes, and I say stupid things, but I treat people the same, no matter who they are. Unless they hurt me.” His entire face was red. He smiled at me over the rim of his cup. “I like you, Linameyer.”
“I like you too, Sandusky.”
“I just don’t want to see her fuck you up even worse. You’re interested in her. You go to bed with her or something and then she starts treating you like dirt, and it could fuck you over.”
“I’ll be careful,” I said. “I promise.”
After breakfast, I went down to the lake and watched the sailboats catch the midmorning light. As I watched, I tried to think of nothing at all, but Martina’s face kept appearing in my mind. Finally, I walked back to my car, and drove to her apartment.
Martina lived in one of the renovated Victorian mansions on Gorham. I had to drive nearly a mile out of my way on one-way streets to get to the building. My breath was coming in little gasps, and it felt as if someone had punched me through the heart.
People can get stuck in time.
I felt a thin thread of relief when I saw that the house still stood. I was afraid, somehow, that it would have disappeared with Martina. I parked the car in a numbered parking space in the back lot and went inside.
The building smelled of wood polish and dust. I took the stairs two at a time. With each step, I realized that the heartache I felt was not sadness, but anger. Martina had tested me and judged me unworthy, just as she had done to Sandusky. Only I wasn’t going to take it. I was going to find out her little secret.
The door to Martina’s apartment stood open. She sat on the couch, arms wrapped around her knees, staring at the floor. Swan Lake played faintly in the background, and a tiny old woman, dressed all in black, sat at the battered kitchen table.
“So,” I said to Martina. “What is it about you that I would never believe?”
Martina didn’t glance up, but the old woman did. Her face had no wrinkles, except for the laugh lines around her eyes. Her body had shriveled and her hair had grayed, but her features would stay the same forever. “Are we compatible, young man?”
“Yes, we are, Mrs. Correga.” Somehow her age didn’t surprise me.
“And you want me for your radio show?”
“Let me talk to Martina first.”
Rosaura stood up. With her gray hair piled on top of her head and her arthritic slowness, she looked even smaller than she was. “You do not think, Martina,” she said. “At least this young man came to talk to you.”
“I can handle it, abuela.” The bitterness in Martina’s voice sent a shiver down my back.
“No, you can’t.” Rosaura turned to me. “I would like to do the show, dressed as I am now.”
“That would be fascinating, Mrs. Correga. Come to the station on Thursday, at 11:30. I’ll explain what to do then.”
She nodded once, then walked toward the back of the apartment, moving with the same willowy grace I had seen before. I waited until I heard a door close toward the back before I spoke again. “What am I too narrow-minded to know?”
“She was beautiful once,” Martina said.
“She still is, if you know how to look.”
“You did something to her, and you did the same thing to Sandusky. Only he says it made you lose respect for him.” With each sentence, my vocal control slipped. The words vibrated, as they did when I interviewed a hostile guest on the talk show.
Martina pulled her legs closer, as if she could wrap herself into a tiny ball. “He ran away when his father was dying, couldn’t bear to watch the old man in pain, although the old man wanted him around. Sandusky’s been trying to make it up to him ever since. That’s why he brings his father up when he’s losing an argument. As if his father were a saint or something.
A missing piece to Sandusky. That explained a lot: his unwillingness to try new things; the kindness he showed to people with problems; the hurt on his face when he had talked with me that morning. I inched forward into the apartment. The ceiling sloped, making it difficult for me to stand. “What do you do?” I asked.
“You ever talk to people?” She leaned forward. I sat down across from her. She didn’t seem to mind. “They have memories—a moment that they carry in their hearts, like a snapshot of a long-dead lover. And it’s that moment that gives them meaning.”
I suddenly remembered the brittle feel of Rosaura’s fingers when I first shook her hand; although her skin appeared elastic, it still felt old. “Like your grandmother being the prima ballerina for the Compañia Nacional de Argentina.”
“Like that.” Martina glanced down at her hands. The gesture seemed like Rosaura. “If I want to, I can grab that moment and let them wear it.”
“And you did for your grandmother in the studio.” My voice had slipped from interview to interrogation. The impossibilities of Martina’s claim impressed me less than her unwillingness to be honest with me from the first.
“Or I can actually bring the memory to the surface and let them relive it. I did that with Sandusky.” Martina looked up at me. She clutched her hands together so hard her knuckles were white. “You saw my sister on campus. She hates it when people ask her if she’s Rosaura.”
She had tested other people the same way. And they had failed too. “Then you do this a lot.”
Martina shrugged. “Enough that it has scared a few men away.”
“It seems that it would scare a lot of people away, Martina.” I clenched my fists. It wasn’t scaring me—or perhaps the anger covered the fear.
“I don’t tell my friends anymore,” she said. “I wanted to tell you.”
The floor was hard. I shifted a little to ease the physical discomfort. “Why me?”
“Because you seemed like someone who would like me anyway.” She whispered the sentence. “I started doing this when I was three, like some people start reading. My parents brought in a priest to exorcise me. When that didn’t work, they gave me to my grandmother.”
The words softened me a little, made me picture the young Martina, a little girl with a power that frightened the people around her. I couldn’t make her relive the event, but then, I didn’t need to. “Have you done this thing to me?”
Martina tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I tried.”
I stiffened. All those times she had looked at me so deeply, I had thought that she was interested in me. She had only been interested in ferreting out my past. “And?”
“You don’t have a moment, at least not yet.” She stretched and slid farther away from me. “I suspect you’re living it, at the station, or something.”
“And that made me special.”
“No,” she said. “I’ve met other people like you. I like you, Linameyer.”
“You have a strange way of showing it,” I said. I got up, nearly hitting my head on the slanting ceiling. “You insult me, you test me and you try to invade my privacy. I’m amazed Sandusky even talks to you after the way you treated him.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong.” Martina had to tilt her head back to see me. She looked like a child. A confused, frightened child.
“Yes, you did. You have an ability to see people’s strongest memories and you view them without even asking permission. Then you judge people based on that past event and act as if that event defines their life.”
“It does.” Martina pushed herself onto the couch so that she didn’t have to look at me from such an odd angle.
“No,” I said. I didn’t move. I enjoyed her disadvantage. “It doesn’t. It seems to me that your grandmother has done a lot since she left Argentina. She had children, she raised you. And you probably weren’t the easiest child to be with. Your grandmother is a spectacular woman—and it wasn’t just because she danced for Eva Perón.”
“I’ve been doing this for a long time—”
“And you see what you want to see.” I walked to the back of the room, stared at the pictures on the wall, of Martina at various ages, Rosaura in her tutu, and Martina’s sister standing in front of a dock. “You accused me and Sandusky of being closed-minded, when you had a special gift that allowed you to see parts of a person’s life. And you let that gift blind you. You let what you see define the person as much as some people let the word ‘nigger’ define a black man.”
“I do not!” Martina was on her feet.
“You do.” I shoved my hands in my pockets. “And the really sad thing is that if you used that gift right, you would have been able to help people instead of hurt them.”
I pushed my way past her, and hurried down the stairs. My car looked like home—a place to retreat to, a place to be silent in. I had never said things before like I said to Martina. But then, I had never met a person with such a unique gift before—and such a desire to waste it.
Two weeks went by. Rosaura showed up for the talk show and was a huge hit. People loved her stories about Argentina, the ballet, and about raising children in a strange country. Sandusky and I switched restaurants, and Martina avoided me. Sometimes I saw her working in the newsroom, but every time I smiled, she turned away.
One morning, I was checking my mail in the employees’ lounge when she rounded the corner. She stopped in the doorway. I stared at the station newsletter, waiting for her to go away.
“You got a minute, Linameyer?” she asked.
I tucked the newsletter back into the slot with the rest of my mail. Other rolled newsletters stuck out of the remaining boxes like hundreds of cardboard tubes. “I suppose.”
She came in and closed the door. “I’ve been thinking about what you said and I was wondering what you thought I could do to help people.”
I looked her over, trying to see if she was serious. Her face was paler than usual, and she had deep circles under her eyes. Little lines had formed beneath her lips, as if she hadn’t smiled for days. “You really want to know?”
I went over to the ratty pink couch and sat down, then patted the cushion beside me. Martina sat on the arm. “You said to me when I saw Rosaura for the first time,” I said, “that people get stuck in time. Sandusky’s stuck at fifteen, trying to make up to a dad who will never forgive him. You can see that, but you don’t reach out. You don’t help people move forward again.”
“How could I do that?”
“By asking if they want your help and then telling them what you see, how they’re stuck, if they’re stuck. Then they’re free to get counseling or to resolve the problem on their own. But you’ve helped them. You’ve given them vision.”
Martina hunched over, as if my words were physical blows instead of sound. I watched her for a moment, then said softly, “You’re stuck too. You’re still a three-year-old whose parents thought she was possessed. That’s why you use your gift as a weapon, to make sure you get other people before they get you.”
She raised her head, eyes shiny. “You can see too?”
“No.” I ran a hand through my hair. “Sometimes I don’t need to. Sometimes it’s real obvious.” I stood up. “I’ve got a cat to feed. I’m going home.”
I grabbed my mail out of the box and opened the door.
“Linameyer?” she said.
I turned. She was still hunched over, her eyes sunken into her face. “I’ve been a real bitch.”
That was the closest thing to an apology that I would get. “I know,” I said. “But I like you, Martina, even when I’m mad at you.”
She smiled, and her face lit up. I loved it when Martina smiled. “That mean we’re friends?” she asked.
“I think so.” I grinned. “Tomorrow—breakfast with me and Sandusky?”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” she said. And then, almost a whisper: “Thanks, Linameyer.”
“You’re welcome.” I closed the door, giving her a moment of privacy, and walked down the hall. My mood had lightened. She had asked. She wanted to change. And I had changed. I had finally spoken up for something I believed in and it had made a difference. An ever-so-small, ever-so-important difference.
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Full Spectrum, III, Bantam Books, 1991
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Erllre/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Because I wrote the next blog post, and honestly, aside from depressing me, I kept alluding to other important things I would get to. Instead, I’m putting that post last or second-to-last in this little sequence, and writing about the actual scramble.
Last week, I discussed the three charts that a writer who does her annual planning should have. They are cash flow charts. To recap just a little, just because a freelancer has been promised a $12,000 advance doesn’t mean the money will come in at once. It’ll come in chunks. Other freelance income will arrive when it arrives; the freelance writer can guess, based on past experience, but she can’t know for certain.
Except in indie publishing. The online retailers do pay on a regular schedule, but predicting the amount a freelancer will receive six or eight months from now is difficult. For more on all of these points, see last week’s post.
So what freelancers have to pay attention to is how the money will flow. That’s where these three charts come in:
Long-term freelancers become adept at merging the first and second charts. We can usually predict when things might flow and that is usually how they will flow.
But long-term freelancers also know that the third chart is the most important. Because if the money is significantly late, the freelancer needs to be prepared.
Last week, I discussed some financial behaviors any long-term freelancer writer needs. Please see those. I also discuss money management in The Freelancer’s Survival Guide, but that’s for the general freelancer/business owner. You can find the old posts here for free, or get all of the financial information in the Guide or the short book on that topic, How To Make Money.
Because the Guide is for the general freelancer, I never discussed the freelance scramble. It’s different for every business.
For the freelance writer, the scramble goes like this:
Every freelancer I know revisits their future payments chart on a regular basis. The best way to do this is daily or weekly, but some writers (with fewer income streams) can do it monthly.
The charts I mentioned above are cash flow charts and they should cover the entire year. The charts should show how you will pay your bills (and how much money you’ll put into reserve) for the entire year. Granted, when you begin the year, you’ll be guessing at what will happen in the last half of the year, but you need to guess.
So, when you start into your regular review, the moment you see a hole opening up, you need to fill that hole.
Let me use two examples.
The Traditional Example:
You make your living writing novels for traditional publishers. Your editor, who promised to get to your finished novel in December, still hasn’t read the book (or accepted it) in January. Acceptance payments aren’t triggered until the editor reads the book and puts in for the check.
Nagging isn’t helping. The editor got swamped with something else. So it’s time to revise the cash flow chart. The acceptance money which is, from our example last week, $4000, won’t arrive in April like you thought. The earliest it will arrive now is June. Never plan for the earliest, however. Plan for the latest. If the earliest is June, then add 90 days. Plan for the check in September. And assume the publication payment will be moved back by an equivalent amount.
Suddenly, all of May and June’s bills, which you planned to pay with that advance, are not covered. You have to make up the $4000 and fast.
The Indie Example:
You made $2000 per month on your indie books in September, October, and November. You made $3000 in December and January. You planned your next year’s income at $2000 per month (and put the extra in December and January into a reserve account).
Sales plummeted in February (for no apparent reason that you could see) to $1000 per month and it looks like they might go lower in March.
That means you’ll have a cash flow shortfall in April of $1000, and that shortfall might be larger in May and June. (Most online retailers pay on 60 days.) You’ll need to make up at least $1000 per month in the spring, and maybe more if the shortfalls continue into the summer.
In fact, if they continue longer than a month or two, you’ll have to accept $1000 on your indie books as the new normal.
In both cases, I’m going to assume that you have done all the right things. You have a good emergency reserve fund. You have paid off everything you could afford to pay off.
Most people can’t afford to pay off their mortgage, so I’m going to assume you have a mortgage/rent payment, insurance payments, and of course, food/gas/incidentals. But you can’t trim your expenses any more.
In the situations described above, no freelancer would want to touch the emergency reserve.
Because, unfortunately, cash flow shortfalls happen all the time. If your career is going well, then cash flow surpluses will happen as well. You must manage the surpluses just like the indie writer in the example above, and not spend every dime.
The surplus money will get you through the lean times.
So…to avoid touching the emergency reserve, the scramble begins.
Situations like these are why I advise every single freelance writer to have more than one income stream. If you write for traditional publishing houses, make sure you’re published by more than one house (and often under more than one name in more than one genre).
If you’re indie, never go exclusive with any online retailer except, maybe, for a single short-term promotion on a single product. Most of the writers harmed in that KU Apocalypse that I mentioned last week were exclusive to Kindle and had not built any audience on any other platform.
Scrambling is tough when you’re exclusive with anyone—traditional or indie.
Frankly, this is why being a hybrid writer makes a lot of sense in the modern market. You have indie income to rely on every month, and you can get lump sums from your traditional publishers to replenish, add to, or fix the reserve accounts.
So, first let’s talk about the short-term scramble.
You’re not going to get the amount of money you expected in the next few months. You’ll need to replace that.
Most freelancers have some go-to for income replacement that don’t require a withdrawal from the reserve fund.
The key with short-term replacements is that they pay quickly.
The replacements completely vary as to who the freelancer is.
When I was writing nonfiction fulltime, I had some local contacts who paid quickly and who always needed extra freelance help. Those places usually paid less than the national journals that published me, but the smaller publications often got me through.
Sometimes it was a pain in the butt—especially when I had to take 10 $200 jobs to fill one $2000 slot—but that bought time and saved the reserve account for a true emergency.
Generally, in my old lean days, I relied on my nonfiction to get through the fiction shortfalls. A lot of writers can do that.
Since this blog is about fiction writers, however, let’s look at their options without the nonfiction add-on.
Traditional fiction writers don’t have the option of taking 10 quick poorly paying writing jobs to make up for a single writing gig. Most traditional fiction venues pay on their own schedule and usually can’t be convinced to shorten the payment time.
So traditional fiction writers often have to add something to their repertoire—copy editing or teaching a night class at the local community college, something that will make up the short-term cash flow.
Making up the short-term cash flow is toughest for traditional fiction writers, particularly traditional novelists. They have to do something other than fiction writing to pay the bills in the short term.
Indie fiction writers have a variety of options. They can scramble and write some new product, maybe in a series or something, and get their fan base excited about the new material. Even if the new material doesn’t make up the entire shortfall, it will add to the indie writer’s income down the road.
There are other indie ways to goose sales. Lowing the price on the first book of a series and maybe investing some money in a Book Bub or other form of advertising might make up some money in one of those dry months. (That Book Bub money might have to come out of a reserve fund to be repaid when the money from the promotion comes in.)
The other end of the price spectrum for an indie writer is to write something new and release it as a hardcover limited edition special, with all kinds of fancy production values and an autograph at a very high price. You might need fewer than 100 purchases to more than replace your shortfall.
It completely depends on the indie writer’s fan base and the level at which she’s selling. She might be able to goose sales, or she might have to do what the traditional writer does—moonlight on something else.
The nifty thing about being indie, though, is that indie writers have more time to experiment with finding a way to replace the lost income. They can write something new in their series, start a new series, and do some high-end limited edition work. If one of those three gambits don’t work, then maybe something else will.
All of that doesn’t rely on someone else’s publishing schedule and someone else’s payment time table.
Hybrid fiction writers have the best of all worlds. They can use their indie publishing to up their short-term money, just the way that indies do, while using some of the traditional writers’ tricks if necessary.
So the editor at the traditional house won’t get to the novel for another two months? Oh, well. Write something new in the same series for the fans and/or release some more backlist and/or write a new novella in one of your other series and indie publish.
The hybrid writer has options, and those options expand when we look at the next part of the scramble.
This delay in payment, whatever it is, should cause you to re-evaluate your contracts and your ties. Has this company paid late consistently? Is the lateness predictable? If so, they have a different payment system than you initially thought. As I mentioned before, most traditional publishers pay significantly later than they contractually promise. There’s not a problem at the publishing house; it simply means that you have to plan for how they pay instead of how they say they’ll pay.
If the lateness is unusual, shrug it off. If the lateness gets worse and worse each time they owe you money, or if you’re at the point where you have to threaten before they pay you, then you should probably slowly stop working for the company.
Do you have a new editor? Does the editor actually like your work or is she not all that interested? Does she return phone calls? Answer e-mails?
If the answer to any of those questions is no, then re-evaluate your relationship with the company. Don’t pull out of the work you’ve contracted to do. Just don’t contract for any new work.
Do you like working with those companies? Is it too much work for too little money? Do you actually enjoy the writing?
I quit doing nonfiction regularly even though it was lucrative when I realized that it bored me. I knew what I was going to write the moment the research and the interviews had ended.
I had to replace that income with fiction income, and that took a transition. Instead of committing to more nonfiction work, I got a part-time job (that paid significantly less). It carried me over while I redesigned my business to fit who I was, not how I started out.
Are a large number of other writers have the same issues with the company that you are? Are a large number of writers having the same kinds of problems in general that you are?
Writers often think they’re the only ones. In 2011, when I ran into a head-long collision with the world’s worst editor, I solved the problem quickly because I knew how to deal with total assholes who change the rules of the game midway through.
Later, I learned from a writer friend that the other writers in this editor’s stable have also encountered horrible behavior from her. The kind of behavior that should get anyone fired from a corporate job. (Seriously.) Bullying, nasty, horrid behavior.
And the writers think it’s their problem alone. They are afraid to act. Yet if they all let this editor’s boss know, as I did, then maybe the boss would have enough ammunition to finally get rid of this corporate liability.
No matter what the corporation does, the writers should realize that the problem isn’t their behavior. It’s this editor’s. And that should give them comfort and help them plan their escape from working for that company.
Sometimes, the problem isn’t an editor. Sometimes, there’s a shift in the Force, Luke. We saw the world start to change in 2009, and many of us started changing our behavior early. Others jumped on later. But some still don’t understand that this once-staid publishing industry, which had been stable for so long, isn’t the industry they started in.
It’s been disrupted, and they have to plan their business according to the new model, not the old one.
When you step back from a financial setback, and start to figure out what wrong, never discount the overall changes in your industry. In fact, you should always look at the wide picture as well as the small one.
Because sometimes the things you used to do to resolve a financial problem might not be available to you.
Let me give you an old-school example first, and a more modern one second.
My go-to solution as a nonfiction writer in the 1980s to any short-term financial problem was to go to a newspaper—any newspaper—and do freelance work. I would pitch local stories to national papers and I would take national stories and make them local for regional papers.
That’s not a good-paying option any more. It’s really not an option at all.
A lot of writers used to sell more books to their traditional publisher to fill holes in the cash flow. Those books would sell for a predictable advance, usually at $20,000 to $50,000.
Now, those advances are reserved for writers who’ve hit the New York Times bestseller list (not at number one, mind you). Even writers who were once making high six-figures have seen their advances cut, fewer books published, and their publishers unwilling to take another book Just Because.
The changes in both of those methods—the 1980s newspaper method and the 21st century bestseller method—have nothing to do with the individual writer, and everything to do with the changes in the industries.
One part of the freelance scramble is realizing that the music has changed, so the dance must change accordingly.
One delayed payment can cause a cascade effect if you’re not careful. You’re late on the mortgage this month, and you might remain late for the rest of the year.
So, let this missed payment from your client be a shot across the bow. Do some extra work so that you’ll get some extra money six months from now.
Freelancers in traditional publishing do this all the time. They take on another book (as I mentioned above) or they write a bunch of short stories or they write some how-to nonfiction.
If indie writers add to their series to pay short-term bills, those new stories will continue to pay the way long into the following year.
But this part of the freelance scramble is where the hybrid writer really shines.
She can do the short-term indie things to make up the budgetary shortfall, and she can add some longer-term traditional publishing projects to make more money toward the end of the year.
The hybrid writer is so flexible that her options have options. (Okay, the metaphor breaks down, but you know what I mean.)
Keep an eye on what’s going on while you’re scrambling to replace the lost income.
If you replace the lost income correctly and the publisher eventually pays (or your indie sales go back up), you should be able to put that “lost” money into your reserve fund when the money finally shows up.
If you’re a master at the scramble, you won’t take money out of your reserve fund. You’ll end up, before twelve months are over, putting money into the fund.
I know, I know. I’m being more than a little vague here. But as I said when I started this piece, every writer is different. We all have different skills and that means we have different ways to scramble.
Some of us can sell more than one project to more than one traditional publisher. Some of us have editors who’ll work with us on a variety of projects—all we have to do is ask. Some of us have nonfiction skills. Some of us have editing skills. Some of us have the ability to write and publish really, really fast. Some of us have a marvelous fan base that will buy everything in our most popular series.
We just have to think like a freelancer. When the going gets tough, the freelancer scrambles.
And that’s the dance.
Or part of it.
I’ll deal with other parts of the dance in a few more blog posts. There’s a lot to freelance writing that didn’t make it into The Freelancer’s Survival Guide because the Guide is not just geared toward writers but to all freelancers.
So I’ll explore some of this other stuff in the coming weeks.
My blog posts are part of my own freelance career. I have a dozen other things to do, including some major editing and writing projects. I’ve finally started properly prioritizing the blog, which means it has to pull its financial weight to stay high in my to-do list.
So, if you find anything in what I do valuable, please leave a tip on the way out.
Click Here to Go To PayPal.
(Yes, White Mist Mountain is my company name)
“Business Musings: Freelance Scramble Part Two: The Actual Scramble” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
You can now get Vigilantes on all online retailers and in all brick-and-mortar stores. If your favorite brick-and-mortar store isn’t carrying the book, ask them to order it. They’ll be able to get it quickly. So those of you waiting for the trade paper, you can get it now. And those of you who wanted the book on Nook, it’s there too.
And if you want a taste of Starbase Human, then click on this week’s free fiction. The story, “Sole Survivor,” appears in a different form in Starbase Human. And some of you might even begin to figure out where it fits in…
Yep, I’m having fun. I hope you are as well.
Takara Hamasaki made plans to leave the far-flung starbase for weeks, but something always stopped her. Until today. Now, she finds herself running for her life as bodies fall all around her, cut down by dozens of identical-looking men. If only she can reach her ship, maybe she can escape. Because one thing seems perfectly clear: The men attacking the starbase plan to leave no survivors.
“Sole Survivor,” by USA Today bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, was first published in Fiction River: Pulse Pounders. The story will appear in a different form in Starbase Human, Book Seven of the Anniversary Day Saga, and is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, and from other online retailers.
Takara Hamasaki crouched behind the half-open door, her heart pounding. She stared into the corridor, saw more boots go by. Good god, they made such a horrible thudding noise.
Her mouth tasted of metal, and her eyes stung. The environmental system had to be compromised. Which didn’t surprise her, given the explosion that happened not three minutes ago.
The entire starbase rocked from it. The explosion had to have been huge. The base’s exterior was compensating—that had come through her desk just before she left—but she didn’t know how long it would compensate.
That wasn’t true; she knew it could compensate forever if nothing else went wrong. But she had a hunch a lot of other things would go wrong. Terribly wrong.
She’d had that feeling for months now. It had grown daily, until she woke up every morning, wondering why the hell she hadn’t left yet.
Three weeks ago, she had started stocking her tiny ship, the crap-ass thing that had brought her here half her life ago. She would have left then, except for one thing:
She had no money.
Yeah, she had a job, and yeah, she got paid, but it cost a small fortune to live this far out. The base was in the middle of nowhere, barely in what the Earth Alliance called the Frontier, and a week’s food alone cost as much as her rent in the last Alliance place she had stayed. She got paid well, but every single bit of that money went back into living.
Dammit. She should have started sleeping in her ship. She’d been thinking of it, letting the one-room apartment go, but she kinda liked the privacy, and she really liked the amenities—entertainment on demand, a bed that wrapped itself around her and helped her sleep, and a view of the entire public district from above.
She liked to think it was that view that kept her in the apartment, but if she were honest with herself, it was that view and the bed and the entertainment, maybe not in that order.
And she was cursing herself now.
Then the men—they were all men—wearing boots and weird uniforms marched toward the center of the base. Thousands of people lived or stayed here, but there wasn’t much security. Not enough to deal with those men. She would hear that drumbeat of their stupid boots in her sleep for the rest of her life.
If the rest of her life wasn’t measured in hours. If she ever got a chance to sleep again.
Her traitorous heart was beating in time to those boots. She was breathing through her mouth, hating the taste of the air.
If nothing else, she had to get out of here just to get some good clean oxygen. She had no idea what was causing that burned-rubber stench, but something was, and it was getting worse.
More boots stomped by, and she realized she couldn’t tell the difference between the sound of those that had already passed her and those that were coming up the corridor.
She only had fifty meters to go to get to the docking ring, but that fifty meters seemed like a lightyear.
And she wouldn’t even be here, if it weren’t for her damn survival instinct. She had looked up—before the explosion—saw twenty blond-haired men, all of whom looked like twins. Ten twins—two sets of decaplets?—she had no idea what twenty identical people, the same age, and clearly monozygotic, were called. She supposed there was some name for them, but she wasn’t sure. And, as usual, her brain was busy solving that, instead of trying to save her own single individual untwinned life.
She had scurried through the starbase, utterly terrified. The moment she saw those men enter the base, she left her office through the service corridors. When that seemed too dangerous, she crawled through the bot holes. Thank the universe she was tiny. She usually hated the fact that she was the size of an eleven-year-old girl, and didn’t quite weigh 100 pounds.
At this moment, she figured her tiny size might just save her life.
That, and her prodigious brain. If she could keep it focused instead of letting it skitter away.
Twenty identical men—and that wasn’t the worst of it. They looked like younger versions of the creepy pale guys who had come into the office six months ago, looking for ships. They wanted to know the best place to buy ships in the starbase.
There was no place to buy new ships on the starbase. There were only old and abandoned ships. Fortunately, she had managed to prevent the sale of hers, a year ago. She’d illegally gone into the records and changed her ship’s status from delinquent to paid in full, and then she had made that paid-in-full thing repeat every year. (She’d check it, of course, but it hadn’t failed her, and now it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except getting off this damn base.)
Still those old creepy guys had gotten the names of some good dealers on some nearby satellites and moons, and had left—she thought forever—but they had come back with a scary fast ship and lots of determination.
And, it seemed, lots of younger versions of themselves.
(Clones. What if they were clones? What did that mean?)
The drumbeat of their stupid boots had faded. She scurried into the corridor, then heard a high-pitched male scream, and a thud.
Her heart picked up its own rhythm—faster, so fast, in fact that it felt like her heart was trying to get to the ship before she did.
She slammed herself against the corridor wall, felt it give (cheap-ass base) and caught herself before she fell inward on some unattached panel coupling.
She looked both ways, saw nothing, looked up, didn’t see any movement in the cameras—which the base insisted on keeping obvious so that all kinds of criminals would show up here. If the criminals knew where the monitors were, they felt safe, weirdly enough.
And this base needed criminals. This far outside of the Alliance, the only humans with money were the ones who had stolen it—either illegally or legally through some kind of enterprise that was allowed out here, but not inside the Alliance.
And this place catered to humans. It accepted non-human visitors, but no one here wanted them to stay. In the non-Earth atmosphere sections, the cameras weren’t obvious.
She thanked whatever deity was this far outside of the Alliance that she hadn’t been near the alien wing when the twenty creepy guys arrived and started marching in.
And then her brain offered up some stupid math it had been working on while she was trying to save her own worthless life.
She’d seen more than forty boots stomp past her.
That group of twenty lookalikes had only been the first wave.
Another scream and a thud. Then a woman’s voice:
No! No! I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll—
And the voice just stopped. No thud, no nothing. Just silence.
Takara swallowed hard. That metallic taste made her want to retch, but she didn’t. She didn’t have time for it. She could puke all she wanted when she got on that ship, and got the hell away from here.
She levered herself off the wall, wondering in that moment how long the gravity would remain on if the environmental system melted. Her nose itched—that damn smell—and she wiped the sleeve of her too-thin blouse over it.
She should have dressed better that morning. Not for work, but for escape. Stupid desk job. It made her feel so important. An administrator at 25. She should have questioned it.
She should have questioned so many things.
Like the creepy older guys who looked like the baked and fried versions of the men in boots, stomping down the corridors, killing people.
She blinked, wondered if her eyes were tearing because of the smell or because of her panic, then voted for the smell. The air in the corridor had a bit of white to it, like smoke or something worse, a leaking environment from the alien section.
She was torn between running and tip-toeing her way through the remaining forty-seven meters. She opted for a kind of jog-walk, that way her heels didn’t slap the floor like those boots stomped it.
Another scream, farther away, and the clear sound of begging, although she didn’t recognize the language. Human anyway, or something that spoke like a human and screamed like a human.
Why were these matching people stalking the halls killing everyone they saw? Were they trying to take over the base? If so, why not come to her office? Hers was the first one in the administrative wing, showing her lower-level status—in charge, but not in charge.
In charge enough to see that the base’s exterior was compensating for having a hole blown in it. In charge enough to know how powerful an explosion had to be to break through the shield that protected the base against asteroids and out-of-control ships and anything else that bounced off the thick layers of protection.
A bend in the corridor. Her eyes dripped, her nose dripped, and her throat felt like it was burning up.
She couldn’t see as clearly as she wanted to—no pure white smoke any more, some nasty brown stuff mixed in, and a bit of black.
She pulled off her blouse and put it over her face like a mask, wished she had her environmental suit, wished she knew where she could steal one right now, and then sprinted toward the docking ring.
If she kept walk-jogging, she’d never get there before the oxygen left the area.
Then something else shook the entire base. Like it had earlier. Another damn explosion.
She whimpered, rounded the last corner, saw the docking ring doors—closed.
She cursed (although she wasn’t sure if she did it out loud or just in her head) and hoped to that ever-present unknown deity that her access code still worked.
The minute those doors slid open, the matching marching murderers would know she was here. Or rather, that someone was here.
They’d come for her. They’d make her scream.
But she’d be damned if she begged.
She hadn’t begged ever, not when her dad beat her within an inch of her life, not when she got accused of stealing from that high-class school her mother had warehoused her in, not when her credit got cut off as she fled to the outer reaches of the Alliance.
She hadn’t begged no matter what situation she was in, and she wouldn’t now. It was a point of pride. It might be the last point of pride, hell, it might mark her last victory just before she died, but it would be a victory nonetheless, and it would be hers.
Takara slammed her hand against the identiscanner, then punched in a code, because otherwise she’d have to use her links, and she wasn’t turning them back on, maybe ever, because she didn’t want those crazy matching idiots to not only find her, but find her entire life, stored in the personal memory attached to her private access numbers.
The docking ring doors irised open, and actual air hit her. Real oxygen without the stupid smoky stuff, good enough to make her leap through the doors. Then she turned around and closed them.
She scanned the area, saw feet—not in boots—attached to motionless legs, attached to bleeding bodies, attached to people she knew, and she just shut it all off, because if she saw them as friends or co-workers or hell, other human beings, she wouldn’t be able to run past them, wouldn’t be able to get to her ship, wouldn’t get the hell out of here.
She kept her shirt against her face, just in case, but her eyes were clearing. The air here looked like air, but it smelled like a latrine. Death—fast death, recent death. She’d used it for entertainment, watched it, read about it, stepped inside it virtually, but she’d never experienced it. Not really, not like this.
Her ship, the far end of this ring, the cheap area, where the base bent downward and would have brushed the top of some bigger ship, something that actually had speed and firepower and worth.
Then she mentally corrected herself: her ship had worth. It would get her out of this death trap. She would escape before one of those tall blond booted men found her. She would—
—she flew forward, landed on her belly, her elbow scraping against the metal walkway, air leaving her body. Her shirt went somewhere, her chin banged on the floor, and then the sound—a whoop-whamp, followed by a sustained series of crashes.
Something was collapsing, or maybe one of the explosions was near her, or she had no damn idea, she just knew she had to get out, get out, get out—
She pushed herself to her feet, her knees sore too, her pants torn, her stomach burning, but she didn’t look down because the feel of that burn matched the feel of her elbow, so she was probably scraped.
She didn’t even grab her shirt; she just ran the last meter to her ship, which had moved even with its mooring clamps—good god, something was shaking this place, something bad, something big.
Her ship was so small, it didn’t even have a boarding ramp. The door was pressed against the clamps, or it should have been, but there was a gap between the clamps and the ship and the walkway, and it was probably tearing something in the ship, but she didn’t want to think about that so she didn’t.
Instead, she slammed her palm against the door four times, the emergency enter code, which wasn’t a code at all, but was something she thought (back when she was young and stupid and new to access codes) no one would figure out.
What she hadn’t figured out was that no one wanted this cheap-ass ship, so no one tried to break into it. No one wanted to try, no one cared, except her, right now, as the door didn’t open and didn’t open and didn’t open—
—and then it did.
Her brain was slowing down time. She’d heard about this phenomenon, something happened chemically in the human brain, slowed perception, made it easier (quicker?) to make decisions—and there her stupid brain was again, thinking about the wrong things as she tried to survive.
Hell, that had helped her survive as a kid, this checking-out thing in the middle of an emergency, but it wasn’t going to help her now.
She scrambled inside her ship, felt it tilt, heard the hull groan. If she didn’t do something about those clamps, she wouldn’t have a ship.
She somehow remembered to slap the door’s closing mechanism before she sprinted to the cockpit. Her bruised knees made her legs wobbly or maybe the ship was tilting even more. The groaning in the hull was certainly increasing.
The cockpit door was open, the place was a mess, as always. She used to sleep in here on long runs, and she always meant to clean up the blankets and pillows and clothes, but never did.
Now she stood in the middle of it, and turned on the navigation board. She instructed the ship to decouple, then turned her links on—not all of them, just the private link that hooked her to the ship—and heard more groaning.
“Goddammit!” she screamed at the ship, slamming her hands on the board. “Decouple, decouple—get rid of the goddamn clamps!”
Inform space traffic control to open the exit through the rings, the ship said in its prissiest voice as if there was no emergency.
Tears pricked her eyes. Crap. She’d be stuck here because of some goddamn rule that ship couldn’t take off if there was no exit. She’d die if there was another explosion.
“There’s no space traffic control here,” she said. “Space traffic control is dead. We have to get out. Everyone’s dead.”
Her voice wobbled just like the ship had as she realized what she had said. Everyone. Everyone she had worked with, her friends, her co-workers, the people she drank with, laughed with, everyone—
We cannot leave if the exit isn’t open, the ship said slowly and even more prissily, if that were possible.
“Then ram it,” she said.
That will destroy us, the ship said, so damn calmly. Like it had no idea they were about to be destroyed anyway.
Takara ran her fingers over the board, looking for—she couldn’t remember. This thing was supposed to have weapons, but she’d never used them, didn’t know exactly what they were. She’d bought this stupid ship for a song six years ago, and the weapons were only mentioned in passing.
She couldn’t find anything, so she gambled.
“Blow a damn hole through the closed exit,” she said, not knowing if she could do that, if the ship even allowed that. Weren’t there supposed to be failsafes so that no one could blow a hole through something on this base?
That will leave us with only one remaining laser shot, the ship said.
“I don’t give a good goddamn!” she screamed. “Fire!”
And it did. Or something happened. Because the ship heated, and rocked and she heard a bang like nothing she’d ever heard before, and the sound of things falling on the ship.
“Get us out of here!” she shouted.
And the ship went upwards, fast, faster than ever.
She tumbled backwards. The attitude controls were screwed or the gravity or something but she didn’t care.
“Visuals,” she said, and floating on the screens that appeared in front of her was the hole that the ship had blown through the exit, and debris heading out with them, and bits of ship—and then she realized that there were bits of more than ship. Bits of the starbase and other ships and son of a bitch, more bodies and—
“Make sure you don’t hit anything,” she said, not knowing how to give the correct command.
I will evade large debris, the ship said as if this were an everyday occurrence. However, I do need a destination.
“Far the fuck away from here,” Takara said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Out of danger.”
She was pressed against what she usually thought of as the side wall, with blankets and smelly sheets and musty pillows against her.
“And fix the attitude controls and the gravity, would you?” she snapped.
The interior of the ship seemed to right itself. She flopped on her stomach again, only this time, it didn’t hurt.
She stood, her mouth wet and tasting of blood. She put a hand to her face, realized her nose was bleeding, and grabbed a sheet, stuffing it against her skin.
She dragged it with her to the controls. The images had disappeared (had she ordered that? She didn’t remember ordering that) and so she called them up again, saw more body parts, and globules of stuff (blood? Intestines?) and shut it all off—consciously this time.
God, she was lucky. She had administration codes. She had a sense that things were going bad. She had her ship ready. And, most important of all, she had been close enough to the docking ring to get out of there before anyone knew she even existed.
She sank into the chair and closed her eyes, wondering what in the bloody hell was going on.
She’d met those men, the creepy older ones, and asked her boss what they wanted with ships, and he’d said, Better not to ask, hon.
He always called her hon, and she finally realized it was because he couldn’t remember her name. And now he was dead or would be dead or was dying or something awful like that. He’d been inside the administration area when the twenty clones had come in—or the forty clones—or the sixty clones, god, she had no idea how many.
It was her boss’s boss who answered her, later, when she mentioned that the men looked alike.
Don’t ask about it, Takara, he’d said quietly. They’re creatures of someone else. Designer Criminal Clones. They need a ship for nefarious doings.
They’re not in charge? She’d asked.
He’d shaken his head. Someone made them for a job.
Her eyes opened, saw the mess that her cockpit had become. A job. They’d had to find fast ships for a job.
But if the creepy older ones were made for a job, so were the younger versions.
She called up the screens, asked for images of the starbase. It was a small base, far away from anything, important only to malcontents and criminals, and those, like her, whose ships wouldn’t cross the great distance between human-centered planets without a rest and refueling stop.
The starbase was glowing—fires inside, except where the exterior had been breached. Those sections were dark and ruined. It looked like a volcano that had already exploded—twice. More than twice. Several times.
Ship, her ship said, and for a minute, she thought it was being recursive.
“What?” she asked.
Approaching quickly. Starboard side.
She swiveled the view, saw a ship twice the size of hers, familiar too. The creepy older men had come back to the starbase in a ship just like that.
“Can you show me who is inside?” she asked.
I can show you who the ship is registered to and who disembarked from it earlier today, her ship sent. I cannot show who is inside it now.
Then, on an inset screen floating near the other screens, images of the two creepy older men and five younger leaving the ship. They went inside the base.
“Did anyone else who looked like them—”
The other clones disembarked from a ship that landed an hour later, her ship answered, anticipating her question for once. Did ships think?
Then she shook her head. She knew better than that. Ships like this one had computers that could deduce based on past performance, nothing more.
That ship has been destroyed, the ship sent, along with the docking ring.
“What?” Takara asked. She moved the imagery again, saw another explosion. The docking ring about five minutes after she left.
She was trembling. Everyone gone. Except her. And the creepy men, and maybe the five young guys they had brought with them.
Bastards. Filthy stinking horrible asshole bastards.
“You said we have one shot left,” she said.
“Target that ship,” she said. “Blow the hell out of it.”
Our laser shot cannot penetrate their shields.
Her gaze scanned the area. Other ships whirling, twirling, looping through space, heading her way.
She ran through the records stored in her links. She’d always made copies of things. She was anal that way, and scared enough to figure she might need blackmail material.
One thing she did handle as a so-called administrator: requests to dock for ships with unusual fuel sources. She kept them on the far side of the ring.
She scanned for them, and their unusual size, saw one, realized it had a huge fuel cell, still intact.
“Can you shoot that ship?” she asked, sending the image across the links, “and push it into the manned ship?”
What she wanted to say was “the ship with the creepy guys,” but she knew her ship wouldn’t know what she meant.
Yes, her ship sent. But it will do nothing to the ship except make them collide.
“Oh, yes it will,” Takara said. “Make sure the fuel cell hits the manned ship directly.”
That will cause a chain reaction that will be so large it might impact us, her ship sent.
“Yeah, then get us out of here,” Takara said.
We have a forty-nine percent chance of survival if we try that, her ship sent.
“Which is better than what we’ll have if that fucking ship catches up with us,” Takara said.
Are you ordering me to take the shot? Her ship asked.
Her ship shook slightly as the last laser shot emerged from the front. The manned ship didn’t even seem to notice or care that she had firepower. Of course, from their perspective, she had missed them.
The shot went wide, hit the other ship, and destroyed part of its hull, pushing it into the manned ship.
And nothing happened. They collided, and then bounced away, the manned ship’s trajectory changed and little else.
Then the other ship’s fuel cell glowed green, and Takara’s ship sped up, again losing attitude control and sending her flying into the back wall.
An explosion—green and gold and white—flashed around her.
She looked up from the pile of blankets at the floating screens, saw only debris, and asked, “Did we do it?”
Our shot hit the ship. It exploded. Our laser shot ignited the fuel cell—
“I know,” she snapped. “What about the manned ship?”
It is destroyed.
She let out a sigh of relief, then leaned back against the wall, gathering the pillows and blanket against her. The blood had dried on her face, and she hadn’t even noticed until now. Her elbow ached, her knees stung, and her stomach hurt, and she felt—
She felt alive and giddy and sad and terrified and…
She scanned through the information on the creepy men. They didn’t have names, at least that they had given to the administration. Just numbers. Numbers that didn’t make sense.
She saw some imagery: the men talking to her boss, saying something about training missions for their weapons, experimental weapons, and something about soldiers—a promise of a big payout if the experiment worked.
And if it doesn’t? her boss asked.
The creepy men smiled. You’ll know if it doesn’t.
Practice sessions. Soldiers. A failed experiment. Had her boss realized that’s what this was in his last moment of life? Had he indeed known?
And the men, heading off to report the failure to someone.
But they hadn’t gotten there. She had stopped them.
But not the someone in charge.
She ran a hand over her face. She would send all of this to Alliance. There wasn’t much more she could do. She wasn’t even sure what the Alliance could do.
This was the Frontier. It was lawless by any Alliance definition. Each place governed itself.
She had liked that when she arrived. She was untraceable, unknown, completely alone.
Then she’d made friends, realized that every place had a rhythm, every place had good and bad parts, and she had decided to stay. Become someone.
Until she got that feeling from the creepy men, and had planned to leave.
“Fix the attitude and gravity controls, would you?” she asked, only this time, she didn’t sound panicked or upset.
The ship righted itself. Apparently when it sped up, it didn’t have enough power for all of its functions. She was going to need to get repairs.
Maybe in the Alliance. She had enough fuel to get there.
She’d been stockpiling. Food, fuel, everything but money.
She could get back to a place where there were laws she understood, where someone didn’t blow up a starbase as an experiment with creepy matching soldiers.
She’d let the authorities know that someone—a very scary someone—was planning something. But what she didn’t know. She didn’t even know if it was directed against the Alliance.
She would guess it wasn’t.
It would take more than twenty, forty, sixty, one hundred matching (fuckups) soldiers to defeat the Alliance. No one had gone to war against it in centuries. It was too big.
Something like this had to be Frontier politics. A war against something else, or an invasion or something.
And it had failed.
All of the soldiers had died.
Along with everyone else.
Except her, of course.
She hadn’t died.
She had lived to tell about it.
And she would tell whoever would listen.
Once she was safe inside the Alliance.
A place too big to be attacked. Too big to be defeated.
Too big to ever allow her to go through anything like this again.
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Fiction River: Pulse Pounders, edited by Kevin J. Anderson, WMG Publishing, January 2015
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Philcold/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
The freelance scramble is, in short, pivoting to replace money lost with a new way of earning money. Tough, and not the way most people usually think.
I knew that most people would just pass over the phrase and not give it too much thought. A few folks posted about their freelance scramble, but most writers—particularly those caught in lost income and the need to rebuild their careers—have no idea what, exactly, the freelance scramble is.
Writers who become successful freelancers learn how to manage money. But more than that, they learn how to manage cash flow.
Cash flow is the way that the money comes in, not how much is owed or how much will be paid.
For example, a freelance writer with traditional publishing contracts will have the pay schedule delineated out in that contract. The lump sum advance is listed, along with the way it will be paid. For example, many contracts these days look like this:
1/3 on signing
1/3 on acceptance
1/3 on publication
So, if a writer gets a $12,000 advance, she’ll get $4000 on the signing of the contract, $4000 on the acceptance of the manuscript, and $4000 on publication of the book. Those three events, in traditional publishing, often happen in three different years.
(Once upon a time, advances were large enough so that the writer wouldn’t have to have a day job. But can you live on $4000 per year? Do you know any midlist writers getting $12,000 advances these days? Okay, that’s all a different blog post.)
What writers soon learn is this: $4000 on signing doesn’t mean the day the contract is signed. It means “sometime after the contract is signed, a check will appear—maybe 30, 60, 90 or 120 days later.” Acceptance is worse, because the manuscript has to be accepted first—and that can take months after turn-in. Then that 30, 60, 90 day thing starts all over again. And publication—well, the payment doesn’t come when the book comes out. The invoice gets triggered in the publishing house, and the writer then gets paid some undefined period of time later.
(In the past, I did my best to define that period of time by contract which was about as effective as pissing into the wind, and sometimes a lot less pleasant.)
Successful freelance writers learned how to manage the vagaries of lump-sum checks arriving at irregular intervals. Some writers had several publishers. Other writers augmented their book publishing with short fiction or nonfiction or tech writing.
The problem with all of that, though, was the same: Each company paid the writer in its own way, and in its own time.
Long-time freelance writers are very happy with their indie publishing careers because the checks from the online retailers arrive at regular intervals. Most pay monthly. A few pay biweekly. Some pay every quarter (I’m looking at you, Smashwords.) And the writer always knows what the payment will be.
For example, if a writer’s January sales figures on Amazon US were $1,000, the writer knows she’ll get a $1,000 from Amazon in March. The same with the other online retailers. Generally speaking the writer knows how much she’ll get paid two months before she gets her check.
Which is better than that ill-defined system traditional publishers have. But it’s still dicey. Because, as the KU Apocalypse proved to so many writers, you can’t count on earning the same amount of money in September as you did in January.
At some point, all of freelancing is by guess and by golly.
This is where the freelance scramble comes in. Long-time freelancers learn to hope for the best and plan for the worst.
Yes, it would be nice to make that $1000 every month on Amazon, but what happens if sales drop over the summer?
Or let’s use larger numbers, shall we? The life-saving numbers that a lot of midlist writers have been earning. I’m going to go with $10,000 per month from various online retailers for the indie writer because that’s a nice number that I can add up quickly.
It’s also a number that a lot of midlist writers have been hitting in their publishing careers. It’s not the number that the indie bestsellers make, by a long way, but it works for the purposes of this article.
Let’s hypothesize this: An indie writer grows her backlist and eventually hits $10,000 from all channels. She does that three months in a row: October, November, and December.
During the last week of December, our fictional indie writer sits down and plans the next year’s finances, thinking she’ll make $120,000. She also thinks she’s being conservative by not getting the same increase in income that she got the year before.
Maybe she takes on more debt, maybe she spends a little too much over the holidays, or maybe she does something seemingly innocuous like setting up automated payments for everything from her mortgage to her car payment.
And then she makes $9000 in January and $6000 in February and “bottoms out” at $5000 in March. Never mind that the $5000 is double what she made the previous March. Now, she’s “losing” money. And because she set up those automated payments, thinking the income would remain the same, she actually overdrew her account for the first time since college. Now she’s got fees and decreased income, and she feels awful about an increase in her income.
Because she’s not used to the freelance scramble.
Think of the freelance scramble as one of those complicated dances that you watch from the sidelines and think you can never learn the intricate moves. Or think of it as a popular sport from another country that looks like a group of people running chaotically across a field. Clearly, they have a plan in mind, but the plan’s not obvious to someone who has never seen the game before.
The freelance scramble’s just like that. If we’ve had any financial education at all (and I say “if,” because in America, most people get none until they go out on their own and wing it), we learn how to handle a paycheck. We know we’ll get roughly $2000 every two weeks for as long as we have the job, and we know that salary has to cover all of our bills every month with some to spare (if we’re lucky).
We can’t rent a $5000 per month house, we can’t have a $3000 monthly car payment, and we can’t take $100,000 vacations on that salary. Not only is that common sense, but the arithmetic is fairly simple.
But a freelancer can’t rely on $2000 every two weeks. Even if the freelancer has indie income combined with traditional income, and even if the freelancer figures out how much she’s owed for the next six months, she can’t guarantee that the money will flow in the time that it’s allotted.
The traditional income is generally late. The indie income will arrive on time, but the freelancer has no idea what that income will be six months hence.
Which means that the freelancer must learn the scramble.
Here are some of the elements of the scramble, in no particular order:
The Freelancer Needs Three Cash Flow Charts:
The first chart shows how everything might flow.
The second chart shows how it probably will flow.
The third chart shows the absolute worst case scenario…assuming the freelancer does get paid.
There is a fourth chart that every freelancer keeps in his head, and that chart is what happens if the money doesn’t come at all. We’ll get to that next week.
The first chart is always the best case scenario. What would happen if freelancing were part of the real world which, unfortunately, it ain’t. Most freelancers have no clout with the organizations that pay them, so writers (and other freelancers) often get paid late. Experienced freelancers learn how to gain clout and/or how to leverage what little clout they have into making certain they get paid. I’ll discuss that in depth next week.
The second chart is the realistic one. If an account promises to pay on thirty days, plan for ninety. If your biggest account is a traditional publisher, plan for 120 days after the promised due date.
If you’re an indie writer, plan for the lowest level of income you’ve had in the last six months and extrapolate that forward. In other words, our fictional freelance heroine should have planned for her September income, whatever it had been, not her astronomical (to her) October, November, and December income.
Or to make our math easier, she should have planned that her income would be $2500 from the various freelance sources and then been pleased whenever it went past that amount. She would have been happy with January, February, and March instead of disappointed. She could revise the income projections in June, and provided her new baseline had become $5000, used that instead.
The extra money wouldn’t have been spent, then. It would have been banked and used to pay off loans or put into a reserve account. Instead, in our fictional example, our heroine ended up owing more money after earning the most money of her freelance life. (This happens to first-time freelancers a lot.)
The third chart happens to every freelancer, more than once. Companies who owe the freelancer go bankrupt. Some companies simply refuse to pay. (I’ll deal with that too in a later part of this mini-series.) Other companies run into short-term difficulties—even big companies. I’ve mentioned before that after 9/11, Dean and I did not get paid by our gigantic traditional publishing companies for six months. A major crisis happened in New York in 2001, and it had an impact on the publishing industry—including writers across the country.
Shit happens. Freelancers must plan for the shit, even if they never put that plan into action.
Have An Easily Accessible Reserve Fund
There will come a time when all of your options fail you. If you have enough money to get through the next six months or even the next three, you have bought yourself time to scramble.
Our imaginary freelancer should have banked the extra money in October, November, and December (after buying herself a nice little [and I mean little] something as an acknowledgement of the coolness of what has happened). If she had banked half of that $10,000 per month, she would have $15,000 to get her through rough times.
If she banked everything over the expected $2,500, she would have had $22,500 to get her through rough times.
Yes, I know. It’s not sensible to put that much money in a standard bank account that doesn’t earn much interest.
It’s not sensible…when you have a day job that pays regularly. But when you’re freelancing, you need a good cushion that you can move money from quickly without penalty. How much goes in that poorly earning savings account is up to you.
It should be enough to get you through three to six months. Then you can put the money in other non-risky things—not the stock market or a 401K.
In fact, the best thing to do after building up a reserve account is to pay off as much of your debt load as possible. I mention this in the Freelancer’s Survival Guide, but it’s part of the scramble.
Pay off your car—or buy a car with cash. It’s better to have a car and no car payment in a time of no money than it is to “save” money and have a lease or pay over time.
Again, this is all counterintuitive to the way that day-job people live, but you’re not a day-job person.
If possible, pay off your mortgage as well. And pay down your credit cards every single month. There might come a time when you need to charge them back up again (in one of those emergency periods), so it’s better to have them empty most of the time.
Right now, with interest rates so low, it’s better to pay off things that have high interest rates than it is to put money in certificates of deposit or other interest-bearing accounts. If interest rates paid to savings accounts go up, then you might have to compare the interest rate on your credit card or your car loan with the amount you can earn in a CD. If your credit costs you more than you will earn in a CD, then pay off the credit.
That way, you’ll have more money to get you through the tough times. You won’t be worrying about keeping a roof over your head or being able to drive to the post office. And believe me, I’ve known freelancers who’ve gone through that.
Before you add an expense as a freelancer, imagine paying for that item in times of no money. If you can’t imagine paying for that thing when you’re broke, don’t get it in the first place.
That goes double for trips or vacations. Once the trip is over, and your favorite client disappears owing you $20,000, will you regret taking the trip? Probably. So think it through—and again, only travel when you have the money to pay for the trip up front.
No Freelancer Should Ever Work For Just One Company
The State of Oregon has a name for freelancers with only one client—employees. Yep, in the state I live in, one sign of a freelance business is more than one client.
Hmmm…a state encouraging common sense. That’s not really the state’s reason for doing so, but that’s the net effect.
Don’t put your eggs in one basket ever. As a freelancer, that’s a recipe for disaster, as those who got harmed in the KU Apocalypse found out. One change, one bad decision by the company you’re working with, and you could lose everything.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, particularly when one client or one online retailer treats you really well. But you need to look at the large client as an opportunity that will go away.
When I talk about negotiating a contract, I tell writers they must imagine that the nice person they’re negotiating with will move on and be replaced by a demon from hell. That evil demon from hell sometimes replaces the nice person who treats freelancers well inside a business.
The thing is, the demon from hell can show up at any point. And the freelancer might not notice until he turns in the latest project or he gets a seemingly innocuous e-mail explaining that terms of service for the online retailer have changed ever so slightly.
What might seem slight to that online retailer might be huge to the freelancer—because you’re in different businesses, after all. Your needs might no longer coincide.
This happens in traditional publishing as well. Sometimes you will hear writers talk about being orphaned. What they mean is that the editor with whom they’ve been working has been fired or promoted or laid off, and another editor takes the first editor’s place.
Sometimes the new editor is better than the previous one. That happened to me more than once. But often, the new editor plays those stupid corporate games that drive me crazy. You know the one—where the new editor destroys everything his predecessor did so that his predecessor gets no credit for anything, and the new editor has a blank slate. Editors will deliberately tank a previous editor’s acquisitions to make certain that the new editor gets credit for improving the department.
Those acquisitions? They’re books…from writers…who put their hearts and souls into the project.
It’s ugly and it hurts, and it happens too often—even now. At least now, writers have a place to go.
But indie writers make the same mistakes as traditional ones. When someone asks you—the freelancer—for exclusivity, you say no. If you’re told that no is not an option, then you walk away from the company and/or the project.
Because your independence is what matters. Always.
Never ever work for one company.
Never Write Only One Thing
The writing corollary to never work for just one company is never write just one type of story or article. I often encourage writers to stretch themselves. This isn’t just so that they grow as artists (although that’s a side benefit). It’s also so that they have other skills to rely on when the going gets tough.
As I mentioned last week, subgenres can lose sales as readers tire of the subgenre. Or when a writer loses her best market, that market might be the only place which takes whatever it is that the writer specializes in.
Make sure you have other specialties.
Yes, it’s appropriate to focus on what’s working at the moment, but keep a toe in something else, because what’s working at the moment might be passé in 2017. Be prepared for that. It might never happen to you, but if it does, you have another skill to draw on.
Yes, there’s a lot more to the freelance scramble than those few things I’ve listed above. As I started to write this, I realized I have enough material for at least two more blog posts. So let’s call this an accidental series.
I’ll add more plays to the scramble next week.
One reason I changed the hard deadline on my business blog was so that I could do the freelance scramble. Ironically for me, the scramble isn’t how to run around to get enough for the bills, but how do I fit all the work I want to do (and will get paid to do) into my work week without shorting myself on sleep.
That’s what indie publishing has done for me. I’ve kept up part of the traditional career, added editing back in, continued teaching, and I’m writing all the projects I want to write—including this blog.
You folks are what makes the blog fun, though. I love the comments and I greatly appreciate the donations.
The money I earn on the blog factors into when I write it. If the earnings decrease, the blog must (of necessity) move down my to-do list.
So, if you’re enjoying the blog, please let friends know about it, and/or leave a tip on the way out.
Thanks so much!
Click Here to Go To PayPal.
(Yes, White Mist Mountain is my company name)
“Business Musings: The Freelance Scramble,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
I know some of you have been reading along with each release. Thank you! I hope you’re having as much fun reading the books as I had writing them.
“Playing with Reality” by USA Today bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers.
I’m also finishing a new writing book, based on some of the blogs, and I’ll have more news on that shortly. And while doing all that, I’ve written seven short stories. (Well, five short stories, one novella, and a novelette.) I hope to finish two more this week. Busy, busy, busy.
In addition, I have several new editing projects that I’ll announce soon. And, I’m currently line editing some Fiction River volumes. Which leads me right into the news:
Risk Takers is out! I love this volume of Fiction River and I didn’t even edit it. Dean did. But let me tell you a story about the volume.
Risk Takers was assigned as part of last year’s anthology workshop. We’ve been doing anthology workshops for more than a decade now, and sometimes we’ve had “live” anthologies and sometimes we haven’t. By “live,” I mean anthologies that are already sold. Last year, we had six Fiction River anthologies as the assignments. Here’s the thing: there’s no guarantee we’ll get any stories from the workshops. I remember one year that everyone missed on something called Fairy Noir or something like that. Not a single story in the bunch.
So we editors always expect to get a few stories for our anthology, but we never hope to fill the anthology. Last year, Risk Takers was up first, and of the 50+ stories Dean had to look at, he found very few. Mostly he got stories about people with gambling addictions–not at all what he wanted. He wanted stories about people who take risks, not people who need to find a 12-step program. He did not fill the anthology.
Except he had a plan: he stole stories from every other editor’s issue. He had a list of other stories he wanted, and if the other editors passed on them, he took them. He ended up with enough for his anthology and more.
I had no idea how these stories would go together. Then I read the final version of the anthology. Wow. I think it’s one of our strongest Fiction River volumes yet. It crosses genres from thriller to steampunk, from historical to science fiction, but every single story centers around a character taking a major risk. Including my story, “Rats,” which Dean asked for. He had read it long before the anthology came up and remembered it. It’s a dark and rather weird tale that I would put in the crime category, although it’s even a bit strange for that.
So here’s Risk Takers. It includes two marvelous stories from Dan C. Duval (in different genres, natch), a great sports story from Chrissy Wissler, a surprisingly little fantasy tale from Anthea Sharp, an nifty urban fantasy tale from Phaedra Weldon, some great Westerns from Cindie Geddes, and Kerrie Hughes & John Helfers, some fascinating gambling stories from T.D. Edge, Lee Allred, and Brigid Collins, some stories I’d be hard-pressed to categorize by Annie Reed, and Robert T. Jeschonek (you have to read this one!), a Poker Boy story (also, natch), and two World War II stories by Christy Fifield and Russ Crossley. I don’t think I missed anyone. Lots of great reads, several bestselling and/or award-winning authors, and all kinds of adventure. Risks! Excitement! And, in two different cases, the saving of the entire world! What more could you ask for?
If you’ve never tried Fiction River before, and you want a little more bang for your buck, then head over to Storybundle.com. For only four more days, you can get a group of novels and anthologies for as little as $5. Another of Dean’s Fiction River anthologies, Time Streams, is in the Time Travel bundle—along with one of my novels (Snipers), one of Dean’s novels (The Edwards Mansion), and a lot more. In fact, most of the novels in the bundle that I’ve read are in the bonus section (which will cost you all of $14–the price of a trade paperback–and you get 12 ebooks!). I think of bundles as anthologies for book-length fiction, places where you can discover new-to-you writers while getting a deal on one of your favorites. So hurry on over before this deal goes away.
The other news? The March issue of Galaxy’s Edge (it’s not too late to tell you about March, is it?) contains my story “June Sixteenth at Anna’s.” I’m particularly proud of that story, which is the first thing I could write after 9/11. Also, my story “Play Like a Girl,” is in this amazing audio edition of Stars, which is up for an Audie award. If you’re an audio fan, you need to give this one a listen. Both Galaxy’s Edge and Stars are edited (well, in the case of Stars, co-edited) by Mike Resnick, who is Hugo-nominated for his editing work this year. Mike co-edited Stars with Janis Ian. The stories in that volume are based on her songs, and she read some of the stories in the audio edition. Pick it up.
That’s the short fiction news. More news later in the week, but I now need to get to the weekly professional writers lunch before they eat everything in the restaurant….
Throughout the entire month, I got e-mails from writers at the end of their ropes. Some were losing their traditional contracts; others had seen their indie sales fall through the floor; still others were thinking of declaring bankruptcy. A handful asked for the names of attorneys to sue various and asundry publishers, agents, subrights organizations—you name it. And another handful wanted to know why they weren’t making the promised millions.
Welcome to the garbage pit found at the end of the gold rush.
The garbage pit is a tough place to be. I know this from experience. And a lot of you got personal answers from me, but they weren’t as in-depth as what I’m about to say here.
Bear with me as I set this up:
There really was a gold rush in ebook publishing, and it lasted longer than I had thought it would. (I explored the end of the gold rush in more depth in this blog post.) The gold rush started tapering off in 2012, but smart indies kept their income alive by moving with the changes in the industry for another year or more.
Then the tricks stopped working completely. On the Kindle Boards, they actually have a phrase for the end of the gold rush era: they call it the KU Apocalypse. The introduction of Kindle Unlimited put the final nail in the gold rush’s coffin. The readers who want free all the time had only to subscribe to KU to get all the books they wanted. With KU, writers got a fraction of what they were being paid before.
There is anecdotal evidence that the KU Apocalypse also hit the writers who weren’t exclusive with Kindle. In fact, some say, that’s where the apocalypse hit first.
I don’t know, because I have never allowed my ebooks to be exclusive. It cuts out too many readers, especially in growing markets, like iBooks. But indie writer after indie writer reported huge sales losses—many going from making tens of thousands per month to only making hundreds.
Tales like this were happening before the summer of 2014, but in the summer of 2014, some big names were affected, and that made national (mainstream) news.
That last bit showed hundreds of authors that the get-rich-quick schemes of the early indie days had a shelf-life, just like everything else in the world. The problem was—and is—that so many of these authors never planned for the gravy train to end.
I tried to talk about it. And I often got shouted down by people with only a few years in the business, people who told me I didn’t understand the new world of publishing. I tried to warn them that nothing remains the same, and they ignored me or attacked me whenever and wherever they could.
Now, the sites where the arguing happened have tamed down. The writers who had “the secret” have all but vanished. Those who remain are fantastic writers who actually built a fan base. And the other thing about those who remain? They wrote a lot of books while promoting and using all the indie tricks to improve sales.
Those books are good. The fans want to continue reading those books, and buy the next. It always comes down to writing a lot of good material, be those serials or linked short stories or large novels. Fans like what fans like, and will follow those series or those writers as long as the entire project remains fresh.
Does this mean that everyone whose indie writing career has trundled downhill have written bad books? Not at all. There are other issues at play here. Some of them have to do with bad covers or poor copy editing or poor content editing (for the difference, see this post). Some have bad book descriptions or blurbs. And a whole bunch of the books, more than I want to say, are just okay.
There’s nothing wrong with “just okay,” except that it doesn’t inspire readers to return for the next book. Just okay sold in the early part of the gold rush because there wasn’t enough supply to meet the demand for ebooks. Even traditional books were poorly scanned, not edited at all, and had terrible covers in those early years.
The problem is that eventually most writers and companies improved their e-book delivery. What was once good enough when there was limited choice became less desirable when the choices became unlimited.
Still, a lot of writers hung on, believing ebook gurus who claimed to know the “secret” of getting books in front of others. The secret kept changing. First it was free or 99 cents, then promoting on this book website or doing blog tours or getting into a 99-cent bundle with 10 other writers.
The thing is if it was easy to make a fortune using these techniques, every single writer with a modicum of skill who tried the techniques would be making tens of thousands of dollars. And while that happened for some writers, it didn’t happen for all writers even during the gold rush.
Now that the gold rush is over, the indie writers who earned a lot and are now earning one-tenth or even less of what they had previously earned are feeling like failures.
How do I know this? Because I’ve watched it for decades. Not with indie writers, but with traditional ones. Whether you like it or not, the pattern is the same.
Back when I started, the writers who’d been in the business a long time tried to warn new writers not to quit their day jobs when they got their first book advance. Yet I personally know dozens of writers who did. They sold a three-book contract for more money than they’d seen at one time, and think they had it made.
Let’s set aside how hard it is to freelance. I wrote an entire book about that. Let’s just look at the vagaries of writing.
Not every novel published traditionally succeeds. In fact, most don’t. Just like most indie books fail to make sales that can provide the writer with a living.
The writing career doesn’t follow a steady uphill trajectory. Unlike a salaried position where you remain at the same rate of pay until you get a raise, writing is filled with ups and downs. The writing career is made up of a succession of waves. Sometimes the waves are so huge that they could swamp a cruise ship, and sometimes they’re so tiny as to be invisible to all but the person measuring them.
And around every wave is a trough.
Sometimes—often—a writing career will dip to its lowest level ever before or after it hits its highest level ever.
The writers who stay in the business are the ones who learn how to surf. Have you ever watched surfers? They ride each wave, then paddle to the next. Sometimes they fall off their boards. Sometimes they go deep underwater, shoved by the force of the crash.
Most people fall off a surfboard once, get water up their nose, feel like they’re about to drown, and try something else—snorkeling, maybe, or swimming in a pool. Surfers are a special breed.
So are career writers.
The key to a career writer, as I’ve often said, is the ability to get back up after a large fall. Repeatedly. Unfortunately it’s not different in the indie business.
All of the indie changes—the things that are still going on—are indie waves, things writers have to surf. Some writers have survived and thrived through the KU Apocalypse. Some, like the circle I hang around with, never even felt it because no one discounted books (except for specials) and no one went Kindle-only.
That doesn’t make us smarter. We’ve had other highs and lows.
Some of the indie waves most of us never saw. I’m sure a lot of writers vanished around 2010 when readers demanded professional covers on the books they bought. I’m sure more writers vanished when traditional publishers finally caught a clue and learned how to produce lovely e-books, making the ebook standard the same professional standard that print books had. Those indie books with bad copy editing, misspellings, and weird pagination on every page? They no longer looked like traditional books; they looked amateur—and zingo! The writers who didn’t improve the quality of their epubs vanished.
The KU Apocalypse was dramatic because it hurt so many writers who were making a good living. A lot of those writers have hoped for a resurgence. They’re trying everything they can to capture lightning in a bottle a second time.
I know how they feel. I’ve had those moments in my career and I’ve counseled friends through them.
There are three very hard parts to being in that situation.
The first hard part is the financial situation itself. The first time most writers quit their day jobs because a lot of money is coming in regularly, the writers make basic financial errors. They don’t save for a rainy day. They believe the financial highs will continue (that upward trajectory thing I mentioned).
So when the first trough hits, writers in this situation have no resources to spare. They’ve quit their job, and they haven’t yet learned the freelance scramble. (The freelance scramble is, in short, pivoting to replace money lost with a new way of earning money. Tough, and not the way most people usually think.)
The second hard part is accurately assessing the situation. So many writers (and other freelancers) will look at an industry change and think it is only a blip. That blip will pass, they believe, and so they make no alterations to what they’re doing. They continue writing, publishing, using the same tools that had once made them the tens of thousands every month—only this time, those tools no longer work.
I’m not saying that the writers should quit, not at all. In fact, that guarantees failure. But writers need to assess what’s really going on. Is it a sea-change in the industry? The advent of Kindle Unlimited wasn’t a sea change, but a confirmation that the sea-change had already occurred. The influx of traditional publishers into the ebook market was inevitable, but it created a sea change that ruined the gold rush for a lot of indie writers. And so on.
Sometimes the sea change is genre-specific. When the Berlin Wall fell, spy novelists became irrelevant overnight. That genre has just started its comeback in this century. The fall of the Wall made no difference to romance writers or fantasy writers. I’m not even sure most of them noticed that a change was occurring in the publishing industry.
A sea change—and I don’t care what it is—never affects all writers equally. Which makes it hard to respond, because there’s no set way to handle what’s going on.
It makes writers take the change personally. And it makes assessment hard.
Have the books stopped selling at large numbers because of a sea change affecting much of the industry? Or have my books stopped selling (and no one else’s)? Or have my books stopped selling because they’re poorly written? Or have my books stopped selling because they’re poorly produced? Or because they’re hard to find? Or? Or? Or?
Sometimes, this need to reassess plus the financial stress makes it almost impossible for the writer to have any coherent thoughts at all. Writing itself becomes impossible, which makes the situation even worse and makes the panic grow.
Plus, on top of it all, is the third hard part.
Every writer I’ve ever met who encounters his first trough feels like a failure. The loss of income, the inability to sell at previous levels (whether indie or traditional), the fact that what once worked no longer works seems personal—especially if that writer’s friends are still doing well.
The writer blames himself, and in blaming himself, starts into a cycle of fear and scrambling that can lead to truly muddled thinking.
I can’t tell you how many times traditional writers have come to me since 2009, asking to take classes in writing craft because they weren’t able to sell another midlist novel, not understanding that the changes in the industry had caused most midlist writers to be on a become-a-bestseller-or-get-dumped treadmill.
Now indie writers are finding themselves in the same place. They think their writing is to blame for the loss of sales.
Sometimes that’s true. A lot of indie writers succeeded without learning the rudimentaries of their craft. These writers are often good storytellers, but the writing itself is so dense or flabby that readers have to wade through it to get to the great story. Or the writer writes sterling prose that goes nowhere. In both cases, the writer needs to work on craft.
But in so many cases, the problem isn’t craft. It’s the publishing side. Once upon a time (six years ago) writers could upload a Word document, slap a self-designed cover on all of it, and sell thousands of copies. Now, Word documents get chewed to pieces by the various online retail self-publishing sites, and terrible covers are no longer forgivable—and these are just a few examples of publishing problems that could have led to a decrease in sales.
The largest reason I’ve seen with indie writers whose sales decrease, though, is that they spent all their time promoting one or two books, instead of writing more books. After a while, those two books will find most of their audience. A new book refreshes, and brings in new readers who find the new book, and haven’t read the old ones.
But here’s the harsh truth: Often sales of books decrease through no fault of the writer at all. As I said before, sea changes in the industry cause one subgenre to become hot while a formerly hot subgenre goes stale. Writers in that second subgenre will see sales decrease as a matter of course.
And readers move. In January, Apple announced that iBooks downloads are increasing because (doh!) Apple finally included iBooks on its iPhones. (And they did a big promotion as well.)
I know that Kobo is also changing its ecosystem, and it is increasing its sales as well. Amazon’s share of the ebook marketplace has gone down in the past six years as these new players are actually getting a foothold in the market. (I can’t easily find the actual numbers at the moment. So, in the spirit of getting the blog up this week, I’m going to add a link later…if I remember.)
If the readers move to a new platform, the writers who remain on the old platform will see sales decrease. Writers on new platforms (or better yet, all platforms) will see sales remain steady or rise.
Once you’ve been in business a long time—any business—you learn that outside events have an impact on what you do. And sometimes you just have to survive those outside events.
Sometimes you can make changes and sometimes those changes are hard ones to even contemplate.
But before we get to the hard part, let me say this:
I know these publishing changes in the past year have felt horrible. If I were to say that the changes aren’t personal, I would be wrong. It is personal to each and every writer affected by those changes. It hurts. It’s hard. It feels like failure.
It’s not failure.
Failure is the end result only if you quit. If you move to another profession. If you give up writing altogether.
Then yes, these events have equaled failure for you.
The key is to accept that feeling, and acknowledge that these changes seem personal. Then set that feeling aside (or deal with it after business hours) and move forward.
Because going forward is the only way to salvage your writing career.
Sometimes, going forward means taking what you might consider to be a step backwards.
Go get a day job.
I’m totally serious. If you’ve lost thousands of dollars of monthly income in the past year, and you have no reserves, a day job will solve one of your serious problems. It’ll ease your financial stress.
Yes, it’ll place stress on your time, but we all started with day jobs. We all know how to work around them.
And really, isn’t it better to pay the mortgage than it is to worry about where the mortgage payment comes from?
The next time you start making a lot of money on your writing—and believe me, you will make money again—have a large emergency fund before quitting your day job. And then only tap that fund when you are in an actual emergency.
Why am I recommending this? Because once the financial pressure eases, you’ll be able to assess your situation better. You’ll be able to gain some perspective, because your level of panic will go down.
And, ironically, a day job will give you more time.
That sounds weird, because of course, your writing time has decreased. But you won’t have to make emergency decisions to put food on the table. You won’t be focused on every dime at the same time you’re trying to examine what wrong turn you made. You will be able to make future plans again.
Going back to the day job isn’t a failure.
It’s a necessity.
Every single successful freelance writer I’ve ever met bounced on and off day jobs early on in her career. Every single one—except those who have a spouse, significant other, or family member who was willing to bankroll the ups and downs of a writing career.
Using the day job to relieve financial stress is a time-honored freelancer tradition.
Indie writers have never faced this before. Most of them believed that the gold rush would last forever. Some burned bridges horribly with their day jobs, so there’s no returning.
But there are other day jobs. Most freelancers get lower-level service jobs to tide them over—not career jobs. Things like retail or waiting tables or temp work. Those will often pay the bills until it’s time to freelance again.
Never look at one trough—no matter how deep—as the end of your career. It’s only the end of your career if you end your career.
You need to keep moving forward.
I know it’s hard. I know it’s breaking your heart. I know it hurts.
But if quitting writing hurts worse, then stand back up. Square your shoulders, and figure out how to continue writing.
You used to write because it was fun. Make writing fun again. Take the pressure off.
Then figure out what to do next.
There are no right or wrong answers. There’s only what’s good or bad for you.
If you use that as your guidepost, you will make the right decision. Not the decision your friends agree with or your writer pals online think is best. You’ll make the decision you can live with. And believe me, that’s the best decision of all.
When I came back to blogging, I mentioned that I wouldn’t be as rigid as I had been in my first five years (with no misses!) on this blog. I try to hit Thursdays as my blog day, but I haven’t been quite as consistent. Usually I blog earlier in the week, but this week events conspired against me, so I’ve put the blog up on Friday. I will keep you informed if I’m going to be later than Thursday.
A lot of you have mentioned that the last several blogs “hit it out of the park,” and yet donations were down on those topics. While I appreciate comments and forwards a great deal, the donations do keep the blog alive. So please, if you found something of value here, consider leaving a few bucks in the jar on the way out.
Click Here to Go To PayPal.
(Yes, White Mist Mountain is my company name)
“Business Musings: The Hard Part,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.