1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Fourteen: Day Jobs

I did actually have a day job in 1998.

Well, for about a quarter of it. I worked at America Online as its in-house writer and editor, and got laid off that March. I got laid off not because I was a terrible employee, but because my group was being dissolved and while everyone else was going into someone else’s department, as an in-house writer and editor I was a company-wide resource, and no one wanted to put a company-wide resource on their departmental budget. So I got laid off.

Then a week later everyone noticed they weren’t getting any writing done, and I was hired back as a consultant. Half the work! Twice the pay!

The corporate world is weird.

By the time September rolled around and I was starting Whatever, my day job was being a fulltime freelancer. AOL used me for newsletters and other work and indeed would employ me off and on for the next decade; I finally signed off working for them at the end of 2007, by which time almost no one who I’d known while I was there was still at the company. Weirdly, I had outlasted nearly all of my former co-workers.

But AOL was not my only source of income. If being laid off had taught me anything (and it had in fact taught me many things) it was that multiple sources of income were the way not to starve or be in a financial panic all the time. Fortunately, in 1998, I lived in the Washington DC area, and it was a good place to be a freelancer. There were a lot of technology companies out there and all of them needed copy written or marketing done, and it helped to actually have a writer who a) understood the tech field and the lingo, b) had been a journalist in a past iteration of his work life and so understood the concept of “deadlines.” And also, because this was prior to the popping of the first Internet bubble, they had money to spend.

(Yes, but what about your fiction, Scalzi? Were you writing that on the side? Not at all! I wrote Agent to the Stars while I was still at AOL and in the short term that appears to have scratched the fiction itch for a few years; I wouldn’t start writing Old Man’s War until 2001, when I had moved out of the DC area and to my current house in rural Ohio. But for the first few years, I was all in for building up my freelance career. It made sense from an economic point of view, and also, honestly, I was having fun. In those first few years, among the more straitlaced copywriting gigs, I was also writing music and video game reviews, which was very much in my wheelhouse, both personally and professionally. I was feeling very professionally fulfilled, and also I was busy with both work and a new child, for whom I was the at-home parent. So fiction took a back seat, and would stay there for several years.)

My freelance “day job” years are ones that I still think of quite fondly. I got to do a lot of different writing and I got to exercise a lot of different writing skills, all of which, as it turns out, make me a better fiction and novel writer. Also having freelance clients who had specific expectations about the work, and set deadlines, and weren’t here for your ego as a writer, made a huge difference when I started interfacing with the business end of fiction publishing.

Best of all, it gave me money and an income that was independent of books — a good income — that meant I never had to take a book contract I was unhappy with. I could just walk away. And did, at one point; the astute amongst you will note a three-year gap between Zoe’s Tale and Fuzzy Nation. It’s there for a reason. And while I was not writing novels for a patch there, I was writing and doing other things. It was fine! I was fine. I liked having my day job. It gave me freedom until the books were in a place where economically speaking, they had to be my day job.

Which is where I am at the moment. My day job is writing novels — I write other things too, but they’re all on the side. While I do like to revel in the fact that the gig’s work attire is a bathrobe, if that, it is in fact a real job. Like my other day jobs, I am being paid to meet specific expectations about my work, on a deadline, with minimal ego. Remember when I said all the previous day job work had application to writing novels? Well, this is part of that too.

Contractually speaking, novel writing will be my “day job” for the next several years at least. And after that, who knows? I may have to get another day job again — go back to writing other things for the majority of my income. I would be okay with that if it happened. I like writing novels, but I liked all the other sort of writing I got to do (and get to do). And as all of my day jobs have shown me, no job is forever. The fact that writing here is the longest sustained writing “job” I’ve ever had says something about that essential fact.

12 thoughts on “1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Fourteen: Day Jobs

  1. “Bathrobe – if that”

    Oh no!!! The horror! The horror!
    Trying frantically to scrape the image from my mind.

  2. Wait, wait–what’s the story about that three year gap? What terrible book did some publisher want you to write? How many firstborn children did they demand you sign over?

    (Perhaps that story cannot yet be told. _Yet._)

  3. Half the work, twice the pay — but you do your own withholding and get no benefits at all, so some of that apparent pay boost is illusory.

    If you dodged the worst of it that’s good, but I’m a little soured on the whole concept of “consulting” after having seen several friends get laid off and then after about 6 months (IOW, just about when they were really desperate to find another job) get an offer to come back as a “consultant” and do exactly the same work for less pay and no benefits. This is more recent than your consulting gig with AOL, so it’s possible that companies hadn’t evolved that strategy at the time.

  4. As someone who’s been struggling to balance a day job and a writing life, I appreciate getting your perspective. You’ve given me some things to think about.

  5. Karen Tölva:

    The short version was I was lowballed on a book contract, mostly to see if I could be lowballed, and I pulled the project and did other things. The next book I wrote, an offer was made that was rather more in line.

  6. “Dont quit your day job” seems to be pretty standard advice for new writers. Also. don’t tug on superman’s cape, don’t spit into the wind, don’t pull the mask off that old lone ranger, and don’t mess around with Jim.

  7. My “day job” for 14 years or so full-time has been as a freelance writer. Some of that is fiction, but only a very small proportion (and I turned down a really crappy contract a couple years ago, too). I have, at some times, recommended to aspiring novelists (such as my son) that this approach may not necessarily be the best way to go about things. The typical salaries and/or hourly pay for regular jobs fairly fixed, so the time and energy they can eke out can be spent on fiction (and on its promotion, if there’s money involved). I have tended to find over the years being a full-time scribbler that the money and time (and energy) are not fixed, and if I spend more time on nonfiction, I bring in more income, usually far in excess of what my fiction brings in, which can make it a bit more complicated decision on how much time and energy to spend on fiction. Good thing, however, that I love what I’m doing.

  8. After Lee, I opened my business calendar texting acronym page to look up IOW. Not there. Then I engaged my common sense gear.

    As for jobs, a relative worked for MacDonald’s Hamburgers, for just two years, and when he left “everybody” he first knew was gone. As for AOL, almost no one being left after nine years may not make logical sense, but it imperially matches what I have seen at other jobs: A mystery, right up there with why do the halls at college get so empty after the first crowded fortnight.

  9. “Half the work! Twice the pay!”

    Sounds great, but I have to ask – as a former regular employer who’d been hired back as a consultant, did you lose your health insurance? Or did your wife’s job take care of that?

  10. I completely get what you’re saying about the previous day-job writing helping you write fiction. My first government-grant-writing experience was back before computers–and I learned that the federal government is not concerned about my writer’s block. This ended up being very useful when I went to graduate school; I knew that just getting words on the page was the most important first step.

  11. I’ve done the consulting thing as well as the full-time employee thing, and the value of one or the other is highly dependent on the individual’s desires and needs. If you’re in a field that has a lot of demand for specialized skills (like IT), then the consulting can be highly rewarding, and on the plus side, you’re usually immune to the internal corporate politicking that permeates most large companies. Yes, you do have to fund your own health insurance (something that got easier with Obamacare), and yes, you do miss out on the other bennies. And it requires discipline.

    The value of being an employee is variable. I’ve generally enjoyed most of my jobs, but I did learn one thing: ALL jobs are temporary. You can get pissed off and leave in a huff, or something better comes along, or they change their focus, or they just fold. I don’t know a single private sector job that could be considered permanent.

    I’m happily retired now. Every time I think I might like to do some work, I drive for a half-hour in Houston traffic, and that cures me.

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