Sitting at a table in the Exchange Building, the social hub of Nottingham University’s Jubilee Campus, Damien Walter and I talk about freelancing, the internet, and it’s place in a writer’s work.
Hi, I’m Damien Walter, I’m primarily a fiction writer and I’m very interested in science fiction and fantasy writing. I write short fiction and I’m working on a novel. I’m also a freelance journalist, I write for the Guardian, Wired magazine and a bunch of other magazines predominantly online.
I know you through a module you’re running ‘Writing for the Web’, and you’ve been blogging since 2006. Why did you start that blog? What did you hope it would achieve?
I think I wanted a focus for what I was doing as a writer. I was doing a lot of work with teenagers, getting them involved in reading books as part of their life, doing everything from talks to running festivals.
I wanted to re-focus on what I actually wanted to do as a writer and meet other people in that area as well. I started with very limited expectations of what it might do, and I’ve been surprised over time by how central its been to my practise. Whether that will continue as a trend- I’m not sure.
How has the internet been part of your freelance work?
Well the internet has been a very big part of my life, so its difficult to separate the two. I’ve been on the internet since the mid-nineties, using chat rooms, some online gaming (although I’ve never been a big gamer), but I’ve always been interested in how the internet lets you connect with people beyond your geographic region. It lets you out of any constraints of your local community. If you’re a writer with niche interests that aren’t predominant in mainstream culture, the internet is a very good place to find others with similar interests. It’s very liberating.
Because a lot of the internet is text driven, its a very powerful medium for writers. They’re at a natural advantage with things like social media and blogging. Where as if you’re a visual artist, although there are a specific websites to help them work, a blog is less accessible for them. Nonetheless, the internet is a liberating tool for writers.
How did your freelance career begin?
I started in journalism as a blogger, but it really began with projects where I was working with freelancers. I was actually working for Leicester libraries, this was in my early twenties, I was working with local communities with these freelancers, and I knew it was a direction I wanted to go with my career. After I had been doing project management work for about three years I decided to go part time for a while. I started picking up freelance work.
I’ve done that three times now with my career. What I’ve done at various times is move between full-time work and freelancing. I think that’s a really good way to do it. What I’d definitely advise people against is just diving into the world of freelance work without any support. It can be very challenging. You’re always looking for new work, every job you do has a new set of circumstances, every day is different and while that’s great- you’re putting a lot of energy into that.
Like many freelancers I’ve done jobs which I haven’t then been paid for. You can go long periods without making any money, then you have a lot of work all in one go. It’s feast or famine when you’re freelancing. Try to have a part-time job that’s complementing your freelance work, feeding it, and is similar to what you do creatively- it will take you forwards as a writer at the same time.
You mentioned that you’ve gone freelance three times, when you take on freelance projects, do you think of yourself as either being ‘freelance’ or ’employed’ in a more conventional way?
I think of things in my life that are work, and things that I do creatively. The creative things involve work as well, but they don’t feel like work. I use freelancing as a way to do the creative things I want to do. Freelance opportunities come up more for that. I think of my work life as the times when I go back into full-time employment for a while. It’s been about two years since the last time I did that, although I have various teaching jobs that I do. I also think of those as part of my freelancing, because I teach writing and learn a lot from that.
I think it divides into work that I’m doing purely for money, although I’ve been lucky to have some really interesting and creative jobs, and work which is really related to what I do creatively. At the moment, fingers crossed, is almost everything that I do.
Sometimes you haven’t been paid for jobs, where there any warning signs about those jobs?
Yes, there were. I knew it was a publication online that was paying very well at the time, but it looked odd that they were able to pay so well. I did quite a large commission for them, which went very well, but ultimately that organisation went out of business before they had paid any of their contributors. You do find people who are behaving in a slightly cowboy-esque way. Trying to get what they’re doing up and running, but they’re fronting a bit about how much support and resources they have behind them. You get better at judging that.
One piece of advice from one of my mentors, is that, if you’re taking on the insecurity of freelance work it should be to do the things that you want to do creatively. If you find you’re doing freelance work, but only doing it for the money, you might be better going back into the work of full-time employment. Everyone does stuff for money until they figure that out.
(I’m just going to take a breif de-tour here and put in a quote from Neil Gaiman, adressing a graduation.
I decided that I wouldn’t write books just for the money. If you didn’t get the money, then you didn’t have anything, and if I did work I was proud of and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work. Every now and then I forget that rule, and when I do the universe kicks me, hard. And reminds me.
I don’t know that it’s an issue for anyone but me, but its true that nothing I did and the only reason I did it was the money was ever worth it. Except as bitter experience, and usually I didn’t wind up getting the money either. The things I wanted to do because I was excited and wanted to do them have never let me down and I’ve never regretted the time I spend on any of them.
What sort of freelance projects are you involved in at the moment?
I do freelance journalism, I have my own column at the Guardian which is a fantastic spine for what I do because it’s quite regular. I’m often pitching ideas to about a dozen different editors I have good contacts with. One thing that I do at the moment are sets of book reviews for SFX magazine. They’re not directly related to my creative interests but they’re quite fun to do.
I’m also involved in various project work- although less than I was. Last year I was working on a project called Everybody’s Reading Festival in Leicester which I had set up over a few years. I decided I wanted to take a step back from it, and in fact most of that area of work. I’m also working with two different editors at two publishers working on book proposals, and doing a lot of my own creative writing.
Now that you’re writing for places like the Guardian, how many of your pitches get rejected?
I’ve been very lucky and consistent in getting my work accepted, particularly non-fiction. I try to build up from one thing to another. I think its very important for freelancers to think about the value they can get from the work that they’re doing. When I started running my own blog (which I still write) it was entirely for free, I didn’t have any expectation to get paid for it, but I did think that once I’ve done this for a year or two that I’ll be demonstrating my experience to do this in other places.
Every time you step up a level and finish a new project it gives you credibility for the next step up in what you want to do. It’s unlikely if you’ve just started blogging that you’re going to get a gig writing for a national newspaper, but you can work your way up towards it. When I finish a project I let people know about it, and I do actively invest quite a lot of my time in networking – going to events, being active online and getting to know people so that there’s always more people I can contact with new ideas.
How is your working day different to full-time employment?
It doesn’t have an end. Although I do try and keep it under control, but the work is freelance and not time-limited and I’m creatively interested in it, it’s difficult. If I’m working on a feature piece, I might work twenty hour days. I might just sit and plough through it in three days, or I’ll break it up across a week. I have the advantage that my time is flexible and the disadvantage that I probably work much harder than I would in a nine-to-five job.
Freelancing is your business, is there anything you do to organize yourself in this way?
Obviously taxes, tax returns. I’m interested – maybe because I’m a bit of a tech geek anyway – in productivity and how we get the most out of the work that we’re doing. I use two tools which I find invaluable.
One is ‘Evernote’, I’m continually dealing with lots of ideas and I need a place to keep them all, Evernote is my solution for that. I also use a to-do list called ‘Workflowy’ which allows me to keep one very long list of everything I’m doing. I keep all kinds of things in there. Leads for people I want to contact, teaching plans, everything that I’m doing is in my Workflowy. The benefit of that is I think that freelancing can be quite stressful. People can find themselves thinking all the time. Once something’s in my Workflowy I don’t think about it again, until its time to do it. It limits the time I’m worrying about things.
What made you want to be a journalist?
I seem to have a natural aptitude for it. I’ve fallen into it whilst following my fiction writing. The things I liked about writing for the Guardian was that it was getting me known in the community of writers. After a while I realized that non-fiction writing is very interesting in itself. I’ve been building up the length and complexity of work that I can do. I’m very curious as a person. So, when I get interested in an idea, I find that writing pieces about it is part of how I learn. When I learn something I write a column about it.
What traits do you think a freelancer needs?
Freelance is very hard work. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone without telling them that it’s a much harder route to take than just taking a job. You have to have a very wide range of skills. These days I think you need very strong digital skills, as so many opportunities are online or involve working with computers. You have to be able to present yourself effectively. You need to be able to do that work that you’re doing. You have to be able to manage yourself as a business.
In terms of personal skills I think you have to have something you want to achieve. I know people who are freelancing who are just making some money from it. But to be affective I think you have to have something beyond that you’re trying to get to. The whole point of stepping out side of ‘normal’ structures of work is that you’re trying to build something yourself. Maybe its ultimately setting up a business. Maybe its a kind of writing that you want to get done, and you feel you need to be freelance to achieve that.
Maybe it’s political and you want to have an impact on the world around you. You couldn’t have a political blogger, which is a freelance job, unless you had something you wanted to achieve politically. Laurie Penny, for example wants to put socialist politics for young people back on the map. I don’t know if she actively says that day in, day out, but I think it’s present in her work. So you need some kind of mission that you’re taking on, that you want to fulfil. Maybe its just me that thinks that, and others are more mercenary and less idealistic.
What does the future of your freelancing career look like?
I want to develop my fiction writing further, I’d love to publish a novel. I’d like to continue building on my teaching. I’m hoping to do some digital online teaching as a self-produced project. I won’t be leaving my freelance journalism behind, but what I’d like to do as well is to establish an online magazine. I predominantly write for other people, or for my own blog – which is really just me and what I’m interested in. Think there’s lots of scope for a publication online.
What I find compelling about freelancing is that you get to focus on the things you’re really passionate about and are excited to get up and do every day. For many people that’s the difference that makes them move from the normal working world. I’ve been very lucky that my working life gives me that very often.
How does freelancing affect your personal life (and sleeping pattern)?
I have to be quite disciplined about sleeping because I can stay up until three in the morning writing. Freelancing definitely makes demands of anyone going into it, more so than a creative career does. I’m quite unusual in that I’ve stayed around the East Midlands area and done lots of creative things, whereas I know lots of people who have moved a lot.
Especially in your early career you’re going to find yourself moving around a lot, less financial security. Freelancing is not a good way to raise a family. If that’s what you want to do you either have to get your freelancing to a point where its sustainable, or you need to accept a level of full-time employment around what you’re doing. And a lot of the freelancers and creative careers I know delayed things like starting a family. It’s a less predictable form of life, but much more exciting.
Do you need to be in London to be a successful freelancer?
A decade ago being in London was probably essential. It’s still useful, but any of the major urban hubs are good. I go to San Francisco when I can because there is a whole network of people there I really like. Any of those places are great creatively because your network is physically there.
Networking is about spending time with people you share an interest with and are your professional peers and colleagues and is much easier in a city like London. However, the internet, blogs and the massively inflating house prices in London mean that I know a lot of people who have fled those cities.
Leicester and Nottingham are becoming places for creativity and freelancing. People networking more broadly and online, and you can travel and spend time in other places. I highly recommending finding freelancing that lets you travel. Take up assignments that take you to interesting places. Even if you only break even, you’ve got the trip, contacts and experience.
A recent column from Damien: http://www.aeonmagazine.com/living-together/damien-walter-creator-culture/
Damien’s blog: (link to follow as it doesn’t seem to be working at the moment…)