In the opening chapter of Amortals by Matt Forbeck, a man in black shows Secret Service Agent Ronan Dooley video of him—Dooley—tied to a chair and being killed. “’Give them your life,” the man in black taunts, “’they only ask if they can have another.’” On the surface, this is a really cool opening scene of a near-future thriller about a man who is brought back from the dead in order to hunt down his own killer. Let that sink in. And give your “Sense of Wonder” meter time to calm down.
Next, you might start wondering… what is Forbeck really saying, here, about the nature of corporate employment, about the nature of “day jobs”?
Okay, okay, maybe I’m stretching it a little, but as I have said here before Forbeck is one of those writers whose prose I can’t get enough of. Amortals launches a new, creator-owned series and is Forbeck at his best. I’ve spoken with Forbeck on a number of occasions—about collaboration, taking risks, and world-building. And today, he returns to Booklifenow to talk about his life as a freelance writer.
How long have you been working as a full-time freelancer and what sort of work do you do?
Matt Forbeck: I’ve been a full-time freelancer on and off since 1990. During that time, I spent four years as the president of Pinnacle Entertainment Group (game publisher most famous for Deadlands), and nearly two years as the head of Human Head Studios’ adventure game division. Even during those times, I still freelanced on the side.
What is a typical day like for you? How is it different than a traditional “day job”?
Matt Forbeck: It’s jam-packed. I have five kids in the house, and my wife works full-time, so those hours when everyone else is at school or work are my prime time. I also get a lot done when everyone else has gone to bed.
One of the great things about freelancing is the flexibility of scheduling it offers me, and with the kids around that’s vital to us now. If someone’s sick or has an appointment somewhere, I can handle that. Honestly, there are times I can’t imagine how I’d manage everything if I had a traditional job.
Is there anything you wish you’d known before you took the plunge into freelancing?
Matt Forbeck: I wish I’d known a bit more about managing my money better. It really can be a feast or famine way of life. Some years, I make a lot of money, far more than I could working for anyone else. Other years, it feels like I’m just scraping by, but even in the lean times, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.
What are some of the frustrations of freelancing and how do you handle them?
Matt Forbeck: The irregularity of the work can be troubling, although I’ve rarely had a hard time lining up enough to do. When you’re starting out, it’s the biggest part of the challenge because no one wants to hire someone without a track record. Later on, you get the point at which you have to pick and choose your projects, but that’s a good place to be in.
The other big challenge is always making sure to get paid. I’m tenacious about this, and I’ve only been successfully stiffed three times in 20 years, and in each case I worked enough out with the client to feel all right about it in the end. At times, I’ve even gone to conventions just to get paid. It’s hard for someone to tell you they can’t pay you when you’re talking to them face to face and they’re standing next to a cash box filled with the money from the day’s sales.
What’s the best part?
Matt Forbeck: I love being my own boss. I don’t like having to worry about whether or not I’m hitting someone else’s goals rather than my own. I get to see so much of my kids too, time I would otherwise lose in commuting or having to spend time in an office. They’re only young for a short while, and I get to make the most of those precious years.
As I’ve said elsewhere, there’s also no reason to think that freelancing is any less stable than a traditional job. After all, no one can fire me. I don’t have to play office politics. I don’t have to worry about my boss selling the company to someone else or picking up stakes and moving across the country. My fate is entirely in my own hands.
Is there a project that you simply couldn’t have pulled off if you’d been working at a full-time day job?
Matt Forbeck: All sorts of them. I often have jobs dropped in my lap that need to be done three weeks ago. As a freelancer, I can usually juggle my schedule in a way that someone with a traditional job can’t. Also, if I need to travel to Sweden or Singapore for a couple weeks at a time, I can get away with that without worrying that I’ll run out of vacation time from my day job.
On the other hand, I don’t get any paid leave at all. I get paid for the work I do, no more and no less.
A salary… is it friend or foe?
Matt Forbeck: The great thing about a salary is how it allows you to have a stable budget. If you can’t imagine living without that, then freelancing probably isn’t for you. Most writers and game designers have day jobs and manage their creative endeavors on nights and weekends, which gives them the stability they need and the fun kind of work they want. It’s only a lucky or determined few able to make the leap to working for themselves full-time.
Any parting words? Words of encouragement or caution?
Matt Forbeck: If you have a choice, try making the leap while you’re young. It’s a lot easier to pull off when you have fewer obligations, like a mortgage, and when you have less people depending on you, like a full family.
Also, don’t do it just because it sounds like fun. Take a cold hard look at your life, your finances, and your dreams before you make the leap. Try handling it as a part-time gig in addition to your day job for a while to see if it fits you well.
Or just do what I did and leap into the deep end to see how well you can swim. It’s not for everyone, of course, but I dove off that high-dive when I was young enough to not mind being dirt poor while I was starting out.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.