Kenneth Hite’s living the dream. He stays up all night. Wakes at 1 PM. Only wears pants when—if–he leaves the house. Of course, he’s also written about 60 books, so it’s not as though he’s slacking.
As a full-time freelancer, Hite is almost constantly stumping new clients, tending to current clients, and playing whack-a-mole with deadlines. Spend 20 minutes talking to Hite and you won’t know whether you should take notes or run screaming into the night. Or both.
I’ve interviewed Hite on everything from game-mastering to creativity to taking risks. After each interview, I start thinking of topics for the next one. Below, Hite and I talk about full-time freelancing, the pros and cons, the dos and don’ts.
How long have you been working as a full-time freelancer and what sort of work do you do?
Kenneth Hite: I’ve been a full-time freelance writer, game designer, and editor since 1996, with a stint as a part-time freelancer (on the clock as a writer and game designer) from 2000 to 2004.
What is a typical day like for you? How is it different than a traditional “day job”?
Kenneth Hite: A typical working day starts around 1 p.m., when I get up and deal with the cats, shower, and suchlike. Then I answer e-mail, do various busy work associated with the job, make calls to day-bound folks, and otherwise catch up. Sometimes, I get an hour or so to actually write before my wife comes home from work. I usually cook dinner for her (unless I’m on a deadline crunch, in which case she is nice enough to cook) and hang out with her until her bedtime. Then I go back upstairs and actually do the writing part of the job, until she gets up in the morning around 6. I go to bed when she goes to work, and the merry-go-round spins on. If I weren’t a night owl by circadian rhythm and temperament, I’d probably just get up when she went to work, work all day, and then go to bed like a normal person. But being a freelancer means I can work with my body clock, not against it.
Is there anything you wish you’d known before you took the plunge into freelancing?
Kenneth Hite: I’m sure there are still things I wish I knew. At the time I started out, I was very lucky and already had two or three regular clients. There was a period when I didn’t have those clients anymore, which made me very much aware of how much of this job is actually about stumping up more business and tending the ongoing business relationships you have.
What are some of the frustrations of freelancing and how do you handle them?
Kenneth Hite: The biggest one is that you’re never really off the clock when you work for yourself. My wife is very good about ignoring me when I’m writing [game] rules in my head instead of paying attention to dinner or the TV or whatever. I’m not sure I want to “handle” that frustration, though — it doesn’t do to train yourself to ignore your subconscious if it wants to work.
Because the other frustrating thing about freelancing is that — unless you’re incredibly fortunate in your clients, which I have been off and on — you’ve always got to be stumping up more work. It’s a rare, almost holiday-like day when I can actually give 100% of my attention to a given book and just write, write, write with the headphones on and no stray thoughts about what I’m going to write next month when this current gig is over. This one, I’ve “handled” by having one or two regular clients who pay on time and always want more work from me — and by doing an increasing amount of self-publishing. Or rather it would be self-publishing if I didn’t have Hal Mangold at Atomic Overmind to handle all the grotty parts of publishing for me. But I decide what to write, and when, and I get a lot more of the money from it than I do from conventionally published works.
What’s the best part?
Kenneth Hite: Getting to follow my own body clock, not that of the average American. Not having to wear a necktie, or on most days, pants. I also like the changes and challenges — one day, I’ll be writing game rules; on the next, I’ll be doing TV criticism or short fiction or art directing. I also like the freedom to ignore projects that I don’t want to do, although that freedom gets less expansive come mortgage time.
Is there a project that you simply couldn’t have pulled off if you’d been working at a full-time day job?
Kenneth Hite: Well, I wrote three or four books while I was working at a full-time day job — but I’ve written fifty or sixty since then. Any project where I had to hop on a plane and fly somewhere — like the world-building stuff I did for a Belgian console game company, or the three or four weeks I had to spend reviewing Vegas nightclubs — I couldn’t have done for any but the most forgiving of employers. And since I did both of those jobs at the same time …
A salary… is it friend or foe?
Kenneth Hite: Depends on the salary. I’d love to have a salary like I did when I was working on Star Trek games for Last Unicorn and Decipher — a regular, monthly half-time income based on a regular, monthly half-time word count, but with complete freedom to pursue my own projects the other half of the time. And like anyone else who’s ever stared a tax form in the face, I find that there’s something seductive about someone else paying your FICA.
But unless your boss is Christian Moore (my old boss at Last Unicorn and Decipher), people who pay you a salary often want to make you write things that don’t interest you, and that’s a great way to burn out on writing even things that do interest you. There’s no free lunches, and that definitely includes company lunches.
Any parting words? Words of encouragement or caution?
Kenneth Hite: I think I’ll close by quoting Paul Jaquays’ Corollary to Asimov’s Law of Writing. Asimov’s most famous non-robotic Law is: “Don’t quit your day job.” Jaquays’ Corollary adds: “But if you do, for God’s sake don’t let your wife quit her day job.” I’m incredibly fortunate that my wife made me quit my day job at the insurance company, because as annoying and petty and grinding and uncertain as freelance writing is, it really beats working for an insurance company.
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.