The Freelancing Life

November 20, 2015 in Best Of, Blogging, Freelance, Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

There hasn’t been much activity on this blog for a while, and for that I apologize. The last few months have been one of the most tumultuous periods in my life for a long time, with a lot of things happening both personally and professionally.

Life update — the end of an era

Apart from the usual grind of looking after two young kids, a close relative passed away unexpectedly, which hit me very hard, and there were three additional incidents where other family members had to visit the emergency room for various reasons. It was one scare after another, and each time something happened it took a little out of me.

Professionally, I once again find myself on a different path, and it’s turned out to be a bit of a dream come true. For those who don’t know, I had been working at an online newspaper writing and editing mostly semi-translated articles for close to four years, and mid-September, we were suddenly called to an impromptu meeting one afternoon by the editor-in-chief.

It is a place where meetings are rare, and nothing usually ever comes out of it. Just a month or so prior we were told that there would be a restructuring, with our paper moving from under one unit to another. It was painted as an administrative issue only and some staff members were privately assured that nothing would change. So naturally it was concerning that a meeting was being called again so soon, especially when friends outside of our company had been messaging some of us that very morning, asking, cryptically, whether we were okay.

And this is no joke, but every time we had a meeting we would joke that the paper was probably being shut down. We knew it wasn’t the most professional or stable of places, and often I felt like we were just a bunch of amateurs mucking about and were somehow getting away with it. So of course we made the same joke again before this mid-September meeting, and it turned out that this time the joke was on us. The editor-in-chief kicked off the meeting with a description of how wonderfully our paper was performing, which I knew was a bad omen. Sure enough, the next thing he said was that the paper would be shut down “temporarily” due to the fact that the conglomerate had been hemorrhaging money at a rate much worse than they had expected.

To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. The company was built on a culture of schmoozing and sucking up to superiors, and few managers were really putting in any effort into driving the business forward. My own superior, for instance, promised many things — some even as early as when I interviewed four years ago — and none of them ever came true. He said he would rearrange our work days so that we’d only have to work on weekends every now and then (fail), that we would have regular seminars to teach us how to be better writers and journalists (fail), that we would have regular meetings to keep everyone up to date (fail), that we would create sub-groups to specialize on certain areas (fail), that we would start marketing our paper and build relationships with other papers (fail), that we would start publishing advertisements so we’d actually make some money (fail) — the list goes on. That’s right, in four years, he didn’t make a single one of these promises come true.

The one that did come true, eventually, was updating the look of the website. That was a promise made during my first interview, and for the last two years we were told it was “imminent.” And do you know when we updated the website? Two weeks after he announced that the paper was shutting down in six weeks. Yes, we finally updated to the long-awaited “new” website a month before it was shut down.

Another hilarious sequence of events took place when the chief decided that we were going to buck the digitization trend by creating a paper version of our online paper. A monthly digest, if you will. We hired a designer and reallocated one of our writers to manage the new magazine. That’s right, two people to create a 100-page magazine every month. Even bought a brand new Apple computer and a color laser printer and everything. As it progressed, this monthly magazine somehow morphed into a “semi-annual” magazine, and then a “yearly” magazine. And then one day, poof, the entire project was called off. Four months of work and the hiring of a brand new staff member for this sole purpose, all for nothing. And there wasn’t even a “WTF just happened”? There was more or less a collective silent shrug, and everyone went back to work pretending it never existed.

Anyway, the outcome of the meeting was that the paper would be closed down by the end of October, but that most of us would keep our jobs and be relocated to join the Chinese-language newspaper in the same building. A few of my ex-pat colleagues were shown the door with just a two-week notice period. As for who will get to stay and what work they will actually be doing in their new roles, the chief told us we’d find out by the end of September.

Naturally, the days turned into weeks, and nothing was said. A few of us managed to individually corner the chief on separate occasions, but the answers were always vague and non-committal. The only assurance I received was that I would be safe, and that everything would be sorted out “shortly.” Later on, we pieced together the fragments of information we each received and basically understood that: (1) whoever hadn’t already been shown the door would probably get to stay; (2) we’d be moved from the comforts of our current floor to join the other media losers in the depths of the basement (literally); (3) our workloads would be reduced towards the end so we could start testing out the new roles on the new systems; (4) we’d work on firm-issued laptops instead of our current desktop computers and sit together on long tables in open plan; (5) we’d have freedom to choose to write whatever we want to write; and (6) if we didn’t like our new roles we’d be able to apply for a redundancy package within the first 45 days.

Initially, I kind of wanted to stay. It was a safe job that paid well considering how easy it was, and the work hours were stable and normal. And I salivated at the idea of being able to write about what I wanted to write, a stark contrast to the existing situation where I got tossed most of the longest and hardest articles on the most difficult topics — and was still expected to produce the same number of articles as everyone else. The main concern was work hours — we were told there would probably be morning and night shifts — and with my family commitments it wasn’t something I was looking to accept. But the chief told me the new hours would be “flexible,” and it was suggested to me that I’d probably be able to keep my existing schedule, though as with everything else, it was “yet to be confirmed.”

Shit dragged on like this until late October. About 10 days before the official end of the paper, there was an update: even after we are technically transferred, we’d stay on our current floor (the top floor) until the end of November, and we’d get laptops by the start of the final week of October so we can start trying out the new roles to see how we like it. The 45-day cooling off period disappeared like a fart in the wind, and the redundancy application date was set in stone at the end of the first week of November. In other words, I’d have 10 working days to decide my future.

The decision was expedited when we had another meeting on the Tuesday of the final week. Needless to say, we had not received our laptops by then, and my workload was actually being ramped up as certain people had already left, meaning I was both writing and editing, sometimes at the same time. At this final meeting, we were told that: (1) the laptops might not come until next week or beyond; (2) we’d still have to work shifts, from 9am-6pm or 1pm-10pm, with everyone having to work a weekend day about once a month from 10am-7pm — and that everyone’s schedule would be different — but no final roster was set and that each person’s exact times would decided “shortly”; (3) we’d have to choose our own stories but with “guidance” from the chief to ensure we’re on the “right track”; (4) we’d be posting our own articles on the website and have no one to edit our writing, but there will be a fine each time someone spots a mistake; (5) everyone would have their own personal page with all their articles, the number of hits for each article, and its “star” rating from readers — this will be used to determine performance.

The meeting was a relief for me, because I had remained torn about whether or not to stay. Even if I were allowed to work 9-6, unlike everyone else, nothing else appealed to me. With the laptops not arriving until after the switch, it meant I would have less than five days to experience the new role. And though we were told that we’d be technically allowed to choose our own stories, I got the strong sense that it would not really be the case. The fines and the personal page — essentially for naming and shaming (another wonderful part of the firm culture) — effectively sealed the deal. I knew it wasn’t all the chief’s fault — it was clear that the firm was mired in bureaucracy and the higher ups couldn’t make up their minds because they were all desperate to save their own asses. That’s what happens when there’s zero accountability and no incentive to do anything until the shit hits the fan.

So immediately after the meeting, I went into the chief’s office and told him I was taking the redundancy. I did some calculations, and with the redundancy package and freelance income, I was actually better off financially in the short-term, at least over the next six months. The plan is to generate enough contacts and steady freelance work to make the arrangement work over the long-term, and if not, I’d have to find a proper job.

PS: In hindsight, I absolutely made the right choice. My former colleagues were booted to the basement in the first week of the transition as opposed to after a month, and as of now they are still yet to receive their laptops. They actually moved a few of the desktop computers in our existing office downstairs into open plan for people to share. And it’s apparently been hectic and stressful, with odd shift rotations, little choice to write what you want, and pressure from the chief to get more hits. Can’t say it’s a surprise.

The freelancing life begins

So despite the fear of instability and uncertainty, I jumped at the opportunity for a freelancing life trial. It was my dream before I joined my translator job to freelance exclusively, but it was simply impossible without the requisite contacts and steady stream of work. Over the past four years, however, I have managed to build up a small network and some regular clients, so it’s a good foundation to build on.

I think I’m going to have to do a series of posts about what it’s like to be a freelancer, because there’s so much about it that I never thought through before I embarked on this path. It’s been a bit of a rough start, to be honest, because there’s so much unanticipated random stuff when you leave an old job for a new one. After a week of rest, movies and expensive food, I started dealing with the post-employment paperwork, updating CVs and LinkedIn, chasing up the company for stuff (typical), communicating with government agencies, dealing with insurance issues — all while trying to finish off existing cases I already have and trying to find new clients, as well as establishing new systems for more efficiency. And when you have more free time in theory, guess what? You end up getting asked to do more stuff, with family and the kids in particular.

On top of everything, I took on my first live interpretation cases for a film festival, which basically wiped out an entire week because I was too nervous to focus on other stuff and had to make sure I was well prepared. It’s been a bit of a wild mess for the last couple of weeks, and I still have cases outstanding that I really should have gotten to already, which makes me feel terrible.

The days have just gone by super quickly and I feel like there is not enough time in a day to get to all the things I want to. And I really need to build up my efficiency and motivation after working at a place that not only encourages but cultivates inefficiency and laziness. I am 100% serious about this. For four years, any hard work I put in was rewarded only with…more work. Basically, if you finish an article, you get another one. There’s no quota or maximum daily number of articles you must do, and you can’t leave early, so there’s no incentive to work fast. So if you’re super efficient and diligent, you could end up doing six or seven articles a day. If you’re completely lazy and unmotivated, you could do two a day. It makes no difference. No one says anything. There are no performance reviews. Maybe your end-of-year bonus will be affected a little, but we’re talking about a maximum difference of about half a month of salary. Even if someone started off in this job by coming to work on time every day and working really hard all throughout the day, what do you think will happen to them when they start seeing that their colleagues are always coming in one or two hours late, taking three or four hour lunches plus afternoon naps, and doing less than half the work they’re doing — with absolutely no consequences? Doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. And this was the type of work environment I was in for four years. I did my fair share of slacking off like everyone else, but I’m glad to say I maintained some dignity by at least ensuring that I did a certain amount of work at a certain quality every day, which made me a rarity.

Anyway, I’m hoping next week will be a new week where I can start sinking into a bit of a routine. Once that happens I’ll be able to focus on systematically punching out the existing cases and prowling for new clients and projects. Still, I’m already enjoying the freedom, the nature of the work, and the sense of being my own boss. Makes me want to do the very best I can every time.

What about the writing?

I’ll be truthful: one of the main reasons I wanted to have a go at the freelancing is because I want to free up time to finally finish my two books, and perhaps a screenplay I’ve had in my head for a while. I realized this was an opportunity that will never come around again, and I wanted to grab it by the balls.

So far, I’ve had even less time to work on these things than when I worked a full-time job. This blog post is the only writing I’ve done in months apart from a few movie and book reviews that were mostly composed on public transport. Again, this is something I hope will change. My ideal day once the dust settles would be half an hour to an hour of reading every morning and at least an hour to work on my own writing. Perhaps one day a week I’ll be able to write a blog post or two instead, and another half day I’ll use to catch a movie or go out and about. Not sure if I’ll ever get close to this dream, but I’m going to start doing everything I can to reach it.

Wow, that was some rant. Sorry.