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In The Future We’re All Ducks

When I woke up this morning, I realized two things. One, I hadn’t written a blogpost last night to go up today. I was supposed to, but I’ve been away two weeks, so I had a whole lot of house and postponed “stuff” to catch up on. Two, the blogpost was supposed to be at Mad Genius Club as well.

This last immediately sent me into a tail spin, because what I post on my own blog can be whatever, including bits of novel. But Mad Genius Club is a grown up blog for grown up writers and mostly deals with the business. Which means… I was staring into an abyss of lack of ideas and – yes, thank you for reminding me, darlings – I was already late.

And then, because my life is a constant game of “I can top that” I got a title for the post in my mind, and it wouldn’t go away. AND it was In the Future We’re All Ducks.

At which point I started running around in circles, metaphorically speaking. VERY metaphorically, because I was still lying in bed doing that catalog of body parts every science fiction writer does in the morning. “Item, two arms. Item, two legs. No tail. No tentacles. So far so good.” (What do you mean other sf writers don’t do that? Really? Odd of them.)

And then I thought: Duck, Donald. And suddenly I realized what this post was all about. However, the fact it came to me this way is a level of bad news I can’t begin to talk about. You see, until now my stories come to me this way, but my non-fiction came from the rational side. “Today, I’m going to write about…” Well, apparently those alcyon days are gone. From now on, non-fic will do what fic does and ambush me in the nook between the pantry and the basement door, prepared to jump out at me when I’m not thinking of anything in particular. Mark my words, no good will come of this.

But other than the fact articles have joined the viciously aggressive fiction ideas, what the heck do I mean about Donald Duck. Do I mean in the future we all stop wearing pants? I don’t know about you, my friend, but at 48, with fifty staring me in the face, you can have my jeans when you pry them off my cold, dead legs. So, no, that’s not what I’m talking about.

No. What I’m talking about here are Disney comics. (Which are subtly different from the other Disney productions in that they are sort of like sf stands to literary fic. There’s no money in them – they say – the houses are constantly changing, and finding them can be a little difficult, since even most comic bookstores don’t carry them. However, for some of us they’re an acquired taste.) I first started reading Disney comics when I first started reading. Or rather, they taught me to read. See, they had images to help me remember the words, and people read them to me over and over (stories about Atlantis and such. FAR more interesting than See Spot Run or even Dr. Seuss) and eventually the words and letters started making sense, and I figured out which letter went with which sound. I was very bored. Also, I didn’t have tv.)

What I’m talking about is this: In Disney comics, people don’t really have real jobs. Occupations are something that come and go, flit in and out of their lives. Donald will become a master beautician in one strip. In the next he’s working as a janitor for Uncle Scrooge. And they never really seem to worry unless the strip is about money.

For some time now I’ve been following Susannah Breslin’s blog Pink Slipped over at Forbes blogs. From her work and others, an image is sort of emerging.

First a little retrospective. In my father’s day, even when it wasn’t, we tended to view employment as a life-time thing. Heck, my brother – because Portugal is 20 years behind this stuff, though, for their sins, catching up fast – worked for only one company his entire lifetime.

When my generation came of age, we found a different world. For one, a lot of us only found work as contractors or (for the liberal arts majors) as “temps” with no security and no promise of anything beyond the two months or whatever the contract lasted.

Mind you, there are arguments pro and con that sort of thing, and this change was not only in response to tech, but in response to regulations. Absent the regulations, the employment market would have been more stable. But if you have figured out a way to make governments understand that economics is a SCIENCE and stop trying to play witch doctors with a chaotic system that even the best practitioners don’t fully understand, all I can say is “Use your powers for good.” Oh, yeah, and “Can you make pigs fly? It would be so cute.

However, the more mobile and adaptable work force did improve business efficiency and adapt us to a technology where computers replaced typewriters and office messengers and, oh, yeah, tons of other things and jobs.

Now the tech is different yet again, partly because of the internet, partly because of easier manufacturing, partly because of new ways of delivering information (so long, paper.) Government responded as government often does, in this case more or less explicitely surrendering to fantasies of being back in time, before WWII. Do what, right? We don’t elect futurists. We elect mostly lawyers, which means people who think the world is not only made of words (writers run into this, too) but that if you change the words the world will change. Yeah. They also think that laws do what you want them to, instead of unleashing a storm of unintended consequences along with the intended or sometimes instead. Never mind.

So we have an employment crisis and people who are finding employment (a minority) are finding it pays less and often lasts only a few months. Or days.

The same is true for writers. Most of us are either getting run out of contracts with publishing houses (not yours truly, yes, but I can read print when it’s twelve feet long and on fire. I might have employment for another decade, or forever, but it won’t be as much or as secure as I had before.) And those of us lucky enough to still work for the major players are getting nickle and dimed. Meanwhile there’s a new world of indie publishing and some people are getting rich at it, while others are making… nickels and dimes. And their relative positioning in the market before this doesn’t seem to mean much.

So… What is the future?

From reading Susan Breslin, and Kris Rusch, and a ton of others both in the industry and out, who are blogging these changes because they’re either going through them or because they too can read print, I have a few tentative conclusions:

1- In the future we’re all ducks.

It used to be, even for writing freelancers, that we had something close to “employment.” If you did well for your house, they kept “hiring” you and eventually you became a “solid sell” for them, and if you were lucky made a living wage. This was, with the exception of a couple of houses, before my time, when you – largely – got treated as a disposable temp. Now, you’re not even that, because the houses are desperate and bookstores are imploding. Even if your title did very, very well and they’d consider pushing your second title, do you know that particular imprint will be there in six months? Or that they won’t decide to canibalize your potential promo money to back a “sure thing” bestseller? (Who nine times out of ten isn’t, but never mind that either.) So… Take the money and run. And don’t sign anything that ties you to that house forever. And:

2- Learn to be flexible

While I don’t envision a future where you learn a skill like beautician but are just as happy sweeping sidewalks the next week (except as a stop-gap measure) you MIGHT have to learn to be more flexible in your own field. Say you have a beauty salon… Learn to do nails as well as hair. Consider learning braiding if it’s not regulated in your state (really! Yep, dangerous skill and all. GAH.) Look into makeup as well. You might not have the same slate of dedicated permers or whatever, but you can make the same money from different sources.

For me – because I was so hidebound <G> – this is meaning more and more learning non fiction as well. For others it might mean learning to write shorts and releasing those indie, because the nickles and dimes it provides will fill in the cracks between novels. Also, it might help publicity. Look at other opportunities in your area. Be creative.

3- My husband tells me there is a concept in business called, Nibbling. This is when businesses bid on projects as contractors. Instead of bidding on the whole job, you claim a little insignificant corner of it, and then “nibble in” i.e. find more and more ways to be useful in the project, until you’re doing a considerable chunk of it. Consider this. That house which is still treating you well does sf and mystery, say? You got in with mystery? Do a side novel and ask the editor to consider it. Make it sf. (See the be flexible thing.) Your short story is a runaway seller on Amazon (#1 son, I’m looking at you!) consider a novel in the same world. Or just increase your effort at shorts.

4- Freelance as a way of life

No, I don’t think EVERY occupation will be freelancers. Some have obvious limitations. But I think where writers are now, others will be soon, where more and more they’re freelancers loosely attached to various companies and projects. And where looking for work is just a normal part of life, so that the freelancing can continue. This has some serious drawbacks: Security is a big one, and some of us have serious issues with lack thereof, which means we’ll have to find a way to live with that. The other is the constant job search, which can make even sane people a little odd, particularly in a world where everyone lives in the limelight. But hey, it has side benefits too. Breslin says she now makes more money out of freelancing than she did out of her regular job. But she has more fun. And that’s part of this. The few times I’ve had honest work type of jobs (TM) I found that 80% of it was rote and boredom. Whatever the freelance lifestyle might be, it ain’t boring. It gives you a chance to learn and grow. In fact, it’s learn and grow OR die. And if you do exceptionally well one month, you can relax a little the next and to an extent your time is your own – or at least you have more control over it.

And to me that’s the ultimate reward. No, I’m still not sure how to make a living in the new world, but I guarantee I’ll figure it out. Yeah, times might get scary between, but look… I don’t know how to give up, so I’ll figure it out. And when I do, I’ll be my own woman. Win or lose, it will be under my control, and not at the mercy of someone else’s whims or perceptions.

I rather like that.

Quack.

10 Comments
  1. Thanks Sarah! As someone who is between jobs myself at the moment, this comes at a really good time! Thank God I do have a few different skills. This makes me feel a little better and is a reminder that (GASP) things could be worse. A little pick me up to improve my attitude couldn’t have come at a better time.

    October 5, 2011
    • well, there just doesn’t seem to be “full time” stuff anymore, except for a few.

      October 5, 2011
      • Yeah. My husband was laid off in January, and started consulting. And working his butt off because he always wonders what will happen when _this_ contract runs out. He’s making more money, but there’s always that cliff ahead.

        Note to all: Taxes!!!! Do not spend it all. In the US, brace your sanity and work through the quarterly estimates worksheet (a crystal ball would come in handy) and send it in.

        October 5, 2011
        • In my case, every quarter is … well, okay, I’m not an old style editor. I’m not that good at pulling numbers from… er… air.

          October 5, 2011
  2. Kate Paulk #

    And the actual full-time stuff is really full-time and then some. Speaking from experience…

    October 5, 2011
  3. 'nother Mike #

    Oh, no. I was going to say that talking about ducks and nibbling in the same list wasn’t a good idea. Then I realized that
    1. In the future, we’re all ducks.
    2. Ducks swim, waddle, and fly!
    3. Ducks nibble, so can you!
    4. Watch those wild ducks go…
    would actually be pretty good labels for your four points. Quack! Join the Duck revolution!

    October 5, 2011
  4. Does that mean we are all a bunch of Quacks?:)

    October 6, 2011
  5. My Duck puddles are pretty diverse. I’m working as a librarian, a face-painter and balloon twister, and as a writer. My primary stream of freelancing just dried up, so I’m writing spec articles and not particularly happy about that. My fiction writing has been back-burnered through all this. I did a thousand words yesterday, but that’s not enough if I really want to get published and stay that way. I’m fighting for time, and the house cleaning and chores are the things that get neglected.

    October 6, 2011

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