Fortunately, nobody owes you anything

“I’ve been loyal to British Gas,” said a member of the public on BBC News this week, “and I expected them to be loyal to me.” It was a story about pricing and the fella was commendably succinct and clear but he was wrong. More, he was wrong in a way that I see a great deal in writing.

The short version with British Gas is that he paid them for gas, they provided it, the end. Whether he was with them for a week or a decade, it’s the same transaction and ascribing a loyal relationship to it is like naming your car or the way that Britain thinks it’s got a special relationship with America.

The longer version in writing and actually in any work is that you are self-employed. Whether you think of it that way or not, whether you get to tick that box on your tax return or not, you are. Maybe right now you are working with a company but it is with, it is not for. They are paying you and will continue to pay for as long as you’re worth the money to them, and as long as they have the money. You will continue to work with them for as long as it’s worth it to you.

That’s not to say that there isn’t loyalty and there aren’t relationships but they with people, not with organisations. You can well argue that I’ve been loyal to the BBC but I’m long gone now and I’m not going back. You can even more argue that I’m loyal to Apple since I buy a lot of their products but again, no. One of my favourite keyboards – I’m sorry, I’m a writer, some of us get into pens, some of us into keyboards, it’s not healthy – but one of my keyboards is a Microsoft one. Love it. If Apple brings out something new, I will look at it not because it’s Apple but because their kit has been so very useful to me.

And I’m not saying you should clock-watch or be a jobsworth, either. I don’t believe I have ever had a commission or a contract or a job where I paid the slightest attention to the hours I was supposed to do. You’re there to do get something done, not to fill a time sheet, so if it takes you longer to get it right, you take longer.

Wait. I worked for Apricot Computers once and that was a dog of a year. I definitely clock-watched on that one. But then just as having had one spectacularly bad director means I relish all the good ones, one dreadful year there means I also deeply appreciate having work that I adore.

(Oh! Quick aside? There was someone at Apricot with a title like Communications Manager who left on maternity leave. I forget the details and the timings but a short while after she left, she had her child and she sent a note about it to be posted on the company’s noticeboard. She was British, working in the UK and working in communications but she wrote that note in hard-to-read flowery calligraphy – and in French. Give her credit though, that did communicate an awful lot to me about her.)

I was loyal to Radio Times, I think, and with all friendly and even rather happy respect to them, I was wrong. Only because I enjoyed it so much there and it felt so right to do it that I stayed too long. They got rid of me when I was no longer worth it to them but in truth it was several years after it had ceased being worth it to me. It’s not like I’d trade my time there for much of anything, but I would compress it down a bit if I could.

I think it’s just easy to stay somewhere or to stay with British Gas and call it loyalty. Plus you do get a lot of warmth from both. But think of it as loyalty and you’re going to feel knifed with betrayal when the company kicks you out or British Gas raises prices again. You’re also not going to look ahead and if you don’t think about what you’re doing next and what you want to do with your career, with your writing, nobody else is.

I was doing a mentoring thing yesterday which is partly about writing, partly about the business of being freelance and it’s peculiar how saying something to someone else helps you realise it for yourself. It’s fine and normal and necessary to apply for jobs but writers create their own opportunities. Rather than waiting for job advert and competing against other candidates, go to a company with a project that precisely fits you and nobody else. Most will say no but at least they’ll say it quickly and you won’t have to answer damn questions like “What is your biggest weakness?” And some will say yes.

I’ve worked with a few people now who are technically freelance but don’t see it that way. They work for an agency, they feel, and they all have exactly the same concerns and resentments about how the agency treats them. But you do not work for your agency, you work with them. It’s the tiniest of different ways to think about it but it’s an enormous difference that mentally helps you negotiate better and know when to leave for somewhere else.

It’s my job, it’s what I do

Quick aside? I love the line “It’s my job, it’s what I do” because to me it is the archetypal ridiculous line you used to get from so many cop shows. I say it with earnest dry seriousness and I am of course kidding. Unfortunately, it turns out that not everyone knows that TV cop show trope and one day I found out I had been seriously, seriously, seriously annoying an entire newsroom.

I’d like to say that I stopped using it but there are times when it still springs into my head unbidden. Such as now. I was just thinking about this thing I want to discuss with you and there it was, there was this old line. And I rather mean it this time.

Follow. A friend, Mary Ellen Flynn, said this to me recently after a tearoom natter:

I like your perspective since you are businesslike about writing but you still love it.

My lights, it has actually become true: this is my job, this is what I do.

I’m split now. She meant it as a compliment and I take it as one, but it’s sent me spiralling off into pondering the differences and the similarities and the Venn Diagrams of writing vs business, of art vs work. Then, okay, that’s further sent me off pondering how I have the nerve to call what I do art but fortunately I don’t. One dilemma at a time, please.

I think the reason I’m mithered over this is that her line reminded me of how I’ve previously been accused of being a commercial writer. It was not a compliment. Whoever it was – and I’m genuinely blanking on their name – pointed out that I write Doctor Who radio dramas and that every idea I was telling them was out-and-out commercial. Every idea was a thriller, a romance or both.

Oh, grief. I’ve just had a thought. If it were who I now think it might have been, she was writing literary fiction and it was bad. God in heaven, it was bad. One of the single most creative pieces of writing I’ve ever done is the way I answered her about what I thought of a certain chapter without telling her what I thought of a certain chapter. You’re asked your opinion in order to give your opinion but sometimes, no, the truth is best left out there.

Anyway. I like literary fiction but my best definition of it is a book that doesn’t fit into any other genre. Equally I suppose you can argue that the definition of a commercial text is that it is written to make money. It amuses me that she failed totally at being literary and I’m doing a good job at failing to make money.

Yet for all that I am supposedly commercial and for all that I agree I am businesslike, the fact is that I write romances and thrillers because I love them.

They excite me, they totally compel me and maybe I can’t do them well yet but I’m trying.

There is the part of my brain that recognises the existence of a mortgage and how nice it is to eat around three times a day. There is the part of my brain that knows deadlines and understands a brief and can copywrite and can build a structure, build an event. That’s the businesslike bit that is very easy for me; frankly because anything is easier than writing.

I said that all this pondering and noodling came from that friend’s line about my being businesslike. I was doing a talk last week and trying to convey a point about writing as a career, as a job. You know how you don’t know something until you say it?

This is what I think, this is what I do, this is what I said:

I write for a living – but I really write for a life.