A Reader's Question: I'm preparing to travel full-time and work remotely, but what work should I do?
Today's question from Clare, creator of the beautiful blog The Wayfarer Diaries, also came to me via a friendly email. After reading a bit more about her and understanding what she was asking for my advice on I again thought it would be a great topic to share with other readers as I know many of us are torn between choosing what we want to do and what we have to do in order to live, pay bills, fill a fridge with food or in Clare's case, in order to be location independent and travel full-time. Lucky for you and me Clare was very happy to share her story and her question with you all and so I'll leave it to her to explain her concerns and I will then offer some of my own advice and personal experience, some of which may surprise you!
(And if you'd like to share your story or ask a question about travel, location independence or writing, here's some more information on how to get in touch.)
In Clare's words: I want to be a writer and become location independent, but that's not currently how I make my money. Do I choose to follow my dreams and try and support my travels as a writer, or do I stick to what I know as a freelancer?
"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us" - Gandalf the Grey
I was 19 when I left college, having applied to zero universities. The idea of another 3 years in a hot room listening to people talk made me itch. Instead, I applied for a TEFL training programme in Saigon, boarded a plane with a group of strangers, and flew to Vietnam. I spent the next 7 months in Asia; teaching English to Vietnamese students, eating noodle soup and backpacking through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
I came back after that, and I got my degree. And less than a year after I graduated, I felt the familiar itch creeping over my skin once again. So I packed up my attic room in the shared house in which I lived and moved home, to live with my parents and save the money I needed to leave. I broke up with my boyfriend of 6 years, and cried, and healed, and grew to love the idea of flying solo.
I left again in September 2013, alone, clutching a one way ticket to Bali. A whole year in Asia this time, a year in which I was changed irreparably into someone who knew what it was to be absolutely free and, like a caged bird who discovers how truly vast the sky is, could never go back to the way things were before.
I know now that this is not something that I will ever ‘get out of my system’. To paraphrase Isabelle Eberhardt; ‘I will never be content with a sedentary life’. I want to be free to work for myself, to decide when and where I work and to build my work into a life of indefinite travel. I want to write. When people ask me, I want to be able to say to them ‘oh, I’m a writer’. I want to be fully present in the moments that make up my day, and for each day to be intentional and full of new experiences.
Right now, I work as a freelance desktop publisher, contracted to a company in the UK. Although technically freelance, I am still tied; obligated to sit at the same desk every day and work for someone else whilst I save and plan and lay the foundations for a different life. Whilst I feel stifled by the routine, it’s stable enough for me to save the money I need to make travelling again a reality, and I’m adding to the small portfolio of design jobs I worked on during the last year in Asia. It would be easier in the long term to make money on the road as a freelance designer, building on the portfolio I already have - but this is not where my heart resides. I want to be known and respected as a writer, and surely in making a jump this big, it is worth taking a risk on the biggest dreams.
I reached out to Frankie because I was lost, buried under the enormity of the challenge I have set myself. I needed her clarity, and her honesty, and to connect with someone who is tangible proof that the life I am striving for does exist. My question for her was this; do I continue to build on my base as a freelance designer, from which I already know I can make money - or do I start from the very beginning, shoot for my ‘plan A’ and try to establish myself as a full time writer?
I’m hoping that Frankie can give me some direction. I know where it is I need to be, I just need a little help figuring out how to get there.
Frankie's words: It is possible to do a job you don't love, travel AND pursue your dream profession.
In fact, it's easier than you think. I'll try and explain why but to do so it would help if I explained a bit about how I got to where I am as a freelance copywriter and author of fiction.
My story in a nutshell... (please skip if you know all this!)
I haven't always wanted to be a writer, but I have always wanted to make stuff up. As a child my imagination would run away with me (I didn't have an imaginary friend, I had an imaginary family!) and throughout my teens I dreamt and worked hard towards becoming an actress, a job that would let me pretend to be different people again and again. It was only as the reality of life kicked in that I - rightly or wrongly - switched my focus to doing something I was good at that could find me gainful employment rather than something I loved deeply but had a much higher risk of seeing me struggle to make ends meet.
By my mid-twenties I had two degrees and was working for one of the world's biggest companies doing fascinating but ultimately not creative work. It wasn't long after this that I started blogging (about the area of London I lived in at the time) and I knew it was my way of exploring a new creative outlet. While I wasn't making things up, I was falling in love with writing and not long after I began to map out stories and novels in note form or in Word documents. But I rarely got further than a few pages of brainstorming or a couple of chapters at most.
Then I met a man. And he was location-independent. It took a while but he began to open my eyes to this new way of life and eighteen months after we met on top of a mountain in Austria (which is a bit confusing because he's from Australia but lived in London) we left to travel indefinitely. By that stage I was already a few months into building up a freelance writing business. That was in October 2011.
Focusing on copywriting and content creation, I basically wrote anything anybody wanted me to; website copy, content for brochures or flyers, sales listings, newsletter copy, ghostwritten blogs etc. (I have previously written in more detail about where I first found the work and how this has changed over the years). Because I was also writing a travel blog (this one you're reading!) and guest-posting on other travel blogs and websites, I began to get more travel related commissions though much of the work was still commercially oriented, i.e. copy for company blogs or websites. I did try pitching to travel publications, magazines and newspapers but I found the work required to go into a pitch VERY effort- and time-consuming and if I was successful (a BIG IF!) the payments for these jobs were actually very low compared to the amount of time I would spend on the work. I quickly decided my time was better spent on more profitable and reliable copywriting jobs.
My main reason for this was that time I wasn't spending on freelance jobs - or enjoying the destinations we were in - was time I could spend on my first short story collection, Shy Feet: Short Stories Inspired by Travel, which was published in August 2013.
This year I hope to publish at least another short story collection, a novella and my first non-fiction book.
I'm sorry this may seem a bit of step sideways from answering Clare's question but hopefully it will all become relevant now.
There are many different ways to be a writer...
What my above journey has taught me is that there are many different types of writers. I, myself, am multiple different types of writer. I am an author (of short stories, of novels, of non-fiction books), a blogger, a travel writer, a copywriter, a ghostwriter and I could possibly go on. Like Clare, when I first contemplated a life of location independence and a job that would enable such a lifestyle I thought "Why not kill two birds with one stone - or rather realise two dreams with one stone - and become a freelance writer AND travel indefinitely?". To all intents and purposes, this is what I've done and I'm proud and happy that I've been able to make it work, albeit with several ups and downs along the way. However, writing sales or newsletter copy for small businesses is not my dream. It's a job. Please don't misunderstand me, working with clients to create the copy or content they want but cannot achieve on their own is a very satisfying, enjoyable and interesting job - and it comes with many benefits, not least location-independence, flexibility and freedom, all the things that Clare craves - but it's still just a job.
Furthermore, it is not the same as spending my days working on my fiction.
That is my dream. That is the kind of writer I want to be all the time. That is the writer I'm working hard to become.
The other thing to remember with freelance writing is that it is highly unlikely to make you huge amounts of money, especially in the beginning. (Again I talk a lot more about why this is in this post). I still earn half (or sometimes less) than what I did when I was a full-time employee in London. Personally, the lifestyle I have gives me more benefits and I also have considerably less outgoings too, so it 'pays off', but that doesn't mean I always have a stress free working life; regular clients can very easily walk away out of the blue (and have done for reasons completely out of my control), my rates still come under scrutiny, I'm always chasing invoices and there is always someone willing to do the work - albeit often not to the same standard - cheaper and quicker.
Of course, this is the same for many freelance professionals, not just writers, but having hired designers, programmers, editors, proofreaders etc. for my books, I have always found that those who work with words are charging comparatively lower rates for their time than those with some technical skill or training. This is obviously a sad state of affairs - and please do correct me if you believe I'm wrong - but that's consistently been my personal experience.
I appreciate what you say, Clare, about your heart not being in desktop publishing and design work and how your dream is to be "known and respected as a writer" but I question what you actually mean by this statement. I for one do not feel that I am known or respected as a copywriter, at all. Yes, I'm known and appreciated by my copywriting clients, which is very rewarding, but I'm not famous and I would be the first to say there are hundreds, if not thousands, of copywriters out there who are much better at my job than I am. Maybe, by now, you've already detected that my heart definitely isn't in copywriting!
It is different when I think about my fiction, albeit still true that there are thousands of authors far more accomplished than me. Although, again, I'm not well-known or widely-respected as the author of fiction I have had enough reader emails and book reviews to start believing that I am "known and respected as a writer" to a small number of people around the world. This may seem a piddly achievement to most. To me, it makes me content and proud and encouraged in ways I can't quite describe. Simply put, you don't need to pay your bills with writing jobs to be respected as a writer.
While I would never discourage anyone from becoming a freelance writer I do want to say to you, Clare, that I think you should look very closely into how much money you're likely to make as a freelance designer and compare it with the going rate for writers. I can't say for certain but I think it will show that for better paying, more reliable and potentially more regular work, sticking to designing could be more practical and profitable for you, Clare.
It is possible to be both practical AND passionate
As I said to Clare in my original reply I think she has a wonderful problem. There have been numerous occasions when I've said to NewMan "I wish I had design skills!" because I have seen some of the rates good designers can charge and I know from personal experience trying to find one that they are highly in demand. Plus, it's still a job that involves creative skill and consideration
In a previous email Clare also mentioned that she wants to write novels, that's the kind of writer she really wants to be and it's for that specific reason that I wrote much of the above. Being a freelance copywriter/content creator is NOT the same job as writing fiction. In fact, I would go so far as to say it's like comparing a brain surgeon with a heart surgeon. You may work in the same place and use the same tools, but you're really doing something that is (and has to be) very, very different. Aside from a good knowledge of grammar, spelling and language, the way you approach writing for a client who wants to sell something is completely altered from how you approach writing for a reader who wants to enjoy a book. In many ways, I often think not working with words day in and day out could even make you a better author of novels as you will spend your days away from words and thus have a new perspective and energy for them when it's time to work on your stories.
And if we continue to speak practically, it does sound as if you're already well on your way to establishing yourself as a designer, whereas aside from your beautiful blog, I'm not sure how much experience or exposure you've had as a freelance writer. Why start at the beginning when you don't have to?
Give yourself as much flexibility and time as you possibly can
So what about your passion, those novels you want to write? Well, having squeezed freelance writing work around writing books (while travelling too) I can tell you that I have often thought about how much I would have given to have had the option of a higher paying, more in demand profession when I was first starting out as a freelancer.
Ironically I sort of did. Had I focused on freelancing in my previous full-time profession (I was a corporate researcher) I would have earned a lot more per job and so would have been able to free up more time for writing or just enjoying my travels. Instead, for much of the first 18 months of my freelance career I barely spent any time on my stories because I was too busy pitching for work, taking on jobs that took too long for too little money, and writing for free in order to build up a portfolio. I don't regret doing this; I saw it as part of what I had to do and I learned a lot. However, that wonderful thing hindsight has made me see it didn't have to be this way. While my main reason for not focusing on corporate research work had more to do with my fear of not having regular work, it's also fair to say that I was also blindsided by the romantic idea of "being a writer" so I focused on writing jobs although they charged less and took up more of my time. This was, of course, long before I knew how many different ways there are to make money writing, and not all of them are as dreamy or romantic as you'd imagine! It's only now when I take so much pleasure and creative satisfaction in writing fiction that I regret not being smarter about how I went about earning money so I could dedicate more time to it sooner.
And so, Clare, if I was you I would focus on building up a profile, portfolio, client base and reputation as an excellent freelance designer. The main reason being that this will hopefully be a quicker and more reliable route to financing a life of location independence AND having more time to pursue your passion of writing novels. Freelance life and travel - especially in countries that offer a cheap cost of living - can provide you with great flexibility to dedicate time to what you want to do in life, just remember you don't need to make money off it immediately for it to make you happy... or successful. I am still in the red with my first two books and that doesn't even factor in the cost of all the time I spent on them, but I couldn't be happier or prouder of them. They are the biggest achievements of my professional life.
You may think I'm being a little "glass half empty" by not suggesting you "go for it!" by making self-publishing books or pitching a novel to an agent your business model to finance your travels, because this thought may have crossed your mind. It's certainly crossed mine and I have read in interviews that it can be done, but personally speaking, I would feel reckless and dishonest in suggesting one of these options to you as neither are experiences I've had myself. Besides, I know how flipping hard it is to write one book in a year, let alone five or six or seven in much less time than that which is apparently what you would need to do to have any chance of breaking even or making a profit as an indie author. It's also true that agents and publishers hardly ever issue huge (or often any kind of) advances to first-time novelists and they also put a lot of emphasis on authors having an established following when they consider taking on new talent - something I'm still working on after over five years of blogging and two published books. (In other words, the agent/publisher route is not a short cut to financial dependency!) I would much rather suggest you soak up all the enjoyment that writing fiction can bring and take your time to learn everything you need to in order to make your book/s the best possible novel/s you're capable of and then seeing where that takes you...
My final piece of advice to you Clare and anyone else who wants to write novels or books of any wonderful shape or form is to START WRITING NOW. Unlike so many other people with other dreams, if your goal is to be a writer you don't need to be travelling or established as a freelancer or be anything other than willing to take a little time out of your day. You just need to sit down and write.
Voila, you're a writer!
All photos by Clare of Wayfarer Diaries. Follow her journey to see what she decides to do - and where she'll travel to next! - on Facebook. Here's how you can share your story or question on As the Bird flies.
If you're looking for more posts about freelance life or writing check out the twelve lessons I've learned in three years of freelancing, the three secret ingredients you need to develop and keep a writing habit, and why Inbox Zero is my number one productivity tool, and how to achieve it.
Frances M. Thompson
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.