I have been a freelance writer for two years as of today. That’s one thirteenth of my life.
Of course, I’ve been a writer for longer than that, as the reams of notebooks that I’ve kept from the last decade will show. I’ve always thought better outside my own head, as if it’s too busy in there and having the chance to pin down the ideas in ink makes them more manageable by far.
But on this day two years ago I sat down at my computer and I wrote; I wrote, I believe, an article about Kelly Brook running around a beach advertising shoes and trousers, and I was paid for it. I was working full-time for FHM, but under a freelance retainer agreement that meant they didn’t have to pay me if, for some reason, I couldn’t work on a particular day.
Later that I wrote an article on Duke Nukem, which is the first piece of games journalism I ever wrote. The day after, I went to the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall and walked through a darkened maze of costumed zombies to watch a preview video of Dead Island, then walked out to claim two free slices of Hawaiian pizza, a beer, a bottle of undrinkable coconut liqueur, and a pineapple. I didn’t know what to think. Maybe all days were like this.
Anyway, the money was terrible, and the work was hard – one gaming article a day, four “girls” articles a day, all at 250+ words – but it taught me how to bullshit. In interviews, in job apps, I always say that it taught me how to scour for stories and turn in things on time and deal with PRs.
While all those things are definitely true, the biggest thing I learned from my time at FHM was how to stare down five empty word documents at the start of the day and think – “I will fill you. I will destroy you. I will lie and cheat and steal until my job is done. I do not care what I have to say to make those pages go away.”
If you go back and read my articles now – and some of them are pretty good, actually – then they’re grade-A nonsense, the lot of them. Kelly Brook drinks some cider? I write about how fun it would be to get wasps drunk. Cintia Dicker is in ANOTHER underwear commercial? I treat the entire thing as a dizzying, terrifying documentary. Kate Middleton visits Canada? I ascribe her super powers that she uses to conquer the populace.
PICTURES OF TITS
Because this isn’t writing grand epics of opinion for RPS, this isn’t honing some column for Edge – this is jamming some words around pictures of tits so Google will recognise it as a useful source for pictures of tits. Time and again you are repeatedly reminded that your words are a secondary concern, and after that you switch your mindset.
Which is an interesting lesson to learn, really, because as writers – most of us – all we do is make advertising nicer to look at. We are a lure to bring people to places where they see things that that mean they might buy one brand of crisps over another. So they might pre-order Metal Gear Whatever. So they might sign up for a season pass to their favourite multiplayer game.
And so I did a lot of cool things in my time at FHM, because a) no-one really cared too much what I wrote about so long as it was funny and b) I had a big-name brand to wave around and thus secure interview time that I’d waste on getting famous people to draw stupid pictures for me and talk about their favourite kinds of breakfast cereal. I also wore bright red PVC hot pants and several scarves and not a lot else on one fateful day in February.
And then they made me redundant, almost a year ago. They made a load of us redundant over the period of around a week after some poor choices in management and funding which left us staring down the barrel of a massive fall in profits, and first to go was the web team. After all, the print team can already write, surely? Just let them do it. Not as though they’re busy making a magazine or anything. I can’t see how that could go wrong.
(It went wrong. They recently hired two writers to tackle the web work, and I’m pleased to say that at least one of ’em is pretty good. I applied, too, but the sample article I attached was so poor and rushed-out that I really don’t blame them for not hiring me back)
HALF-CUT ON RED WINE
And I had the option of going back into an office job, but the Guardian came through with some work, arranged over the phone four days after I got fired and when I was half-cut at a friend’s house, both of us recently out of work and trying to drown our sorrows in Co-op red wine and a series of awful films.
I went off on two press trips for them and off that I met some people who managed to work me into their magazine rotation. I’ve learned, more than anything as a freelancer, is that it’s important to get drunk with as many commissioning editors as you can. To shake hands. To make your face known. Portfolios will only get you so far. And that’s depressingly old-fashioned, but there you go.
I’ve had to become more serious since leaving FHM, so my articles about mysterious otherworlds and strange flights of fancy have been pushed to one side in a desperate attempt to appear earnest; occasionally I have a pop at some actual criticism, too, devoid of jokes, and it’s gone okay for me. I’ve started going to press events and just writing about what happens, a trend which is going well for me and some others, too.
Of course, this is barely sustainable. I’m lucky enough to have married a tremendously competent woman who earns far, far more than me and is happy to support us both; if I lived alone, it would be in a cardboard box outside a cheap internet cafe.
THE BEST THING
And now, terrifyingly, I’m moving to Australia where I know absolutely no-one and will have to start my career almost all over again. I don’t know if they have games journalism in Australia, unless you count Zero Punctuation which is technically imported, anyway. It’s been two years, and I’m still the young guy, still the underdog, still find myself mooning over established freelancers or staff journos and wondering how they did it, how they got there, how they manage to support themselves in this ridiculous life that we all lead. I have no idea.
And I still have dreams; I want to earn enough money to not worry about buying food from month to month. I want to write a book. I want to write for Rock Paper Shotgun or PC Gamer or, in some alternate timeline, N64 Magazine circa 1998 because it is officially the Best Thing. I want to steal Ken Levine away for a romantic weekend in the mountains. Any of the above would be good.
But I love it. I adore it. I wouldn’t change it for the world. (I would, that’s an exaggeration, of course I would) I get to wake up every morning and walk though to my living room and wear what I want and eat what I want and do the job – the jobs, if you count game design – of my dreams. I strive never to forget how impossibly lucky I am.