Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Q&A with Mark Terry

Back in September, author Mark Terry asked for a little help from his friends. In keeping with my desire to help out fellow writing parents, I in turn asked him for an interview. Here are Mark's thoughts on (among other things) being a freelancing dad, writing fiction and non-fiction, and dealing with unpredictable income:

Our careers followed much the same track, with "bitching about the job and wishing I were home writing" leading to part- and then finally full-time writing. How did you come to make the decision, first to go part-time, then full-?

I'd been leading up to it for a long time. For the longest time I was writing strictly fiction--unsuccessfully--and occasionally nonfiction. But the nonfiction kept building and building over the years and probably 15% of my annual income was coming from the nonfiction (versus my "day job").

I had several regular writing and editing gigs and I made a concerted effort to do more nonfiction and I tripped into a market that paid very well. So instead of getting paid $150 or $200 per article I was getting paid $850 to $1500 per article. That convinced me it was possible and I started concentrating on the nonfiction and it was obvious pretty quickly that I might be able to make this work.

I was in a job at the time--as a cytogenetics technologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit--that had a track record of letting technologists work part-time. So I requested part-time, working two ten-hour days, and writing the other three. That started at the end of June 2004 and by the end of October I went fulltime. Haven't looked back since.

From time to time my wife comments that she wishes I had done it five years earlier, but I'm not sure the conditions were right. I do wish I had been in contact with other fulltime freelancers, because then I would have considered it possible, which strikes me as being about 90% of the battle.

You have a wide range of freelancing jobs as well as your fiction. How do you balance the two aspects of your career?

The assumption being that I am balancing the two aspects of my career. I try to limit the time I spend on fiction to an hour or an hour-and-a-half a day and I've recently put a cap on how much I'm willing to spend on marketing (at least until I can pay down my Visa bill). Although I try to write fiction every day, paying nonfiction work will trump it every time. I'm also all too aware that my fiction "career" (as you call it) is about as stable as a puddle in Death Valley. This can wreak havoc with your emotions.

Sometimes it bugs me, sometimes I just go with the flow. I try to treat them both as integral parts of my writing career and business model, but I'm probably kidding myself. There's nothing intelligent and rational about my fiction career; it's all emotional. I like doing it, I can do it, so I do.

From a dollars and cents point of view it probably doesn't make much sense--at least not yet.

How does your writing schedule overall work with your job as stay-at-home dad? How does it all change during vacations, snow days, sick days, etc.? Especially with the latter - how do you adapt?

I don't have too many problems with this. I have two sons, one is nine, the other will soon be fourteen. They're very self-entertaining and as long as there are videogames they're pretty content. We restrict TV when they're home in the summer (no TV between 10 AM and 4 PM). We have a pool and in warm weather they use it most of the afternoon.

I try to stay flexible in my hours. It's one of the supposed perks of being self-employed although I tend not to abuse it much, working better with a regular, predictable schedule--something approximating nine to five, although in the summer because I don't have to deal with getting the kids off to school it's more like 8:30 to 5:00 and maybe shorter days on Fridays.

Knock on wood, we're all pretty healthy. If someone gets sick, I make sure they're comfortable and check on them regularly. You have to understand, once your oldest hits the teen years, they can be more or less depended on for help.

I also keep an open door policy. The only time I can't be interrupted is when I'm on the phone, otherwise they're welcome to come down and bug, er, keep me company. (They get bored with me pretty quickly). Part of our basement is finished off and half of that is my office. It's essentially two large rooms, one with a full bathroom and a walk-in closet. We call that room the Bat Cave because it has no windows and my wife slept down there when she worked midnights. There's a TV and air hockey and the kids sometimes will come down there to entertain themselves. My office is next to it with a window looking out on the backyard.

What does your wife do? How do you divide household and family responsibilities?

My wife is a medical technologist and currently works days. Because she's a senior technologist, AKA assistant supervisor or group leader, she's relatively flexible in her hours. She also only works about eleven miles from our house, which means she doesn't have much of a commute. So she basically works 7:00 to 3:30 and typically stops at the gym on the way home three days a week. So in the mornings she makes sure our oldest son is up before she leaves--his bus leaves at 7:00 in the morning--and I'm up at 6:30 to keep him company and make sure he leaves the house on time. Then I take my shower, check e-mail, work up my to-do list if I haven't already, then wake up the youngest, get him off to school and walk the dog. I'm typically at my desk by 9:00.

As for households divisions, I'm the chief dishwasher and I handle the floors--sweeping, mopping, vacuuming. We'll split up lunch duties on the weekends and I'll do some cooking as needed, although I actually don't like to cook and my wife does. And she'd rather cook than do the dishes.

We're both very involved in our kids' lives. We try to pick up the slack for each other, no matter what the duties are around the house. Because I'm now working out of the house, I deal with the vagaries of school schedules-days off, sick days, snow days, vacations--and the kids know that I will have two questions for them when they get home from school: 1. How was your day? 2. Do you have homework?

Kids being kids, I may tell them they should do their homework or practice their musical instruments before Mom gets home because we have something going on that evening, but I generally return to my office and they ignore me until Mom gets home and she starts rattling cages. We both monitor schoolwork and share in the parental nagging. You could safely say I'm the warm-up and my wife's the closer.

What particular challenges have you faced as a work-at-home parent? How have you overcome (or are working toward overcoming) them?

One of the challenges we still deal with, and it has less to do with parenting than being self-employed, is dealing with unpredictable income. My wife is a great money manager, but even still, we try to learn from our mistakes. The first summer I was fulltime we had planned a trip to Disney World in July (yeah, it was hot). Unfortunately, it had slipped both of our minds that we owed my quarterly taxes right before we left. So we went to Disney with very little money in reserve, which isn't the best way to go to Disney. That inspired us to develop a different system for managing taxes, which essentially is for me to have an Excel spreadsheet that totals my income and how much taxes I owe both the state and the federal government and I run it every week and give it to my wife so we always know exactly how much money is owed or will be owed at any given point in each quarter.

There's a certain amount of faith involved in running your own business. You have to plan as best you can for the lean times, but you also have to have faith that work-and a check-will turn up soon.

In terms of parenting, I think the biggest problem--and I'm not sure it's a huge problem--is it can be kind of hard to pull your head away from the work. Not just physically--sometimes I'll work evenings and weekends if deadlines demand it--but to just pull away mentally and when you're with the family, be with the family. This is true for anybody who runs their own business and is probably true for many people who work for others, but one of the disadvantages of having a home office (or e-mail, a cell phone, a fax machine, a laptop) is it's all too easy to just slip off to work. We deal with it.

What do you love best about being a work-at-home parent?

Almost everything, to be honest. I like being home with the kids in the summer and on vacations. I like being home when they come home from school and in the mornings when they leave for school. I like, if need be, being available for things like field trips or school events. There is also a sense of actually being part of my community that I didn't have when I commuted 45 miles into Detroit and was essentially gone from 7:00 in the morning until 7:15 in the evening.

I also just have more of a life. It's not perfect--we only touched on unpredictable pay and don't have nearly the time to discuss health insurance (my wife has excellent health insurance)--but nothing is. Life for me and my family got significantly better when I was able to make this work. That's a blessing.

Anything else you want to tell us about writing and parenting?

People often tell me they think they'd like to work out of the house like I do. I'm sort of hesitant to push it too much because I really, really don't think it works for everybody. Some people claim they don't know if they'd have the discipline to work with all the distractions and that can certainly be part of it, although I find the majority of my distractions online. I think an even bigger issue for people considering working out of their house is the isolation. I'm very comfortable working by myself, but I do realize that sometimes I like going to the gym to be around other people as much as working out, or eating out for lunch. I'm pretty sure some people would go nuts if their primary interaction during the day was themselves or e-mail or blogs.

The other thing, particularly when it comes to writing, is that it's a business. And you have to treat it as a business, and that's going to mean some sort of regular hours, doing work you might not necessarily enjoy, sometimes having to go after the money or negotiating things in a way you might not think you should have to. And like all businesses, there are ups-and-downs, not just in income, but the work itself and in how you feel about it. As a result, it may have a larger effect (maybe) on your family.

On the other hand, I never wish I was doing something else, although I might wish I was writing something else. The lifestyle serves me particularly well and I get up in the morning always eager to get to work. And I most definitely didn't say that when I worked at the hospital.

Mark sent me his latest novel, The Serpent's Kiss, after I signed up for his newsletter and won his contest. I liked the thriller's bioterrorism twist, which draws on his experience, and I plan to check out the rest of his backlist.


Blogger spyscribbler said...

That hardest part for me is not having a time I have to be "at work." Granted, I have a round-about time in my head, but an extra snooze in the morning doesn't make all that much difference.

(Or blogging a little, LOL. Speaking of which ...)

Great interview, Christa and Mark!

12/11/07 10:08 AM  

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