Thursday, August 23, 2007

My Layoff Memoir: Part 2, Struggle

I hit the 190-page mark last night, so I've got around 100 pages to go for my target length. Woo hoo! I did kind of throw off my mental timing by doing something silly: I reset my computer clock. Clocks in general that are around me for any length of time tend to gain time. My watch and alarm clock are usually around five minutes fast, and my computer clock really gains time. I was used to just mentally subtracting fifteen minutes from whatever time my computer clock said it was. It was like my computer clock was the warning about the time it would be in fifteen minutes. For whatever reason, Tuesday night I reset it to the real time, and that's really messing me up because I keep mentally subtracting those fifteen minutes and forgetting that it's the real time. I hadn't realized the impact of that mental time cushion. I may have to go back and set it to the way it was because instead of feeling ahead of the game and prepared, I feel like I'm just a bit behind and trying to catch up.

Now, since I left you with a cliffhanger (I'm evil that way), the story continues ...

Things went great in my newly restructured job for a little more than a year, and then things started to change in early 2001. First, my immediate supervisor transferred to another office. She and I had a great working relationship. I became a kind of confidante and consultant to her since I was outside the normal office politics loop. I guess I gave her a peer in the office so she didn't show weakness to the people under her or to her boss, and she could discuss things with me like the creepy client who invited her to lunch for what she thought would be a business meting, but then he hit on her. She also was really good at figuring out how to use me as a resource. Unfortunately, her replacement was the exact opposite. We were about the same age and experience level, and she seemed to see me as a threat to her position, I guess since I'd been there longer and was so firmly entrenched with our major clients. She didn't seem to realize that I had absolutely zero interest in her job. I just wanted to be left alone to write Angel fanfic work on my novel. If you read the comic strip Dilbert, you might recognize her as "Topper," the one who has to top anything anyone else says. She did it to everyone, even the interns (and, I later found out, to clients), but it seemed particularly bad with me. For instance, we were going after a healthcare client, and I mentioned in a meeting that I did have some healthcare experience, having worked five years at a medical school and freelanced for them longer than that, so that I spoke Conversational Doctor (which I figured would be relevant). She immediately had to bring up the fact that she once did a project with a medical angle during her internship. She not only didn't really know how to use me, she seemed afraid to use me, so I started being shut out of things. She wouldn't include me in crucial client meetings or in the process of planning things for clients.

Fortunately, the general manager of the office did like to use me. I started working more on his accounts than on the accounts in my own group, which meant I got a lot more variety and learned about some fun industries. But then he took a job at another company. We went several months without a manager, with the regional president just doing general oversight and the group VPs running their own groups. That meant I got zero to do. I was bored out of my skull. I got to the point I was dreaming up wacky consumer tip news releases for Home Depot, just for fun, even though I technically didn't work on that account (I learned all about gardening and home improvement). It was during this period in January 2002 when I really got into the Harry Potter books, and then one morning as I dragged myself up the stairs to my office to check my e-mail and see if there was something -- anything -- for me to do I had this funny little idea pop into my head when I caught myself daydreaming about getting a fantasy job offer in my e-mail.

Around this time, things started happening. The new general manager they hired was someone I'd worked with before -- the one person in my entire professional career I'd ever had a hallway screaming match with. I warned the regional president about the kind of person he was and what my experiences with him had been, but they disregarded my input (and then a couple of years later he went down in flames of scandal, so HAH!). Meanwhile, our biggest account, the one where I wrote speeches for the CEO, was up for review, so we had to re-pitch it, and my immediate supervisor actually shut the conference room door in my face when the team that was supposed to work on the pitch was meeting. I was totally shut out of it, other than proofreading the proposal, and they didn't take me to the meeting. I could see the writing on the wall and started working on my escape plan. I had all that money in savings, and I figured I could live on that and freelance for a while. I just wanted to make it past my next dentist appointment two weeks away, so my insurance would cover it, and then I'd quit. But then we lost the big account (duh), and that meant staffing had to be cut, and I was on the list. On the last day of January, while I was eating breakfast, I got a phone call telling me to bring my laptop and any pending work, along with my office keys, to the office ASAP. It was the biggest relief, really. There was some worry, but I'm not sure I would have had the nerve to quit on my own, no matter how much I talked about it. Being pushed out made it feel like this was meant to be. Other than the dental insurance (all benefits ended the day they dropped the axe), it worked out better for me because I got severance pay and the sympathy of all my former clients, especially that big one. They called me immediately (the benefit of working from home -- all my clients knew how to reach me) to complain that my company had kept on the person who was the reason they went to another agency while firing the people they liked. And they wanted to know if I was interested in freelancing. That was when I decided not to look for another job. I was too spoiled by my working conditions to go back to working in an office, and I really wanted to write, plus I had all that money in savings. So, I decided to go for it and concentrate on my writing, with whatever freelance work I could pick up, instead of searching for a job.

It was kind of scary, especially at first. I'd calculated an hourly rate and figured out how many hours I'd need to work a week to pay my living expenses, and I started to panic when I didn't have a project to do. It took me a while to get used to the ebb and flow of freelance income and the way it tended to be feast or famine, and I had to keep reminding myself that I did have money in the bank, so that anything I earned just spread out the time I had that I could go without a job. All my work over the years paid off, as former clients found out I was available and hired me as a freelancer, and my former supervisor took a job at a new company and hired me to freelance instead of hiring a new person in her office. I still had to dip into my savings for major expenses like taxes and health insurance, but I made enough money for the day-to-day stuff.

Meanwhile, the book writing wasn't going so well. The last book I'd written had been out in the market for more than a year with no response, even though an agent had submitted it (I actually doubt she ever did submit it, since I know now from experiences with my current agent that an agent can at least get a no in that time, plus I later submitted the same book on my own to some of the same editors, and they acted like they'd never heard of it). My agent suggested that maybe it needed some revision, so I started rewriting it (that should have been a clue, since if it was a problem with the book itself that could be solved by revision, then the book would have been rejected. It wouldn't have just sat around with no response).

Other than the financial and career uncertainty, this was actually a pretty good year for me in a lot of ways. I finally had a lot of free time, and when I wasn't thinking about money I was a lot more relaxed than I'd been in ages. I had good friends to hang around with, and since they were in their own career lapses, we had time to spend together. That summer I felt almost like a teenager out of school because we went to afternoon matinee movies and hung out at the mall. We also went to just about every ethnic food festival in the area. And then Firefly came on the air and I made a lot of online friends (many of whom went on to become real-world friends) discussing it.

That winter was probably my lowest point. My closest friend finally found a job after months of being out of work, but it was in another state. After all that time rewriting that book and then hearing nothing from my agent for months, I got a package on my doorstep. It was the manuscript being returned to me, with a terse note about how it was entirely unmarketable on top. After I'd made changes she suggested, my agent didn't even call me to discuss it. Another proposal I'd written and submitted on my own had gone nearly 18 months with no response, and when I contacted the publisher to ask about that, they just returned it to me. And then Fox cancelled Firefly. I kind of started flailing around at that point. Some of my freelance work was drying up, and it seemed like every time I picked up a new client, pretty soon that company would go out of business or my contact would get laid off. I finally figured out that my agent wasn't being much help, so I sent the official break-up letter, and although I got the certified mail receipt to prove she got it, she never so much as said a word about it. I guess she'd considered us broken up long before and just hadn't bothered to tell me. I then started submitting my own projects all over the place, to publishers and to potential new agents. I probably would have done better if I'd started a new project (like, oh, maybe that quirky little fantasy idea I had), but since I was in a panic, I just kept going with things I already had because I didn't want to wait to start something new. I needed to sell something NOW, not take several months to write a new book and then try to sell it. I think I'd even forgotten what it was like to have a new idea and develop it into a book. Needless to say, I was getting rejected left and right.

I got to the point I wasn't really writing, just tinkering with old things, and I didn't even enjoy it anymore. Writing had become business instead of fun, and I was even on the verge of considering giving up. The only problem was that if I gave up, I'd have to get a job, and there weren't really any jobs in my field, not to mention the fact that I'd hated most jobs in my field, but I didn't know what else I wanted to do with my life, so I couldn't give up. And then some of my Firefly friends came up with a funny challenge to try to work these silly Chinese phrases we'd found into a Firefly story, so I got an idea, wrote the story, and then got more ideas and wrote more stories, and from that, I remembered why I liked writing. I looked forward again to sitting down at a computer and playing with characters. Plus, I got some lovely feedback from people for all those stories when I posted them online, and when I was constantly getting rejections from agents and publishers, it was nice to get a lot of comments to the effect of "I love this! Please write more!" I can safely say that fanfic saved my sanity and my career.

That summer, I went to a big conference in New York, and then things started looking up ... (To be continued)

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