Fifteen Years Later: Larry D. Sweazy on Freelancing

Josiah Wolfe, Texas Ranger, rides for the State of Texas. He wears a badge and a gun and he answers to the people of Texas and to higher-ups back in Austin.  Sometimes he rides alone, but, ultimately, he has the whole Ranger Division backing him up.  Larry D. Sweazy, who created Wolfe, rides alone.  Sweazy’s his own boss.  For the last fifteen years he’s been answering only to his clients and to himself.  And that’s how he likes it.

Sweazy is a freelance indexer and writer.  His award-winning prose is crisp and vivid.  He’s as adept at handling human ambivalence as he is at handling fast-paced action.  He blends the two into character-driven adventure stories rich in historical fact and Western mythology.

Sweazy’s short fiction has appeared or will appear in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Hardboiled, and Boy’s Life, among other venues.  He’s also the author of the western novels, The Rattlesnake Season, The Scorpion Trail, and the forthcoming The Badger’s Revenge (due out April 5th).  He has turned in The Cougar’s Prey and has contracts on two more novels in the Josiah Wolfe series.  His first mystery novel, The Devil’s Bones, is slated for a 2012 release.

Below, Sweazy and I talk about the freelance life—good, bad, and indifferent.

How long have you been working as a full-time freelancer and what sort of work do you do?

Larry D. Sweazy: I have been a freelancer for almost 15 years for my own company, WordWise Publishing Services, LLC.

I write back-of-the-book indexes for major publishers such as Pearson Education, Pearson Technology, Cengage Course technology, and several university presses.  Most of the books I index are technology and education related, though I do venture into scholarly works if the topic interests me.  I have written over 650 indexes in my career, and I have to say I never grow tired of it—I’m always learning something new, and getting paid for it.

I’m also a novelist and short story writer.  I write a western series (Josiah Wolfe, Texas Ranger) for Berkley.  The next book in that series, The Badger’s Revenge,  comes out April 5th.  I also have a modern-day standalone mystery novel, The Devil’s Bones, coming out next February from Five Star.  Over the years, I’ve published over 25 short stories, won an award, and been nominated for a few.  I just turned in a Steampunk short story that will be published in anthology, Westward Weird, by DAW sometime next year.  I write non-fiction, as well, but more infrequently than fiction.

I’ve written author profiles of Elmore Leonard and N. Scott Momaday, and interviewing both of these great writers has been a highlight of my writing career.  I’ve written some articles for an upcoming encyclopedia from M.E. Sharpe, The Encyclopedia of Western Expansion, and I write the occasional book review and non-fiction article. My projects are varied, and I’d like to think I bring something fresh to each one.

What is a typical day like for you?  How is it different than a traditional “day job”?

Larry D. Sweazy: I work until I’m done.  I have to be very organized and disciplined to meet the deadlines I take on, so scheduling becomes a huge part of my day.  Projects slip.  Projects get canceled. Projects are in a crisis, and need my immediate attention.  Most days, I start off by answering emails, zipping around to the newspapers and blogs I read, then I walk my dogs, two Rhodesian ridgebacks, and come back home to write.  After I hit my page goals for the day, I break for lunch, then start on my indexing projects.  Sometimes, I finish up in the late afternoon.  Other times, it’s midnight.  It just depends.  Indexing can be cyclical, so I can take advantage of the extra time, if I have it, and write.  But that schedule also depends on whether or not it’s a crisis day.

I don’t have a time clock, and I have the flexibility to make my own management decisions about what project I work on, and when.  I’ve have never been good at working on someone else’s schedule.  I’d like to think I do my best work by making those decisions for myself.

Is there anything you wish you’d known before you took the plunge into freelancing?

Larry D. Sweazy: I’ve had to learn so much on the fly, but financial management skills are key, personal and professional, and so are the ins and outs of marketing and promotion.  I continually learn in these areas, as well as self-discipline and self-confidence.  Nothing is ever certain in the freelance life, and you can take nothing for granted.  That’s a learned skill—at least is for me.

What are some of the frustrations of freelancing and how do you handle them?

Larry D. Sweazy: You never know when the next project will show up.  You never know when the next check will show up.  So you have to be extremely disciplined with money and confidence.  Being an artist and a business person is an odd mix, but I try to master it every day. Every project I work on could be my last.  I fly without a net. Every project I work on has to be my best or I’m out of work.  My resume continually evolves. You’re only as good as your last index, your last novel or whatever, and I never, ever miss a deadline. I’m usually early.  Quality work, on time.  That’s my promise to clients when I agree to take a project.

What’s the best part?

Larry D. Sweazy: I love being able to take naps on a rainy day to recharge my batteries in between writing and indexing.  Or taking an extra-long walk with the dogs on a spring day.  The freedom of the day is an alluring part of the job, and if I had to work in a cube, I would go absolutely batty.  I’m sure I’d be fired in two days or less, because I rarely have to engage in politics, or social functions, of any kind in my life. Again, I get to choose when that happens, and how.  I prefer to work rather than gossip, or talk about what I watched on TV the night before.

Is there a project that you simply couldn’t have pulled off if you’d been working at a full-time day job?

Larry D. Sweazy: My novels are on tight deadlines, seven to eight months apart.  The flexibility I have allows me to chip away at my page count every day.  I’m not sure I could get the novels done, and maintain the quality I aim for, if I was working outside of the house.  Sometimes, I get the best ideas when I’m sitting staring out the window—that gets you fired in the corporate world.

I always say, “I work every day,” and that’s true.  Freelancing is not a Monday through Friday job.  If I have to work on the weekend, it’s my choice, or my fault because I over-scheduled my time, so I’m not confined by the rigors of a forty-hour week. Of course, I never leave work either.  My office is in the house, I live it, breath it, twenty-four hours a day.  Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes it’s not.

A salary… is it friend or foe?

Larry D. Sweazy: Foe.  I don’t mind being actively involved in every aspect of managing my money, paying taxes, saving for retirement (not that I plan on retiring), etc. There’s a price to pay for the false security of receiving a paycheck every week, and I’d rather not pay that price.

Any parting words?  Words of encouragement or caution?

Larry D. Sweazy: Be flexible, but be disciplined.  My schedule is crazy most days, and if I don’t sit down at my desk and do the work I said I would do, then a real job will be in the offing sooner rather than later.  Love what you do.  Work hard.  Be grateful for every project that comes in the door.  Pay attention to the details.  And you’ll look up 15 year later and wonder how time passed by so quickly.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

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