Dharma Diary · The Shining Ones

The Tax Credit Office and the Sword of Damocles

The title of this post sounds like a bad thriller, but anyway…last time I promised to tell the story of how the tax credit office almost killed my novel, The Shining Ones, but first, some context:

A few years ago I was made redundant in the Tory public sector cuts and, what with one thing and another, ended up self-employed as a writer. I had some savings and decided it was the perfect opportunity to test my luck and find out if I could write something that would pay the bills.

My savings bought me a small window of time in which to experiment and see where I ended up. But I was also eligible for some support from the government in the form of various benefits – namely Working Tax Credit – a small amount paid each month to top-up your earnings. It’s claimed by many people doing low wage jobs, as well as the self-employed.

I had my financial safety net in place. All I had to do was jump. Or rather write!

So I did – a lot.

By autumn 2015 I had a draft of The Shining Ones that was ready to send for feedback. I needed to know if I had just wasted two years of my life writing a book that either (a) didn’t work, or (b) nobody in their right mind would want to read. Or both.

While I was waiting to hear back from the editors critiquing the book, I received a phone call from the tax credit office. They had recently changed the rules for claiming the benefit and wanted to check I was compliant with these new rules. My claim was to be investigated and I would have to prove compliance by providing the evidence they asked for within 30 days.

The new rules were clear: you can no longer claim working tax credit if your business isn’t profitable, regular and organised.

Somehow, I would have to prove my writing was profitable despite the fact I was barely earning anything. Apparently it was fine if the business wasn’t technically in profit, so long as you were able to demonstrate that it was your intention to make a profit in the long run.

These new rules have been put in place to bring the working tax credit system into line with the new benefit they’re rolling out (slowly and painfully) – Universal Credit – which is an absolute disaster for the self-employed. Under UC, your business must be in profit within a year and if not, you get nothing. But that’s another rant for another time. Back to the story…

By the time the phone call was finished, I was shaking. My mind was going ballistic trying to figure out how I was going to prove my intention to make a profit – it’s not exactly the first thing you think of when you sit down to write stories. At that point, I didn’t even know if the book I had written worked, never mind whether it would sell.

I had been bimbling along happily (well, mostly) and suddenly things had got serious. The question of money, and how to earn more of it, had been hanging over my head for years. I knew the sword would drop eventually and that I would have to make a decision – but not now. Not yet.

But HMRC was forcing the issue. I would have to decide: Am I a writer? Can I do this? Is this realistic or am I just a hopeless fantasist?

The worst of it was: if I couldn’t convince them I was “working on a commercial basis with the intention of making a profit” they would withdraw my benefit. I would lose my safety net and I would have to pay back the money they had already paid out. I could end up owing thousands of pounds.

Being prone to depression and scary dark moods makes you hyperaware of those moments when the abyss opens at your feet. This was, without any doubt, one of those moments. The rope holding the sword in place over my head shuddered as another strand snapped.

I did what I often do in situations like this – I panicked!

The call had come on a Monday morning and I was due to go out and get the weekly shop. So with my mind ablaze, I walked up to the local supermarket, feverishly going over and over what I would have to do and the evidence I would have to provide.

I would need to rewrite my so-called business plan, and print out my pathetic accounts and find a way to make two years worth of losses look good – like it was all part of the plan – like I knew what I was doing…

I was still shaking when I arrived at the shop. I tried to focus and sent out a desperate prayer: What can I do? Please help me!

I walked into Morrisons and picked up a basket and swept through the doors onto the shop floor. A U2 song was playing (U2? Really? This is how you provide me with guidance in my hour of need?!) – I’d arrived just at the point where the chorus begins (0.49):

“It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s all right. She moves in mysterious ways…”

I grabbed the shopping I needed, all the while listening to this and thinking, “It’s all right, it’s all right – is it? Maybe it will alright. She moves in mysterious ways – maybe I just need to have a little faith…”

When I got home, I checked my email before sitting down to work – and there in my inbox were the editorial reports I had been waiting for. Three of them.

I didn’t want to open the email – what if it was more bad news? What if they tell me the book is crap?

I took a deep breath and – click!

“Reviewer C is so impressed he has already mentioned your work to an agent who has agreed to read your work should you choose to send it…”

It took a moment to sink in – they didn’t hate the book! It was okay. Maybe I could write, after all! Of course, I immediately opened Reviewer C’s critique and devoured it. Here’s the opening line:

“Looking back at my notes I see that the first thing I wrote while reading The Shining Ones was, “This writing is easily of publishable quality”.”

Cue: manic laughter 😂😂

She moves in mysterious ways, indeed. I would be able to include the fact that there was an agent willing to read my work with the evidence I would be sending to HMRC. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet.

The saga just gets weirder…

I was keen to send the book to the agent mentioned by Reviewer C, but I wanted to make a few tweaks to the manuscript first. Plus I needed to write a blurb and cover letter – and that shit takes time. So over the following week, while waiting for the form to come from HMRC, I got to work.

When I was happy with the book, I checked the agency’s website for details on how they like their submissions and discovered that the submission window had just closed. And I mean literally – the previous day! I had missed it by hours.

But I had the agent’s direct email, so I contacted him anyway and asked if he still wanted to see the book – since he’d already said he would. He took a week to get back to me but asked me to wait until the window opened again – he was swamped. Fair enough.

In the meantime, my immune system had gone into meltdown from the stress and I was oozing pus all over the place, with swollen glands and my skin peeling from my face. It was lovely.

But I did my best and dealt with the tax credit situation and got all my evidence together and sent it off – with my fingers crossed…

I waited – and concentrated on healing. Then a week before Christmas, a brown envelope arrived from HMRC. I didn’t want to open it – felt sick just holding it in my hands. My mind went blank. This was it – the moment of truth:

If they found against me I would have to drop everything and get a job – any job, no matter how shitty, just to cover the debt and pay the rent. Goodness knows what effect that would have on my precarious health. And my publishing dream would die on its knees…

I ripped open the envelope and had to read the letter several times while I waited for my overwrought brain to make sense of what I was seeing: “we don’t need to change your award.”

I was in the clear! They weren’t going to stop my claim. It was all right!

So with that stay of execution I felt pretty positive about my chances and looked forward to sending the book out. I noticed various opportunities, like the Gollancz and Angry Robot open doors, and got to work researching suitable agents.

In the meantime, the agent I was waiting to send the book to vanished – he left the agency and doesn’t appear to be working in the industry anymore.

So I never sent the book to him in the end.

It was a bit anticlimactic. Looking back, it feels like some kind of bizarre fever dream. I had got myself worked up over nothing. A little more faith would’ve gone a long way.

And what happened next? My publishing dream died anyway – but that was a mercy killing and I did the deed myself…

Image: Sword

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8 thoughts on “The Tax Credit Office and the Sword of Damocles

  1. Am I a writer? Can I do this? Is this realistic or am I just a hopeless fantasist?

    But being a hopeless fantasist is no handicap to being a profitable writer. Just look at Terry Brooks or Raymond E. Feist.

    Glad I wasn’t in your shoes though. Starving to death or being saved by a U2 song. Tough call.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s amazing that we survive these agida-inducing crazy-waves, isn’t it? It’s humorous in the hindsight, and thankfully worked out well for you, while also being such a perfect example of how those fear-buttons get triggered. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this particular story, Jessica. (So fortunate, too, that the self-employed qualify for such a thing there! Here, we’re pretty much left out of the support loop.)

    Liked by 1 person

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