My top 10 tips for surviving the freelance life

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In a couple of weeks, I will have lived the full-time freelance writing life for three years.

Three years.

I don’t know where the time goes, seriously.

I thought, therefore, I should probably share the things that I learned over the course of these years.

  1. Feast or Famine. Seriously, be prepared for times when you might be standing in line at the food bank. And other times where it feels like you have more work than you can handle. When you have the feast time, put money away. Then the famine times might only be a time where you have to be tighter with the budget as opposed to having to take hand outs ask for help.
  2. It’s not always your favorite. This is something I tell my kids about our household’s dinner offerings. The same applies to your freelance life. In the beginning especially, you’re going to have to take work that’s not your favorite. My first love is obviously selling my own fiction work. Next favorite is editing other people’s fiction work. But I also write blog posts for other people, edit white papers, author and set up technical manuals, and write or edit journal articles for third parties, social media management for small businesses, and put together silly “top ten” lists for content farms. It all pays the bills and eventually shakes out to provide a steady stream of work.
  3. More Hours, but More Love. I tend to work as many hours a week as I was at my corporate communication spin doctor job. 50-60 hours a week. But I get to juggle. I get to take a lunch by walking the dog or catching up with a friend at the coffee shop (normally segued from a client meeting). However, I don’t always notice I’m working that many hours because I am doing what I want. For most self-employed people, you will find that they work long hours but feel it less – physically and emotionally – because it’s what they want to do in life. For most, that’s why we became freelancers.
  4. Self-employed vs. Freelance. Because people in the writing community identify with freelance, I use that word with that population. But anyone else? I’m self-employed. Freelance suggests that what I do is “free.” However, that’s not the etymology of the word. The term was first used in 1820 by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe to describe a “medieval mercenary warrior” or “free-lance” (indicating that the lance is not sworn to any lord’s services, not that the lance is available free of charge). Over the years it changed to a figurative noun, and was recognized in 1903 in the Oxford English Dictionary. Over the years it morphed into an adjective and verb, as well as the noun, “freelancer.”
  5. Make a way out. Sometimes you and a client don’t jive. Or maybe your client decides the work they really want you to do looks different. I always provide a clause in my contract that allows either one of us a way out. For my smaller clients it’s just 7 days; larger clients/projects it’s 14 days – just like the notice you’d give a brick-n-mortar employer. I also discuss with the client why they decide to cancel a contract and look at possibly redoing it to their satisfaction. In three years, I’ve only had one cancellation that didn’t change into a new and different contract. I’ve also gotten very good at asking lots and lots of questions of my clients to ensure we don’t get into that situation.
  6. It isn’t personal. It’s hard often when you’re dealing with a client one on one – especially other writers to not develop a bond. But you have to compartmentalize and keep the business part business. You’re a professional and you need to behave that way.
  7. Time is money. Sure you can file this tip under, “Duh.”  Humor me some detailing. Be sure that in your formulas for being paid that you are covering your admin time. I have moved to a flat fee for my clients to cover things like contract set up, consultation meetings, phone calls, invoicing, etc. That flat fee allows me to not feel like the client is using my time and not paying for it. Your mileage may vary and you may build that into an hourly rate. I tend to work on a project base, so the flat fee covers that extra time. Also, if you go hourly on something, include the cost of covering your “benefits.” This includes things like transportation costs, medical, retirement. Most folks balk at my hourly rate, which is $50 an hour. When I left the corporate world that was my FTE rate for my employer – including all those employee benefit packages pro-rated into an hourly rate. The professional world doesn’t blink at $50 an hour for an attorney (if you could find an attorney for that rate, even!), engineer, doctor, etc. For some reason those of us in the fine arts – writers, editors, graphic artists, letterers, etc. are viewed as having too much fun at our jobs and therefore we shouldn’t get paid. But, I digress. It’s the smart client who hires you, knowing that your word smith skills are worth the bread, whether it’s project-based, per word, or hourly.
  8. Go out of your comfort zone. I’ve done projects recently providing products and services to clients I never thought I could or would do. My philosophy is that if it deals with words, I’ll do it. It’s landed me new and more lucrative jobs (read:  less time, more money). Clients that I’m doing a steady stream of work for have also turned to me for projects they didn’t initially know they needed me for; but, I proved an asset in another and they asked me for word-smithy goodness on other things. More business is always good. That in turn, gives me time to work on my own fiction work and get it out into the ether for publication. Win-win.
  9. Hire other professionals. Sometimes there are projects for which I do that I need to sub-contract part of the job. Guess what? That leads to other jobs. The graphic artist I hired then comes to me when her client who wants a book cover needs an editor. Your network should include other expertise, not just other freelance writers.
  10. Leave your home office. I love my home office space. But, I find doing my work in one of the many cafes around my valley gets my name out there. Not only is my business card on their “leave a card” bulletin board, but they see me in there working. The cafe owners and customers see me and curiosity gets the better of them. I’ve landed a few clients that way. It’s also good for your working soul to get a new view a time or two a week.

I’ve probably learned more, but we’re creatures of habit, too. Top 10 lists are a great place to start. See you here this time next year and we’ll see what else I’ve learned. Maybe, if I’m lucky, it’ll be about landing an agent and having a book coming out….



Write Life: Self publishing does not mean self-editing

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Photo copyright Craig Lloyd
Photo copyright Craig Lloyd


My write life went through a whole lot of ups and downs this past week.

First thing Monday morning, there was a rejection hiding in my email.

Jeff VanderMeer tells the audience a story about being charged by a Wild Boar, at his Seattle reading, Feb. 3, 2104. Photo by C. Brewster

On the up side, that evening, I got to meet Jeff VanderMeer, one of the writers and editors I greatly admire. I got to hear him read from his new release, Annihilation, which I was cruising through until I hit a dip and upside down part in the aforementioned rollercoaster ride that is my writing life. I should probably finish soon, will re-read, as is my habit, and provide a review. It’s the least I can do to make sure Mr. VanderMeer is supported, as any great author/editor should, especially given that he signed three of his books for me that evening. Plus he did his signing at one of my favorite book stores ever – Elliott Bay Books in Seattle.

Then I got a rejection the next morning.

I countered Wednesday by taking a class with Cat Rambo on submissions. I learned I’m doing things right – at least according to her. She has decades as a successful writer, so I trust she’s leading me down the right path. She also gave me many more ideas to up the ante in my submission algorithm.

Following the class, an email came in with not so good news. I had a contract declined. The declination reason was fully in my blame court due to my lack of clarity in the initial meeting with the client. This sometimes happens when you’re trying to do too much. Even though I proffered some other free work to the prospect, the sting was already felt. My bad, entirely. I’m confident as a writer and editor, but sometimes my business sense is not on point. Lesson learned. Here the roller coaster went way low and I was kicking myself endlessly for this dumb mistake.

The next morning, there was yet another rejection waiting for me. Thursday was very unproductive. I did lots of “business” stuff to support my writing life, but little writing or editing. I ended up watching a lot of television and the movie MELANCHOLIA, which fit my mood perfectly.

Photo copywrite Seth Sawyers
Photo copywrite Seth Sawyers

Then, I was offered another contract for editing – a novel manuscript – but when I read the first five pages of the work – I had to refuse. Even if I charged my top rate, which is still cheap by going-rate standards, the work would be so intense that it would take longer than it should, making it not worth my time.

This is the first time I’ve refused work. I hated to do it, especially given that I had that other contract declined. I need all the work I can handle and then some, at least until I start getting paid more often for the writing side of my freelance life. My editing rate is lower than the typical standard, because I’m still building my business. So, I work six days a week, sometimes seven. Refusing work seemed to go against my DNA coding. But, this manuscript was not ready for prime-time, folks.

It harkened me back to the fervor that has been happening over in Chuck Wendig’s world with his post regarding improving the reputation of self-publishing by not putting out, well – crap. Herr Wendig is a huge supporter of indie publishing, I believe. He’s a hybrid writer himself, successfully straddling both author-publishing and traditionally publishing chasm. And it is a chasm. Do both worlds put out trash? Yes – I’m always quick to tell you stories about the errors I’ve found in big-name author’s books; however, those instances are story-worthy simply because it happens less frequently. Is the scale heavier on the indie publishing side? It is. When Wendig says there is a self-publishing shit volcano out there and it’s a problem, I can’t disagree. The manuscript I refused to work with until, at least, the writer did another revision is only one such example.

Listen, all you self-publishing people: hire an editor. Every author I’ve worked with (and they are mostly in the author-publishing realm) are just floored when I return a manuscript to them with the errors I find – both mechanical and craft-wise. Some of these are manuscripts that the author has revised multiple times.

Yet, it’s amazing to me that so many writers do not know how to do proper punctuation. Many novelists are so caught up in their own world that they forget the reader doesn’t know what you know as the writer. Then there’s continuity errors, foreshadowing that is never fulfilled…and on and on. Recognize, at bare minimum, that we are human and make mistakes. Editors help ensure your mistake-ratio is harder to calculate.

Therefore, every manuscript needs a seasoned editor’s eye, regardless of frequency of revision. Especially, if the only other people you’ve had read it are your family and friends. The final product after they’ve paid me (or another professional editor) to do editing? A stronger sell in the market that is just inundated – near a million books a year between traditional publishing and self-publishing. You want something strong to stick out from the shit volcano, my darling fellow writers. If you have a good story, it won’t matter how it’s published. People will be drawn to it.

There’s been many other blog posts, outside of Wendig’s, recently by both traditionally published, as well as, indie-published writers who say, self publishing is an option. As creative word smiths we are in an incredible time with heavy opportunity to get our work out there. We should take advantage of it, but do so only after you’ve invested the time into properly vetting your work. It’s simple, the reason why:  if you don’t put a good product out there, no one is going to take you seriously. Your best friend might be a good beta reader for you and tell you, “Hey, that’s a great story.” But can you trust them to be objective? Can you trust your entire creative reputation on a best friend or spouse wanting to encourage you? Some folks have the rare relationship, where, yes, you can. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

Photo copyright A Geek Mom
Photo copyright A Geek Mom

Self publishing does not mean self-editing. That’s a horrendously bad idea. One of the reasons I haven’t self-published yet is because I don’t currently have the dough to shell out for a professional editor. I won’t self publish until I do. You want to add to the argument that self-publishing is less-than? Put out a manuscript that hasn’t been professionally edited. Be an example for the Big 5 (or six or three…whatever) and other indie-publishing naysayers as to why their format of traditional publishing is the only way to go. Personally, my goal is to be a hybrid author: one who is traditionally published and one who does author-publishing, as well. I won’t limit myself. But you bet your bootie I’m going to do it right. I won’t be an example for how to do it unprofessionally.