The freelance writers’ life, continued…

Vancouver Canucks vs Calgary Flames
Vancouver Canucks vs Calgary Flames (Photo credit: iwona_kellie)

I’ve never done this before, but yesterday’s post has, happily, proven popular and provoked some terrific convo…

So here are some additional thoughts:


You gotta have it, possibly more than almost any other quality. For four years, I was a nationally ranked saber fencer, a sport I took up in my mid 30s, and had a two-time Olympian as my coach. He pushed me to my limits, and beyond, for which I’m forever grateful. Fencing a tournament means no matter how tired or sore or cut or bruised you are you keep on going. If you drink or drug or stay out late on school nights, you will simply be unable to compete effectively with the boring people like me who are lucid and well-rested enough to eat your lunch.

Freelancing usually means you work alone from home. It doesn’t mean you go all boho and sleep in until  2pm when you maybe make a call or two.

EQ rules

I can’t say this too often; emotional intelligence is the new black.

If you’re unwilling or unable to man up for difficult/scary/terrifying conversations — whether with an editor, your agent, a source, a PR gatekeeper — you will starve. I guarantee it. You must locate your cojones and use them whenever necessary. The challenge is knowing when to be a total bitch, (I was told I made one personal assistant cry. Puhleeze), and when to be a sweetie and a cajoler and a charmer. Because you will need to be all of these, quite possibly within the same hour!

Today I made a call that I’d been putting off for weeks, to my current agent, with whom some things have been sub-optimal. She also just buried her father, having lost her mother in May 2009. So I waited, and sent a condolence card, because no matter what other shit we’ve been through, she’s a human being and losing your parents is sad and painful.

But I still pressed hard on the many issues that we have to get a handle on right away. You gotta figure out (it’s not easy) how to be tough enough to consistently look out for your interests professionally — and how to be kind, but not a doormat people take advantage of all the time.

If you’re too scared of rejection to make the call or take the meeting or send the email, you will not make a living in this game.  Handling conflict, disappointment, deceit and sudden turns of fortune are all part of this lifestyle (as they are in any job!)

Know what’s happening in this industry, today

I learned a lot from a conversation with my agent this afternoon. It wasn’t a lot of fabulous news, but I needed to hear it and I need to know it in order to sell this book and my next one and, I hope, the one(s) after that. Read industry blogs, newsletters, journals, books, magazines. Go to conferences and pay attention (or buy the CDs or podcasts.)

What did I learn? Ugh….the book industry is totally screwed in new and fresh ways. Paperbacks are not selling. Hardcovers are barely beating them. Because e-books rule.

Make friends in your industry and keep them for decades

Do not make enemies. Once you’ve found a wise and helpful pal, be good to them. Remember their birthday and anniversary and know when they’re celebrating or mourning and send flowers. Yes, it’s expensive — hello, that’s a deductible business expense!

If you’re young, get to know some older veterans and vice versa

The very first thing I did, when I was 19 and starting out as a freelancer, (I had a column in a national newspaper before I left college), was volunteer to help put out a book of interviews with some of Canada’s most established journalists.  I wanted to hear their wisdom, but also, selfishly, wanted to get my name out there, early, as someone passionate about the biz and willing to show up and be useful.

Barely two weeks ago, I interviewed a woman for my financial blog whose husband remembered me from that gig.

Do not be a suck or a user or a sycophant.

But I’ve seen time and again that forging cross-generational alliances is often a very good thing for both people involved. I got a young friend (30, maybe) a fantastic job in Ottawa a year ago while he was still living in Vancouver — because the hiring manager who needed someone smart, stat, took over my apartment in Montreal in 1988 and reconnected with me on LinkedIn. (See above.)

I got my young journo a gig because he’s classy, smart and presents well; the other day, completely desperate on deadline for a source I called him. He came through for me. Yay!

Keep your nose clean

Do not lie, steal ideas, cut corners, plagiarize or “forget” that you heard that great book idea from someone you met last week at a conference. It’s a small world and we have elephantine memories. Someone once tried to spread a lie that I’d been canned from a job. A journalist visiting India from Canada told a local stringer — ie. young, powerless, unconnected — that lie. She, actually being a pal of mine, defended me and told him he was a nasty asshole.

Like that.

Glad this has been helpful….feel free to ask any questions you like!

7 thoughts on “The freelance writers’ life, continued…

  1. Of course. Good point.

    The reason I stress them here is that far too many people think “freelance” means foofy and unprofessional in ways that really piss me off and make many people lose respect for what I do. I have seen such shocking (to me) behaviors in/from/by freelancers that no one would dare try in an office or corporate setting.

  2. I have a new respect for freelance writers…I appreciate good writers but had no idea what goes on in the background. All professions have their realities…mine is medicine which as we know is not what is portrayed on the screen. Thank you so much for sharing this insight into your work.

  3. Thanks for making time to read it…I think most of us have no real understanding of what a job is about unless we do it, or have tried it, or know someone well who does it. I’m always really fascinated by work and what it’s really like. My last fancy newspaper job, on paper, was a Very Big Deal, when it actually ruined my health with stress, so go figure…while scrambling daily for income now is less so for me than managers who shout or ignore you.

  4. samanthavance

    I have to admit thinking about the word ‘freelance’ as a college student sounded a lot like ‘unemployed’ to me. But being unemployed at the moment gave me a chance to accept some freelance assignments I got from my former supervisor at my TONY internship last semester. I got to use connections I made by staying in touch and as soon as I turned one in, they asked me to write another. But you’re definitely right it takes stamina and a positive attitude!
    A great read, as always :]

  5. Here’s the thing you might need to rethink…for some people freelance IS their self-definition, identity and proudly attained career goal. Not some interim measure, no matter what it looks like to others.

    Where some people see “freelance = unemployed (i.e. broke, crappy skills, etc.)” others see and admire and even envy an entrepreneurial spirit and a very deliberate choice to avoid: 1) constant job insecurity; 2) office politics; 3) toxic corporate cultures; 4) being on-call 24/7; 5) 2 weeks’ vacation from a noisy cube…Not to mention a much wider array of revenue streams and possible projects.

    My husband (who works at the NYT — how could he possibly envy me?!) is often wistful when I get paid to speak at a conference, take June away from home; spend a few hours mid-week, mid-day at the pool…I have a lot of freedom and the value it adds to our marriage is also worth more than $$$$. I have the energy and time to keep home, make healthy and delicious meals — and still produce quality work we’re proud of.

    I’ve had a bunch of “real” jobs with Big Name Companies. I found too many of them “really” stressful with insufficient joy in the work, and even a $$$ paycheck you can lose at any moment isn’t exactly “secure.”

    So I wish you the best with your freelancing, but please never see it as “less than.” Freelancers hate editors who think like that! 🙂

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