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Letters To A Younger Freelancer

Sometimewhen I mentioned my continuing battle with SEO. It is a war of attrition, and in the spirit of self-deprecation I thought about naming this the “7 Freelancing Hacks That Will Revolutionize Your Life!!” But sod that. These are not lifestyle hacks, tips, or cheats. These are sorts of things I wish I had taken notice of a few years ago…


1. What Do You Really Need?

One of the benefits of freelancing is that you get to work on what you want, how you want (in some part). If you want to work in your underpants whilst eating icecream? Then you do your thang, buddy. If you want to go for that walk, knowing that you can catch up on the work this evening? Then you go for it, comrade.

But sometimes the rabbit-wheel of chasing contracts and putting in the graveyard hours becomes as much a danger to the creative life as does the 9-5. You end up losing the very flexibility that freelancing is supposed to bring. So stop. Take a breath and ask yourself: what do you really need in life? Why are you doing this? Whatever you answer is your beeswax, but it’s good to remember. Do you just need the money? Do you need the experience? Are there easier ways to get that? Do you still enjoy it? If Max Weber was right, then we can think of the Protestant Work Ethic as a sort of twisted meme, born out of puritanical Calvinism that underpins a lot of the capitalist imagination. In it, labour equals purity, and the more punishing the work, then surely the greater the spiritual (or financial) reward. Be wary of committing to punishing deadlines and workloads, when you might lead a much happier life working less, with less.


2. Buy Back Your Time

This piece of advice was given to me by a painter friend. Consider your time as valuable. As something that you can re-invest in. If you have to pull a fourteen-hour session on some last minute project, then make sure that you get paid for it – and plough that money into your own creative projects, your family, your life. Use your freelancing career as a way to sustain your creative life, not drain it.


3. Reserve Your Time

This is probably a 2a really, but it merits talking about. It is easy when freelancing to be acutely aware of the fragility of your work. You pile more hours on, you apply for more contracts, you say yes to everything offered – all because you don’t know if you will have work next month, next season, next year. Don’t be afraid to reserve batches of your time for, well, whatever the hell you want to do with your life. I garden. I have a family. I write The Novel of Great Worth. You might like to keep bees, or learn spanish, or knit jumpers for cats, I don’t know. These are all commitments that need to be allocated time just in the same way as your work is. Reserve it, and don’t be frightened out of that.


4. Don’t Work For Free

Yeah, this is an obvious one, right? But really – you would be amazed at how many young freelancers fall into this trap, and how many ways I still get asked to work for free, all the time. It might be ‘just take a look at…’ or ‘can we offer you a profile opportunity?’ Or that old turdjewel: ‘This will be great exposure for you’. Listen up; it won’t. The ONLY (and I mean this a hundred times over) ONLY opportunities which really are great exposure comes from doing the things that you love to do and believe in. I’m not advocating turning friends down or not helping people out who might need it: hopefully that sort of mutual aid is all in the ‘doing something that you love to do and believe in’ camp because, well, kindness is cool, right? But doing exposure-style work for companies and employers [note word choice: employers – you’ll know who these people are because they usually have businesscards, and will try to tell you how great you will be paid further down the line, only not by them] It’s not about being greedy either; it’s about being asked to be treated with the same respect as any other sort of worker. If the employer or company is so wealthy, so prestigious, or so important that just by rubbing shoulders with them brings such great exposure – then surely they can pay you for your hours worked as well. Don’t be stepped on by organisations who should know better.


5. Take Notes, Keep Logs

It took me years to learn this [and I mean yeeears], and you’ll probably find that the system will keep changing, and will probably be adapted to every new project. Don’t, don’t, don’t for the love of Taranis rely on memory (unless of course you are some sort of mimetic genius or Sherlock Holmes then sure, you go ahead). Added to that: don’t rely on the spider-scrawled pencil note on the back of that old electricity bill made several weeks ago to make any sense when you come back to it [and yeah, this is from past experience]. Some projects will only require a short game-plan and map of what you intend to do, others might require careful daily updates about all of the different tasks you have to do to get it airborne. Evolve your strategies. Try out new methodologies. I generally keep a notebooking system partially running now – which I find suits my need for brevity, as well as keeping me on track with different projects that need tending to every day.


6. Some Emails Are Important, Some Not-So

Another simple freelancing hack is to not only sort out some sort of mailbox system (aggregate all your various works and personal pop3 accounts into a desktop client so you don’t have to log in at this site, forget your password, re-set your details, all to get that set of emails…) but also learn how to discern which emails are urgent and which aren’t so. Of course, every email from a client, employer or what have you will be kinda urgent, but you can also apply some rigour: do you need to get into the minutiae of this discussion or topic right now, when you have X and X to do? Is this email actually getting what you need to get done, done, or…? I know it sounds harsh, but when you might end up managing two, three, five or twenty-six different projects all at once as well as your own work..? You can spend a lifetime answering emails.


7. Don’t Work For Free

This is so important I have to mention it twice. Solidarity, comrades.

Ghosts and Ghostwriting, Part 1: The Apologia

A lot of my work comes to me in the form of the ghostwriter contract. Ghosting covers a lot of ground (a lot of sins for that matter, too), from business books that attribute to the company and not a person, to the fully developed and realized alter-personality. With this series of mini-articles I will take a look at some of the elements that make up the ghostwriter’s day job, as well as poke at the squiggly bits that have always concerned me about it.

When I tell people that I work as a ghostwriter I most often get one of two responses: one is intrigue. There’s that whiff of mystery to ghostwriting, the suggestion that I am sworn under blood oaths to never reveal my secret identity, and if anyone pokes their noses too far then they would have to come to come sort of icky end a’la Agatha Christie. Luckily however, I am very good at covering my tracks.

The second response is a bit more disheartening. It is the roundabout assertion in some form or another that ‘well that’s great – but it’s not real writing, is it?’ That sort of reaction leaves me downbeat and growly, as if I don’t have enough of an imposter-syndrome / every-word-i-write-is-a-complete-failure neuroses already. Gee, thanks.

Truth is, both responses fall short of the reality of what ghosting is. It’s a job. Writing is a trade, like any other – only in some areas of the work you get to play with imaginary zap-guns and watery witches.

The fully developed alter-ego type thing, (by which I mean also having blogs, photos, and an entire sideral ghostlife) is quite rare to be honest, and nowadays most ghostwriters seem to me a bit more akin to showrunners than they do the hack in the attic. The ghostwriter gets given a brief, usually with a fairly well-developed seed of an idea, and after that comes an intense back and forth between the ghostwriter and the client as you expand and explore on the original idea. That’s with fiction, anyway. I haven’t done any memoirs yet. [Or maybe I have, and I’m just saying that…] With most contracts you get to tweak characters and develop whole new ones, and with some clients you end up creating whole worlds for the story to make sense in. It’s dramaturgy, in a sense. You have to impregnate, facehugger-like, the right needs and aversions in your characters to create conflict, and your plot has to hit all the right emotional notes to create resolution. That’s trade, as far as I can see; the art and craft of what any writer does with their day.

Beginning Things

As I sit down to my desk I have a host of project-things scrabbling for attention. There’s the work-of-the-day (City of Kings, as well as a ghosting project, and another copywriting project) along with their associated emails, notes, and drafts that all need to be made. That kind of stuff doesn’t worry me [lie] because I know that I can order and allocate them all their correct places and times during the day [another lie]. Well, I mean by that is that I can crowbar them in and force them to co-exist. At least until my eyes melt with looking at LCD screens and being passively cooked by electromagnetic radiation all day. Lovely. Maybe one day I’ll get super powers…

Anyway; but then there’s the /other/ project-things. The Novel of Great Worth is still in draft form, the poor thing is in a shambles to be precise, but it is looking at me with those great doe-like eyes which means I have yet more attention to give it. Then there’s the anthology-thing, the story-game-thing, the future-is-weird thing, and all of the assembled ill-begot brood of story and article seeds which might not grow into anything other than a sentence bastardized into something else, or else might mulch and sprout into a new Novel of Even Greater Worth.

I’m quite seriously beginning to think that a writing life is really just time-management. Maybe it’s that 10,000 hours thing, or the 1 Million Words of Shite that Neil Gaiman and Iain Banks talk about (by the way, last week I totalled all of my ghosting work alone, and have recently passed the 2 million mark. I just have to hope that the first six zeroes weren’t all irredeemably bad…), either way beginning things, like this blog, is all about time-spent and hours clocked.


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