Last week in Part I, I talked about how freelance writing essentially fell into my lap, via a friend who had a coworker who was an editor. And after months of writing articles on various subjects, one day it dawned on me that hey, I might want to do this full-time down the road. The things I didn’t know…
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Believing in learning from the masters (hat tip to Anthony Robbins), I bought books like David Trottier’s The Freelance Writer’s Bible. Christina Katz’s The Writer’s Workout. Kelly James-Enger’s Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success. I particularly enjoyed the first because of its “whole writer, holistic” approach. (The tagline “Your Guide to a Profitable Writing Career Within One Year” certainly didn’t hurt, either.) Katz’s book was broken into easily digestible daily bites and I committed to reading one per day. James-Enger was a former attorney who wanted a career change and broke into freelancing from the very bottom, learning gradually from her mistakes until she was making a creditable income from her new craft. Yep, just give me a formula, and I’m yours.
But as writers of any stripe know, reading about the craft is one thing. Actually doing it is another.
This was forcibly brought home to me when, again looking for The Perfect Formula that Would Render All Things Easy (or at least doable), I signed up for the online course “Become an Idea Machine.” Even I knew that I was eventually going to have to find my own article ideas: I had been spoiled by an editor who always provided me with the subjects he needed covered. This course would unlock the secret.
Guess who almost bailed on Day One.
“Your homework,” announced my instructor at the end of the first lesson, “is to come up with 25 ideas per day for a week.” Then, for students like me who are mathematically challenged, she clarified: “That’s 175 ideas.”
Sitting in my bedroom recliner with my laptop on my knees, I yelped, “WHAT?!”
After I’d calmed down enough to remember once again that I came from a long line of strong-minded women, I knew I would at least make a stab at it. In fact, I came up with about 75 ideas on my first day. I was ahead of the game. Perhaps I really could do this!
Then I learned that my next assignment was to come up with another 175 ideas in Week Two.
As if that wasn’t enough, the instructor also remarked that perhaps only ten percent of the average student’s ideas would likely even prove viable.
I did the math myself this time…and admitted my initial despair to the instructor, who undoubtedly had heard this sort of thing before, and who replied with a reassuring email.
Then I went for a walk. A good long one.
This was something I did in the evenings anyway for exercise, but now it would serve a second purpose – to clear my head and leave it open for ideas to pop in.
Pop they did.
I carried a small notebook with my flashlight, and occasionally still wonder if any neighbors, peeping out from their front rooms, wondered what on earth a solitary stroller was jotting down under every few streetlamps. That first night in particular, words and phrases would join in my head from seemingly out of the blue (something that has led to the creation of new poems in the past). The oddest example was when I walked past a house with a small flower garden in front, observed it as I had dozens of times, and almost immediately heard the string: “Garden. Goth. Gothic. Gothic Gardening.”
To the best of my recollection I had never even heard of such a concept. Yet it sounded like a real idea, and when I looked it up on the Internet, I discovered that it was indeed a gardening fad some years ago.
Walks notwithstanding, I ultimately ended the class without my full idea quota, but I’m glad now that I stuck to it, because a tiny part of the eye-opening process had begun.
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As I’ve mentioned before, writing is not necessarily the loneliest profession anymore, thanks largely to the Internet. It was clear from the start that I would need mentors, both real and virtual, along the way, even if just to determine this was what I really wanted. Frankly, I hoped it would be, because writing was about the only thing I was actually good at. I’d been stuck for years in a career path that had also occurred somewhat accidentally, and was ready to make a change…to call myself a writer for real. To finally be a writer…for real.
And if I could get paid for it, well, that was even better.
But there have been times when I’m not so sure about the whole process.
“You must be thick-skinned,” says one authority. “Self-confident. Disciplined. A slick marketer. Money-savvy.”
Those last two gave me the most pause. As far as marketing went, well, maybe I could market myself on the Internet, via my freelance writer web page, which it was a given that I must have. But something like cold-calling? Me? Who disliked talking on the phone in general and to strangers in particular?
The questions continued. I had clips (again, I was so green I didn’t know at first this was the term for published samples) from only one source. Would they be enough to convince another editor that I was worth hiring? Could I really make enough money to survive as a writer, or would I have to resign myself to working a day job I might not be too crazy about for at least the next two decades, writing on the side as I had time? What about health insurance? Retirement income? What would I do when the ideas ran out? How would I respond when someone asked me for my rate? I didn’t even have a rate, since I was too new to the process to have any idea of what I might be worth.
And getting back to that website…
Putting together my first blog website in six years had not exactly been a walk in the park (hint: there’s a reason a “WordPress for Dummies” book exists), but eventually I had one, with some of my published samples on it in addition to a blog. Not just freelance samples, but fiction and poetry, as well. I had a hazy idea this was not really the best method when it came to potential employers, which was, of course, confirmed when I had the site reviewed by Freelance Writer’s Den founder Carol Tice. While a bit apprehensive of what she might say, I also knew I had to find out how much I didn’t know.
Which was a fair amount.
“If you want to appear professional, you’ll need to get the .wordpress out of your URL.” Uh, okay…I think I get the logic behind that.
“The other is you never, ever want to position yourself as ‘just another writer.’ ” Yeah, I could see why that header tagline was a little too modest…especially when the “just another writer” was also “rambling.”
“Next big design issue is there is no ‘hire me’ tab, which is essential if you are using a blog as your writer site. In scanning this, no one will know you want to write for others. It’s completely hidden from us.” Um, yeah, this really is just my personal website in general up right now…
“Consider putting contact information right in your sidebar — and that means a live email link, not a dead write-out of your email address. Dead links makes people think you don’t get the Internet, and then they don’t give you any online writing gigs.” Hey, I get the Internet! Really I do! I’ve been using it for years!
“Your current contact page is problematic…This theme has a real default smell to it, as does the header graphic…Looking again at the tabs, we see ones for ‘fiction’ and ‘poetry’ — two words that send business clients stampeding for the exits, as you’d obviously rather be writing your novel than their stuff — and we do not see Portfolio…Your sidebar contains no useful info…You’ve got some cute clips from ReMind there!” Whew, at least I had something right…
“The tag ‘freelance’ I think is a little too mysterious. Use ‘Articles’ or ‘Portfolio’ – be crystal clear about it…I’m not sure why ‘Other Publications’ is on a page by itself. Seems weird. Is it a short story? Why not just put it on your portfolio page with the ReMind clips to show a little diversity in one place? You want as little clicking around as possible, as each click means more people give up and leave.”
Which was the last thing I wanted.
Yes, it may have been a bit difficult to read these things, yet each one was necessary and educative.
For which I have to say, “Thanks, Carol.”
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In the nearly two months since the above review, there have been more classes, more reading, more puzzlement…more doubts and trepidation, encouragement and hope…more new terms to be learned and new baby steps to take (“Letter of Introduction,” anyone?)…more questioning whether I wished to merely write magazine articles or to branch out into other writing avenues to guarantee a more steady income…more wondering “What next, then?” if this freelance thing shouldn’t pan out. Recently I confessed to a fellow writer how I still had no real idea if I was on the correct path. The utter simplicity of her response was something I needed to hear.
“I think I would go with it as far as it takes me.”
It took a few seconds to sink in, but I essentially heard her telling me to relax, as if she had somehow guessed at my tendency to over-think, over-analyze, make lists, angst, etc. All in an endless quest for control, which is elusive and fleeting at best. But when I scan Freelance Writer’s Den “Junk-Free Job Board” postings for which I am as yet quite unqualified, or find myself wondering how I’ll score source interviews as an unknown nobody, I’m learning to remind myself of another writer’s wise words.
In his latest book, Start, Jon Acuff describes the five stages a person needs to travel on the road to Awesome: learning, editing, mastering, harvesting, guiding. In one illustration he describes how actress Gwyneth Paltrow “decided she wanted to be a musician too” and signed a recording contract; starred, played and sang in the film “Country Strong”; performed at the Country Music Awards; and planned a debut album…but today there’s no album, the film was a box office dud, and she seems to be focusing much more on acting than singing – because in spite of all those efforts, she “didn’t get to skip the lands of Learning and Editing” on the way to Mastery.
We all want to get There from Here with a minimum of effort, don’t we? Frequently we expect to, even if subconsciously.
I wanted to be There already…too easily forgetting how many steps are In Between.
I may not know yet if I really want to freelance, but I’m rather glad I’ve asked that question and am taking steps to find out…courtesy of a former coworker’s current coworker who posted a certain note in his office break room.
For which I have to say, “Thanks, David.”