Spinning the Plates

I have no idea why spinning plates on top of sticks ever became a thing, never mind how it became the top metaphor for dealing with lots of work at once. Regardless, it’s how I feel as a freelancer – someone constantly spinning plates.

There are those dull but expensive plates of freelance work, the ones that will pay the bills.

There are the exciting looking ones, the projects I want to work on, but that take way more time than they should to keep them in the air.

There are the dull administrative plates of emails, invoices, and other admin.

The scary, razor-edged plates of bidding on work, where you know your ego is going to get cut.

The distracting plates of social media – useful for keeping the rest spinning, but not if you spend too much time with them.

And the crazy thing is, sometimes it’s a lack of plates that makes things stressful. The moment you get to pause for a moment, feel guilt that you’re not spinning a plate, and then worry about the absence of a particular sort of crockery.

Do plate spinners get tense when a quiet moment comes, or is that where the analogy breaks down? I don’t know, maybe I should try spinning real plates and see how it feels. After all, there’s always time for one more activity, right?

Writing What I Like

I recently spent nearly a whole week writing comics.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written comics. I’ve created quite a few scripts for Commando, not to mention the short I did for Top Cow a few years ago. But this is the first time I’ve had enough of that work, and few enough other urgent work distractions, to make it my main focus for a whole week.

This is one of the things about building up your own business. These moments creep up on you. You’re just trundling along, doing a little more of this, a little more of that, and suddenly you have a week that would make the you of a few years ago sit up and say “damn, that’s great!”

So yeah. I’ve spent a week writing what I like. It was fantastic. Here’s hoping I get more of the same soon.

Being in Good Mental Health

I’ve written in the past about my mental health. I didn’t find it easy but I did find it useful to write those things. Thinking back on those posts, and on my struggles with mental health, I recently realised that there was something important missing from the story, and that’s the happy part.

My mental health is currently really good. Not perfect, because nothing ever is, but the best it’s ever been. I’ve made big changes to my life that have made it better. I eat better. I exercise more. I’m more open in talking with people about what’s going on in my head. I use self-reflection and mindfulness and sometimes just giving myself a break. I’ve built up my social life in ways that give me the support I need. Perhaps most importantly, I have a job I enjoy and where I’m in control.

My last packet of citalopram, two years ago.

I’ve now been off the anti-depressants for two years. I haven’t seen a counsellor in nearly three years. I would go back to either of those things in a heartbeat if I thought it would be helpful, but right now, I don’t need them, and long may it continue.

Not everybody comes out the other side of depression. Not every mental health problem can be fixed and not everyone gets the support they need. But there can be happy endings. It can work out. You can make a difference to your own life.

If you think you might be struggling with depression, this article provides some symptoms to be aware of and ways of managing them. But the most important thing you can do is to seek help. Talk to a friend. Talk to a doctor. Talk to a counselor. Because life can get better, and it’s easier to achieve that with support.

Mid-Year Review

It’s halfway through the year, which seems like as good a time as any to talk about what I’m achieving.

Picture by Jose MÂȘ Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons

Freelance work continues to go well. I’ve got a few ongoing clients and a proven track record that lets me pick up new ones when needed. I had a minor setback a couple of months ago when two sources of ongoing work suddenly dried up, but it proved not to be the huge problem it could have been a couple of years ago. I soon found more work to keep me going and used the time I gained to work on my own writing.

Speaking of my own writing, I am, as always, behind where I want to be. Edits on the project I’ve been working on for the past year and a half have been taking far longer than I wanted, simply because I’m struggling to prioritise time for them. That’s a major frustration, as a lot of work has gone into it, and I feel like I could change this. The problem is, prioritising it means dropping something else, and when that something else is currently paying the bills, that’s not a great option.

I’m getting a few other bits of my own writing done. Some scripts for Commando Comics. Selling short stories that I’ve been touting around for years. Even writing a couple of new ones, as well as all the flash fiction for my blog.

I’ve been grinding away at trying to get reviews and do publicity for my self-published work, to little effect. I have to admit, this is neither my comfort zone nor my strong suit. And yes, that’s all the more reason to work at it. Still, it shows in the minimal results.

It seems weird to end up on that bum note, when for the most part my writing is going really well. I’m earning my keep, having fun, and putting my own stories out into the world. Those things make it all worthwhile.

If you’re reading this and you also write, how’s your year going so far? What have you achieved? Let’s celebrate our good work together.

Time, Money, & Stressing Out

Sometimes, being a freelancer can be stressful.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my biggest ongoing projects ended with about a week and a half’s notice. About the same time, the website that I consider my reliable backup source of income, the one I would have used to fill that gap in the short term, stopped buying articles. Suddenly, my financial position became a lot more precarious.

In theory, I’m in a good position to weather this sort of storm. I don’t have a mortgage or rent to pay. My only dependent is my cat. I banked a bunch of savings last year, partly to see me through moments like this.

And yet, when those two things hit, I felt a sharp twist of panic in my guts. My level of gainful employment was about to plummet. I needed to find more work asap.

So I started looking for that work and I quickly got an offer. The pay was half of what I normally ask, but that wrenching feeling in my guts told me I should accept it. That feeling kept insisting “You need the money!”

Then I took a step back and thought about how my job works.

As a freelancer, the way I value myself isn’t just about how much money I get. It’s about how much money I get relative to the time I put in. If I let myself take this offer, I would be undervaluing myself. I’d lose a lot of time, time I could spend looking for better paid work. It might pay off in the short term, but in the long term, I’d be undermining my own efforts.

So I took a deep breath and said no. Then I got back to bidding on projects, and soon enough, I had offers coming in from other potential clients. Clients who recognised what I was worth and who were willing to pay for that.

It’s easy to give in to stress and take the first way you find out of a situation. But sometimes it’s worth hanging on and waiting until you’ve got an option you actually want.

Ghostwriting – How It Is For Me

I recently got to see the cover for a novel I had ghostwritten. This landed in my mailbox around the same time a big controversy broke over an indie author combining ghostwriters and plagiarism to churn out books, leading to lawsuits, scandal, and some not unreasonable outrage. It got me thinking about the strangeness of being a ghostwriter, how ghostwriters fit into modern publishing, and why I do this job.

First up, let’s talk definitions. Ghostwriting is when I get hired to write a book or article that will be published in someone else’s name, on the understanding that I can’t lay claim to it. Plagiarism would be me copying other people’s work without permission. The two are different, but can be combined.

Ghostwriting of novels – my main concern here – happens when someone with an established brand or a head for the business side of writing wants to put books out quicker. It’s a way of keeping the attention of readers and so making both the new and the existing books more profitable. At the moment, this is appealling to indie authors because it lets them game the Kindle algorithms and so increase their sales.

Some people see this as dishonest. Of course there’s some truth in that, but the same could be said of politicians and celebrities getting help with their autobiographies, and we’re OK with that. I suspect that what’s really upsetting some people isn’t the dishonesty so much as the breaking of their expectations. We’re socialised to see authorship as a work of solitary creation, when in reality that’s never true. Every book is a collaboration with editors, but their names don’t appear on the cover. We want a name to latch onto, so credit for books is a solo thing. Even when authors collaborate they sometimes adopt a pen name, as with James S. A. Corey, the author of The Expanse – actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. A single author name makes it easier to sell the books, so that’s what they do.

If an indie author wants to create a successful publishing brand, they build it around an author name, because that’s how people identify the fiction they want to consume, not by publisher but by a named author personality, whether that person exists or not. Yes, I’m sure some of these indie book mills are churning out crap, but that can also happen in traditional publishing. That doesn’t mean that everything produced this way is garbage.

From my point of view, the process of ghostwriting works something like this. I see a ghostwriting job advertised on a freelancing site or am approached through one of those sites. I apply for the job like I would any other, demonstrating my skills and experience. We agree terms and set up a contract through the site. Then the person hiring me provides me with details of the book they want written – usually a plot outline and character descriptions, sometimes with a style guide. And then I write, producing X thousand words per week for Y dollars a time, providing the best work I can given the timescales and the pay.

That last part is important. Someone who gives me longer to work with and pays for more of my time will get a better result, because I’m not in a rush. But a lot of this work is done for a marketing strategy that relies on speedy releases, and that affects quality no matter who’s writing.

So why would I do work like this? Wouldn’t I rather be writing my own stories with my own name on? Isn’t it weird seeing stories I’ve written and not being able to tell people about it?

Well, yes to both of those last two questions. And in answer to the first one, because it’s a job I enjoy. This doesn’t take the place of my own writing. It takes the place of my day job, meaning that my working hours are more satisfying, more fun, and help me practise my craft. The feedback from clients is useful in sharpening my skills, and believe me, when things aren’t right a ghostwriter definitely gets that feedback.

In the best cases, ghostwriting fiction has let me take part in some marvellous collaborations, producing books that I’m genuinely proud of and would happily stick my name on given half a chance. In the worst cases, I’ve worked to outlines and themes I wasn’t entirely happy with but that the client was determined to have. It got frustrating, but it was still more satisfying than any other job I’ve had. And at the end of the day, I wasn’t the one putting my name to those books, deciding they were good enough to be associated with me. Maybe I was wrong about those plots, themes, and ideas. Maybe readers would love them and they’d become bestsellers. And if not, that’s on the person who hired and briefed me, the one whose business will depend upon these books succeeding.

Where does that leave me, as the interent gets up in arms about ghostwriting? It leaves me with a job I love, despite its lack of security. It leaves me developing my writing skills on a daily basis. It leaves me producing the best work I can in the conditions I’m given. Yes, there are problems with the way that some people use ghostwriters, and the current state of publishing is exaggerating that. But that doesn’t mean that ghostwriters as a group are the problem. Ghostwriting is a logical result of how we currently produce and consume novels. Until those structures change, it’s here to stay. For those of us who get a creative job out of it, and for the readers who get more of the stories they enjoy, that’s surely a good thing.

2019 Aims

I’m not big on new year’s resolutions. I do a lot of self-assessment over the course of the year, setting myself new goals and sometimes even hitting them. Associating that stuff with one time of year is too limiting for me.

Still, this is a good time for self-reflection, so here are a couple of writing-related things I’m planning on doing differently this year.

First, I want to put more focus on style in how I write. I know how to structure a story and I’ve spent a lot of time studying that. But beyond using plane, stripped-down language to convey information, I’m not much good at reflecting on and working on style. I want to develop more of a style for my fiction, so that’s one of this year’s goals.

Then there’s marketing. I’m terrible at it, which means that much of my effort at self-publishing goes to waste. It’s only possible to be a creative freelancer if you’re willing to overcome the small embarrassed voice that says “don’t talk about yourself”. So this year, I’m going to learn more about book marketing and start investing more time and money in it.

How about you? Do you have any resolutions around writing, publishing, or creativity? Let me know, let’s see how we can get on with our goals together.

Writing Space

I’m not the only one who values these bookshelves.

I’ve just spent half a week unable to work in my study, during the gap between painting the walls and waiting for new carpet to arrive. It made me realise just how much I need this space. It’s not just having an ergonomic desk setup and standing desk. It’s not just having my reference books accessible. It’s not just having my calendar and whiteboard up by my desk. Those are practical things and there’s far more to a working space than what’s practical.

Having a room I use specifically for work creates an effective working ritual. When I come in in the morning, I know I’m here to work. My brain shifts into that gear. When I leave at lunchtime or the end of the day, it shifts gear again, letting me relax. It’s something I used to get from a commute, and while I much prefer the speed of this version, the ritual element is important. The physical transition creates a mental transition. The doorway to this room becomes a magical portal that transforms me from ordinary Andy Knighton to Writing Man.

It’s been a tough few days without, but order had been restored. The carpet’s in, the shelves are back up, and the books are in better order than ever.

Writing Man is back.