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?
It’s almost time for FantasyCon, that magical time of year when a bunch of fantasy fans and professionals get together in a hotel to enthuse about our shared passions. This year we’re near Glasgow, my first foray into Scotland in twenty years, and I can’t wait.
I’m only on one panel this time, Franchises and Ghostwriting, at one o’clock on Saturday afternoon. There, I’ll be moderating a discussion with Charlotte Bond, Una McCormack, and Mark Morris on some of the less-discussed options for professional writers. So if you’re at the convention this weekend please come along, or at the very least find me to say hello in the bar.
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.
A lot of people have the same reaction when I tell them that I ghostwrite fiction. It’s a mixture of curiosity and confusion. Ghostwriting sounds like an exciting thing to do, but what does it actually mean? And how does it even happen?
What I Do
Fiction work for hire, whether as a ghostwriter or a named contributor, is extremely variable.
Sometimes I get hired to plot a novel, then never touch it again.
Sometimes I get hired to write a novel based on a plot someone’s already written.
Sometimes I get hired to do the whole thing, based on a concept the client has or a genre they want to publish in.
Sometimes it’s consulting with a client, helping them to develop their ideas.
There’s also a lot of editing work, though I don’t often do that.
The genres vary. There’s a lot of work out there for romance writers, as that’s a huge part of publishing. But it’s not my genre, so I only write romance as part of something else. I’ve been hired to work on space operas, dystopian sci-fi, urban fantasy, thrillers, hard sci-fi, folktales, and historical fiction.
I also do non-fiction ghostwriting, but that’s a post for another time.
I find most of my working through freelance hiring websites. Clients post details of jobs they want done. I browse the jobs and find ones that I’m interested in, based on the budget, conditions, and how interesting the work looks. Then I make a bid, saying what I would provide, how much I would charge, and what relevant skills and experience I have. The clients pick between bidders.
These sites are incredibly helpful. Partly, that’s because they put a bunch of jobs in one place. But it’s also because of the feedback mechanisms. Clients and freelancers leave feedback for each other. After several years of work, I have a lot of positive reviews and ratings. This lets potential clients know that I’m reliable and have the skills that I’m laying claim to.
Sometimes clients even single me out and invite me to bid on their jobs. The process is pretty much the same, except that I know in advance that they think I might be a good fit.
I also have work away from these sites. Some of this comes through friends and some comes from previous clients approaching me directly.
This is the question that seems to fascinate most people – who is hiring me and why?
It’s a natural question to ask. We tend to assume that, if someone has a story to tell, they want to tell it themselves. Despite many examples to the contrary, we think of authors as lone creatives driven by passion and inspiration. My work doesn’t fit that image.
Most of why I get hired stems from the current book market. Thanks in large part to Amazon, it’s possible for small presses and independent authors to make a living off publishing. To do that, they need to have a firm grasp of marketing. And for that marketing to work, they need a steady stream of books. So marketing-minded people, whether authors themselves or not, hire the likes of me to produce books for their publishing machine.
There are also the passion projects. Maybe a client has a story they really want to tell but they don’t know how. Maybe they want to write but aren’t sure how to structure their plot. Maybe they just want a professional’s perspective on their ideas and they’re willing to pay for a few hours of my time.
It’s always tricky to talk about this stuff. Discretion is an important part of my work. There are often non-disclosure agreements. Even when I can technically talk specifics, I’m wary of doing so.
But if you have questions, if you want to know more, then feel free to ask in the comments. I’ll answer those I can. Because this is an odd job and a brilliant job, and I’m happy to talk about it.
I have another sf+f related freelance gig, this time writing articles for Sci-Fi Addicts. I have pieces coming up there on TV shows that deserve remakes, why Preacher is such an amazing comic book, and the mismatched plot and mechanics of Fallout 4. So if you’d like to read more from me, as well as other interesting sf articles, then please check it out.
I’m a great believer in the importance of measuring what you achieve. Maybe you’ll count how many words you’ve written, how many stories you’ve sold, how many hours you’ve put in. However you do it, it stops you dodging the awkward question of “am I actually writing”.
But how you use this to stay motivated is very personal and it can change over time. You shouldn’t get trapped in using somebody else’s approach, even when that somebody else is you in the past.
For the past year, I’ve been measuring my achievements but not setting firm goals. I had so much else going on in life, setting targets became too daunting. The thought of failure put me off achieving them. They were counter-productive.
I still measured what I achieved, and celebrated it with fellow writers. I kept track of story sales and freelance earnings. But there were no targets.
Five weeks ago, that changed.
Worries about income were making me tear my hair out (not that I have much hair to tear – number one cut all over means never getting hat hair). I needed to be sure that the money was flowing. So I set myself a target. I would aim to do freelance work worth a certain amount each week. And to do this, I’d work out beforehand what that work consisted of.
This time, the targets have proved motivating. I discovered that I could easily earn more than I was doing just by getting focused. Even in weeks disrupted by my house move, I’ve either hit those targets or caught up the next week. It’s relieved the pressure in my brain, letting me relax. Once I’ve finished settling in at the new house, I’ll have time to properly get back to my own stories.
Maybe in six months or a year I’ll need new targets. Maybe they’ll be different figures, or monthly instead of weekly. Maybe I’ll go back to measures. The important thing is that I use what gets me motivated, instead of getting stuck in a rut.
Do the same thing. Work out what gets you motivated and use it. Learn from others but don’t blindly follow them. Even when those others were once you.
It’s been a while since I’ve written an update on where I am writing-wise. So, for those who are interested, and to keep myself honest, here it is.
As I mentioned around the start of the year, life descended into chaos in the last few months of 2015, and I fell way behind where I wanted to be. Now that I’m back on top of life, I’m trying to crack on with self-publishing again.
I hope to put out a new e-book of some sort roughly every two months. A Mosaic of Stars was meant to be the February release, but ended up being a few days late. I’m aiming to put out a short story set in medieval England as a free e-book in April – all that’s needed at this point is the edits. Meanwhile, I’ll get back to writing the long-delayed parts four and five of the Epiphany Club steampunk series, the next two releases. I have plans beyond that, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Meanwhile, I’ve started submitting short stories to websites and magazines again. I’ve had one accepted for an anthology from the publishers of Avast! Ye Airships. Hopefully more will follow – watch this space.
I have enough work to live off for the next few months, and it’s all interesting. Some ghost written fiction, some writing about writing, and a load of military history. Writing things I enjoy is very motivating.
Clients have started approaching me rather than me always chasing them. So far that’s mostly been with work I don’t want, but hey, it’s a step forward. The more experience and reputation I build up, the more work I get offered, and the better it is. Now I’m hitting my deadlines again, I can start to build up a financial buffer to take time off for my own writing.
I’m currently writing each week’s set of blog posts eight days before the first one will go out. That relieves the pressure I felt when I was writing each one the day it went out, or even writing a weekly batch just before the first one appeared. It makes the content a little less timely, but provides me with prepared posts in case something gets in the way of writing. And I can always juggle the schedule if something comes up I want to respond to quickly.
So again, things are going pretty well.
My able assistant Elmo the kitten is now six months old, and I’m not sure I can call him a kitten any more. Certainly not to his face. He still keeps trying to play with the keyboard, but doesn’t persist for long because he knows I’ll stop him. He’s a mad little beast, but is at least learning not to bring his claws out when we play.
That’s about it – the start of play for Andrew Knighton, writer, as of mid March 2016. Here’s hoping things keep on improving.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’m currently working pretty much full time on a work-for-hire fiction project, ghost writing science fiction. The process involved is an interesting one, and having got permission from the guy running the show I’m going to share a little about it here, and about why I think it’s so good.
How it works
There are five people working on this project – there’s me as the writer and the last addition to the team. B is the mastermind behind the process, the guy who brought us all together, he manages the virtual team, works out schedules and marketing and all that business side of things. C seems to mostly do developmental editing work, helping work out story, setting, etc. D wrote the plot for the books, and as part of that did a lot of work developing the characters and setting, together with B, C and E. E mostly does line editing.
From my point of view, I’ve been given a plot and extensive briefings on characters and setting. I’m the one turning this into prose, adding my own ideas and flourishes to fill gaps and flesh things out. For example I took some characters from book two and brought them into book one, to save me inventing extras and set them up for later.
C’s provided a few editorial comments on my work, but most of that comes from E. Once she’s read through my work I go back and accept or respond to her changes. I have the most contact with B, who’s doing a good job of dealing with any practical issues I stumble across and keeping me in the loop.
What I like so far
I love working with a team in this way, especially because they seem like a nice, lively, creative bunch. While I like writing my own stories, collaborating with others makes creativity even more fun, and I’m enjoying taking D’s plot and fleshing it out. Getting to work with editors is also good.
What I particularly like about the process, which B has developed and is continuing to adapt, is that it seems less wasteful than the traditional publishing approach. Instead of a writer providing a completed story, only to have to re-write large chunks when a developmental editor points out problems with character and plot, those problems have mostly been smoothed out beforehand. To put it in terms of my old process improvement job, we are avoiding the waste of re-work.
The end-to-end story production process is also being speeded up by working together via Google docs. So even before I finished writing book one, E was reading and making editorial comments on the early chapters. It’s a good thing I naturally write in chronological order, or this could get messy.
Having other people literally leaning over my shoulder as I write freaks me out and stops me working – Laura can attest to this. But having collaborators perusing my work in a virtual environment, providing both critique and enthusiastic positive feedback as we go along, is really helpful. It’s sharpening the writing and keeping my spirits up, if occasionally stressing me out too – let’s face it, being edited always has its stresses, whether from disagreeing with the editor or agreeing and seeing what was wrong with your own beautiful words. Of course the reality is that I’m facing both.
This kind of collaboration is akin to what I imagine modern TV writers’ rooms to be like, allowing people to share and refine ideas, then go away and specialise in what they do best.
And because of this efficient, collaborative process, together with the joys of digital publishing, the first book will have been through editors, beta readers, refinement and publication, all within maybe four months of them developing the plot, and maybe two months after I started writing book one. That is staggeringly efficient. I approve.
Letting go of the artistic ego
I know that there are people who will view this as somehow detracting from the art of writing, from the purity of the author working away at their own ideas and craft. But I don’t agree with that view. Writing is already a collaborative process, involving editors and publishers. This is making that collaboration more effective and enjoyable. It’s not what we expect, and that will create a negative reaction in some people, but I like it.
I’d be interested to hear any thoughts you guys have on this, or similar experiences you’ve been through. You know where the comments go, please feel free to leave one.
I’m only writing this a few hours after yesterday’s post, and I’ve been busy with the freelance work so nothing’s changed. I think I’ll get around to NaNo this evening. Fingers crossed. Just blogging a day ahead now will relieve some pressure and make it easier to juggle tasks tomorrow.
I notice that JH Mae and Everwalker are tearing ahead at 21k and 15k respectively, while I haven’t quite reached 12k. And I also have to mention Russell Phillips, who’s normally a non-fiction writer and went into this knowing he didn’t have time to manage 50k, but is still getting plenty of words down.
There’s a difference between enjoying the process of writing and enjoying the thing you’re writing about. I’m always going to enjoy writing stories because they’re something for which I have a passion. But the risk, when I decided to try to make a living by writing, lay in whether I’d enjoy writing about other things. I couldn’t know for sure whether I’d enjoy writing for its own sake, regardless of the content.
Fortunately, it turns out that I do. Over the past week I’ve written about toothpaste, sunglasses, the Battle of Agincourt, and those special drugs for men that anonymous Canadian pharmacies keep emailing me about. I’ve applied for work writing about recipes, chiropractic technology and new developments in the world of HR. And while there have been moments that have strained my brain – 400 words about a wooden cube, for example – I’ve enjoyed it all. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of finding interesting ways to write about uninteresting things. I’ve enjoyed the learning that comes from quickly brushing up on a subject for an assignment. And I’ve really enjoyed putting one word before the next, working out the best ways to say things, going with the flow of the words.
Get out there and write. Enjoy letting the words spill out onto your screen, no matter what it’s about.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go research vegan cheesecakes. The words demand it!