Lessons from the Freelancing Frontline

Time and tide wait for no one in plimsolls.
Freelance writing can be a movable feast and sometimes the table seems to be on castors with you running behind, reaching for nibbles. It's all too easy to go from week to week, or month to month, without looking up occasionally and smelling the coffee peppermint tea. 

A quarterly review can give you valuable perspective, revealing not only issues but also what's working well. In short, there are useful lessons to be had that can help keep your freelancing business on track.

Here are a few thoughts, both old and new, from my recent tête à tête with myself...

1. Get a well-defined brief before you write a word (or live to regret it).
The client really know what she wanted. Well, she said she knew, setting out her requirements in five bullet points. The only, slight, teensy fly in the ointment being what she hadn't said. Of course she'd specified the theme and key messages, which source material would be sent over and when she needed the draft and the final version. However, what she hadn't mentioned was her week's holiday slap bang in the middle of the project, or her penchant for changing the theme, mid piece, to the point where the finished version was a distant (and more time-consuming) cousin of its predecessor.

2. Agree the number of edits / drafts.
The need for a  completely new quarter of a lengthy article, last minute, because a TV programme inspired her is not a minor tweak. It's a rewrite.

3. Even with a fixed rate job, know the hourly rate at every stage.
£100 for five hours of work is £20 per hour; at least, until the two hours of further edits kick in and then you're looking at around £14 per hour - an hourly reduction of 30%. Perhaps more importantly, you need to balance the client's needs with the economic viability of the job. Have an absolute base rate and, if you feel the job has exceeded its originally agreed scope,  be ready to talk about renegotiating the price.

4. Your client's time is not the same as your time.
Even the best of freelancers, unless you have a longstanding (and positive!) relationship with a client, is a mere spear carrier in your client's drama. Sorry to break the bad news to you, but you might not be the only freelancer on the job. Also, client response times can vary, depending upon whether you're seeking approval for a draft, checking requirements, or waiting for the invoice to be paid.

5. Know when to walk away.
This can be a painful one, but it comes with the territory. Sometimes, to use one of my favourite Americanisms, writers get hosed. This can happen if a client deliberately takes advantage, or they simply didn't understand the amount of work involved (and let's face it, you're the writer so you're responsible for managing their expectations), or they commit the gravest of all sins and don't pay you.

True story time.

I did some work for a US client several months ago. They're a start-up for people who want to learn or teach new skills and are looking to set up local hubs. (Think 'Craigslist' but with new experiences.) I wrote some blogs for them and did some branding work to create a personality for the organisation, as well as a character they could develop graphically. 

Anyway, all was going swimmingly and payments were made on a regular and timely basis until blogs seven and eight. Emails went unanswered; invoices grew lonely. Ironically, it wasn't even a great deal of money, as I'd adjusted my rate for a start-up. Weeks passed by and then, out of sheer capriciousness, I sent them a wry email about what we'd say if we met at a party and what their response might be. Well, cover me in daisies and call me a meadow if they didn't respond within minutes, apologising for the delay - all 16 weeks of it - and promising to settle their account immediately. Their explanation for the delay was honest and weak, a bit like when I make a normal cup of tea for someone. 

No matter though because my Paypal invoice would be dealt with promptly, right? Wrong. Eleven days later they had evidently paddled away. What's a freelancer to do? Simple. Cut Your Losses. I emailed the client to say tell them they were fired, reminded them that the two blogs they hadn't paid for were my copyright and not for their use, and walked away. 

Of course, I could have used a site such as samplesafe and listed them as a bad debtor. This time, though, it doesn't feel worth it.

6. There is no direct line from outcome back to motive.
You can never make assumptions where clients are concerned, when it comes to late responses, late payments or even no payments. That said, what you can do is take action.

Time for another true story.

I did some script editing for a client. It was a short job and I negotiated the top of the client's budget. Everything seemed to be progressing well and I was asked to include a few ideas about characterisation and development, including suggesting a better title. Halfway through, the client paid half the fee. Naturally, I completed the second half of the work and sent it off. Payment was promised and this time I waited days before following it up. Nothing happened. I chased the client again and indicated that I had tracked their online activities over the internet, so that I knew where they were based and which competition the script was heading for. Still nothing. And then I thought about it a little and did something a little different. I compromised. I emailed the client and said that I'd take a smaller second payment in full settlement, bringing payments to the level of their original baseline budget. They emailed, apologised and explained that, even though they'd said they were happy with my script edits, they had (unreasonably in their own opinion) expected more. A payment swiftly followed.

7. It's your business, so run it your own way.
Every client is different so treat them as individuals. My favourite quote of the moment is one attributed to Gandhi: Action expresses priorities. (Not motives though - see earlier in this post.) I also like to adapt that into: Actions reveal priorities. In business or on the creative page, do what's useful to you.

The Grapes of Roth

A chicken in every pot and a trash can for every home.

I watched a two-part interview with American author Philip Roth recently - interviewed by Alan Yentob with additional contributions from Salman Rushdie and Edna O'Brien. The dialogues were intercut with archive film footage that captured turbulent times in the American psyche.

I will confess here that I've never read any Roth, nor Updike, although I'm on nodding terms with other US authors such as Joseph Heller and JD Sallinger. Somehow, Roth always seemed too grand and imposing an author for me (his prose, I mean) - such a big deal. All nonsense  of course, but every reader makes a choice of the flimsiest of pretexts.

In that light, it sounds trite to condense a two-hour retrospective with one of the most celebrated of American writers, but nevertheless some reflections and insights struck home for me. 

- According to Alan Yentob, Roth has written over 30 novels, which gives him a broad perspective as a writer. Doubtless, not every one of his novels was lauded.
- Roth said he had doubts about his ability to write again, in between his books. What tok him through that fog was an idea that ignited him.
- He wasn't afraid to let his imagination take him into dark places, which some people might find objectionable.
- He gives 'what if' free rein, rewriting personal and world history on the page.
- He writes powerful opening lines that conjure up a voice or perspective, while intriguing the reader.

Those points made me think about how writers use their own experiences, thoughts and unresolved to create good fiction. The emotions are authentic because they're drawn from truth (or, at least, what we have believed to be true at the time).

There is heroism in that approach, but also, I suspect, collateral damage. It made me wonder what I'd write, that moment, if I were willing to be as vulnerable, as raw, and as secure in the validity of my own words.

It could go something like these opening lines:

She gave me the black eye by mistake, so she said; I never told anyone the truth.

The day I nearly got arrested was the same day I got my head kicked in by football supporters.

I was so angry with my parents for not being around when we really needed them - I only forgave them because they were dead.

Perhaps most of all, that two-part retrospective and interview gave me an insight into a man who has committed to baring his soul and his ideas on the page. What you see is what you get. Whether you think of his writing and his views, that's worthy of respect. 

July 4th

Every item tells a story.
That's right folks, it's an on-the-hoofer...

Well, of course I wasn't going to let US Independence Day pass without a blog post. 

After all, as someone once said, parodying a comment allegedly made about Billy Connolly and the shipyards, I spent one year living there and 25 years talking about it. (To which, I replied, "Don't forget about the short fiction and the novel.")

July 4th is one of those occasions steeped in myth and history that has come to mean something fixed, even though some of the reasons behind the decisions, battles and, ultimately, the birth of an independent nation can still be open to debate. If you're open to a good conspiracy, I recommend The Temple and the Lodge. On the other hand, whether you're British or an American and if you're capable of reflective humo(u)r, you might enjoy this glorious piece on revocation, which airs periodically and has been wrongly attributed to John Cleese over the years. You see, mythology again.

Our ability to attribute fixed meanings to events, or even to non-events, is probably connected to our seemingly primal need to tell stories. As Mark Twain may have said: "Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story, unless you can't think of anything better."

Recently, Thorn Sully and I were chewing the fat over skype about A Word with You Press's inaugural anthology - Coffee Shop Chronicles, Vol 1, Oh the Places I Have Bean. It's a conversation we've had a few times since the book was released into the wild. Should we create a second book? Ought we to focus on an ebook rather than a more expensive paperback, and could we maybe reduce the size of it to slim down the unit price. We chat about the weather too, sometimes.

Anyhow, I happened to mention that it may be time to promote the book a little more deliberately by cranking up Twitter, Facebook and all the other toys. Out of interest and intrigue, I checked the book out on Amazon and discovered that we had zero reviews. That's not a terrible thing; we had sold in low figures after all, opting for a more organic (some might even say lesiurely) approach to marketing. But none

If I explain that there were 100 entries in the anthology, it might go some way to explaining my disbelief. And, since you ask, as I was on the editorial team (as well as being a contributor), it didn't seem right to me to wave the flag personally. We've since emailed all those involved with the book, to ask for their participation, and at least a couple of reviews have appeared.

There is a valuable lesson here, and it's in no way a criticism of those non-reviewers. People are busy; people form and lose connections with equal speed and so we, as writers, need to work hard to maintain a relationship with our readers and contributors. Creating a book is not enough in itself to keep a reader engaged. 

Maybe they didn't like it. Maybe they didn't even know it was out there. Maybe they're wondering why we haven't been in touch since the book launch (we actually have a website and online community at www.awordwithyoupress.com, but we have had some changes recently). 

Who knows?

What we do know is that it's up to us to make the relationship work with the reader. 

It's important to separate facts from conjecture and to not get lost in our own stories about what we consider to be the truth. So, stories on the page but not off it!

Speaking of the USA, in case you're wondering what's been happening with my transatlantic comedy drama, Scars and Stripes, here's the latest news:
1. Useful feedback from my latest beta reader - thank you, Helen.
2. A potentially shark-jumping attempt on Twitter to get a book-related celebrity to read my manuscript, with a £50 charity donation if he isn't entertained.
3. An email exchange with a 'chick-lit' site to find out if they know of any 'lad-lit' sites.
4. Conversion of Scars and Stripes to a epub and mobi formats for easier beta reading.
5. The search for a suitable agent or publisher continues.

Happy Independence Day, people, wherever you are!