From the E-Mailbag…

Jeff Koval writes…

The problem I'm running into is that the web seems to be overflowing with "advice" and "jobs" sites that I don't consider particularly trustworthy. It really seems like the majority of these sites are spit out just to grab domain names. Perhaps most of them are just completely fabricated web garbage. Anyway, there's a lot of them.

It's the same with books on the subject. I'm just not sure which ones are insightful and which ones were tossed off for a quick buck. Not to mention fake reviews…there's really all kinds of ways to be skeptical and/or paranoid.

Can you recommend any good websites or guides that would be useful for someone like me who really just needs to figure out a way into that world? Also, advice in general would be welcome. I seem to remember you posting about freelancing in the past, so I apologize if these questions seem redundant to you.

I've seen very few websites that offer anything that strikes me as good advice for the world of freelance writing. There are a few, like those of my friends Lee Goldberg and Colleen Doran, that will sometimes warn you about the many scams that are out there to get you to work for free…or even to pay them instead of them paying you. A lot of careers are derailed because a wanna-be leads with his or her heart, believes a phony opportunity is real and gets screwed over.

I haven't seen any books that are that helpful. There may be some but I haven't seen them.

Finding a way into the world of freelance writing varies a lot depending on what you want to write, where you're starting…and to some degree, what your expectations are. My expectation when I started at age 17 was to be a writer and darn near nothing else for the rest of my life…and so far, with my 61st birthday a month away, I've managed it. I've been an editor, a producer, a voice director, a cartoonist and even on one or two frightening occasions, a performer. Those are little bonus titles that are largely meaningless to me, credits I sometimes forego. What matters to me is being a writer. I suspect that committment has had a lot to do with continued employment. I kinda had to succeed to some extent because I was so much less competent at other things…

…and also because I liked writing. Always have, always will. To me, the requirement to be a professional writer is that you love it enough that no matter what happens in your life, you still want to sit down and write for many hours each day. I occasionally moan at the circumstances under which I must write — some deadlines, certain restrictions, etc. — but when I hear writers complain about the sheer necessity of dragging themselves to the keyboard to write, I think their real problem is they're in the wrong profession. When people ask me, as they do, how I manage to come up with so much content on this weblog, I tell them pure and simple: I like doing it. It's writing and the subject matter is always a recess from whatever people are paying me to write that week.

As a writer, you have to write. And as a freelancer, you have to accept the sporadic, short-term nature of your profession. I know freelancers who whine that nothing is steady. Well, it's not supposed to be steady. That's why it's called freelancing, dum dum.

In the 44 years I've been doing it, I've never really been out of work. I've also never had a gig that I felt reasonably certain would be there a year — more often, six months — down the line. And as an important adjunct to that, I've never had a time when 100% or even 75% of my income came wholly from one source. I'm always doing three or more things at a time and talking to ten more about projects in the future. (A rough rule of thumb for me is that if I'm talking to ten people about things I might write soon, I know that five are very remote possibilities and that of the remaining five, one is likely to happen, two at the most.) I have also never been exclusive to any company or buyer.

Very little of that is a brag. Quite the opposite, I envy so much about people who have a job they love and it's secure and they can be reasonably certain that they can be doing it ten years from now if they want. I just accept that I've selected a career where that kind of thing rarely happens.

I think you need to accept it. I had a friend years ago who was a pretty good writer. At some point, because he married young and fathered not long after, he took a staff job at a manufacturing firm writing technical manuals and such. It was boring, unchallenging work but it was also the kind of company where they hire you and you stay there until half past your retirement party.

If you want. After ten or fifteen years there, he decided he didn't want.

He felt he was neglecting a large part of himself. He was a creative writer who was not doing creative writing. He tried to bat out a novel or maybe some short stories in his spare time but that didn't work. He was the kind of guy who could only manage X number of hours per week writing and the job just consumed too much of X.

Finally, when his daughter went off to college and he realized he had a nice cushion in the bank, he decided he had to go for it. He had to try to become the kind of writer he believed in his soul he should be. He quit the tech-writing job and tried freelance writing of a more creative nature.

Well aware it can take a while to get established, he had no expectations of immediate success…which was good because he didn't have any. But he had some non-immediate success. Many who try this sell nothing. Absolutely nothing. He sold something…and then another something and then a few more somethings…articles, fillers, a couple of comic book scripts. His income did not equal what he made as a technical writer but it was closing in on that level.

And then one day, he gave up and went back to the manufacturing firm. It just drove him too crazy, he said, to freelance. He lived with a constant tightness in his stomach, fretting that each piece wouldn't sell or that each assignment would be his last from a given buyer. He needed stability in his life more than he needed to pursue his muse. I don't fault him one bit for that. He had to do what he had to do.

There's an old story about Bert Lahr, the great comedian. He opened on Broadway in a play called The Beauty Part and it was a triumph. Opening night, the critics were standing and cheering. A gent I knew named Jonathan Lucas told me this story. He told me he was there for the opening and that he rushed backstage and said to Lahr, whom he knew, "It's a smash, Burt! It'll run for three years!"

To which Lahr replied, sourly, "Yeah, but what do I do then?"

I can't guarantee this story is true. For one thing, after Jonathan told it to me, I saw it cited in a couple of books and magazines with other folks claiming they'd rushed backstage and said what Jonathan said he'd said to the Cowardly Lion guy.

But in every telling, Lahr's line was the same…and it's exactly how you can't think if you want to be a freelancer. You need to recognize the on again/off again nature of what we do. It drove my friend crazy to not know what he'd be writing next month and how much, if anything, he'd make. To get the knot out of his tummy, he had to go back to writing tech manuals. As far as I know, he's still at it and probably better off there. Just as not everyone was made to work 9-to-5 in an office, not everyone was made to work at home in their jammies, keeping their own hours.

This is really the best advice I can give someone who wants to be a freelancer and it's not all that different from what I tell someone who wants to be an actor or a dancer or a director or any job where you go from gig to gig. It's important to understand the unpredictable rhythms of the work and that you're signing on to be a wandering nomad. And it can really help if you can learn to appreciate and even be amused by it. If you can't, there are other vocations and maybe you'd be happier in one of them.