In December of last year, before Christmas, I quit my job, left my home town of Wellington, New Zealand and moved to London. My plan was to begin a new, full-time career in freelance writing. This seemed like an obvious match: in the late 2000s, writing was pretty much the only thing I did. Although fully aware that I'd never written in a commercial or professional environment, I still went for it. I moved to a new country with no source of income, armed with only one thing: a writing portfolio filled with short stories about video games, fake pinball trivia and ironic H.P. Lovecraft homages. This is what is known in sarcastic circles as an excellent idea. Or, in medical terms, a classic case of Fyfe Syndrome.
A brief aside: most people were encouraging or excited when I said I was going to do this. But when I was boarding the plane to London and waving goodbye to my family, someone grabbed my arm. It was an old woman, no more than five feet, who told me in a hoarse, urgent voice that I was going to be eaten alive - not by the big city, but by a wolf. I told her to get lost and she disappeared into the crowd.
In all seriousness, five months have now gone by and I can report that my experience of breaking into freelance writing has been what you'd diplomatically refer to as "educational", "challenging, but in, like, a good way, you know?" or just simply as "an experience." Despite proving myself something less than successful at the job, I have, as you'd hope, learned a lot about what it means to be a freelance writer. Knowing how valuable such advice is from someone who's been trying something new for five months, please find four important lessons about freelance writing below.
FOUR BASIC THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT BEING A FREELANCE WRITER
#1. BEING ABLE TO SELL YOURSELF IS NOT THE SAME AS BEING ABLE TO WRITE WELL
In many ways it doesn't matter how good of a writer you are. Even if you are demonstrably great, generally people do not simply come to you with work. If you want something, you have to ask for it. Eloquence might make the job of pitching easier, but fundamentally writing is a different skill than being able to market and promote your services.
Not only do you need to be good at selling your ideas, but you need to be doing it all the time. Pitches, even those from great, commercially successful writers, are rejected constantly for reasons both fair and unfair. Don't rely on just one good idea: have dozens. Have infinite ideas. Breed an infinite number of idea-babies and send them to their death.
#2. BE OKAY WITH BEING ALONE
Writing is not a 9 to 5 job, it is a 24/7 job. Writing is as much about thinking and being alive as it is typing words. And because creativity seems to rely in large part on the right neurons firing in your brain, you feel inspired and write well at weird times, and feel like shit and write as shittily as a shit in a shit at other weird times. To be productive, you'll have to make sacrifices: telling your friends that you're too busy to talk or hang out, not being fully present at a party or dinner or date, and admitting that what you really want in that moment is some paper and a pencil and some alone time. Romantically speaking, such a sacrifice is a noble one, made as it is for the sake of creative expression.
When things are going well, you're lonely because you want to be. Not so in the Bad Times, during which you cannot write well, cannot sell well, have no ideas, no contact with editors, leaving you with just a blank document and a keyboard, and every key you press only manages to make an ugly thing uglier.
This is when you're desperate to be around other people, whether for inspiration or companionship or distraction or whatever. But your friends probably don't schedule their availability around your creative mood swings, and so when you do decide to have a social life, sometimes you can't. It is in the Bad Times, when you are a writer who cannot write, that you will feel the loneliest.
#3. HAVE SOMETHING THAT IS JUST YOURS
Have a creative outlet that belongs exclusively to you, which is a conduit for all your weirdness that is not commercially viable. This is especially important if your sensibility is naturally inclined towards the strange, the personal or otherwise inaccessible. Very likely, there won't be any money in doing so: it'll be a blog or a Twitter account. You might say that this is wasting your time and energy on a thing that pays you zero dollars, which is fully true.
The benefits, though, are not financial. As a freelance writer, the things that you say are delayed for weeks or months at a time and subject to an edit process you're not privy to. I really believe it's healthy to have some outlet through which you can say exactly what you want to say and at any time. Otherwise, you are writing for a living without ever being able to express what you honestly want to express.
#4. BE PREPARED
This advice is best illustrated with a real life example. Earlier this year, I pitched a feature idea to a London-based magazine that should go unnamed. The pitch was rejected, but luck turned out to be on my side and very much not on some other people's side: the magazine's editor contacted me to say that another writer had initiated an article for the publication, but had been called away on account of a sudden family emergency. In his absence, I was asked to complete the article, either because the editor took pity me or because, as he'd originally said, he genuinely liked my writing.
The assignment was a feature profile of a "creative collective" which had offices in London's uber-hip Shoreditch. This collective, which consisted of notable London artists, filmmakers and graphic designers, had technically been a going concern for a year but had flown under the radar until now. I organised an interview with some of the key personnel as soon as was convenient, which turned out to be a Tuesday night.
I arrived at their offices around eight p.m., and was greeted by one of the collective's co-founders, Katy. (Not her real name.) What I didn't know at the time was that over the last year, many of her co-founding members had dropped out, without publicly stating the reason why. Had I known that in advance, I'd have been able to approach the subject with some diplomacy. Instead, one of my first questions to Katy was about a co-founder named Shaun (not his real name either), a well-known theatre and film producer in London. Katy informed me tersely that Shaun was no longer part of the collective. I stumbled a bit and offered up a question about the collective's philosophy that even I knew at the time wasn't very good. "Well," said Katy with disdain, "you're confusing two very important concepts there." I nodded and listened to her lecture while she looked disappointed with me.
A little later, Katy gave me a tour around the collective's creative space. I half-heartedly examined the workspace, idly playing around with objects on the tables and so forth, and peeked inside a shut closet. As I opened the door, I heard Katy scream "No!" A giant black wolf burst out from behind the door and I was thrown to the ground. The wolf looked me over and issued a howl. "No," Katy pleaded, "don't hurt him, Shaun, don't hurt him." Immediately, I got to my feet and booked it towards the stairwell. The offices were on the sixth floor of the building, and I'd made it down to the fifth before the wolf somehow pounced onto the landing before me, turned, and growled. I threw my laptop bag at the wolf and sprinted back up the stairs.
It's a cliche, but the best way to kill a werewolf is indeed the fabled silver bullet: it's the fastest way to introduce silver into the bloodstream. I hadn't even considered this eventuality at the time, though, and had no silver with me. If I'd been better prepared, I would have: I would have noticed that it was a full moon the night of my interview and taken precautions. But I was sloppy, I didn't prepare, and that's how I found myself being chased up a stairwell by a werewolf.
I felt the wolf's hot breath on my back all the way up the stairs. I made it to the roof and tried to shut the stairwell door behind me, but the wolf jutted out its paw and stopped me. I struggled for a moment but he flung the door back and me with it. I quickly picked myself up and ran to the edge of the roof, hoping, but without any sure reason to hope, that I was heading towards a fire escape. As I neared the ledge, the werewolf circled around and stopped me in my tracks. I froze, and in that moment the werewolf pounced and pushed me to the floor. I tried to hold back the beast's salivating jaw, knowing that if he got me between its teeth it didn't matter what happened next. The wolf raised its right claw and slashed me across the face. I lost my grip and fell back hard. The werewolf strutted atop me, eyeing me carefully, and then raised itself on its hind legs in the light of the full moon and howled. In that moment I saw my opportunity. I pulled back my right leg and kicked the creature square in its stomach. The wolf stumbled and tipped over the edge of the roof. Its howl, moments earlier the bragging of a vicious predator, turned immediately to terror, and then, with a dull thump as the body hit the pavement, to silence.
I made my way down to the street. Shaun lay on the street in his human form, with a crowd gathering around his naked and bloodied body. "Let me through," I said. I knelt down beside Shaun and, weakly, he reached out to me. I took his hand in both of mine.
"I didn't mean to hurt anyone," Shaun whispered to me.
"I know," I told him. "I know."
"I'm sorry," he said, and his head rolled back until his cheek braced the asphalt.
"It's okay," I said. "Let go. You can let go."
Shaun nodded, almost imperceptibly, and expired on the sidewalk. Once I knew he was really gone, I released his hands. I took a bus home.