“How do you do it?”

How do I do what?


Not the actual craft of writing, that is; rather, how do I keep getting asked to write this novel, that magazine article, this short story, and so on? It’s a question that’s come up…let’s see…one, two, five billion times in recent years. Kevin Dilmore and I have discussed this more times than we’ve talked about what kind of underwear that waitress at Buffalo Wild Wings might be wearing.

So, you know the topic comes up pretty often.

This entry was prompted by an e-Mail I received last night. Said e-Mailer had finished reading my “September writing wrap-up” post and expressed their appreciation for the fact that I seem to have a lot of different things going on. A lot? Well, I suppose so, compared to some people. Compared to others? I’m a rank amateur. Check out kradical‘s journal if you want to see a guy who’s keeping lots of different balls in the air. Personally, if I want to be reminded as to how much of a slacker I am, I check out all the different things my friend Kevin J. Anderson‘s doing. You don’t have to be a fan of his to know that he’s one of the hardest-working writers in this business. The man’s a machine, I tell you.

But, Gentle Reader’s questions were directed at me, not KRAD or Kevin, and were asking me, essentially, “How do you do it?” They’re looking to do some freelance work of their own, and for better or worse had come to me while searching for advice, wanting to know how I manage to keep getting hired for such work.

At a convention, I heard a superb answer to this question as offered to a fan by DC Comics artist Freddie Williams II, whom I came to know thanks to his friendship with Kevin (Freddie is a Kansas City native and used to work at Hallmark Cards before he hit the DC big time, yo). A young man had asked some flavor of this basic question, and Freddie provided a succinct, yet — in my opinion, anyway — spot-on answer.

To paraphrase Freddie, who in turn had gleaned this advice from someone else: “To succeed in this business, generally speaking, you need to be Good. You need to be On Time. You need to be Easy To Work With (hold up fingers in sequence to emphasize each point). If you’re all three of those, you’re GOLD. If you are any two of those, you can usually get by.”

Yoda had spoken, and the words were good.

As it turns out, this little bit of boiled-down advice pretty much describes my outlook with regard to freelance writing. Naturally, Freddie expounded upon those points to the fan and his buddies, and his views on the topic lined up with my own. I’ve offered up some version of that same answer a couple of times since then. As I answered an e-Mail earlier today on this topic, I figured I’d share my expanded version of Freddie’s sage advice.

Bear in mind that the following represents my view of these infonuggets, based on my own experience during the ten years or so that I’ve been “doing it” for money:

  1. You need to be Good – “Good” in this context doesn’t mean that you’re the Greatest. Writer. Ever. Instead, it means giving the editor what they ask for, and what you’ve agreed you will do for them, to the best of your ability. Circumstances — and/or the editor’s mind — may change at some point during the process. What do you do then? Talk it out with them; if you need to, make your case, agree on what you’re going to do, and then do it. Repeat as necessary.

    It also means writing clean, usable copy. This isn’t something you generally learn “on the job.” Editors aren’t writing teachers; they’re going to presume you know how to write when they ask you to work for them. Don’t submit a manuscript that makes a copy editor want to set fire to their eyeballs or decide that milking horses for semen is a better career choice so long as it keeps them away from anything you write.

  2. You need to be On Time – This one sounds pretty self-explanatory: Hit your deadlines. You not delivering on your agreed-upon date almost always means that something somewhere else in the process has to wait for you to catch up. This can have detrimental effects on the project as a whole. So, your mantra should always…ALWAYS…be “Hit your mark.”

    That said, we all miss a deadline from time to time because Life Happens. If you think you’re going to be late, then let the editor know as early on as possible. Don’t pretend like life’s a bed of roses when they ask you how you’re doing, and then spring on them that you’re suddenly gonna miss the deadline looming next week. When given sufficient notice, your editor might be able to mitigate the effects of the disruption. The number of options available to him/her likely will be greater the earlier you notify them of any delays.

    Still, endeavor to be a writer the editor knows he/she can count on in a crunch. Kevin and I have been called “go-to guys” by one editor, because that person has come to believe that we can be relied upon to step up and deliver when time’s tight and something needs to be done without a lot of hand-holding or other cajoling. As being called things goes, that’s one I can live with.

  3. You need to be Easy To Work With – Simple translation? As Wil Wheaton might say: “Don’t be a dick.”

    Freelancers – be they writers, artists, photographers, whatever – by definition have to be flexible and adaptable. Shit’s gonna happen. Priorities are going to change. What might have been the focal point of an editor’s attention one day may well get sidelined, back-burnered, or simply round-filed the next day. As often as not, said changes are going to be due to something beyond the editor’s control. Way more often than not, it’ll have nothing to do with you. But, maybe it will. Sometimes, things just aren’t going to go your way. Regardless, learn to roll with the tides…and the punches.

    Editors are busy people. They’re spending as much — if not more — of their days in sales meetings, marketing meetings, strategy and brainstorming sessions, and other corporate boondoggles as they are working with writers and their manuscripts, outlines, e-Mails, and dozens if not hundreds of other bits of administrative detritus. They’ve got all sorts of issues and problems to address. Don’t be one of them. Be patient, be professional, be prepared to adjust your individual situation in order to accommodate change(s). Again, figure out how to be a person the editor thinks of as someone who can help resolve an “emergency” or a “crisis.”

Now, you’ll see that nowhere in any of that do I advocate sucking up to anyone, compromising your ethical standards or your moral code, or just rolling over and taking it in the ass in order to land a paycheck. There are people out there who will use and abuse freelancers, pay them for shit, then toss them aside when the job’s done. Such people are easy to spot. I’ve worked for them on occasion, and never more than once. That said, I always give them what they ask for, on time, and I’m not a dick about it. Always be the professional. The stupid stuff will burn out soon enough, but the reputation you can build with the people who will appreciate you for conducting yourself like a pro will serve you well.

“Of course,” as Dennis Miller might once have said, “that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.” It all sounds so basic, so “Duh, no shit,” and I’m not pretending to have all of the answers, but this approach has worked pretty well for me so far.

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