Bless me father, for I have sinned. It is over one month since I last blogged. Yes, I know. In these fast-paced, plugged-in, networking days of the blogosphere such a thing is unpardonable. But I plead extenuating circumstances: a surfeit of freelance editing work, the mad dash to get the new issue of Albedo One, the magazine I edit, to the printer before Christmas, a request for an interview (the link to which I’ll post shortly), last minute panic-buying of presents for my daughters and beloved other half. In other words, LifeTM.
Yes, we all of us, or at least most of us, live very busy lives these days, and none more so than the freelancer. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this occasional series on freelancing, I now work six days a week, more often seven. This is because of the precarious nature of freelancing; one must make hay while the sun shines, i.e., take whatever work comes your way whenever it does.
I certainly can’t complain; with the promise of five novels and two short stories coming my way in January for an edit, it looks like I might actually be able to make a class of living at this business. But the nature of the business is that it is usually either a feast or a famine. I live in hope that the work will just keep flowing in, while still having a little time left over to write my own fiction, but I fully expect gaps in my schedule where I will have all the time in the world to write, along with the worry of how we’ll pay the next month’s mortgage.
Which leads me to the subject of this blog: achieving a mental and physical balance in a freelancer’s daily/weekly/monthly routine. In an ideal world I would spend every morning writing my own stuff and every afternoon editing other people’s work (I think I’ll always want to edit other people’s work. It keeps me linked to other writers, maintains a dialogue of sorts, and, I believe, helps me with my own writing). However, I also want to blog, there is the need to spend time promoting my freelancing services via Facebook, LinkedIn and any other avenues I can find, I am in discussion with a company to write technical proposals for them on an ongoing basis, and I still need to keep the creative writing teaching going. And the time requirements for all of this waxes and wanes to different degrees week by week. The inconvenient truth is I simply can’t justify sitting down to write a short story if and when I have a big fat technical proposal to produce to a tight deadline, or two or three editing jobs queued up. I also have to be careful I don’t get sucked into spending half my time dealing with emails, surfing the net, chatting on Facebook, taking part in discussions on LinkedIn, etc., etc.
These are issues that face every freelancer, creative or otherwise, and it’s all too easy to just follow whatever carrot is dangled in front of your nose and never come up for air. The danger with this is that opportunities will be missed (as has happened with me on a few occasions), you end up chasing your tail, and risk being perceived as a Jack of all trades and a master of none.
So, what to do? Well, this will sound obvious, as plain as the nose on your face, but you’ve got to sit down and develop a plan. In fact, not just a plan, but also a fully-fledged strategy for what you want to achieve. A little grandiose, I know, but unless you allow for surveying the landscape within which you are working and put in place measures to ensure you get the best bang for your buck with each piece of work you do, you’ll find yourself on the fast track to nowhere. The days of sitting in your cubbyhole and writing a novel or short story or article, or editing a piece for someone else, or teaching a class, or whatever, setting it free on an unsuspecting audience or client, and forgetting about it while you move on to the next thing, expecting others to do the marketing for you, are long gone. These days you have to do all this, certainly most of it, yourself. And even this will not achieve much for you unless it fits into an overall game plan or strategy.
I’d stress here that you shouldn’t get too hung up on a massively detailed strategy and associated action plan. No point spending all your time making lists of lists of what you’re going to do, updating it in minute detail and finding yourself with no time left to actually do anything.
What I’d advise freelancers to do is decide initially on a reasonably wide range of things they can do that will make money, along with whatever activities you really want to undertake that perhaps won’t make much money (such as, in my case, writing). The more interrelated these activities are the better. This will mean you don’t have to put your brain into a radically different gear every time you switch activities. It also allows for a level of cross-selling. In my case, I’ve focused on writing, editing and creative writing teaching. Each of these activities helps sell the other. I’ve gained editing work out of my teaching, teaching gigs from my writing. You may have to tack on other activities that are not particularly related in order to ensure you make enough money to survive (for example, I supervise exams at the Centre for English Studies here in Dublin and I also correct the exam papers. And I do a little graphic design work now and then).
Now, look at your list of activities and decide on the one or two things you’d love to do exclusively if you had the luxury to do just what you want to do. The basic strategy you devise should most likely encompass the desire to eventually drop extraneous activities when it’s economically feasible to do so and focus on a smaller and smaller number of related activities until you’re doing only what you really want to do.
Easier said than done, I know, but this is where your more detailed action plan comes in. Look at each activity you undertake and decide how best to advertise it with minimum or no cost. List all this stuff in a Word document or Excel spreadsheet in bullet point form under each activity heading. Keep it short and make sure everything can fit comfortably onto one page. Make sure when you promote something you’ve done that you make the most of the opportunity to sell your other talents when appropriate. That way you’ll build up your client list to, hopefully, a level that eventually becomes self-sustaining (this is based, of course, on the assumption that the work you do is good and your clients are kept happy and that you continue to do a modicum of self-promotion).
When a critical mass is achieved where you want it, you can start to whittle down the variety of things you do and move closer to doing just what you want to do (in some ways this principle can be applied to life in general. Although, as we all know, life is a lot messier and not easily corralled).
Now, in all of this strategy development and action planning it’s important to find some level of balance to your daily/weekly/monthly routine. Because there is still the danger that you end up chasing your tail to an extent if you’re simply doing too many things at once or one thing most of the time and everything else only sporadically.
What I’ve found works for me is to pursue my ideal and spend mornings writing (which includes writing blogs, reviews, etc.) and afternoons editing. I also keep some time in the afternoons for catching up on emails, surfing the net, Facebook, etc. (it’s important to keep all these things rigidly demarcated; you won’t get much writing done if you’re perpetually checking your inbox or logging on to Facebook to see if anyone has commented on that hilarious joke you posted an hour ago). If a big piece of freelance editing arrives on my desk or a technical proposal that demands a serious input of time, I bite the bullet and run with that work exclusively until it’s done. Then I resume my normal routine. That approach means I don’t end up chastising myself for not getting any of my own writing done; I just tackle the work in hand because I have to and know that I will get back to my writing soon.
I know this appears a simple approach, and it is, but it can prove difficult for freelancers to adhere to; when you’re working from home, it’s too easy to allow the vicissitudes of daily life to intrude, as well as the ‘white noise’ of our plugged-in generation a la Facebook, etc. The solution for me is to get out of the house sans laptop and handwrite my fiction in the mornings, and in the afternoons, when I edit other people’s work, handwrite suggestions and comments on hard copy printouts, everything to be typed up late afternoon and early evening or at the weekend.
All of which is to say that if you look at developing an overall strategy and a realistic plan or schedule to go with it that suits your personal circumstances and at least largely stick to it with a decent level of consistency, you will achieve a lot.
I am indebted to Jeff VanderMeer’s wonderful book Booklife for helping me crystallize some of the ideas outlined above. I can heartily recommend it to anyone hoping to make a career of writing. It goes into much greater detail than I have on subjects such as developing a strategy and associated action plan, time management and self-promotion, and includes illuminating appendices on subjects such as the lifecycle of a book, what agents look for in a client and how to conduct a PR campaign. I will post a review of this book soon.