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Freelance? Do I have to freelance?

Fiction writing (or anything else!) ... do you have to freelance?
Most writers begin as freelancers for obvious reasons. Fiction writing (or non-fiction, books and articles) is seldom commissioned from unknown authors ... and in the early days, remember, you're going to be absolutely unknown!

If you're good, a day will come come when editors and publishers will offer you a contract before a book has been written. You'll talk to your editor, send a synopsis or an outline of your proposed work. This company specializes in fiction writing, and they 'bite' on your project, sight-unseen, because they know you from several previous sales. You'll sign a contract and get an advance before the work is delivered.

An even better day is on the horizon. The day when an editor asks you for a book. Their list has a gap which needs to be plugged, and they come to you — to you! — for a novel to fill that space! Finally you're known for great fiction, writing is your business. Then, you know you've arrived.

But in the early days you'll be a stranger to the publishing industry; and few people will take a risk on a stranger. It can happen, but if you dig a little, do a little research, you often find the truth. The new writer was a relative or friend of the publisher; or had already won a major fiction writing prize at college level; or was willing to invest cold, hard cash in a joint publishing venture.

If you can get through the door by virtue of your relationship with an editor, or if your skill was recognized in college — frankly, more power to you. Go for it! Take the shortcut and don't look back. Remember, you'll still have to be good: even pro writers with a string of books to their credit can be savaged by the critics. If you don't write an excellent book, it won't sell so well, and you'll almost certainly get some bad reviews. So never offer anything but your best work. Over-deliver, 110%, whenever you do anything.

The rest of us, however, won't have this shortcut. Most writers are long, long past the college stage by the time they decide they have a story that must be told — or the time to invest in climbing the learning curve as a writer, writing enough to be significant, and finding the agent, editor and publisher who make it all come together.

Many people who long to be involved at any level in fiction writing, pro or otherwise, must wait till their kids are grown up, or the mortgage is paid off — and some are in retirement before they can find the opportunity to make a start ... and few of us indeed are related to publishers and editors!

So, above 99% of writers will begin as freelancers — fiction writing, non-fiction, children's books, adult, genre, whatever. It all begins with a piece of work created by you, from your own imagination, or research, and inspiration. A piece of work which is finished, edited, polished, and submitted.

If you're good enough, your hard work should be immediately obvious to an editor. No one thoroughly masters the skills of the writer without making a high degree of commitment. (To put it another way: a concert violinist is born with the skill to play ... and though it will take the best teachers in the world to hone that talent, s/he still needs those teachers!)

So ... jump the queue, take the shortcut if it's available to you — and if you think you're ready. There's a big, deep pitfall right here in front of you. Watch out for this one, because it's so deep, if you find yourself at the bottom, it'll take a lot of work to get out.

Don't jump the queue before you're ready. Your friend, or relative, who made the opportunity available to you is doing you a massive favor, IF you're skilled enough to deliver the goods. Fiction writing, and doing it well, is a complex business. You won't 'fool' critics and discerning readers.

Book critics can be tough — they can also be extremely cruel. And discerning readers can tell immature, 'rough' writing at a glance. They probably won't buy your book in the first place ... and if they do, it'll go right to the book exchange, and they won't buy your next book. You need "subsequent sales" from established and loyal readers, to earn your livings as a fiction writer, or journalist, or diarist, in whatever your genre might be. Digging your way out of this pit can take years, hard work, many excellent books, and a good deal of heartache.

The old saying, 'Look before you leap' came to be a cliche by being so wise, it was repeated a thousand times!

There is absolutely nothing wrong with starting out as a freelance in either journalism or fiction writing ... and the freelance beginner has one vast advantage. Professional editors and agents literally won't let you debut until you're ready. You'll be told (kindly, one would hope; but they can be brusque) if your writing is not yet up to the full professional standard. The description used to be, "Unsuitable for publication."

This didn't mean the plot line was bad, or the material was inappropriate. It just meant that the writing style was immature and not (yet) wearing a veneer of professional polish. Years later, you'll come back and take a look at the manuscript which was rejected, and you'll see exactly what that editor meant.

(You might even shudder to see how rough your early work was. There's no harm in submitting, when you think you're ready; but it's vitally important to keep an open mind, take criticism in the spirit it's intended, and never stop striving to become better at your art. This is true of new, aspiring writers at every age, both the teen and the retiree. Fiction writing is a challenge; you'll master it, but not in a month, and not in one book.)

Never be insulted if an editor responds in this vein. It will probably hurt, but they're telling you the truth as they see it, and they have the experience to know these things. Few editors will lie outright to get rid of you; what would they profit from this?

It is true, however, that publishers do use 'professional readers' to screen books before they even get to the chief editors ... and here's the rub. Professional readers specialize in a certain subject, say, fantasy fiction. They read it all the time. Every week. Every day. In fact, they read far too much of it, and like any of us they get tired, jaded, bored. Professional readers can definitely kick back some very good books, because they themselves have reached a point where they're bored even by the best that fiction writing has to offer. The truth is, they should resign the job — but who's going to give up something as easy as reading, when they pay you to do it?!

If this happens, try not to take it to heart. Have faith in your abilities as a fiction writer, or documentarian, or diarist. You can at least know without a shadow of doubt that your work is flawless on a technical level, because you worked hard on grammar, punctuation, format and elements of style, to make sure of this. Having faith in your plot, characters and abilities will carry you through, and if you're right — if the work is as good as you think it is — the odds of you running into the same 'ennui factor' with another reader are slim.

Caveat: if you do get the same response from two or three readers and/or editors, you're looking at a considerable weight of critical opinion stacking up against you. Time to back way off and take another look. Try to see the book through their eyes. If someone was good enough to give you notes on what they perceived as 'wrong' with your story, you can at least start there and see if you can find a place to set up an analysis of the work.

These are the measures taken by inspired freelancers. You can always respond positively to rejection and criticism. Back off and take another look at your book. Recruit some beta readers. If necessary, take a course, participate in a fiction writing workshop. Read several books by writers whose work you admire — and be analytical about them! Take their work apart, see what makes it tick ... pick their brains. Let Greg Bear and Megan Davis and Matthew Reilley be your teachers! Then come back to your own work, and get out the rags and polish.

A book always gets better in the rewriting. In fact, it has been said (and this is perfectly true), great books aren't written, they are rewritten.

As a freelance in journalism, fiction writing, the art of the documentarian, any kind of writing, fields of opportunity open up before you. It may take a while longer to get financial results, but the pitfalls of taking the shortcut won't be strewn before you like a minefield.

Bottom line: take great care in your endeavors; never offer anything but your best work; and hone your skills until you know one thing for sure ... an editor won't be able to pick fault with your work on any technical level. In order words, don't just be good — be the best. If your chosen genre is fiction writing, it has become the area n which you absolutely excel. Then go out and knock 'em dead.

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