Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Neil Gaiman Hit It On The Head When He Talks About "The Freelance Mentality"

Because I hope that success can be transmitted via osmosis, I've been listening to Neil Gaiman's View From The Cheap Seats. This book, which is a collection of his non-fiction (including speeches, forwards, newspaper and magazine articles), covers a wide range of topics. We get some personal pieces about famous people he's known and worked with (including his friend the late Terry Pratchett, and his wife Amanda Palmer), as well as literary criticism, and a speech he gave warning about the comics bust in the 1990s when people were buying them as investments.

The point that stuck with me most from the book, though, was his discussion of the freelance mentality. Something that, like a sword, is both helpful, and destructive.

Fitness? Of course I know about fitness! How many words you want?
The freelance mentality is something you develop when you work as a mercenary. It means you're always looking for new work, and there's no such thing as a plate that's too full. Even if you're absolutely swamped with work, and coming up on deadline, you cannot afford to say no to a project. Because you have to keep something in the pipe at all times, otherwise your feast is going to turn into a famine quite quickly. The significantly more famous Neil was a freelancer for over a decade before he had projects like Sandman, Coraline, and American Gods under his belt, but even once he was stacking the sort of royalties you and I can only guess at, he still found it hard to say no.

It's pretty simple to understand why, when you think about it. If you're a soldier, and you spend all your time on the front lines, you develop certain reflexes. A view of the world that keeps you alive. When you return to the civilian world, you're academically aware that things are different. But it takes time for those reflexes to lose their edge, and fade away. Sometimes they never fade, and they're just something you deal with. A coping mechanism that was once necessary, but which is now a hindrance instead of a help.

Gaiman hasn't been the only victim of this condition. The infamous Stephen King talked about how he was convinced, for years, that his success was all going to stop. That there had been some mistake, and all those checks were going to have to be given back. That fear, that mentality, meant he kept writing and submitting. If a magazine needed short stories, he got them done. If a publisher had an opening, he filled it. While I haven't met the man (much to my personal and professional disappointment), I have a feeling that the freelance mentality is partially to blame for him setting the pace he has kept to this day.

Because when you hustle day-in, and day-out, it's something you can't stop. Even when you don't need to do it anymore.

It Works, If You Need It

I don't make the allusion to a battlefield lightly. If you step onto the field as a freelancer, you need to keep your steel sharp. You don't get paid by the hour, you don't get coffee breaks, and you don't get to call in sick. You don't get to miss deadlines, and make it up later. You also need to take on tasks you're not sure you're qualified for, and hope for the best.

Shakespeare gotta get paid, son.
Mr. Gaiman admitted, in one of his pieces, that when he was new to the field he would lie about who he'd worked for, or what subjects he knew about, because he needed the check attached to the job. Harrison Ford found himself in a similar position when he talked up his carpentry skills, but really had no idea how to build sound studios. If you find anyone famous or successful in a creative field, and dig back far enough, you'll find they've stretched the truth about their expertise or experience in order to pay rent.

In a world where you can Google anything, this is more common than ever before.

The most important part of the freelance mindset, though, is knowing where the off button is. Because, if you're lucky, you might reach a point where you can look at a project pitch and say, "you know, I really don't have the time or the skill set for that." When you have a body of work that is paying your debts, and allowing you to feel comfortable, you no longer need to reach for your sword at the slightest hint that someone needs you to use it.

The hard part, of course, is getting to that point. I'll let you know how it goes, if I ever get there.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. If you haven't read View From The Cheap Seats yet, I highly recommend it. Especially if you can find the audio read by the author. If you'd like to help support me so I can keep producing content just like this, well, drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave some change in my jar. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, what's stopping you?

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