Growing Your Freelance Career

When you first begin freelancing, it’s like being parachuted, blindfolded, into a ten-acre field you’ve never seen before and your job is to grow a crop. You have no idea where you are or what the soil is like or what the seasons will bring or what grows here. You’ve got a plow, or maybe a shovel, depending on your skill level, and you don’t even know where to get seeds to plant.

At this point, some people give up and go work on someone else’s farm.

But if you stick with it, you start to get a better idea of where you are: Minnesota or Arizona. And you have a clearer idea of what grows here: cactus or corn. But other people around you seem to be doing better planting soybeans or apple trees and maybe you should, too. And still other people are selling up and trying again in Oklahoma, where the soil is better for wheat. Or so everyone says.

Now you have alternatives: you could go to work on someone else’s farm, or you could change your crop, or you could move. Or you could stick with what you’re doing.

Later, you get to the point where you’re growing cucumbers, amazing cucumbers, you’re good at cucumbers but now no one is buying cucumbers. Should you keep growing them? Maybe the cucumber market will bounce back and you just need to be patient. Who doesn’t like cucumbers? Surely there will be buyers again soon. Maybe you just need to remind everyone of how delicious Greek salad is, with all those tasty cucumbers. Maybe you should partner with someone who produces feta cheese!

Now you have many more alternatives: you could go to work on someone else’s farm, or change your crop, or move, or change your marketing plan, or form a strategic partnership, or just stick with what you’re doing.

In other words, you thought you had challenges when you started? The one thing you can count on in freelancing is change. There is never a point where you have it all figured out. If you think you do, you don’t.

Which, conveniently, brings me to my main point: Be firm in purpose but flexible in your means.

As the market has changed, as I have changed, my career has gone through countless iterations and corrections. Through it all, I have maintained my core purpose in freelancing: to be able to raise my daughter, with all of her challenges, in the least restrictive and most supportive way. This has always meant earning a reasonable income and having almost total control over my schedule.

Secondarily, I wanted to grow my craft as a writer and an editor. So I try to choose projects and approaches that keep me challenged. It’s why I’m not doing the same work I was doing ten years ago.

Through the years, I’ve been a nonfiction book author, a magazine writer (then a magazine editor), a book development editor, a literary agent, an acquisitions editor, a novelist, and a teacher. These are all related but they are by no means the same thing. At each turn, I had to find ways to learn new skills and to “empty the cup” of what I knew so that I could find out news ways of doing things.

Change makes it easy to doubt yourself. It can make it difficult for you to find clarity about next steps. At those times, I go back to my core principle. Is it still meaningful to me, the most important priority? If it’s not, then I reflect on what my new principle is, and see how that affects my next steps. For example, as my daughter has gotten older, my need for total control over my schedule has lessened. That makes it possible for me to consider new paths that weren’t available before.


On New Year’s revolutions

Every year, my daughter Jessica asks me if we are going to write down our revolutions, which is what she calls them. I have stopped correcting her because she is right, they are revolutions, not resolutions. They are the same each year:

  • Be happy
  • Do good work
  • Love each other
  • Be strong

We put the list on the refrigerator so we can see it all the time and remember who we are supposed to be.

Last year she asked if we could add “be patient” because one of us who shall remain nameless responds passionately to instances of injustice, or, in certain people’s words, “has a quick temper.”

Interestingly enough, “be patient” did not just help me remember to be patient with clients, small neighborhood children, and beloved daughters but it reminded me to be patient with myself. I started saying Take your time to me as well as everyone else, and although I have not transformed into an example of Zen tranquility and never will, I have learned that if you slow down a little you make fewer mistakes of all kinds.

This year, Jessica wanted to add “no arguing” but I said I was only human, plus she takes after me in the “bullheaded and stubborn” category. I pointed out that there were times when she herself started arguments, and occasionally she has won them. In conclusion, I argued (ha!), “no arguing” was unrealistic.  She amended it to “arguing only when it is very important, such as when it involves badly needed princess dolls.”

In the end, we boiled it down to Find a Way, which we agree will help us focus on finding solutions and not on deciding who is right/has the loudest voice.

This turned out to be important. I had originally planned to write a series of blog posts about our travels this past fall. And several people have asked about the very obvious midlife crisis I have been suffering and I wanted to provide some updates but the blog just hasn’t felt like the right place to do all of this.

I couldn’t figure out how to make sense of everything until I sat down and started writing.

And it turned into a book. It probably doesn’t surprise anyone but me but the travels, the writing, and the midlife whatsis are all part of the same inner work I’ve been doing, which I like to call The Way of WTF?

The beauty of the Way of WTF? is you do not need to meditate or cloister yourself away from the world, you just have to be willing to say WTF? on a regular basis and not have to have an answer.

So my personal goal for 2017 is to finish this book even through all the doubt and questioning I know it will bring. I have a sense that I will need the Find a Way revolution a lot.


Dojo Wisdom for Writers, second edition, now available on Amazon in print and ebook.

Catch a Falling Star  and Lessons in Magic (both by my alter ego Jessica Starre) are still two of my favorite novels.

Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter on my home page! You never know when I’m going to give away random good stuff.


On shedding illusions

Trust your cape, the guy with the guitar sings. Life is a leap of faith.

He is a middle-aged smiling man, busking at the plaza in historic Santa Fe on a warm summer afternoon. I’m here with Jessica, a few months after her high school graduation.

Our trip to Europe will begin later in the month, and I have a lot to do: sort through everything we own, donate what we no longer need, stuff everything else into a storage unit, pack for six weeks on the road in Europe and an indefinite amount of time after that, finish three editorial projects I’m working on, write a newsletter. If I had any shred of sense left, which apparently I do not, I would be at home doing those things. Or at least making lists about them.

But I am not. My face is lifted to the sun approximately eight hundred miles away from the packing that needs to be done and there is neither a pen nor a pad of paper within reach. I am here because I’m tired of being there.

Across the way, a man says to his companion, “What is that called? When you save for retirement?”

And I laugh. I don’t know what that’s called either. If I had any shred of sense left, which apparently I do not, I would be stuffing my money in an IRA instead of spending it on plane tickets and traveling shoes. Or at least not laughing about my recklessness.

I am a Woman Without a Plan.

It wasn’t always this way. For a long time I was the most goal-oriented person you have ever met, your traditional Type A control freak, and I was good at it. I loved piling up accomplishments, even the weird ones like breaking concrete blocks with my hands, until one day I didn’t. What I have accomplished by doing, doing, doing turns out to have been a deception.

I have deceived myself.

I have deceived myself into thinking that somehow there is happiness at the end of a goal, no different from leprechauns, rainbows, and pots of gold. That success will somehow give my life meaning. That doing just one more thing will make me what I am not, that this time scratching the last item off my list will be enough.

I am restless, I am always on a journey, I am always looking for something. The goals, the accomplishments—they have all been intended to cure that, to make me into what I am not. All this time scrabbling and clawing and for what? To turn myself into someone I cannot be?

At first I am bitter and disillusioned. I had believed from the time I was very young that if only I could be a writer, I would be healed. But I’m not healed and can never be healed, and the knowing is like a wound from a brightly colored scorpion. Then I try to fix myself in another way. I meditate, I live in the present, I do yoga. It works for a little while, until I finally understand enough of what I am experiencing to realize the truth.

I am restless, I am always on a journey, I am always looking for something. And that is how I will always be.

I have spent a great deal of my life trying to unmake myself. Now, for the first time, I am embracing my restlessness. I am shedding the accretions from my life.

I am shaking out my cape.

Like the man says. Life is a leap of faith.


Jess and I are actually back from our European travels but it takes a while for the words to catch up with us, so stay tuned because you will almost certainly want to hear about how I found myself plummeting to my death on the coast of Ireland.  Right now I am currently working on a project, The Writer’s Grimoire, and if you would like to be a beta reader, drop me a line at Also, don’t forget that Travels with Jessicaa recounting of our earlier adventures, is available everywhere online.

On listening to teenagers

This weekend I had the chance to hear a sixteen-year-old harpist play a Mozart concerto on two harps—playing one with his left hand and the other with his right, the type of tour de force you know he learned how to do not because someday a handful of people sitting on some wooden benches would applaud him but because he wanted to learn how to do it for the sake of learning how to do it.

How do you develop the internal motivation to want to learn to do something like this? I can guarantee you it’s not by competing in the traditional way that we hold so dear in this society. There’s always a meme going around Facebook about how people shouldn’t get medals just for participating, goldarn it, and in my day we had to win to get a medal! Yeah yeah and you learned how to be Pavlov’s dog, so here’s a tasty treat for you.

If you only try because you want to win a medal, you are externally motivated. No medal, no more trying. Does that sound like the key to mastery, happiness, or even success? Of course not. Participating is how you get better. Most of us aren’t innately talented so we’re going to suck at the things we do for a long long time. We have to be motivated to get better by something other than medals because someone who is not us is going to win them.

At some point an idea or a product or a book either achieves commercial success or it doesn’t, and while we like to think the best X wins (whether it is a man, a machine, or a purpose), if you have experienced life for more than, say, six years, you know better than this, or you ought to, anyway. Commercial success (“winning” as we traditionally define it) may have something to do with quality and expertise, but it also has a lot to do with timing and luck and knowing the right people and having the right personality and deflating the football at just the right moment.

So you can’t have that as your goal, or you can but it’s sort of self-defeating. You can’t control having luck, and you can’t control having timing. You can’t even control your personality all that much (ask me how I know). It makes more sense to focus on the craft, on the thing you can control, through practice and work and education and caring every day for the rest of your life, whether or not you get a medal for it.

Intrinsic motivation can be helped when someone pats you on the back and says, “You tried really hard” because it’s the trying that matters. Really. Really really really, no matter how much those Facebook memes bitch about it.
Don’t be Pavlov’s dog. Be the sixteen year old who can play a Mozart concerto on two harps just because he wanted to learn how to do it.

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And don’t forget that Travels with Jessica, my collection of stories about being on the road with my kiddo, is available here.

On using a knife and fork

Jessica’s last day of school is really just a last morning of school, so when I pick her up, the whole day stretches ahead of us.

“How about lunch in Lawrence?” I say.

“Yes.” She is without hesitation. Jessica is a girl who likes lunch. “Where?”

“Let’s go to Encore,” I say. “They have those bento boxes at lunchtime. I love eating my meal out of little compartments.”

She shakes her head. When we arrive at the restaurant, she does not order a bento box; she orders a regular meal.

“Junior year is done!” I marvel. “You’re officially a senior now.”

“Can you believe it?” she says, like a ritual response. I have been saying, “I can’t believe you’re going to be a senior” for about three months now.

“No, I cannot.”

Our meals come. She hesitates, then picks up her knife and her fork. I bite down on the offer I am about to make. She cuts her meal into pieces without any help.

It is the first time in her life that she has ever been able to do this. Usually there comes a time when the need to use both hands at once defeats her, when her shoulders sag and I pick up the knife without a comment. But not today. When she is finished, she is proud and relieved. I know I need to say something because it is a big deal, but it has to be the right thing. She knows that other people could manage this when they were five years old. But she is not other people.

And she knows that in a few years the disease she has might steal away this small triumph and I will be back to cutting her meals up for her. No victory, whatever the cost, is permanent. But that does not mean they are pointless or we should not celebrate them.

“Good work,” I say, and she smiles.

Just yesterday I sat on the front porch, a notebook balanced on my knees, wondering why I am still trying to learn to write, thinking of all the people who do it so much better than I do. I will never achieve what they have achieved and why—at my age!—do I even bother? I am not even talking about praise and reward. I am talking about craft. What if I had not decided that I would be a writer when I was five years old? What if I had chosen another road, and found the thing I am better suited for? I would be a lot less frustrated, I can tell you that.

But drinking my jasmine tea across the table from my daughter, I know the truth is that we are each on our own journeys. The suffering comes when we think our journey should be like someone else’s.

She does not order dessert. She knows when to be satisfied. Maybe tomorrow. But right now, what she has done is enough.


New–for writers!

I just finished two small books for writers. Both are based on popular classes I’ve taught. The first is Finish Your Book, a short guide (about 25 pages) that offers tips and guidance for overcoming the stumbling blocks that keep you from finishing that novel you started last year. The other is Write Your Book Proposal, a slightly longer piece (about 35 pages) on putting together a proposal for a nonfiction book. Both links will lead you to the Kindle edition. Both also have paperback versions, here and here. It always takes Amazon a while to link the two together.

Hope you find these helpful!