Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Introduction

Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

This post marks the beginning of an experiment. I will post sections of a work in progress—a book tentatively titled The Freelancer’s Survival Guide—here, on my website.

The book hasn’t sold. I haven’t tried to sell it. I haven’t even written it yet. In fact, the book hasn’t been much more than a glimmer in my eye for a decade. But now’s the time to do this project.

Here’s why.

The global economic crisis has put tens of thousands of people out of work. Some will regain their old jobs. Some will train for new jobs. And some will attempt to freelance—whether it’s as a consultant or an E-Bay Power Seller or as a writer.

Most people never intend to freelance. They fall into it, usually to make some extra money while looking for work. Other people quit their day jobs in the hope of becoming their own boss. They all find that working for yourself is much harder than it sounds.

I’ve been planning to write a book about the business of freelancing for more than a decade now. The normal way to write such books is to write a proposal (maybe some sample chapters), then query publishers to see if they’re interested. If they are, they’ll draft a contract, pay an advance, and set a deadline for the book. A year after the book gets turned in, it’ll see print.

The entire process can take as much as two years. By then, I hope, this crisis will be a thing of the past. Yes, some people will still be out of work. But most of the people who have lost their jobs in this recession will have new employ, and most first-time freelancers will have run screaming back to the nine-to-five world.

The moment for this project will have passed long before the book ever gets finished, let alone before it sees print.

So what I’m going to do is write a guide for freelancers and I’m going to post it, section by section, on my website. The comments will remain open for questions and topic suggestions. Please forward this link to anyone you know who has lost a job or plans to start their own small business. This project will not apply just to writers and artists. I’m going to keep it as general as possible and have it apply to people who want to (or have to) work for themselves.

I will cover topics like how to structure your time, how to handle your money, how to structure your bills, and how to set up an office. These series of posts will not be in order. I’d rather work with the blog’s readers and answer pressing questions. When I decide to put this project into book form, I will impose an order on the sections, but not until then.

Most of you know me as a fiction writer, but I made my living as a non-fiction writer for nearly ten years. I have been an active freelancer for thirty-one years (and counting), ever since I was eighteen years old. I made my first freelance check at age sixteen, but that small pittance certainly wasn’t enough to live on.

With the exception of one job at a publishing company in the summer of 1984, I have never worked for someone else full time. I did have part time jobs in the past thirty-one years, some because I needed a stable income to underpin my freelance income (a topic I will deal with) and some because they sounded too good to refuse (both of my editing jobs as well as my radio work). I rarely stayed at the same job for more than a year. My freelancing always brought in more income than the “stable” jobs. But freelancing feels riskier. More than once, I got a day job because I didn’t believe my good fortune as a freelancer would last.

Twelve years ago, I realized my attitudes hurt my freelance career. If I put as much time into freelancing as I put into worrying about freelancing, I would get more done and bring in bigger paychecks. I became serious about remaining my own boss. I stopped taking day jobs away from people who really wanted or needed them, and vowed to never work for anyone else again –on their schedule, at their business.

If I told you that decision made my life easier, I would be lying to you. It just made my life less confusing. I no longer had the option to take the editing jobs that people (still) offer me, or run down the street to the local radio station. I deliberately let my real world skills lapse.

In those twelve years, I have tripled my income, despite two serious illnesses (one that would have required me to go on disability if I had kept a day job) and a two-year-long dry spell in sales in a major part of my business. I learned how to survive through all of those things, how to maintain a proper attitude, and how to keep myself motivated.

Those three things are among the many I plan to share in the coming weeks. But here’s where the rest of the experiment comes in.

Normally, I get paid for what I write. Because I have chosen to do something timely—and because I feel it is important to start this dialogue now, when people need the help, not two years from now when it’s less crucial—I am posting these sections on my blog for free.

However, I will add a donation button at the bottom of each post with the heading The Freelancer’s Survival Guide, starting with this one. (And only on those posts; all the others will continue as usual.) If these posts help you or help a friend, please contribute what you can. Most of you who read this will be unemployed or just starting out. You won’t be able to contribute anything. That’s fine. These posts are for you.

But do me a favor. Bring someone else to the website. Ask questions. Donate if you can. Let me use my knowledge to help you.

That way, we might all get something out of this project. Thanks in advance—and see you in the weeks ahead.

Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Introduction copyright  2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

You can now order either an e-book copy of the Guide or a trade paper copy of the Guide. It’s in slightly different format and has been organized, so that related topics are in an easily accessible place.

You can get the print version here.

For those of you who’d like to buy an ebook, here’s the Amazon link as well as the Barnes & Noble link. The e-book will also be available on all the other e-book sites. If you want it in your favorite format, and the book hasn’t yet been uploaded to your favorite site, try Smashwords. You’ll be able to download in a variety of e-book formats.

47 thoughts on “Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Introduction

  1. Excellent idea for a book, Kris! I’ve been freelancing for 30 years myself, and it’s been great. A writer also has to be a business person, too, as you point out with the topics you plan to cover. I will definitely forward your post to others.

  2. Hello. I will watch your project unfold, with great interest; I look forward to the promise it holds. I will appreciate the opportunity to learn from you. And, if my help was wanted, I would be happy to be of service to your project as well.

  3. I got Recovery Man last night and finished it this afternoon Kris! That character could easily make for a series paired with the confed cop 🙂

    Happy to hear I’ll be seeing The Fey show up in Kindle/Mobi 🙂

  4. Thanks for all the support, folks. Beryl, tried to post a thanks on your site, but WordPress did not cooperate. So thanks for the note on your website and the donation.

    Hope this proves useful to all of you. Next post sometime next week.

  5. What a great idea 🙂 One I’ll be very interested in. I’m just off chemo and can’t return to work, but I can write and edit, so I’ve begun building freelance clients. Best of luck! Alley

  6. Hi
    Will tag along. My seventh goal in life is: My biography and novels are accepted. They’re better than pulp fiction. I’m nominated for a Pulitzer award in fiction, for a unique style with the English language. Both Winston Churchill and my 9th grade English teacher, Mrs. Brush, are spinning. In 1968 she attempted to convince me to be a gas station attendant. In a dream she speaks highly of my writings, being impressed. I was always scared of Mrs. Brush those nouns, verbs, and adjectives are confusing, being placed in many different combinations with different meanings. I will write one letter per week to someone.

    I say I write, but I lack in mastering english and confidence. Thank god for spell check. I too will tag along. Its now bookmarked.


  7. Interesting perspective. I walked away from a very well remunerated job as a partner in a medical practice two years ago. On a matter of principle, but also after a couple of decades it did not seem that there was much of a challenge to it any more.

    Freelance is a great improvement…I control the mix of work, ER, Hospitalist, teaching, writing. My income is not that much less, and could be equivalent if I were foolish enough to apply the proboscus firmly to the proverbial grindstone.

    But instead I travel. A lot. And see my family more. and just plain relax.

    Security? I figure primary care medicine will be the next to last thing to go under in any conceivable economy. The ER will be the last.

    (at work, sigh)


  8. Your readers might be interested in Bob Bly’s books, such as Getting Started as a Freelance Writer and Secrets of a Freelance Writer.

  9. Kristine;

    Thanks for passing along your accumulated smarts about the writing business. I’m a technical writer who backed into freelancing after the 2001 meltdown. Everyday is an adventure.

    I have had a steady customer for most of this time. However, times are getting tougher and budgets are getting tighter, so I need to work on self-promotion. I’ve set up a website with samples (tech stuff) and have started a work-related blog. (Where I am linking to this introduction.)

    I think that one of the best ways to promote myself is to promote and support others, so I’m hitting the PayPal link.

    Best wishes.

  10. i have a smalltown newspaper job, but full time freelancing is a longterm goal. I’m about to move into a new home, my first place with enough space for a dedicated office. since creating the proper setting is the first step of any project, would you mind starting with you advice on setting up a workspace? I could be a real world test-case for your theories.

    1. You’ve read my mind, David. Workspace is important. I may not get to it for a week or two, but I will get to it soon. Right now, all I can say is make sure you set up a space where you can have some privacy, unless you’re one of those people who can work in chaos. Journalism folks often can. (I remember writing copy at the radio station while the radio was on, the TV was on, and my colleagues were writing all around me–and punning in five different languages at the same time.)

  11. Hi, Kristine–great idea!

    Just this week I made the decision to share selected parts of my new book via blog posts as I write. (I co-authored an anthology of letters in 2007 but have now ventured out on my own: gulp.) It’s a wee bit intimidating, and as yet I haven’t sent any of my Readers my blog address (!) but your timely idea has truly inspired me. Isn’t the feedback encouraging? I’ll keep reading your posts, too.

    Many thanks and best wishes on this exciting journey,
    E.M. Phillips (Cochrane, Alberta)

    P.S. Let me know if you need an external editor once your book is ready for print, or even just an enthusiastic second opinion and a fresh set of eyes; I’m a freelancer too. 🙂

    1. Congrats, Elaine, on the new project! Yes, the reader response is encouraging. I’m pleased with the enthusiasm in the e-mail, the comments here, and the donations. It all pleases me. Thanks!

  12. You might want to take a look at this book by John Reed.

    He doesn’t come right out and say what he earns by self publishing and distributing, but reading between the lines I figure it’s in the neighborhood of $400,000 a year.

    I have no financial stake in this other than having bought and read his book.

  13. Interesting thought, thanks. Extend the “out of work” dynamics to everyone. Laid off is the mother of self employment.

  14. It’s strange how people pick up on things to do. And, it reminds me of a cousin’s son, who lives in Florida. And, who deals in estates.

    In other words? People are old. They die. And, nobody wants to claim the furniture. Steve comes in. And, he knows how to get the furniture OUT. He shares the money this brings in with the relatives of the deceased.

    And, if this doesn’t sound like much of a business; you’d be wrong. He not only does well. He’s developed a good eye. Being able to tell the difference between a valuable item; and one that’s not.

    His brother is a landscape engineer. Also a business that requires “freelancing.”

    And, like all these businesses, they are seasonal. Being motivated means that you can “do it” even during down turns.

    The one best tip I ever heard, I heard from a real estate agent. (Again, you’re out “fishing for clients” … sometimes by cold calling.) And, most of us can’t handle the “NO, NO, NO.” Until you learn each NO just brings you closer to someone who will say YES.

    My girl friend, who was gangbusters at sales; came into real estate back in the early 1980’s. When interest rates spiked up to 17%. (And, Jimmy Carter suggested “sweaters” to warm up a bit on a cold day.)

    Here’s what she told me: People marry. They divorce. And, people die. All of these things means that real estate is gonna “move.” And, that’s when you need a good agent.

    I swear my friend owned a gene for selling. (And, yes. She could CLOSE!) Again, another skill that you need to learn how to do. How to do this? Ah. You learn to plot out your close … just as a writer learns it’s best to “plot out” your plot. Rather than hoping your skills alone will tie up all your loose ends.

    Oh, GOOD LUCK! FREElancing, doesn’t mean you’re working for FREE. It means you’ve got to find the ability to price yourself right. And, not get torn apart at the “basics.”

    Yeah. My wonderful friend got Alzheimer’s. But I still have memories of how good she really was. And, how wonderful to be around.

    So, here’s a suggestion. Look for company! (I used to ride “shot gun” for my friend when she went real estate caravan-ing.) Isolation is not as productive as commitments. Friendships fit into that slot.

    Hope you don’t mind I’ve taken up your bandwidth, here. CAROL HERMAN

  15. Thanks to everyone who has responded so far. I’ve heard from a number of you via e-mail too. I really appreciate it. Good luck to everyone who is starting to freelance or just trying to survive. And thanks for the donations! That means a lot.

  16. Thanks! We’re really grateful that you’re doing this- we’re transitioning into Steph at home with the baby, and we’ve been wondering where to start. (She’s a former speech writer, on the hill.) Anyway, thank and we lood forward to your posts~


  17. Hi Kris!

    I’ve been trying to find you forever! I first read your Fey book when I worked in the Waldenbooks home office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Moving several times caused me to lose track of where that book was in relation to all the packed boxes still in my garage!
    Today I Googled forever trying to find a way to FIND you! Finally in exasperation I Googled “invasion of the Fey” and there you were popping up! YAY!
    I’m disabled also, heart related problems. I discovered the AmazonKindle and have been reading voraciously since I got it March 17th!
    I was wondering, there is a huge market now for e-books and I think you would sell tremendous amounts simply by providing your works in e-book form. Just something to consider. Check out the Kindle forums on Amazon to get an idea of just how popular Kindles are and how many readers out there will snap up books available in Kindle format or mobi format.
    I was hoping when I went to see book 3 of the fey on Amazon that it would have ‘available for Kindle’ noted but alas it wasn’t.
    Feel free to e-mail me anytime 🙂


    1. Good timing on your part, Mel. I’m in discussions with a publisher to do just that for the Fey. Some of my books and stories are already in e-format. You can find a Kindle edition of the latest Retrieval Artist novel, Duplicate Effort as well as editions of many of my short stories. (I’m hoping to get a Kindle myself soon.)

  18. Thanks you so much for this. I have been looking to starting a venture and am certain the information and experience you bring to the project will be worth scores more than we could pay you. thank you for investing in the people. Thanks again.

  19. Kris: Great idea. I’ll dig in. My disability situation has me wondering what to do. Put more time into photography or writing or find a way to combine them. I’ve seen you struggle, do well, struggle, have poor health, make things work and so on, and on, and on. You are a wonderful friends and would love to continue learning from your brilliance which so many publishers fail to see. I get so pissed off at them, as you know. I’m afraid. I’m anxious about failing, particularly at my age. My back and tailbone are making writing bit more difficult to do in long stretches. It’s not that I don’t sit for a long time, I just suffer following rising. I am a pain in the butt to myself. My self-esteem in this area needs a lot of work. I’m pleased I’m selling op-ed but, damn, that doesn’t do anything unless you’re David Brooks or Herbert or an Ivins. Can’t break into the market so I’m trying blogging. But I want to start doing fiction; political fiction, mystery political fiction. I need to know what tools to use from home so I don’t have to do the travel. Very hard on the oxygen and body. But, great! Very glad you got off that little dime you’ve been sitting on and gone on with your passion. Lots of love to you and Dean. Oh, I thought I bought your next Retrieval Series book from Amazon. I always pay in advance. Hmmm…I’ll look into it.

  20. Hi Kristine, Saw Michael Totten’s post at Winds of Change and dropped by. I look forward to other posts. I am a freelancer myself although I just finished a two year engagement that very closely resembled a day job. I hope you will discuss various business models for freelancing. My current model is to work part time as an instructor at a company that does all the marketing for the classes and all the product development – so all I have to do is teach; and leverage that into consulting engagements. Since I basically teach on my own schedule it does seem to work out fine on the “freedom” side of the equation. I am thinking of starting a web site to sell some of my knowledge and I would be interested in any thoughts you have on how that might work. Well, enough for now. Great idea for a site, keep the material coming.

  21. Kris —

    Great stuff. I’m looking forward to the rest. I’ve linked this in my Live Journal, so hopefully both of my regular readers will drop by.

    I miss you (and Dean) and the opportunity to come to the Oregon Coast workshops. You guys are great for sweeping away the myths and misunderstandings that plague this industry.

    — KeVin Killiany

  22. Hi Kris!

    Thanks for doing this. Being completely freelance(at anything, really) has always been my dream and I am definitely getting closer to it. I have my theories on what I need to do and know, but I’ll be watching here for the things that I am not thinking of, because I am sure there are many.

  23. Hello,
    I am not one of those that lost their job in the crisis (Thanks God), but I am one of those that hope they will earn a bit more being freelancers. What you are planning is a very good idea which will help many of us… newbies in this field. Good Luck

  24. Here by way of Michael Totten. I am not a writer, but tried to make a new career as a consulting engineer last year, and returned screaming back to the 8 to 6 world. The engineering skills and project management skills have never been a problem, but the delay between time invested trying to get contract work – more time trying to get contract work – even more time trying…. (I’m a little suspicious that the economy might be slowing).. and then doing the job, and trying to get paid is brutal. It’s not bricks and mortar but the ‘working capital’ in time and money tied up in a consulting business is huge. My hat is off to those that have learned how to make it work. Looking forward to seeing what principles in your business might be applicable to my second attempt.

  25. Thanks for the great response, folks. I’ll have more up soon. For those of you who don’t know, Michael Totten (mentioned by Chris) is a fulltime freelance journalist who only works on the web. You can find his marvelous material at

  26. Kristine,

    I’m a grad student who strayed over here from Michael J. Totten’s blog. It looks like journalism these days is going in this direction. So, I’m looking forward to reading more.

  27. This is a great idea for an ongoing topic for someone of your background to be doing right now. I have been doing what I can to bring in some extra freelance income, and such a large number of people that I correspond with and/or who have written for my new magazine have found themselves laid off and feeling newly motivated to try to find a new niche.

  28. What a great project! And right up my alley. I’ve been doing full-time freelance typesetting and layout (remember that when it comes time to do the layout on your book!) since getting downsized last year. Prior to that it had been a part-time venture while working a straight dayjob. Savings and a working spouse kept us afloat until full-time freelance started earning enough to pay the essential bills, and it’s slowly getting better–but I know with the economy as it is currently, I could lose clients with little warning. A nervous, but fun life.

    I’ve also started a small publishing business–graphic novels and related books–which may show a profit after a year. A risky venture, but one I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Making my own schedule has helped a lot.

    I look forward to your upcoming columns. And thanks!

    –John Teehan

  29. Kris,

    Thanks for taking the time to do this series. I can’t wait to learn from the wisdom of your experience!

    It’s an honor to learn from you!

    Paul Tseng

  30. Hi Kristine, This is a great idea. I’ve been writing freelance since 1993, but never gave up my day job. Now I’m retired, I have more time to devote to my writing. Still, I know there is a lot to learn and I’m looking forward to reading what you have to share.

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