Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Success Part One

Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Success Part One

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

You guys are becoming predictable. Several thousand of you read these posts every week and you all have one thing in common: You get quiet when I talk about anything remotely to do with money. So last week, I mention that you might have to bite the bullet and return to your day job, and how do you respond?

Heck if I know. Or maybe you all did what one of my few correspondents on the topic says he did. He stuck his fingers in his ears and sang “La, la, la, la.”

Okay. Your choice. Freelancing isn’t pretty, but it can be a lot of fun. And it is certainly unpredictable.

For example, what have I been doing this week? Setting my alarm fifteen minutes earlier each and every day, not because I want to (who would want to?) but because on Sunday morning, I’ll be teaching professional writers how to survive in this business starting at the time I normally get up. Heaven knows how that will go, but I have ten days of that before I get in the car, drive an hour to have lunch with one of my editors on the way to the airport to leave for Indianapolis.

Why Indianapolis? I’d say I have a yen to go, but I don’t. I’ve been (as we say in the Midwest). Many times, in fact. I’m going because the World Mystery Convention (known as Bouchercon) is being held there. I’m up for two different awards that weekend, plus I’m going to see at least two more of my editors, as well as (I hope) meet some readers—and some of my favorite writers.

When I come home that Monday, I won’t just be tired, I’ll be damn near catatonic. (But in a good way.)

So for the next three Thursdays, I’ll be too busy to post. So what am I doing now? I’m writing three new Freelancer’s Guides so that I won’t leave you silent types in the lurch.

It feels odd to be doing this instead of finishing up other work. But I’ve met my other deadlines, and I have nothing else due until November 1. Plus, I have a streak going. This will be my 29th post without a miss. I wasn’t about to miss 29, 30, or 31 because I’m teaching or on a flight to Indiana or too tired to get off the couch. (That’s 31. I know what I’ll be like that week; trust me, I won’t even know the English language.)

So if I answer your e-mails a bit more slowly or I don’t approve your comments quickly, it’s probably because I’m pontificating in front of some writers, pontificating in front of some mystery readers, or pontificating in front of cats who are wondering why I’m hogging their couch. I’ll be checking in, just not as regularly as I normally do.

Because I have to write three in a row, I decided to work on the topic of success. I had planned to deal with success at the end of the Guide, but I’m not there yet. Remember a month or so ago when I said I was six to ten weeks from the end? Um, no. Dean tells me this is typical of me when I’m working on a long project. Somewhere in the middle, I start claiming I’m near the end.

I’m not. We’ll be seeing each other for several more weeks at least. (So if you’re feeling like donating to keep me working when I get home and need to rev my brain back into gear, please do so these next few weeks. I’d appreciate it. It’ll keep me focused, just like comments will.)


Success. Why, you ask, would the topic of success take three posts? Success is success is success, right?

I wish it were that simple.

Because success is more complicated than failure.

Infinitely more complicated.

And sadly, success can cause your freelance business to fail. I don’t have any statistics, but I do know from anecdotal evidence that success has caused a lot more freelancers I know personally to fail than their repeated setbacks did.

Huh? Most of you don’t believe me. But it’s true. Success derails people, partly because it’s unexpected.

First, let’s define success. Even that’s not easy. It takes my handy dandy Macmillan Contemporary Dictionary (which isn’t contemporary any longer since I bought it while in college in 1979) three different bullet points to define the word. It takes my handy dandy Encarta World English Dictionary (which is a bit more contemporary since it came with the four-year-old Macintosh that I write on) four bullet points to define the word. Neither dictionaries put the bullet points in the same order.

So, combining the dictionary definitions and putting them in my own words (since dictionary definitions are copyrighted), with my own numerical bullet points (more than four), here are the dictionary definitions of success:

1. Achieving something planned.

2. Achieving something attempted.

3. A favorable result.

4. Attaining a goal.

5. An impressive achievement especially (as both dictionaries note) fame, wealth, power or social status.

6. A person who has a record of achievement especially (as one dictionary notes) in gaining fame, wealth, power or social status.

7. A person who is successful (says the other dictionary, thereby defining a word with the same root word, which has always irritated me. So let’s break down successful from the same dictionary which defines it as…attaining success. Grrrr).

8. A person who succeeds (says the other dictionary doing the same damn thing. What does “succeeds” mean? Having the desired result; obtaining a desired object or outcome; coming next in line…um, say what?—oh, as in the prince succeeded his father, the king, who died last week in a horrible dictionary accident. Grumph).

Since I’m dissatisfied with these definitions, I’m going to look in one more dictionary (yes, I have a million of them. Or maybe only a thousand). [Writer walks her library, reads half a dozen dictionary definitions, invades her husband’s office, reads three more dictionary definitions, gives up, makes herself a cup of tea, grabs some pretzels and returns to her computer where she types…]

Okay, that was lame. All of these dictionaries are obsessed with wealth and social standing. One says that success is the gaining (the gaining—what a construction) of wealth, fame, or power and/or (get this) the extent of that gain.

That snobby dictionary not only measures success in wealth, power, and fame, but also in expanding that wealth, power and fame—and no, this was not the Oxford Dictionary. It was some paltry American wannabe.

Look at this: I’ve just spent four hundred words attempting to define success—and here’s the really sad thing. While most of us would agree with those definitions in principle, they’re wrong in particular.

In other words, each one of you—each one of several thousand people—has a completely different definition of success.

For Reader A, success might be finishing a novel. For Reader B, success might be earning a million dollars. For Reader C, success might mean buying a house. And so on and so on.

Most of us can describe what we believe success to be. Sometimes success is small—selling a short story, for example, or cooking your first soufflé. Sometimes the success is large—hitting The New York Times Bestseller List with not one, not two, but eight books in the same week like Charlaine Harris just did or running your own well-reviewed restaurant in Paris.

But here’s the thing. Sometimes success means nothing to the successful. Nothing at all.

Because, as I said, we all define success differently. Joyce Carol Oates examines this phenomenon in her excellent personal essay, “Nighthawk.” In a parenthetical aside, she mentions something about the well-known writer Henry James, something I did not know:

“…Henry James’s most passionate wish was to have been a successful playwright, not a practioner of the highest Jamesian ideals in prose fiction. Writing the great novels of his mature career had been, for Henry James, a second-best alternative.”

In other words, had you asked Henry James, the revered novelist whose work is still read nearly a hundred years after his death whether or not he was a success, he would have said no.

Got that? He would have said no.

There are so many examples from the world of writing, which is the world I’m familiar with. Remember, I’m the person who studies success and failure, and I do so primarily within my own profession, that of professional writer.

So I know of Frederick Faust who labored over his poems each and every afternoon, sometimes writing only one or two words as he crafted each piece. He published a few poems in his lifetime—and none of you have heard of Frederick Faust.

At least, not under that name. But all of you have seen his most famous pen name on the bookstore shelves, as well as on the credits of television shows and countless movies. For Frederick Faust became Max Brand so that he could pay the bills. He wrote Max Brand stories and novels in the morning to fund his poetry.

Poetry which, by the way, was so bad that almost no one bought it. One editor who wanted another Max Brand story agreed, as part of the contract, to publish a Frederick Faust poem as well.

Was Frederick Faust a success? He would have said no.

Yet by the dictionary definition—wealth, fame, power—Max Brand had more success than he could have dreamed of.

Milos Forman and Peter Shaffer produced an entire movie about this phenomenon. 1984’s Amadeus is a (clearly fictionalized) account of Antonio Salieri, the most acclaimed, successful musician of his day, who was jealous of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—not for his wealth or fame or power (Mozart did have fame, but no wealth or power)—but for his talent, a talent the fictional Salieri believed he did not have. (I emphasize fictional here because there is no evidence in the historical record that Salieri believed himself inferior to Mozart.)

Most people see the movie as a story about professional jealousy, but if you go beyond that, you’ll see that it’s a film about a man whom the world perceives as successful, a man who does not see himself as a success because he has not achieved his own dreams and, sadly, for this character, who believes he is not capable of achieving those dreams.

So defining success is hard. The definitions are individual and generally, they come from somewhere deep. If you ask each and every one of us, we’ll all have a glib answer about what we believe success to be.

When asked what he wanted—by anyone, acquaintance, waitress, stranger—a friend of mine would say, “I want to be rich and never have to work again.” He meant it, but he also had other dreams, other measures of success. He certainly would never have attained that kind of wealth by robbing people or scamming people or lying to people. He had specific dreams of ways to make himself that wealthy.

But within that glib answer are some traps. What’s “rich”? Could my friend have gotten by on one million dollars? Five million? Two trillion? What does “never have to work again” mean? Does it mean having a day job where you work for someone else? Or does it mean sitting on your ass all day, having people take care of your every need?

I don’t know. I’m not even sure my friend knew, deep down.

Sometimes your own definitions of success surprise you. In 2000, my novel Dangerous Road (written under my Kris Nelscott pen name) got nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel of that year. When I got the call (and they do call you—which is a great courtesy), my knees literally buckled. I fell into a nearby chair. I always thought buckling knees were literary hype, but they’re not. I’ve experienced it.

At that point in my career, I had been nominated for many awards—Hugos, Nebulas, World Fantasy Awards. I’d won quite a few as well, including the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers’ Choice Award for Best Short Story of the Year which is a hell of an honor. But the Edgar was something else to me.

It took me a while to figure out the difference. From childhood on, I went out of my way to read novels marked “Edgar nominee.” I hadn’t done that with any other award, not even the Hugo (although I did buy Dune because it mentioned the Hugo on the cover). Edgar nominee was, in my mind, the rubber-stamp of approval, a sign of high quality. I never even dreamed of being nominated for an Edgar—I thought it was so far beyond my skills that I couldn’t even look at that achievement as possible.

So when it happened—and, that same year, my short story “Spinning” was also nominated under my Rusch name—I just about came undone.

I had achieved the impossible. The mystery field had branded me a success—in terms I understood. I felt…honored. But I also felt like a fraud. I was a science fiction writer who just “dabbled” in mystery. I knew nothing about the field. But the two nominations in the same year under two different names made the success hard (impossible) to discount.

Why would I want to discount success?

Good question, mes amis, which I shall leave for Part Two. (What I have just done is what some writers call suspense, but we experts call it withholding information to create false tension. Yep. Guilty. I don’t want to get sidetracked from definitions here.)

The point of my Edgar story is twofold. First, I had achieved success as I defined it but second, I hadn’t even realized that definition lurked within me until the success happened.

Success can ambush you that way. It’s happened to me a few other times as well. My first full-page review in The New York Times made me feel like a “real” writer, even though I’d been a full time freelancer for twenty years at that point. What had I been before? A fake writer?

I had the same response to my first ad in The New Yorker—there was my name in an ideal spot up front, along with reviews of my book and all kinds of laudatory quotes. Never mind that the ad had no measurable effect on the book’s sales. Never mind that the ad wasn’t a favorable review or even a short story published in their pages. It was the sight of my name in the New Yorker.

Obviously, within me, lurks a writer with vast literary pretensions. I mostly ignore her because I don’t think of myself as vast or literary or pretentious. But that person is clearly there.

Yet if you catch me off-guard and ask me what success is for me, I’ll tell you that I believe a successful writer makes a good living, year in and year out, writing fiction.

I do believe that. It is success. In fact, I’m living that success, and have been for nearly two decades now.

But do I feel successful? No. Because I haven’t achieved half of my writing goals. Or if I have, I cheapen the achievement. I’ve made the New York Times Bestseller List more than once, but only with tie-in novels. I’ve had bestsellers all around the world with my own novels, but never in the United States. I have not had a movie or television show made from one of my stories, although Hollywood has knocked several times and optioned my work. I am not a household name like Nora Roberts or Stephen King.

In fact, the older I get, the more I realize how lucky I am that I didn’t become a brand name like Nora Roberts when I was young. Not because I’d be arrogant (I already am; there’s no changing that fact), but because so many bestsellers get pigeonholed into writing the same thing over and over again. Some enjoy doing that. Others don’t.

I don’t want to be pigeonholed at all, but as a younger person, I would have given it my all, and that success—the brand name, the money, the vast readership—would have hurt me.

Ooops, and there we go into another part of the topic, which I won’t deal with until a later post. Because we’re still on definitions.

Here’s the fascinating thing about persona definitions of success: We often formulate them before we understand what success really means.

Twenty years ago, if you had asked me how I defined success, I would have given you my standard “making a good living” answer. If you had pressed me, and asked me what my biggest dream is, I would have told you that it would be to have a career like Stephen King’s or like Nora Roberts’ (she was still in the early stages of her bestsellerdom, not the phenom she is now).

At the time, I didn’t know all the pros and cons of that kind of career. I only knew what I saw from the outside—lots of books on the shelves, books adored by the fans, books that climbed the bestseller lists. The movies didn’t thrill me as much as the books did, although a movie deal or two would be nice. And so would the money which, in those days, was “I want to be rich and never have to work again” money.

In those days, I did not know that vast sums of money required vast amount of money management. I did not know the downside to fame (like the struggle to maintain some kind—any kind—of privacy). I didn’t know that writers like Stephen King (back then) or Dan Brown (right now) can cause entire publishing houses to have a good or a bad year just by releasing a book.

I didn’t understand the pressure.

I simply thought that a brand name bestseller had a damn cushy life of writing whatever she wanted and getting it published and then sitting on top of her pile of money. And I thought I wanted that.

Yet I heard myself questioning things. Like the “never have to work again” part of my old friend’s quip. Um…but I like writing. I want to continue working. So what would happen if I became rich and never “had” to work again? Would I quit? Would I feel required to quit?

Would I be greedy if I continued to work while being filthy rich?

Such questions. Questions that I did not then have the answer to.

I do now. You can probably tell from all the various freelancer posts that I’m an avid researcher. So I’ve researched those early dreams and discovered that I don’t want some of them. Money, yes, of course. Brand name status? <shrug> If it happens, it happens. It’s no longer a goal. The New York Times Bestseller List? Yes, at least once with my own book before I die. And so on.

I have worked very hard to not only define what success means to me, but to understand what it is I’m hoping for. And even then, I know I’ve missed a few things.

For example, this summer, Neil Gaiman accepted the Newberry Award for his wonderful novel Graveyard Book. On Twitter, he posted a picture of the ceremony where he got the medal and where he had to give a speech.

The picture (from Neil’s place on the dais) was of a typical hotel ballroom, filled with earnest-looking faces looking up at him over plates of rubber chicken.

Mercy me, I’d always pictured the Newberry Award Ceremony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, filled with lots of beautiful people in spectacular designer gowns. I was actually disappointed to see that hotel ballroom filled with well-dressed but non-glam people.

It took me a day or so to figure out where I had gotten that impression. My sister Sandy gave me books every year for Christmas and my birthday. As I grew up, I got Newberry Award winners at least once, sometimes twice a year.

The only awards ceremony I had ever seen as a child was the Academy Awards, which my mother watched faithfully each March. The only school night that I was allowed to stay up until midnight was Oscar Night.

So, to child-me, all awards ceremonies took place in pavilions with lots of cameras and lots of pretty well dressed people. And my subconscious had held onto that image of the Newberry awards (which was the only book award my child-self had ever heard of) for more than forty years.

See how the definitions of success get corrupted? Had it been me getting that award before I came to my adult senses and remembered what an extreme honor it is, I would have been momentarily disappointed by that ballroom. Note that I did not expect the Edgars to be in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Nor did I expect it of the Hugos or the Ritas. Just the Newberry, because that definition got set long before I understood the way the world really works.

I’m not done with definitions yet, and I’m already farther into this post than I wanted to be. So next week’s post will expand a bit on definitions before I stop withholding information about some of the topics I’ve touched on above.

As you prepare for next week’s post, see if you can figure out what your superficial definitions of success are and what your lofty secret never-tell-a-soul definitions of success are.

You might be surprised.

“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Success Part One” 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, trySmashwords. You’ll be able to download in a variety of e-book formats.

13 thoughts on “Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Success Part One

  1. I’m glad you mentioned Frederick Faust. For me, he’s always been both a hero, and a cautionary tale.

    Even though he lived only fifty-one years, a milestone I passed a few years ago, he sold some five hundred novels, created the character Dr. Kildare, sold from twenty-five to thirty million words of fiction under nineteen pseudonyms, yet he thought himself a failure as a writer?

    There are types of success, of course. I’ve been happily married for thirty years, and that’s a success. I’ve helped raise three boys who are now happy, educated, honest, productive men, and thats a success.

    Writing? I’ve haven’t won the Nobel, I’ll never make as much money as J. K. Rowling, but I’ve sold a few novels, a bunch of short stories, and some essays that I’m proud of, and that ain’t easy, folks.

    I guess I take my notion of occupational success from my Grandpa Solomon. He was a carpenter, and the thing that made him happiest in his old age was knowing that many of the homes he built were still standing, still being lived in, and would be for many years to come.

    Money and fame be hanged. If something I write is still standing when I die, if some world I create is still being lived in, I’ll be one happy man.

  2. Thanks for these articles, Kris, they are really interesting, insightful, and helpful.

    I have a business question for you for perhaps a future article, or just a one-off. I’m an independent consultant as my day job (a lot of it is writing content, so I consider my passion for writing a good complement to what I do for the real money until I make writing pay for me.) I have had fifteen different opinions from people inside and outside the biz on whether it is sensible for me to create a corporation to house my freelance/consulting/contracting work. It would be a corporation of one, since I have no specific intentions of starting my own consultancy, that’s not how I envision spending my time.

    Do you have any perspective on this? Pros/Cons? I’m in the position of having the “second” career in the family. I don’t need to create a structure under which I can purchase health insurance or that sort of thing. Does this work differently for freelance writers? I feel like it would be a headache, and there are some costs associated with it (though cost-benefits in terms of tax writeoffs, though for me they are not significant and I can take many of the writeoffs even while self-employed as an independent consultant.)

    As for my definition of success…my running joke with my writer’s group is that I want to be so successful that I have to move because my fans found where I live and are camping on my front lawn. 😉

    1. Nice stuff in there, Karen. Thanks.

      As for your corporation question, I don’t think I’ll write a long piece on it, since I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not always in command of the facts on corporations and taxes–at least not enough to give advice.

      That said, it might benefit you to talk to an attorney about this. A corporation might be a good idea at a certain level of income–about the point where U.S. taxes start taking 30-35% It varies from person to person, circumstance to circumstance, and state to state, so it’s always better to talk to someone in the know. The attorney you consult with should set up corporations routinely and should have done so for people in the arts.

      I hope the short answer helps. And thanks.

  3. I don’t reply all the time, but that’s only because so many things you’re saying in here boggle my mind. This post I had already thought about because I’m at that weird instance, after college, with boxes and a giant door in front of me.

  4. I’ve come to define success the same way you, do, Kris. Making a good living writing fiction. I’m not there yet, so it’s great to have examples like you and Dean to look up to.

    I also really love the difference you and Dean taught us between goals and dreams. Now I define my successes in terms of goals (things I can control, like how much I write in a year) rather than dreams (things that aren’t in my control, like winning awards).

  5. Interesting that all the English language dictionaries qualify success by external standards.

    The French in Petit LaRousse Illustré start with two simple words: happy result.

    I like that definition. It makes success internal to he who is successful. To be sixties about it, success is whatever turns you on, man.

    I wonder if other cultures/languages have different definitions.

  6. Speaking of the kind of successes you’re not ready for, a lot of years ago another professional writer read a novella I’d written (probably the longest thing I’d ever written at the time), and encouraged me to turn it into a full novel. He started talking about sequels, comic books, movie rights, and action figures. I melted down. His definition of success differed so vastly from mine at that point (all I wanted was for someone to buy something — anything — that I had written), that I had no idea how to proceed. I froze, and never did anything with that story. Then life intervened, and I didn’t write much of anything for the previously mentioned “lot of years.” Now I’m writing again, but I’ve been looking at my definitions of success much more carefully. I count completing my weekly writing goals a success. I count completing a story (of whatever length) a success. I count a personal rejection as a success. I count a request to see a full manuscript as a success. When I sell something, of course that’s a success, too. And there are success-goals I haven’t yet reached, and others I’m sure I haven’t even thought of. It’s like having a variety of coins and bills in my pocket — each one is its own type of success, all are valuable to me, and all help motivate me on to further successes.

  7. I recently discovered your Smokey Dalton books, which are fantastic–the kind of books that pull me into the character’s life and world so thoroughly that I hate to leave when the book is finished. I certainly hope being the author of those books feels like success to you; they are so well crafted and true.

  8. I keep a sign over my desk. It says: Success is a journey, not a destination.

    I really believe that, in general, and specifically to running my writing business. That doesn’t always mean I believe it or at least, I may believe it, but be hurt by things like being dropped by a publisher, negative (or no) reviews, or sales that aren’t where I want them to be. I’m aware these are hurdles, perhaps, rather than failures. At least I hope so.

    I know business has been very slowly the last month. I kept pitching, querying, and telling myself that, yes, it will pick up. And it did. Now I’m swamped for the rest of the year. And 2010 is looking pretty great in terms of contracts and scheduled work.

    Is that success? I think it is for me. The root definition for me is: stay self-employed as a writer without going crazy.

    There are certainly corrolaries, like what my minimum yearly pay might be, and whether my yearly income involves books, especially novels. And I know that I’m perfectly capable of sabotaging myself by thinking, “Yeah, I got a novel contract, but the publisher isn’t prestigious enough and the advance wasn’t big enough and we didn’t sell enough copies and…”

    Part of it I think is trying to focus on being grateful and satisfied with what you have, still trying to attain your goals, but re-defining success as part of a continuum of progress toward those goals instead of calling the obstacles failures.

    1. Thanks, Mark. Excellent stuff there, some of which I’ll address in later posts. Glad to have them here right off the bat. Thanks.

      And Kathleen, thanks for the very kind comments. I do think of that as a success. In fact, it is a success I never thought I would attain, but I’m so happy I have in those books. Much appreciated.

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