Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Expectations

Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing


Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Expectations

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A short time ago, a young writer who did not know my history in the science fiction field mentioned in e-mail how much he hated certain editors.  He felt those editors had mislead him, and were, therefore, unethical people.

Since those editors happened to be friends of mine of longstanding—I’d known both for more than twenty years—I knew they weren’t unethical people.  Nor did they deliberately mislead writers.

After a few back-and-forths, I found out what happened: those editors had met this young writer in a networking situation (one a convention, the other a guest lecture at a writer’s workshop) and invited him to submit stories to their various projects.

The writer had submitted stories which were then kindly, but soundly, rejected.  He was furious. He thought the editors had broken an implied promise.  By inviting him to submit—he thought—the editors were committing to buy the stories.

Never mind that neither editor had ever seen his work before.  Never mind that they had no idea whether he even wrote in the genre.

He hadn’t thought the situation through.  A little more probing uncovered something else: he had an improper understanding of the writing field.

Somehow, this young writer had gotten it into his head that most writers sold stories not because the stories were good, but because the writer had met the editor and the editor liked the writer.  I have no idea where that idea had come from—it certainly isn’t written down anywhere, even as a myth—but it had embedded itself firmly in this writer’s brain.

(To clarify, in case any others out there have this notion in their minds: stories sell because the stories are good.  There are other factors such as what the publisher wants for the magazine/book line.  For example, no matter how excellent a hardboiled mystery is, you won’t sell it to a sweet romance book line.  It just won’t happen.)

Before you sit back smugly and think that you would never make a mistake like the one this young writer made, realize that everyone who is in business for himself—every single freelancer/business owner—has made this mistake at least once.  Many make it every single day.

The mistake comes from unrealistic expectations.

I almost wrote that it comes from expectations (leaving out the word “unrealistic”) and while that may be true (we shouldn’t have expectations; we should have plans), without some measure of expectation, we probably can’t do what we do.  I’ll get to that in a bit. But first, let’s deal with unrealistic expectations.

When my ex-husband and I opened our frame shop and art gallery twenty-mumble years ago, my ex was the realist (for once).  He knew that he couldn’t open the store without a customer base already in place.  I was the unrealistic one: I thought that because we had a storefront and a sign above the door and lovely inventory and a talented framer, we would have customers on the very first day we opened.   We did, but only because my ex ran his legs off.  He planned a grand opening, sent out invitations (with maps), called people, and made sure everyone who needed to know about the store did know.  And then he grew the business.

I had Field of Dreams in mind: Somehow I believed if we built it, they would come.

Many retail store owners make that mistake.  I just watched the same thing happen this last year.  A woman opened a what-not shop in the same local mall as the collectibles store Dean started.  The what-not shop, which this poor woman had spent years saving items and money for, was no different than three similar stores that had not survived in that location, and sadly, her store wasn’t as nice as the two other what-not stores that already existed in the same mall.

Anyone with any business experience could have told her the store would fail.  She had the wrong location, and she was undercapitalized.  She couldn’t wait long enough to build a customer base; she didn’t even have enough money to join a group ad for the mall in the local paper.  When the business went under, after less than a year, none of her neighbors were surprised—and none were sympathetic.  Everyone mentioned how unrealistic her expectations were, and one other store owner even mentioned the Field of Dreams analogy, albeit in reverse.

“Just because you build it,” he said in his curmudgeonly way, “doesn’t mean anyone will come.”

He was right.  It made the loss no less painful for this poor woman.  Her dream died in short order.  But of all the things she did wrong—and she did quite a few (all first time business owners and freelancers make horrible mistakes)—the worst thing was the devastation left by her unrealistic expectation.

How can you start a business without expectations? You can’t.  You have to have expectations of success or there really is no point in going out on your own.  How many people do you know who start a business saying that they believe it will fail?  I’ve never met anyone like that.

But your expectations have to be realistic.  The woman shop owner hadn’t done any research. She had planned and dreamed for her store, but she hadn’t researched how to run a business or how much capital she would need.  She had assumed these things would come to her.

I dealt with some of this in the post on Goals versus Dreams, but expectations are subtler than either of those two things, and they blow up on you when you least expect it.

I had one of those expectation bombs blow up on me this year—and I didn’t even see it coming.  My twenty-fourth birthday was terrible.  I spent the day alone.  My friends had moved out of town, my family forgot my birthday, and my ex-husband didn’t even remember to get me a cake (yes, I know, the handwriting was on the wall at that point).

I spent the day alone, stuck on the farm that we lived above without a car, so I couldn’t even go into town to entertain myself.  I read, watched a little television, and generally felt sorry for myself.  I also—Scarlett O’Hara-like—vowed I would never have another crappy birthday again, even if I had to make sure the celebrations happened.  I promised myself that when I got old and was rich and famous, I would give myself the party of a lifetime.  I would pay for all of it—spending tens of thousands of dollars on caterers and airline tickets for all my friends and family—and it would last all weekend, and it would be very, very Dynasty, with designer clothes, rich food, and upscale swanky digs.

Fast forward to January 1, 2010.  2010—the year I will turn fifty.

I had a complete and utter meltdown.  Not because I’m going to be fifty this year.  But because — apparently—to the 24-year-old me, 50 is really, really old.

The expectation bomb went off.  My twenty-four year old self had planted a huge landmine and as the calendar turned to 2010, I stepped on that damn mine.  I realized I don’t have Dynasty level money.   I can’t afford to fly my friends and family into some swanky resort somewhere and spend what would have been in 1984 dollars tens of thousands of dollars but what is in 2010 dollars hundreds of thousands of dollars on a party.  I don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars lying around—and if I did, I’d pay off my house and add to my savings, not spend every last dime on designer duds for my shindig.

I knew that.  Realistically, I should have shrugged and laughed at my twenty-four-year-old self. But built into that party expectation were two other expectations.  The first expectation was that fifty was really, really, really old.  I am about to become ancient—at least to that poor lonely girl I had once been.  And second—I should be a multimillionaire, maybe even a billionaire, by now.  I should have a household name like Stephen King or Nora Roberts or J.K. Rowling.

I don’t.

So—by the lights of the expectation bomb I planted at the ripe old age of 24—I am both old and a failure.

Oh, and happy 50th birthday!

Ouch, ouch, ouch.

I’ve run into a million of those personal expectation bombs throughout my career.  Some are pretty easy to see—if I sell my first short story, I’ll have it made.  If I sell my first novel, I’ll be rich.  But others aren’t visible until you step on them (which is why I’m using the term landmine).  When I got nominated for my first Edgar award (and typing that phrase is a trip, even now.  My first Edgar), I almost declined it but I managed to stop myself just in time.

When Dean asked why I would do such a thing, I heard myself answer, “Because I’m not good enough to be nominated for an Edgar.”  It took some digging to find when I planted that particular landmine.  I had planted it (we plant all these expectation landmines) during the summers of my childhood, then continued to grow the mine during my adulthood, by buying novels with Edgar-winner emblazoned on them.  I had used “Edgar-winner” as a stamp of quality—and it is a tribute to that award that I was rarely if ever disappointed.

Instead of being flattered and honored at first, I was terrified that I had been nominated by accident.

Pieces of that landmine still exist, as you can tell from my parenthetical phrase about my first Edgar award, but now I have that particular bomb under control.

Not all of these landmines are about success. Some are about failure.  A pragmatic friend of mine knew the statistics when he started his business.  He knew that it took five years to establish most businesses, and since his was particularly tricky, he figured he might not be successful even five years in.

That was his expectation, and his mantra, and he recited it often.

Surprise, surprise: His business got established within two years.  He started making a profit. About the time he should have grown the business or made a few changes dictated by his success, he didn’t even notice.  Instead, he continued to talk about the three more years he had before his business got established.

No amount of arguing could change his mind; he expected to have a rough first five years.  He didn’t notice the success and actively sabotaged it.  By not seeing his situation realistically, he lost his business within six years, and declared himself unsurprised.

What surprised him was that as he put the bankbooks into storage, he realized that he had achieved his success four years previously.  He was stunned.  He saw his business through the prism of his unrealistic (negative) expectations, and as a result he made mistakes that caused his business to meet those expectations and fail.

How do you root out these unrealistic expectations?

I wish I knew.  I’d do a deep personal inventory of my psyche right now and make all of my unrealistic expectations disappear.  In fact, I would have done it years ago, so this past January 1 had been a pleasant day instead of the nightmare it became, all because I tripped over a mental landmine.

In the twenty-six years since I planted that particular landmine, however, I have learned how to recognize some of those unrealistic expectations and how to prevent them from becoming time bombs.

1.  Don’t plant the unrealistic expectation in the first place. Listen to yourself as you make casual and joking statements.  An old friend of mine had a habit that he had to force himself to quit. When a waitress asked, “What would you like?” My friend would say, “I’d like to be rich and never have to work again.”

That’s a very funny statement—particularly in that context (and with the right waitress who also sees the humor)—but it has an unrealistic expectation built into the middle of the joke.  “I’d like to be rich and never have to work again.”  Most rich people work.  The ones who lose their riches let someone else manage their money.  Money management is work.  So if my friend had become rich before he stopped saying this little bon mot, he would have stopped working too—and probably would have lost all or most of his money to an unscrupulous money manager.

2. Research your expectations.  Has anyone become rich and never had to work again? If so, how?  And if not, why not?  And really—this one was always the key for me when my friend made his little joke—do you want to stop working?  I know a lot of fantastically wealthy people who still work.  They work harder than everyone else because they enjoy their jobs.

I’m sure Steven Spielberg could have stopped working somewhere around 1980, but luckily for modern American film he did not.  Stephen King could have stopped writing about the same time.  As a fan, I’m happy he didn’t.

If I had Dynasty level money and could have thrown myself that party this year, I would still be working.  I love what I do. The money isn’t the reward; it’s a byproduct of being able to do what I love.

3. In fact, research everything.  Before you go into business for yourself, research the industry. Then research money management. Then research business.  Listen to the negatives and the positives.  If you don’t like what you hear, figure out how you can avoid those problems.

If someone tells you that no one succeeds in your industry (writers hear this all the time), investigate.  See if that’s true.  See if you can find five people who succeeded in your industry. Then ten. Then twenty.

If someone tells you there’s only one way to succeed, see if that’s true.  Usually it isn’t.  Ask questions.  Find the answers.  And don’t take the first answer.  Get a second, third, and fourth opinion.

4. Research continually.  If you’ve been reading this Guide for a long time, you know that I’m a firm believer in continuing education.  Make sure you keep up with your industry.  If your freelancing business is in trouble, figure out why.  Make the necessary changes to save it.  Then make sure you do enough research so that you won’t make that same mistake again.

5. Listen to people who are already successful in your field.  Those people will often offer you advice, but that advice might be oblique.  I can’t tell you how many times early in my writing career, a very successful writer would say in the middle of a conversation, “That attitude will get you in trouble.”

I would be defensive or I would ignore the sentence.  I’d rarely follow up.  But years later, I would remember the comment when that attitude—in the form of an unrealistic expectation—did get me in trouble. And sometimes I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go back to that writer and ask how to repair the damage caused by that expectation landmine.

Nowadays, however, I’m often the writer who says, “That attitude will get you in trouble,” and I watch as writer after writer ignore me.  Early on, a writer friend (and former student of mine) was making such an egregious error, based on an unrealistic expectation, that I actually told him point by point why he should not take that terrible action.  He got angry and defensive and then told me I had no idea what I was talking about.

At that moment, I realized why the sentence “That attitude will get you into trouble,” gets spoken, but no successful person ever follows up on it unless asked to. The newer professional has to want the information and  has to be willing to hear the answer.

6. Pay attention to the questions you can’t answer.  These are tough.  They’re the kind of questions that, if your parents had asked them when you were a kid, you probably would have answered like this: My friends are doing it. And if your parents were like mine, they’d haul out the old If your friends were jumping off a cliff, would you follow?

You’ll probably have elaborate justifications built up in your mind and you’ll offer them as answers to the question. But listen to that whisper which happens just before you offer up the first justification.

For example (and I’m clearly making this up):

Question: Why do you need ten $250,000 cars?

Justification: I collect them.

The Whispered Thought: Rich people own dozens of outrageously expensive cars, and now that I’m rich, I need to act rich.

Each business has those same unrealistic expectations built in.  A writer friend of mine rented an office outside the house because (justification) he “needed quiet to work.” Real reason? He believed that people who worked at home were not working, even though he had made 50K a year while working at home.  (The office ate up his profits, and he eventually moved back home to save money—and in the process had to ferret out the unreasonable expectation that had caused the problem in the first place.)

An acquaintance of mine graduated from law school in the middle of her class.  The law school was the best in her state, and in the state’s major city.  However, that city was overrun with graduates from the law school, most of whom graduated with a better record than she had.  When she couldn’t get a job in any of the city’s law firms (not a one) because her grades were not as good as other applicants, she didn’t move to a different city.  Nor did she do some volunteer lawyering or take a job at Legal Aid, like some of my other friends who had not graduated at the top of their class.

Instead, she hung out her own shingle in a town filled with lawyers.  She got a few clients—not enough to pay the bills—and because she thought she only needed the law degree, not actually do any hard work, she did a poor job.

Why would this bright woman believe that she could survive in the cutthroat legal atmosphere of the state’s major city with just a law degree?

Her justification was that no law firm hired women like her—which was true in the year she was born.  But in the 1990s, when she was trying to do this, law firms hired women all the time.

The whispered unrealistic expectation? Real lawyers worked for a law firm.  If no firm would hire her, she had to set up her own firm.  She didn’t believe real lawyers worked for Legal Aid or as legislative counsel to a state senator or as in-house attorney at some corporation.

Her law firm—and eventually her dream of being a lawyer—disappeared under the weight of her unrealistic expectation.

7. If people tell you you’re acting irrationally given the evidence around you or events around you, check to see if you’re acting out of an unrealistic expectation. Think back to my successful friend who refused to believe his business had become successful after two years (when he expected it to take five). From the moment he refused to believe his business was doing better than most, many of his actions were irrational—and people told him so.  If he had analyzed the comments and done a little research, he might have saved that business.

But he attributed them all to jealousy or to other motives on the part of the other people.  Granted, people will tell you things out of fear or jealousy.  That’s why I tell you to research their comments. See if their statements are true.  If not, dismiss them.  If so, pay attention—and maybe make some changes.

We all have unrealistic expectations about ourselves, our careers, and our birthdays. (Well, maybe I’m the only one with an unrealistic expectation about a birthday.)  These unrealistic expectations can ruin our careers—either by giving us the wrong benchmarks (why does anyone need a Dynasty-style party at any age?) or by making us refuse to see what we really have.

You’ll never find all of your unrealistic expectations. But you’ll track down some of the important ones.  And if you do, you’ll stop tripping over landmines and start walking forward which, after all, is how every business progresses.  One not-always-smooth step at a  time.

“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Expectations” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

16 thoughts on “Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Expectations

  1. Hi Kris,

    I have been following your blog for quite some time and stumbled upon this wonderful article. Gosh, I didn’t realise that the expectation that your business may take 5 or 10 years to be established too is an unrealistic expectation ( it actually sounds realistic). Thanks for pointing out that. I don’t know what your friend did exactly to sabotage his business, but I have a feeling that he stopped taking any proactive steps that would have taken his business to the next level in the hope that every business takes five years to succeed.

  2. I had most of my birthday expectations forcibly removed years ago. My 50th is coming up later this week, and I’ll be perfectly happy to treat it like any other day. I figure any day I can still wake up and inhale is a win.

    I just spent the past four days reading back over the Freelancer’s Survival Guide, and I have to say thank you, Kris! Talk about managing expectations. I was one of the people you set out to help by publishing the Guide online. I was downsized (or whatever euphemism they call it these days) last summer and started screwing up my courage to jump blindly into freelancing. I was “saved” at the last minute by a call from a previous employer who wanted me to come back to work, so here I am back in a job I left out of boredom four years ago. As you might guess, I’m not terribly enthusiastic about staying, but after reading the Guide I have a better idea of what to expect – and what kind of questions I need to find answers for – before I jump the fence and hightail it off into the sunset. (Actually I think some planning, goal-setting, and discreet burrowing under the fence over a period of time might be the better way.)

    I’m curious about something I haven’t seen mentioned yet in the Guide: do you have any thoughts on a freelance writer forming a corporation, LLC, or other virtual entity? Other businesses can find clear benefits (especially when it comes to liability) by doing so, but I wonder what you and your network of experts think.

    1. Let me say first, Happy Birthday, Dave! Welcome to the Gemini group. There’s a bunch of us. 🙂

      Thanks for letting me know that you belong in the group I intended this for. That means a lot. I appreciate it. I love the analogy of jumping the fence or tunneling under it. Nice.

      I’ll think about LLCs. I always hesitate to jump into the murky legal waters, since I’m not a lawyer. But let me see what I can come up with, and what my lawyer friends think, and what those who’ve done this already have to say. Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. Happy 24th, Kris. (Someone needed to say it.) Better late than never.

    Now go to a vintage clothing store and treat yourself to a Krystle Carrington shoulder pad dress.

  4. When I was 19 I fully expected to be writing novels for a living by the time I was 29. Wow, did that expectation get steamrolled by reality.

    Growing up, my mother dispensed this mantra: try your best, but don’t be surprised when you fail. In hindsight, it was a terribly confusing piece of advice. Her heart was in the right place, and I realize she was trying to send two motherly messages at once. Can’t blame her for that.

    But I’ve modified that message when I dispense it to my own daughter: put forth your best effort in all you do, and if you fail, learn from that failure and try again! And again! And again!

    Failure doesn’t have to be permanent. Failure should be the temporary resting state between successes.

    In re-approaching my long-held desire for a fiction career — roughly three years ago — I decided to take the mountain climber’s approach: aim for the highest observable peak, and keep scratching and clawing until I got there, then immediately aim for the still higher peak that would reveal itself, and so on and so forth.

    My only expectation was a self-directed one: not allowing rejections to discourage me and thus slow or halt my production, as had happened previously, and led to a long drought.

    In the meanwhile, the view I’ve managed to obtain — of the publishing world, via workshops and networking with professionals — now seems so random and chaotic, I’ve practically abandoned all expectations where houses and markets are concerned. I focus entirely on the creation of new prose and making and keeping weekly and monthly goals related to production. Almost all else seems entirely out of my hands.

    My wife’s father was a technical writer and publisher, but he longed to write novels. He never succeeded in selling any, but he never stopped trying either. So far as I know, he died with manuscripts still out to market. That’s how I’d like to go out, whether I’m “successful” before I die, or not.

  5. Terrific post. I just finished collaborating on a nonfiction book with a couple doctors and in one of the chapters we discuss a concept along these same lines, which is to say: when your own beliefs get in the way of living your life. Not just your career, but your life. For instance: my house isn’t clean unless I vacuum every day.

    Having this thought in your head, wherever it comes from, makes you freak out if the house isn’t cleaned, puts pressure on you to do the work even if you don’t have the time.

    Other things are: a good father provides for his family.

    It doesn’t take into account other aspects of being a good father.

  6. You might not get that birthday bash, but I bet you can write the hell out of it and post it and make us all thing you did.

    as for me it’s “will you still need me, when I’m sixty-four”

    But I would say 50s your last big chance to make major changes, I make a lot but can’t always remember them.
    best wishes, great party, move down clean cup

  7. I’m posting this for C.E. Petit, whose browser doesn’t seem to talk to mine. He makes some good points. –Kris:

    “I would like to respectfully suggest a modification to point 5:

    5. Listen to people who are already successful in your field _who have
    recent experience with the same problems facing you_.

    Without naming names, there are several purported “gurus” with huge
    “platforms” in several publishing categories — specifically including, but
    not limited to, speculative fiction — who continue to read from engraved
    stone tablets from the foothills of Mount Sinai in their best Charlton
    Heston voices*… as if the publishing environment today is identical to the
    way it was when they broke into their respective categories in the 1960s and
    1970s.** Many times this advice is downright dangerous; nonetheless, it’s
    difficult to characterize these individuals as less than “successful in
    [their] field[s].” They have, however, allowed their perspectives to be
    restricted by their own experiences, rather than enriched by them.

    One of the least-dangerous aspects of this is the continuing, considered
    advice from several of these gurus that one must have a body of published,
    or at least publishable, short works for the periodical market before
    “progressing” to novels. Perhaps that might have been true in the 1960s, for
    some varieties of commercial fiction… but it’s never been true for serious
    (or even general trade) nonfiction; it hasn’t been true in most
    category-fiction areas since the late 1970s (specific examples: Mary Doria
    Russell and Kristine Smith); and it assumes that book-length works are
    primarily just longer versions of shorter works. Instead, though, reality is
    that the publishing industry is finally recognizing that there are both
    craft and artistic reasons that one reads, say, Maugham’s short fiction
    (neglecting the longer pieces) and Faulkner’s novels (neglecting the shorter
    pieces): The only truly transferrable skills come from the work ethic and
    the mechanics, as the analogous skills (and business knowledge!) aren’t as
    close as the gurus would have one believe. Similarly, the myth that there’s
    a “single publishing industry” results in rather egregious attempts to
    transfer precepts from one part of the industry to another; an obvious
    example of this is using methods of manuscript placement that have worked
    for category fiction in serious nonfiction.

    There is simply too great a tendency for those in the publishing industry to
    portray their own experiences as universal and contemporary. An
    inexperienced writer does not have the contextual knowledge to detect BS
    emanating from the grognards all that easily***… so the inexperienced
    writer should take business advice largely but not exclusively from
    successful-but-five-years-down-the-road writers, leavened with a bit of wit
    and wisdom from the Giants in the Field, rather than vice versa. (Advice on
    art, on craft, on technology? Take what works for you almost regardless of
    source… and sometimes academics know what they’re talking about, too, but
    that’s definitely a catfight for another time.)

    * The mixture of religious imagery is on purpose: It’s part of the point.

    ** I’m not going to name names at this time, but they include past elected
    presidents of writers’ trade groups, continuing columnists in general and
    trade group publications, and certain serial offenders at writer’s conferences.

    *** Neither do too many experienced writers… including, ironically enough,
    at least two of those gurus within speculative fiction! Taking career advice
    from X or Y is not good for one’s career path, as would be apparent from
    actually looking at X’s and Y’s publishing careers and present circumstances.”

  8. Great topic and post, Kris!

    24 year old me expected to retire at 35. Um, 36 year old me needs to have a talk with 24 year old me.

    I manage my expectations two ways. Literally. There’s optimistic me and realistic me. I’m by nature an optimist, so realist is the closest I get to pessemistic me. I probably start with three sets of expectations, but realistic me and optimistic me gang up on pessimistic me.

    This is probably both good and bad. So, at any point in time, I am generally prepared for both best and worst case scenario.

    The reason why I say this is probably bad is because optimistic me is the motivated one. Optimistic me is REALLY motivated. Optimistic me does a lot of research.

    Realistic me has to do the work. A lot of my internal work is getting optimistic me to convince realistic me that optimistic me would be happy with realistic me’s view of how things will go. And then convincing realistic me to do the work.

    Realistic me always has to be on board. Pessimistic me always tries to scare realistic me.

    This is how it always goes. I’ll admit, optimistic me does a ton of research. Realistic me is usually right.

    My challenge is to get realistic me as motivated as optimistic me. Realistic me really likes the path of least resistance. While that path is the easiest, it’s not always the most rewarding. Optimistic me is really trying to convince realistic me of that.

    1. Yeah, Patrick, I had to have a talking to 24 year old me this year as well. 🙂 You made me chuckle with that. I like the analysis with optimistic you and realistic you. I have wildly hopeful me and optimistic me and deeply pessimistic me and extremely determined me–all of whom could be in control at any moment, and none of whom seem to know what they’re doing without the other. It’s always a challenge trying to tame our brains….

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