Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Tale of Two Freelance Projects

[Introduction: I wrote this blog post more than two years ago, when my toddler son, the infamous “Little Guy,” was a little over two years old (so we’re talking around the summer of 2012). It initially served as a reflective piece about a personal learning experience; I kept the text to someday use in the blog, but primarily to remind myself to remain true to the kinds of projects that suit my creative strengths and my unconventional work situation. I am grateful to the folks who hired me for “The Game Project” since they have subsequently hired me for several other enjoyable assignments in the time after I first drafted this article.]

Not too long ago I finished two freelance projects for very different clients and learned a lot about myself in the process. One was quite enjoyable, despite the initial uncertainties of what was expected of me and my lack of familiarity with the source material. One was a trying misery mitigated only by a patient and understanding editor; I walked away from it having completed as much as I could and canceling any prospect of future contract work on subsequent, related projects I might have expected.

I apologize in advance for this self-indulgent missive, part confession and part self-reflection, which might offer readers some insight into the chaotic world of freelancing. To paraphrase John Dewey, “education equals experience plus reflection.” I consider this piece a reflection on two very different freelancing experiences.

To place my plight in context, bear in mind that I am a full-time dad taking care of a Little Guy who was fully engaged in the Terrible Twos at the time; I was trying to help him learn about the world around him, and his own feelings, while he was busy testing his limits (usually to the accompaniment of body-shuddering screams); I also handle as much of the housework as my time allows, plus the duties of a homeowner, and somehow find time to write semi-regularly for a blog and do some game development and writing (with no significant output in the two years I’ve been a father). My wife works full-time in her career of choice and helps out as much as she can given her work commitments and other interests.

I have more than 20 years of professional publishing experience. Although most of that comes through my involvement as a full-time or freelance game designer and writer, I got my start in journalism, spending three years working on my hometown, weekly newspaper…two years as a reporter and one year as an editor. This provided a firm foundation for my later editorial work and a good work ethic for my freelance endeavors. I’ve done a lot of freelancing for the adventure gaming industry over the years. Like anyone who works with numerous clients on projects of varying natures, I had good experiences and bad ones, had trouble getting paid sometimes, and saw a number of projects languish or die before publication, despite lots of work researching, developing, and writing material.

To protect the identities of those involved, I’ll call one freelance assignment the Game Project and the other the Business Project.

The Game Project

The Game Project consisted of developing and writing six creatures for an at-the-time unpublished roleplaying game in an innovative setting. While the game system was based on one with which I’m very familiar, I spent some time learning how it modified rules from the baseline I understood. Beyond that I was given the freedom to create stats and descriptions for six creatures that would fit into the setting, with an established word limit on each.

The clients and I agreed on terms and maintained a “gentlemen’s agreement” about content, word count, deadlines, and pay rates/schedules. I don’t usually operate without a written and signed contract covering all the bases, but I had a good feeling about this relatively new gaming company; besides, the project was small enough that I wouldn’t feel particularly upset if something fell through.

Compared with past clients, these folks treated me quite generously with the pay schedule: half upon committing to the assignment, and half upon submitting it to the editor. Bear in mind that many contracts under which I’ve worked maybe pay half on approval of the work and half upon publication; most in the industry pay only on publication. The pay was also generously more than the usual per-word rate most adventure gaming writers get. Enjoying the assignment and working for friendly and supportive clients were welcome perks.

I’d not done freelance game material writing for a while. After re-acquainting myself with the game engine and immersing myself in the setting material the clients sent, I started thinking about creature concepts to develop. I tend to work out material in my head, let things percolate a little, then write everything out and modify ideas as I go along. This was all work I could undertake in the hour or two each day I had to myself between fatherly and household duties…morning time interrupted by requests to read books and make breakfasts, maybe an afternoon hour during nap time, and evening time after the Little Guy went to bed. Creating six creatures for the setting was quite enjoyable, the writing was a snap, and it was all a refreshing taste of what I’ve missed being out of the gaming freelancer loop. It also helped that the folks for whom I was working respected me, made sure I knew they admired my past work, and remained in constant touch to guide my efforts. I was very pleased with my final submissions and performance on the assignment; I’d work for them again without a second thought.

The Business Project

The Business Project consisted of writing short features on clients who took out advertisements in a quarterly business supplement a local newspaper was starting. The length varied based on the size of their ad, but required me to contact them by phone or e-mail, find an angle for the article (beyond “this is what our business does and we started X years ago”), write an engaging article within a limited word count, and get their approval before submitting it to the editor. I not only had to work within the constraints established for the publication by the editor, but work to make sure clients were happy with what I wrote.

I freely admit I had reservations about taking this assignment from the beginning and reasons to try making it work despite the constraints a two year-old constantly placed on my time and focus. The job had the prospect of continuing for future quarterly issues of the business supplement, giving me work, contacts, and exposure for that inevitable time with this full-time father must re-enter the workforce (though ideally he’d prefer to develop, write, and publish games full-time…). I was quite intimidated that I could fit all this around my paternal responsibilities; I recall a particularly bad day I was having when I called the editor to decline the job, and he managed to talk me into taking it (after having a weekend to reconsider).

I should have listened to my instincts. I knew I was going to have to manage with a two year-old, but I didn’t take into account the massive amount of legwork calling businesses and hoping to interview someone for an article. I spent far more time phoning and e-mailing than I did actually writing. I quickly found that business people are, understandably, busy running their businesses and thus have little time for returning calls (or reading e-mail) on a deadline, let alone during the hours when a full-time father can handle phone calls. The project also started several weeks later than I anticipated, cutting my time for work by one quarter thanks to a previously scheduled family commitment. Everything but the writing was like pulling teeth: getting people to understand I was a writer and not an ad rep selling advertising; leaving messages and having folks call me back when I was out (despite asking them to call in the afternoons, when my toddler routine allows me time in the office); understanding their business enough, and posing engaging questions to get them to give me enough material for a good feature.

In the end I turned in about two-thirds of the project completed, submitted any additional notes about the businesses that didn’t find time for me, and walked away. I didn’t like doing that – I hated doing it – but the project deadlines conflicting with a previously scheduled family commitment combined with non-cooperative interview subjects made finishing the project impossible.

I submitted my invoice and got paid about two weeks after the supplement’s publication, and I only got paid a set amount per piece that reached publication. Adjusted for those pieces I completed and submitted (as opposed to the entirety of what I’d expected to write), the sum was only very slightly more than what I got paid for the Game Project.

What Did I Learn?

Both assignments taught me several valuable lessons. I suppose I was fortunate enough to undergo these quite different experiences so close together, for the contrast between them gave me some insight into what I like and don’t like, and it boils down to this:

I don’t like depending on other people to successfully complete my job.

The number of people on which one depends is inversely proportional to the chance of effectively completing the project on time; the more people, the lower the chance of success. For the Business Project I had to interact with more than 15 different contacts, some of whom remained unavailable for interviews; this directly contributed not only to my inability to complete all the articles but my overall frustration with the job and my decision to drop it. For the Game Project I relied on one person to provide me with the assignment parameters, basic source material, and guidance on how I was doing. Otherwise I relied on my own imagination, game knowledge, and writing ability, having essentially the freedom to fail or succeed on my own. I was not hobbled by others’ inability or unwillingness to help me complete the project.

Both projects required submissions by a deadline (and both offered about four weeks for completion). I like working at my own pace toward a deadline on assignments that depend on my creativity and writing ability independent of other burdens. Sure, sometimes I procrastinate, more so when I’m on my own; but when others procrastinate or delay their cooperation, I’m at their mercy and must then hustle to meet my deadline on their casual schedule.

Given my myriad other obligations in life at the time and the fact that I had little control over my own time, taking a freelance project whose success depended on the willing participation of other people during business hours was a mistake. I prefer being my own boss and working at my own pace to produce material that pleases me, my clients, and readers. Does that make me lazy or spoiled? My game-writing endeavors work well with my current paternal duties; I can develop and write game material when I find time (during naps and after the Little Guy goes to sleep at night) on my own deadline. I’m not as productive as I’d like, but I’m not stressing to meet someone else’s arbitrary deadline dependent on getting in touch with busy people during the most chaotic portions of my own day.

I’m sure with further reflection I’ll find other lessons learned from this experience. For now, however, I’ll remain content to work for myself and the adventure gaming hobby at my own pace, leaving the often arbitrary, indifferent, and unrewarding frustrations of the business-writing world to others.

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