Fiction and Freelancers—Three Tips from a Novelist

I consider myself a freelance writer and a novelist. It was always going to be novel writing first and freelance to pay the bills until my breakout work hit bookstores everywhere and then a poorly-cast movie bastardizing my famous book made me rich.

Five years later, with three completed novels (one self-published) and a realization the fiction market is an entirely different animal than I imagined, my perspective has changed. That plan to write a novel? Still there, but freelance work has become a passion in its own right. And—surprise, surprise—all that novel writing improved my approach to freelance articles. Here are my top three tips.

1) Story Matters

What sells a novel? The ability of an author to capture the reader from the first line and never let go. I’ve read books fall far short of grammatical perfection but are so compelling I can ignore sentence construction. In freelance work, the space you’re given to work with is much shorter and if you’re talking to industry experts they’ll pick up on grammar issues. But story remains the key. Get readers past the first few lines and chances are they’ll stay to the end.

2) Plan Ahead

I was never much for planning out character arcs or plot developments, but after my third attempt at a full-length novel failed around chapter four I realized I had a problem. Great ideas only go so far when they don’t connect to a more meaningful concept, and so I learned to plan (at least a little).

The same goes for freelance pieces. Find a few interesting sources, then brainstorm about how they relate—this is even better if the connection isn’t immediately obvious. Work through a general plan for your piece, moving from intro to supporting paragraphs to conclusion. Don’t aim for a word-by-word breakdown, but at least get a general idea where you’re headed. That way if things go sideways you’ll know it, and you’ll be able to tell if writing off the beaten path is better or worse than the original plan.

3) Just Write

I can’t stress this one enough. Sure, most first-timer fiction novels land between 70,000 and 100,000 words, while freelance work tends toward sub-1000, but it’s often terrifying to put hands to keyboard and start typing. Bottom line, though? You need to write. This means when you’re not feeling your creative best, when the coffee didn’t kick in or you’re fighting with your spouse. This means when you’re convinced everything you write is garbage, you’re depressed that you can’t find steady work and you’re angry when you read content online that’s much worse than yours.

What I’ve learned over three novels and hundreds of thousands of words of freelance writing? Do it enough, and you start to do it well. Yes, that’s assuming you have some modicum of talent to begin with, but write everyday without exception and guess what, it becomes something you do instead of something you want to do.

Novelists, man. They’re long-winded and sometimes self-important, but offer salient advice for freelances: Craft a story, plan ahead, and always, always keep writing.

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