How I Stumbled Into Freelance Writing

First post on the new blog, so I guess I should start at the beginning.  This is the story of how I stumbled more-or-less by accident into my new career as a freelance writer.  You’ll laugh.  You’ll cry.  You’ll cringe.  Possibly, you’ll think to yourself that I am a dumbass of the highest order.

All true, so here goes:

I had a fabulous job in Atlanta, right up until the bottom fell out of the economy in December 2007.

Our entire department evaporated, and I moved to the sleepy little town of Conway, SC with my wife at the time (now ex-wife).

For more than a year, I joined the legions of other jobless folk, looking for ANYTHING that would bring in a steady paycheck.

When I finally found something, it was as a security guard.  Guarding an empty parking lot of some beach side condos.  A staggering seventy-five percent pay cut, but I took it because it was the only job to be had, and while I guarded the empty parking lot, I taught myself internet marketing and started working feverishly making MFA (made for Adsense) sites.

My first month, I made a whopping twenty-four cents.  I’d put more than three hundred hours into research and design, and I made twenty-four cents.

Honestly, I wanted to cry, and I’m not one given to doing that, but I kept at it, figuring that if other people could make money at it, then God Damnit, so could I!

Slowly, my numbers improved.  I got my little stable of sites up to about $500 a month.  That, plus my income as a security guard was still a far cry from the cushy IT job, pre-recession, but it was progress, and it gave us some breathing room….

…right up until Google changed the game with the “Panda” update.

My Adsense income cratered, losing 90% of its value overnight.

It was the same BS game, just a different set of players.

I still have the sites, but I don’t touch them any more.  Every few months I manage to make another hundred bucks, and Google sends me a direct deposit, but I didn’t want to have to reinvent my sites every time Google got a wild hair up their arse and decided to upend the board again (they’ve done it three more times since).

So…there had to be something.

For me, the something was writing.

I’d always loved writing.  Always wanted to try my hand at it and see if I could actually get someone to pay me to do it.

I stumbled into a content mill type site, where people who needed web content would post jobs, and the writer-members of the site could grab them up.

The pay was wretched, because I found myself in head-to-head competition with guys in India and the Philippines, and they could survive on a whole lot less than I could, but I met them price for price, and produced a better product, because I had one thing they didn’t:  I could actually write coherent English, and most of the foreign writers on the content mill site could not.

Have you ever tried to make the rent by writing pieces paying $0.96 a pop?

It’s not easy. In fact, it’s so not-easy that when I first started out (I was divorced by this time), I actually moved into an animal shelter.

Yes, you read that correctly.

There was an animal shelter in Georgetown, SC that focused on cats. I moved in…literally became a resident, and in exchange for a place to sleep at night, I became their resident “Cat Wrangler.” My “job” for the sanctuary was to socialize feral cats.

The way that worked is this: Someone from the sanctuary would bring me a burlap sack. In it was a hissing, screaming Demon-Cat that had never in its life had a human being treat it like anything other than shit.

The staffer would lock the door once the bag was in the room and they were safely out. The rule was, the door did not unlock until either the cat stopped screaming, or I started.

That was life.

Taming feral cats and writing anytime I wasn’t doing that, often with my hands raw and bleeding, the consistency of hamburger, courtesy of the aforementioned Demon-Cats.

It was probably the best ten months of my life, but back to the writing, and trying to actually GET anywhere, ninety-six cents at a time:

That part was frustrating.  Exhausting.  In a word, it was shitastic, but you know what else?  It works. It’s a great way to get your name out there.  It shows your clients that you’re willing to do the work for peanuts in order to make a name for yourself.  Then, once you HAVE that reputation, you can start charging more.

This happens rather automagically.  You don’t actually have to do anything.  The reality is that you can only write so many hours a day.

Once people know you CAN write, they start asking for you personally, until so many are asking for you that you have to make choices about who to write for.

Obviously, if you’re trying to keep the lights on, the guys who offer the most money get moved to the head of the line, and you do their pieces first.  Then, if you have any spare time, you start working through the lower paying gigs.

The guys offering the lower paying gigs don’t like this, but they get it.  They understand that you’ve got bills to pay, and one of two things happen:  They either raise their rates, so that they get moved to the head of the line, or they leave you be.

How long does that take?

The short answer is – it depends.  It’s probably different for everyone.  If you’re trying like hell to make a living at it, then you’ll put in as many hours as it takes, even if it sees you working sixteen hour days in the beginning.  So be it, and if you’re willing to do that, it’ll happen faster for you than it will for someone who’s writing part time or mostly as a hobby.

If you’re hungry though, and you want to eat, you can make it happen pretty quickly.

In my case, it took about three months of subsistence-level living, before I started seeing my rates rise, and got a little breathing room.

I’m finding too, that the writing is cyclical.  In the summer months, things get eerily quiet.  Be ready for that.  You’ll notice a lull.  In my case, I saw about forty percent of my business evaporate over the summer.

It all came back in the fall, and then some, but the first time it happened, it freaked me the hell out.  I hadn’t prepared for it, and suffered through some more lean times.

Now, I’m wise to the game, and I make sure to sock away funds when times are good, and build a stockpile of things I know I’ll need.  Then, when times get lean, I’m covered.

Now, two years in, I definitely won’t say I’m ready for anything because who the hell knows what tomorrow will bring, but I know this:  I’m good at what I do, and my clients agree.  They let me know they agree when they keep rehiring me to do work for them, and I make sure my clients are happy campers.  It’s win-win.

There are lots of different paths you can take into the world of freelancing, but whatever road you take to get here, one thing’s for sure.  You’ll find success a whole lot faster when you simply have no other choice in the matter.

Since beginning, a lot of people have asked me, “Chris, how do you know when you’re a successful writer?”

I’ve always been fond of the answer Stephen King gave to that question.  The answer is this:

When someone pays you for something that you write, and you then take that money and pay a bill with it – you’re there.  You’re successful.  Keep doing that, and build your income to whatever you want it to be.

Wise words from a wise man.

More later.


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