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The Road to Freelancing



I've been freelancing for a long time now. I've written for websites ranging from my own like Big Shiny Robot! (and this space) to Huffington Post, HowStuffWorks, Fantasy Flight Games, and StarWars.com. I've written for magazines and newspapers. I still have a regular column at Salt Lake City Weekly, which is the alt-weekly here. I had a weekly column before that in IN This Week, a now defunct weekly from the same area.

How did I get to the point where I was getting paid for my writing on a regular basis?

Well, it wasn't easy, for one. For two, no two writers will have the same path to that point. What worked for me might not work for you. And the path you take might be completely wrong for me. But I can tell you what I did and how I started and you can see where that goes.

Let's start in high school, shall we? I was on the newspaper staff for three years in high school. My first year, we had to print out the text and wax it to layout pages and hand lay in gutters. It was a nightmare but so fun. After that, we moved to "Aldus Pagemaker," which no longer exists, but it was great. I learned so much about journalism and writing in compact formats in that arena and it was something I could see myself doing as a career. At the same time, I was taking all kinds of creative writing classes and history classes and you can see where my trajectory was heading. I wanted to tell stories, both fiction and non-fiction. And then I stumbled into filmmaking.

I made a movie. I crewed on all kinds of other movies. Then I was able to marry journalism and storytelling and film in documentaries. The first one I did, The Misbehavers, will never see release. The second one I worked on was called This Divided State. It ended up getting picked up by The Disinformation Company and on the path to getting it distribution was creating a blog while we did a tour of the film at colleges and at film festivals.

That blog forced me to use all of my journalism skills to talk about politics on a daily basis and we got the attention of a lot of places. This Divided State appeared in everywhere from the New York Times to the Washington Post and our blog got linked up everywhere from Crooks and Liars to Daily Kos and all points in between. It generated a lot of attention for the film and the filmmakers behind it and that was sort of my first step in becoming a freelancer.

This Divided State came out and we got another gig. I was now producing a documentary film with a $250,000 budget about the politics of obesity in America. It was called Killer at Large. Blogging worked as a platform for us and we knew we wanted to continue that. We were contacting press outlets and asking them to write stories about the film and I contacted the Huffington Post. This was in 2006 or so. And they said, "We're not going to report on it, but we'd love for you to write about it in your own words."

And that's how I got to be a contributor to Huffington Post. It was a great platform and it got a lot of eyeballs on my words, but I was still working on the film. I didn't want to just talk about politics, though. I wanted to talk about nerd stuff. Who doesn't want to talk about nerd stuff?

So that's when, in February of 2007, Lucas Ackley (who was working on the website for Killer At Large) and I decided we would start our own geek news site. Voila! Big Shiny Robot! was born.

This was really the key to me being a freelancer. I was writing an article every day for Big Shiny Robot! Sometimes I was writing two or three a day. I was reviewing things, I was covering news, I was doing it all. And we attracted a team of other writers to do it with me. I've written almost 3000 pieces for the website over the last 10 years and it's that practice that helped me move on.

I got my first newspaper gig when Big Shiny Robot! got attention here locally in Salt Lake City. I met the editor of one of the weeklies here in town and began to cultivate the idea that a nerd column every week would be a good idea. That's really what it came down to, was developing a relationship with an editor and pitching them an idea that worked for them. And, at this point, I was offering to do it for free. I think this was a bad move, generally, but I didn't know any better. I was convinced my writing wasn't worth paying for. Looking back at some of those old columns, maybe I was right.

But I moved on to the other, larger weekly when they offered to pay. (I'm still writing there now, I just turned in my 140th piece for them). The way that came about was the same thing. I met one of the writers there at a party, cultivated a relationship, floated the idea, and they liked it.

After a while on Big Shiny Robot!, Star Wars: The Clone Wars started. And I was the only writer on the internet who was reviewing every episode. That began my journey into being a Star Wars journalist. Those reviews put me on the radar at Lucasfilm's PR apparatus. I jumped on twitter so I could be in on the conversation, and I started cultivating relationships that way. Since I was writing for print newspapers, I figured Star Wars Insider was my next step.

I emailed the editor and told him who I was, linked him to some of my work, and asked if he'd accept pitches from me. He said he absolutely would and I persisted in sending him pitches that got rejected for two years before he finally bought one. I've written dozens of stories for them now, but it took a long time to have the right pitch at the right time.

When I heard that StarWars.com was looking for writers to write on the website, it was the same thing. That was how I ended up meeting Matt Martin. I wanted to write for the site and he was in charge. I kept going to conventions and haunting the Star Wars booth until I found him and introduced myself and told him what my aim was. We exchanged emails and I pitched some ideas and I've been a regular fixture at the website since.

Really, I think the key to being a freelancer is to have a body of work (sometimes that's hard to do when you're just starting out.) I started Big Shiny Robot! and willed a body of work into existence. (I'd be more than happy to take pitches from writers for that site and let you build that work there, too. Email me if you're interested.) Then I just kept learning how to do what I did better, made connections with people, developed them into relationships, and didn't just quit with the first pitch.

Will this path get you to where you want to be? I doubt it. This is highly specific and an odd path. But all it took was a lot of hard work (ten or fifteen years of it now) and I'm where I'm at. I'm still trying to crack that nut with novels. I wrote my first novel in 2006 or so and put that away. I wrote my next one in 2011. I've published four novels now and a non-fiction book and some collections of short stories. I'm supplementing my fiction with a Patreon. I'm just putting in the hard work and building relationships with people.

When it comes down to it, that's what it takes.

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As for my writing recently: First off, I have a new short story for my Patreon that you can check out here. 

I had another piece come out from Fantasy Flight Games about the Star Wars RPG. Read that here.

I did a piece about the new Flintstones comic for HowStuffWorks that I'm pretty proud of.

I took part in this point/counterpoint about the best design in Rogue One for StarWars.Com. 

I also got to do an interview with Vanessa Marshall, the voice of Hera Syndulla, over there as well.

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As a reminder: Please join my short story Patreon here. Your contributions to the Patreon help me write more like this.

The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page. 

Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process. 

 As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you.

 And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!

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