Doing free work may be necessary on occasion, but most of the time it is counter-productive and totally avoidable. You may also be working for free without even realising it. You need to establish what free work is in terms of a writing career, why you do it, when you need to do it, and when and why you shouldn’t do it.
Free work includes when you:
1. Give away your time for no exchange
2. Provide value to someone for nothing
3. Spend valuable time chasing up responses
4. Provide more than you originally promised (against your will)
5. Waste time on something that will not give you a better future.
1. Writing stories for general submission opportunities over and over again in an attempt to get ‘exposure’.
2. Offering free chapters or free whole books to try to prove to a general audience that you are a 'good writer'.
3. Spending hours on correspondence with potential publishers that leads nowhere.
4. Spending hours interacting with other writers on social media that leads nowhere.
5. Editing and revising work based on others’ input that you don’t really agree with, just in order to get published.
6. Sending editors free samples of work to try to get their attention.
The reason that, as a writer, you need a framework for your career that eliminates free work forever is because once you have spent the hours on any or all of the above, if you made no money or created nothing that would make you money in the future, that time is lost. And as a writer, that time could have been better spent.
For a writer, Time is the basic commodity needed to build a career.
So let’s figure out how not to waste it on things that lead nowhere.
‘But,’ some of you will protest, looking over the above examples, ‘that’s just how it works! I have to submit work everywhere, offer excerpts for free, spend hours on social media etc etc — that’s the only way to get my work to readers! How else am I supposed to build a writing career?’
The first realisation that you must have for real is that you are already in possession of your biggest asset.
Imagine that you owned a piece of land. And you knew by geological survey that beneath that land lay several motherlodes of gold, criss-crossing in glittering rocky threads right under your feet, worth a fortune. Apart from a few digging tools, what would be the primary thing you’d need to get at that lovely gold?
You’d need time — preferably lots of uninterrupted time — to spend mining that gold, right?
So let’s take a serious look at how you can get that time — and how you can stop wasting it on things that leave that gold buried.
When you are doing free work for publishers, you are necessarily not mining your real gold, specifically the kind of gold that could rocket the value of your name and reputation as a writer. These are activities that can make you more and more profitable over time as a writer. They include:
1. Analysing your own work for its innermost themes and patterns.
2. Extrapolating on your own ideas and images to make your own work more powerful and resonant with readers.
3. Engaging with the right people on social media and giving them the right value (in the right amounts).
4. Developing your own community (as opposed to being part of everyone else's).
Some of this looks like unpaid work in the sense that nobody is paying you directly to do it. But actually it’s work which will lead straight down into the mines of your imagination and act to dig out the treasures that will lead to future wealth.
Boosting your own understanding of your own work through analysis and extrapolation is something that will reward you forever. Knowing what it is you are saying, and being able to say it better, is at the very core of what you’re trying to do as a writer. That understanding will continue to provide value to a potentially unlimited readership from the day you convert it into fiction until the end of time. Each new reader that interacts with your work will experience it for the first time, but you only have to write it once.
So it’s not really ‘free work’, it’s a necessary part of growing an ever-increasing profitable writing career. And the more work you put into this early on, the better and easier things will get later.
Plus it’s the only way of discovering who those 'right people' are on social media, or developing a community of them. That’s because once you know what you’re talking about, you’ll immediately be able to isolate who is going to be interested in it.
And by interested, I mean really interested.
Once you have a clear understanding of who you are as a writer and what you’re trying to say, you won’t be wasting time writing general submissions to everyone who has an open anthology in the vague hope of ‘being discovered’ and ‘making it’. You will know exactly who your target audience is, and therefore which opportunities to follow up and which to ignore. And then, over time, as you write the right stories for the right people, a community begins to grow around your work.
When you first start off as a writer, it’s absolutely understandable why you would need and want to give away some time as you try to gain experience and information to build your repertoire and expertise. If you have a clear, strategic reason to give that time away for free and a limit on how long you will do free work so that you can shift over to another way of operating altogether as soon as possible, then fair enough. But you want to avoid creating a model in which you are trapped on a hamster wheel of writing for everyone, all the time, for no pay.
Everything you work on as a writer would be based on forwarding your career and building more and more value for your future. Otherwise you’ll always be stuck doing free work.
‘So what exactly am I supposed to do?’ you ask.
You can a) go on hoping that some editor, publisher or a sufficient number of readers will one day ‘discover’ you (the ‘J.K. Rowling Scenario’) or b) keep plugging away at every submission opportunity that moves while in your 'spare time' trying desperately to learn more about marketing your work or c) develop a strategy which cuts through all of this time wasting and gets you a paid writing career in the shortest possible time.
The first thing you need to work on is your own work.
You need to create a ‘prospectus’ — a document which is For Your Eyes Only, which outlines who you are, what you are writing for (i.e. what is motivating you to write), who you are writing for, and how you are going to get the product of a paid writing career in the next few months.
This prospectus develops from your fiction: it outlines your main interests and themes, the things that really ‘turn you on’ in the world of fiction (especially your own world) and how you can extrapolate and strengthen them. It includes, therefore, by extrapolation, who your main readers are or are going to be, and what your fiction does for them.
If you’re totally new to the business of writing fiction, you might not be able to put such a document together easily, but it should help to know what such a thing is and to have it in mind as you are starting to write so you can craft one at your earliest opportunity that is authentic, provides value and that you are excited about. Done well, this document will be your handbook to eliminate wasted time from your writing career, and to mine that gold that lies waiting in the piece of land inside your head.