Thursday, 19 June 2014

Freelance Life part 1 - Limbo by Jonathan Allen

The Freelance Life, if I can compress such a diverse practice into a two word phrase, is the only work life I have ever had.

I went to Art School from sixth form, and when I left, I was unemployed for a while, semi-self-employed for a while longer (while trying fairly cluelessly to 'make it' in a band. You know, the usual stuff) and then, finally, self employed, that being the state in which I have remained ever since.

I am actually quite proud that I have 'never had a proper job'. I feel like at some basic level I have achieved a not insignificant victory. I get to think of funny ideas and draw funny animals and get paid for it ;-) I feel that in the general scheme of things that is not supposed to happen.

To those gainfully employed in offices and workplaces, it seems a strange and perplexing way to exist. Where does motivation and discipline come from if you are sitting around at home all day? How do you manage money if you don't know how much you are getting each month? These are good questions but not really ones I can usefully answer as the freelance existence is all I've ever known.
"I get by. . " is about the best I can manage.

This perplexity goes both ways. For my part, I have difficulty understanding how people function in a world of hierarchies, office politics and regular work hours.

Aside from the obvious stuff, one aspect of the freelance existence that isn't mentioned often, as it pertains to the creative side of it anyway, is something I call 'Freelance Limbo'. A kind of suspended animation we go through while waiting for a response from the entity commissioning the creative work, or potentially commissioning such work.
I often refer to the process of undertaking a dialogue with a publisher as being like making a phone call to Mars, the conversation is hugely disjointed as if due to a massive time delay. (But unlike with Mars, it's only a one way time delay. . . )
You can be working intensely and enthusiastically on something, and can't wait to get approval to go on to the next stage. The creative juices are in full flow, you're buzzing etc. Then you send it in for feedback and just have to kind of hang there. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . all excitement suppressed. . . . . . . . while the wheels of the machine turn and somebody finds the time to assess your work and reply.

This is not a complaint aimed at publishers, but rather an attempt to reveal an undocumented part of the freelance existence, and to point up one of the issues that arise when one party ( the publisher ) is busy on several projects and has to deal with umpteen authors and illustrators who all want attention, while the other party is totally focussed on one thing, and wants to keep the flow going. It's an inevitable part of the process of getting a book published, especially these days of tighter margins etc.

It's something you never entirely get used to, but you learn to manage, turn the flow on and off, but it is wearing over time. It's frustrating. Your ability to influence events has been taken away and you have to try to put it out of your mind until the aforementioned ability is restored.

Do all freelancers have this frustration or is it just my issue?


  1. Thanks for highlighting the 'limbo', Jonathan! It's a part of being freelance that we are all likely to recognize. I'd also add the 'pah!' - when the feedback eventually arrives and it sounds like a load of nonsense. But that's better than the 'tumbleweed', when no feedback comes at all.....

  2. Love the "phone call to Mars" simile. And yes – the time lag can be frustrating. It seems to vary hugely between publishers. Some of my publishers can take months to make a decision that others can make in a week or even a day or two.

  3. Interesting, Jonathan. Once you're heard back, does the same level of excitement and enthusiasm return to your illustration, or does it then remain a subdued fizz? Or does it depend on the feedback?!

  4. Not so much subdued, as suppressed. You can allow yourself to think about it again, and get on with it. This is more about when it happens mid-project rather than on submission of an idea, you expect to wait for bleedin ages when submitting something ;-)

  5. Yeah, you wait weeks and months and the leaves fall from the trees and the cheese in your fridge grows a beard.. and then they say 'can you get it back to us by Friday?' Aargh!

    1. Yes, unfortunately the person doing the money doesn't usually understand the level of commitment to the worlds we create. They have no real concept of the way you move into that state of mind that allows you to pick up the thread, find that enthusiasm and involvement with your characters, and remember the feeling of the process that you use to bring them to the world. It's good that we know how to do it . It can be very hard to pick it up again. I also find it very odd that they spend so much time with everything else that the one part of the process that needs time is squashed into such a short space on the schedule .I find keeping an image of the early character work that I was happy with, maybe the original sample that works helps me to get back to the characters.

  6. Great post, Jonathan! I find that one has to have a knack to keep focused and motivated about the next creative endeavour, whilst waiting for a reply. It's gold dust when an editor or AD actually dialogues continually with you so that you can carry on in the creative flow of shaping your picture book! The bit I loved most when I was editing for a big publisher was the creative storyshaping process, but unfortunately, the admin, sales & marketing side seems to put pressure on editors' time more and more. Luckily, since setting up Blue Elephant Storyshaping, I have been able to get back to editing and helping people shape their stories full-time - yay!