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Freelance Writer: Joselin Linder

Lots of people dream of life as a freelance writer. No boss! No commute! Creativity!

Joselin Linder, a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, shares what it’s like to actually make a living in the ever-changing publishing industry. Yes, you can work in pajamas sometimes, but without the anchor of an employer, you have to be creative in your work and in your job search, persistent with pitches and strict about self-discipline.

Since 2005, Linder has published several books and contributed to numerous radio programs and websites. She talked with JMA about how she makes a living as a writer and offers advice for everyone who thinks, “I have a book in me.”

JMA: There are so many ways to be a writer. So, what do you do?

JL: I write books mostly. I studied English and have always written, but I feel like your 20s should be spent figuring it out. I did a lot of waiting tables, volunteering, temping. So I had a lot of work experience, but it took me until I was a little older and really ready for a change to figure it out.

JMA: How did you decide to make writing your career?

JL: I was 30 when I moved to New York. I had some money saved and really wanted to work in independent film. As time went on, I realized that to succeed in film, I would have to really love film — and I didn’t really love it. During that time, I was helping organize a fundraiser when I connected with someone on the planning committee. I was telling her all of these stories about how I’d dated various roommates over the years. She happened to be an agent looking for an author to write a book about co-habitation and asked if I would be interested. I wasn’t actively thinking, “I want to be a writer.” I had always just been a writer, but I hadn’t considered it a real career option until that moment.

JMA: It almost sounds like you lucked into this career, but that can’t be the whole story.

JL: There’s luck involved with everything, but you have to be ready and able to field the offer and respond. I was unhappy where I was and really open to change when we had that initial conversation. I went home that night and sent her an email asking to see successful sample pitches and, within two days, I sent her a pitch for the book. She became my first agent.

JMA: How did having access to an agent early on impact your career?

JL: She was diligent about finding editors who needed writers and I was part of a stable of writers that she knew could write in multiple genres and voices. It was a fortunate relationship for me because I was able to develop relationships with editors and publishers across genres. I co-wrote two self-help books and a business book. Then an editor needed a humorous fiction book with a short turnaround. My goal is to publish my own fiction, so I jumped at that chance.

JMA: So let’s say you don’t serendipitously meet an agent who thinks you’d be perfect for a book she’s working on. How would you suggest getting started?

JL: When people come to me and ask how to become a writer — and I think this is true of anything — I say it’s who you know. I know someone who managed to social network herself to the President to help a kid with cerebral palsy get the chance to meet him. That’s just to say, there’s no limit on who you are allowed to meet and know. If you don’t know people in the industry, go to where the people are.

The biggest piece of advice I have for people who want to write is to write. A lot of us wait with an idea. We wait to try to sell it or meet the right person or whatever. There’s an old saying that people with deadlines don’t get writer’s block, and it’s true. It’s so easy not to write. Write it and then figure out what to do with it. I joined a writing group six years ago and have written two novels and tons of stories and essays. Now, I have these books and I’m in a better position to talk to agents.

JMA: What’s the toughest part about being a freelance writer?

JL: Figuring out how to make money. The vast majority of writers I know make money teaching or use their book to build a platform, which I thought about. I was like, “I will become a relationship expert because I have written a few books about relationships.” But I didn’t want that even though I thought I should do it. I wanted to stay in writing and publishing.

JMA: Publishing is constantly changing. Where do you see it going? Is the outlook good for writers?

JL: The industry isn’t doing great as a whole. There are constant cutbacks at magazines, and book publishing is in a huge transition. It’s nice to have big publishers that I have written for, but self-publishing is the future.

Amazon is basically crowd-sourcing from the self-published books it sells. If enough people buy a book, Amazon buys it — it’s kind of an awesome model for writers. You are getting paid what your property is worth. Publishing has always been a gambling system; it’s risk-based. But systems like Amazon’s take the risk out. If you do well, you get the benefits.

JMA: Aside from the actual writing, what goes into being a full-time freelance writer?

JL: Constantly looking for work is part of being a freelancer. My husband and I don’t have children, and if we did we might have different motivation and priorities. But it’s OK for us to have to hustle a little. I have steady monthly work for a branded magazine and an online company, in addition to the books. I’m also constantly pitching stories.

A big thing with writing, and this is the tragedy of all art, is that it’s a lot of manufacturing your own jobs. A lot of people don’t know where to look for jobs and how to be a writer today. There was reporting, then blogging and now it’s a lot of branded content. It’s about knowing where the work is, finding contacts and making the most out of them.

JMA: What has been surprising about the dream vs. the reality?

JL: Part of the depression and frustration is putting things out there and then waiting as no one responds. I had this big dream when I started that I would save all of my rejection letters and plaster them around for inspiration. But most of the time people don’t even bother to tell you no.

JMA: What do you love about being a freelance writer?

JL: I love my career. I love sharing experiences and information, and being in charge of my own trajectory. I have co-written a few books and I love that because it’s a tiny bit less pressure; but beyond that, I like being able to relay other people’s thoughts. When I work with experts, I really enjoy trying to understand their ideas and convey them in an accessible way. I say that I take smart ideas and make them stupid. It’s a joke, but I love it when I can understand a complex concept and help other people understand it.

I love the creative element of writing. Writing is a creative enterprise no matter what you are working on, whether it’s technical writing or sci-fi fantasy fiction.

JMA: What does the best workday ever look like?

JL: Actually, my average day is pretty great. It’s important when you’re your own boss to set a schedule and stick to it. You can’t cheat yourself. I have dogs, which is helpful because they make me get up at 7:30 and walk them. After the walk and breakfast, I spend about an hour on email, looking for places to pitch new work and contacting people with new pitches. For example, I have a perfect pitch for Wired, but I don’t know anyone there, so today I sent emails to people I know who might know someone.

I write from 11-1 — usually that’s personal writing unless I have a deadline. In the afternoon, I work on stories or come up with new pitches. I try to pitch three or four new stories a week without being annoying. 

JMA: What’s the salary range for a freelance writer?

JL: Freelance writing really depends on what jobs you can get and what you are willing to do. There are lots of jobs in corporate America doing technical writing. And lots of companies are hiring writers to manage their social networking. Corporations are looking to bloggers to create brands and narratives. With books, unless you have a huge audience, you might make $25,000 a year writing two books. Ghostwriting is also a great way to make more.

JMA: What’s the bottom line?

JL: Things take longer than you think they will, but the minute you set a goal, there are steps to get there. You have to take the first step and set the goal and then take the next step. Also, I go back to this: If you want to be a writer, write.

Joselin Linder is an author and writer. Her books include The Gamification Revolution, The Good Girl's Guide to Living in Sin and The Best Life List. She has contributed to NPR programs This American Life and Morning Edition as well as a TEDx Talk, online blogs, various news outlets and websites. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Brooklyn.

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