Case Study: How I Landed a $2,500 Fiction Writing Gig

Case Study:
Turning What You Don’t Know into What You Do Know
By Anne E. Johnson

Sometimes landing a great writing client has a lot to do with taking advantage of your unique background outside of writing. And the more creatively you apply that background, the more interesting gigs you can get. 

I’m one of those artsy types with degrees in things that don’t usually lead to lucrative gigs. I’m not qualified to write in niches like healthcare, law, or technology that always need writers. My undergraduate degree is in classical languages (Ancient Greek and Latin), and my master’s is in music history and theory. Super practical, right? But it’s who I am, so I’m stuck with it. And I get by as a writer because I’m always beating the bushes for new clients.

One goal I’ve long had was to become part of a “stable” of writers for a book packager or similarly structured company. That is, to be on call for large-scale jobs – usually ghostwritten – that will be part of a larger series. Ideally, I’d love to write novels for a book packager. But it’s extremely hard to break into that line, so I apply for any type of work-for-hire stable I see on the job boards.

A few years ago, an ad from a company I’ll call Rainbow Inc. seemed promising. I pored over the job description to see if I might qualify. Rainbow Inc. mentioned wanting somebody with a background in “history.” That’s a word so general as to be meaningless, and most of the time it’s code for American or modern European history, neither of which I know much about. But I decided to try anyway. I was honest, but hoped to convince them that my background was broader than it seemed on a resume:

As a freelance writer and editor, I’ve focused on the sphere of arts journalism. As you might imagine, that work often requires historical research. That’s always my favorite part of a job. I find it’s impossible to research the background of a topic and not find it fascinating.Here are a few clips of pieces I’ve written with a historical context:

Amazingly, it worked! But I wasn’t expecting what the publisher then requested of me:

We are looking for an author for a book on Ancient India in a series called ‘Ancient Civilizations.’ This book will explore ancient India, highlighting fascinating details and key information. The book is interest level grades 3-6, reading level grade 4, 32 pages, and 3,000-3,500 words. Our rate for the book is $400, work-for-hire. 

Wait. What? I do have a lot of experience writing for kids, so that wasn’t daunting. But Ancient India? I knew absolutely nothing about Ancient India! I had to convince myself not to walk away from this opportunity. After all, I’d been truthful in my cover letter and resume, even if I’d been general. If they thought I was qualified, maybe I should believe it, too. I’d told them I was good at research. That’s completely true.

And they were offering me the job without my having to pitch for it. I’d be crazy to say no. So, I accepted the job and got to work. I mean work. Hard-core research, hunkered down in a library. None of this Google-search “What is Ancient India?” nonsense. I meticulously followed Rainbow Inc.’s very complex specs for the manuscript. I met every deadline: Initial outline, revised outline, chapter drafts. I was almost done…

…and I suffered a brain hemorrhage. Seriously. Spent two weeks in the ICU. The first thing I thought upon waking up after the neurology team had run a camera through my brain (well, the second thing after “Yay! I’m still alive!”) was, “The Ancient India book is due.”

Fortunately, I’d already proven myself. My husband sent them my almost-completed draft, and they accepted it as complete because I’d been so responsible and organized up to that point that they could easily finish it in-house. Once I was well enough to get back in touch, they told me I could go ahead and invoice them for the full amount.

Still, I was disappointed not to hear from them for a long time. After a year, I sent an email to the editor I’d worked with:

Last summer I very much enjoyed working on the book about Ancient India for you.

I just wanted to check in and let you know that I would love to do another project for Rainbow Inc., if you have anything coming up that might be appropriate.

Please do keep me in mind. Thanks for your consideration.

She wrote back to say there was nothing available, but she would indeed keep me in mind. I figured she was just being polite. They were probably worried I’d keel over dead in the middle of the next job.

Imagine my surprise when, six months later, I received an email from a company I wasn’t familiar with, and it began “Dear Anne, I remembered your name from your work with Rainbow Inc., our sister company.” Turns out, this was from the editor I’d worked with on the Ancient India book, and now she wanted me to pitch for one volume of a fiction series. And a successful pitch would pay $2500 (for 30,000 words), which was far more than I’d ever received for a writing job. Oh, boy, was I excited!

Then I read the description of the series, and my spirits sank. It was a STEM series for middle-grade readers, and each novel had to be about kids participating in hard science. My brain (healthy now!) was blank; I didn’t know enough about the hard sciences to come up with a plot that fit with their series specs, and certainly not one good enough to win a pitch war. I was out of my depth.

Or was I? Determination took over, and the creative juices flowed. I wasn’t an expert in the sciences, but I was an expert in music. The series didn’t allow me to use music as a science, so instead I made music an important part of the main character’s life. Once I’d made that decision, I relaxed about the science and was able to come up with a plot that I felt confident researching. (Hey, if I could write a book about Ancient India, why should STEM conquer me?) And, to make the story more comfortable for me to write and more unique as a pitch, I found lots of places to make science and music interact throughout the plot.

I’m not legally permitted to say exactly what my book is about – I signed a non-disclosure agreement because it’s a ghostwritten series – but the publisher loved my idea. As expected, covering the science angle well took lots of research, but it was fun to learn all those new things. I’ve since finished the manuscript and received my nice big check, and the novel comes out in September 2019 (without my name on it, of course, but that’s okay).

The moral of the story? There are three, actually: 1) Don’t be afraid to try for jobs that are outside your comfort zone. 2) Present your true, unique background creatively, so that potential clients can interpret it to their own needs. 3) Always do your best work, and do it on time; you never know what the impression you make today might lead to tomorrow.

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer, editor, and author. You can learn more about her at her website.


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