No-vember by Laurie Calkhoven

Like many of the writers who contribute to Smack Dab, I have trouble saying no. For me it manifests in a knee-jerk yes to nearly every freelance writing offer that comes my way. And I do it quickly, as if the job is going to disappear and I’m going to turn into a bag lady if I think about it overnight.

I had a slap in the face about this a couple of months ago. Things were slow in freelance world and I was doing research for my own historical novel. I was in that stage where I had a vague idea, but had to do some pretty broad reading to discover if it was plausible. I was flailing around. Then I was saved—I thought—by a freelance offer that arrived via e-mail on a Friday morning.

There were reasons to say no to this project. The deadline was crazy (three and a half weeks), the money was paltry, it was a flat fee vs. an advance against royalties, and it wasn’t a book that would add anything new to my resume. When I asked for more time and more money, I met a wall. When I pointed out that coming up with original ideas AND getting the job done in that short amount of time would be difficult, I was told not to reinvent the wheel. In other words, don’t worry about craft and creativity, just get the job done.

Still, things had been slow and the idea of working on someone else’s book given the trouble I was having with my own was somewhat of a relief. I found reasons, in hindsight, to support my knee-jerk yes. It was a new client. I told myself it might lead to more and better-paying assignments, despite the fact that I had already proven to the editor that I would work for a pittance. I didn’t feel great about the job, but I made peace with it—or so I thought.

Saturday morning I woke up with intense vertigo. I’d experienced this before, the last time about five years ago. I knew what it was and what to do to make myself feel better, but I also knew it would be about a week before I felt completely steady on my feet. Why am I so out of balance now? I wondered. I don’t have time for this. Then I realized—it’s this @#$%ing assignment.

I’d never quit a freelance job before, but I knew I had to. Losing a week of my super short deadline would make writing even a halfway decent book nearly impossible. I wasn’t sure the editor would care, but I did. I thought about it in my few waking hours on Saturday and Sunday, and when I didn’t feel any better on Monday morning, I sent the e-mail. The intense relief I felt when I pressed send let me know I made the right decision.

Since then I’ve come up with a list of four “musts” when it comes to freelance assignments. Instead of responding with my knee-jerk yes, I weigh these offers against my list, which includes reasonable deadlines, an editor who is professional and respectful (that’s a whole ‘nother story), enough money to make it worth by time, and it has to be a children’s book. More and more of my freelance projects these days pay a royalty, so that’s on the list, too. That’s a huge plus, but not a must. Another plus is to have my name on the title page, but it’s not essential.

If a project doesn’t meet those requirements, then I have to have a really good reason to take it on. It had to add something new to my resume or pay incredibly well, for instance.

Since coming up with my musts I’ve turned down a freelance assignment or two. I still worry about becoming a bag lady, but I have a lot less angst about saying no than I used to. I’ve also negotiated two two-book contracts for projects that meet those requirements and bring me joy.

Now I just have to attract the project that’s going to bring in millions so that I can finally get back to my own novel. Do you hear me universe? I’m ready.


  1. Universe, listen to Laurie! Wonderful post - how great to have an actual policy providing clear direct guidance for saying yes or no. Now I'm off to make mine...

  2. Thanks, Claudia. I thought too many "musts" would be stifling, and I didn't want to be too lax. Four musts is the right amount, for now.

  3. This seems to me to be about managing time. But then I think that almost everything that happens is about managing time.

  4. Thanks for this honest peek into the life of a writer who actually makes a living at the craft and doesn't have another "day job". As one recently retired from said "day job" I am dipping my toes into the freelance world and appreciate this road map to guide the way.

  5. Isn't it wild how our bodies "speak" to us? Love how a bout of vertigo made you have such an epiphany.

  6. What a great post! Thank you so much for reminding us of the importance of being selective with our precious time and craft.


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