The Perils of Work-for-hire Writing

I’ve been under the cosh for the past week – swine flu takes its toll of everyone, but if you’re a freelancer, and you can’t work, it’s particularly tough.

One of the projects I’ve been trying to catch up on is a largish chunk of spec writing which, if I win the job, will be a work-for-hire project. A lot of ‘real’ writers are sniffy about this kind of work, saying it’s not real writing, but to me it seems a bigger test of your writing skills than any other.

Okay, it can be a bit paint-by-numbers. You’re given the outline of the work: whether it’s a short story, novel, screenplay or whatever, and that outline can be anything from sketchy through to incredibly detailed. Then you produce a section of that work, on spec, and if yours is judged the most appropriate (note, I don’t say the best, although often I think the two are the same thing) you’ll be the lucky writer contracted to complete the piece and receive a fee.

A fee but no acclaim, because it will go out under another name, usually a marketing department invention. And if the work is successful, you may be invited to repeat the process with another project or you could find yourself back in the pool, swimming with all the other work-for-hire writers, and competing for the same work.

So what’s the upside, you’re asking?

There’s quite a lot of upside, actually. First, the project is almost guaranteed to see print or production, depending on its nature. Second, your income is guaranteed too, you get a fee and usually if you’re working for the good guys, a percentage on the sales too. Third, you get to really test yourself.

Oh yes. Because when you have a hazel-eyed youth who’s trained as a mechanic but really wants to be a guitarist, his lazy father and slovenly mother, the family dog and an elderly neighbour who encourages the boy but is developing senile dementia, all of them in Birmingham … well, the only thing that can make your offering gleam out of the heap of other offerings for the project is that nebulous, wonderful, oft-sought quality – voice. (I made up that scenario, by the way, it’s not what I’m working on at all).

Voice – that which we are all supposed to develop and most of us have not much clue how to ‘discover’ and ‘nurture’. Well, oddly enough, and in my case at least, by removing the need to plot, I find it easier to establish voice.

Of course I don’t always win. In fact my track record to date, on longer fiction, is specced for three, won one, lost two. On shorter fiction … well, not to boast, but I’ve never had a work-for-hire piece that I've bid for fail, and I’ve never had a piece not make it to publication.

Of course, the name on the work isn’t mine, and that puts some people off. But in the trade, people who matter know about who does which work-for-hire, and it’s a good card to have in hand with a publisher, I gather, because if they are considering your novel and wonder if you have ‘legs’, then having a solid track record of producing work-for-hire shows that the pellucid work of original fiction in front of them probably won’t be a flash in the pan.

There are big downsides too: getting rejected is a bummer, especially if you did a lot of work on your spec sample. Finding out that somebody you know got the work can test your ability to be gracious in the face of disappointment. But the biggest peril is when you fall in love with the characters you’re speccing, and you don’t get the job: because then you have these orphans in your head forever. You can’t use them, and they don’t go away.

But despite that, I love trying my hand at a work-for-hire spec, and when I win, I’m over the moon. And my voice strengthens … as does my bank account!

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