January 2

Books I read in 2017

  1. Double Dissolution by Lee Zachariah
  2. The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest
  3. Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
  4. Ruins by Rajith Savanadasa
  5. The Llama Parlour by Kathy Lette
  6. The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabb
  7. Relativity by Antonia Hayes
  8. Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka
  9. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
  10. The Hot Guy by Mel Campbell and Anthony Morris
  11. Vango: Between Earth and Sky by Timothée de Frombelle
  12. Vango: Prince without a Kingdom by Timothée de Frombelle
  13. The Apothecary by Maile Meloy
  14. Frogkisser! by Garth Nix
  15. Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
  16. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
  17. Chasing Odysseus by SD Gentill
  18. Trying War by SD Gentill
  19. The Blood of Wolves by SD Gentill
  20. Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
  21. Year of the Orphan by Daniel Findlay
  22. Theophilus Grey and the Traitor’s Mask by Catherine Jinks
  23. Down the Hume by Peter Polites
  24. Singing my Sister Down by Margo Lanagan
  25. Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang
  26. From the Wreck by Jane Rawson
  27. Psynode by Marlee Jane Ward
  28. The Last Thread by Michael Sala
  29. All this Could End by Steph Bowe
  30. The Intern by Gabrielle Tozer
  31. Faking It by Gabrielle Tozer
  32. Night Swimming by Steph Bowe
  33. The Restorer by Michael Sala
  34. Girl Saves Boy by Steph Bowe
  35. Remind Me how this Ends by Gabrielle Tozer
  36. Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire by Roy Moxham
  37. Notes on a Small Island by Bill Bryson
  38. Tea with a Twist by Alice Parsons
  39. No way! Okay, Fine by Brodie Lancaster
  40. Speaking Out by Tara Moss
  41. Something to Say (Frankie Press)
  42. Rose by Victoria Tyler Bassett-Wilton
  43. Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

So last year I thought it’d be nice to read through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels in order but I never got around to starting. I also failed to touch any of the Hugo-nominated works despite jetting off to Worldcon in Helsinki.

Instead, I read quite a bit for work (National Young Writers’ Festival: Findlay, Sala, Tozer and Bowe) and quite a bit of short stuff, ie short story collections, essay collections and novellas, which comprised more than a fifth of my reading. That’s likely to remain high despite a pledge to read longer form work because I’ve committed to read the Sydney Story Factory’s student novella collection as well as JY Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune novella duo.

Not as many series this year as last, just Gentill’s trilogy and a few pairs/second books (de Frombelle, Tozer, Ward, Jinks) but quite a number of debut authors (about a quarter of the list). No rereads, which surprised me. Then again, I have a to-be-read list that’s bigger than my shelf space, thanks to my tendency to purchase on Kindle as soon as a book takes my fancy. I bought Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust, so I’m likely to reread the His Dark Materials trilogy when I turn my mind to the new work.

I’ve started about three collections so they’re going to be swift additions to my next list once I sit down and finish them like a proper reader. There’s also a growing to-be-read pile of tea books that I often dip into for reference but haven’t read all the way through. Most of them are meant to be read like that, but I’d like to do some solid reading.

Interestingly, reading Ruins and Chinaman, both set in Sri Lanka, has catapulted Sri Lanka to the top of my travel list so we’ll see how that pans out as a destination in the coming year. Add to that tea! glorious tea! and it sounds like my kind of trip, eh?

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October 5

Sweet Sixteen: An NYWF Retrospective

This is the transcript of a speech I gave at ‘Alumni Ultimatum – Ne Oblivarus’ (30 September 2017), a National Young Writers’ Festival reading that celebrated the festival’s 20th year. It also marked my 16th year of attending.

I pass you on the street and I want to say ‘hello’, but you don’t actually know me. You see, you’re sort of famous. You were on that panel, the one with the funny guy who ran late. You spell well. You wrote a zine I thought was the best thing I read in 2004. You have a byline in a magazine that people have actually heard of. You’ve been published in Voiceworks.

I wrote this on my blog after the 2012 festival, which is only a short time ago in the long history of my attendance. To give context to my story, I want to take you back to 2001, which is the first year I started coming.

The global fallout from the September 11 terrorist attacks was yet to come. John Howard was Australia’s Prime Minister. And the Newcastle Knights were in the NRL Grand Final. (Time travel spoiler alert: they win 30-24 against the Parramatta Eels and the city becomes a carpet of red and blue streamers for days following.)

I was in my final year of an arts degree at Macquarie University and I’d heard about the festival from a friend, Lee Tran Lam, who was on a couple of panels. It was too late to book accommodation so I commuted every day from Sydney on the shitkansen (hat tip Marcus Westbury for that term). Don’t knock it, it’s a great way to catch up on reading.

The National Young Writers’ Festival was part of a cohort of festivals that would later become This is Not Art. At the time it included events focused on student media, sustainability and music, held in the formal rooms of the Newcastle City Hall.

I came away from my very first festival with three impressions:

  • Wow, these people know so much about writing and the media and speak so well about issues.
  • Newcastle is a phoenix that needs to die to rise again.
  • Linda Jaivin has a cool zipper necklace and I want one.

Since then I’ve attended every National Young Writers’ Festival bar 2005, when I was travelling overseas. I made my own zipper necklace. I saw the city’s renaissance through Renew Newcastle (once again, hat tip Marcus Westbury). And I have watched as festival artists established rewarding careers.

While Anna Krien never bested Phillip Gwynne at Shantaram shotput (apologies Gregory David Roberts), she has become a fine essayist and author.

And although Lisa Dempster did not have the cooking talent of Benjamin Law and Rosie Pham to win Wriron Chef—yes, a writers’ version of Iron Chef—she became the director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and then the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, a stint she recently completed on a high. I still have her Scrabble zine and a first edition of her travel memoir Neon Pilgrim.

Benjamin Law, you probably know, went from Frankie magazine columnist to Quarterly Essay-ist in that time, with ‘side gigs’ as a journalist, scriptwriter and The Australian‘s minority target du jour, ousting Yassmin Abdel-Magied for at least two weeks.

And me? I worked my way up from being an editorial assistant at a publishing house to being headhunted as a content writer, which is where I was when I wrote that blog post in 2012.

That year’s festival made me realise that although I was at home with my relative anonymity, I lacked pride in my writerly achievements, solid though they were.

That did a lot to dent my confidence in the festival space. I was not being the best writertype I could be, which is one way in which the National Young Writers’ Festival checks you. In short, I had done a lot, but I hadn’t shared any of it.

In subsequent festivals, I sought to remedy that. I gave paid work to freelancers I met at freelancing-themed events. I applied to be, and was accepted as, an artist to talk about freelancing, getting paid as a writer and being prank-called by Senator Bill Heffernan, though I should note that being prank-called by an MP is not a pre-requisite to becoming a ‘real journalist’. I also volunteered for the first Younger Young Writers’ Program, for writers aged 13 to 17, (hat tip Geoff Orton), which I directed last year and last week.

I am now a full-time freelance writer who earns enough money to pay her mortgage on a Sydney property and support a dependent. Admittedly the dependent is a mouse called Gustav, but he will never clean his room, so it’s like mothering a tiny teenager for the entire span of his little life.

I’m telling you this because I want you to know that the National Young Writers’ Festival has always been a community of sharing: highs and lows, ideas and experiences.

So… Hello, my name is Adeline Teoh and I used to suffer from the most imposter-y of imposter syndromes: the imposter syndrome you suffer in a festival replete with people suffering from imposter syndrome.

But fast forward to the present and here I am at the Newcastle City Hall again. This time, instead of staring goggle-eyed at the person at the microphone, I’m the one with the platform and I’m wondering whether you’re having a good time. Imposter syndrome. The struggle is real, people. But what the National Young Writers’ Festival has taught me is that we can transcend it because we have seen our peers rise. Like Newcastle. Like a phoenix.

Thank you.

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January 1

Books I read in 2016

  1. Tea with the Black Dragon by RA Asher
  2. Kaleidoscope (short story collection) edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios
  3. These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
  4. This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
  5. Their Fractured Light by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
  6. Tea: The drink that changed the world by Laura C Martin
  7. Mind Games by Teri Terry
  8. All the Tea in China by Wang Jian
  9. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Amberlin Kwaymullina
  10. Captive Prince by CS PacatCaptive Prince by CS Pacat
  11. Prince’s Gambit by CS Pacat
  12. Kings Rising by CS Pacat
  13. Captive Prince by CS Pacat (reread)
  14. Prince’s Gambit by CS Pacat (reread)
  15. Kings Rising by CS Pacat (reread)
  16. A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty (reread)
  17. Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty (reread)
  18. A Tangle of Gold by Jaclyn Moriarty
  19. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  20. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
  21. Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward
  22. Enamoured by Shannon Curtis
  23. Framed and Hung by Alexis Fleming
  24. The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan
  25. Secret Reflection by Jennifer Brassel
  26. White Tiger by Kylie Chan
  27. Red Phoenix by Kylie Chan
  28. Blue Dragon by Kylie Chan
  29. Earth to Hell by Kylie Chan
  30. Hell to Heaven by Kylie Chan
  31. Heaven to Wudang by Kylie Chan
  32. Dark Serpent by Kylie Chan
  33. Demon Child by Kylie Chan
  34. Black Jade by Kylie Chan
  35. The Beach by Alex Garland (reread)
  36. Formaldehyde by Jane Rawson
  37. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
  38. A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists by Jane Rawson
  39. The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp
  40. Freedom Swimmer by Wai Chim
  41. The Feel-Good Hit of the Year by Liam Pieper
  42. The Toymaker by Liam Pieper
  43. The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke
  44. Sabriel by Garth Nix (reread)
  45. Lirael by Garth Nix (reread)
  46. Abhorsen by Garth Nix (reread)
  47. Goldenhand by Garth Nix
  48. The Island will Sink by Briohny Doyle
  49. Portable Curiosities (short story collection) by Julie Koh
  50. The Last Unicorn + Two Hearts by Peter S Beagle
  51. Smalls Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright
  52. Dress, Memory by Lorelei Vashti
  53. The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery
  54. Delta of Venus by Anais Nin

Once again series dominated my reading, particularly fantasy, and my non-fiction reading was largely confined to memoir and tea books. I noticed a lot more sexy reading than previous years (though a conscious effort to read outside my usual genres did result in finishing three not-great romance novellas) but also an increase in offbeat fiction by Jane Rawson, Marlee Jane Ward, Julie Koh and Briohny Doyle.

A surprise hit for me was CS Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy, which was not just a page-turning queer action/adventure/romance series but written with precision and panache, an artfully constructed plot without sacrificing character development. Yes, you read my list correctly: I read it twice in a row.

This year I have a mixed genre pile I aim to get through in the next few months (comprising authors from Kate Tempest and Cory Doctorow to Matthew Reilly and Annabel Crabb) before starting a rereading project of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. I’m heading to Finland for the World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki this August too, so no doubt there’ll be a Hugo list to tackle in the weeks leading up to the ballot.

If you want my take on any of the above, hit me up in the comments or on Twitter (@witmol).

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December 12

5 reasons to like ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ (film)

I’m assuming you know what the film is about. If not, go read a synopsis and come back to this listicle.

It also helps if you know some things about the Potterverse and don’t mind spoilers.

Jacob Kowalski Newt Scamander bowtruckle
No-maj Jacob Kowalski and magizoologist Newt Scamander with a bowtruckle © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

1. Eddie Redmayne

Eddie is a great actor in the right role. Let’s pause a moment and consider that he won an Oscar for portraying Stephen Hawking, a real person, in The Theory of Everything, and also that he can belt out a tune as he did as Marius in Les Misérables although Marius is a ponce for running off with Cosette (yes, I’m Team Eponine). Also consider his catastrophic turn as the elder Abrasax sibling in the glorious mess that was Jupiter Ascending (“I. Give. Life!” is unforgettably bad but so utterly quotable, bless).

The Edster is perfect as Newt Scamander, a wizard who we discover was very close to being kicked out of Hogwarts (it’s complicated) but who seems to have an affinity with magical animals. The role calls for a certain level of diffidence when it comes to dealing with other people that never strays into meekness and Eddie traverses this fine line very skilfully.

The filmic Potterverse hasn’t cast so perfectly since sending Kenneth Branagh in as Gilderoy Lockhart.

2. Effects of repression

We get to find out what happens to a witch/wizard when they don’t get their [insert magical school] letter and are left to a world that doesn’t want them to be magic because magic is scary to those who don’t understand it and also sometimes no-majs (muggles) are jealous they don’t have any powers.

Turns out if your powers are repressed it forms a deadly force called an obscurus, which the witch/wizard cannot control and may kill its host. A powerful metaphor for so many other things the world tries to repress.

3. More than what it seems

Those of us who were impressed by Hermione’s handbag with the Undetectable Extension Charm in HP7, love the way Newt’s suitcase becomes different temperature controlled environments for his various beasts. (By the by, the production values for the animals were top notch, from the cheeky shiny-thing-seeking, havoc-causing niffler to Newt’s pocket bowtruckle.)

And just like Newt’s suitcase, the movie is about more than what you think it is. On the surface it’s a sort of fish-out-of-water chase escapade designed so children can understand it but actually it touches more mature issues.

As I mentioned before, the effects of repression is a key one, but there’s also politics, as evidenced by the tension around magical folk having to go underground because no-majs want to lock them up (the most obvious antagonists are the Salemists in this regard) and a throwaway line you might not have caught in relation to maj/no-maj pairings with Newt mentioning the US has “rather backwards laws about relations with non-magic people” as they are not allowed to befriend, let alone marry them.

Newt’s mission, in essence, is to encourage understanding between species—whether wizard/beast or maj/no-maj—to reduce hostility and perhaps even foster bonds.

4. Love is complicated

Too often we get the story of high school sweethearts marrying and having children who then go on to the same school (er herm, all of HP). I’m not a huge fan of romance and romance tokenism but I like the two love stories in the film, the first between legilimen Queenie and no-maj Jacob, an unlikely pairing but very sweet. Through his interactions with various no-majs we get to see that Jacob is rarely understood and Queenie, who can read his mind, understands him perfectly and likes what she reads.

Then there’s the awkwardness of Newt and former auror Tina whose relationship from the outset is built on conflict, Newt being a lawbreaker and Tina resolved to regain her position, before realising they are after the same thing—keeping New York safe—albeit for different reasons.

After noticing a picture of a girl in his suitcase, Queenie talks to Newt about his past love Leta LeStrange. We discover they used to be close at school but there was hurt there. Queenie reads Newt and then says “she was a taker, you need a giver”. When Newt is about to depart New York Tina asks, obliquely, after Leta. Newt mentions that he doesn’t know what Leta does these days, suggesting he hasn’t seen her for some time. Both of them make it very clear they want to see each other again. They do not kiss. Perfectly in character for both.

5. Don’t worry

As Newt and his no-maj offsider Jacob set off on a madcap midnight adventure to recover all the escaped beasts, the magizoologist adopts a rather casual tone about the increasingly high stakes affair. Don’t worry, he urges Jacob: “My philosophy is that if you worry, you suffer twice.” Best.

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December 4

An unfortunate series of decisions

Once upon a time I fell in love with chess. I was never very good at it—because I was too lazy to practice and didn’t have the patience to study it in any depth—but I loved the romance of it and appreciated its place in history, art and culture such that I began collecting chess sets.

On a recent visit to Singapore, I played my (then 7-year-old, now 8-year-old) niece. I hadn’t played in about 15 years and she had highly suggestive coaching from my brother (who once beat Australian grandmaster Ian Rogers in a simultaneous match when he was at high school). She won, but not before I’d made a couple of silly moves, followed by incredible solutions that turned out to be not to my advantage after all.

I was reminded of this match recently when I decided on a whim that I hated my desk. As a freelancer who spends both working and non-working hours with this piece of furniture, liking one’s desk is an integral part of both the creative process and ergonomic sanity. It had to go.

The desk in itself wasn’t offensive. It was an IKEA Micke corner workstation with a couple of small shelves, file drawers and nooks to keep business cards and the like. It was just that suddenly I noticed how my 27-inch Macbook Pro screen only barely fit in the corner and that the vertical struts of the shelves were constantly in my periphery. Once I noticed it, I couldn’t help but notice it all the time.

I was due for an update anyhow. It’d been years since I’d bought office furniture and now that I’d become a full-time freelancer it was all gloriously tax deductible. I set aside a budget of $500 for a desk and a chair but then decided I didn’t want some shitty chipboard construction of a desk. Unfortunately it turns out that the reason shitty chipboard constructions exist is because they are cheap and solid wood is, well, not.

Queen Anne folding desk
Serena—isn’t she beautiful?

Goaded by Google I stumbled into Gumtree where there were dozens of solid wood desk options well within my budget. Buoyed by this, I contacted a handful of sellers to gauge availability. I was particularly taken by two. The first was a large solidly constructed number with practical shelving and drawers. The second was a vintage folding bureau in Queen Anne style, far too small for my purposes but beautiful for writing on. They were both $100, far below my budget. And all I could think was: ¿por que no los dos?

Regrettable decision #1: buying two desks when I could only fit one in my office.

No matter, I thought. I could have the serious, practical one for the office and stash the Queen Anne one in my tea den, which would thus become my creative writing and correspondence desk on account of it being in my garage and out of wi-fi range and therefore immune from internet-fuelled distractions.

Regrettable decision #2: not having the desks delivered.

There’s a GoGet van down my street called Tanzi and I employed the services of Tanzi twice that week to pick up Emmanuel (serious desk; location: Anzac Parade, Kensington, a hella busy road) and Serena (creative desk; location: Pacific Highway, Lane Cove, a hella busy road) at a cost of something like $28 for each two-hour session + whatever the kilometre charge is for my GoGet level these days.

While $80-ish doesn’t seem like a lot to pay for picking up these bargain desks (recall I paid $100 for each of them), the opportunity cost from not working had now reached four hours, not counting the amount of time spent searching for furniture and liaising with the sellers.

I then encountered another problem: my partner and I did not have the muscle between us to carry Emmanuel (length: 130cm; approx weight: 70kg) to my office. It’s three stories up, which is six flights of stairs and five turns, plus we had to bring Micke down first. If I’d had the desks delivered instead of enthusiastically picking them up myself, I could’ve avoided this scenario.

I turned to Airtasker for help, offering two people $35 each for the task of bringing one desk down and hauling one desk up—a half-hour job, I wrote—which somehow spawned a bunch of people offering $230 for the task. Confounding.

After Airtasker failed, I started ringing around some local removalists I thought might be interested in the tiny job that could be done before or after another in the area. The best offer was $150. I then hit on one that advertised ‘no job too small’ and was quoted $60, which I took. For the record, the job took 15 minutes.

Regrettable decision #3: not measuring the right thing.

When I expressed interest in Emmanuel, I asked the seller for the dimensions of the footwell. I also took the time to measure its length to ensure he’d fit in the smaller space vacated by Micke. What I failed to measure was the height and depth of the upper shelf. In effect, it meant that either my monitor had to sit too high or too close to me. I tried working both ways and was rewarded with headaches and a sore neck.

What I needed was an underdesk keyboard drawer. Officeworks seemed to be the only major retailer selling them and it came at the lofty price of $109, internet purchase only.

(There is a minor interlude here that involves me buying the drawer on a ‘Click and Collect’ basis, dashing the 15-minute route from Chinese class at USyd [finishing time: 8:30pm] to Glebe Officeworks [closing time: 9pm] to pick it up only to find I hadn’t actually bought it.)

The arrival of Emmanuel prompted a blog post and the purchase of a brand new keyboard drawer.

Regrettable decision #4: setting up the desk.

As soon as Emmanuel arrived I went about filling his drawers and arranging all my accessories on him. When I finally received the drawer (thank you Officeworks, for the next-day delivery) I realised that it was going to have to be screwed in upwards, which is to say I’d have to lie down under the desk and make sure the screws went in perfectly vertically against gravity into solid wood while also holding the keyboard in place. Now, I’m not much of a handyperson at the best of times so this to me was like being asked to paint the Sistine Chapel.

All of this would have been avoided had I not set up the desk. If he’d been naked, I could’ve flipped him upside down and finished the task the easy way and we’d all be happy.

During these two days, I got sick and weak. I was too lazy to unpack Emmanuel (and clear a space in my office behind him big enough to accommodate flippage) and whenever I lay down under the desk, I began to wane.

Eventually, brushing aside pride and several decades of feminism, I employed my partner to do this task for me. His method involved screwing things out of order and using a drill to make guiding holes, two things I would never have thought to do having too much faith in the technical copywriter of the instruction manual and too little in my ability to avoid drilling a hole right through the desk.

So now Emmanuel is complete.

Cost of my folly

Emmanuel = $100

Serena = $100

GoGet fees = $79

Removalist fees = $60

Keyboard drawer = $109

(+10 working hours lost, unaccountable)

TOTAL = $448

Only $188 of which is tax deductible. And I still have to buy a chair.

(P.S: Does anyone want a free Micke workstation?)

Lessons learnt

I don’t employ strategic thinking for small things in my life and I rarely employ it for big things either. Somehow, though, fortune smiles down on me. What I lost when my niece beat me at chess, I won back in spades in bonding with her. Accordingly, whatever I lost in time and money on this stupid deskapade, I still ended up with two beautiful, functional pieces of furniture I’ll treasure for a while yet.

So there are no lessons learnt, really, I’m incorrigible like that. Except for an iteration of a lesson I forget sometimes, that things will work often out in the end.

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November 19

In which I decide to get over myself

When I was 7, one of my favourite books was a tall joke book called, I think, 1000 Jokes for Kids. It had a bold blue cover with the title in large snazzy orange font and was roughly the dimensions of a foolscap sheet folded lengthwise.

One segment was a list of fictional books and fictional authors all with punny titles like ‘Songs for Children by Barbara Blacksheep’. I remember clearly one from the list because it was the first time I had ever seen my name in a book. The pun title was ‘The Unfinished Poem by Adeline Moore’.

Fast forward some decades and I’ve decided I’m not writing enough for myself. I know exactly why, too: I’m one of those writers who don’t like to show their work-in-progress. I hate admitting that I have half-baked ideas, I don’t like my foundation of knowledge to be too fresh. But what this does is stifle the natural learning process of working through an idea, an argument, a voice. I want to get over myself. I want to forgive all the mistakes I’m going to make before I make them, knowing I’m going to make them but also knowing that I need to make them to progress.

Bear with me. Prepare for changing perceptions as I uncover new information. Allow for paradigm shifts.

So here it is, my newly anointed blog: Unfinished writing by Adeline.

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October 29

The swings and roundabouts of freelance client management

Freelance client management is like a box of chocolates: all clients look good but it’s not until you’ve bitten into one that you realise the relationship is a cockroach cluster*. Or a cluster something else, anyway.

One of the benefits of working as a freelancer is that you can choose who to work with. Do not squander this benefit by choosing money over your sanity, at least not for the long term. If your client is a douchebag, don’t be afraid to (politely) ‘fire’ him/her/them. It’s worth it. There’s an opportunity cost if you work for douchebags, because you could be working with someone less painful. However, if there’s nothing in the bank, consider ‘pain pricing’, which is upping your rate for people you know are going to be trouble so you can at least ease the pain with cash.

swings roundabout
The playground. More like freelancing than you can imagine.

How to find clients

Many freelance writers start freelancing after they’ve secured some contacts who can give them a decent amount of work. If you don’t have a Rolodex** of clients (or binders full of women) because you’re starting from scratch, or those contacts aren’t giving you enough work to keep you in cheese and wine, you’ll have to find some.

Approach clients you want to work for, whether that’s an editor at a publication or an organisation you like that you think could do with your services. As with any job hunt, do your research as to whether/how much they pay and the kind of work that’s likely to be on offer. Just say there’s an organisation you really like but it doesn’t accept paid content submissions to its lovely website, but will pay freelancers to write its press releases. Do you still want to work for it?

Network with other freelancers. Overflow work is always on offer. Find someone in a similar field to you and take them for coffee. Offer to help them with their workload. Once they trust your work they will feel more comfortable ‘subcontracting’ work to you or referring clients they cannot service to you.

Join freelance websites that post jobs. I do not recommend Freelancer as the kind of work and the rates are rather base, but services like Rachel’s List are worthwhile. It has an annual admin fee of $24.95, but I’ve scored several jobs there that I hadn’t heard about through other means, which easily made it value for money. Pedestrian and The Loop are also popular and worth a look, though I’ve never applied to posts at either of those.

Talk to people at events and have your business card ready, as you never know who might need you. I’ve been to parties where friends of friends ask me what I do and they’ve contacted me for my services. Industry events, for example conferences, are filled with potential clients.

Client expectations

A great percentage of client management is understanding what they expect of you and delivering at or above those expectations. There are two main types of clients I’ll discuss in this section: publications and organisations, under which I include businesses, government and not-for-profits.


Publications tend to have an established structure for managing freelancers. If you haven’t had a job in the publishing industry this process can be a little opaque, so I’ll take you through it.

Generally, the freelancer pitches a story idea to an editor. If the editor likes the idea, s/he will commission it. This involves a brief, a deadline, a word count and a word rate. You deliver on time, to brief and get paid.

Things to note:

  • Does the publication accept pitches? (Does it pay?)
  • Are there publication or pitching guidelines? Read them, heed them
  • Who’s the best person to pitch to? Find them, contact them
  • Research the publication: topic coverage, demographics, stories it has run recently and don’t suggest something that’s out of scope or already published

When I receive a commission, I like to confirm a few things before I start work. This is the minimum you need to ensure that you have a leg to stand on should the editor change his/her mind about running the piece (you may be able to extract a kill fee, for example) or should there be a dispute about what you’ve written matching what the editor wanted.

  • Brief of story including expectations re: interviewees, images etc
  • Word count
  • Rate (word rate or fee for whole article)
  • Deadline
  • Format (if applicable)
  • Contract (if applicable). A contract may state payment terms, copyright terms etc. READ THIS. Do not sign or accept the conditions by default if you are not comfortable with it.

ALWAYS SUBMIT YOUR WORK ON TIME AND TO BRIEF. I used to be an editor and it is actually amazing how many writers do not do either of these very basic things. Work that is 80% there but submitted on time is better than 100% there and submitted late. At least the editor know s/he has something to run, even if it may need work!

Follow-up is also important. If there’s no response (even busy editors usually ping back a ‘thanks’), call/email a day later to check if the editor has received your submission. I’ve been saved by this before when my email was playing up. If the editor says the piece needs more work, be available to do the rework promptly.

Once the editor is satisfied, invoice promptly. I like to make sure the editor is okay with the piece before sending my invoice, but for regular clients I now submit it in the same email. Just check what the editor’s preference is if you are unsure. S/he may have an assistant who handles invoices, or you may need to liaise with the accounting department.

If it is not made clear earlier, find out when your piece will be published (whether online or in print) so you can brag about it and add a clipping to your portfolio. It may also be a good time to sound out when the editor will be commissioning more stories and what s/he is looking for—you can then pitch again.

Other clients

Non-publication clients may engage freelancers differently and it’s certainly my experience that they usually come up with a brief themselves (rather than you pitching to them) and also pay by the hour or by the project rather than the word. My approach is simply to be there to make their job easier. If it’s my job to come up with ideas, I come up with ideas; if it’s my job to fulfil someone else’s brief, I fulfil it.

Just like with a commission, I like to make sure there are certain arrangements in place before I start work. I suggest you:

Ask for or propose a brief. If the client does not have a thorough brief or you are not confident quoting to the supplied brief, don’t be afraid to ask for further details. This is the professional thing to do and will help you scope the work.

Ask for or propose a deadline. If it’s a fairly long project, break up the pieces of work into milestones.

Quote thoroughly. This includes your rate, what is included in that rate, how many hours you think the job may take, and payment terms. Also include provisions for further work/costs should the job take longer than expected.

Some clients, if you give an inch, will take a mile, so be firm about the fiddly ‘extras’ that clients like to include but don’t want to pay for. For example, I include two rounds of revisions in my editing work but if the client comes back and says ‘just one more tiny change’ after those two rounds, I charge. It may be a nominal amount, like $5, but I like to show that there’s a cost to me (and them) to drop everything to accommodate something beyond the agreed brief. It also teaches them to be more thorough with their revisions next time.

As with publications, submit on time and to brief. I admit that I’m absolutely terrible with soft deadlines and will almost always bend self-determined deadlines so I ask my clients to set a deadline for me and I deliver to it. Once the client is satisfied, invoice promptly.


Juggling clients

A lot of freelancers like freelancing because of the variety of work and, in addition to keeping you fresh, a diversity of clientele is also good to stabilise your cashflow. My clients are mainly small businesses, publishers, member organisations and occasionally advertisers for a website I run. They pay different rates, in different cycles and the work is different for each.

On the other hand you may wish to specialise because you love a particular industry or type of work (for example you may only want to write feature articles). My only warning is not to put all your eggs in one basket because people move around and what you thought was a reliable commission can suddenly peter out.

How many is too many? Consider the ir/regularity of jobs, how organised you are, and how demanding they are. I have about 20 clients but only 5-6 of them are active at one time. I have one client on a monthly retainer and fairly reliable commissions from two bi-monthly publications; the rest is made up of ad hoc and semi-regular work.

Don’t forget it’s not just about the hours, it’s the headspace you need to service them all well: seven one-hour jobs for different clients will not take you just seven hours.

I’m not always good at this, but I have since learnt to prioritise and hone my time management skills as well as communicate with my clients to adjust their expectations when things are hectic. This is better than having them chase you when you haven’t delivered on time, which will earn you a reputation as being unreliable, which is almost the worst thing you can be***.

My next post will be on the craft of freelance writing.

This is the third of a series of posts based on a freelancing workshop I gave at the National Young Writers’ Festival on 2 October 2015. The first was Notes for the first-time freelancer and the second The Freelance Writing Spectrum.

* Yes that’s a Monty Python joke.

** An olde fashiony piece of office equipment that holds business cards on a wheel.

*** The worst thing you can be is Scott Morrison.

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October 13

The freelance writing spectrum

writing spectrum

There’s a myth about freelancing that comes largely from Hollywood glamorisation with just a touch of one’s own self-delusion. Being a freelance writer is not like being Hunter S in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or that neophyte whose name I forget in Almost Famous.

Nor is it usually a life of researching and crafting hard-hitting long-form investigative pieces that you file twice a year for a massive payload that sustains you until the next one.

The truth is writers undertake different kinds of freelancing to sustain themselves. Even the most successful freelancers I know don’t exclusively write in one area, and many do things other than write. This includes, but is not limited to, the following activities.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Freelancing is not like being Hunter S in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Universal Pictures)

Different kinds of freelance writing

  • Journalism
  • Content development
  • Ghostwriting
  • Blogging
  • Copywriting
  • Other media (film/TV/radio etc)

Freelancing related to writing

  • Editing/sub-editing/proofreading
  • Teaching/tutoring
  • Speaking/facilitation
  • Publishing
  • Consulting

Most of my income comes from magazine commissions, content development such as blogs and newsletters for business clients, and ghostwriting (bylines under my clients’ names). Occasionally I get some money when organisations advertise on my project management website, but I don’t invest time in the sales process so it’s usually pocket money if I do. Once in a while I get an editing gig.

I know of bloggers who sell some advertising on their blog but then earn a great deal of their income through other means, for example speaking and consulting, and I know of plenty of freelancers who love being a journalist but find they have more opportunities (and make more money) editing tenders and annual reports.

If you thought being a freelancer was 100% writing about unicorns (ie your pet topic), I’m sorry to say very few people get to do this. But don’t despair, because the above examples actually show how versatile the field can be.

If you know how to put good words in the right order, there will always be a job for you somewhere. You may not want to do everything you can do, and that’s fine—on a personal note, I no longer want to write someone else’s LinkedIn profile—but being too precious eventually leads to starvation.

That being said, remember why you’re freelancing. If it’s for the freedom to write what you want to write, then maybe the money is secondary. Perhaps you’re better off doing something else for income so you can write for pleasure (which doesn’t mean writing for free, but don’t rely on this income). That’s okay too, but if you’re serious about freelancing as an occupation, you’re going to have to consider the whole spectrum of earning activities you can undertake as a writer.

My next post will be on finding and managing different kinds of clients.

This is the second of a series of posts based on a freelancing workshop I gave at the National Young Writers’ Festival on 2 October 2015. Did you miss the first? It was Notes for the first-time freelancer.

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October 7

Notes for the first-time freelancer

freelanceDear writer,

My name is Adeline Teoh and I am a full-time freelance writer. I tap out this missive to you for two reasons: one is to give you an idea of what to expect when you embark on your own freelance career; the other is to provide you with a cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls when becoming a freelancer.

First let me begin by saying there are many writers who make a good living from freelancing, but there are many more who struggle. Sometimes you’re just not suited to the swings and roundabouts freelancing offers; occasionally the market will let you down.

The first step of your journey should be a mindful one, so answer this question: Why do you want to freelance?

The most popular answers are:

  1. To be able to write on a variety of topics
  2. To be able to choose clients
  3. Flexibility of workday

I would certainly subscribe to all three of those reasons, with time flexibility the most prized attribute. You see, I am not a morning person and have always struggled to get into the office (when I had a salaried job) by 9am. Moreover, my most productive writing period tends to occur between about 8pm and 2am.

I’d also add to that list: no commuting and no office politics.

As a caveat, you need to compromise on a few things. There is the potential for financial instability, a need to have (or employ someone who has) business and administration skills, plus a lack of immediate work social life and work-related support. Of course you can work to patch those possible issues but they are more apparent in freelancing than in most salaried jobs.

In addition to your primary skill (that’s writing if you’re a writer, designing if you’re a designer etc), you’ll also need a number of support skills. All of the following are definitely handy:

  • Budgeting
  • Marketing
  • Networking
  • Administration
  • Time management
  • Negotiation skills

I’d also say the following attributes are certainly common descriptions of my freelancing peers: versatile, assertive, disciplined and reliable.

Evaluate yourself:
What skills do you already have?
What skills do you think you’ll need to attain to be a good freelancer?

As an aside to that, I also find that freelancers are usually introverted rather than extraverted (which is not to say anti-social). This is because freelancing, even if you have a desk at a creative hub or similar, is a sole trader business and self-reliance is really important. Speaking in generalities here, extraverts tend to get their energy from being around other people, while introverts generate their own and can lose it among other people.

I know I do better work when I’m on my own, or am at least more productive, even on days when I have the flat to myself versus the days when my partner is home in another room. When I’m on my own I don’t have to think about other people, just the work.

A common question I get from young writers, journalists in particular, is ‘when is a good time to start freelancing?

My short answer to that is ‘when you want to freelance’, as opposed to when you are forced to freelance through circumstances such as redundancy or an inability to land a salaried role. Freelancing works best if deep down you want to freelance, rather than as a default option working towards or falling from a salaried role.

Remember it is a legitimate career choice in itself, even if it struggles to shuck off the stereotype of lazy writers turning in copy only so they can get wasted on goon every night (because times are tough and no one is gifting Grange). Most of the freelancers I know are incredibly hardworking.

A more practical answer to the question, one that will indicate you are ready to freelance, is if you have one or more of the following:

  • Solid portfolio and/or work history
  • Well-regarded subject knowledge
  • Demonstrable skills
  • Good network of people who will give you paid work
  • Decent understanding of what it’ll take to run a business

When I first went freelance, I had worked for 2.5 years at a niche publishing company that had a bunch of custom clients (car magazines, shopping magazines, a tourist bureau publication) and a couple of newsstand publications (a magazine aimed at professional women and one for the art, design and architecture buffs). I worked my way up from editorial assistant/receptionist to staff writer and figured I had a decent number of clippings over a broad range of topics to go forth and freelance.

I had planned to freelance while I travelled: a month in South East Asia, then three months spread over the UK, Europe and North America. I had saved a lot of money for the trip, easy enough when you live at home and your parents don’t believe in children paying board or HECS, and I planned to sell some stories to travel magazines along the way to sustain me and also make parts of the trip tax deductible.

The first year I went full-time freelance (2005/06) I earnt about $10,000… after spending $15,000 on travel and only a nibble on my travel pitches. Luckily I had a buffer of savings (and a roof over my head—thanks mum and dad!) but I had given it a shot and it didn’t work out. So I got myself a job.

I recount this because in hindsight I realised that it wasn’t enough to have a solid portfolio. I also needed to network, I needed business skills, I needed some way to show I knew about a topic or had the skills to write about a subject. The portfolio showed promise but it wasn’t enough.

If you are already working, whether that’s contract, casual, part-time or full-time employment, I would advise you to dip your toe in the freelancing pool before taking the plunge. Build your network of clients (whether that’s editors, communications managers, organisations etc) and put the feelers out before you leave your other job.

The second time I went freelance I started doing the odd job after hours in addition to my (very) full-time job. It was a recipe for burnout, so when there was a reshuffle at work I managed to secure a part-time role. This allowed me to take on more freelance work. It was not until I could see a dependable flow of lucrative work that I decided to become a full-time freelancer.

So if you have a part-time or casual job that allows you to pursue freelancing part-time, you’re in a really good position. Money is coming in, so you don’t have to worry about financial risk so much, and you can build your portfolio with stories you actually want to write, though you probably don’t want to work in a role too close to writing or you could risk burnout.

If you can help it, don’t go into full-time freelance work until you’ve saved up at least 6 months’ income, preferably 12 months. (No, I’m not kidding, cash flow can be a bitch.) Preferably this is after you’ve started by going part-time freelance first so you understand your work pipelines and cash flow etc—more on this later.

Be aware that, at least at first, you will need to have a tolerance for jobs you might not enjoy but take to sustain yourself until the jobs you do want come along.

My next post will be on types of freelancing you may not have considered.

This is the first of a series of posts based on a freelancing workshop I gave at the National Young Writers’ Festival on 2 October 2015.

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