January 24

Their Little Lives

Dora died on a Monday night. Her limp white body felt smaller, lighter, than the square of paper towel we used as a shroud. We buried her in a Leggo’s tomato paste box in the front yard just as it began to rain. My partner, a 50-year-old man, cried as I piled the earth back over the hole. “She’s just a mouse… why do I feel so sad?”

As a pet mouse, Isadorable ‘Dora’ Cu Chi Coo was not expected to live a long life. The average pet mouse lives 18-30 months in good health and Dora was not well in the closing days of hers. Triply named after her cuteness, willingness to explore (à la Dora the Explorer) and a love of tunnels (Cu Chi in Vietnam), Dora embodied everything that was endearing about pet mice. She was not as bolshie as her cagemate Marlene ‘Peaches’ Dietratte, whose entire purpose in life was to hide from humans forever and, if she did get caught, to bite the hand that fed her. She was not as demure as Wilde, whose pensive demeanour reminded us of an aphorism by her namesake Oscar: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” She was sweet, loved being handled, and performed her duties as a cagemate well. And at nine months, died too young.

Peaches (on house), Wilde (coming out of house) and Dora (coming out of tunnel)

The first death is the deepest

The other two passed under the care of a mouse-sitter a year later while we were on holiday. The day after we returned home, I picked up their bodies and shed some tears with the sitter. Later, I wrapped them in an old cloth and buried them together in the front yard near to Dora’s grave. For some reason their passing didn’t impact me as much as Dora’s. Was it because Dora was my favourite and her death had been the hardest blow? Or had the first death primed me for the following ones?

People often think of mice as pets for children. They are easy to look after, good for smaller homes and teach kids about pet responsibility. But inevitably, their little lives mean children will need to face their deaths.

Death of a pet is often used as a teachable moment. It is commonly the first death a child will experience, and the manner in which parents handle the process of communicating the death, treating the dead animal and managing grief becomes a model for how the child might handle later encounters with death. This will also reflect the family’s values: religious parents may talk about how the pet has gone to God; avoidant parents might talk about the animal going to ‘the farm’ or ‘the forest’. Very young children find it very hard to understand death’s permanence, so it is crucial for them to understand that their pet will never wake up, or that an absent pet will never return.

Relationships also matter. I cried more about Dora than I did when either of my grandmothers died (one grandfather had passed before I was born, the other when I was too young to know him). Maybe it was because she was my colleague as I spent late nights at the computer so I felt a bond that I did not share with my grandmothers, who lived in another country, to whom I barely spoke. Perhaps it is because both grandmothers had lived full lives, they were old and their times had come, whereas Dora was barely halfway through an already short lifespan. Or it could have been that, as Dora’s caregiver, I may have been able to do more to save her compared to my grandmothers, who died in a foreign land.

About a month after we buried Peaches and Wilde I bought two boys, fuzzy Rex mice we called Arthur and Gustav after our favourite kings, one fictional, the other Swedish. Parenting guides are split on this practice. On one hand, having a new pet – especially with a different personality to the former one – can help with the grieving process. It takes the focus off the sadness of loss and reminds kids of the joy of having a pet again. On the other, parents need to avoid sending the message that an individual pet is replaceable.


As adults, we understood Arthur and Gustav would never be like Dora, Peaches and Wilde. While Arthur was timid and loved to be petted, Gustav spent the entirety of his time asserting his dominance over both his brother and his hapless human handlers. The military spirit of Gustavus Adolphus reigned within.

We had them a year before we holidayed again. An acquaintance who’d had mice as a boy offered to look after them. He lived closer than the mouse-sitter I’d used previously, and it was nice to know they’d be in friendly hands. I told him the story of my girls, priming him for the possibility that they might not make it through to my return and instructed him not to tell me if they passed while I was away.

Upon my return I learnt that Arthur had crossed over the rainbow bridge several days prior and had been buried in the park nearby. So it was recalcitrant Gustav I took home that day. He was in rude health considering the recent demise of his brother, but I’m guessing that if you only live for 18 months, ten days is a long time ago.

We formed an uneasy relationship. I couldn’t, of course, prove that Gustav had topped Arthur but suspected him of relentless bullying that probably contributed.

When he started hiccoughing, a sign of respiratory issues, he was 17 months old – one month shy of the line where I’d issue only palliative care. I took him to the vet.

One thing you don’t realise about vet waiting rooms until you walk in with a mouse is that it is full of animals much, much larger than yours, many of which are predators – not just watchful cats but adorable Yorkshire terriers and otherwise friendly rats. I was relieved when a vet called us in. I paid $200 for the privilege of her small pets expertise and a few millilitres of broad range antibiotics to be administered via mouth. I was also to buy a tin of Ensure, a nutritional supplement, and feed him manually because he would lose his appetite on the drugs.

Drugging and feeding a sick mouse who resents you is a thankless task. Because they are small, it’s difficult to hold them in a way that is both comfortable for them but allows you to force things they don’t want to consume down their throats. The only way to constrain them safely is to wrap them like a burrito in a hankie so they stop scrabbling. Eventually Gustav resigned himself to my ministrations and somehow, in my thrice daily care for him, I grew to love him.


About three months after he recovered, he relapsed. He started wheezing and losing weight so I defrosted the remaining Ensure and made enquiries of my pet-owning friends about drugs I could siphon to give him another fighting chance, although he had officially entered the palliative-care-only period. It was because of this close attention that I saw he’d developed bumps on his paws. They were not advanced enough to cause him to limp, but I suspected bumblefoot, a bacterial infection. I decided to disinfect his feet, so placed him gently in a takeaway container with a shallow pool of warm saltwater. As I dried his paws with a cloth, he drew his last breath, eyes still bright in the diffuse sun reflecting off the bathroom tiles. Did I drown him by accident? Did his lungs finally give out? Or was it multiple conditions ganging up to issue the final blow?

Gustav was not my favourite mouse, but his death hit me unexpectedly hard. I had been so involved in the last months of his life – we had grown strangely close to one another – that I seemed to take it more personally than any of the others.

I buried him in the front yard wrapped like a burrito in the cloth I’d been using as a towel. Within earshot, a real estate agent was showing a neighbouring apartment to prospective tenants. I didn’t care if they saw me dig the grave. I’ve never known a funeral to stop for a flat inspection.

This essay was shortlisted for the New Philosopher Writers’ Award, themed ‘Death’.


P.S: At the time of writing, I have two new Rex boys, Olaf (a Manx named after a former king from the Isle of Man)…

Olaf is ridiculously photogenic

…and Nero, who is quite a mild-mannered mouse considering he is named after the tyrannical Roman Emperor. Nero once cured himself of necrosis of the tail by chewing off the diseased bits.

Nero is much cuter in real life than he looks in photos

They are brothers and lived together for a while until Olaf insisted on picking fights, despite the fact that Nero is 15g bigger. They are now neighbours.

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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.

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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