Not too long after I graduated from Hamline, I was stalled on my middle grade novel. A fellow Hamline grad set me up with her editor at a book packaging company. This place hired people to write kids’ nonfiction.
I let this particular editor know that I was really interested. I told her my interests were in writing for children and history. Not too long afterwards, I was contacted by the company. They were looking for authors to write titles in a series about the early history of the United States. I signed up for The Mayflower Compact.
My assigned editor sent me the guidelines for the project. Pages of guidelines. Footnotes were required. A thing called sidebars needed to be incorporated. I had to come up with primary sources. The text had to be of interest to sixth graders but written at a third grade level. And the kicker? The manuscript was due in 30 days.
As I stared at the (pages of) guidelines, panic set in. What the hell had I done to myself? Didn’t I already have enough on my plate? A carefully-researched manuscript written in 30 days? Impossible!
When the hyperventilating passed, I told myself to buck up. I was a professional. I mean, I had degrees. I could do this. So I descended on my library and checked out every single book I could find on the Mayflower, the pilgrims, early American colonies, Native Americans, the Chicago Manual of Style, and anything else that looked helpful. I found myself researching Increase Mather, the Little Ice Age, and scurvy. I learned that the original Thanksgiving feast lasted about three days, and everybody ate mostly venison.
In a whirlwind, I wrote. I met my deadline and sent a draft to my editor. She sent it back with suggestions and corrections. I looked over the manuscript and made the changes. After I hit send on my final email to my editor, I realized I’d done it. I’d completed an entire piece of writing—from beginning to end—by a certain deadline. I was getting paid for it. And best of all, I was getting published.
More projects came my way, and they keep coming. Sometimes, in my enthusiasm, I take on too many of them. Working a full-time job with weird hours presents its own set of problems, let alone trying to fit in research and writing. And unfortunately, many times my beloved fiction writing gets pushed to the back burner while I meet a work-for-hire deadline. Sometimes I collapse among piles of books on subjects like climate change or invasive species and scream that I’ll never do another work-for-hire project again.
But I always do. And here’s why: I really do love history. I love research. I love the extra money. I love fitting information together like a puzzle. Most of all, I love going to Amazon, typing my name, and seeing a list of titles pop up. Titles that I wrote.
Work-for-hire has been good for me. It broke me out of my holding pattern. It got me moving forward. It taught me how to work with editors, how to let some battles go in response to what a certain project needed. It taught me to manage my time a little more wisely.
So if you have a chance to take on some work-for-hire? Do it. Do it just once, for the experience. You might learn something new. You might find yourself having fun.
And I might serve venison this year at Thanksgiving.
Jamie Kallio is a January 2011 graduate of the MFAC program. A veteran public librarian, she lives and writes near Chicago. You can find earlier Inkpot posts by/about Jamie here and here.