The First Year as a Freelance Writer

Hello, Geeks.

A lot of somewhat geeky professions—web design, illustration, graphic design, writing—have a high concentration of freelancers. And being a freelancer, especially in an economy that still hasn’t fully recovered post-2008 and that is plagued by unpaid internships, can be rough. The first year can be more than rough—it can be crazy. Between demented tirades from potential clients to curious tests of your basic integrity, hopping down the freelance rabbit hole can require some patience with industry-approved madness.

My first year out of university, I needed work and possessed a shiny new English and creative writing degree. I spent a lot of time on Craigslist (still do, but with a more discerning eye). I saw a lot of jobs posted—don’t let anyone tell you there are no positions out there for English majors—and about as many scams. When working in a creative field, telling the difference can be difficult.

One of the first positions I landed was not a writing position but an editing one, for a self-described self-publishing company.
There were some manuscripts that were better than their presence in the vanity press’s catalogue would suggest. My favourites were a surprisingly entertaining teen fantasy novel about twins and a short story collection about Chinese women having affairs. Most, however, were filled with run-on sentences, hysterical rants about men’s propensity to cheat, zealous tirades about the evils of secular society, and mistranslations that put “purple monkey dishwasher” to shame (I still don’t know what “angry ocean clothes” was a Google-translate garble of). I discovered partway through one manuscript that entire sections of the text were in the wrong part of the narrative, and that some events had been written about twice and placed haphazardly within the document (alas, this was not a story about time travel). I was given two weeks on average to fix each manuscript and paid what would ostensibly amount to “roughly” $10-$25 an hour. I never made $25 an hour; there were assignments for which the $10 estimate would have been generous (which would be below minimum wage here in Canada anyway), and my pay was usually late despite the contractually stated 30-day delay (which should have been long enough for them to come up with the money) and often arrived only after I refused to work on a new assignment until I was paid. I found myself staying up until between 3:00 and 7:00 a.m., staring at the computer screen, sustained by strong black tea, panic, and the company of my partner napping on the couch nearby in solidarity.

Two events prompted my departure from the sordid world of vanity publishing. The first was my discovery that the company I was working for was being sued on multiple counts of fraud. It turned out that the founder of the company was using at least 11 aliases—many of which bore female monikers, despite the founder being male and by no account transgender—and the scheme operated under dozens of company names, all of which were in the business of ripping off writers. I couldn’t afford to quit immediately, but I began to plan my exit. What finally ended my association with the company was a poetry manuscript with no sentences. The punctuation-phobic author had not indicated anywhere in her nonsensical collection which ideas were attached to each other—I certainly couldn’t guess based on context—and this confusion was clearly not an experimental poetic strategy. Gibberish-induced stress led me to the embarrassing scene of crying in the Yorkdale Mall while helping my partner shop for winter boots, and I emailed the company that night saying I couldn’t finish the edit, particularly not for under a dollar a page. They paid me for what I had done (an unexpected courtesy) and never contacted me again.

I can cheerfully report that the company lost the lawsuits against it and is required by law to compensate its writers for its crimes against their literary dreams. I’d like to take a moment to point out that a publisher should never ask for money to publish your manuscript. With self-publishing companies like Lulu and Smashwords, you are paying for printing and online distribution, but the publisher is ultimately you (and even with companies that let you control the publishing process, you still want to be careful that you aren’t paying for things that benefit them more than you). Know your rights before agreeing to a contract with a publisher—you deserve better than the writers who filed those lawsuits got.

Another Craigslist misadventure (this one for a writing position—finally!) tested my ethics as a writer through the founder’s gleeful disregard for copyright. Alongside writing an original 2000-word article, I was also instructed to find an existing article and reformat it according to their style guide. I assumed this was a test of my editing abilities, but it became clear that they wanted me to steal from other writers on a regular basis. The idea was that I would take an article from a website (without alerting the author), reformat it, remove any external links, and send the article to be included in the company’s weekly inbox emagazine. The original author’s name would remain attached to the article, but the writer would never be consulted about the changes made or be compensated for their work. When I protested, the founder laughed—yes, laughed—and “explained” that some people have an old-fashioned belief that they own the words they write. After some soul-searching, I emailed them to let them know that I wasn’t comfortable with their business practices and would not be able to accept the position, which paid a paltry $75/week. My contacts at the company immediately started to backtrack and deny their endorsement of plagiarism. They paid me for the original article I had written and published it. I can only hope they didn’t make use of the rest of my test assignment. To my surprise, the company’s founder has since unsuccessfully attempted to add me on LinkedIn.

While not every interaction with potential clients has gone so poorly or so strangely, these early experiences do not exist in isolation. With strength in numbers on our minds, a writer/editor friend of mine and I started a copywriting and copyediting business as a side project; in response to our advertisements, one student contacted us on a Saturday expecting us to compose two short papers and a 10-page dissertation for him by Tuesday morning. Unfortunately for him, we didn’t end up completing his degree for him. An equally memorable email arrived from an irate man we’d offered to meet in a coffee shop to discuss his project. In it, he accused us of “walking the streets”, a thinly veiled comparison to prostitution inspired by our lack of a permanent office space. The rest of the email, lineated like a very angry poem, was equally rude.

Though this may seem like a condemnation of Craigslist, I have found some good positions through the site. I tried my hand at ghostwriting restaurant reviews, and the only real downside at the time was not being able to claim the bragging rights. Ghostwriting can give you some quick cash, but it doesn’t help much with your portfolio. It was worth it at the time, however, as it made eating out on a recent graduate’s earnings feasible. I also got the hang of a new form of writing: the review.

Of course, Craigslist is not the only job site I use, and I’ve seen the same problems across the board. I’ve seen many job postings on pay-to-post sites that require high levels of skill and time commitment that end with “unpaid internship”. I’ve also found that regardless of where they advertise, too many companies expect writers to compose blog posts and articles for exposure (a laughable concept when anyone can create a blog for free) or pennies. When asked about job sites, I often say that I’ve found much of my best work and all of my worst work on Craigslist. Now that I’m more practiced at finding gigs, I tend to use sites like freelancewritingjobs.ca, which filters out a lot of the worst-paying positions for Canadian writers, and I scan suspiciously for words and phrases like “internship”, “exposure”, “build your portfolio” (not always a bad thing, but often a warning sign), and “volunteer” (a term misused by many for-profit companies) before investing in a cover letter. Regardless of where I’m looking, my first year as a freelancer taught me how important it is to recognise the value of your own work and not accept the lack of respect that has become the status quo. While I’ve definitely worked for less money than is reasonable just to pay my bills (and had to lean on familial support at times due to the fickle nature of the business), I’ve also learned a lot about the industry I’m in and found some great clients who pay me well above minimum wage. My first year as a freelance writer taught me how to write better, faster, and on topics as diverse as restaurants, provincial parks, cat-themed computer and board games, immigration, sausages (I’m vegetarian), and video marketing.

Despite the cynicism with which I sometimes discuss my job—or more accurately, my jobs—I stand by my choice to freelance, at least for now. While some gigs have been downright awful, I’ve also had the chance to mock bad ads for money and write about my addiction to the Waffles the Cat version of 2048. As for the less enjoyable parts—well, they do make for good stories.

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Geek Collateral at Fan Expo

Hello, Geeks.

A couple of us from Geek Collateral dropped by Fan Expo in Toronto on the weekend (on Sunday, to be precise), decked out in costumes scrounged from thrift and dollar stores. Devin’s Doctor Krieger met up with Archer, Pam, and Charlene, while my weeping angel was surrounded by Doctor Who fans.

Here are a few shots from our day:

As you can see, the Whovian contingent was impressive. We heard there were two other Kriegers there on Sunday, but sadly Devin was deprived of the opportunity to clone bone. The adorable Supercat outside the Fan Expo venue was a nice end to our day and a testament to the fun spirit of the event.

Did you go to Fan Expo this year? We’d love to hear about costumes you spotted or who/what you dressed up as in the comments.

Don’t blink,
Sarah

6 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books You May Not Have Read but Should

Hello, Geeks.

I must admit that I am becoming a bit of a geek-lit hipster: I love Tolkien, Asimov, and Martin, but I also like reading things that are a little outside science fiction and fantasy’s standard fare. I’m not going to claim that these books are truly obscure; after all, they’re all good enough to deserve to be on this list, so they’ve all received some positive attention from critics and readers. Many of these authors have won awards, but I still find that I know too many people who haven’t read their work. For that reason, I decided to share some of my lesser-known favourites with you.

6 science fiction and fantasy books you might not have read but should

1. Harrowing the Dragon by Patricia C. McKillip

McKillip’s full-length novels have their charms, but I find that her writing style really shines in the short story format. Harrowing the Dragon is filled with odd characters, curious tales, and beautiful language. Some stories are set in traditional fantasy environments and others are more modern, but all evoke a sense of wonder. McKillip is also one of those quotable authors, the ones who create not only good stories but extraordinarily well-crafted sentences to tell them with. She can get a little sidetracked by her own elegance in her novels, but her short stories are taut and enchanting.

2. Orphans of Chaos by John C. Wright

This is a sexy book, both in terms of its story, which is kind of wild, and its erotic undertones. It begins in a boarding school with only five students, all of whom discover that they have some sort of supernatural power, all of which draw from different paradigms (there’s some wacky scifi-fantasy philosophy thrown in for good measure). The students are essentially prisoners until they hatch a daring escape plan, kept from venturing beyond the grounds by school staff who are clearly more than they seem. This premise would be interesting enough on its own, but the story also has a dark and blatantly kinky element. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot of sexual energy involved whenever anyone gets tied up, and at least one love triangle. The book is also the first in a trilogy, so there’s more where all of that came from.

3. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

This is not a light read in any sense, but it is a great one. Perdido Street Station is both physically heavy (my copy is 710 pages long) and thematically complex. Set in an economically and socially dystopian world, this steampunk masterpiece actually had me crying a few times. This was due to both the painful realities of said dystopian world and the magnificent characterisation that makes said painful realities more moving. The world of Perdido Street Station includes both magic (“thaumaturgy”) and steampunk technology, and it is described so well that you believe it’s all possible. The story has a number of key players, but events are set in motion by Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a somewhat rogue scientist, and his experiments on a grub that only eats a drug called “dreamshit”. His experiments spawn catastrophe in a city where the social order is already wrecking havoc on people’s ability to function. This is a dark, intense novel that manages to combine wickedly cool scifi and fantasy elements with a story that tackles issues of class and race so poignantly that you find yourself itching to single-handedly destroy corporate greed.

4. Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

The title of this book is misleading, as the cunning and disturbed kitchen-boy-turned-villain Steerpike is the true protagonist. This Gothic monstrosity is the beginning of a series (one which I will admit I have not finished–Peake unfortunately started to show signs of dementia around the time he was working on the third novel–but the first two books work well enough on their own and deserve to be read), most of which is set in Gormenghast. Gormenghast is a labyrinthine castle weighed down and held together by ritual and filled with mad, tragic characters. The daydreaming, Ophelia-esque Fuschia, the increasingly demented Lord Sepulchrave, and the rest of this truly bizarre cast are entrancing. The book feels longer than it is, but this is in part because of the luxurious language. Peake is poetic in his horror (perhaps at times too poetic), and anyone who loves Edgar Allan Poe or William Gibson’s writing style should give this book a try, if only to enjoy sentences like “This was the attic of her make-believe, where she would watch her mind’s companions advancing or retreating across the dusty floor.” The first two books were also made into a miniseries by the BBC starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. This casting choice makes viewers far too sympathetic to Steerpike’s cause and far too enamoured with a character who is supposed to be something of a grotesque both physically and psychologically, so it’s best to read the books first to get a true sense of the character.

5. The Quantity Theory of Insanity by Will Self

Self’s book is a series of thought experiments made into clever, twisted stories. For example, the title story is based on the idea of there being only a certain amount of sanity to go around. Another story posits that the afterlife is set in a London suburb. It’s a weird, quirky little volume of short stories that, while driven by philosophical and psychological queries, is far from stuffy.

6. The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson Dargatz

You won’t find this one in the fantasy section–it’s generally considered “magic realism” and shelved with the capital-L Literature–but it has fantasical elements that are central to the events in the book. Most of these elements are connected with the Native trickster god, Coyote, and werewolves (if you need more than that to qualify something as fantasy, you’re too hardcore for me). The book has also been described as “Pacific Northwest Gothic” by the Boston Globe, and that fits the tone and plot well. It’s a dark story about a girl living with her impoverished and broken family in Shuswap Country, British Columbia. She is simultaneously discovering her sexuality; dealing with classism, sexism, ableism, and racism; enduring her abusive father; trying to untangle the truth behind local myths; and sneaking peaks at her mother’s recipe book, which sounds like a witch’s grimoire at times. The story is harsh, lyrical, and magical. Whatever types of books you usually read, you should give this one a chance.

These are some of my favourites–what about yours? Let us know which science fiction and fantasy books you love are being overlooked.

–Sarah

 

Sushi Cat’s Delicious Adventures

Hey, Geeks.

Do you love cats? Sushi? Computer games? Adorable animation? Chances are that you like at least one of these things; Sushi Cat and its three sequels from Armor Games will indulge your desire for all four. The game features a round, blue, sushi-loving cat who can only succeed in his quests for love and happiness by gaining weight. He does this by eating as much sushi as possible through a series of pinball games. Most of the sushi simply count toward achieving a full belly, but some pieces provide special abilities or other bonuses, such as an extra turn for the level or soy sauce bombs that allow you to collect all the sushi within the explosion’s reach.

Sushi Cat

Sushi Cat

Despite the game’s simplicity (the game requires only the ability to click your mouse strategically), I’ve played it on and off for a year now and still enjoy the experience. While I enjoy some hacking and slashing and shooting, sometimes it’s nice to let a game just make you happy. There’s plenty of opportunity for improvement in the game, as there is a certain amount of strategy involved and a lot of sushi to eat, but it’s easy enough to play if you are just looking for a relaxing way to pass the time.

Up until recently, I thought there were only three Sushi Cats: Sushi Cat, Sushi Cat 2, and Sushi Cat: The Honeymoon. Then I discovered Sushi Cat 2: The Great Purrade, which is less polished in terms of graphics and mechanics than the other games but almost makes up for it with added weirdness (the Nyan cat sushi gulp, for example). There’s no need to play the games in order, as they all function perfectly well as stand-alones, but I would recommend playing The Great Purrade after one of the others, as it doesn’t show the beloved furball at his best. The most sophisticated versions would probably be Sushi Cat 2 and Sushi Cat: The Honeymoon.

Sushi Cat's pirate costume

Sushi Cat’s pirate costume

The game isn’t perfect. Glitches related to excessive feline chubbiness can result in an endlessly-bouncing cat on some levels (in which case restarting the level is the only solution), and regardless of your pinball skills, the unpredictability of Sushi Cat’s bouncing often makes collecting ALL the sushi nigh-on impossible (a problem for the obsessive-compulsive among us, myself included). That said, the game makes up for these flaws with a delicious premise and bizarrely cute costumes for your character if you eat enough golden sushi. The game also isn’t trying to push a lot of barriers—Sushi Cat’s wife is pink, and arguments could be made about cultural appropriation (particularly with some of Sushi Cat’s costumes, cute as they are). The makers of the game seem to have only positive intentions, however, and there is something to be said for such a food-positive and plump-positive game. Fatness is Sushi Cat’s superpower.

Sushi Cat is appropriate for all ages and arguably fun for all ages as well. Those who like their games to always include blood and guts may find Sushi Cat’s mostly pastel palette and relentless cuteness boring, but others may find themselves fixated on getting that last piece of sushi in the corner behind a Japanese lantern or bicycle wheel. All four games consistently receive high ratings from players, and I still smile back at the Sushi-meter when its sad, hungry face perks up upon achieving a full belly.

Four rotund kitties out of 5.

meeplemeeplemeeplemeeple

 

2048 meowdifications (we apologise for the pun, but not really)

Hello, Geeks.

While I’m sure some of you roll your eyes and groan by now at the thought of 2048, we know our audience well enough to know that those who truly love the game are still obsessively moving tiles. For those who can’t give it up but want something fresh, and for anyone who is more a cat person than a numbers person, I present 2048’s cat editions. My favourite is the Waffles the Cat edition, which rewards you with new, adorable images of Waffles. There are, however, also 2048: LOL Cats and 2048 Cats (there are probably others as well, given that this is the internet).

2048: LOL Cat Edition

2048: LOL Cat Edition

I personally find the .gifs in 2048: LOL Cats distracting, but the endless loop of the hapless breaded tabby is admittedly entertaining.

2048 Cats Edition

2048 Cats Edition

The numbers on the cat images in 2048: Cats may help you keep track, but they also take away from the challenge of an image-based version of the game. The .gifs are somewhat less distracting, though (and, in my opinion, cuter).

2048: Waffles the Cat Edition

2048: Waffles the Cat Edition

The Waffles edition has a coherent, almost narrative flow to its cat images, presenting (static) images of Waffles at different stages (and in different costumes). The flow and cuteness of this edition keep me coming back to play again . . . and again . . . and again, though the original 2048 game lost me after two tries.

But don’t let me tell you which version to play. Check out these cat-themed versions for yourself and let us know what you thought in the comments.

Have a meowvelous day (sorry, not sorry),
Sarah, your resident cat fanatic

The Joy of Blending Cats: Kittens in a Blender

Hello, Geeks.

Normally Kenny will be writing the board game reviews, but as I am Geek Collateral’s resident cat fanatic, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Kittens in a Blender. It’s a fairly simple, deeply twisted card game: pick a kitten colour. Save your kittens from being blended. Turn your opponents’ kitties into cat purée.

Kittens in a Blender

Kittens in a Blender

The deck includes kittens for each player, cards that enable you to move kittens, cards to blend kittens, cards to save kittens from being blended, and cards that cause each player to pass their hand along. You start with six cards in each player’s hand. Each turn, you must use two and then pick up two. You want your kittens safe in the box (or at least on the counter) and your opponents’ kitties preparing mewing piteously from the murderous kitchen appliance. Whether you play with subtle strategy or for maximum carnage is up to you.

The game is quick and violent. I played against our CEO, Devin Edwards (though you can play with up to 4 people), and he made horrible whirring sounds when kittens died. He also insisted on reading out the names of the blended kittens at the end of each round. Sadist.

Kittens in a Blender Cards

Kittens in a Blender cards

Devin contemplating the deaths of countless kittens.

Devin contemplating the deaths of countless kittens/trying to look cute like the innocent kittens he is about to murder.

I was surprised by how affected I was by the blending. Maybe if the kittens didn’t have names or such cute cartoon faces, I would find it less upsetting. I found myself apologizing to Devin’s cats while I placed them in the blender, and I decided which of my own kittens to save according to how adorable the cards were (Ninja is just too cute to let die, but I don’t have quite the same attachment to Chester). Emotional trauma aside, Kittens in a Blender is a fun, fast-paced game that’s perfect for those with limited time (or a short attention span) and a dark sense of humour.

4/5 meeples and/or severed kitten limbs
meeplemeeplemeeplemeeple
Takes 30 minutes to play
From Closet Nerd and Redshift Games

Space Art at Creatures Creating

Ahoy, fellow geeks.

Some of my abstract pieces are currently on display at Creatures Creating gallery, and since they’re kind of geeky (as in, they are of space–stars clusters, galactic detritus, and what have you), I thought I’d share.

@Creatures Creating

@Creatures Creating

Me standing awkwardly with my art..

Me standing awkwardly with my art.

My family is very supportive.

My family is very supportive (see also the next photo).

My father looking at Devin Edwards's Geek Collateral business cards.

My father looking at Devin Edwards’s Geek Collateral business cards.

Visit Apple of My Odd Eye for more photos.

Boldly go,
Sarah