In the world of freelance one of the abiding truths, regardless of whether you’re fresh faced and just out of school or old industry veteran, is the perennial choice of the “what to do with a stinker of a job, but you need the money” dynamic. How you make the choice largely depends more often than not, on your station in the game: a successful in-demand career means you can likely say NO to the stinkers, whereas being an up and comer or someone who needs to make ends meet, likely has to say yes. To the former, I say congratulations, to the latter this article is for you. Full disclosure: I myself somewhat straddle both ends right now… not quite epic enough to be able to say NO to everything that doesn’t toot my horn, but having enough clout and agency to pass on things that will detract from the ongoing work I have already on the table. Sometimes.
Let’s assume for the sake of this article, you need to say yes. Whether it’s because you need to pay your bills and it’s a transactional thing, a character your kids love and getting to do something for it will make you a superstar in their eyes, a favor to a friend, or there’s an opportunity for it to lead to bigger and better places you actually want to be. These are all entirely valid reasons for saying YES to the stinkers. The trick to having to say YES is delivering on the YES, and delivering well. Once you agree to the gig, you are committed to doing the very best you can and everything you do that isn’t that dishonors that decision and your own ethic. There are few solid good v bad moments in our world of grays, but this is not one of those things. Don’t hack, don’t phone it in, don’t quit because you’re frustrated. If those are solid possibilities for you, say NO. Saying YES and blowing it is worse than the other thing by miles and the dividends will echo far beyond the short term pain of the gig and can start creating a narrative in at the field that you’re a hack, or unreliable or tempestuous.
There are inherent conflicts and internal arguments that will rage through your brain the whole time you’re doing a gig. Self doubt and internal struggles notwithstanding, your job other than making the job as best as you can, is to make sure your better angels win that psychic arm wrestling. It’s one of the defining aspects of working professionally. It’s natural for us to want to escape a bad situation- it’s literally coded into our lizard-parts of our brains. I have been in a bad job I saw not getting better and have flirted with the fantasy of bailing and running off… but never do when there’s even an inkling of a chance to pull something decent from the situation. When it’s a mess we have walked into, we can be fooled into thinking we should exercise the agency to simply walk out of. But try not to. There’s no winning in quitting the game, only degrees of loss. Will this piece be some folio thing to get work later? maybe maybe not. But there is no greater test to your professionally and adulthood than doing a good anyway job despite the job being not so good.
Now this is not to say stick with every job regardless of how bad it gets. Sometimes the stinkers are just too much, too abusive or simply so terrible there’s really no other choice. And sometimes when you get more seasoned you can see the bad coming a little sooner and you are actually doing everyone a favor by jumping off while there’s time for them to find a replacement, or go in a different direction. These are extremely rare, but they do exist. I myself have walked out of only two gig in the last 20 years. The most recent one a couple of years ago was of this sort where I could see we were not speaking the same language and never would. I cut bait before it caused more damage, even fully aware that there would be damage regardless. It was amiable and understood by my AD, but they aren’t calling me to do another and likely won’t because of this. I don’t blame them- I have declared myself as unreliable to them and proven it as true. They have every right when hearing my name to wonder if I shall leave them standing at the alter again the next time. Is it a punishment? No. It’s just the understandable response in a job where getting the job done well and on time is the job for those who have these jobs. it’s a professional response that holds true to their jobs to get the thing they’re doing, done. Just know the cause you do will have an effect, like anything really. It’s not about revenge or grievance. You can certainly get that going if instead of being professional if you nuke out, go missing or are argumentatively terrible. But ours is an industry of practical thinkers and in the end even a hard to manage a-hole of a creator can find success in publishing if he/she brings in the readers. Success can hide bad behavior, and there are some real poopers out there that are horrible to work with but bring in enough money that these are suffered despite that. For the rest of us who need to work every job for a living, best behavior is always the smart tune to dance to, and the best and most valuable asset we have going forward. Remember the point isn’t to win the battle, its to win the war, and winning the war for me, is being able to do this again until I can no longer. Most bad players get theirs in the end, so don’t feel you need to be the lone crusader to bring their justice home. Your job is to do it right and then get the chance to do it again. That’s it.
Sometimes it’s simply about rethinking what VALUE means. Remember, currency isn’t just cash. Sometimes it’s a lot of different things… favors, (even yes though I vurp to utter the word), “exposure”, the relationship, good will, charity, making your kid smile, checking off a dream thing from the bucket list… A fun and happy life counts too. When I’m approached by a gig, it’s always not always something I would think to do, definitionally. The joy gigs are the best ones, and I mean ones that are subjects I love with people I love working with. For me mostly anytime Mondo, Tor, Criterion or a half dozen other publishers I work with get in touch It’s always a yes because I know the score, love the score and even in a rough ride… love the ride and the people I get to work with there. I know that even if it’s going to be a jagged edge project I’m with a team that will make the best of it. One of the longhest and most ridiculous projects I have ever been on rates as one of the easiest and most manageable because my awesome green-haired art director ran such a perfect game while navigating it.
But still be ready to be surprised. I confess I had not read Nnedi Okorafor until I was tasked with doing a cover for the German edition of LAGOON, but damned if I didn’t fall hard for the work, her writing, the art it made me think of, and our ongoing relationship through all nine covers and counting. It’s produced some of the work I find I am most proud of, brought in accolades and fostered a relationship with another brilliant creative mind I am proud to work with. So in short it’s always easy saying yes to the heart projects. A joy, really. Trouble is the heart doesn’t always want what the wallet can afford. So you need to keep your wits about you. For me for the last twenty or so years comics and graphic novels are the heart work that all the other works is there to support and allow to happen. But that means taking work I need to take regardless of how much I want or don’t think I want it. In the end I more often than not discover I was glad to get it. Conan: Born on the Battlefield was a particular case of this. I didn’t initially want it, didn’t think I could do it since I wasn’t really a big follower of the property or knew the lore. I said no for a bunch of months and was essentially cajoled towards it for transactional reasons… then when I talked with Kurt and heard his idea for the series, I went all in. I learned more from that book than any other book until INDEH came and INDEH came directly from this book. If I had said NO I would regret it to this day. My life at the very least would be much different than it currently is. Hindsight for a near miss can be just as scary as the regret that wisdom brings. But in that case I trusted the people around me advising me to do it regardless of my whining about doing it and I am a better creator for it. It helps like crazy to have people around you to act as guides when you’re lost.Essential, really. And let’s face it you’re going to feel more lost than found most of the time if you keep doubt and questioning in the right places of your creative life. The edge where fear meets action is the sweet spot for any artists, however uncomfortable and terrifying that place of purchase can be.
Basically it comes down to this: If you’re not interested in the THING itself a whole bunch of rooms in your imagination hotel go dark. Like A LOT. For me it’s the gauge by which I often choose a project these days- if the interest is there… if there’s a spark or a full fledged idea… go for it and worry about the rest later. Or at the very least go for it and unless they’re really taking you to the cleaners, let your inspiration be your back wind through it. But when it’s not, and you have to do the job anyway, well there’s ways to pull it off. The worst thing to do is phone it in. When you put in crap you get crap out. Every time. So on top of the drag of a gig you don’t really dig on, you are also, by doing this contributing to its failure and to now owning it as well. Sometimes the best case scenario is that the bad gig hits and all you start getting after are requests to repeat that sin for others. And now you have to face making a career out of doing something that aggrieves you to survive. A total loser, and one that keeps ringing through your life going forward. There are book covers that no matter how hard I tried fighting for, they got strangled to death via some committee and it came out poorly. These days you can’t even put it behind you because in the internet, nothing ever dies. I just saw one crop up from a long while back and it remained as painful to view as it did a day after it came out. This, me friends, is inevitable. And these weren’t hack jobs, they just simply never gelled. And I know my ADs and editors are seeing them even if I don’t post them on social media or even on my website portfolio. For the record the job I bailed on I mentioned earlier was me responding to not seeing this done again. I may have lost the client but I didn’t hack or put a bad thing into the world and in the end, I’m better for having done this as are they.
The most important point here is that when you’re in a gig you’re not loving from lack of interest int he subject or some personal beef with the people you’re working with… It’s always best to weather it and push through. ALWAYS FINISH. Sometimes, more than you’d guess, the AD also sees this as a poop-job and getting through it well can mean a great deal to their life as well. They’ll remember that. I’ve even had ADs predicate a gig with a confession that it is terrible or the deadline is near impossible or whatever, but know that they swear to make it up later with a job that will be better. And they always have delivered on that. Many of these ADs I have been working with for a decade or more. Again… think of currency as having different denominations. Hack it out- inputting crap won’t get you gold on the other end, it will just gain you more crap. Sometimes more than I would expect I find a great idea or edit or some note from my AD or editor will spark a solve that makers something mediocre into something I can be proud of. You just never know, but like the thing with the Muse, if you’re not there to catch that opportunity when it goes by, you’ll miss it. Even if it just grinds out like a long dental procedure, getting through it and surviving it with your quality intact while finishing the job is infinitely more rewarding than running off and leaving it unresolved or dangling. Those retreats will haunt you ever more than a war story you survived ever will. At the very least a bad job gives a Great War story to tell when you’re with with your peers over a stiff drink or dinner. Turns out… that’s a currency too.
The thing is the money could be great but it never lasts as long as the legacy of the thing it’s buying. You’ll spend it, invest it away or whatever, and you’ll be left with what you did. A dear pal of mine chased himself out of the business because at a certain point this brilliant artist looked at his flat files and saw nothing but years of work he was unconnected to, unproved of, and bored by. The warning of this fellow’s story has been my lighthouse for twenty years now, and it has kept me from more than a few rocky shoals. Even after you’re gone, and the last person that knew you is gone to dust as well, if you’re lucky the Work will be all that’s left of you. Always make it about the Work, make the best Work you can do even if it doesn’t come together in the end. Just try again for the next one. Keep Moving, keep working keep on with it. Make the best of the bad jobs and sing your best song wherever you can and more often than not, that can become how you live and work in a long professional life.
I recently took a commission which seemed normal at first but took a bizarre turn when the client requested an addition to the project which, let’s just say it didn’t match my personal taste. My first (private) reaction was horror and “Oh no, this is going to be ‘one of those jobs’ you tell stories about” and later it became, “Well, THIS one’s not going in my portfolio for sure…”
However, the request was just (in my view) tacky in the extreme, not vile or against my morals or anything. So I simply (virtually) smiled and treated it like any other brief.
I learned two things from this experience: the more hard-nosed and cynical thing was, “I need to find ways to not attract this sort of client again.” I think that is a valid thing to consider. As someone who does commissions I’m always on a search for a clientele that I feel comfortable with (and yeah, who will pay a higher price…)
The more surprising thing was that I learned a lot about dealing with this client and their request. Because the only thing odd about this job WAS the request. I separated the request from the client, who was actually a very nice person who didn’t cause any trouble and paid her advance promptly and seemed happy with everything. Just because the brief was… horrifying… doesn’t mean that the person on the other end was.
In the end, I had to learn how to paint something I’d never done before, and I made a bit of money and had a happy client. And also some insight into what I do and don’t want out of the commissioning business.
Thanks for the reply, we all have these stories and all go through this, and yet it never seems to show up in a predictable way. Life punches at you in all the weirdest areas and I have found more and more that learning Fromm all these gigs doesn’t necessarily prepare you fully for the next rocky road. But I’ve never heard a bad tale with a happy ending from anyone who made the job worse by quitting. Thing is, you just never know., And I will say as a stated fact, the trial and tribulations navigated well turn clients into family. Some of my most long lasting Editors and ADs and I have been through some of the worst dramas and in coming out of and through them together, we are bonded in a way we would not be otherwise.
This post came at the perfect time for me, and ended up being very encouraging. Thank you, Greg!
Glad you liked it- it’s a tricky world to live and work in. Just keep working in it.
I will say as proof of this being a thing we all do go through, I am right this very moment embroiled in a bad gig, that I actually had to reread my own article to remind me how to not blow it all up in a moment of emotional heat. it is never easy being in a bad spot but I am reaffirmed and glad that I remembered to Hale back, sleep on it and come to a route through it that in the end doesn;t make me feel compromised in the work I do, how I do it and what we end up with at the end of the situation. Like as not this will turn into a kill fee job but I’ll have an uncompromized drawing and my soul intact if that happens. Best case, they get convinced by the work itself and we go to press with something we can all her happy with. Not everything is in our control, but we can control how we respond to the bad gig, and what we decide to let it cost and what we can rescue from the flames of it. Good luck out there. Be kind, be professional and look forward to the next job even if the one in front of you is a stinker.
I can sympathize. By profession I’m an Architect by day approaching 60, and I look at my recent projects of the last few years and wonder “…Why? Where’s the challenge, the sense of craft?”
And for that I have no answer…