The night is dark.
Your lights flicker — and then go out.
Your heart is pounding. Your palms are sweating. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Suddenly, you hear a soul-piercing sound echoing through your empty house, seemingly coming from everywhere at once, causing a chill to race up and down your spine and your skin to break out in a fevered sweat.
Is it the howl of a monster?
No, it’s worse.
It’s your client.
Every writer knows that there can be few things more intimidating than writing for a client.
Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s a relationship built on mutual respect, admiration, creativity, and understanding (like the relationships we have with our clients at CYC).
But sometimes it can be a horror show. Especially if you’re a freelancer.
Thankfully, monster stories are arguably as old as stories themselves. Their themes are timeless for a reason: if you look at them closely enough, you’ll see familiar behaviors and characters from your own life. Once you do so, you can learn how to recognize real life monsters—and escape them before it’s too late.
For a closer look at what specific monster stories can teach us about monster clients (as well as bonus lessons from the horror stories themselves), read on…
… if you dare.
You don’t need multiple blockbuster bestsellers about lusty bloodsuckers to convince you that there’s something deeply seductive about a vampire (although their inexhaustible appeal does offer solid proof). For decades, people have been taken in by Dracula’s chilling appeals—his charm, his hypnotic gaze, his eloquence, his promise of eternal life, his lingering lips on your neck…
But let him bleed you long enough and you may find yourself turned into a bloodsucker yourself, wondering where it all went wrong (and, eventually, with a stake in your chest).
A monstrous client can seduce you to the dark side just as easily.
They may try to coax you into less-than-savory writing methods (or all-out force you to use them), often with the promises of riches, grace, and eternal lifepageviews. They urge you to write tacky, dishonest clickbait headlines; keyword-stuff gluttonously; draft spam emails; plagiarize other articles; or weave carefully worded lies into your content.
The Dracula of clients can make all of this sound so, so worth what they promise that you may just be tempted to lower your collar and offer up your neck.
But remember how Dracula’s victims always end up: empty, cold, and drained of their life-force.
When a client starts to lead you toward dark methods, step back, avert your gaze from those controlling eyes, and consider whether or not you’re falling under a vampire’s spell.
If you are, it’s best to stake them early on (by turning down or leaving the project) before they can seduce you, and seek clients who prefer the light of day.
Bonus Lesson: Even when you’re facing a soul-crushing deadline, don’t stay up all night—or else you may turn into a monster yourself.
Some people don’t know when to just let things die. No one symbolizes this more than Dr. Frankenstein.
Once he stumbles on the secret to reanimating a lifeless corpse, potentially creating immortality, he can’t help but move forward with the idea, consequences be damned. Once he convinces himself that he’s a genius, or a god, even, he refuses to listen to reason and wants to plow ahead, no matter what.
It doesn’t matter that what sits before him on the slab is a jumble of dead body parts. It doesn’t matter that he has no idea what will happen when they come back to life—even though any amount of rational thought could tell him that what will happen will likely be bad, very very bad. It doesn’t matter if it’s morally wrong to do or that there’s no way to stop it if things go wrong.
Most of us writers have had at least one client who is waaaaay too close to this.
They cling to an old idea, one that’s been shot down numerous times by others, one that has no hope of life to it at all. (“What if we write our funeral home’s landing page from the point of view of a satisfied corpse, with a lot of death puns?” “Let’s respond to all of our law office’s clients’ emails with dank memes!”)
You try to tell them the idea has no breath it in. They insist on stitching it together and shocking it to life. You try to give them concrete examples as to why it won’t work, but the mad client rages on, convinced of his own superiority.
It’s even possible to believe this client’s bravado and become a willing Igor, desperate to do anything to help your own Dr. Frankenstein find greatness. Or you may convince yourself that if you just execute the idea perfectly, you can breathe new life into an idea that’s fresh from the grave.
But sometimes, it’s best to just admit there’s no heartbeat and give up on the idea even if your client won’t (before you accept the project, if you can), and pray that it rests in peace—or else you may find yourself responsible for a monster.
Bonus Lesson: Whether it’s a trusty drawbridge, a piranha-stocked moat, or the block button on your comments section, it’s always a good idea to have a defense in place against an unruly, angry mob (who can sometimes rage against even the best ideas).
Is there anything more menacing than a brain-dead, lifeless, drooling, ravenous, thoughtless horde slowly inching towards you, boxing you in, and offering you no means of escape, desperate to turn you and have you join their ever-growing ranks?
Very few things. But a client who is eager to join an undead mob (and thrust you in the middle of the crowd, as well) is one of them.
Being aware of current trends is a great trait in a client; it can help them stay current, fresh, and willing to give new ideas the go ahead. But awareness is one thing, and a need to slavishly follow trends without any thought can be a truly terrifying sight:
“Yeah, I know we’re a shoe store, but you know what’s really in right now? Alien conspiracy theories! So, can you write up some creepy ones for our newsletter? (Oh, and by the way, I want the text to all be in millennial pink—I don’t care how hard it is to read.)”
Besides being horrifying, zombies are remarkably… indistinct. One single zombie is hardly memorable; when we envision them, we see them as a mass, a swarm. And no client wants to be invisible (even if they want to be part of the crowd).
If you follow your zombie client’s orders, before you know it, you’re an anonymous zombie writer yourself, churning out the same copy as everyone else—and that does nothing but scare the reader.
When a client starts demanding you write what’s popular—no matter their audience, their brand, their voice, or their goals—you may well be dealing with a zombie.
Try distracting them with nice, shiny, subtly trendy elements without sacrificing their integrity—or yours. (For example, for the above shoe store, you could offer to write a piece on trendy millennial pink shoes, or boots in space-age materials.) If that doesn’t work… well, it’s best to run from the horde before it swallows you up.
Bonus Lesson: You are what you eat—and you write what you read. Consume mindfully.
The Bride of Frankenstein
You’ve spent days slaving over a piece of content, crafting it specifically for your client. You’ve considered everything: their long list of demands, their desired tone, their ideal market, their long-term goals, their craved identity.
You’ve done endless amounts of research, finding exactly the type of content most suited to your client. You’ve thought through every request, every note, every suggestion, and every wish they’ve ever had.
Finally, you reveal it to them. And they let loose an anguished, tortured scream.
That’s right; your client is a Bride of Frankenstein.
On the surface, the Bride and Frankenstein’s Monster are perfect partners. I mean, they’re literally made for each other, right? What on earth could ever go wrong?
Unfortunately, love (of a partner or a piece of content) is seldom logical. Sometimes, no matter what, they just don’t want it.
Even if it’s perfect for them.
Which is okay. Sometimes you’re able to sit down and have a discussion with your client where you go over possible changes or find a totally different direction for the piece.
But sometimes they don’t want to talk about it—even if you ask for constructive criticism. They just scream. Which can shatter your confidence and convince you that everyone hates your work, one of the scariest feelings of all.
If you find yourself faced with this meltdown of a monster, try to steel your courage and remind yourself that no monster (or piece of content) is perfect for everyone.
Bonus Lesson: Even if something really gets to you, try not to have a full-on emotional breakdown; it may end up being the primary thing you’re remembered for—and it may set the one you scream at on a monstrous rampage.
It’s a nearly universal fact that ghosts are just… creepy.
What makes them so unsettling isn’t just the terror they inspire; after all, ghosts aren’t even really a threat, just mere specters haunting creaky attics and moaning in the night.
What makes them truly eerie is the element of tragedy attached to them. Ghosts aren’t simply monsters out to frighten or hurt mindlessly; they’re clinging to some great sadness, some loss, or some horrible incident from which they can never recover.
Unfortunately for writers, the living can display chillingly similar traits.
We all have failures in our past (and most of us writers have left spiritual imprints on the web we may worry will haunt us the rest of our days). But we try to shake it off, move on, and seek out new successes.
But if your client is a ghost, they do exactly the opposite.
Every old content failure haunts them. They spend all their energy dwelling on the hurt and sadness they’ve felt. They may be hesitant to try new things, always afraid of yet another pain to throw on the pile of their eternal suffering.
They may also get angry at their past failures and project that onto you, screaming at you, rattling their chains, and ruining every single night of sleep (I’ve woken up at two a.m. to some truly frightening client texts).
Stick with them long enough and you may find yourself sucked into their sulking demeanor, or taking the heat for all their past woes. It’s tricky to live in a haunted house; it’s even tricker to work with a haunted client. While it may be worth offering suggestions to calm their fears, if nothing works—and they have no interest in returning to the land of the living—it’s best to flee.
Bonus Lesson: While it can be tempting for writers to stay inside on their computer screen, typing away all day, try to get out there and get a little sun; a ghostly complexion can be a little spooky.
The Wolf Man
“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night;
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
—The Wolf Man
Sometimes, even the best person has a monster inside.
And sometimes that person is your client.
You may work together well for weeks with no issues at all. They may have a consistently pleasant tone in their emails, only text during business hours, tell you how much they love your writing, and give only constructive criticism (and always in a kind way).
And then, out of nowhere, their inner wolf is unleashed. You have no idea what triggered it (blame the moon, maybe), but all at once, they’re furious, cruel, raging, and impossible to reason with. (Werewolves aren’t exactly known for their logic.)
Maybe they got stuck in traffic. Maybe their business isn’t doing so well. Maybe their football team lost again. Whatever the reason, they’re mad as hell, and they’re taking it out on you.
Once it’s out of their system, they’re all charm and kindness again.
Until the moon comes back out. Lather, rinse, howlrepeat.
We all have our bad days, for sure, and sometimes we may project our issues onto something—or someone—else. But when it happens repeatedly, or the reaction is especially severe, it may be best to fire a silver bullet and sever ties permanently.
Otherwise, you’ll find yourself constantly on edge, permanently anxious, and barricading yourself inside at the first sign of a full moon.
Bonus Lesson: If you’re bitten by a werewolf (or find yourself the venting-target of a raging client) get prompt treatment (including lamenting with peers, playing an aggressive game of Mario Kart, or eating all the chocolate you can find). You don’t want to find yourself suddenly growing fangs and seeking out your own victim.
Most monsters tend to have some element we can empathize with. If we look at them closely enough, we can usually see a shimmer of humanity, or at least a remnant of the humanity that once was.
So it is with most clients. Even when they’re angry, or mean, or sleazy, we can often understand their motivations, relate to their feelings, and see where they are coming from (even if we absolutely do not agree with their behaviors).
But sometimes, a monster isn’t relatable at all.
They’re just evil.
There’s no deep motivation there. They hurt someone simply because they want to cause pain. They disrupt things because they enjoy chaos. They route for the worst possible outcome, feel no remorse for others’ despair, and have no desire whatsoever to change their ways.
A demon client can make your life a living hell.
They may bully you or play endless power trips. They may refuse to pay you, or leave you a cruel review after they claimed they loved your work. They may harass you, threaten you, or brag that they can destroy your career if you don’t concede to their demands.
If you find yourself working with a demon, don’t try to figure them out. Don’t try to reason with them. Don’t try to place what you might have done wrong to “set them off.” Don’t try to give them a chance and see if you can deal with them.
Just go for a full exorcism and expel them from your career—and your life—entirely, by firmly stating that you won’t be working with them again. You don’t want to end up possessed or a victim of their cruel personality.
Bonus Lesson: If you’re considering making a deal with the devil (an especially heartless corporation, a site that practices phishing or scamming techniques, etc.), consider it carefully. You may end up an evil imp yourself.
Monsters Are Everywhere — Be Prepared
It’s a scary world out there, especially for writers. But our love for our stories can be our salvation.
When we find the worst traits of humanity conveniently characterized in fireside stories, well-worn novels, and beloved movies, we can prepare ourselves to see those same traits in real life.
And when we recognize the familiar, monstrous behavior in our clients (or in anyone else), we won’t be surprised, shocked, or frozen into inaction.
So face that dark basement, foggy woodland, abandoned amusement park, or potential client’s LinkedIn profile with with a steady heart and a calm soul. You don’t have to work with them. You can choose to work with the good guys. We certainly have.
There may be monsters, but you’re a hero—and heroes always make it out of stories alive.