Your ‘Les Miserables’ Guide to Freelance Writing Excellence

Carol Tice

This week, one of the classic stories of literature turned one of the greatest musicals ever comes to the screen — Les Miserables.

Am I the only writer counting the minutes?

There are so many ways we can draw inspiration from this story, and from its long journey to the screen — it was first published in 1862!

Great stories endure, and find new audiences as they are reinterpreted through the ages. We should all be thinking about what we could create that would be this lasting.

Here are some Les Miz lessons for freelance writers everywhere, as we head into the new year:

Fight. One thread of Les Miz deals with rebellion against the established rulers of France, a fight for freedom against oppression that holds the seeds of eventual triumph in the French Revolution to come.

Like the rebels in the streets of Paris, freelance writers battle the established order — the long-held notion that the best career path lies in the safety of a job in the belly of Corporate America. We have to fight to carve out a life of independence and self-determination. It may be a rocky road…but in the end, it’s worth it to be able to steer your own course.

Be true. Jean Valjean’s story is the travails of a righteous man in an unjust world. He is jailed for many years for a petty crime, but it doesn’t change who he is at the core. He cares for others, even taking in an orphan, and reveals his hidden identity to his nemesis, Javert, rather than let another go to jail in his place.

In a world full of Internet scams and black-hat SEO tricks, it’s so easy to be lured into writing “opportunities” that veer into a moral gray area. It’s easy to be nasty when you’ve been ripped off, too. But stay professional and don’t compromise your values — your reputation is your greatest treasure as a writer.

Persist. The interlocking plots of Les Miz are laced with disappointments and setbacks. The whole tale is at base the story of Valjean’s persistence in the face of everything — starvation, poverty, injustice, war, injury, and loss.

So much of successful writing is simply continuing to do it. There are so many stories of writers who took decades to find their audience. We would be diminished if they had given up too soon. The same goes for your blog — don’t give up before readers discover you.

Hope. Many of the characters of Les Miz face hardships, and some die. The nascent rebellion flounders. But the people never give up hope that a better day will eventually dawn for them — that change is possible.

Maybe your writing career isn’t where you’d like it to be now. Maybe you are truly miserable with where it’s at, like the characters in this story! But believe that you can see better days next year. The potential for you to write more and better, to find better clients, to make new connections, is always there.

Build suspense. Les Miz is compulsive reading (or viewing) because it’s a masterpiece of dramatic tension, especially as both sides prepare to do battle in the Paris streets. “One day more,” the rebels sing…and you’re on the edge of your seat.

The art of building suspense is a key skill for any writer. Whether you’re writing a novel or a marketing email, the key is to get readers clamoring for more. I’m sure I could spend more time analyzing how successful writers build tension and interest in their work, and then applying it to my own.

Change. By casting Les Miz into musical-play form, the musical’s authors refreshed and modernized this tale for new audiences. Now, The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper has also filmed the musical in a groundbreaking way, by live-recording the singing as the piece is acted, instead of prerecording it in a studio and making actors mime to playback. The result — if trailers and early awards are any indication — is an unprecedented level of realism for a filmed musical that makes the gritty struggles of its characters vibrant and relatable.

Like possibly no other generation of writers before us, writers today are challenged to stretch their skills and learn new methods and forms of writing — blogging, social media, and website content among them. We used to be writers, and now we’re asked to be writers, photo editors, designers, and salespeople, all rolled into one. It can be boggling…but leap on these opportunities and learn all you can, because many who don’t will be left behind.

Love. At the center of Les Miz is an archetypal love story, as orphaned Cosette, raised by Valjean after her mother’s death, endures many trials before marrying her true love, rebel leader Marius. With the rebellion on the ropes, their love provides a note of triumph.

It’s easy to let work consume all our waking hours as freelance writers, but it’s important to keep our life in balance and remember why we do it all — so we can be our best selves for the people we love.

What’s your writing inspiration from the movies? Leave a comment and share what’s fueling your creativity this holiday season.



  1. Jean

    And then we have the bad example of the Thenardiers, who connive, cheat and steal…and then literally end up in the gutter.

  2. Sarah L. Webb

    This post was perfect! I tend to love posts that provide motivation for writers, but this post in particular, because I just wrote one about a new movie that’s really inspired me (Django Unchained). There was so much controversy about the movie, which teaches me that you have to follow your creative vision no matter what. Some will love it, some will hate it. I struggle with that on my blog, because some of my posts have inspired harsh criticism in the past. But this year I’m committed to staying TRUE!

    I also like how Tarantino remixes the western genre (the CHANGE you speak of).

    But each and every point you made about the lessons we can take from Les Miz is just what I need to hear for the new year.


  3. Chris N

    Re: scams – comes to mind. A company that can’t give a straight answer on pay isn’t worth writing a submission for. Many sign up not knowing that an independent contractor normally fills out a Schedule C; most needn’t worry because they’ll never see anywhere near $400 for all the time they’ll put in for the year., alongside legitimate offers, features companies with no contact address and/or that pay less per article than you’d make in an hour flipping burgers.

    I’m curious what the blogger thinks of “My So-Called Freelance Life,” by Michelle Goodman, who also warns about such gigs, which can cost not only in portfolio image but time devoted.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Chris — As it happens, Michelle is a friend and colleague who lives in the same city I do, and I think her advice is great!

      Whether Examiner is a scam depends on your goal in using it.

      I think what most writers don’t know about mill platforms is that they were never set up to be a place to make a living, in themselves. The people who do well on Examiner post articles there to promote some OTHER business they have — they’re an accountant, a coach, etc. Their model doesn’t work when writing is your whole thing…but many writers don’t seem to understand that, and keep giving away their core service free.

  4. Rob F.

    Well, my wife and I want to see Skyfall and The Hobbit soon, but I’m sure there’s a way to parallel freelance writing and Aliens…

    • Carol Tice

      Don’t know about aliens, but being a freelancer is certainly a journey full of unexpected twists and turns, eh, Bilbo?

  5. Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D.

    Hi Carol,

    I love this analogy and agree with you on every point.

    This story was on the reading list for my junior high English class decades ago. I remember that they didn’t always get the deeper meaning. I would give them examples from their lives to help them understand the story, characters and background.

    Woven throughout your points is the need for patience. Just as my students were too immature and experienced to understand the multiple plots, characters, trials and triumphs of Les Miz, as new generation writers we often don’t understand all that we face.

    As you pointed out, we must be willing to change, but our success depends on being patient with ourselves. Yes, we must tackle website design/maintenance, photo editing, social media, sales, etc. , but step by step and strategically. Otherwise, overwhelm and paralysis can set in (I know from experience.)

    I haven’t seen the new Les Miz yet, but now you’ve encouraged me to do just that.

    Thanks for a great post to start off the new year.

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