Ink-Dipped Advice: Holiday Considerations

We all like to get as much work as possible off our own desks and onto someone else’s before the holidays and/or the end of the year.

But sometimes, you risk getting lost in the shuffle.

Everyone needs a break, so consider the why and the who before you hit “send.”

Contracted Deadlines
Obviously, if you have any deadlines around the holidays, meet them. In fact, put in time earlier in the season (like October and November), so that you can get them in to your agent or editor a little early.

Submission Deadlines
Some contests and publications have year-end deadlines for a particular issue or event. Again, try to get it in a week or two early. Don’t wait until the last minute, when something is bound to go wrong.

Pitches, Proposals, Queries, Manuscripts
Unless I’ve been asked for something by a specific date that falls within the winter holidays, I stop submitting/pitching on December 12 and start up again January 6. Unless it’s a short piece with a quick turnaround, there’s really no point.

That means, of course, that I have to plan earlier in the year to cover what’s basically three weeks without those going out – that means I’ve pitched early, and already scheduled work that is due/pays soon after the holidays, so I don’t have a fallow period.

In theatre, we always struggled in January and February; I try to make sure I plan ahead well enough so that I’m covered in my freelance life then, too.

Of course, if you hit fallow points, then you dig in, do your research, and pitch soon after the first of the year.

But I don’t do cold pitches/proposals/queries/submissions to agents, publishers, or editors during those three weeks. It’s not fair to any of us.

I do use the time for work that has a longer lead time, or for researching new-to-me markets and preparing pitches and queries to send in the new year.

Holiday Cards
As I’ve stated before, I’m big on holiday cards. However, when I send a holiday card, it’s just about sending a good wish for the holiday. It’s not pitching myself or asking if the former client needs anything – that happens again, after January 6.

Those former clients and prospects who got cards? They get a follow up note or email, along the lines of “now that the holidays are over, what are your needs for the coming months? Is there a project where you’d like my help?”

This way, you haven’t put pressure on them during the holidays, but you’ve reminded them of your existence, and now you’re following up for business.

Planning
This is a great time to plan what you want, need, and the changes you plan to implement to your working life in the next year.

I usually start thinking about this in autumn. I have a site called Goals, Dreams, and Resolutions, where we work on questions for the upcoming year, and then track our progress.

The planning involves what I want for the next cycle, the research, and a list of new prospects. I prepare proposals or LOIs as pertinent. I have everything written and ready to go by early January.

It’s also a good time for me to look at submission deadlines for theatres for their reading cycle for an upcoming season. Then, I pitch, query, or propose as is relevant to each organization that I think is a good prospect.

It’s also a good time to assess what didn’t work for you in the past year, and what you want to change. When you know what to release, when you make room for what’s better, you can start planning active steps to make it happen.

Don’t Forget to Have Fun
Spend time with the people you enjoy.

Also make sure you pay attention to those around you who are struggling. A kind word or a helping hand can make all the difference.

Go to at least one new-to-you event locally, whether it’s a networking event or a concert or an art opening. Do something different to prepare for positive change in the new year!

Ink-Dipped Advice: Holiday Business Etiquette, Blaming Women, and The War on Theocracy

The original intent was to be a simple post on suggestions for business etiquette during the holiday season, but there’s so much crap being thrown around, that it’s not going to be simple or mild.

First, the basic common sense:

What is the culture of your workplace?
For most freelancers, the bulk of our “workplace” is the home office or the creative space we rent to work in. Sometimes, we are on site, for meetings or for short term work. Sometimes, one or more of our gigs requires us to spend X amount of hours on site (I have one long-term client where I’m in their office for a handful of hours on three regular days at the moment).

What holidays do staff members celebrate? Are there company traditions?

When I worked backstage, each show had their own holiday traditions — usually including everyone’s different holidays, a mixture of decorations and Secret Santa joy and potlucks with favorite foods of the season. It was truly a joyful time. Since we worked while others played, we built family. We shared. We made sure that those who struggled during the holidays had love and support and family.

It was similar when I worked for a publishing company and a library. We had traditions, we included, we celebrated, we supported those struggling.

As far as physical contact, it’s important to gauge someone’s comfort level. Some people don’t like to be touched, unless it’s by an intimate partner or family member. I spent most of my life in theatre. We are a huggy-kissy, physical contact bunch. We find strength and comfort in touch. But most of us (except for some slimy producers and directors and executives) can also read when someone DOESN’T feel comfortable with that kind of contact, and then we refrain.

What are appropriate gifts?
As freelancers, it’s rare for us to get a bonus the way one does in a regular company situation. I was shocked this year that one of my clients gave me a bonus. I’d grown the profile of the company in a way that was appreciated.

I’m big on cards. I send physical cards to anyone with whom I’ve dealt in the last three years for whom I have an address. I send e-cards only when I don’t have a physical address.

Depending on the relationship, I’ve sent small gifts as well as cards to my agent, my lawyer, my editor, my book designer, my copy editor, etc. Those are small gifts that show I know a little about them, and it’s something specific to their interests. Cards, too, but often small gifts. If I don’t have a close relationship, or rarely talk to the editor or whomever, then it’s just a card. But when it’s a relationship where we are in contact several times a week, it’s a gift. Nothing elaborate, but something individual and sincere.

For neighbors, local clients, and people I deal with regularly — the firemen, the library, the transfer station, my mom’s doctor, non-profits with whom I work, etc. — I prepare and deliver one of my infamous cookie platters. I talk about the cookie platters on Ink in My Coffee in this week’s Upbeat Authors post here.

The 80’s and 90’s were full of more elaborate gifts. And, in theatre, the actors I dressed and I exchanged personal gifts (in addition to Secret Santa, et al) and anyone else on the show with whom I was particularly close did, too.

My gift to my newsletter subscribers is usually a new holiday story. In following years, it may be reworked and then released, but I try to come up with something fresh and fun for them each holiday season.

If I know someone is passionate about a particular cause or charity, I’ll donate to that, in the person’s name.

Books
As a writer, I’m also a reader. I love to give books as gifts.

I’m uncomfortable giving my own books as gifts. I try to introduce friends and family to new authors I like in the genre they like to read.

Where appropriate, I also give books to work colleagues.

If you have writers in your life, I have a post up on A Biblio Paradise with suggestions for gifts for writers; an upcoming post will also be a list of books I love to give.

Greetings and the Faux “War on Christmas”
If I know which holiday or holidays someone celebrates, I greet them with their holiday. If I don’t know, I with them “Happy Holidays.”

“Happy Holidays” is not an insult. It is an inclusion.

I had a client, a few weeks back, start screaming, “it’s Christmas! It’s Christmas!”

I looked at her and responded, in that calm, reasonable tone guaranteed to annoy, “I start my celebrations on October 31 and go straight through until January 6. There are a lot of holidays in there. I celebrate holidays.”

She shut up.

There is no “war on Christmas.” That’s a marketing term by those who want this to be a theocracy. What they are doing instead is to wage war on inclusion.

Not going to let your narrow definition of the holiday destroy my joy in celebrating the holi-DAYS.

When I lived in NYC, just off Times Square (I could see the ball come down from my window), our entire floor used to put up a display that included Winter Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. We had potlucks and cocktails and enjoyed each other’s joy all season.

The Corporate Holiday Party/Blaming Women
There’s a lot of huffing and puffing this year that companies have cancelled their holiday parties because of the #MeToo movement. They claim they’re worried about lawsuits.

I call bullshit.

First of all, this is an excuse for them to save money. Instead of spending money putting on a nice event for the people who actually do the work, they can hand a check to executives who sit on their asses all day while their assistants to the work.

It’s about money.

Second, it’s a way to reinforce the “blame the woman” cliché. Women are blamed when men prey upon them, harass them, or attack them. They wore the wrong clothes, they said the wrong thing. They smiled or didn’t smile. They were breathing.

It’s a way to blame women for “ruining the fun.” It’s a way to say, “We can’t have fun because you’re too sensitive and can’t take a joke.” Because, hey, there can’t possibly be a party with laughter and alcohol and witty conversation if there’s no groping or hasty sex in a closet involved.

What an insult. Not just to women, but to men.

Hey, corporations, how about not hiring sexual predators and harassers? How about working on changing your culture, instead of the nudge-nudge, wink-wink and then telling women they have to “deal with it”?

When I was in college, I worked as a temp for a lot of companies. One of them was a large company, now defunct. The male executives would go out to lunch every day and come back drunk, and start groping the women who worked there. I wasn’t having it.

I complained to their HR department, and was told, “they’re just being boys.”

Most of them were middle-aged men, married, and should know better.

I complained to the temp agency and was told I had to “deal with it, because it’s important to keep the client happy.”

The next day, I slugged the man harassing me, walked out, and quit that temp agency.

I have no regrets.

By the way, that temp agency no longer exists, either.

We’ve forgotten how to flirt. We need to take lessons from some of the Europeans, especially the French. Flirting isn’t about scoring later that night (necessarily). It’s about acknowledging and appreciating the attractive qualities in the person with whom you’re interacting, without pressure.

We can be witty and gracious and friendly and charming without being aggressive. We can enjoy each other’s company — even over drinks — without demanding the Big Finish.

We can appreciate each other as people.

The best holiday parties support that. You get to talk to people you don’t normally see often, and can have actual conversations. It’s not venting about work. It’s about appreciating your co-workers as unique and interesting people.

That is how we take back the holiday party.

Your company’s not throwing one this year? Host a potluck, invite your co-workers, and to hell with the corporate crap.

When In Doubt, Create What You Crave
Holidays can be stressful because they come with expectations.

Instead of letting others dictate how you feel during this time, decide how you WANT to feel.

Integrate your favorite traditions of past years with new traditions that evolve, and that make you and those around you happy.

If someone derides what you’re doing, listen. Are they in pain? Do they need or want to be included? Or do they just not want to participate? Do they want to force you into bending to what they want? Don’t force participation, don’t be forced into doing something you don’t want to do, but leave room for those around you to be included, as they want or need to be.

This ties in to another post I wrote for Upbeat Authors a few months ago, about conferences. About being the one who notices the wallflower, the shy one, the scared one, and offers a smile, and says, “Pull up a chair.”

Especially at this time of year, it matters.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Navigating the Holidays

 

We’re into the holiday madness now. Of course, I consider the “Holiday Season” to be October 31-January 6, but there you have it.

How can you balance all the extra demands on your time with the extra demands on your freelance time?

Planning.

This is the time of year when your family and friends need –and deserve — more attention.

This is the time of year when your clients are worried about year-end campaigns and planning for next year.

This is the time of year when you need to start planning where you want to expand and enlarge your own reach next year.

As far as pitching to agents, editors, etc. in fiction markets, unless I have a set deadline, I do not pitch projects between December 12 and January 6. It’s just not fair. As tempted as I am to get things off my desk and onto someone else’s, it gets buried with everyone else doing the same thing.

I do research markets and prep proposals during that time (when I can), but I don’t start submitting again until January 6.

Here are some other tips that work for me:

Calendars
Your calendar is always your best tool, but especially during the holidays. I like to use the large desk blotter calendars. I have yet to have an electronic calendar that hasn’t failed me.

I put different elements in different colors. I work backwards from deadlines, break down projects, card writing, baking, etc., into workable chunks, and put them on the calendar.

This way, I can look up from my desk and keep track of what’s going on, and where I am at any particular point. I can also adjust, if necessary. I can get ahead if and when I ever find a pocket of time; I know if I’ve fallen behind, and can add in additional work sessions as needed.

Cards
I am a huge believer in old-school cards, especially around the holidays. It’s a way to stay connected to current contacts, and reconnect with those with whom you’ve lost touch.

If I use a holiday card to reconnect, that’s what it is — a reconnection. Not a request or demand for anything. But a simple well-wish.

For those with whom I reconnect, I usually send off an email or a postcard after January 6, asking where they are and what’s going on, if they need anything, if they’d like to set up an appointment. I do NOT add that in to the holiday greeting. I keep it separate.

By the way, post card contact usually gets me a 25% response rate, whereas email only gets 12%.

Assessments
I keep track of my Goals, Dreams, and Resolutions on a monthly basis (daily To Do lists make me feel trapped). I spend a couple of months at the end of each year assessing and making plans for the following year.

How much do you NEED to earn to pay your bills, keep a roof over your head, keep a quality of life?

How much do you WANT to earn for the extras?

How do you plan to get to both of those numbers?

I write, daydream, plan, strategize, and come up with what I think and hope will work for the coming year. I post it at the beginning of the year, and track it.

I also remain flexible enough for new opportunities to come in, and to drop what doesn’t work.

I assess and reassess every month. My GDRs are a roadmap, not a prison.

Market Lists
Once I assess where I am, where I want to be, and how to get there, I research markets and/or clients. I start putting together pitches, packets and LOIs. My goal is always to send out at least three LOIs a week; I don’t always meet it. When I’m deep in client work, I often let it go, which is the wrong thing to do.

When you’re deep in work is the best time to seek other work. The energy of your current work will spill into your LOI and make you more attractive to future customers.

This past year, I pitched fewer articles. I miss article writing. So in the coming weeks, I will research article markets, prepare pitch packets per their guidelines and editorial calendars, and have them ready to go at the turn of the year. If I see a call that’s got a deadline during the season, yes, I send it. But, for the most part, I wait until January, when everyone’s ready to get back to work, and to build a new slate of projects.

I hunt down reputable listings (in other words, people who vet them as paying a fair wage, such as Jenn Mattern’s All Freelance Writing). I always read the online guidelines before submitting, because guidelines change as editorial needs change.

Most important — I FOLLOW the guidelines. An acquisitions editor I know says 85% of the pitches she receives are tossed because the writer didn’t follow guidelines. Guidelines are the first test to see if you are someone with whom the publication wants to work. Are you worth their time and energy? Because if you can’t be bothered to pitch within guidelines, there are 10,000 other writers lined up behind you who are just as talented as you are who can. One of them will get the job.

My favorite way to create pitch lists is to sit down with the most recent print edition of WRITER’S MARKET, a pad of paper and a pen, and take notes. I read through the listings of any publication for which I think I could write. I make notes. I then check the guidelines ONLINE before I send the pitch.

Working only online, within search criteria, limits me. Reading through the entire book, with all the different publications, opens me to new-to-me publications that wouldn’t turn up in narrow search criteria.

The Personal Strategic Plan
Organizations create strategic plans to forward their growth and agenda. There’s no reason an individual can’t do the same.

It’s a little different than the Goals, Dreams, and Resolutions, while enveloping them.

In the GDRs, I list three practical steps to turn each goal, dream, and resolution into a reality.

The Personal Strategic Plan can go into even more detail.

The trap in going into too much detail is that you build yourself a prison. Workable steps are necessary. Too many details can keep you from noticing and seizing opportunities that could take you farther than your original ideas.

At the same time, you don’t want to pursue every new, shiny idea and abandon your plan completely.

You need balance and common sense.

Build in Fun
Between shopping, working, cooking, assessing, planning, wrapping things up, starting down new roads — you need to have fun. That’s what holidays are about — joy.

What gives you joy?

Think of the time from now through the holidays as “Days of Joy.”

Every day, do one thing that gives you joy, no matter how small.

Watch the positive ripple effect in the rest of your life.

Then, remember to build in the fun into your Goals, Dreams, and Resolutions, and into your Personal Strategic Plan.

We are freelancers in order to create our best lives, not live it for someone else’s convenience.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Word Choice Matters — and Has Power

I had an interesting conversation with a client the other day. She shared that she parted ways with her previous marketing/social media person because that individual did not work with her to communicate the client’s message effectively.

Ms. Marketing Pro came in with the attitude that she knew everything and the client knew nothing. She set up a series of social media channels, used marketing buzzwords, spread identical content on all the channels, but didn’t communicate the message or the product that my client sells. When my client wanted a particular type of promotion set up, or a particular message communicated, she was told that she didn’t know what she was doing, and to leave it to the professionals.

My client was paying; the business did not grow. They parted ways.

When I started working with her last year, I tweaked the message for each content platform, aiming to use the strength and identity of each platform to its best reach. In one month, I expanded the social media reach by 86%, resulting in a 26% sales bump.

I know, as a consumer, there are certain buzzwords that turn me off. If I see something listed as a “boot camp” or a “hack” — no, thanks. I’m not interested in that. Nor do I promote my own work using those phrases. At this point, they are overused and meaningless. Plus, the choice of those terms does not effectively communicate what I want to say to people. It doesn’t give them any information about what makes my work unique.

Also, if a business has marketing materials out there that show a lack of discernment between possessive/plural/contraction, as a potential customer, I assume they’re too stupid to be worth my money, and I go somewhere else.

No, I don’t approach them and tell them their materials are full of errors and they should hire me. That would guarantee they wouldn’t. But when I meet them at a networking event, I give them my card and say, “If you’re looking to freshen up your marketing at any point, I’d like to work with you.”

As a marketing person, I have an arsenal of tools I use to spread a message, that includes web content, media kits, blogging, social media content, press releases, ad creation on multiple channels, PSAs or radio spots as appropriate, pitching articles to the media, and, again, if appropriate, event scripting or video scripting.

Not every client wants or needs all these tools.

I offer them, but I don’t tell them they “have” to use them. We work together to find the best tools to communicate the message.

One of the most important thing I can do, as a marketing person, is genuinely listen when they tell me about their business, why they’re passionate about it, and what it means to them.

By listening and getting to know who they are AS WELL AS what they want, I can help them craft their story, their message, and expand their reach in a way that is unique to their business. Sometimes that does what I call “drawing the ear” — which, to me, is as important as drawing the eye.

Sure, you want strong visuals, and you need to work with a great graphic designer.

But you also need to choose the right words to communicate your message in a way that engages rather than attacks.

When someone hard sells at me, when I feel attacked or as though my space is invaded — be it physically or emotionally — I shut down. If I’m really uncomfortable, I fight back. What I don’t do is spend money with someone who makes me feel bad.

It’s often the same societal structures that cause problems when they are transformed into sales pitches. For the women reading this, how often has a male salesperson used the tactic of invading your personal space, of patronizing you, of treating you as though you should “listen to the man” in order to part you from your money? Or how often has a female salesperson used negative language to make you feel bad about something personal, and tried to convince you that only by listening to her and buying the product, can you feel better and will you change others’ negative perceptions of you (which exist in her mind, and which she tries to plant in your mind).

At this point in my life, when someone is aggressive towards me, I push back. Hard, without filters. As a potential customer, I tell them exactly why I’m not buying what they’re selling.

As a marketing person trying to shape the message, I do my best to:

–listen to the client
–offer suggestions to shape the message for different platforms
–communicate the message in a way for a positive reception by the target audience
–offer options and a variety of strategies, so if one thing doesn’t bring return, we have something else ready to launch

That means choosing words with care.

Just because a marketing Pooh-bah says this is “the” way to present something doesn’t mean it is.

Wanting to cast a wide net doesn’t mean use bland language. If anything, you need to be more specific in word choices.

You want to create a positive, sensory response. So choose words to evoke positive sensations.

Sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.

The five senses evoke emotions.

What kind of emotions do you want to evoke in your audience?

Taste and smell are closely related, as are sight and touch (or texture).

Use active language — verbs rather than adverbs, and avoid passive or past perfect as much as possible. “have been eating” is weaker than “eat” or “ate.”

Use specific adjectives and avoid overused tropes. If someone tells me it’s a “bold” wine, it means little to me, other than I expect a vinegary aftertaste. If they tell me it’s a “deep red with plum, cherry, and chocolate tones” — now I have sight, texture, taste, and scent cues. Not only that, but I expect a deeper sound when it pours into the glass.

My favorite medium is radio. One of the reasons I love to work on radio dramas or radio spots is that I choose specific sounds to drive the story and character. I love that challenge because the more specific I am, the better I communicate with the audience.

Individuals will receive the specifics within their own frame of reference. You won’t please everyone. An individual may have a negative association with a specific detail you and your client choose.

In my experience, I’ve found that those are rare, and more people will respond positively to compelling sensory detail than to vague marketspeak. Overused marketing terms always makes me feel like the seller is trying to get my money for snake oil, and I’d rather put my money elsewhere.

More and more people are practicing conscientious consumerism, choosing where and how they shop to align with their values. I think that’s great. I want people who align their wallets and their ethics to connect with my clients.

Here’s an exercise for anyone who reads this to try, be they a marketing person, a business owner, a consumer: For one week, only speak and write in specifics. Remove vague language from all your interactions. Keep track of it.

You will notice a remarkable difference in the level of communication.

What are your favorite ways to choose the best language when you work with clients, or as you communicate your business?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Translating Nano Advice into Work Practicalities

 

Yes, this is another National Novel Writing Month Prep Post.

Because techniques I learned and advice I heeded in my Nano years translated well into my freelance work life.

Yes, Nano is fun and a great playground to stretch into types of writing you don’t usually try.

But can build skills.

Here are the best techniques that transfer well from Nano into professional work.

Write (Almost) Every Day
Nano’s goal is 50K in 30 days, which breaks down to 1667 words/day.

Generally, I wrote a full chapter a day, of about 10 pages or 2500 words. Unlike many people, who find it useful to end in the middle of a thought, I like to work in completed chapters.

But Nano got me into the habit of working on what I now call my “primary project” (whatever I’m drafting), first thing in the morning, when I am at my most creative.

“Morning pages” don’t work for me. But working on the creative project in draft first thing does.

This has translated well into the rest of my writing life. As Carolyn See advised in her book, MAKING A LITERARY LIFE: “1000 words a day, five days a week, for the rest of your life.”

As a professional writer, I now have to write a great deal more than that on most days, but the 1K/day on my primary project works well.

Choose the Days You’re Not Going To Write
People huff and puff that “write every day” is not realistic.

It is if you’re a pro.

But that doesn’t mean you never take a break, a day off, a vacation, a sabbatical.

The difference is that you plan them. You choose to take however many days off per week or per month.

Then you do it.

I created a handout/download called “30 Tips for 30 Days” from the motivational emails I used to send out to the writers I mentored every morning. I’ll probably post it again this November. Within that, I built days off.

The second part of that means you adjust your daily word count to cover the days off. If it’s 1K/day for 5 days a week, but then you take a week’s vacation, you up your word count for THE MONTH before your vacation to absorb the words you won’t write (or will write on something else) on your time off.

Do it BEFORE you leave, because you won’t catch up if you just let it slide.

If you choose time off and then enjoy it, rather than just letting the writing slide and “not getting around to it” you will be more productive at the desk AND more productive the rest of your day, because you don’t have the “I should be writing” guilt hanging over you.

What if life gets in the way? Unexpected illness or an accident or whatever?

Deal with your life. Adjust the writing.

I find that sticking to the writing during a crisis helps me survive and cope with it better. It gives me a break from the stress and allows me to drop into my fictional world, even if only for a couple of hours here and there.

When, for whatever reason, I can’t do that, I decide how many days I can afford (on both financial and emotional levels) to be away from the writing, and I adjust the word counts around it.

I live on deadline. If I expect to keep and grow my career, I have to meet those deadlines, even while life is happening.

Bank Ahead
Instead of procrastinating, work ahead of your daily goal, especially at the top of the month.

That translates well to so doing at the top of any project.

The first flush of enthusiasm on a new project is great. Get as much down as fast as you can early on. That way, if and when obstacles come up, you’re both ahead of the game, and you don’t forget what you meant to say but didn’t write down anywhere.

Translate that to getting ahead on any project you do, and you’ll find less scrambling near deadline, unless your client is the one dragging his feet and creating obstacles (and you’ve planned contingencies in your contract. Right? RIGHT????).

Finish What You Start
This is one of the most important things I learned during Nano, although so many people lose heart and motivation during Nano and give up.

Unfinished projects drain creative energy.

The more unfinished projects you have hanging around, the harder it is to creatively breathe. The harder it is to see ANY project through.

When you rely on creative work to keep a roof over your head, you have to be ruthless about cutting out obstacles to that creative work.

Finish what you start. Then put it away for a few days, a few weeks, a few months (if it’s on someone else’s deadline, that timeline may need adjustment).

Once you can look at it objectively, decide if you want to retire it, put it in stasis, or continue work on it. Then set a schedule and deadlines and get to work.

I teach an entire course on this, THE GRAVEYARD OF ABANDONED PROJECTS, and the workbook is available here.

I developed these techniques by finding out what worked for me within the Nano structure, then applying it to my other creative work, and making the necessary adjustments to streamline and strengthen the process.

This year, the traditional Nano structure and schedule does not work for me, which is why I created the Women Write Change forum. I may go back to Nano at some point in the future. But even if I don’t, I am grateful for what I learned there, for the camaraderie, and for the chance to focus intensely on a project for a month.

What are your experiences? If you’ve participated in Nano, what has or has not worked for you? Have you been able to translate any of it to the rest of your writing life? If you’ve never done it, have you been tempted? Why did you choose not to?

I’m genuinely interested in your answers.

Ink-Dipped Advice: The Ballad of the Necessary Contract

I relate an anecdote so you can learn from a mistake I made about ten years ago, about too much off-the-cuff brainstorming before there was a contract in place. I will not reveal the name, the company, or the location. But learn from my mistake.

I met an extrovert at a networking event. We hit it off. This individual had a big project coming up and was unsure how to proceed; thought I might be a good fit. I explained my general fee structure, and how it would work for a project of this scope. We had a long conversation, basically outlined a project this individual needed done on a tight time frame. I sent the notes the next day, along with a quote, and the written schedule we’d discussed.

Nothing.

For months.

No response to any type of contact.

I took other gigs. At a completely different event, over a year later, I ran into this person again. We were introduced by a third party; the original individual looked puzzled. I reminded this person we’d met over a year earlier and talked about a project that had a tight deadline, that I’d sent requested materials, and never heard back. The person shrugged and said, “Oh, I didn’t feel like putting in the time. But let’s set a schedule and do it soon.”

I said words that were both true and necessary. “Sorry. I’m booked. For the next eighteen months.”

“Oh, my, one would think you were in demand.”

“I am.”

Of course, this meant the individual HAD to have the project done BY ME. AT ONCE.

I was booked. Plus the whole not trusting this person. The person kept bugging me. I gave a high quote (and, yes, if it was met, I’d have worked it into the schedule).

Response: “Oh, I wouldn’t PAY you. You’d be doing this for EXPOSURE.”

I said it before and I’ll say it again: Honey, people die of exposure. Give me the cash.

I reminded the person of the fees we’d discussed. 

“Oh, I’m sure I wouldn’t have agreed to PAY you for any of that.”

My response: “I wouldn’t have brainstormed the outline for nothing.”

Huff, puff, walk away. (On the other party’s part).

Two weeks later, this person asks me to re-send the outline, because the person lost it.

I said I would be happy to, upon receiving a consulting fee. I named the price.

Never heard from this individual again.

Hope I never do.

And no, the project has never shown up. The person truly lost the notes and couldn’t remember what we’d discussed — which means the project would have likely been a nightmare anyway.

I ate the nonpayment for the brainstorming session. It happens sometimes, especially when you’re talking on the fly at a networking event. That’s why, in interviews, I’m now circumspect when the question is, “What specifics would you change/develop/grow if you worked with us?”

Until I’ve spent time in the trenches of the company, there’s no way to know.

What they’re looking for, here, is ideas they can do on their own without paying.

So I formulate marketspeak answers that are full of buzz words and don’t hold actual information. If they are serious about me, they will re-formulate questions into something that is suitable for the interview. If they are trying to get ideas for which they have no intention of paying, they keep going down the same road. The real information comes when the contract is in place, the upfront fee clears, and I’m actually in the environment.

Because if they are actually interested in you doing what you do best for them, as a marketing writer, it’s not “what would you change” it’s “how do you see what you do as enlarging our communication and getting our message out to a broader audience?” They will say things like, “We’re having trouble in the social media aspect of our business. What are your ideas on enlarging our growth there?” Not “what would you change in the company” — it’s a trap question. I’m not here to CHANGE your company. I’m here to effectively communicate your message to a broader audience. It’s YOUR company. I’m expanding your reach.

So learn from my mistakes and don’t over-brainstorm without a contract. 

Ink-Dipped Advice: Don’t Settle! Multiple Skills Deserve Higher Pay

 

In local job listings, I’ve noticed an infuriating trend: ads for part-time jobs, without benefits, that expect the employee to be the receptionist, the bookkeeper, the marketing/communications director, and the general administrative assistant. They want computer skills, graphic design skills, web development skills, photography/social media skills, writing skills, customer service skills, and accounting/QuickBooks capacity. For minimum wage.

No.

I touched on this in an earlier post.

Value your skills. Research each of these skills. What is the range of pay in your area for this type of work?  Graphic design usually starts around $60/hour. Basic bookkeeping is anywhere from $35 and up. Web development/IT skills range anywhere from $85 to $150, marketing writing can be anywhere from $35 to over $100, photography is usually close to $100.

So when someone posts an ad asking for ALL those skills, figure out how much that person should offer. Figure out what to ask.

Some places post all of this in the ad with the lowest allowed hourly minimum wage.

Skip them, unless you’re in a position to need interim dollars to keep a roof over your head.

Some listings will have percentages of time they believe each task takes up: 20% bookkeeping, 40% receptionist, 30% marketing, etc.

First of all, make sure it adds up to 100, and not some higher number. Because if  it’s more than 100, they need more than a bookkeeper.

Second, figure out how much the job should actually pay for all those skills. In a 40 hour work week, how many hours does each percentage break down? How much should each of those skills be paid? That’s your baseline figure for the bottom of the rate.

If these percentages and the ad have been written by a so-called “HR” person in the company, it’s not going to be accurate. The person with whom you’re working most directly will have the real knowledge.

If the ad does not list how much a chunk each skill is projected to take (because it’s never going to be accurate. Human beings works at different rates; business ebbs and flows), ask. 

If the money doesn’t align with what you want and should be paid for the multitude of skills, move on.

But I’m a freelancer, you say. Why would I even read these ads?

First, because it’s always good to see what employers think they can get away with. There’s a hue and cry that there are so many jobs out there that “can’t” be filled. That’s simply not true. Employers don’t want to pay for the skills employees have honed over the years, and they don’t want to pay people to do what they’re good at. They’d rather pay poorly for people who can do one thing decently and six things poorly than hire more than one person to do what they do well. Or pay one multi-skilled person fairly and give benefits.

They claim they “can’t.” The reality is that they won’t. There’s a difference. If they broke the job down appropriately and paid fairly, the business would prosper. But they are stuck in poverty consciousness and that’s what they extend to their workers, and it spirals downwards. It infects a region like a monetary cancer.

Because businesses talk to each other, at networking events, at dinners, during golf games. If one guy gets away with paying crap for a job encompassing 16 different skills that are usually paid at market rate, all his friends will do the same. 

And the cancer spreads.

Second, as a freelancer, if you find the company interesting and exciting, it is sometimes worth it to approach them with a proposal to work as an independent contractor or consultant.  Point out how your skill will earn them money if they hire you in as a freelancer, rather than unrealistically bundling it into an general assistant job.

They’re not paying benefits anyway. It doesn’t hurt them.

Don’t work for minimum wage; charge your rate.  Hold your boundaries — you are not an employee. Maybe you’ll do some hours on site; maybe it’s remote. Spell it all out in your contract. You are paid for meetings. You know I believe on being paid for phone time. If they insist you are on site, travel time counts.

You have to be better at what you do than anyone they have on staff — but not only is it a better situation for both of you, but, by doing well, you are teaching the employers that freelancers with specific skills are worth the money.

Those of you who know me know that I don’t “niche.” I have areas of specialized knowledge, and I can learn about anything else that interest me quickly in order to write about it. But I consider myself a Renaissance Writer (not a Generalist). 

So why am I against listings for a variety of skills?

Because it’s about not paying a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. It’s about getting as much as possible for crap wages.

Most jobs with such listings aren’t worth courting as an independent contractor or consultant. But, every once in awhile, some of them are. Once in awhile, you find a small business that is committed to walking a positive talk. That is a case where they might not be able to pay much; but they are willing to pay fairly. They will temper what they ask for to the bounds of the budget. They want to be treated fairly, so they treat others fairly.

These businesses usually grow. It’s exciting to be a part of that growth. Finding the one business that is worth working with counters the 250 crap ads you combed through, looking for that one.

Value your skills. Know your value. Study the market. Craft your pitch. Create partnerships and working relationships that work for everyone.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Tired Brain

image by super-mapio via pixabay.com

We all suffer from “tired brain” at times. When it’s possible, take a few hours or even a few days off to refresh the creative well.

But sometimes, we suffer “tired brain” with an immovable deadline. Your choices are to suck it up and deal or default and lose the gig. The third choice is to push yourself in the wrong way and still screw it up.

I prefer Option 1.

I’m sick and tired (of being sick and tired, but that’s a different conversation) of being told how much I should sleep, and having people flake out on something because they’re sleeping.

Hon, the first time I slept regularly for more than four hours a night was well after I moved out of NYC. I would not have had a career in production if I demanded or expected eight hours’ of sleep regularly every night. It simply doesn’t happen in most professions that require hard work.

Jobs have regular hours and clock on and off times. Careers demand more.

For years before I left New York, I lived in a state of perpetual exhaustion. I got a lot done. I had a great time.

I’m older now, and my body requires different things. I hear a rumor that if I live to be REALLY old, I’ll sleep even less. We’ll see.

But for now, when I have “tired brain” there are a few things that get me back on track and help me get it done:

–eat properly. Often, if I’m fading, it’s because I didn’t stop for a meal, or stop for the RIGHT meal. When I was doing eight shows a week on Broadway, flipping people in and out of clothes, I ate constantly, and I ate a lot of carbs. Now that I sit for many more hours a day, I lower the carbs and up the vegetables. If I really need to focus, I eat protein.

–switch tasks. If there’s something else I can knock off quickly without too much brain power or research, I’ll stop the task on which I’m fading and switch to the other one. Finishing the shorter tasks gives me the energy and motivation to tackle the bigger one.

–do the thing you like least first. Once it’s out of the way, there’s less tension and dread over everything else.

–take a shower. I get many of my best ideas in the shower. When I’m having major plot or wording problems, I’m so clean I squeak.

–Do something physical. I prefer yoga, or taking a walk, but do whatever activity invigorates you. Friends of mine use swimming as their go-to energizer.

–Meditate. When you “just sit” and focus on your breath, the murk in your brain clears up and problems solved.

–when you’re actually sick, take time off and get well. There’s a difference between “I’m sick” meaning “I don’t want to do this” and “I’m sick” meaning there’s actually something wrong. When it’s the latter, stop sooner rather than later, focus on getting well, and then you won’t drag out your illness with relapses.

–Schedule regular “well days.” No matter how busy your schedule, book in regular time to do something you think is fun, that is only a “want to” instead of a “have to.” When you take the time to refresh the creative well, you’ll be surprised how much more productive you are.

When I worked in theatre, we had the phrase, “You can sleep when you’re dead.”

And when I spent months with a minor league hockey team to research a book, I learned the valuable lesson of “Dig deeper and get it done.”

Namaste.

Ink-Dipped Advice: The Right to Love Your Job

 

I say this often, and figured it was about time an entire post was devoted to it:

Loving your job does not mean you forfeit the right to make a living at it.

Let’s break this down. For most of us who work in creative arenas, unless we are famous, we spend a great deal of time being asked when we’ll get a “real job.”

Being creative IS a real job. It’s a demanding one. Most of us work nights, weekends, holidays, because we CREATE others’ leisure activities.

I used to try to “educate” those who try to demean what I do for a living. Then, I realized that it’s not that they’re ignorant; it’s that they resent that I love what I do. So now, when someone asks that, I usually respond with something flippant or snarky. My subtext is always, “when you get a brain” but I don’t always say that.

How many people do you know, outside of the creative realms, who love what they do?

I’m always delighted when I meet a lawyer who loves lawyering or an accountant who loves taking care of the books, or a mechanic who loves fixing cars. Because that means I don’t have to learn more than the basics, and I can trust that individual, who loves the job, to do a good one. I can hire that individual, for a fair day’s pay to do a fair day’s work, and I don’t have to worry about it.

But most people I know don’t love their jobs. It’s something to pay the bills. Not only do they dislike their jobs and resent them, they are angry at anyone else who loves their job.

Being a creative person and committing to make a living doing what I love is a risk. It requires commitment. It doesn’t mean that I “don’t have responsibilities.” I have PLENTY of responsibilities to my family, etc. I am the breadwinner. It’s up to me to keep everything going. To point at me and claim I don’t have responsibilities because my family structure is different than someone else’s is not a valid argument.

For someone to say they “would” do something else if they “had time” or “didn’t have responsibilities” is simply a cop-out on their part. We all HAVE the same amount of hours in the day. How we choose to use them defines us. We prioritize. We make time for what matters. If we allow others to shape all of our time, that’s not on them, that’s on us.

If we are trapped in jobs we don’t like, then it is up to us to sock away as much as possible while we look for a job we like better that pays better. So many of us have to live paycheck to paycheck that it’s a challenge. We all know people who are working two or three jobs just to get by. Sometimes it’s us. We do what we need to do. But ANY job that is out of our creative work is only to support the work itself. As soon as you land something better and in your creative line, you take that opportunity and leave the lesser one. Too often, we remain trapped in a bad situation because it’s the devil we know.

Life will always change. Make sure YOU make the decisions, and they’re not made for you.

On top of that, REFUSE to do the work you love for those who don’t respect the WORK it takes to do what you do and won’t pay a fair wage. Especially in the arts.

I don’t have the patience for people who try to punish me because I love my job and they hate theirs. That is on THEM – the refusal to get out of being stuck.

When someone tells you they are giving you a “great opportunity” – chances are it’s great for them and not so great for you.

Do some research. If it’s a job with a company, check with salary.com to find the median range for the position. If it’s a freelance gig, do some research with other freelancers, the Freelance Union, and places like Writers Market, who, in their print edition, have a list of standard rate ranges.

Put together your quote from that. Give yourself some wiggle room. Decide what your bottom number is AND DON’T GO BELOW IT.

It is often better to not take the gig than to take it for content mill rates.

If you keep getting lowballed and accepting that, then you’ll get the reputation for being the “cheap choice” rather than the “most creative” choice.

Another trap freelancers and creatives often fall into – the self-deprecating comments. Undervaluing ourselves in our words. Often, we’re trying not to come across as boastful or arrogant. But, in reality, we are telling those to whom we speak that we don’t value what we do, so they shouldn’t, either.

When you’re in a meeting or a networking event, frame what you do and how you describe yourself in positive, active terms. No negatives. No passive or qualifiers. Positive verbs. Don’t make claims on which you can’t deliver, but keep your phrasing positives.

If you don’t expect and demand respect for your work, no one else will, either.

When we do work we love, our lives are better. When we do work we love, the work itself is better. When I’m excited about a project — whether it’s writing a play or researching my next novel or planning a marketing campaign for one of my clients — the excitement reflects in the work.

The work is stronger and better. The excitement I feel as I work on it, that energy, is absorbed by the words themselves. Good marketing people can communicate the energy of their projects to engage, enchant, and enlarge their audience.

Great marketing people are also excited by the work itself.

It’s a very specific talent to form words and images into engaging, sensory content, to be able to ignite energy and excitement, turning the two-dimensional form of a page or a screen into the three dimensions and beyond of imaginations.

We deserve to be paid — and paid well — for doing so.

Loving our jobs makes us BETTER at them. Which means we are worth MORE than, not less than, someone who does not.

Don’t settle.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Bill For Phone Time — Why Everyone Wins

 

I loathe the phone. I have a rare condition called hyperacussis, which means I am hyper-sensitive to certain sounds. Some sounds (like leaf blowers) can trigger a heart arrhythmia, and, in the right circumstances, a heart attack. Other sounds make bruises appear. No matter how upscale, there are certain sounds involved with phone technology that feel like someone jabs knitting needles through my ears. It can take a couple of hours to recover from a five minute call.

There are more reasons I loathe the phone. People deny what they said in a phone conversation. “That’s not what I said” or, even more irritating, “That’s not what I meant.” Words matter. Use the right ones. Understand what you’re saying and say what you mean.

Which is why I write a memo after any forced phone conversation going over what was discussed. And stating that if I do not hear to the contrary within two business days, I will move forward on what we discussed, as written in the follow-up memo AND contract.

Most of all, I resent the time phone calls take. There is no “good time” for me to be on the phone. Any phone time interferes with my writing time and creative process. By “my” writing time, I don’t just mean working on novels or plays. I mean the uninterrupted creative writing time I need in order to deliver my best work for the client. That best work that the client DESERVES.

A “quick” phone call (and they never are) can derail creativity for the rest of the day. I only accept phone calls by appointment. So, when I am forced to schedule phone time, I do it during my least creative times of the day. And I have to build the recovery time into the day (that is not billed). Also, I’ve yet to have a business-related call of more than 90 seconds that wasn’t a waste of MY time, or that couldn’t be handled more efficiently in an email. It’s the caller liking the sound of his own voice and wanting someone to applaud as he works out whatever he wants to work out.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for brainstorming. But I’d rather do it in person. Or via email. Body language, tone, and environment are important to a successful brainstorming session. It’s not an effective use of time to brainstorm on the phone while typing a letter on the computer and interrupting as people wander in and out of the office. It’s wasteful of time and energy for everyone involved.

Both in-person and on-the-phone brainstorming sessions are billable hours, as far as I am concerned. It is time out of my workday that is devoted to the client and the client’s needs. Which is fine. That’s why I work with clients. To meet their needs. But that time needs to be scheduled, respected, AND PAID.

When it is, and when the uninterrupted time I need to create excellent material for my clients is respected, the client is the one who wins.

I can’t tell you how often I hear from my fellow freelancers about how frustrated they are by constant phone interruptions. How it makes it impossible for them to get the work done on time, how it negatively affects the quality of the work, and how much time they lose from their workday.

I tell them to bill for the time. Or to schedule specific times for phone consultations.

“Oh, I can’t do that! My clients expect to reach me by phone!”

Why?

Because you’ve allowed that expectation.

A lot of freelancers offer an initial free half hour phone consultation to generate new business. I’ve never found that resulted in booking more paid business. In fact, I’ve attended conferences where participants boast on how many free phone consults they do, and all the free information they gather, never having to pay anyone for their time. I also no longer do coaching sessions via phone. I do them either in person or via email. Occasionally, I’ll use Skype, but under specific conditions. Too often, the person on the other end of the phone is invested in the Myth of Multi-Tasking and is doing six other things while on the phone. None of them are being done well, and the consultation is a waste of everyone’s time.

Set it out in the contract. If you want to give them X amount of free phone time, go ahead. But otherwise, state in the contract that you charge X dollars for X minutes of phone time.

I charge in 15-minute increments, like a lawyer, and state that appointments for calls must be made in advance. I send an invoice immediately after the conversation, and expect payment by the end of that business day via PayPal. Anything else, send an email. During business hours, I’m quick to respond.

Clients don’t believe I will actually adhere to the policy and hold the boundary. But I do.

That is why a thorough contract is so important.

It has cut down on unnecessary phone time, because they don’t want to pay for it, and they learn pretty fast that yammering on about nothing costs them money. The result is more focused time when we are on the phone, and my clients get a faster turnaround time with higher quality work. So it benefits THEM in the long run, even though it’s a different process than the way they’re used to working.

Some people adore doing the bulk of their business dealings on the phone. If so, good for you. Unless that time is built into your project or hourly rate, though, I suggest billing separately for phone time.

I found it makes a huge positive difference in both productivity and quality.

Which means my clients are happy.

And we all win.