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: 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: Artists Are Expected To Settle For Less — And Shouldn’t

As a published author, I’m getting a little tired of getting pitched to by marketing organizations that want me to hand over a bunch of moolah, but refuse to commit to results.

I understand the value of getting one’s name out in front of as many people as possible for name recognition and business growth. That’s part of how I earn my living.

I work with other businesses to communicate their message effectively and grow their business. They expect me to grow their name recognition. To get their name and their product in front of those who will actually open their wallets and buy it. They expect – and demand – that the work I do – the work for which they PAY me — results in more sales.

If it doesn’t, within a reasonable amount of time, that client will end our business relationship and hire someone else who gets him a better return.

Why are authors and other artists told they must expect any different?

Almost every author/artist promotional service has a disclaimer that they can’t guarantee sales. Why not? Other businesses expect a return on their investment. Why shouldn’t artists?

They should. We should. We need to stop settling for less.

When I hire someone else to promote my book, I expect it to result in sales. Otherwise, there is no point in hiring that firm. I can do it myself.

If it does NOT result in sales, then I’ve put my money in the wrong place, and it’s time to try something else.

The way any reputable business owner does.

Because, as an artist, I AM a small business.

We need to stop settling for a lower return than any other business because we’re artists. We need to stop ALLOWING others to treat us as second-class individuals. We need to start acting like smart business people, so that we will be treated as such.

Part of that is expecting a reasonable return on the investment.

So what is a reasonable return? At the very least, I want to make back what I spent on the promotion, plus 20%. Which is a low, but that’s my personal threshold for feeling like a campaign was worth the money spent. When it goes above that, I’m delighted.

Then I see how I can build on that for the next campaign.

Plenty of people will wail that one “can’t” expect a return on art/novels/etc. The demand I’m making here will anger a lot of marketing people.

Why can’t we expect a result for money spent? Movie studios do. Television content providers do. Fine artists do. Commercial theatre productions do or they have short runs. Traditional publishing houses do, too.

Because the artist is dropped from the contract if the artist’s work does not sell.

Now, more and more artists are forced to hire their own marketing for their work. If my publisher tells me I have to get X amount of sales or I won’t get future contracts, and I’m required to hire my own marketing firm, then, yes, I expect that firm to be savvy enough in the kind of marketing I need in order to deliver the results FOR WHICH THEY ARE PAID. If my publisher paid them directly, or had an in-house marketing team do the work, the same expectations would hold. Lack of results means the business relationship ends.

So we need to stop thinking that we don’t “deserve” results simply because we are not a corporation. We are a small business, and we deserve the same results when we hire in a service as any other business does.

I’m done settling for less.

(Note: This has been a tough time, especially for progressive women. I joked on social media that this year’s Nano needs to have a “Women’s Rage” forum. Instead of that, I’m starting a private virtual group to develop creative work in multiple disciplines called Women Write Change. Stay tuned here, on Ink in My Coffee  and the main Devon Ellington site  for more information. It’ll take me a few days to set up, and then I’ll have an address where interested parties can request invitation).