Ink-Dipped Advice: The Beauty of Guidelines

 

Whether you’re pitching an article or submitting a novel query or pitching a script, the guidelines of any particular publisher are important.

Following them properly are vital to success at landing a contract.

I’ve taught entire workshops on interpreting guidelines and following them.

Having worked on both sides of the editorial table, I sympathize with both editors who are frustrated by writers who don’t follow guidelines, and writers who are frustrated by the guidelines.

It’s important to remember that the guidelines and how the writer follows them are the first test to see if the writer and the publisher are a good fit.

The editor wants to know:
–can the writer demonstrate basic reading comprehension and follow instructions;
–can the writer understand and fulfill the requirements of being part of this organization;
–can the writer demonstrate fluency in grammar, spelling, sentence and paragraph structure, understand the purpose of a hook, and distill the necessary information into a single page;
–can the writer demonstrate an intelligence and a flexibility that proves the individual is easy to work with and doesn’t need constant babysitting.

Guidelines are not there to make the writer’s life miserable. They exist to streamline the process for the editor/publication and weed out those who are more trouble than they’re worth.

I took a wonderful workshop, way back in film school, about pitching screenplays. A good portion of it was about developing a logline. A logline is a single sentence (not complex, compound, or run-on) that encapsulates the screenplay while enchanting the listener.

The workshop leader, who worked in acquisitions and development for a major studio, stated that if the writer could not distill the screenplay down into that one simple logline, the writer didn’t know the piece well enough, it needed another draft, and was not ready to pitch.

I remember that every time I prepare a pitch or a query. There are times when I decide not to pitch or query something because I obviously need more time with it, and I can’t distill it down to the basics while making it enticing.

The elevator pitch is more like a paragraph, but the logline is a good test of whether or not something is ready to go out.

On the flip side of guidelines, when I see demanding guidelines that take me so far out of standard manuscript format that I should be on staff for the publication and paid to reformat, it gives me pause. There’s a reason standard manuscript format uses the word “standard.”

I draft in standard manuscript format because it is far easier to format OUT of it than into it, should that be necessary (to create one-paragraph summaries, excerpts for media kits and interviews, etc). And, people, the default in Word is NOT standard manuscript format. It will mess you up. Set the document to standard manuscript format when you start the first words of your manuscript, and it will serve you well.

If you don’t know what “standard manuscript format” is — LOOK IT UP. Don’t expect others to do your research for you. The information is out there. Put in some effort to learn your craft.

Back from that little tangent.

When guidelines are overly complicated, or when there’s an edge of nastiness to them, I step back. I do more research. It’s a hint that perhaps we are not a good fit.

When I see something in the guidelines that I disagree with, with which I’m not willing to suck it up and do it,  I take a deep breath and move on.

I don’t email them to ask for an exception or to argue with them. They have the right to set whatever guidelines that work for them.

I have the right not to submit.

That’s the beauty of the guidelines. They give BOTH sides of the equation necessary information.

As a writer, if the guidelines don’t work for you, DON’T SUBMIT. Keep doing your research, and find a publication/publisher that’s a better match.

Submitting anyway, because you think you’re such a brilliant writer that they’ll make an exception for you will only cause frustration for both of you. You’ll be upset because you’ll get a rejection. If you don’t follow guidelines, chances are it will be rejected unread. They will be frustrated because you wasted their time and proved you’re not a professional.

If you ARE that brilliant, a different publication, where you’re comfortable with and have followed the guidelines, will contract you. If you ARE that brilliant, word will get around, and publications will wind up coming to you.

When you’re simply Very Good, you work a little harder to find the right fit, and don’t bother with publications that are the wrong fit.

Which you can often tell from the guidelines.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Fast On Your Feet– Dealing with Change

One of the reasons I like freelancing is that I like variety. I learned early on, when I had temp jobs back in high school, that I wouldn’t last long in Cubicle World. We weren’t suited to each other.

On the flips side of it, when a client changes the parameters of a project, laughing it off as, “You’ll never get bored here; everything is different” — that is often a red flag.

Which is why your contract and/or Letter of Agreement is so important.

So how do you balance that, and how do you keep enough variety in your life with short-term one-offs, while still having the stability of steady income, without falling a rut?

Damned if I know.

Bet you expected a different answer, didn’t you?

But I’m figuring it out. It’s probably different for me than for many others, but maybe something in my journey will resonate. If I can save someone else pain, frustration, and time, good for all of us.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve developed two important tools:

Listening
I keep going back to that, don’t I? But listening is important. That’s how you create, that’s how you figure out what’s under the actual words, and which words you need to craft the message. Both your own message and the client’s.

Listen to the client.

Listen to yourself. Not just what you say to the client and how you say it, but how does it feel?

I recently withdrew from consideration from a project that attracted me because I liked the organization, and the money/security aspect was seductive. However, listening, really listening to them in the meeting, and then to my own instincts, let me know we were not the right fit. They needed someone with different skills than I have. They were willing to train me, but those weren’t skills and job elements that would have made me happy. What had attracted me to the job in the first place turned out to be a small portion of the job. We weren’t what the other partner needed.

Because it IS a partnership, when it works well.

I listened to them.

Even more importantly, I listened to my own instincts.

We parted on good terms.

Which is better than taking the job, proving I wasn’t happy, and leaving on bad terms.

“No” is not a dirty word
As a freelancer, you are allowed to say “no.” You are allowed to refuse jobs that you don’t want or like, for whatever reason.

I don’t work for companies who support practices I believe are harmful to justice, equality, and climate change. That is my choice. Other people don’t really care, as long as they’re paid fairly and on time. I do. My politics is not separate from my life or my work. Not at this stage of the game.

Do we have to take jobs we don’t like, just for the cash? Most of us have, at one time or another. Many of us may have to in the future, especially when the economy crashes again. But it doesn’t mean we have to stay forever. You survive. I keep digging until I find a client that doesn’t go against everything I value.

Coping with change
Change is often thrown at us when we least want to deal with it.

Coping mechanisms that I find useful (outside of sticking to my daily yoga/meditation practice no matter how crazy the day gets) include:

–when you start to feel the change, or see the red flags, pay attention. This goes back to listening. Trust your instincts, then find facts to back them up (or prove otherwise). Usually, however, your instincts are correct.

–keep your resume updated. Even when you’re comfortable. I keep a Master CV that has Everything I’ve Ever Done and is massive. From that, I pull to create relevant resumes for the LOIs.

–keep your clip files current. As soon as it’s published/produced, I add it to my clip file, as both a printable hard copy and a link. Links go away. Hard copies can be scanned or copied or used in a variety of ways.

–keep talking to people. Send out LOIs, even during big projects. Go to Chamber events and other networking sessions. Go to conferences. Talk to other professionals across disciplines on social media.

–keep learning. Take courses in skills and interests. Read about what’s changing in your field, and add to your skill set. I’m a big fan of Coursera, but there are plenty of other places, too.

–acknowledge feelings of sadness, anger, fear. You feel what you feel. It’s not about what other people decide is relevant or useful. Your emotions are valid. Face them, accept them, find ways to work with them, not ignore them. Repression will come back to bite you in the butt.

–embrace transience. Everything changes. Enjoy the perfect moments of happiness, and then make a commitment to enjoy the journey and build something better.

How do you prepare for and work with upcoming change?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Tools and Resources

 

Last week’s post promised further discussion about the tools and resources you need to get the job done.

Tasks, Job Descriptions, Contracts
Far too many job listings should be flagged for false advertising. The listing that claims to want a “Marketing Coordinator” actually wants a receptionist who writes press releases in between phone calls (not happening). The “Social Media Manager” spends more time fixing computer problems than creating content for social media platforms. The “Marketing Director” doesn’t direct marketing at all, but is actually supposed to do the job of a sales assistant.

I currently live in a work-for-hire state. The first thing the employer states in the offer is that the job is “at will” and you can be fired without notice or reason (which also means you then have to fight to get paid, and, if you’ve worked on payroll rather than 1099, it’s a fight to get unemployment benefits if you were fired).

By law, it also means that the employee can leave “at will” at any time without notice. The employer, who just fired Betty last week in a fit of pique is now shocked, shocked I tell you, when Jane walks out at lunchtime in frustration, because now Jane’s doing her work and Betty’s work (which is nowhere near the tasks she was hired for), and the employer is delighted not to pay two employees, even though both jobs were part time and without benefits, sick days, or paid holidays.

It also makes it harder to give two weeks’ notice and have any transition/training time. The new position won’t hold it while you try not to screw over your previous employer and wrap everything up; the person you’re replacing is long gone and no one knows what that individual did or any of the passwords, or can even find the job description; and you don’t have a chance to train the person coming in to do your former job. And all the notes you so carefully left for that person have disappeared.

This means, even for freelance/remote work, most local clients don’t want to sign a contract. But the contract is vital in order to keep the job parameters clear.

Basically, if you’re coming in to write freelance marketing materials for a client, the contract will spell out that writing the materials in that specific contract are ALL you’re going to do, and that any work that is outside of what is listed in the contract must go under a separate contract for a separate price.

Resources
Around here, they fight remote work, too. Although they are often loathe to give you desk space, a decent chair, a drawer in a file cabinet, or anything else you might need.

About a year and a half ago, I went in to talk to one potential client who wouldn’t even consider having me work remotely, but my “desk” would be a board set up across two oil drums during the hours I came in to work there. Oh, and, by the way, although the job was for a marketing position, I’d also be doing some light bookkeeping, responsible for payroll, and answer the phone for two hours a day. And I should be comfortable with the men in the office making inappropriate comments, because, you know, that’s how men are. Oh, and the ad had the “wrong” financial information. It’s actually minimum wage, with no benefits.

Buh-bye.

Then there are the employers who tell you that you have to supply your own laptop (and what brand) and iPhone (and how much memory it has to have).

The response to that is “My kit fee for providing my own equipment is X dollars/week on top of the project fee.”

That always gets a shocked response, too.

No, sweetie, I am not carrying the cost of your electronics. You want me to use a particular piece of equipment? YOU supply it. Or you pay me a kit fee if I’m using my own. Not to mention the insurance I have to carry, in case anything happens to it while I’m using it for YOU.

Sales/Marketing/Promotion/Advertising
Far too many businesses lump them all together. Marketing and Sales often work closely together, but they are not the same thing and require different skills.

When I worked in wardrobe, on Broadway, our union contract specified what each element contains.

The biggest misinformation that’s taken hold over the last few years is that the Marketing Director performs the same tasks as a Sales Rep.

No.

As a member of the marketing team, my job is to engage and enchant the audience and expand the potential audience. I get them interested in the product or onto the site. It’s up to the Sales team to close the deal, provide necessary customer service, and get the money transferred.

Promotion uses elements from both sales and marketing teams, and often involves swag. A tangible object, usually with a logo and a website address, that a random person can have and hold, and think of the product/organization every time they see or use the object. Seeing it regularly, if and when it evokes a positive response, will result in another sale/another visit/further engagement. Sales and marketing often brainstorm the ideas and products, marketing finesses the content/logos/pithy quotes and gets them into production, and sales distributes them and follows up with potential clients.

Advertising is the visual and/or audio engagement where the company pays for placement, such as on a radio station, or web advertising, or newspaper advertising or program advertising. More and more often, it’s called “sponsorship” — but it’s still advertising. The sales and marketing team create a slick product that the company pays to place, in the hope that where it’s placed reaches the right audience that are then interested in the company’s product, which results in sales numbers that are higher than what was paid to create and place the ad.

Marketing and sales work often work together, but the actual tasks are different. It’s vital they work well together as a team, but it’s marketing’s job to create and engage, and sales’s job to close the deal. Marketing is more of an introvert’s task (because it’s about content creation and placement), where sales is more of an extrovert’s task.

The reason so many businesses are struggling, especially small businesses, is that they try to bunch it into a single position. The person they hire is generally better at one side of it or the other. A great marketing person is not necessarily a good sales person. Great content and a beautifully planned campaign need time and space — uninterrupted work time and QUIET. A great sales person may be able to laugh and joke and glad-hand, but not necessarily create the content or plan a fully-rounded, multi-platformed campaign.

That doesn’t mean the marketing person never goes out and represents the company — they often do. Many do it very, very well. But the delineations are important.

In the long run, it doesn’t save the company money to hire one person to do both not-so-well, rather than two people who are excellent at their separate pieces of the puzzle.

Same with the demand that the writer also be able to do the graphic design. Those are separate skills. Great writers paired with great graphic designers create great product.

I’ve worked with potential clients who decide I’m too expensive, and have their graphic designers write the content. Yeah, it looks great, but the content often makes no sense and is full of errors. Or the client demands that I do the design, but wants me responsible to also research permissions, pay permissions fees for visuals, use any Adobe or Dreamweaver skills — all at the quote I gave for content.

No.

These are distinct skills that deserve fair pay. If you’re offering yourself on a job site to do all of this for $20, you’re screwing yourself and all the rest of the freelancers out here working hard to retain respect and earn a living.

Time
One of the things most employers don’t understand is how much time it takes to create materials. UNINTERRPUTED TIME.

When a listing talks about a “busy environment” or “must have ability to juggle projects” or “multi-task” — it means they will dump anything they don’t feel like doing on you, and interrupt you every fifteen seconds, never allowing you to get anything done. And then wonder why the marketing materials aren’t done on time or have errors on the first few passes. The expectation is that if you need quiet time, you do it after hours. Without pay.

This, of course, could be avoided if they’d give you uninterrupted work time, or, better yet, if they respected their freelancers enough for remote work.

I am much more productive and efficient in my own space. It actually saves the business money when I work remotely. They get a higher quality of work with a shorter turnaround time.

Also, when they are sitting there staring at you while you work, they assume any time you are on social media, you are screwing around on company time.

No, honey, you hired me to handle your social media. That means, in addition to creating the content, I have to be on the various platforms both to post and to INTERACT. Just tossing content on a platform DOES NOTHING.

This requires time. Every day that is scheduled to work. Not just charging X dollars per tweet, but factoring in the time you need to respond, follow, interact, and grow the audience.

Ask Questions Before You Take the Job
Ask questions about all these elements in your early client meetings. Find a way to work that is productive for both of you and then PUT IT IN WRITING.

Liking the client doesn’t negate the need for a contract.

What are some of the frustrating demands you’ve encountered? How did you deal with them?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Crafting Client Voice

“Voice” is a term that is used in writing to denote that special way an author puts together words in order to resonate with a reader.

Authorial voice is something some writers struggle to find and then hone for years. It is something that makes a reader recognize it’s you and not one of your ten thousand colleagues within the first paragraph.

However, when you stretch yourself to marketing writing for others, it’s not about YOUR voice. It’s about your client voice. That brings with it special challenges.

First, whose voice is the client voice? Is it the person who hired you? Or the person who owns the company? Or the person who runs the company? Or has this particular company created a character that’s the face of the company that needs a voice? Or is it a combination?

When you come in to work on marketing materials, one of the most important questions to ask early on is “Who is the voice of the company?” Not “what” but “who.”

Far too often, marketing materials miss because there is no cohesive voice. Even if it’s a collaborative or a co-operative, and different voices are featured, there needs to be a single, unified voice that represents the company.

Part of your job as a writer for that company is finding that voice and then developing it.

This is where my theatre training comes in. Because I know how to create characters, both on the page and with actors, I can work with the decision-makers in the company to create a voice and then use it consistently across the different types of channels — press releases, social media posts, websites, etc.

It can be a challenge when there are too many voices (often with egos attached), and you have to both combine them and distill them to create a distinctive voice. It can be a challenge when you’re working with a small business owner who is still trying to find the voice and wants their own personality to be the voice.

Handling their egos in this is a delicate matter. We all deserve basic human dignity and respect. But many people aren’t as interesting to a vast audience as they think they are. So they need help developing a business voice that is individually “them” but also better. It’s the Best Self, the most polished and professional and witty and funny and incisive self that also engages an expanding audience and interests that audience in whatever the business needs to promote/sell/serve to stay in business.

The first step in this is to genuinely LISTEN. Out of the first ten thousand words of what the client thinks they want, you might find 20 that are useful.

For me, it is use-LESS to have these conversations on the phone. In general, I find the phone a waste of time, money, and creative energy. I’ve never had a business phone conversation of more than 90 seconds that had value.

The conversations that develop voice need to happen in person or via video conferencing. The person’s tone, the facial expressions, the body language, the light in the eyes, the places they smile, what they find amusing — all of this is vital for the writer to craft the character and voice that will represent the brand. You enhance what works, you recede what doesn’t.

You create a character and a style that effectively communicates the message and expands the audience.

That has NOTHING to do with slathering photographs of the business owner and workers all over the place. In my opinion, selfies do more harm than good in business. It doesn’t “personalize” the business or product; it dilutes it.

Having a spokesperson is different — those photos are done in designated shoots with a specific purpose in mind. The spokesperson is chosen for the ability to promote a specific look and voice that the decision-makers believe best represents them.

If the business wants headshots of specific individuals or a page on the website of workers happily going about their day — great. But there’s a time and place for those types of photos, and it’s not a daily social media post.

The exception to that could be a service organization — but then you need to get signed releases from everyone you photograph. Someone coming into your space is not automatic permission to be photographed and shared publicly. People get to decide where and how their likenesses are used.

If you try to force them, you will lose them.

You want to capture the speaker’s natural rhythm and cadence; at the same time, you enhance it, strengthening sentence structure and word choice, cutting out the boring bits, the qualifiers, the passive. You do this while retaining the speaker’s cadence.

When I write a speech for someone else, when I do it well, the speaker sounds as though speaking off the cuff – even though we spent hours honing it and rehearsing it. Once we researched it.

Yes, as the writer, when I write something that will be spoken live and/or taped, I’m the one who rehearses the speaker. Part of that is my theatre training. Part of that is that I can rewrite and make necessary changes in the rehearsal process so that it sounds even better and more natural.

Because I LISTEN. I listen as the writer, but I also listen as the audience. I work on multiple levels simultaneously, because the material I create must work on the audience on multiple levels.

So talk, listen, create a voice, and work with those who are the face of the company (speaking engagements, chamber events, trade shows, etc.) so they speak in a similar cadence to the marketing materials. Yes, they are themselves. But when they represent their company, they have to align themselves with the company voice.

Even with a small company, it’s a lot of moving parts. It takes thought, planning, creativity. But most important, you need to listen. You need to understand subtext. You need to be able to shear away the words, gestures, and quirks that dilute the message and focus it in a way that’s easy to speak and easy to hear.

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: Should Business Writers Do National Novel Writing Month?

 

It’s mid-October, which means thousands of writers and aspiring writers are getting ready to participate in National Novel Writing Month in November.

Is it worth it for a business writer?

I write many things: business writing, novels, short stories, plays, radio drama, etc. Maybe my experiences will help you decide.

I have had some great times with National Novel Writing Month. And some frustrating ones. I’ve been a mentor to new members, sending them a daily morning encouragement. I’ve hit the 50K goal and more every time (although the year my grandmother was dying during November was more challenging than some of the other years.

I’ve gone to write-ins and meet-ups and participated in forums. Met a lot of great people. Connected in new ways with writers I already knew.

I’ve participated in Nano five times (four successive years, then a break, than a few years ago). I’ve completed four novels, and have two novels partially done (last time I did Nano, I did a “tandem Nano” where I worked on one project I’d already started, and one I started on Nov. 1). One of those partials has been retired; it will never amount to anything. One novel was torn apart and reworked over a period of years. It was published under a title that sunk it; I got the rights back, switched publishers, and it became PLAYING THE ANGLES, which launched the Coventina Circle series. One novel was put aside for several years, and has been torn apart and revised over the last couple of years; it will go out on submission to agents in spring. One novel needs another revision and then, it, too, will go out on submission. One has been put aside until I can get it into the revision queue; it has a decent premise, but needs more craft. One novel needs to find its way back into the writing queue to be finished, then revised, then go out on submission.

When I was making the transition from working on Broadway to writing full-time, Nano helped me get into the habit of writing, first thing in the morning, around 2K/day (and then I’d settle back into at least 1K).

I have discovered the work written during Nano needs more revision than other work.

50K in a month is not a stretch for me anymore. 1667 words a day is pretty normal for my first writing session on my primary project – many more words have to be written each day in order to keep a roof over my head. This is my business, not my hobby.

So, for those of us, especially in business, does it make sense to write on our own time at that pace during Nano?

Do you want to try something new? I find Nano useful as a playground, to stretch into directions I don’t normally write. In that regard, I find it useful no matter what other kind of writing I do.

Are you willing to make the commitment to do 50K on a particular project on that month? Because just writing along with Nano at your own pace, in my opinion, defeats the purpose of Nano, which is “lots of words on paper really fast without editing.”

Because of my contract schedule, Traditional Nano does not work right now. I have a book coming out in late October; another one coming out in December; another in January; I’m working on the next books in those series for next year. I’m also prepping another series for re-release and am in talks about other releases.

The last time I participated, I was disappointed in the forums, which had always been fun before. I found too much whining; not enough writing. And moderators accusing professionals of “self-promotion” every time they answered a question by an unpublished writer. It felt like professionalism was discouraged.

But I like riding the wave. And I’m tired of feeling exhausted and furious about the current state of the nation (and the world).

So this year, instead of “Traditional Nano” I started a closed forum called Women Write Change. It started as not-quite-a-joke during the Kavanaugh hearings that we need a women’s rage forum during Nano. I re-read a manuscript I’d put aside a few years ago. The writing was universally praised, but I was told to “tone down the rage, because women’s rage makes readers uncomfortable.”

This book’s time has come.

This forum is for progressive artists in all disciplines who identify as women. It’s something different than Nano, although hooking into that enormous wave of energy that happens when tens of thousands of people write during the same time. It’s a place to develop work inspired by current situations.

It’s what I need, artistically and personally, right now.

But is it worth it for a business writer, tired from writing for others all day, to do Nano?

I’d say try it once, if you want to try something different and are willing to make a commitment. You’ll learn valuable information about how you work, and where inspiration comes from.

The most important thing it teaches, if you stick with it, is to put your own work FIRST.

I have found that techniques with which I experimented during Nano have helped me in other writing. I’ve found it exhilarating and frustrating. I think it’s worth doing at least once in your life – and then deciding what you can take from the experience and apply to other types of writing.

Ink-Dipped Advice: How To Lose A Customer

A few months back, a start-up that claimed to be dedicated to health and wellness offered me an invitation to an invitation to be one of the first subscribers to their new monthly box.

They sounded interesting, so I said yes, I’d like an invitation to the invitation.

I got on the mailing list, I got emails.

Then, the invitation came through. The same week that I had two deaths in 24 hours close to me, and was overwhelmed on many fronts. There was a flurry of emails, every day. The products were good, but not what I wanted at the time. I had questions about the pricing structure – the way the initial invite was worded, it looked like it would fluctuate, month-to-month.

Honestly, I couldn’t deal with it at the time. I put it aside and MADE THE CHOICE not to subscribe.

As a POTENTIAL customer, that was my right.

It was an INVITATION to an INVITATION. It was not a commitment.

About two weeks ago, I got an email from the company ATTACKING me for not subscribing, with language such as “did you not understand what we’re offering?” and further phrasing berating me for not subscribing. As though I was too stupid to understand the product.

As though they were supposed to be my priority, and as though I’d let them down.

No.

I understood the product. I CHOSE not to buy it. As is my right, in any such transaction.

I sent back a strongly worded email that not everything was about THEM, I was dealing with two deaths, and I’d never committed to purchase. I said I was interested in the invitation. I had the OPTION to buy or not buy, and I chose not to.

I unsubscribed from their mailing list.

I wanted an apology, although I knew I wouldn’t get one. I also realized that it wouldn’t matter. I wasn’t looking for anything free or a discount coupon. There was NOTHING they could say or do that would make me trust them with personal and/or financial information.

I also felt, that, as a supposed heath & wellness company, they were hypocrites.

Hmm — wellness meant THEIR well-being, not that of their customers. Got it. Moving on.

I understand that starting a small business is stressful. But this is not the way to woo potential customers.

I moved on and did other things. I have a subscription box already, with the wonderful, amazing, stunning Goddess Provisions, who always seems to know what I need and time the monthly box to arrive at the right time. For instance, the day after those two deaths, the Heart Chakra box arrived. It was exactly what I needed in that moment. Plus, they are kind and responsive and quick to answer questions or concerns.

I finally received a sort-of apology last week. The company stated they “didn’t mean” it to feel like an attack, and they understood it was an emotional time for me. If they didn’t mean for it to feel like an attack, then they shouldn’t have used phrasing that made it so.

I didn’t bother to respond.

While I know we all make mistakes and believe in second chances, I found the exchange revealing. Instead of actually supporting a potential customer going through a rough time, first they attacked, then they did nothing, then, weeks later, they sent a half-baked whatever it was.

Would a response within the standard 48-hour business protocol response time have changed anything? I don’t know. But a sincere response, instead of further defense, would have smoothed things over. Taking two weeks to respond, and then sending something mealy-mouthed didn’t cut it. Take responsibility. Work to fix it (which doesn’t necessarily mean offering something free )– just work on phrasing. As in maybe hire qualified writing/marketing people for your product and pay them fairly, instead of going off half-cocked and turning off your customers.

Not a way to run a business in my opinion.

Not a company I plan to spend my money with.

Does it make me more careful in my own interactions? I should hope I already am, but it also makes me remember not to send out a mass email in a moment of anger. The person who wrote/sent the email to non-subscribers felt angry and betrayed. Feelings are feelings, and valid. How you use them on other people is something to consider. Because there are consequences.

And perhaps, instead of sending something in a flash of emotion, you should have written it, taken a step back, a breath, and thought it through. Thought if, perhaps, there was a better way to entice those who had passed on the first opportunity you sent them. Where did it fall short for them? Was it only timing? Money? Content? Presentation? Ask for feedback. Don’t attack.

Frankly, that email should have remained in the “unsent letter” file that I learned when studying journals and their writers, and when I taught journal and diary writing. You write the letter to figure out your feelings. You use it as a tool to figure out positive ways to deal with the situation.

But it remains unsent, unless you are willing to burn that bridge.

As far as I’m concerned, the bridge is burned.

I wish them well, but I will not be one of their customers.

My conscious consumerism takes me elsewhere.

Thoughts? Comments? Anecdotes to share?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Pieces of Teachers

“Everyone wants a piece of the teacher, but you don’t get that piece until years later.”

That quote is attributed to author Kate Green by Natalie Goldberg in her book LONG QUIET HIGHWAY, which I’m re-reading for the umpteenth time.

That quote reverberates with me. I remember many teachers from my life. Far too often, I didn’t realize the gifts they gave me until years after.

My fifth grade teacher, who bought me a set of Rudyard Kipling at a yard sale because she knew I loved to read the classics; My sixth grade teacher, who let me read and write far off the reservation, and encouraged me to write stories during class time, even during lectures. Who taught me I could spit out a first draft any way I wanted, but then I had to shape it in order to present it to the world. My band teacher in high school, who knew I loved to write, and suggested I write articles about the high school band, orchestra, and chorus for the local newspapers (my first professional published byline).

In college, I was lucky to have a fantastic teacher who was also my advisor. At a competitive school like NYU Film School, that was vital. I’ve stayed in touch with him over the years, and even got together with him when I visited NYC a few years back. I’ve also kept in touch with one of my screenwriting professors from NYU. The two of them helped me get back on track when I got unfocused, especially when I put other people’s work ahead of my own.

I think they were both surprised when I went into theatre instead of film as my career, but were interested in how I looped what I learned in their classes to the rest of my theatre and writing life.

When I teach, students come away with handouts and workbooks (I am the Queen of Handouts – the bins I haul into a conference workshop cause eyes to widen and backs to groan).

I’m a strict teacher and don’t put up with excuses or not writing. I make it clear that during the scope of the class, things are strict, and then, AFTER the class is over, they get to keep what works and toss the rest. I see many of my students toss quite a bit initially, and then slowly work their way back to what we did, in their own time.

Either way is great. You find your process by trying many different things, not staying in a rut, taking chances, and building your skills with every piece you write.

I am deeply grateful to my teachers. Even the ones I didn’t agree with gave me something important. And I’m still realizing the pieces, and will continue, my entire life, as long as I pay attention.

Who are your most memorable teachers? Is there anyone with whom you kept in touch?

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.