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Pub Crawl is such a wonderful mixture of things. Writing craft, publishing industry insights, Days in the Life posts, cover reveals, and so many other things. In fact, being an avid Pub Crawl reader is partly what made me curious enough to know more about what being on the inside of the industry was like. Admittedly, I’m still learning! But for any of our readers who are considering breaking into publishing, here are some of the things I’ve learned so far:
1. New York, New York
I hate to be the bearer of bad news (if you’ve never had a desire to live in NYC), but if you want to work in publishing, you are going to have a much, much easier time doing it in New York. That’s not to say there aren’t small presses and literary agencies littered throughout the country where you might be able to get a foot in the door – but New York is the hub.
2. Internships are key.
If you don’t live in NYC, lots of literary agencies offer what’s called a remote internship. This refers to an internship done mainly through email, and your main job is to read manuscripts the agent for whom you are interning has requested from writers. This kind of internship is a great way to establish if you even want to learn more about working in publishing. I did a remote internship before I came to New York, and was very lucky to have made that contact when I ended up making the move.
And if you do decide to make the trip to New York, the next step is an in-house internship. Yes, most publishing houses and agencies want you to have a bachelor’s degree at the very least (though Penguin Random House very recently nixed this notion). But what publishers and agencies look at most closely is your internship experience.
So what does that mean?
It means, know what kinds of internships will give you the experience you need relevant to the job you want. For example, small presses will usually utilize interns in a number of ways – publicity, editorial, mailing, etc., whereas a larger house will have you in a specific department, usually editorial or publicity. And a literary agency will have you doing a lot of different things because agents themselves do a lot of different things – you might be organizing excel files, writing a report on a manuscript an agent has requested from a writer, or reading queries from the slush pile.
The great thing about internships is they can help you see where you do and *don’t* want to work without too much pressure. If you thought you were destined to work in publicity, but your internship in the publicity department at X house left something to be desired, then maybe you’d be happier in editorial, or even in a more design-centric department (admittedly a rather hazy area of publishing for me).
Be prepared to have at least two internships on your resume before getting hired for a full-time assistant position (the most basic level in all publishing employment).
3. Money, Money, Money
There are downsides to internships, of course. Many of them are unpaid or pay very little but still require as much of your time as a part-time job. So be prepared to save up money for living expenses, and to look for another part-time job as well. And to have roommates. And to eat ramen for a lot of meals.
Look, it’s not glamorous – even when if you work your way up, publishing is not an industry to join for the money. You do it because you love books, and you love writers, and you want to be part of their success. Publishing definitely has its issues – diversity being its biggest one by far – but more and more spotlights are being centered on those issues, and my guess (and my hope) is those who are working their way up from the bottom right now are going to be part of the wave that initiates true, honest change.
4. Twitter is your (Networking) Friend
Twitter is a fantastic space for writers. But it’s also a wealth of publishing information, job and internship opportunities, and possible industry contacts. I found my first internship when an agency I follow tweeted about it, and ditto for my job. And I have met some of my best friends in New York through Twitter, like when I plucked up the courage to reach out to another agency assistant and asked to meet up.
The interns and assistants you become friends with when you are just starting out become the editors and agents you work with down the line. Those relationships are more important than you know, and twitter is a great way to start some of those conversations
Just keep in mind that this does NOT mean “tweet at editors or agents from whom you want a job/book/autograph”. There are still rules of respectability on Twitter – in the same way writers are discouraged from pitching agents, it’s discouraged for anyone looking for employment/internships to pitch possible employers on social media. Find people at the same level as you and connect.
5. Be Willing to Go All In
I’m just gonna say it: If you aren’t willing to dedicate your heart and soul to publishing, then it might not be for you. The image many of us have of an editor who reads manuscripts and edits at his/her desk all day is a lovely one, but unfortunately quite far from reality. In fact, most editors don’t get to do much editing, if any, during the work day at all – it’s what they do when they get home from work. The same goes for agents – much of the day is spent on the phone with publishers or clients, and it’s not until the evening commute and after that they get to read queries and manuscripts.
So why do it? Well, that’s up to you. For me, the idea of helping bring a book that I believe in to life is a seductive one. There’s really nothing better than reading a query that excites you, requesting a manuscript you end up loving, and working with it through to publishing completion. And at the end of a stressful day, a book and its writer’s victories make everything you’ve done to get it there worth it. Being at the launch of a book you helped to, well, launch, is one of the most rewarding experiences. And the community is tight – the support is real.
I hope this has been helpful for any of you who are thinking of taking the plunge!
This is a great question that came via email from Matt:
Is there a writing principle about how much interiority should be within a scene?
As with all great writing debates, I’m here to say that there’s no set guideline. Womp womp. Sorry to not have something more concrete, but I do have some food for thought that might help you choose your own approach.
My rule of thumb, however, is to use what’s necessary and find a balance. As with anything, balance doesn’t come easily. Some writers err on the side of too much interiority, some writers barely scratch the surface of their character’s rich inner lives, even in first person.
The imbalance of too much interiority is especially apparent when nothing is happening, plot-wise. Alternately, nothing happens because there’s too much interiority, or internal conflict, rather than external conflict. If you have your character thinking about everything, maybe you’re on this end of the spectrum. Know that, while a level of interiority is desirable, you also need to focus on the things that come less naturally to you, namely pacing and plot. It’s very important to know how a character reacts to what’s happening, but it can’t be the end-all and be-all. To be fair, I see this imbalance less than its opposite.
The more common imbalance is seeing little interiority in big moments, when connection to the character should naturally increase in order to keep from alienating the reader. Writers who fall into this category tend to be very comfortable with plot. When they do talk about emotion, maybe they simply name what a character is feeling, or talk about the feelings by using clichés that detail emotions in a character’s body. These are offshoots of telling, and, as you’ve heard me say many times, interiority is quite different from telling, though the distinction can be subtle for a lot of people. Characters with too little interiority are also prone to being stuck, or to being in denial.
As you can see, there are many more links discussing a lack of interiority or issues with inadequate interiority than there are dealing with too much of it. This is yet another reflection of the fact that I see writers end up toward this end of the issue a lot more.
If that’s not the case for you, and you think you’re somewhere in the middle as an interiority-user, I would still suggest analyzing how you’re striking that balance. Make sure the reader feels connected to important moment, and use enough interiority to highlight the things that are truly important. When something big happens that your character should be reacting to, ask yourself: And? So? Some recent thoughts questions that help develop interiority can be found here.
Next, think about how interiority and plot intersect. Use interiority to plant the seeds of tension as you develop your plot. It’s not enough to have a character feel afraid, for example. They’re usually afraid of something very specific, or a worst case scenario. To help tension along, let their minds go to those darker places, especially if the plot hasn’t caught up yet. More thoughts on that here.
This is such an important facet of the fiction writing craft that I really hope you never stop exploring this fascinating topic, and figuring out how to best use this tool.
I’ve been on a roll with some really good reader questions lately. As a reminder to anyone out there who may be new to the blog, I do open myself up to general inquiries about writing and publishing via email. Sometimes these exchanges end up on the blog, sometimes they’re between you and me. Information on how to reach me is available in the sidebar. I regret that I can’t answer very specific questions or review work…that’s reserved for my freelance editorial clients. But questions Kate’s, below, are more than welcome!
What are your feelings about submitting an excerpt from an as-yet unrepresented novel for publication in a literary magazine? My concern is that on the off-chance that the excerpt would be published I would thereby render the whole novel unsellable to a publisher. In my case I’ve rewritten the submission to make it work better as an excerpt, but I’m not sure if there’s enough difference between it and the version in the manuscript, or whether that even matters. Thanks!
This is a great question, and one I see from time to time. I didn’t find out the exact circumstances until later, and it turns out I was right. Because I imagined a few things about Kate’s situation that would lead her down this path of reasoning. First, Kate is frustrated by a novel that’s not getting picked up. She later reported submitting to agents for quite some time and not getting where she wants to go. Second, she has likely started thinking…Well, what else can I do with this thing? Is there a shortcut to getting to getting noticed? Hence the literary magazine idea. And it’s not a bad idea, in theory. But would I recommend it? This was my response. Read on:
Good question. I’ll answer, but start my answer with another (blunt) question: Why? What’s the point? If you want to get a novel published, it is very, very, very unlikely that you’re going to get there by publishing something in a literary magazine from it that an agent will see or that will otherwise draw attention to your efforts. That’s a very circuitous route. And getting published in a literary magazine involves learning about good literary magazines to submit to, submitting to them, getting immersed in that, etc. If your big goal is to get a novel published, your energy is much better used focusing on the DIRECT route: writing a kickass novel and getting immersed in the novel/agent submission process.
While, yes, writing credits are kinda sorta important to collect when you’re trying to make your name as a writer*, they are not the determining factor. And literary agents and literary magazine people don’t spin in the same worlds some of the time. You’d think they would be connected, and some definitely are, but agents have so much to read that when a literary magazine lands on their desks, on top of everything else, it may or may not get attention. For me, even if someone is published in The Paris Review, one of the most noteworthy journals and pretty impossible to get into, if I hate the novel they’re submitting, the credit is impressive, but meaningless to me because, as an agent, I am looking to sell you as a novelist, not a literary magazine writer. So, you could be doing all that UNRELATED work for very dubious payoff. If the journals even want you.
The thing is, lit mag demand for unpublished novel excerpts is quite low compared to standalone articles, short stories, and poems. They’d rather publish those because they’re more satisfying for the reader, rather than some random piece of something that, who knows, nobody may ever hear from again. Unless they’re inspired to contract you for a serial series, I wouldn’t imagine that this type of piece is hot property. And if they do, you may have more problems publishing it eventually because more will have appeared in print.
So the print rights issue is certainly one to consider, and some publishers might be jerks about it, saying that since you’ve already exploited some rights by putting the excerpt in print, the property is less attractive, etc. It has happened. But that’s honestly not why I’d reconsider this idea. Finally, what about when you revise your manuscript, as you’re bound to do, because you wake up one day and realize the piece you’ve been missing? It happens all the time. And then you have this excerpt floating around that’s now horribly broken, in your eyes. And that’s your “sales piece” that’s now immortalized in print.
I know that you are probably very eager to do something, anything to move your chances forward. Think of taking the more direct path. Write the best manuscript you can. Write a killer query. Research agents. If you really have enough free time to also research literary journals, more power to you. But to me, that’s not going to be your strongest potential path to success.
I know many of you are going to find this statement interesting. I will cover clips and writing credits in a subsequent post!
Have more FUN writing.That’s it, that’s all, that’s what we usually forget to do first.
It’s so important, but we so often forget it. Working on my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, was one of the biggest blasts I’ve had in my life. But I would still stress about it. Second-guess myself. Wonder whose bright idea it was to write a damn book in the first place. (Nobody out there to blame but us chickens!) Sure, even if you’re pursuing your life’s passion, you can easily get stressed, especially when questions of whether it’s good enough or what to do with it or whether it’ll get published start to creep in.
We all work this way, I think. I haven’t met a single creative person who didn’t suffer somewhat while pursuing their craft. (Not even my chef husband is immune from creative angst. My suggestion is usually to top the dish in question with caviar and give it to me!) But I was powerfully reminded of this idea when reading an excellent client manuscript over the holidays.
Without giving too much away, I worked on an alternating-POV adult romantic paranormal fantasy where we sometimes dipped into the paranormal creature’s perspective. It was really good stuff. But I often noticed that the tone seemed to scatter. You know how different genres have different conventions? Like there’s a pretty stereotypical voice you can expect when reading sci-fi vs. contemporary vs. dystopian work.
With this particular project, the writer’s voice and tone tended to shapeshift. When she was writing a romantic scene, there were definitely phrases and overtones creeping in that would remind you of a pretty standard romance novel, right down to the heaving bosoms. When she wrote some action or battle scenes, the voice would grow more formal in a way that’s familiar to high fantasy readers. In the midst of it, there was a certain spark and energy that was uniquely to hers. But all the changes made for a bigger picture that lacked cohesion.
Then I noticed something interesting. Her voice rang out strong and true with one POV in particular. The paranormal creature. The tone didn’t shift at all, the POV experience seemed much more immersive, and the writing flowed. I found myself scribbling “More Monster POV plz!!!” in all the virtual margins. (Don’t worry, please, if you’ve ever thought of hiring me. My comments aren’t really straight out of ICanHasCheezburger…)
With any voice notes, I try to be thorough because voice is such a hot button issue that can be so nebulous for so many. I thought about it for a while. Why did Monster POV work so well? Then the obvious answer struck me. It’s fun to write in monster POV. Most days, I’ve had ENOUGH of stressed-out-human-lady POV. What I wouldn’t give to walk around as a monster through the foggy shadows of some menacing countryside! Stomp stomp, crunch crunch, ROOOOOOAAR!
So I wrote her a prescription for more fun when writing. (Among many other things, of course.) Writing can be tedious. Revision can be on par with a root canal. Putting a query letter together gives people the actual fits. I’ve seen people cry while pitching. And not, like, just once, either. It’s so easy to get caught up.
What’s the fun part of your WIP? What’s fun about it? Is it a particular character you love? A head you like getting into? A setting that calls to you? The tempo of an action sequence? Whatever it is, do more of that. Every writer is different, and every story offers unique opportunities to have a gas.
I’ve always, always said that if something is tedious for you to write, think of the poor sap who has to read it. Your passion for every passage is obvious on the page. If you’re hating every minute, odds are nobody’s having any fun.
Figure out what makes you relish your writing time, and do more of what you love in your current project. Do more of what you love in your non-writing life, too, while you’re at it! Happy 2016!
I wasn’t sure what to write about this month, so I asked trusty Twitter for advice. Two people in a row asked about sifting through ideas and how to decide what goes in a book. So, that’s what we’re doing.
First: I get it. You’re a writer. You have lots of ideas. You have ~*~imagination.~*~ But how to sort through all of that and put only the best things in the book? Good question.
Maybe you need a list. Or several lists. Whatever.
I find lists to be very calming things. They make me happy. They make me feel more organized. So when I make lists for a book, it’s all the things I think I’d like to put in that story, from phrases to ideas to objects — everything.
Sometimes I don’t need lists because I’ve already started writing the story, and a cool idea slams into me while I’m brushing my teeth.
Sound familiar? I bet it’s happened to you too. These ideas are sometimes for the book I’m working on, but sometimes they’re for other books. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which. We’re going to get to the “how to tell” part in a second.
How to tell what goes in this book and what goes in another book. (See, I told you it would be a second.)
I like to imagine various characters interacting with the thing somehow. (“The thing” being the idea or line or whatever.) Does it feel right? Does it feel more right with another character from another story? How does it fit thematically? And will it ruin all my plans in a good or bad way?
I’ve seen lots of advice that talks about not hoarding ideas, not saving them for something else because you should just put every cool thing into your current story. And on some level, I get that. The advice is meant to keep you from having only one or two cool things in a story — when you could have lots of cool things! It’s meant to help you complicate situations and worlds, and make the story more interesting in general. But sometimes the idea really does belong elsewhere, and it’s okay to set it aside to fit in another story you have cooking in the back of your mind, or as a concept for a completely new story.
Sometimes the idea doesn’t belong in a story at all because it’s just not that great.
Sorry. We all have lame ideas sometimes. (I could fill an entire novel with mine!) They can be fun to entertain for a while, but it’s always a good idea to run ideas by trusted friends. You want honest answers to “is this idea dumb?”, just like you want honest answers to “is my hair okay like this?” This is also a point where you need to be really honest with yourself. Does the idea truly fit? Is it going to make the story better/more interesting? If the answer is no, ditch it. You’ve got more ideas where that one came from.
One of the most fun things about being a writer is having lots of ideas! But it can also be frustrating when you’re not sure what goes where, or if it goes anywhere.
I hope this helps offer a little direction when it comes to sorting through everything. And if you have any tips or tricks about how you choose what goes in the book, please feel free to share it in the comments!
Back in college, I did a few freelance articles for a photography trade magazine. Mostly wedding photographer profiles. A woman I’d become close friends with in a creative writing course happened to be an editor for this publication, and she gave me some assignments for fun. By about the third piece I turned in, she sent me a very friendly email that haunts me to this day. She basically said, “Hey Mary, I’m noticing that all of your articles follow the same pattern. You start with the photographer’s youth and then the event that made them fall in love with photography, then you cover their education and development as a photographer, and their you end with their current work. Maybe you could, yanno, mix it up a little bit.”
She was right. Of course she was. I’m no journalist and I had no idea what I was doing or how to organize a compelling non-fiction article, so I picked the easiest possible organizational strategy when talking about a person: the resume, or, in other words, “Started from the bottom, now we here.” And by golly, I was going to drive it into the ground until somebody stopped me because I didn’t know what else to do. And, to my *ahem* credit, I thanked her profusely for the feedback…and was so mortified that I stopped writing for the photography magazine shortly thereafter. A writer’s ego is a strange creature.
But I figured out the lesson in her wise words eventually. Yes, a decade, give or take, counts as “eventually,” guys. There are patterns in writing. Some are good patterns, some are individual patterns that maybe keep us from growing in the craft.
An example of a good pattern is a larger organizing principle or story theory, for example, Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle. While this is an oldie, it’s very much a goodie, since its wisdom applies to any number of stories, in any number of ways. Chronological order is also an old standard that can’t be beat when writing a novel. Sure, you want to jump back in time to fill in some backstory and context every once in a while, but moving from point A to point B as the character grows and time marches forward is an idea that will never go away.
The reason I like these two is that they’ve vague and versatile. They dictate a general idea and then it’s up to you to apply it in your own style. You’ll notice that I talk about story theory in my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit. But I try to leave much of it up to the writer. I recently ordered a slipcover for my sectional because the upholstery we originally got clings to pet hair like it’s pirate treasure. The slipcover fabric is so stretchy that it was able to fit my couch and look custom-made without any measurement. I was dubious until it arrived, since it purported to fit couches from 66″ to 96″ and that seems like a pretty big spread. But it’s really quite amazing, fits perfectly, and now the dogs can drool and shed on it with abandon. All this is to say that I try to give writing guidelines as if I were that slipcover (stay with me here, folks, this is getting weird…). Your story is the couch. You pick its overall shape and dimensions. The organizing principle’s job is to cover it and mold to what you want to do, all while giving it a cohesive look and function.
Now, there are writing teachers out there who like to dictate patterns in much more specific terms. I’ve had many writers, believe it or not, come to me and ask, “Well, in So and So’s Story Theory, he says I have to include the inciting incident by the 5% mark, then the first conflict by 10%, then the first major loss by 25%. The cousin dies, but it’s at 27% and I don’t know what to do.” This kind of teaching-writing-with-an-iron-fist always baffles me. I like the broader, sweeping guidelines, not micromanaging a manuscript down to the nth percentile. In my world, a rigid story theory is great for people who have never written a novel before. It gives them valuable scaffolding to cling to. But once you’ve written one, and internalized some basic principles, I think most guidelines can take a backseat to how you want to tell the story.
But every writer has other patterns. And before you know what you should do about your patterns, if they’re helpful or hampering, you should at least become aware of them. (Hopefully without becoming mortified and quitting.) This post was inspired by a client of mine who starts many chapters in exactly the same way: scene-setting and talk of the weather. I applaud the scene-setting. Many writers who simply leap into a scene with dialogue or a plot point fail to ground the reader in time and place. But this pattern for this writer was almost formulaic. Weather. Scene. Then the chapter starts. Over and over.
What happens when a reader detects an underlying pattern in your work is they become less engaged. By the fifth weather/scene/start chapter, I’m going to check out at the beginning a little bit. Unless the descriptions of the weather are building up to something massive (it’s a book about a big storm, or a person with weather-related superpowers), there needs to be variety. The pattern cannot take over the narrative.
This reminds me of picture book writers who are working in rhyme. Sometimes I see writers twisting their syntax into crazy sentence pretzels just so they can make a line rhyme. This begs the question: Is the story in the service of the rhyme, or the other way around? You always want to be putting the story first. If you find that writing in rhyme warps your natural voice, makes you write like a Victorian schoolmarm, and leads to all sorts of other problems, then it’s the pattern that needs to go, and you need to free yourself up to tell the story the best way you can. Patterns. They’re all around. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re hindrances.
What are your specific writing patterns? Are you trying to break them or are you working with them? Discuss.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about dress code for writers. If there was such a thing, 3/4 of my wardrobe would be out the window. I’m basically in my pajamas right now, with an additional layer of dog hair to make the outfit fancy. This is a post inspired by several editorial client manuscripts where I’m noticing characters going about their business with an overall lack of tension. This post builds on the idea introduced in last week’s post, about making subtle changes that could yield more tension. If you haven’t read that one, go check it out, then read on here.
You don’t want a character who is freaking out all the time, because that will be exhausting. They care too much about everything, and everything is a big deal. if you find yourself with this type of character on your hands, this is going to backfire pretty quickly. If everything is at a level 11, you lose the ability to make it matter after a while due to the Law of Diminishing Returns. As they say in The Incredibles, “If everyone is special, then no one is.”
That leaves us with a character who doesn’t care as much as they could. They are too casual. There are two ways to be too casual: about things that don’t matter, and about things that do. You may have one of these characters if people have told you that they’re having a hard time relating to the story or getting worked up about its events. If you’ve received the comment that your readers are having troublecaring.
First, your issue could be a character who is mellow in a mellow situation. For example, a character named Jane is about to take a test. It could go like this:
There was an exam coming up in pre-calc. Whatever. Not only did she have no plans to ever touch a math textbook again, but the teacher had offered to drop everyone’s lowest test grade. Jane didn’t even break a sweat, and went back to scribbling in her art notebook.
If Jane doesn’t care, why should we? The outcome doesn’t matter, she doesn’t seem at all worried, it’s a non-issue. The fix would be to make Jane care, even a little bit. Even if she wants to seem like she doesn’t. Inject tension into how Jane feels versus how she’s behaving. Compare this example to the original:
Jane scribbled in her art notebook but she couldn’t help watching the clock out the corner of her eye. Pre-calc was coming up, and that damn midterm. Whatever. At least that’s what she tried to think. Even though she didn’t care about math, her mom would. And she didn’t want to fail, because that meant more math practice, maybe a tutor. Jane sighed and stopped drawing. Maybe she could cram a few more minutes of studying in. Everyone else was doing it.
Here, we get a subtle shift in Jane’s thinking. She really doesn’t care, but there’s tension now because she won’t let herself fail the exam on principle. Whatever her real reasons are, there’s now a little battle going on. She feels conflicted. There’s tension. Jane’s overall stance on the exam hasn’t changed–it hasn’t suddenly become the Everest of her high school career. But at least she cares now, and notice also that the very fact that she does care bothers her. Or she feels like she’s forced to care. Either way, there are multiple layers of tension.
Tension comes from uncertainty, fear, anxiety. With the revised example, I’ve added an undercurrent of doubt. She knows this exam isn’t the end all and be all, but she wants to do well on it anyway, and she worries she won’t. Even if a character feels confident, you can always add a shade of tension. We all have these darker feelings, even in moments of great light. Use that to your advantage. Friction means tension means stakes means reader engagement!
This brings me to my next, more obvious, idea. You can certainly dial up the tension by changing the character’s attitude toward something. Why not take it one step further and change the something to have higher stakes? Instead of blowing the exam off (too casual), she has a more complex and interesting relationship with it. If you’re not going to present the event in a layered way, why even bother describing it? You’re giving a lot of manuscript real estate to what amounts to a throwaway. Surely there are other things you could be narrating that stand to get more of a rise out of Jane. Maybe an art competition.
One of my favorite things to remind writers is that they are creating a world from scratch. They make up the characters, the events, the circumstances. If a character is bored, they are also boring the reader. If they don’t care, the reader has to struggle to latch on to the story.
If you suspect that a character is either being too casual about their circumstances or stuck in circumstances that are too casual, take control, add some small tension, and beef up the moment. Or cut or change it. But don’t let the story tension peter out. If all else fails, have them thinking about something else that’s coming up, and plant the seeds for tension down the road.
Sometimes, terrible things happen to characters. It’s just a fact of fiction.
But as authors, sometimes we want pull back before things get too awful for our sweet, precious characters. Sometimes we want to make things easy because we love them.
My dear writer friends, that is not how our characters grow. Like mama birds shoving their chicks out of the nest to make them fly, we must make everything just awful so their true potential can shine.
Here are a few ways I like to shove my character birdies out of the nest:
Take away something they love.
Give them something they want. Take it away.
Make it impossible for them to have something they want because of their own action/inaction.
Do the opposite of what they want. If they want to go right, force them left.
Make someone else want the thing your character wants so they have to race for it.
Give someone else the thing your character wants.
Use one goal against another in a battle of What’s Most Important?
Destroy the thing they want so that no one can have it. (Cackling encouraged.)
Okay, lots of my ways to ruin lives involve waving what they want in front of them—then snatching it away. That sounds really, really mean, but believe me, properly motivated characters are characters willing to take action. And the closer they get to what they want, the harder they work.
And if the thing they want is gone/impossible to get, the character might have to reach higher for a new goal— something they didn’t know they wanted until everything else was stripped away. Maybe they couldn’t see it before. Maybe their focus was divided.
Don’t limit their goals to one thing, though! Give them a few things to desire, even if they mostly take action toward one thing. Keeping loved ones safe is always a good goal. Going after their personal dreams is another good one. Family and dreams can be good at conflicting with one another. (Sometimes families want characters to be a blacksmith, but the character wants to be a candlemaker! And sometimes characters have to choose between saving the blacksmith family from a tragic goat stampede . . . and going to the chandler convention in the next town over.)
And heck, definitely use combinations of the above list. Don’t limit yourself to one trick. Push until those little character birdies fly.
How else do you like to ruin your characters’ lives motivate your characters to take action?
I’m working with a client on a Synopsis Overhaul right now. Quick plug: If you haven’t checked out my freelance editorial website in a while, I have added this new service, as well as Reader Reports. I won’t bulk up this post by describing them here, but they’re two great options for getting feedback on your novel’s development as or before you write it (in the case of the Synopsis Overhaul) or getting my eyes on your entire manuscript, along with comprehensive notes, but without the investment of a Full Manuscript Edit. Check them out!
There’s a proposed scene in my client’s outline that doesn’t quiiiite work. Of course, she is free to write it and see if she can make it work as she develops her draft, but I had a reservation about it. Basically, her protagonist, let’s call him Sam, does something illogical. The issue is, he has been planning this illogical move for a while. He’s a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, and, for a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, the plan makes no sense because he should know better, and he would get caught immediately.
But in the manuscript she’s planning, he completely ignores common sense and does his plan anyway. I told her in the synopsis edit that I didn’t buy it. The plan is so foolhardy and out of character, and so improbable in his environment, that I really would struggle believing its feasible. I called it the Improbable Thing.
In writing fiction, we create the fictive dream, right? We create a world and a character and a set of circumstances and actions that function with a certain logic. There’s enough logic there that the reader can suspend disbelief and “go there” with the story. Here, I was having trouble “going there” because my own logic kept calling out that this was too far out to believe.
My client is really attached to this plot point, and she doesn’t want to remove it from the story, which I completely understand. First of all, I’m not going to tell her to axe it at this early juncture. When I work with clients on developing a novel outline, I don’t rule anything out. They are free to write a draft of the novel as they wish, and see if it works. It’s tough to work with just an outline, because I don’t get to really see the manuscript in question. I just get to see its bones. Who knows how the final version could flesh out? But that’s what makes synopsis work exciting! It’s all about possibilities and tweaking things so that the actual manuscript comes into sharper focus.
So, if it’s not fair to say, “Yeah, cut it, it’s a disaster” at this point, then what? How do you work around a plot point or character development that seems improbable? In writing her back about whether or not to axe her beloved plot point, I had a great idea for this post.
If you’re faced with an instance in your story that people aren’t “buying” (or you’re worried they won’t buy), it’s time to think about the context. The present may still be good, but what if you put it in a different wrapper? A brilliant potential solution.
What if, in this case, Sam doesn’t plot the Improbable Thing in advance? He wants to accomplish XYZ, but he doesn’t think that it’s possible. Then, he is in the right place at the right time, and the opportunity to do an Improbable Thing comes up. He only has an instant to think, and so he thinks, “What if this is crazy enough to work?” This could be just the new context my client needs. It accomplishes two things:
First, it adds a layer of impulsiveness to the Improbable Thing. It wouldn’t have worked as a plan, because it makes no sense as a plan (too many holes). But it could totally be sold as a last-ditch, impulsive, emotional effort, and I’d buy it because if Sam is being impulsive, then he’s not thinking clearly.
Second, if Sam is right there saying, “This is too crazy to work, but I have no other choice,” then the reader feels reassured. We see him questioning it, right as we’re questioning it, so the reader and protagonist are on the exact same page! We’re a team! Nobody thinks this could work, which opens up the possibility that…well…maybe it could! It’s that leap that will help the reader suspend disbelief. And then I’m “going there” with Sam instead of rejecting the Improbable Thing.
If there are moments in your manuscript that you’re really struggling to sell, if you think they’re too far out there to make sense with plot or character, but you like or need them, think about context. By changing the wrapper, you can still give the reader the present, it will just be surrounded by a different situation or motivation or expectation. It’s up to you to create that experience and make it believable.
Of course, some things are just not going to be a good fit, no matter how hard you try. But others might just be, well, crazy enough to work, as long as you frame them right.
In 2009, I started researching and experimenting with ways to work less and earn more with my writing. I started out by vowing to work only two days per week.
It worked — and I’ll tell you how in a bit.
Since 2009, my schedule has settled to 30 hours per week or less; more than before because now my son is in school all day, and I really do love what I do and find it hard to keep myself from writing. These days, I generally work from 9-2:30 daily, and often take Fridays off if I can.
And during it all, my freelancing income has gone up by 30%.
Want to know how I did it? Let’s start in 2009.
How I Cut My Work Hours & Still Kept Earning
My goal, when I started the two-day workweek in 2009, was to spend more time with my one-year-old son, have more fun, and do more volunteering. On my days off I would check e-mail just to make sure nothing came up, and if a source could schedule an interview only on one of my days off, I’d do it. But most weeks, I sat down at my desk and worked two days per week.
The first thing I did to cut my hours was quit a time-suck writer’s forum. I could spend hours on there every day because there were so many members that every time I clicked, there was a new message. One day I posted a question about freelancing, and was treated to snarky responses about how I should already know the answer.
Right then, I decided to quit. I had my husband change my password and promise not to reveal it to me. For a couple of days my fingers kept twitching towards the keys that would bring up the forum, but then the urge subsided.
Then, on a roll, I found a free site-blocker app and blocked the other sites I spent a lot of time on, like iCanHasCheezburger.com and Failblog.
Suddenly, I had a ton of free time.
I soon came to realize that a lot of what we freelancers do is busy work. For example, I was in the habit of sending out e-mails to sources or editors in the morning, and then spending the rest of the day alternately clicking on “check e-mail” and surfing the web. Then, at 5, I felt that I’d put in a full day’s work, even though I really only worked for a few minutes and then spent the rest of the day waiting for people to get back to me.
So I stopped doing that. If I sent out e-mails and couldn’t take action until I got a response, I would shut my laptop, go off and do what I wanted to do, and come back later to check. Exact same results, but much less time “working.”
One week I felt stressed about all I had to do: I had several writing assignments on the go and was insistent on working three days that week at the most to get it all done. I asked my life coach for tips, and she said that many of her clients feel they have too much to do, but then when they sit down and actually calculate the hours — or actually do the work — they realize it’s not so much after all. They had just built it up in their minds.
So my goal buddy and I set up what we called a “boot camp” day on one of my work days that week. On boot camp days, my Jennifer and I called each other every hour on the hour to tell each other what we did in the last hour and what we planned to do in the next hour. There were no repercussions if we don’t get the work done, but there’s something about telling someone else what you plan to do that lights a fire under your butt.
And guess what? That day, I got all the work I had been worrying about done in four hours. I didn’t even have to work that third day.
You CAN Set Your Own Hours
Those were some very, very valuable lessons, and after so many years of freelancing, I’ve really realized the full power of the freelance lifestyle — the power to set your own hours and be the master of your own time.
The eight-hour workday is so ingrained in us that it’s hard to envision working less and still earning the same income — but as Tim Ferriss said in The Four-Hour Workweek, isn’t it amazing that all over the world, no matter what job they do, every person needs exactly eight hours a day to get their work done?
We freelancers are not in jobs where we have to be present all the time, like in retail. We can “disappear” and, using the power of technology, still be reachable if a client has an emergency (which they rarely do).
Granted, when I started cutting my hours in 2009 I had already been freelancing for 12 years, so I was past the stage where I had to spend hours each week formulating ideas and pitching. I was in many magazines’ “stables” of writers, so it was easier for me to cut down my hours than it would be for someone just starting out.
But even new writers can probably use their time more efficiently. C’mon, fess up — when you should be writing a query or building your website or working on a book chapter, are you 100% focused on that task or are you taking frequent web-surfing breaks? Do you bang out that pitch or do you procrastinate, yet still feel “busy” because you’re sitting in front of your computer?
Do MORE of What You Love
So what did I do with all this extra time in 2009? Well, I started a local parents’ group that ended up with over 100 members, so I spent a lot of time hanging out with other parents and their babies. I read — a lot. I upped my weight training from two days per week to three. And I did more volunteering for animal welfare causes.
Isn’t that why so many of us decide to go freelance — so we can control our workloads and our hours, and have more time to spend on our families, hobbies, and causes?
Every day I have to pinch myself — I can’t believe that so many years later, I’m still working reduced hours and earning more than ever. I keep thinking that one day, my husband is going to say, “Uh, Linda…we’re broke.” But it hasn’t happened. I’m going to keep up this schedule as long as I can…and the more I do it, the easier it gets.
Your challenge today: Want to work less and earn more as a freelance writer? Find your top five time-wasting activities and find ways to ditch or delegate them.
This post originally ran in 2010 and has been updated to be more helpful to you.
We talk about a lot of things on Pub Crawl – writing craft, the submission process, the editorial process, the industry, and lots of stuff in between. We like to encourage writing by hopefully imparting insight and advice. Lots of people do; bloggers, writers, editors, agents. And at one time or another, you’ve likely seen this advice: Write Every Day. There are no excuses. Do it or you’ll never get better. Practice makes perfect – so practice every single day.
But for many of us, this advice can actually be detrimental to the process because we are going through a different kind of process: Healing. And sometimes, healing means not writing every day, or at all, for a long time. And the biggest key to this is understanding that it’s okay. That your pace may different. That even your writing routine may change. This does not make you less of a writer, nor does it mean you won’t still improve.
Full disclosure: I lost my father in March of this year. I say this not to garner sympathy, but to give some context. It was shocking in many ways, and completely unsurprising in others. But the thing I didn’t expect? How grief really felt, and still feels. How it comes out at strange times, making the rest of your day difficult to get through. It’s a daily struggle, and I am only just beginning to understand that it will be for a long time yet.
The worst of it was, I lost my will to write. For many years, I posted poetry and flash fiction on my blog a couple of times a month. In addition, I did write nearly every day, or revised finished projects, or dashed off a few lines here, a few lines there. A random scene. A conversation between characters. For a long time, I was lucky enough to be full of inspiration.
After March, I still tried to write. But I was dissatisfied with the words, with the content. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure who I was as a writer. What did I even enjoy writing? What stories did I have to tell? Everything was colored by this new way I viewed the world, however slight the difference might have been. I would begin a story, short or long, and see it through to 5,000 words before deciding I wasn’t into it. I’d sit down to dash off a line here, a line there, and end up staring at a blank screen instead.
I read advice that told me to keep writing, to keep doing, to keep practicing OR ELSE. So over and over again I attempted it, and more and more the anxiety over that command made it impossible. And you know what? It wasn’t until I finally allowed myself a break, some time away from the page to actually breathe, that writing finally started to be of interest again several months later. Now, I’m using NaNoWriMo to encourage that interest – but I’m not punishing myself when I don’t hit the word count.
This is not to say I am not still struggling. Every word is harder to write than it used to be, because I’m fighting to understand who I am now versus who I was then. This is the same for those struggling with depression, or even with physical illness. Sometimes the idea that a true writer is one who writes every day, despite the struggle, despite the emotional hardship, is more detrimental to a struggling writer than the idea that we are allowed some time off, or we are allowed to adhere to a schedule that works for us – even if it means not writing daily. We are allowed to back away for a little while, to regroup, to think, to fight.
There is only one “right” way to write, and that is whichever way empowers you as an individual. If the idea of writing is giving you anxiety, remember that it’s okay to take a break if you need one. Writing isn’t going anywhere – it’ll still be there when you’re ready.
I’m certain I’m not alone in this – if you’ve found a way to write through emotional hardships, tell me about it! I’d love to know what you’ve done, or are doing, to find writing in your life again.
I just did a rough count, and what I have to tell you isn’t pretty:
Between 1996 and 2015 I sent out over 200 magazine queries — each one to multiple publications — and sold somewhere around 60 ideas. That’s a 30% success rate — or a 70% rejection rate. If I sent each query to four magazines, that means I received 480 rejections. (And that’s not even counting the untold number of informal ideas I sent to my editors via email once I became more established that were rejected, or the letters of introduction I sent to trade magazine editors that went nowhere.)
So how was it that I’ve been able to write for around 150 magazines, with most of them giving me multiple assignments over the years? Top magazines like Redbook, Health, USA Weekend, Parenting, and Writer’s Digest? How was I able to make a living—a good living—mainly writing for magazines?
It’s because I was too stubborn to give up.
Even when I was failing most of the time, I kept pitching. And every time I made a sale, I wowed the editor so she would give me more work.
So how can you get over the idea of rejection? Here’s the thing:
Rejection isn’t about you.
If your idea or writing are rejected by a prospect or editor, it’s a simple business decision: Your offering was not right for the prospect at this time.
When you’re approached by a salesperson at the supermarket asking if you want to sample a new brand of pita chips and you say No thanks, does that mean the salesperson personally sucks? Is it a judgment call on the actual person handing out the chips? Or even on the quality of the product? No. Your rejection of the offer means you’re full because you just had lunch, or you can’t eat gluten, or you’re not in the mood for a snack, or you’re a vegan and the chips have cheese powder on them.
The product doesn’t suck, and neither does the salesperson. It has nothing to do with them.
It’s the same with writing. If a prospect says no, it can mean anything from “We don’t need a freelance writer right now” to “I had a fight with my spouse this morning and I’m in a foul mood.”
If you let the mere thought of rejection keep you from writing, then you’ve already failed. You’ve pre-rejected yourself!
The best thing you can do when you’re starting your career as a writer is to develop a thick skin to rejection. The good news is that the more you pitch, the more immune to rejection you become. Sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true: When you have one magazine query out there, it’s your baby and a rejection can crush you. When you have 50 magazine queries and LOIs out there, a rejection on one of them means you still have 49 more chances.
Now…get out there and pitch today.
This post originally ran in August 2013, and I updated it to make it more useful to you.
I was going through my emails for some reader questions that I’ve gotten over the years. This one comes from Susan last year, and it’s basically this: She saw some marketing materials for a book that’s coming out that’s exactly like what she’s working on. She’s upset. How is she going to find the will to continue writing this project if someone else has already beat her to it?
This is actually a very common question, and here is the (at times, tongue-in-cheek) response I wrote that I hope can help a few more of you out there:
I know everyone says “don’t worry about it” and that obviously hasn’t made you feel any better but…don’t worry about it. That book and thousands of others will be published this year. Unless this particular book hits it DIVERGENT-big, it will have its moment on the stage and then gracefully recede onto the backlist. (Sad but, more or less, true. For every mega-successful book that’s published in a year, there are dozens or hundreds more that do pretty well for themselves but don’t make a global splash.) Then next year’s crop will come. Then next year’s.
It’s the ciiiiiiircle of liiiiiiiiiiiiife!
Meanwhile, in the BEST case scenario, you will take six months to polish your book. You’ll take three months to query and sign with an agent. You and your agent will revise for three months. It will go on submission, and let’s say it sells in an amazingly short month. Did I mention that the entire publishing process moves at a snail’s pace? And you’re not even done! Then it will go into contracts, editing, design, proofreading, blah blah blah, and it will finally come out in hardcover a year from when the editor bought it. That’s a MINIMUM of two years from today. But if there are invariable publishing delays or you need two revisions instead of one at any point in the process, or they decide that another similar book is coming out and they should push you back a season and you have no control over any of it, then it’s more than two years from the book that’s upsetting you right now.
On top of that, you can’t really know a book from a paragraph of description. The voice, the tone, the plot, the sense of humor, the lightness or darkness, the literary quality. All of these things happen in the execution, not the pitch. (ETA: The product and the pitch, people! It was an idea in my brain like a year ago!!!) So the book you’re worried about could be completely different from what you’re doing. And you don’t even know it until you read it. What attracted that writer to that idea, and that editor to that manuscript, could be completely different from what kind of response your idea will drum up.
So, basically, all this is to say you should probably trash your manuscript and start over. Just kidding! You’re totally fine. Keep on trucking. Nobody is stealing your ideas. Maybe one day your book will be featured in an online newsletter and some writer is going to start worrying and email me because she thinks she’s working on the exact same thing. It’s perfectly normal and doesn’t mean the end of the world. In fact, this is far from the first time I’ve heard this question. There are just a few archetypal stories in the world that we keep telling over and over, in different wrapping paper. That doesn’t make one book more or less special than the next, and as long as the stories are well-done, there’s room for them on the shelf.
Don’t believe in the myth of scarcity. This book isn’t taking away from your potential place in the spotlight.
This post originally ran as this week’s Monday Motivation for Writers email. If you’d like to get an email full of writing advice and insights in your inbox every Monday, plus two free e-books for writers, you can join here.
Also, this email generated a TON of great responses, and many of them had helpful insights that I hadn’t thought of myself…so I got the authors’ permission to include their comments with this post. (They’re at the bottom. Apparently there’s a limit to the length of a WordPress post so I couldn’t include all of them. However, I am opening the Comments on this post in case you have something you’d like to share! Thanks!)
Why I killed my social media accounts (+ why you may want to too…and what to do instead)
You’ve probably read a lot of those “Why I Quit Social Media” posts all over the Internet, and the arguments usually run along the lines of “Twitter is a time-suck” and “Why is it that everyone on Facebook is madly in love with their spouses, taking amazing vacations, landing lucrative (and fun!) freelance writing jobs, and gazing for hours at their perfect, adorable children? I must be a huge loser.”
This post will be different. And it starts, ironically, with an amazing vacation. (Sorry!)
My family and I just spent two weeks traveling around Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, and France.
I decided this would be a non-working vacation — my first EVER since starting my freelance writing career in 1997. I can’t remember a single trip where I didn’t bring my laptop and stress out over the availability of public wifi. I was determined that this time would be different.
So, we visited old friends and a former exchange student, climbed the tallest church tower in The Netherlands, went to a genever festival and tried Belgian gin in chocolate cups (gin = yuck. chocolate = yum), toured an abbey that was founded in the 1100s, went on a food tour of Paris, and climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe at night.
I love my work and thought it would be damn near impossible to keep my mind off of email, the blog, the classes I teach, marketing, writing, and so on. But, shockingly, I felt ZERO urge to do any work for the entire two weeks. I didn’t even take notes, write a to-do list, or check email. That was…different.
In the middle of the trip, I noticed something funny: My Tourette’s tics had completely disappeared, and the persistent heartburn I had been suffering from for the last few months had vanished as well. Hell, I even LOOKED better. (See that photo of us at the Notre Dame? Guess how old I am. I’m not trying to brag…I’m trying to say I DON’T USUALLY LOOK LIKE THAT.) I felt amazing, my skin glowed, and I even lost weight. I wondered if this was the result of actually, you know, relaxing. (Which is kind of a foreign concept for me, no pun intended.)
Then It All Came Back…And Ended with Social Media Suicide
On the drive from Paris back to the Düsseldorf airport for the flight home, it was like some switch went off in my brain: The tics came back, the heartburn returned in full force, and the stress eczema I sometimes get on my feet cropped up. This all occurred DURING the 5-hour drive to the airport. I won’t fuel your nightmares with a photo of what I looked like at this point. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.
As much as I enjoy what I do for a living, and have a wonderful home and family life, clearly something about returning home was stressing me out enough to cause strong physical symptoms. The body is sometimes so much smarter than the brain! But what was it telling me?
On the long plane trip back home, I did a lot of thinking and researching. (I had brought my iPad and paid for wifi on the plane.)
I normally work just six hours per day, Monday through Friday, which doesn’t seem like a lot…but I am such a productive Type-A person that I manage to get more done in my 30-hour workweek than most people can in 50 hours per week. (And I know this because they always tell me, “I work 50 hours per week and don’t get done half what you do!”)
However, I am also easily overwhelmed by the sheer number of things I should/could be doing. We business owners have to do it all!
I got to wondering — are there any activities in my work life that I don’t really need to be doing? Activities that are crowding out more important tasks that will have more of an impact?
An obvious one to look at was social media. It’s like a monster that you can never feed enough:
“I should post on Facebook.”
“I need to check Twitter in case someone sent me a DM.”
“How can I get more followers?”
“I better find some posts to fill my Buffer with.”
“Oh my God, I haven’t checked LinkedIn in DAYS.”
“I better respond to all those @replies!”
Social media takes only a few minutes per visit, but the overwhelm wasn’t about the amount of time I spent there — it was about the number of times I felt the need to stop what I was doing, check into one of the many social media platforms, respond to messages/add posts/share/etc….and then try to get back on track with my original activity.
Then there’s the matter of being at people’s beck and call in three more formats (outside of email). Not to mention feeling the need to learn about and implement every new social media marketing strategy some Internet guru comes up with. (Facebook ads! Tweet chats! LinkedIn posts! Twitter contests!)
I can’t sleep on planes, so on this lengthy Lufthansa flight, I started reading blog posts and articles from people who had quit social media, and ran across a post on the Forbes blog about how the author discovered that his tweets actually brought very little return in the form of clicks onto his articles.
I checked analytics.twitter.com and noticed that while many of my tweets were shared, few were actually clicked on. Then I checked analytics.google.com and realized something much more shocking: Of the 15,000+ unique monthly visitors to the Renegade Writer Blog, just 200 of them come from Twitter. That’s about 1.3% of my visitors.
Then I remembered the last tweet chat I did, which was hosted by a large media company. My tweet chat was not only promoted by the company in social media and on their blog, but it was also splashed across a huge electronic sign in Times Square.
To prepare for the chat, I wrote questions for the host to ask me, and planned out my answers in 140-character increments. I dug up helpful posts from my blog that illustrated the points we were chatting about so participants could click to get more info. I promoted the chat in email and on social media. And I took an hour out of my already-short workday to actually do the chat.
I watched my Google Analytics during the chat…and noticed that during the hour-long event, a big THREE people followed the links in my tweets. Three total. It’s not that the host company did anything wrong — they were amazing and I love them. And I think I did a fine job preparing for and promoting the event. But for some reason, potential Renegade Writer readers were not interested in or motivated by the chat.
Okay, so I was pretty convinced that Twitter was not very useful for me, business-wise. But what about Facebook?
While Twitter is more of a marketing platform for me, Facebook is mostly personal. Lately, my experience on Facebook has been people with clearly fake names and photos sending friend requests; me scrolling endlessly through political rants, click-bait posts, and photos of abused animals every time I felt a modicum of boredom or was stuck on a word while writing a newsletter; and feeling anguish every time I received a friend request from a student or reader. (A year or so ago I trimmed my FB friends list to IRL friends, but still felt bad saying no to requests from writing acquaintances and clients.)
The people whose news and photos I really wanted to see, and who were interested in MY news and photos — we are connected by phone, email, or in real life. At the point when I was considering shutting down my account, I hadn’t posted in three weeks, and let me tell you — I was NOT inundated with messages from Facebook friends asking, “Where have you been? We miss your cat photos, brags about your son’s ballet performances, and musings on the writing life!”
Then, the kicker: There’s a woman who annoys the hell out of me on Facebook, and I came to realize that every time I posted a photo or update, I secretly hoped she would see it and be in awe about how great my life was going.
LIFE IS TOO SHORT to spend time and psychic energy making spite-posts on Facebook.
As for LinkedIn, every time I thought to check it — which was once a week or less — I would have to sift through a load of messages from people I don’t know very well asking me to connect them to other people I don’t know very well. (Early on in LinkedIn, I accepted every connection request even if I didn’t know the person. I realize now that’s the wrong way to do it.) Not to mention mass messages from people asking me to buy, read, or do something that I was 100% not interested in. And InMails from PR reps pitching me clients in industries I have never written about in my life.
The upshot: While most other people on the flight from Germany to Chicago snoozed, watched movies, or drank booze — I made the crazy decision to kill my social media accounts.
I deactivated my Facebook account (not too drastic, since you can always re-activate it later). Shut down my Twitter account. And closed out my LinkedIn profile.
The Results So Far
It’s only been a few days since I killed my social media accounts, but I feel much more peaceful knowing there are three fewer things I need to think about. Much more than three, actually, because now I don’t have to worry about tweet chats, direct messages, friend requests, @messages, Buffering posts in advance, scrolling through my feed reader looking for posts to Buffer, social media marketing, learning about social media marketing, and much, much more.
And strangely, it’s a really nice feeling to do, see, or experience something amazing and not immediately think, “I should put this on Facebook.” Experiencing something in real life and not through the lens of a camera — ahhhh. It gives you a sense of quiet confidence, knowing you can do something cool and not need to show it off to the world. It feels…classy. Confident. Peaceful.
What About Marketing?
Most of my business these days is teaching classes; mentoring writers; and writing books, blog posts, and newsletters to help freelance writers succeed. The little writing I do these days for clients such as magazines and blogs…well, I have enough contacts in the industry at this point that they come to me offering gigs.
I’m no longer on the prowl for writing clients, and I’m not looking for a full-time job, so dinging clients on Twitter, networking on FB pages, and updating my LinkedIn profile are not the best forms of marketing for me.
I maintain an email list of about 7,000 writers, and have 15,000 monthly blog readers, and these people — the ones who trust me with their time, who come to me of their own volition seeking help and advice — are my priority. For them (you!) I write newsletters, blog posts, and books, teach classes, and create new products such as meditations and mugs (coming soon!). I simply focus on producing the best, most helpful content I can, and my lovely readers read and share. Creating amazing value for writers — that’s my marketing.
But I know that YOU, my reader, are looking for freelance writing jobs…and every writing guru on the Internet is imploring you to network with editors on Twitter, connect with corporate clients on LinkedIn, comment on magazines’ Facebook pages, and update your accounts daily with the freshest, wittiest posts to keep your lovely face top of mind with whatever potential clients happen to be online at that time.
But here’s the thing: When writers ask me what forms of marketing they should do, I always tell them to focus on the marketing technique they like enough that they’ll do a LOT of it.
For example, when I was starting out as a freelance writer, I really enjoyed writing and sending query letters and sales letters. So I wrote and sent out a ton of these things — like dozens every week. I didn’t do cold calls, or send emailed introductions, or go to networking events. I just sent queries and sales letters, over and over and over. Because I didn’t like those other things, but I liked this.
And it worked. I launched my freelance writing career in July 1997, and within a few months realized I would be earning 50% more than I had at my last office job. Three years in, I was earning $80,000 writing only for magazines and corporate clients — and my ONLY form of marketing was writing and sending queries and sales letters.
Eventually, as social media grew — and marketing gurus decided everyone absolutely, definitely needed to tweet, comment, post, and friend — I ventured onto Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. While I did get a few freelance writing jobs from these platforms, the vast majority of my gigs came from good old pitching. It’s one of those Pareto Principle things: 80% of your results come from 20% of your activities.
So in my experience, it’s better to pick ONE form of marketing you love and feel good at, and really work it. Maybe you:
Make 50 cold calls per day.
E-mail letters of introduction to dozens of prospects every week.
Write and send queries until your fingertips bleed.
Go to every networking event in your area, speak at as many of them as you can, and invite prospects and colleagues out for coffee every week.
Work consistently to build a Twitter presence, hire someone to craft a beautiful background for your profile page, write and post many compelling tweets every day, and connect with prospects via DM and @replies.
Really do your LinkedIn profile up right, spring for a Premium account and send InMails to prospects, write amazing posts, and become an expert presence in the Q&A forums.
So maybe your one thing is a social media platform. But maybe it’s not. Whatever the situation, you should NOT feel like you need to be proficient and active in every possible type of marketing in the known universe. That just dilutes your power. If you’re really good at networking and not as good at LinkedIn, you know which will be the more effective marketing tactic for you. Every minute you spend on your LinkedIn profile is a minute you’re not taking an editor out for coffee.
What About Staying Relevant?
I know…we writers fear that if we’re not visible in all the social media, the world will rush right by us and we’ll be seen as old fogeys without a clue.
But think of this: I’ve been on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for years, and I can’t think of a single time this fact gave me more cred with clients and prospects. One of my best friends writes for some big-name magazine and corporate clients and she has never been on ANY kind of social media.
If you think high-quality editors and copywriting clients are trolling around the Internet and judging your lack of a Facebook page, you’re madly overestimating how much time they have. These people barely have time to answer their email, much less wonder if you’re using Facebook effectively.
And consider this: I had 300+ FB friends, 500+ LinkedIn connections, and over 6,000 Twitter followers. I had not been on social media for weeks before I killed my accounts, and not one of these close to 7,000 people noticed.
We’re all busy. When you’re following hundreds of people on social media, it all becomes a blur, and you’re not likely to even notice when someone stops posting unless they’re power posters and you’re a hardcore fan.
We have enough to think and worry about in our freelance writing careers to spend time contemplating whether we’re no longer “relevant” because we’re not posting links to cat videos. Focus on your core values: Your writing skill, your compelling ideas, and your professionalism.
If you have a website, even a simple one, you’re good to go.
Should YOU Quit Social Media?
This is a highly personal decision. Many people get great pleasure from connecting with friends on Facebook, or land a quality freelance writing jobs through Twitter or LinkedIn. If that’s you, great!
Also, if your main complaint is that social media is a time-suck and you’re kinda-sorta addicted to it, you can always block your bête-noir sites with an app like anti-social.cc when you need to focus on a project.
I challenge you to think hard about what social media does for you. Does tweeting 20 times a day really help your writing career? Could your time be better used elsewhere? Do you truly enjoy being on Facebook, or does your blood pressure rise every time you scroll through the posts?
If you’re on the fence, try taking a social media sabbatical. Have your partner change your passwords and hide them away from you. Or try one of the social media-blocking apps.
Don’t announce it…just do it. Block or log off of the offending sites and see how that changes your productivity, your emotions, and your day. And consider: Has anyone noticed you’re gone? If so, are these people you really care to stay in touch with on a daily basis? Are you able to find another way of marketing your writing — one you feel good at, and like to do?
And if you discover you really don’t like social media, and you don’t need it, and you’re more productive in your writing without it — consider pulling the plug for good.
Do your research before taking the final step. You’ll learn, for example, that you can deactivate your Facebook account without actually deleting it, which could be a good intermediary step. And supposedly you can reactivate your Twitter account within 30 days, but I’ve heard that some things, like your favorited tweets, don’t come back.
I hope I’ve planted a seed in your brain that will help you get more out of your writing time, boost your freelance writing career, and create more peace in your life. If you enjoyed this Monday Motivation, please forward it along to your writing friends!
COMMENTS FROM SUBSCRIBERS:
THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!!!!!
This post is exactly what I needed at this stage of my freelance writing career. I am just starting out. My business is in the gestational stage with the birth coming soon. The thought of marketing on social media has been a huge obstacle for me in terms of just-getting-going.
I am happy to report that at 48 years of age I have finally figured out what I really want to do “when I grow up” and am thrilled to focus on getting paid for my writing — something I have always longed to do but have been too afraid to try — until now!
Then, bam! As I am tooling about getting my website ready, finishing a business plan, and brainstorming on marketing ideas and niches, I read all over the place about the importance of social media for marketing purposes. My heart sank into my stomach. My gut aches now as I type just thinking about having to spend time on these platforms. I really do not like social media, huh? And to admit that makes me feel old and out-of-date. And brings angst that I cannot be successful without these.
A year ago I took down my Facebook account because reading through endless posts made me dizzy and wanting to scream at myself for spending time on this or at others for sharing yet another bliss-filled day in their lives. I accepted LinkedIn requests from people I barely knew and never looked back. Great networking!
I realize I will need to venture back into this area at some point but simply knowing that I can focus my efforts on the marketing I enjoy and am good at brings a smile back to my face. And gives me a desire to place butt back in chair, fingers on keys, and get going!!!
As someone just starting out, I had the notion to ignore what my inner wisdom and knowledge about myself and how I operate (having had a different successful small business prior to embarking on this one) simply on the merit and drumbeats of the online gurus/masses.
So thank YOU for nudging me in a direction I know is best for me in this particular here and now.
Time to get this baby kicking!!
Keep up the great work! The Renegade Writer blog and site — what a find!
I love this, Linda. Experiencing life in real time? What a concept.
Just want to say thank you so much for your email today. (Why I killed my social media accounts …)
I am a freelance journalist from Kentucky. I now have so many story assignments that I have to pace myself. I haven’t taken any of your classes, but I HAVE gleaned from your emails and I have watched/listened to some of your podcasts. I am appreciative of your enthusiasm and your expertise. I lead a writers group and I routinely refer to your wisdom.
I am going on vacation on Friday and will have the chance to be unplugged (mostly) from social media for over a week. I have made a conscious decision to NOT work on work while I am at the beach. (We will see how the guilt works on that one!)
Anyway, thank you so much. I am a small voice from the Bluegrass, but let this small voice encourage you as well. You are doing good things and I am ever so glad.
Wow, Linda, this is such an enlightening post. I’m on five social media platforms but need to be as I do social media work for clients. This does serve as a great reminder for me to really focus more on the platform that actually brings me clients which is LinkedIn and I understand LinkedIn well and like networking there.
Linda. This is so insightful! Actually, this morning, I realized I hadn’t logged into my Twitter account in awhile and started to feel “irrelevant” as you say. I quickly looked you up for an RT and found some old accounts of yours! I was thinking, IMPOSSIBLE.
Thanks for sharing. This is definitely something I need to think about!! I want to be a writer and not a slave to social media!
WOW! My daughter, wife and I talked til 2 AM this morning about this very topic!
I told my daughter to stop staying up til 5 AM and tweeting and posting. Cease or at least seriously cut back.
She tells me that, in addition to wanting to be a writer — and she does have clients — she wants to act. I said, “Well, eliminate the tweets, FB, etc and take acting classes. Get rid of the negatives and add a positive.”
Fascinating, Linda! I actually went to look for your Twitter feed a few days ago, because the Pitch Clinic handout that goes over how to sniff out editor email addresses references being able to find yours via your Twitter feed, and I wanted to give it a shot. After a bit of digging, I noticed all your accounts were gone, and I wondered why!
I wish more people would make this decision. I run social media for clients, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve counseled people to give up all but one or two social accounts that they like or know they get engagement from. It’s just not sustainable to try to be on five, six — sometimes ten! — social media sites. And for some people, like you found out, it’s not worth it at all. Business and individuals would be a lot happier if they would stick with what really works for them, rather than trying to fit the mold of what “marketers” or “society at large” says you should do.
Anyway, hope you don’t mind me replying — this was a very inspiring post and congrats to you for pulling the plug for your personal peace! And hoorah for a wonderful vacation!
Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful post, Linda. As a writer with 15 years of experience and a decent career established, I still worried at night that my lack of a twitter account (not to mention my lack of interest in stalking people through their instagram photos!) was making me less relevant, that I was somehow missing out, even though my career didn’t seem to be lacking because of my lack of social media participation. This post made me feel better about my choice and confirmed things I’d often thought were true — in our busy world, nothing replaces beating the pavement with solid queries and/or choosing the method of marketing where you’ll be most effective.
SO, I did the RIGHT thing!
I already kinda killed my social accounts a couple of months ago.
Well, didn’t delete Twitter and LinkedIn accounts but deleted the FB profile, completely.
BUT I never logged into any of the social accounts – so it’s like I killed them when I took an oath not to use any of them.
You may or may not be aware that in Europe and Asia, people use WhatsApp on their mobiles phones more than they use other social apps. I deleted that one last year after trying it for 2 months and it was eating my time.
I love my work and thought it would be damn near impossible to keep my mind off of email, the blog, the classes I teach, marketing, writing, and so on. But, shockingly, I felt ZERO urge to do any work for the entire two weeks. I didn’t even take notes, write a to-do list, or check email. That was…different.
I also usually can’t live off of e-mail and my computers and Internet, but when I’m doing spiritual service and am with my group, the happiness I get is so so much, that I forget everything else. At times, this can be a week or more. This last August, it was about a month. No internet and no e-mail checking at all. I didn’t have my lappy even.
Without any doubt, like you said, our diseases go away, we don’t know where. So, it’s like freelancing brings into us some diseases?
I hope you get better with your small/big ailments. But, please know one more thing – these things are also internal and at the sub-conscious level. You’re into yoga so I’m sure you’ll at least listen, even if not believe me. There are MANY diseases and ailments which go into the next births because they’re in the subconscious mind, mind is a part of us (us being souls).
If you would like more on the above, do let me know. I’ll be glad to give more info.
Thanks for the interesting post with your experiences and the tour. Seemed like I was with you on the tour, to those countries too. So, thanks a ton.
BTW, if you wish to know why I stopped using social media, it was a determined decision I made with about 3,000 other youths in a spiritual class, when we were asked whether social media wastes time and we all had raised our hands. I’m glad I’m very strong on the decision and won’t revert back or change it. No excuses at all.
Even though you had to research and read about how to stop using social media, you made a super wise decision and God’ll bless you for that too!
Thanks a TON and stay social-media-less forever, like me. I’m writing an article in my institution’s spiritual mag, in Hindi, though, to help my spiritual brethren stop using social media.
This newsletter of yours struck a chord with me. Social media’s great because, at its core, it helps you connect and reconnect with people you care about. It’s been morphing into more than that, however, and in a very stressful way. People you don’t know, people you just met once (and ever-so-briefly!), batch mates from your kindergarten class whom you don’t even remember and whom you know don’t even care if you don’t even remember… they all request to be Facebook friends. I tried to limit my network to those just nearest and dearest to me. Unfortunately, I failed miserably at that. It’s just hard to reject people, especially when it’s the likes of that co-worker who you see daily and who must be secretly wondering when you’d accept his friend request.
That’s partly why I’ve limited the frequency I check my Facebook feed from once a day to just once a week. It’s a huge time-suck. It also doesn’t make sense to check the posts of all your contacts when you’re not even close with half of them. It results in a disconnect on a platform that’s supposed to connect.
Wow. I should write a blog about the stresses brought about by social media relationships.
Anyway, re: your tip about focusing on that one thing you’re good at, marketing-wise, well… that’s given me food for thought as well. I have an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google Plus. I also blog twice a week and manage my social media posts thrice a week. It’s a lot of work, and so far it’s not working so well. Most of my Twitter followers just favorite my tweets; they rarely retweet them. Most of my Facebook page followers just like my page because they like me, and not necessarily because they like what I advocate, which is wellness. Needless to say, I rarely get post likes there. It’s on Google Plus where I seem to have the most meaningful engagement, and it’s something that surprises me endlessly. I need to lessen the frequency of my posts elsewhere and just focus on that one marketing strategy and that one media platform that really works for me. I can’t give up social media, but I can work towards limiting my social media time whilst maximizing its benefits.
I’m very happy that you had a great European holiday! Europe is beautiful!
More power to The Renegade Writer!
Thanks for writing this email. It’s refreshing to hear someone who is as well known online as you are say that social media is a waste of time. I did a lot of marketing on social media a few years ago for a software company and generated a lot of sales leads for them doing that. But since I went out on my own doing marketing consulting and freelance copywriting, I’ve been doing social media and seriously wondering if it is a waste of my time, as even though I have solely focused my content on marketing-related topics to attract VPs and directors of marketing (my main target audience), I appear to have a lot of followers who definitely aren’t my target audience. But I suppose that’s because everyone wants good info about marketing. However, the one exception is having a LinkedIn profile, which has been invaluable to me because I’ve already gotten two clients that way.
In addition, I have been wondering how realistic freelance copywriting is. I know there is plenty of work out there. But I do seem to be hearing a lot of stories about people who tried to make a go of freelance copywriting and failed. And since so much of what is written about freelance writing (not yours, but a lot of other content) is written in such a hype way (i.e., make a million dollars writing from home in your bare feet, and get rich working only one to two hours a day while you sit back and royalty checks roll in), it seems too good to be true/not believable.
But I’m still going to pursue it, because I do believe, being a marketer myself and working in companies where the marketing departments have been short on staff, that there is plenty of work out there. The key is identifying which companies you want to work with, finding out if they even work with freelancers (I’ve worked at some that do and some that don’t) and whether they meet your ideal client criteria (e.g., will pay you what you are worth, have ongoing work/projects, are easy to work with, etc.), and then proactively going after them. To me, the difference between those who succeed and those who fail in this business comes down to those who are willing to be a true business owner by working hard and wearing multiple hats at one time (e.g., the writing hat, the new business development hat, and the marketing hat) and those who aren’t. Those three things are the only true/real recipe that I’ve found for success anyway.
Hey all! The PubCrawl gang here with a special Tuesday guest post with Beth Revis, the New York Times bestselling author of the Across the Universe trilogy, and one of the smartest and most generous people we know! Because Beth is so generous, she has written—not one, not two, but three—books of writing advice! We are giving away the first here today, which I think many of our readers attempting NaNoWriMo this year might find useful!
DON’T MISS OUT ON THE GIVEAWAY AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST!All orders of Paper Hearts made before November 15 from Malaprops will come with a special gift—more details below!
There is Always a Reason to Be Jealous
When I was a kid, scribbling stories and beaming when the teacher or my mom displayed them on the wall, authors were as mythical as unicorns. Walking among the shelves of a bookstore felt like walking among giants. It wasn’t until I wrote my first novel that I started to think being an author wasn’t an impossibility.
And that was also about the time when I started to feel jealous. I wanted, more than anything, to be a published author, and as time went on, I became more and more jealous of anyone who already held the keys to elite circle. That feeling just became more and more intense as I wrote manuscript after manuscript, hoping to find the golden ticket into publishing.
I would tell myself, If I could just get an agent, I’d be happy.
And then, eventually, I got an agent. And so I said, If I could just get a book deal, I’d be happy.
And I did. I got the book deal of my dreams. But then I said, If the book could just do well, maybe some awards or hit the list…then I can be happy.
And it did. And I was blissfully, gloriously happy. I had all my dreams come true. A great book deal, a trilogy that hit the NY Times bestseller list, publisher sponsored book tours, fan letters, literally everything I ever wanted.
But there is always a reason to be jealous.
Someone else hit the list higher. Someone else got a bigger deal. Someone else is heralded as the height of the genre. Someone else has higher ratings and better reviews. Someone else has everything I have, but also a nice lake house and isn’t allergic to kittens.
There’s always a reason to be jealous.
Even if you have it all, even if everything’s perfect…it won’t last. It just won’t. I guarantee that even J. K. Rowling worries that her next book will flop and the glory days are over. A number one New York Times bestseller fears that no one will read his next book. An author on the red carpet of the movie based on her book has a niggling fear that this is the peak and everything is downhill from here.
And even if you are riding that high, there is always someone who is higher up than you. There just is. That is the nature of the game. We all want to be the best of the best. We all want to be made immortal through our works. We all want to know that the things we wrote made a difference in someone’s life. And it’s hard to measure what our success is. So we look at things that do measure “success.” Things like author rank, or sales numbers, or who gets invited on a book tour, or who gets the most fan art on tumblr, or who is friends with who, who got a blurb from this other author, or which publishing house is better, or who gets more attention from their editor, or who stays on the list longer than who else, or who even makes the list, and in the end none of that matters.
None of it.
There is always a reason to be jealous.
No matter how successful you are, there is always someone more successful than you. No matter what you think the epitome of your career is going to be, when you reach it, there will be a higher point you want to reach. And that is good. You always want to be striving forward, you always want to be trying to make your art better. But if you become focused on what other people have, you waste your life on jealousy. You become bitter. You start reaching for the false goals. You quit celebrating the success of others, because you’re so wrapped up in yourself.
There are countless reasons to be jealous. But that doesn’t mean you have to succumb to them.
You can win a journal with this cover!
I wrote Paper Hearts for the writer I used to be. The questions I used to have plagued me when I was starting this career path. How do I get to the end? What’s the proper way to structure a novel—is there even a proper way? How do I make my book stand out from all the other ones on sub?
Now, fifteen years, eleven unpublished books, three New York Times bestsellers, one self published book, and countless hours working on craft and working with other professionals, I think I finally have the answers that I needed way back then.
Unfortunately, I can’t travel back in time.
But what I can do is try to help others. I’ve been compiling articles on the things I’ve learned about writing, publishing, and marketing for years, first informally on blog posts, then more collectively on Wattpad. After hitting 100,000 reads, I realized that I should take Paper Hearts more seriously…and that I had not one book, but three.
Fully revised and expanded, the Paper Hearts series will feature three volumes, one each on writing, publishing, and marketing. Paper Hearts, Volume 1: Some Writing Advice will be out on November 1, with the other two following in December and January.
Your enemy is the blank page. When it comes to writing, there’s no wrong way to get words on paper. But it’s not always easy to make the ink flow. Paper Hearts: Some Writing Advice won’t make writing any simpler, but it may help spark your imagination and get your hands back on the keyboard.
Practical Advice Meets Real Experience
With information that takes you from common mistakes in grammar to detailed charts on story structure, Paper Hearts describes:
How to Develop Character, Plot, and World
What Common Advice You Should Ignore
What Advice Actually Helps
How to Develop a Novel
The Basics of Grammar, Style, and Tone
Four Practical Methods of Charting Story Structure
How to Get Critiques and Revise Your Novel
How to Deal with Failure
And much more!
BONUS! More than 25 “What to do if” scenarios to help writers navigate problems in writing from a New York Times Bestselling author who’s written more than 2 million words of fiction.
Remember: if you pre-order the print copy from my local indie bookstore, Malaprops, you’ll also get a chapbook of the best writing advice from 12 beloved and bestselling YA authors included in your order for free!
BETH REVIS is the New York Times bestselling author of the Across the Universe trilogy, as well as The Body Electric, Paper Hearts, and the forthcoming A World Without You. She lives in the Appalachian mountains with her boys: one husband, one son, and two very large dogs. You can find out more on Facebook, Twitter, or online. If you never want to miss a thing and also get exclusive insider opportunities, sign up for her newsletter here.
Alas, Pub Crawl readers, the time has come for me to make my exit. I’ve been writing for this blog since 2012 and it’s been a blast. From sharing publishing insights and craft advice, to engaging in wonderful discussions via the comments, to just geeking out over books and pop culture, I’ve had so much fun contributing to Pub Crawl!
But I also can’t ignore the fact that I am stretched too thin, that my writing time is precious and I need to guard it fiercely. It was a hard decision, but I need to cut back on my blogging obligations. I’ll still be writing books and sharing advice (via my blog, newsletter, and social media outlets), I just won’t be doing it here on Pub Crawl.
Before I go, and as Alex Bracken and Amie Kauffman have done before me, I’d like to share a few lessons I’ve learned since entering the publishing industry…
1 — ADAPT
There is no perfect time to write, and there is no perfect place to do so. You might have an ideal—your dream writing day/situation—but if you sit around waiting for it, you’re burning precious hours. In the words of Tim Gunn, you just need to “make it work.” I wrote my debut in half hour sprints after work and on the weekends. Then I became a full time writer and had all the time in the world. It was marvelous. Of course, I now have a one-year-old and am back to writing in sprints and cramming copy-edits in during naps and brainstorming while I push the stroller. All this to say: nothing is life is constant. Be prepared to write under any circumstance.
2 — YOU ARE NOT YOUR BOOK
If your book tanks, that doesn’t define you. If your book is a massive hit, that doesn’t define you either. Your identity is not tied to the success of your books. Remember that age-old mantra, The only thing you can control is the words? Well, it’s true. So don’t let your happiness be tied to things you can’t control, like sales numbers and best-seller lists. Find other passions and hobbies. Spend time with friends and family. Love writing, but live outside it too.
3 — SHARE KNOWLEDGE
I only made it through my debut season without going insane because kind, thoughtful, gracious writers who were ahead of me in their journey reached back and told me what to expect. They shared knowledge. They acted as a sounding board. They pulled back the curtain. Publishing can often feel like a giant mystery, like you’re wandering down a road-blocked, pothole-ridden street while wearing a blindfold. Help your fellow writers out. Pay-it-forward. We’re all in this together, I promise you.
4 — TAKE A SOCIAL MEDIA BREAK
Seriously. You’re allowed. As soon as you start feeling burned out, that you can’t keep up with the tweets, that the fun’s been sucked out of tumblr and that your networks are just another thing you have to maintain, STEP AWAY. Take a week or two off. Maybe more! The internet isn’t going anywhere. It will carry on just fine without you and it will be there when you get back. You’ll be amazed at how much you don’t miss, and how rejuvenated you feel when you finally return.
5 — CHALLENGE YOURSELF
Write outside your comfort zone. Explore new genres. Take risks. Do something that scares you. The only way you grow as a writer is by trying new things. Comfort—writing only what feels safe—will keep you stale. It will stall your growth. And aren’t we all trying to grow?
6 — DISSECT EVERYTHING
Storytelling is everywhere, so when you watch a movie, binge a TV show, read a book, look at a photo, listen to song lyrics, peruse a gallery… take note of what you love. What works? What inspires you? On the other hand, what do you hate? What would you change? Apply that to your own writing.
7 — ENJOY THE NOW
The grass is always greener ahead. The future holds great promise. It could be when you land an agent, sell that book, get a movie deal, go on tour, hit a list, get showered with awards, and so on. But if you’re too busy looking ahead, you’ll miss the things happening now. And remember my point in #2? Those fancy things are wonderful, but journeys without them aren’t pointless journeys. Remember to live your life. Be present in the moment. Tomorrow is going to happen no matter what, so make sure you enjoy today.
I was so happy to be able to talk with Lori Deschene. As the founder of Tiny Buddha, she’s helped more than 1,200 people (including me!) share their stories and lessons with more than 60 million readers (as of June, 2015). She’s the author of Tiny Buddha: Simple Wisdom for Life’s Hard Questions, Tiny Buddha’s Guide to Loving Yourself, and her newest release: Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges.
Lori, I know you’ve written for girls’ magazines, and many of The Renegade Writer’s readers want to write for magazines themselves. How did you get into that?
I found my first magazine writing opportunity on Craigslist in the gigs section—something that doesn’t happen all that often! I didn’t actually have much professional writing experience at that time, but I did have the right experience.
The magazine was a new middle grade publication, for girls aged eight to twelve, and they were looking for witty, upbeat articles on friendship, self-esteem, and surviving embarrassing moments.
Prior to finding this opportunity, I’d worked in mobile marketing, taking promotional campaigns from city to city. My last tour was a walk across the country to promote a variety of health and fitness-related products. As the tour’s dog walker, I wrote a “dog blog” that chronicled my canine companion’s adventure.
These were all light, funny posts that fit the exact tone the magazine was looking for. They loved my writing samples and hired me to write an article for the first issue, which led to more than a dozen more.
Eventually, I submitted some of those articles to a bigger, more established middle-grade magazine and went on to contribute over fifty articles and quizzes.
I also wrote for a real estate magazine briefly that, once again, I found on Craigslist. It was also a new magazine, and I don’t actually know much about real estate. But I was looking to build a body of work, and I was open to any opportunities I could find!
In retrospect, I realize I could have been more proactive and targeted. I could have identified more magazines that I wanted to write for instead of taking any writing gig I could find on Craigslist (including a job writing travel guides for $6/hour).
But I think there’s something to be said for being hungry, and being willing to take whatever you can get to hone your craft and build your resume.
Then you started the Tiny Buddha site. What inspired you to do that?
Prior to starting the site, I’d spent more than a decade struggling with depression, bulimia, shame, and self-loathing. For years I felt alone with my challenges—like no one knew me, and no one would love me if they did.
After making tremendous progress with my personal struggles, I wanted to create a place where people could share what they’ve been through and what they’ve learned, to help themselves and others.
My hope was that this would help readers feel less alone with their challenges and more empowered to overcome them. And though I didn’t realize this at the time, I eventually recognized that starting Tiny Buddha was a big part of my own healing journey.
There’s something cathartic about leveraging your pain for something useful and valuable—and there’s little more valuable than making a positive difference in someone else’s life.
How has the Tiny Buddha blog helped your career? Do you earn money from the blog through ads, selling books…?
I earn money from a combination of:
I’m also planning to launch some products soon, including journals, gratitude journals, and calendars.
I launched my first eBook roughly a year after the site launched, and it sold regularly, but I was still working another full-time online writing job. I also dabbled with blog coaching and blog review reports—something I didn’t really love and only did briefly.
It really wasn’t until the three-year mark that I felt comfortable depending solely on Tiny Buddha for my livelihood. In retrospect, I’m glad I never felt pressure to earn a specific amount from the site. If I had felt that pressure, I may have said yes to opportunities that didn’t feel right for me.
There are a lot of ways to make money online, or to leverage your online presence to make money. Not all are good for each of us individually — or for our brands.
I also see you have a forum, a widget that lets people post quotes from the site on their websites, and much more. You accept guest posts, do blog tours… that all sounds like a lot of work! How difficult is it really to start and run a successful blog? I think so many writers believe they can just start a WordPress site and start posting their thoughts, and the readers (and money) will come flying in.
It is a lot of work! And I’ve been feeling that a lot more lately, as I don’t have an assistant or any employees. That being said, it wasn’t always a lot of work.
When I first got started, I devoted just a few hours each day to running the site. At the time, it was just a quote and blog feed, and I wrote very short posts (some of which, I now realize, weren’t all that compelling).
If I’d thought to myself back then, “I have to build a site with forums, daily guest contributors, a fun & inspiring section, multiple books, a widget, an eCourse…” I likely would have felt too overwhelmed to start. But I’ve added layers to the site over time.
I think the most important thing is that you show up each day and do something. You remain consistent and keep learning.
This guarantees that you’ll keep growing, slowly, bit by bit, over time.
Writers are always asking me, “I want to start a blog, but I don’t know what to write about.” I think you’re living proof that you don’t decide to start a blog and then cast about for a topic…you have something burning in you that you want to share so much that it can sustain thousands of posts and years of work. Do you agree?
Yes, absolutely! This comes back to what I wrote before, about having a mission. You have to have a compelling “why” behind your blog—some reason you have to explore this topic. Otherwise, you likely won’t have a reason to stick with it if and when progress seems slow. And you’re absolutely right—you likely won’t be able to write for years on the topic.
Every now and then, someone submits a post to Tiny Buddha starting with “I wasn’t sure what to write about this week…” Those are usually the least compelling posts because it’s clear the writer was looking for something to say, as opposed to having something to say.
If you don’t have something you have to say, readers won’t feel compelled to listen.
What are your top three tips for writers on how to build a successful blog?
I believe you need all three to build and maintain an audience—you need to deliver with consistency, solve problems readers are facing, and reveal your own humanity in doing so.
2. Foster a sense of community.
We all want to be part of something larger than ourselves, and we want to be where other people are congregating and connecting.
The first step in building a community is to have a compelling reason for its existence. People can “hang out” on any site—why yours specifically? What’s the movement they’re joining?
Is it a group of people committed to changing the world through meaningful work? Is it a group committed to sharing themselves vulnerably and learning from each other? When you have a strong mission for your site, community engagement becomes more than comments on isolated posts. It becomes about people supporting each other in working toward a common goal.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to end posts with questions. And if you can involve the community in a post in any way, that always helps.
Formerly, I asked questions on Facebook (such as “How do you help people who won’t help themselves?”) and then incorporated the responses into posts. I’ve also asked readers to submit pictures and videos for different purposes. An involved community is an engaged community!
3. Focus on building relationships.
Behind the most popular blogs you’ll find people who weren’t afraid to reach out to more established bloggers to learn from them, and to other new bloggers to work with them.
This might mean asking to guest post on a larger site to introduce new readers to your blog. It might mean working on a product with another blogger to launch to both of your communities simultaneously. It might mean building a blog support network with lots of bloggers in the same niche.
The more people you connect with, the greater the odds your blog will grow. And the more people you help, the more people will want to help you.
And you’re the author of three traditionally published books too! How did you get into writing books? Did you find an agent, or were you approached by one? Did you have to write a proposal?
I first started working on a proposal a year after I launched the site, and I sent that to an agent who’d reached out to me. He wasn’t thrilled with my idea, but he gave me some feedback that helped me come up with a new one. Shortly after, a small publisher contacted me after seeing me speak at a conference.
The most helpful advice I got when writing my first proposal was to ask myself, “Why would readers buy this book from me specifically?” My first idea was something anyone could have written, and I didn’t have anything in my background that would have positioned me as an authority on this topic.
Each of my three books makes sense from me specifically, because they’re all extensions of Tiny Buddha, including both my own personal experience and insights from the community.
So you’ve written for magazines, and you run a blog AND write books. Do you find there’s some value for writers in diversifying? If so, what is it?
I’ve enjoyed the variety because I find it more stimulating—and challenging. Whereas I could write a blog post in a couple hours, a book is clearly a long-term project. And it’s something that’s far more involved, especially when you’re working with dozens of contributors, like I do.
There’s also a certain level of satisfaction that comes from stretching yourself and trying to do something new. Especially if you’re writing about the same topic every day or every other day, it can help tremendously to mix things up.
What are your top two tips for writers who would like to write traditionally published books?
Aside from answering the question “Why me for this book?”:
Get an agent with success in your niche.
While you could send your proposal to smaller publishers without representation, an agent knows what makes a strong proposal, and which publishers would be best for your book. As I mentioned before, I’ve gotten a book deal with and without one, and the latter was a far superior experience, on every level, and totally worth the money.
Create a solid marketing plan for your proposal.
Publishers are looking to work with authors who can sell books. If you have an established platform, great! If not, do you know any other high-profile bloggers who will help promote your book? Are you willing to invest your money in a book trailer, a blog tour, or a publicist? Do you have any ideas for creative social media campaigns?
Since the Tiny Buddha blog is all about topics like happiness, motivation, inspiration, and letting go…I’d like to talk about two emotions writers feel a lot — fear and stress. Do you have any advice for writers on getting over their fears of rejection, failure, and even success so they can start pitching and writing?
As someone who’s pursued both theater and writing—two incredibly competitive industries—I know all about rejection! Three things that have helped me are:
Not taking rejection personally.
It can be tough to do this when you put your heart into your writing. But agents and publishers aren’t rejecting you. They’re rejecting the idea—and at that specific time.
There are plenty of times when contributors submit posts to Tiny Buddha and they’re very similar to posts I’ve recently accepted. That actually means they’re strong posts, but my job as a site editor is to offer variety and look for varied themes and perspectives.
I always encourage writers to submit again. Not all editors do this, but submit again anyways.
Think of it as a numbers game.
When I worked as a telemarketer, I knew that every twenty calls would likely lead to one sale. Knowing this made it easier to face those nineteen rejections because I knew I was getting closer to closing a deal.
It’s not quite the same with writing, but it can help tremendously to think of every “no” as one step closer to a “yes.” Challenge the belief that “no” is proof you’re not good enough. If you need a reason to believe you can still succeed, despite rejection, check out this article or this one or this one.
Realize you have far more options now than writers once did.
If you have something to say, you can find a way to put it out there. You can start a blog. You can write an eBook. You can self-publish a print book. And if you do self-publish a print book, you could then leverage that to get a deal with a traditional publisher. (I know several authors who’ve done this!)
We’re fortunate to have so many options available us writers today. Knowing this somehow takes the sting out of rejection because you know that no isolated rejection can crush your dream, or prevent you from honing your craft and getting your work out there.
I absolutely hate sending rejection emails because I’m both sensitive and empathetic, and I never want anyone to think I don’t admire and respect both them and their work. If I’ve rejected posts from the same writer a few times, I might offer extra feedback and end the email with “I hope I’m not discouraging you!”
Not too long ago, a writer responded, “No worries—you’re not! I have a whole list of sites I submit to, so I’ll just submit this to one of them.”
It’s something I’ll remember next time I’m feeling rejected. There are other sites. There are other magazines. There are lots of other ways to get my work out there.
And stress…we writers feel that a lot! We’re running our butts off pitching, interviewing, networking, writing. We have tons of deadlines, client demands, and other stressors. How can writers become more calm and centered so they can work more productively?
The best advice I can offer any writer is to get out of your head. There were many times in the past when I sat at my computer for ten+ hours, when on a deadline, with only short breaks to eat or use the restroom. This was a surefire path to stress and burnout!
I used to think taking a break for a walk or a quick meditation was wasting time, but I’ve since learned than fifteen to thirty rejuvenating minutes are actually huge time savers. I come back to my work refreshed, recharged—and in some cases, particularly if I’ve been in nature, inspired.
Then I have much calmer, and much more positive energy, to bring to my work.
Doing something childlike, like hopping on a swing
Dancing to your favorite music and releasing pent up energy
Tell us about your latest book, Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges. What inspired you to write it, and where can readers buy the book?
As someone who’s felt alone at various points in my life, I understand the value of strong relationships. I also know we’re living in an increasingly disconnected world, despite being more connected than ever.
We all need to feel seen, valued, appreciated, and loved. We’re social creatures, and we need to feel like we belong, like people get us and will be there for us. We also need to know people trust us and depend on us to be there for them.
Of course, these things are far more easily said than done. Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges can help.
The book offers a year’s worth of simple daily challenges to help people give more love in their relationships, treat themselves more lovingly, and put more love into the world.
Some of the challenges are active, some are reflective, some involve having conversations with other people, and some are writing exercises.
Each month has a different theme, including:
Kindness and Thoughtfulness
Compassion and Understanding
Authenticity and Vulnerability
Releasing Anger and Forgiving
Attention and Listening
Honesty and Trust
Kindness and Thoughtfulness
Acceptance and Non-Judgment
Releasing Comparisons and Competition
Support and Encouragement
Admiration and Appreciation
Giving and Receiving
And every week starts with a relevant story or two from members of the Tiny Buddha community, illustrating the power of applying these principles in daily life.
The challenges are all little things, and some might seem simple, but the simplest things are often the hardest to do consistently—like putting your phone down and giving someone your full attention, or looking a stranger in the eye and smiling.
Relationships have never been my strong suit, but I feel much closer to people, and much better equipped to give them the love they deserve, since incorporating these tiny actions into my daily life.
P.S. All the e-books for writers in the Renegade Writer Store (except one) are Pay What You Want until Friday…this is an experiment, and if we like the way it goes, we’ll make this a permanent change. That means, at least for right now, YOU choose how much you’d like to pay for each book (with a minimum of $1 each). SO far we’ve had about 300 orders, most containing multiple books. Some writers are picking up EVERY book at $1 each, some are buying just a couple at a higher price, and some are in between. Have fun!
Your world is your own; traditional gender roles need not apply. This means that even if your fantasy is inspired by 1300s France, you can still have women being professors at universities or leading armies. A classic image that comes to mind of a woman in history is the passive homemaker waiting for her husband to come back from war. There were certainly quite a few of those, but that image doesn’t account for what these women actually did while waiting. The result is a picture where a lady stands at the threshold of her manor looking wistfully out the horizon to catch a shadow of her husband. In reality, she was probably too damn busy making sure her crop yield would cover both her taxes and the food needs of her household. Since stories tend to focus on the epic, and since fantasy in particular isn’t usually about actual, historical daily life, the public perception of gender roles in history is still a little stuck in this romanticized notion of passive and desperate reliance on men. The people that read these stories then go on to write their own, continuing the vicious, misinformed cycle that can even go so far as to influence society’s perception of present-day reality. Literature is an extremely powerful brainwashing tool.
Here’s the thing. Only you can break this oversaturation and constant recycling of “women had no power back then.” A good way to do that is by doing some research in unbiased gender history and exposing the public to the shocking notion that humans didn’t have the luxury to lock fifty percent of the population into an ivory tower.
Another way to do it is to write an awesome book where you totally reinvent gender roles within your world. And you can start as small as with your main character’s background story.
Alter the Intention
If you have a girl whose character arc depends on her being extremely sheltered at the start, don’t let the reason she’s sheltered rely on the fact that she’s female. Not only is it kind of lazy, it’s dependent on exactly the sort of cultural norm you’re trying to steer away from. Instead, it could be that a kidnapping attempt in her early childhood led to her parents overreacting. If she’s not allowed to learn swordplay, it could be because her family believes she’d never have use for it since they’d always be protecting her. If she’s being forced to marry against her will, it’s because they want to make sure she’s always provided for. The idea is that the driving forces behind her important life events will have little to do with the basic fact that she’s female. If you change the intention and complicate the reasoning from “because she’s a girl” to something less gender-related, it becomes actual logic that can be used in plot and character development: The story starts with her running away from the arranged marriage, arranged because her family’s misguided but genuine concern for her well-being is blinding them to her misery. Just as she’s trying to adjust to the novelty of freedom, the attempted kidnappers resurface, suddenly throwing her into crippling self-doubt. She can’t physically fight back against them because she’s weak; but she’s weak not because she’s a girl, but because she was never taught how to fight. The story that ends up being told is not one about a girl struggling against the patriarchy but one about a girl overcoming insecurity ingrained from childhood by an overprotective family she feels she cannot return to.
Weaknesses Are Allowed
Women are traditionally viewed as the weaker and more submissive sex. Breaking out of this view in your story might lead you to the conclusion that your main girl character has to be physically and emotionally strong. A common thing I come across (and sometimes catch myself writing) is a female character who overcompensates for all those damsels in distress by being ridiculously tough in every way possible. This “strong female protagonist”, often patronisingly described as feisty, turns into a caricature of a person instead of a representation of reality. For example, the girl above who was protected all her life and never learned to fight still probably won’t be able to fight very well just a few months after she’s left home. Maybe she’ll never be able to fight well. Some people are just uncoordinated. This means that she’ll inevitably have to rely on those around her for physical protection. And that’s totally fine. Because again, the reason she’s physically weak is because she just is. That doesn’t mean she’s not crafty and can’t help out in different ways. It just means that when one of those kidnappers shows up, she won’t be the one fighting them; that role will go to the person protecting her. She doesn’t have to have all the qualities of the “strong female protagonist”. She first and foremost has to be a believable person.
By the way, that girl’s protector can easily be a lady. The kidnappers can also be ladies. All of the characters can be ladies. Why not? A lot of times the opposite is true, with men occupying all active roles and women left to the job of “plot device”, up there in importance with Tree #2 in the elementary school play. In an attempt to remedy this, some people, while still having women as mostly weak and submissive, will nevertheless have a couple of ladies in incredibly powerful leadership roles. This is excellent; it shows that women in that writer’s world are able to achieve a position that relies on their intelligence and strength. However, these stories often miss the women in less powerful roles. These women have to climb that ladder somehow. They didn’t get to the top overnight, which means they have to have had a lower status in the past. Regardless, women will often be absent from starting or midrange roles. You don’t usually see a woman as a foot soldier, unless she’s a main character. And even if you do, she’s always something more; undiscovered prodigy bomb technician that diffuses the bomb at the last minute; master sniper that helps them hit their target; top-class martial artist that leads them through a push. She’s never just a bumbling soldier who didn’t clean her gun properly, like so many of the other male peons are.
It all goes back to the initial lack of women in these stories, and the attempt to rectify this lack. During this attempt, the women become special, having skills that are sometimes better than those of most men. At first glance this doesn’t seem bad, because it seems to show women who are powerful and successful in roles traditionally held by men. But there’s a sneaky kind of damage to it: it implies that women can only be in these roles if their skill sets are abnormally high. The best thing you can do for gender equality in your world is to take a bunch of women, put them on the front lines with the men, kill them all, and then have everybody react with equal grief. None of this “Even the women were killed!” None of this “Women and children first!” (…Well, children first, yes.)
Which leads me to my last point.
Don’t Make It a Big Deal
If, in your world, traditional gender roles don’t apply, then you don’t have to justify why one of the best warriors in the land is a woman. Similarly, you have to remember to make some of the most mediocre warriors women as well. The worst thing you can do is have people constantly commenting on how strong she is for a woman, or how she’s the only woman in her class, or how even though she’s a fighter she still knows how to cook. Nobody cares. The men also probably know how to cook. It’s an important part of being an independent person. Drawing attention to the woman’s gender will take power away from why she’s as successful as she is: because she’s strong, because she’s skilled, and because she learned how to fight. You never hear phrases like, “Yeah he’s a pretty good fighter for a man.” Though, you might hear, “Yeah he sews pretty well for a man.” And that is just as damaging for the other side.
Gender Still Exists
Gender is a thing, and it’s foolish to ignore it…which seems to contradict everything I’ve just said. Still, physically, men and women are different. This will always result in situations where one character might be better at completing a task than another simply because of their gender. The key is that one gender should never be excluded from the possibility of doing that task, excepting in obviously physically limiting situations (because I just know that somebody’s going to say that a man can’t birth a child). And even in a world of equality, there will always be some outlying group of misogynists or misandrists itching to push people down. They can be part of your story too. And if your story is good at putting on display the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, and if those strengths and weaknesses are well-developed and don’t rely on gender, then it can expose the individual and shared features that your characters possess, and most importantly, uncover how absolutely ridiculous those misogynists and misandrists are.
Because oh my god. If you could build a world like the one I’ve described, I would read that book. I would read that book so hard.
By that I mean Carol Tice’s and my 4-Week J-School Audit is on sale until July 30 (a BIG welcome to the 80 of you who have signed on so far!) — and we have a whole lesson on journalism ethics. And because we’re talking so much about ethics in our marketing materials, we’ve been getting a lot of questions from readers.
One awesome writer sent in this question:
I was surprised to read, in your post about mistakes you have made, that it is not okay to reuse ANYTHING from a previous article, not even a phrase or a quote. I’ve never heard that before. In fact, I seem to remember you or Carol encouraging us to reslant and resell our stories as a way to get double duty from our work. If we can’t reuse our quotes, that doesn’t seem like it saves us anything. I’ve been planning to try and spin a couple of my stories in different ways for different markets. Comments?
Stealing from your own previously published work is called self-plagiarism, and it is a big problem. In fact, as you’ll see in the post I linked to above, I was once fired for it before I knew any better.
While it’s not technically illegal to reuse portions of your own work (unless you signed a contract forbidding it), and some debate whether or not it is unethical, according to this article on Slate, it’s all about the expectations of the audience. So, for example, when I compile blog posts into a book and make it clear in the subtitle that the book is made up of previously-run blog posts, no one seems to mind. As long as the information is new and helpful to the audience, it is likely not a problem.
But when you write for magazines or online publications, your first audience is your editor. You need to ask yourself: How would your editor feel if she saw another article that had the same quotes or phrases as the one you just turned in — especially when she bought first rights or all rights to your piece? I’d wager she wouldn’t like it very much.
And that’s all that matters if you want to keep getting freelance writing jobs. You can debate the ethics of self-plagiarism with her until your face turns a lovely shade of blue…but if she thinks it’s unacceptable — which I assure you she will — then it’s a no-no for you. (And with Copyscape, you certainly won’t get away with it.)
But take heart! When developing a new pitch/article, you can still reuse:
Your idea (Reslanted for a non-competing publication; for example, I once wrote a diet article for Oxygen and then reslanted it for Men’s Fitness.)
The knowledge you gained writing the original article, which will make your research much faster.
Your sources. (Though you would need to re-interview them or use quotes you didn’t use in the original article.)
Journalism ethics is a sticky topic — you need to know not only about self-plagiarism but also libel, using proper citations, quoting sources, fair use laws, and other practices that can keep you from getting sued (or at the very least, in trouble with your editor).
If you’re not up to speed on these topics, consider joining the 4-Week J-School Audit today. You’ll not only learn the ins and outs of journalism ethics, but also get the scoop on generating salable ideas, writing pitches that sell, and crafting compelling articles. The class is self-paced, and you get access to the materials (including the tasty bonuses) forever. And we offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee! Go to the class page to check out the testimonials from happy students who have gotten freelance writing jobs after taking our class.
Stephen Guise is the author of the new book How to Be an Imperfectionist, and I was excited to be able to interview him for The Renegade Writer…because we writers often let perfectionism keep us from getting out work out there.
In this interview, you’ll learn:
The difference between chance and failure
How confidence = comfort
Why quantity is more important than quality
The perceived benefits of perfectionism
How setting the bar low can actually help you get more freelance writing jobs
Also…when I asked Stephen for a “cover image,” he misunderstood and sent me a headshot. I decided I’m totally going to include it as eye candy for the ladies!
Enjoy — and feel free to pass these files around to your writer friends!
P.S. Carol Tice and I are offering the audit version of our 4-Week J-School RIGHT NOW! Cart closes on July 30, which is two days from today. Want to gain the skills and confidence to land — and write — lucrative article assignments? Check out the success stories from our previous students on the J-School page. Work at your own pace…your access never ends!
Are You a Writing Fangirl…Or a REAL Writer? 7 Ways to Tell
We writers can spend hours every day thinking, dreaming, talking, and ruminating about writing. We love what we do!
But when we use these activities (and I’m loathe to even call them “activities”) as substitutes for actually writing…that’s a problem. We leave the realm of serious writer and enter the realm of — fanfolk.
And it’s a sneaky problem, because geeking out over all things writing feels like we’re being productive. We call it brainstorming, networking, getting motivated, whatever. But what it is not, is WRITING. Oh yeah, and MARKETING. And otherwise getting off our butts and going after, and completing, paying writing assignments.
(Caveat: I’m not saying we’re not allowed to have fun, kill time, and kibitz on writers’ forums. It’s when these time-wasters placate us into feeling productive — or we’re more interested in the trappings of a writer than in writing itself — that there’s a problem. )
Seven Signs You’re a Writing Fanboy/Girl:
1. You wear your Grammar Police badge with pride.
Writing forums, email discussion boards for writers, and blog comments are full of posts like these:
My client just sent me an email where he used ‘their’ instead of ‘they’re’! *headdesk*
Look at the typo in this newspaper headline! What is journalism coming to these days?
Hey, blogger…you call yourself a writer? There’s a word missing in the second paragraph.
Pointing out/kvetching about other writers’ grammar mistakes make you FEEL good because hey, you don’t make mistakes like that so clearly you’re a superior writer. But is it getting you more gigs? Is it getting more writing out of you? Or is it simply wasting energy you could be using to get more assignments?
The person who made the typo is writing. What are YOU doing?
I have a guest post on the MakeaLivingWriting.com blog that goes into much, much more details on why you want to pit away your Grammar Police badge. (With 177 comments…clearly a hot button topic!)
2. You give a crap that The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s shortest play. (And you know that it has 1,787 words.)
Look on almost any writers’ forum and you’ll see long threads where writers discuss their favorite pen (who writes in pen anymore?), post interesting factoids about Shakespeare, share motivational quotes from Hemingway, and hash out the details of the latest plagiarism/book banning/angry-author-screwed-by-publisher case.
I call these “fanboy writer posts.” These writer trivia posts show you’re a big fan of all things writing…but do they actually count as writing?
3. You’re a member of 10 writing organizations.
Here’s your email sig line:
Jane Smith, Wordsmith Extraordinaire
National Writers Union
Science Writers of America
Mystery Writers Association
Medial Journalists’ Society
East Podunk Stitch & Bitch Writing Club
Romance Writers of America
[Add five more here]
Guess what? Editors and potential clients do not look at this list and say, “Wow. She must be a serious writer. Let’s hire her!”
Being a member of (most) writers’ associations does not prove that you are a writer. If you shell out your $150, you can get in. Even if you’ve never written a word in your life!
Join the organizations that pertain to the exact type of writing you’re actually doing. Not the genres you wish you were in, or the ones you think will impress people. And only join if you plan to be active in the group (which includes — wait for it — writing.)
4. You are the proud owner of a vast collection of quill pens.
Many writers love the trappings of writing more than the actual act of writing itself. So we see aspiring writers posting photos of their collection of mugs with writerly sayings; getting/talking about/comparing/sharing on social media their tattoos of Remington typewriters; collecting recycled-paper, leather-bound journals (just for looking at, natch); and strolling the aisles of Office Depot coveting the fancy pens.
Anyone looking at you, with your exclamation point tattoo and “Writer at Work” doorknob hanger, would think you are a writer. But…are you actually writing? Don’t delude yourself: A collection of quill pens does not a writer make.
5. You take writing classes you don’t need.
Wait a minute…did I just say that? Maybe I’m shooting myself in the foot because I teach a ton of classes for writers here—but seen too many writers take class after class in order to avoid having to actually pitch and write.
(Many instructors LOVE students like that…they pay good money, don’t do the work, and the instructor gets something for nothing.)
A multitude of certificates from writing classes is the sign of an insecure writer who always thinks she needs to know more before getting started — or the sign of fanfolk who love showing off their creds more than they do actually writing.
Yes, take a class to learn the skills you’re lacking, whether it’s writing the perfect pitch, running a writing business, or crafting an article that will sell. Then…go out and do that thing. That’s what makes you a real writer. If you come to a a roadblock because you need more skills, THEN you can take more classes.
This goes for free classes, too. Just about everyone with something to sell online offers a free class/instructional webinar/training call to get people on their email lists. It’s tempting to try them all! But unless you need that exact skill right now, you can hold off until you do.
6. You love books.
Writers love spending lots of time on Goodreads reviewing books. And weighing in on the latest literary controversies (is The Goldfinch crap or not?) And discussing On Writing and Writing Down the Bones and The Artist’s Way. And bragging about how many books they have in their homes. (I have over 1,000 books! Oh yeah? Well, I have 1,500. Here’s a photo to prove it!)
But the fact that you have a library overflowing with books, a shelf full of writing manuals, and 500 Goodreads reviews (especially of those writing manuals!) does not show you’re a writer. You talk a good game, but do you have the ass-in-seat-time to prove it? Serious writers with limited time use their time to — write.
7. You call yourself a “scribe” or “wordsmith” on your business card.
You are not a scribe, and you’re not a wordsmith. These terms bring to mind unpaid writers jotting down poems for the love of it — or monks copying Bible passages. (My editor at a writing magazine kept changing the word “writer” to “scribe” in my articles and it drove me batshit crazy…as much as I loved this editor!)
You are a serious, well-paid businessperson who offers writing as a valuable service. Right?
So: Are you a fanboy/girl or REAL writer? And if you say you’re a real writer: Prove it today by shutting down the forums, putting away the writing manuals, resisting the urge for one more class or one more writing group membership…and writing.
Is it at your dining room table, surrounded by dirty breakfast dishes? At your local Starbucks? In a well-appointed home office?
Wherever you’re working as a freelance writer…the space needs to work for you.
And your home office is about more than physical space—you also need to think about your phone service (and voicemail message), your equipment and supplies, your working hours, your mailing address, and more.
My 6-year-old son is a dancer: He takes several ballet classes and a jazz class every week, and has done tap as well. (That’s him at the Nutcracker rehearsal last year…sorry, I couldn’t resist!) So when a local Irish dance studio did a demo at T’s school and he asked to take lessons, I raced to sign him up. Encouraging his passions, and all that.
A weekly class costs $45 per month, but one month I had a brain fart and dropped off a check for $40. The next day, I got a polite reminder from the studio owner that I had sent in the wrong amount — fair enough — and I responded that I would drop off the $5 at T’s next lesson.
But at that very point, T decided Irish dance wasn’t for him. (I have to say I was relieved…driving T to dance five days a week and then sitting in a waiting room with 3-year-old copies of Dance Magazine is not my idea of a good time.) He had taken only one session at the beginning of the month, and after that I just stopped taking him.
A few weeks later, the studio owner emailed to ask where T had been, and I said he decided to stop taking classes, but perhaps one day he would change his mind.
She responded, “Okay, we hope to see him again…and by the way, you still owe me $5.”
I was taken aback: We had paid $40 and T had taken one lesson that month. I responded, “I think the $40 I paid covers the one 30-minute class T took!”
To which she replied: “Sorry, we don’t prorate for classes not attended.”
Now, of course, she was right. In fact, I’m sure I signed a contract agreeing to this very thing. But…seriously?
My husband and I joked for a while about sending the dance school a box of 500 pennies, or mailing five one-dollar bills a week apart, but finally I said, “Just send her a check for the five dollars and be done with it. I never want to deal with this school again.”
So the business owner got her five dollars — win! — but she lost potential future business, not to mention word of mouth. Because if anyone ever asks me to recommend a good place for dance classes, you can be certain I won’t be suggesting that school.
Ever hear the expression “penny wise but pound foolish”? This usually refers to people who cut costs unwisely and end up paying more in the long run. But it also applies to writers who are SO invested in coming off as professional, and so hyper-vigilant about not getting ripped off, that they turn off clients.
For example, one student of mine who had been attempting unsuccessfully to get good-paying clients for over a year asked, “A prospect wants me to come in for a meeting. My time costs money! So how much should I charge them?”
I understand the thought behind this: You want to look like a hard-bitten pro, and it’s true — your time IS worth money.
But is it really smart, when you’re desperate for work and someone shows an interest in hiring you, to go all hardcore and demand payment for an exploratory get-to-know-you meeting?
The same goes for writers who go into a frenzy when a client asks for a revise, or when an editor asks for 200 more words or a photo caption that wasn’t included in the contract. You need to consider whether it’s worth doing a bit of extra work for free to keep a good client.
(Of course, if this is an abusive client, one who pays pennies, or one who consistently asks for extra goodies with no compensation — you’re well within your rights to put your foot down…and hopefully ditch the client for good.)
Think about the last time you were at a café and you dropped your drink. (This happened to me just last week!) In 100% of the cases this happens, the barista will offer to replace the drink for free.
Now, the café owner is certainly justified in making you pay for the new drink. After all, is it HIS fault you had case of butterfingers? And drinks cost money, so he’s losing five bucks by offering you a free replacement!
But if he’s smart, the business owner understands that the cost of the free replacement drink is eclipsed by the goodwill created when he offers it to you. You’ll keep coming back and ordering more coffees, ad you’ll tell your friends about it too. That’s five bucks well spant.
Give to Get
Not only should you think hard about demanding money when a good client asks for a little extra here and there — but you should make it a point to offer little freebies even when the client doesn’t ask:
An extra sidebar you create with research you couldn’t fit into the article.
An introduction to someone who can help your client.
Some tweets and Facebook posts to promote an article or blog post you wrote for a client.
The occasional little gift just to say “Thank you,” such as an e-book or a box of candy.
Ten minutes of consulting time to help the client with a question or problem you happen to have the expertise to solve.
Yes, you’re spending your valuable time, and sometimes your hard-earned cash as well — but it’s worth it to foster loyalty in your good clients. As they say in Big Business, it costs much more to get a new client than it does to keep an old one.
Don’t Be a Sucker
I know you don’t want to be taken advantage of — and you definitely don’t want to come across as a doormat.
The trick is, when you agree to do free work, convey how much it’s worth and that you’re doing the client a favor.
For example: “I had some extra materials I couldn’t fit into the article, so I created an extra sidebar, no charge. I hope you can use it!”
Or: “I normally charge $X for that kind of work, but you’re such a good client I’d like to offer it to you gratis.”
This way, you graciously offer something of value to your client — but you also get across the concept that there is indeed worth to your offering, making the favor even more valuable in your client’s eyes.
At the same time, you keep the requests for freebies to a minimum because you’ve made it clear that these are things you normally charge for. And if the client DOES ask for more, they won’t be shocked when you say, “Sure, I can do that — how does $X sound?”
Remember, don’t be a stingy Irish dance teacher…you may get your five dollars, but you’ll lose a client. [LF]
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