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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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
We all have down days as creative’s, when whatever we draw just doesn’t turn out how we envisage in our heads. We screw up countless balls of paper to add it to the emerging mountain of sketchbook remains behind us and we just feel our art isn’t good enough. Now believe it or not despite the fact that feeling despondent with our art is a natural thing that every creative goes through from time to time. It can be used to push us into being more brave and exploring new avenues we hadn’t before. It’s when we produce creative work with a closed mind that things can become to narrowed down and you’re just not sure what to do to make art you’re confident in.
So here’d a few ways to boost that creative confidence, regain that part of yourself that knows you’re good enough and how to present that artwork with pride!
Draw things you get excited to draw : Although creative trends do help in our industry to produce work of interest to different markets, it can over time wear you down drawing things that don’t inspire you. This is why drawing things that make you smile, get your head reeling with ideas and heart filled with enthusiasm that you will be more happy with what you draw. You’ll be less likely to second guess yourself and people will connect with your joy and enthusiasm for the art you make.
Think outside the box : Taking a little inspiration from people around you can really refuel your creative energy and give you a boost to take your art in a new direction. For example you might take inspiration from a creative whose just launched a new project and think ” Wow if I tweaked this with my artwork in my own way then maybe the outcome would be better”. This is can also be used when you’re looking to expand your creative reach or acquire that dream client. Don’t copy others but take a little inspiration and make it your own.
Illustration featured in this post was created by illustrator Jessica Richardson, you can find out more about her work here.
Writing a book isn’t easy. I think we can all agree on that. So the realization that you might need to cut chunks — not just little pieces, like I talked about here, but big things — can hurt. I mean, after writing all those words, it can feel like a big waste to cut them!
Here are some reasons to go for it, though:
1. It’ll make the book stronger.
If you’ve already decided that a certain subplot isn’t necessary, or a scene isn’t doing enough work to deserve to stick around, or a conversation has too much blah blah and not enough interesting stuff, then you already know the story will be stronger and better paced without it. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
2. You’re not wasting words.
I know it can feel like that, but you’re not. Sometimes you need to write something just so you know what you don’t need in the story. Or, in my case recently, I needed to see several parts of my characters’ history, but aside from a few important moments, it wasn’t big or interesting or important enough to deserve to stay on the page. I needed to get that part of the story out of my system so could know, but that was iceberg stuff — and not the tip that shows.
As for how to make the cuts?
1. Identify what you need to keep.
Be extremely honest. If there isn’t anything that needs to stay, just highlight and cut the whole thing. (I assume you have a different draft saved somewhere else that has all this stuff. Or, if you’re using Scrivener, you’ve taken a Snapshot and have plenty of backups.)
You probably already know what needs to stay, but some general advice:
a) Can the reader understand the story without this part? If not, keep it! b) Does it move the story forward and reveal something (motivations/worldbuilding/theme) in a new way? If so, keep it!
In my case, I was cutting a bunch of flashback scenes down to the most important moments. Down from over a thousand (or two thousand!) words to under five hundred. I looked for the meatiest bits. The big, pivotal moments. The one, most important thing I needed to share with the reader.
2. Make the cut.
Yeah. It’s a big step. It gets its own number.
3. Smooth out the edges.
Chances are you chopped up some transitions and messed with your pacing when you snipped out a huge chunk of text, so go through and fix them. Take a careful look at the beginning and end of the cuts for transitions. Read the whole thing through and see how it sounds. Is it too fast now? Maybe add a beat or two to make it feel more natural. (But not too many! You cut for a reason, after all!)
Don’t be shy about going through it a few times! You’ll probably find more and more places to smooth out. It’s a delicate process, so take your time.
4. Eat a cookie.
What? You worked hard. You deserve a reward.
What do you guys think? Any tips I missed? What other advice would you give to someone who’s looking at cutting a huge chunk of their beloved book?
If you’ve ever visited the DEPARTURES area of the airport, you probably know that it is not exactly an oasis of tranquility. There are cars trying to park; cars trying to double park, cars trying to squeeze out of where they’ve double-parked, orange cones, orange vests, whistles, and general chaos.
I was being dropped off at Burbank Bob Hope Airport by my mom and dad, 74 and 80 respectively, and wanted to debark as efficiently as possible so they could be on their way. Adjusting my new felt hat, I strapped my laptop bag across my chest, hauled out my suitcase, and hugged my parents a quick goodbye.
Approaching the Southwest counter, I reached for my purse.
And felt air.
My stomach dropped to my knees. I had made a big mistake. I left my purse in my parents’ car.
Stacey’s troublesome vessel of all things crucial, circa 2004, Anthropologie.
Frantically, I searched my laptop bag, hoping I had jammed it in without realizing. But, no. My purse was in the carpool lane of the Five freeway, headed down to the OC. How the heck was I getting on a plane without my ID?
I couldn’t make a phone call, as I didn’t have a cell phone. I couldn’t even use a pay phone, as I had no money. (And btw, the sudden absence of money tends to amplify one’s hunger pains).
I could ask someone to loan me change, but would they think I was a panhandler? And my hat, which I thought was stylish, suddenly cast a shadow of suspicion upon me. Suspicious people always wear hats.
I might have started to hyperventilate. My flight was leaving in an hour.
A petite Japanese security guard asked if everything was alright.
“I left my purse in my parents’ car!” I blubbered.
She tsked her tongue, but then fished out a dollar’s worth in coins so I could use a payphone. After profusely thanking her, I dropped two quarters into the first phone. A metallic crunching and gargling followed, which I believe was the sound of the phone eating my change.
Trying not to panic, I moved onto the next phone. This time, the call went through.
But no one picked up. Remember how I mentioned the age of my parents? Well, with old age comes certain …realities, such as, hearing loss. Mom’s voicemail answered, but that didn’t help me because even if she heard the ding of voicemail, she doesn’t know how to check it (another age-related reality). I tried calling my husband collect, like, a billion times. But it turns out, since his company pays for his cell phone, its collect call feature is disabled.
I explained my situation to Southwest. I must have looked honest, as they issued me the ticket, with the caution that security still might refuse me. Shame-faced, I stepped to the security counter and tried to explain why I wasn’t carrying my ID.
He frowned, and I grew smaller. “Where do you work?”
“At home. I mean, I’m self-employed.”
Another frown, another inch shorter. “Occupation?”
Another frown, this one with an upward flick of his pupils that says, isn’t everyone?
If only I had one of my books on me. I could show him my author picture.
Then it occurred to me, I could show him my author website.
After perusing the site, then conducting a thorough search of myself and my luggage, security finally did let me through.
Stephanie: When Stacey first told me this story, I felt horrible. But since I’m a teacher, I also thought this would make an awesome writing lesson.
The thing I loved about this story (from a writing perspective, because obviously I felt terrible that my friend went through so much stress) was that everything that could go wrong did go wrong. As Stacey said, everyone knows you can’t get on a plane without an ID. And this situation was so much worse because on top of not having her ID:
The hat of suspicion and lawlessness.
Stacey did not have her phone.
The only people who could help her (Stacey’s parents) were impaired, and therefore unable to come to her rescue.
She was hungry.
Her husband wasn’t answering the phone.
On top of not having an ID, she was also wearing a hat, which made her highly suspicious to airport personnel.
And the clock was rapidly ticking. Stacey only had one hour.
Now, imagine you’re writing a character and you’ve put them in this same situation. It could be really tempting to have another character (maybe the husband) make a miraculous appearance and save the day. Perhaps this husband calls in a favor with the head of security. And not only does your character get onto the plane, but they are upgraded to first class and handed a glass of champagne.
Unfortunately that did not happen to Stacey. But I believe what happened was even better. Stacey used her smarts to save herself, by directing the security to her author website, where her photo was able to confirm her identity.
Now if Stacey were a character, not only would readers think, wow this woman is smart! They would also know a little more about her character, because not only did this action save the day, it revealed more about her background, mainly, her profession.
People are always saying, put your characters in the worst situations possible, but then, too often, characters don’t use their intelligence to get out of those miserable scenarios. Because of this, writers often miss great opportunities to deepen their characters, and make their stories richer.
Think about whatever story you’re working on. Are there any scenes where you can pile on more conflicts? Are there scenes where you can show off your character’s strengths, instead of having someone else save the day?
Also, if any of you have stories similar to Stacey’s, we’d love to hear them:
That means you’re writing one query that you’ll be sending, tweaking as necessary, to multiple publications at the same time.
If you already have your query written, then it’s no skin off your nose to send it to one more magazine. It will take you only a few extra minutes to research the editor’s contact information and tweak the query as needed. If it ends up the pub doesn’t use freelancers, or doesn’t have the space for your idea, or doesn’t pay, then you’ve only wasted a few minutes — and your query is still under consideration by a group of other editors.
No problem, right?
And get this: If your idea is even a somewhat close match for the magazine (which it is, right?), you’re probably ahead of 90% of the pitches they get. I once heard a Family Circle editor tell writers that they shouldn’t pitch her articles on the sex life of frogs. She said that because people do it.
Let the editor say Yes.
You need to research a magazine only enough that you can be reasonably sure your idea will fit in it.
What you don’t need to do is spend hours poring over back issues and guidelines trying to figure out why your idea won’t work. Why spend all that time and effort thinking of reasons not to send a query?
Instead, give the editor a say. Editors are smart. They know a lot more than you do about their magazine and their audience.
And only the editor can know if, say, he’s about to start a new department where your pitch would fit perfectly, or he was just wishing he had an article on X (with X being your idea), or one of his freelancers just flaked and he needs another good writer pronto.
Or maybe your pitch will be so wonderful that the editor will make an exception for you. Carol Tice and I had one student in our recent Pitch Clinic class who sent a Letter of Introduction to a business she wanted to blog for. Here’s part of the response she got.
Ordinarily we do not accept guest posts, as they are almost always short and shallow. We receive numerous requests daily, but only post two or three per year. However, your email is better than most and touches on a few points that interest me.
We pay our writers and they work on assignment. Our top writer is off on baby leave so I’m looking for a backup. A few candidates are in the wings, but I’d like to try an article from you, if our terms are suitable to you.
This can only happen to you if you go ahead and pitch.
You don’t necessarily want to sell your idea.
Guess what? The goal of a pitch is not necessarily to get an assignment.
Well, of COURSE you would like to get an assignment. But what often happens is that your query or LOI doesn’t quite make the cut — say, the publication already has a similar article in the works — but the editor is so impressed by your pitch that she invites you to pitch again, or even assigns you a different article.
The goal of a pitch is to start building a relationship with a client.
If you hold off on pitching because you’re not fully, absolutely, 100% sure your ideas are a good match, then you’re missing out on the opportunity to start a conversation with an editor who may want to hire you down the road.
Your pitch shows what you can do. It shows you have great ideas, can write well, and are professional. Even if it’s not a perfect match, it can lead to assignments.
So the next time you find yourself spending hours researching magazines looking for excuses cut yourself out of the running, stop.
A couple weeks ago I sent an email to my Renegade Writer subscribers letting them know I’m thinking about offering a four-week Pitch Challenge where writers would need to send out eight unique queries in four weeks to be eligible for prizes. And I mentioned I was thinking of a price of $150.
A very nice writer emailed me a very valid question:
“If you’re only entering names into a database, why are you charging $150?”
This question is important because it reflects why so many writers are getting paid less than they’re worth.
More Than Components
My husband works in the boardgame industry, and you’ll sometimes see avid boardgamers on forums posting things like, “Why does this game cost $50? I went to the Chinese component manufacturer’s website and priced out all the pieces, and the components are worth only $11.”
I always want to offer to send them a game for $11, and then mail them a blank box filled with blank components.
What are you really buying when you buy a game? Beyond the bare components, you’re purchasing enjoyment. Fun. Excitement. The ability to impress your buddies on game night. Not to mention everything that goes into creating and delivering a game you would want to play, from the idea to the artwork to the distribution.
When you buy a book, are you just paying for the paper and the ink that goes into printing it? Judging by the people who complain about the prices of e-books because “They’re cheaper to produce than print books,” you may think that. But if that were the case, you could just get book with a blank cover and the word “and” printed in it a few thousand times.
But in fact, you’re buying the author’s ideas and skills and hard work. The cover art that enticed you to pick up the book. The agent that brought the book to the attention of the publisher. The marketing that let you know about the book in the first place. The infrastructure that hosts and delivers the book, such as the bookstore or website. And most important, the main value you’re paying for is adventure, excitement, action, inspiration, knowledge, romance.
In the same way, what are you really buying when you buy a class like the Pitch Challenge I’m considering doing? Are you buying the minutes the instructor spends entering pitches into a database? No…you’re buying the entire infrastructure that makes this class exist. But more importantly, you’re buying confidence. New skills. The ability to earn more.
Carol Tice and I recently ran a pitch challenge as part of our Pitch Clinic class. Of the 36 people who completed the challenge, around 20 received assignments from publications and businesses within those four weeks. A couple of these assignments paid over $1,000. A few writers landed multiple assignments. Two were offered full-time writing jobs (which they turned down). And one writer started with nothing, and 6 weeks later is earning $2,000 per week.
What do you think that was worth to them, to get the skills and confidence, the motivation, the accountability, to pitch like crazy and get work? To start new careers as writers?
Behind the Curtain
I think entrepreneurs (yes, that’s what you are!) who are new to running a business have a skewed idea of what it takes to create something people want. That’s why they underprice themselves — they think, “What does it cost me to write 500 words? Just a few keystrokes and an hour of my time.”
But there’s so much more that goes into creating something other people want to buy — and that will help, entertain, or inform them.
The last e-book I wrote cost hundreds in cover design, layout, professional editing, business coaching (to get advice on marketing the book) and more.
The last class I built with Carol Tice over at UsefulWritingCourses.com cost us $24,000 to create, market, and put on. No, there is not an extra zero there. (And that does not even count the cost of our time and skills in creating the actual course materials — webinars, handouts, recordings, and so on!)
We have a team of four freelancers who create our logos, banners, and web design; do our coding; handle IT; and man the helpdesk to field students’ technical problems. We had to build and design a sales page, course modules, forums. We hired editors to critique students’ assignments in the forums (and paid them a rate that would entice them to work with us!). Class recordings needed to be transcribed. We gave free webinars, which required building special sales pages to capture email addresses where we could send the webinar details.
It took months for a team of six people (including Carol and me) to build that class. And it was freaking expensive.
Do you wonder why we charged $500 for that class?
The same thing happens when you write something for a client. You may not have need employees or web design to write an article or a blog post, but there are indeed costs that need to be accounted for in your pricing. More on that below…
What is a Word Worth?
If you’re writing for a magazine that pays $1 per word, does that mean the word “the” is worth one dollar?
No. Clients aren’t paying for words, otherwise you could just write the word “the” one thousand times and collect a thousand bucks.
First, your payment compensates you for the things that cost you money that are required to run your business:
Your education (J school, writing classes, writing books, writing magazines, an English degree — or even the School of Life, if that’s where you got your education)
Your overhead (The fixed costs of doing business: Your rent, heat, health insurance, self employment taxes, etc.)
And even more important, your client is paying you for these intangibles:
Your skills and creativity
The value your words bring to their publication in terms of attracting readers and advertisers
The actual profit you help bring into the company
The loyalty your words help create in the company’s customers/readers
Your ability to generate great ideas that help them profit
So: If you write a 500-word sales page for a client’s website and it brings them $500,000 in sales, what are those words worth? Would it be fair for you to charge $5,000 — just one percent of the value you create? I think so. What if your sales page brings them 100 new loyal customers who in turn each bring your client a handful of new customers through word of mouth? Or what if your writing helps the client win an award that garners them great PR?
(And for myself, I can say: If you put on a class the helps people get new careers they love, gain confidence and ability, and earn lots of money, should you feel bad charging a premium?)
When you feel guilty charging a high rate because it’s “only words” or “only minutes,” you’re shortchanging yourself.
Pricing your services can feel very fuzzy, because you can’t put a price on a lot of these things you bring your clients: New customers. Confidence. Skills. New careers. Good PR. Awards. Happy-fuzzy feelings.
So all you can do is go with your heart. I read an excerpt of the book Unveiling the Heart of Your Business by Mark Silver — the excerpt was on heart-centered pricing and you can find it free here — and it really resonated with me, because it’s how I’ve always set my prices. I know the range of what’s being changed out there, and I choose my place in that range based on what feels right in my gut.
You know, in your heart, the value you offer your clients. You know, in your brain, how much it costs you, financially, to offer that value. Let those insights direct how much you charge, or your minimum rate for taking on an assignment — and don’t feel bad about it for even a second.
Years ago, when I was in competitive dance, my instructor often told the group we should practice like we meant to perform. Which meant that from the very beginning of putting together a new routine — learning new steps and memorizing choreography — we had to smile (or make whatever facial expressions were appropriate for that style of dance). We had to dance “full out,” including jumps and turns, and other things that we could have “marked” that early in the process. In the months and weeks leading up to performances, we put on a show every time. We gave it our best even when we’d done the whole dance twenty times that day and had twenty more to go.
The idea was that we’d get so used to doing the dance correctly every time, right down to replacing expressions of concentration with whatever was appropriate for that style of dance, we’d unconsciously do the same during the performance.
We practiced like we meant to perform.
Writing is not a performance art (as author Elizabeth Bear says). And thank goodness for that. But writing as if someone’s going to read this draft still benefits me. Here are some things I like to keep in mind, even as I’m writing my first draft:
1. I have a plan before I go in.
This doesn’t mean The Plan can’t change. It usually does. But The Plan gives me an idea of what the whole thing should look like — what moods and feelings I want to convey to the reader. When The Plan has to change, I don’t just adjust that one spot. I go through everything I have and figure out how the one change affects the rest. I revise The Plan accordingly.
2. I research as I go.
For big things I know about ahead of time, I research during The Plan stages. (Sometimes research will change The Plan if what I originally thought I’d do doesn’t actually work like I thought it should.) But you know those sentences where you realize you don’t actually know what grows in that climate, or when the harvest is, or . . . how the whole situation works? And it’s really just one line, so maybe it’s not that big a deal. . . .
I research it right then. It’s one of those details that will make the world feel more real. More believable. And I do it then so I don’t have to do it later. You know, after I’ve forgotten that I wanted to research something. I don’t want to risk leaving in a lazy line. (Sometimes I really do need to move on, so I leave myself a comment on that detail.)
3. I keep a critical eye on my first drafts as I write them — and I fix things.
Some days, it’s important to just write through and not look back. It can be easy to get caught up in a revision loop, never moving forward. Fixing as you go may not work for people prone to the revision loop. I’m not one of them, though. At least when it comes to the first draft. I like to push forward and see that wordcount rise.
So when I notice that the last few paragraphs I wrote feel emotionally thin, I go back. I layer in the emotion right away. This is useful for me because it puts me back in touch with my character, but it also makes that first draft better. Same with choosing the right word, making sure the motivation is clear, grammar and punctuation issues — whatever. And the more aware of any particular problem I become, the more able I am to spot it sooner.
That sort of awareness eventually becomes second nature. I don’t have to think as much about going back to cut weasel words because I didn’t write them in the first place.
Yes, this does slow down my first-draft process. Gone are the years when I could write 7,000 words a day without breaking a sweat. Now I’m more unconsciously critical of my own work, even before it hits the page, but my first drafts are stronger. Getting those things right the first time — and continuing to make them better with every revision — makes my final manuscript that much better.
Note that I still said revision. I don’t expect to have a perfect first draft. (If only!!!) The first draft is only a foundation to build the real thing off, but if I have that first draft in good shape, I can focus on more interesting story issues. I work on spotting higher-level issues that I didn’t notice in the first draft. That way, when I start my next book, I can keep those things in mind, too, and fix them as I see them. They, too, can become things I unconsciously fix before they’re ever a problem.
All that said, there is no wrong way to write. Everyone writes differently, and this is simply what works for me — writing like someone’s going to read that draft. (And someone usually does. I have a friend who likes to read my stories as they drip out of my head. She’s brave. Crazy, but brave.)
What about you guys? Do you watch your first draft, like I do? Or do you power forward and do the real heavy lifting in the revision? What works best for you?
In I Know How She Does It, Laura interviewed and analyzed the time logs of over 140 women who have kids and earn at least 6 figures — women many consider as “having it all” — to offer advice on how we can fit a full, fun, busy life with work and kids into 168 hours per week. This is especially relevant to aspiring freelance writers who may have kids and a day job, and who are having trouble fitting writing and business-building in among all their other obligations.
By the way, if you’d like to keep your own time log, you can sign up for one free here.
Can you talk a bit about how you view the hours in our lives as a mosaic?
Laura: Many people look at their time log and just see these cells on a grid. I said, well, let’s change that. Let’s view it as a mosaic — and you are the artist, you are the mosaic maker, designing what your hours are going to look like and moving things around to
I think this mosaic image is also profound because we have a tendency to tell our lives in stories and to construct memories as stories — and probably your Renegade Writer readers do that, especially because we are storytellers. And the format of a story tends to be: Here are three points of evidence that lead us to an epiphany that we must make some change.
With life it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking: These stressful things happened — I had this horrible day at work, this bad night of sleep, this issue with my kid. Therefore, life is crazy and unsustainable and I must change.
But what if you view life more as a mosaic and say, well, we had those three stressful moments, but we had all these other moments too? Those moments count as well. We can choose to see those three stressful moments as this evidence leading toward our epiphany or we can say, well, life is stressful AND life is wonderful. There really is no contradiction here. We don’t have to construct a story out of it. We can simply view of the whole mosaic for what it is. So that’s why I like that image.
Can we talk about the 24-hour trap and how writers can avoid it?
Laura: The 24-hour trap is that we have a tendency to think that things need to happen daily in order to count in our lives.
Obviously, it is good to have daily habits — and when we want to add something into our lives, we first ask ourselves, where can I put this into my life every day? The problem is that if you have a busy life, often you can’t put something in at the same time every day — but that does not mean it can’t happen.
I see this especially with things like exercise. Many people will say, “Laura, I’d love to exercise, but I am just not the kind of person who can leave for an hour at lunch every day” or “I want to get home and see my kids so I can’t go to the gym after work every day” or “I recognize mornings might be a great time to exercise, but I just can’t stomach the thought of setting my alarm for 5:30 every day.”
And it’s like, “Okay, well, don’t set your alarm for 5:30 every day.” Here’s an idea: Maybe one day a week you could get up half an hour early and do something; maybe one night a week you and your partner trade off who has the kids and you can go exercise during that time; maybe you do something on weekend mornings before the family has gotten up; and maybe you run around the track by your kid’s soccer game on Sunday. Then you’ve already fit in four exercise stints per week.
That was not daily, but four times a week is pretty good.
I think the 24 hour trap keeps us from seeing the whole picture. If you look at the whole 168 hours of the week, often things will fit. You can’t hold to everything fitting into 24 hours.
And I think writers especially fall into that trap because they think, “I need a special writing time every single day.” But even if you got it in three times a week, that’s better than nothing.
Laura: Yeah, and the problem especially is when people don’t do it because they can’t do it daily. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Sometimes it’s really easy to hold onto these stories we tell ourselves, like “I have a full-time job and a family, and therefore I can’t write.” Instead you could say, “Okay, I can’t write for three hours daily, but I could wake up early twice during the week and do it then, or I could stop watching one television show and just get something down on paper, and maybe I’ll be so inspired by what I’m doing that I’ll keep going.”
We have a tendency not to try those things because then we have to actually confront what we are doing and what we are not, and we have to look at our output and judge it — and often it is just easier not to do it and tell ourselves the story that it is impossible.
I notice that you often recommend outsourcing so that you have more time to do the things that are more important to you — but how can writers do this, especially if they are new and aren’t making a lot of money, and they can’t afford to hire much help? Do you have any tips for them? Maybe they need to just relax their standards?
Laura: Yes. When you don’t think something is the best use of your time, you have three options: You can ignore it, you can minimize it, or you can outsource it.
And obviously the outsourcing part costs money, but it does not cost anything to lower your standards — so that is a first line of offense if you are trying to make more time in your life.
I was just reading a comment on somebody else’s blog from this woman who was all excited about how she would get the kids into bed at night, and then do three hours of housework. I think she wanted everyone to think about how diligent she was or some such. I don’t know what point she was trying to make, but my first thought was “Why on earth are you doing that? Why does it require three hours at night to do all this? If you really feel the need to clean, set a timer for half an hour and then be done with it — and if it did not happen, it did not happen.”
So that’s certainly an option for people: Just let it go. Borrow that theme song from Frozen and let it go. It really does not matter. You will never get that time back, so use it first for the things that are important to you and let other things fill in around the edges.
There are a lot of writers who think, “I have kids at home, so I can do freelance writing from home and it will all work out.” And then they realize it does not work out because the kid isn’t napping on their schedule, or they need things while you’re on an interview. So I was wondering what are some of the creative ways that women you interviewed handle childcare.
Laura: Well, this is the thing: There are very few good ways to meet the needs of a client and a baby simultaneously. And, yes, there is inevitably the day you have a phone call with your biggest client at 1:30 p.m. that your child who naps religiously at 1:00 p.m. elects not to.
The only real way around this is to have childcare when you need it. When you’re doing something that you cannot do with kids’ noise or kids’ distractions, then you need somebody else to be responsible so you can focus on your work.
And there are many ways you can pull that off that might not be as expensive as hiring full-time childcare. For example, you can be efficient about pushing phone calls into a certain set of hours per day and have childcare for those hours, and then maybe do some more of the writing work after the kids go to bed. Or you could do the writing work when your partner can be with the kids, for instance, if you have a partner.
That’s a way you could pull it off without needing to pay for 40 hours of childcare. But it is very difficult to work without childcare. I had one woman in my study who was managing to run a small business without much childcare. But the way she was trading that off was by sleeping less, and it seemed to work for her because she did not need much sleep. But if you are not the kind of person who can function on six hours of sleep, and most of us aren’t, then you’re going to have to come up with something else.
A lot of writers think they are at the mercy of the client’s schedule. But what I realized is that if you actually tell people when you are available and suggest times, you can get them all into the one block of time where you have childcare.
Laura: Yes. Be very strategic about that and plan to have a few hours where you really attempt to push calls. I try to save mornings for writing and then do phone calls in either the late morning or the afternoon when I’m ready to interact with the world. You can express preferences. Sometimes you’re interviewing an A-list celebrity, and you’re going to have to do it when she needs to do it. But in other cases, people may have a bit more flexibility.
And people are actually happy for you to suggest a time. “Are you available at 10:00 or 10:30? If not, let me know.” They like not having to think about all the options.
Laura: Yes, it is actually not that helpful to send an e-mail to someone saying, “Can we do an interview in the next week?” Because then they’re looking at their whole schedule, and inevitably the first thing they suggest is not going to work for you. So it helps to just throw a few free times out there. If none of those work, then you can go from there, but the odds of at least one of those three working are decent.
You’re a successful writer — what are some of the things you think new freelance writers can drop to make time for what’s important? What are they doing that makes them feel productive that they don’t really need to be doing?
Laura: Well, the way I approach this question is that it’s not so much about dropping things. It’s about making sure that you first put in time in your life for the things that you need to be doing.
If you’re building a business there are certain things that are important for you to do. You need to have some of your work out there, so building your web site with examples of your work is a top priority. You need to be reaching out to potential clients. That is a top priority. You have actual assignments you need to get done. Those are top priorities.
Do those things first and then this magical thing happens where the other stuff that you don’t actually need to be doing starts taking less time. For example, generally people spend more time in their inboxes than they need to because they’re checking it too frequently, and they’re just working from the top down. Whatever happens to be on the top of your inbox is not necessarily your top work priority, so probably it does not need to be the first thing you tackle when you start approaching work.
But the beautiful thing about filling your time first with the things that you need to be doing is that then you figure out for yourself the other things that can give, and they will naturally give because there are only 24 hours in a day — so try that first.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned about balancing work, family, and everything else when you were analyzing these women’s time logs?
Laura: I think one of the best approaches — and I’m not saying this is done consciously, I think it was more just because these people had fuller lives — is that they did not watch as much TV as the average American.
It’s not that people didn’t watch any TV. There was certainly a reasonable amount of TV on logs, but the average per week was about 4.4 hours — if you think about it that’s like watching a handful of sitcoms and two or three longer shows, so it’s really not nothing. Four and a half hours a week is more than a half hour a day, so TV can be in your life — but it’s not 20 hours a week, it’s not 30 hours a week, which are some numbers that have come out of surveys of American life.
So I think that is an instructive difference because the women in my study were working longer hours than the average American works. They were spending time with their families, they were exercising for the most part, they were getting enough sleep. What had to give? Well, it was not really anything of that much importance. That, in and of itself, is a great way to balance your life in the sense of actually making time for things that matter.
You don’t have to cut TV out of your life, but make sure that you’re watching the shows that matter the most to you, the ones that really get you excited, that you’re taping, that you want to talk about with your friends. That’s great, it’s a fun thing to do, it’s a great way to blow off steam — but don’t just turn it on and leave it on. Don’t automatically turn the TV on after the kids go to bed and see what’s on. If you and your partner want to hang out, there are other things you can do than sit on the couch watching TV. There are other things that are much more exciting, for instance, than sitting on the couch watching TV that you can do together, so don’t automatically think TV first.
What’s the one piece of advice you picked up from your research that you think would resonate most with freelance writers who have kids and possibly a day job?
Laura: Daily rituals are great. There has been a lot written lately about the daily rituals of artists and how they make time to write or do whatever they do.
And again, that’s great if it works, but it doesn’t always work — and so what you need to do is look at your whole calendar and say, “Here are some blocks I have for writing. I am going to make sure those work one way or the other. If it’s asking my partner to take the kids for a certain amount of time. If it’s choosing to come into work half an hour late because I have that flexibility. If it’s that I just go sit in your car with my laptop during lunch once a week and write during that time.”
Do whatever it takes, but make sure that those blocks are in there — look at the whole of the week because probably you will be able to find the time.
The numbers I use for people is if you are working 40 hours a week and you’re sleeping eight hours a night for 56 hours a week, that leaves 72 hours for other things. 72 hours is a lot of time. You definitely have time to hang out with your family, to exercise, and to maybe spend 15 hours a week launching your business.
P.S. The Freelance Writers Den is opening its doors to members of the waitlist tomorrow (Thursday, June 11, 2015) ONLY. Carol Tice opens the Den only a few times per year, so if you want to take advantage of the goodies, now’s the time! Interested? Here’s where you can join the waitlist.
Should I write this article even though I don’t know what the payment is?
The editor said she was going to assign this idea, and two weeks later I still haven’t heard back about an assignment. Should I ding her?
Will I be a pest if I nag the editor about a payment that’s 30 days past due?
The magazine wants me to write a 1,500-word feature that will require six interviews, tons of research, and photos — but they can only pay $75. I’m afraid if I say no I won’t get any work at all. What should I do?
Should I ask for a First North American Serial Rights contract instead of All Rights? I’m scared!
Freelance writers are always posting to forums and email lists with questions like these. And I find a good way to answer many of them is with this acronym: WWYED?
What Would Your Editor Do?
(You know, kind of like WWJD, except Jesus probably never negotiated terms with a magazine editor.)
For example, if you’re asking “Should I go ahead and write this article because the deadline is looming near, even though I don’t know yet what the payment is?” — would your editor work even a single day at her job without knowing what she would be getting paid?
If you want to know, “Will I be a pest if I nag the editor about a payment that’s 30 days past due?” — what do you think your editor would do if his paycheck were even one day late, much less a whole month?
You’re worried about asking for a FNASR contract? Well, your editor wasn’t afraid to ask YOU to give up all your rights, in all media, in perpetuity, for 25 cents a word.
You’re offered an assignment for a heavily-researched and interviewed feature, including photos — a week’s worth of work — for $75. Would your editor work for $75 per week?
You don’t want to be a nag, but the editor told you two weeks ago she was going to assign you this idea, and it’s been radio silence since then. What would the editor do if her boss were interested in an idea of hers and then forgot all about it?
You Are Not a Supplicant
It’s appalling the way writers are treated sometimes, but even more appalling is the way writers often let themselves be treated.
You are not a supplicant. You are providing a valuable service — the very writing people pick up a publication to read! The ideas that give magazines their enticing coverlines! The research that brings credibility to a publication!
Writers assume that because they’re doing work that many perceive as fun, or passion work, they don’t deserve good pay or good treatment. So they’re afraid to ask to be treated with respect.
But as much fun as you may be having as a writer, the publication is profiting from your work. The fact that writing an article is fun doesn’t discount the fact that it brings in clicks (for which the publication is being paid) or readers (who advertisers pay to reach).
Writing is a business. No matter how fun it is, no matter how passionate you are about writing, it is a business. You are an entrepreneur. A business owner.
You’re in a business just like your editor is. So if you’re ever wondering whether you should stand up to shoddy treatment or push for what you need, just as yourself:
P.S. The next Write for Magazines e-course starts on Monday, June 8! Want to join the class that’s helped writers break into magazines like Woman’s Day, Writer’s Digest, and E: The Environmental Magazine? Here’s where you can check it out.
(This post is based on yesterday’s Monday Motivations for Writers email. If you’d like more goodies like this in your inbox, plus two free e-books, please join the Renegade Writer mailing list!)
Carol Tice and I surveyed more than 500 content mill writers and presented the findings in a webinar last week. One of the most stunning stats was that 40% of content mill writers earn from $1-$5 per hour.
Maybe another 40% earned somewhere between $6 and $20 per hour, and I could almost hear some writers on the call thinking, “Hey, $15 per hour writing isn’t so bad! That’s how much I make at my day job.”
But here’s the thing: At your day job, you get paid for ALL the hours you work — even those hours where you’re reading Gawker and checking Facebook. As a freelance writer, you get paid only those hours you can bill for — and believe me, far from all hours are billable.
As a freelancer, you’re also paying for your own expenses and health insurance, and your taxes are higher. (Normally your employer pays a 7.5% employment tax rate and you pay 7.5% — but as a business owner, YOU pay the entire 15%. Bummer, I know.)
Renegade Reader Ivonne Cueva let me know about an hourly rate calculator that will help you determine what you SHOULD be charging to reach your target income (Thanks, Ivonne!):
You just enter your current income and how much you’d like to increase that by, your expenses, and an estimate of how many work days and billable hours you’ll have in a year. Then click “Calculate My Hourly Rate” and voila! — that’s how much you need to be earning/charging per hour.
For example, I entered in $10,000 as the current annual earnings (which is probably actually TOO high for content mill writing) and then keyed in that I want to increase my income to $50,000 per year. I very roughly estimated some expenses and figured the writer would be working 4 days per week, 8 hours per day, with 50% of those hours being billable.
(Keep in mind this is an educated guess for an average writer…you may have more billable hours, or less…you may have more hours to work during the week, or less.)
Annnnnnd: To make this work, a writer would need to earn $133.53 per billable hour.
Now, that’s not impossible — it’s the amount a good copywriter can make. And when I write, I typically earn $250 per hour because I’ve been writing so long that I can create a great article, web page, etc. pretty quickly. So, definitely doable.
And this shows that even earning $20 per hour at a content mill — about 7% of content mill writers earn $16-$20 per hour — well, it sounds good but it really isn’t.
Check out this online calculator (it’s free) and see the hourly rate you would need to bill to earn your target income as a writer. It’s eye-opening, AND it will motivate you to seek out better-paying work.
The Renegade Writer
P.S. Join us for the beta session of our new e-course Escape the Content Mills, which starts on Wednesday! We’re charging only $29 because we’re looking for YOUR feedback to make the course amazing. (And once we get your input, we’ll redo the course incorporating your questions and comments, and send you a copy of the completed materials.) Next session, the price will go up to $49, so you get a hefty 40% discount if you sign up now. http://usefulwritingcourses.com/courses/escape-the-content-mills/
P.P.S. Even if you don’t want to join us for Escape the Content Mills, visit that class page to get a free copy of our case study report “Escape the Content Mills: 6 Writers’ True Stories of Breaking Out and Earning More.”
Right now, I’m in the planning stages for a new series. I’ve barely started writing — just enough to get a good feel for the voice — and I’m making lists and lists of things I know I want to include. It’s a weird part of the process. There’s not a lot to say, “Okay, I did this today.” Ideas come randomly, and there’s not much to show for it besides a lot of daydreaming. Here’s how I’m trying to harness it all. (And make myself feel better about all that daydreaming time.)
1. A notebook.
I picked out a pretty notebook for this story. a) Pretty notebooks make me happy. b) It’s proven very useful for jotting down random ideas. (You know, those ideas you think, “There’s no way I’ll forget this!” and then immediately forget them. Know thyself. Write down those ideas.)
To be honest, getting a notebook for this story started out as an excuse to buy a notebook. But while traveling last month, I stuck the notebook in my purse — then found myself reaching for it when I experienced something that might fit with the book. I wrote down things I saw, heard, felt — and wrote lists of questions for myself. Almost out of nowhere, I wrote descriptions of fictional places I’d previously had no thoughts on.
I’ve been making note of title ideas, figuring out the story structure across the series, and stories about the world’s history. Every story-related thought that occurs to me ends up in this notebook. Unless I have my computer with me, and . . .
I know it isn’t for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. I vaguely remember how I wrote before Scrivener, and let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.
One of the first things I do when I open a new Scrivener project is make a bunch of chapters, character sheets, and location sheets. They don’t need to be filled in right away. It’s just nice to have them. I also open a bunch of documents under the “research” section with things like the original idea for the story (whatever it was that intrigued me enough to write a whole novel/series about it!), any notes I’ve taken, broken down by subject, a query-style pitch, and a synopsis.
It just makes me feel good to have all those things there, ready to be filled in when I know what needs to go there.
For this particular project, since the structure is a little different than I typically write, I pulled out the index card function and used the labels to help me keep track of point of view and timeline. (So some say “so and so’s past” while others say “present.”) And because it was difficult for me to wrap my brain around writing a synopsis for such a weird timeline, I began filling in the index cards with a chapter’s worth of story each. It may not stay that way in the end (few things do make it until the final draft), but it really helped me settle on how the various stories would work and overlap and influence each other.
This one has been difficult for me. I get excited about projects and want to dive right in, but I’ve been forced to take this one a little more slowly. (Mostly because I haven’t had the opportunity for diving. Every time I vanquish a deadline, two more take its place.)
But taking my time with the planning stage of this project has also been incredibly useful. In my experience, the more I try to force story to happen, the less likely I am to be pleased with the results. I’ll forget details. Skip the sort of depth that I want to write about. Cause the characters to do uncharacteristic things.
Giving myself the space to dip in and out of the story — forgetting about any self-imposed deadlines — is letting me dig deeper. After all, the goal isn’t to win some imaginary race, but to write a book I’m proud of.
So, what do you think? Anything to add? Anything you do differently in this weird pre-writing stage? I want to hear it!
Here’s a phrase I hear from a lot of Internet/business/marketing guru-types:
“To be more productive, choose one hour per day where you’ll process your inbox.”
Or: “To process your inbox quickly, respond to every email in five sentences or less.”
These are very smart businesspeople, and many of them take pride in how accessible they are and how quickly they respond to emails — but the phrase “process your inbox” belies the truth of the situation: Many entrepreneurs think of emails as random widgets that pile up in their inbox that need to be removed as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Emails are a distraction from their “real” work.
But here’s the thing: Emails are not widgets. Emails are PEOPLE. Each email represents a real, live, breathing human who is trying to reach out to you.
If your business involves selling something to the public, then emails are not a distraction from your work — they are your work. Well, part of it, at least.
Sure, sometimes these people want something you don’t want to give, like a book’s worth of advice or to let them write a “totally original” post for your blog in exchange for a bio that mentions their Dubai dating service. At times, you get people who write you scathing emails because you dared to try to sell something. And sometimes you’re super busy and looking at the 500 emails in your inbox makes you want to cry. But you can’t deny that each email is in fact an actual person who needs you for something.
The New Rules of Email
I developed these rules to help writers and entrepreneurs remember the importance of their audience, while keeping them from becoming overwhelmed with all the people clamoring for their attention.
1. Emails Are People
Okay, we just talked about this: A full inbox is not a pile of detritus that needs to be shoveled out as quickly as possible. It’s a crowd of people who want to get in touch.
2. People Can Wait
Just because people can email you quickly doesn’t mean you have to respond quickly. You set your priorities for the day, and sometimes that means the people emailing you will have to wait.
A lot of emailers don’t consider that everyone has stuff in their life — but just like them, the people they’re emailing have a lot going on. For example, last week my husband was in Tokyo all week and my 6-year-old son had 3-hour ballet rehearsals almost every evening — and at the end of the week, we had a guest and then spent an entire Saturday at the theater for the two dance shows. And on top of that, Carol Tice and I are launching a new class, and we spent hours and hours last week working with our team on making the class a reality.
While I fully recognize that the emails in my inbox are people, do you think I responded to each person within minutes, or even hours last week? No — it was more like days, and is turning into weeks.
Hey, stuff happens. Your people understand that. If you’re feeling bad about delayed responses, you can always set an autoresponder letting your peeps know you’re underwater and will be slow in getting back to them. Or mention on your website’s Contact page that you can’t respond to every email, but here are some great resources that can answer your questions! (I’ve done both.)
3. Not Every Person Needs (or Deserves) a Response
You do need to recognize the fact that emails are people, but that doesn’t mean every person deserves a response. If you’re walking down the street and a gang of construction workers catcalls you — do you feel bad for giving them the side-eye as you walk on by?
If it’s clear that person is wasting your time — by, say, asking you to share their infographic that has nothing to do with your niche — or is just baiting you for a fight, then no response is needed.
For example, a member of my mailing list responded to my Monday Motivation for Writers email today with nothing but a single link. When I clicked on it, it took me to an Amazon page with all of his novels. Do ya think I responded to that?
Marketing emails and newsletters obviously don’t require a response, unless you really feel moved to say something.
And sometimes, a situation will resolve itself if you just wait. If it’s clear this is the case, then why respond?
4. If It’s Important, They’ll Come Back
As the News Editor at BoardGameGeek, my husband gets a ton of email. He’s had upwards of 1,300 emails in his inbox at one time. I keep trying to get him to simply delete all the emails that he is obviously never going to be able to get to.
Here’s why: If it’s important and absolutely requires a response or an action on his part, the people will follow up.
No one wants to declare email bankruptcy, but sometimes that’s the kindest thing you can do. Yes, emails represent people, but if it becomes clear you’ll never have the time to respond to everyone, you’re only stressing yourself out and creating a guilt complex every time you open your inbox.
When it gets to this point, delete them all, and you’ll discover that many of these people didn’t need you after all.
An Attitude Adjustment
This may seem like just semantics — what does it matter if you look at your emails as annoyances that need to be dealt with, or as people who are looking to connect with you?
I think the way you think about your emails says a lot about the kind of businessperson you are. Do you care about your audience, or are you just looking to make a quick sale?
Or maybe you’re just misguided and feel like everyone needs and deserves a quick response, and the only way to do that is to “process” your inbox. That says a lot about a businessperson, too.
And your people can tell. When you respond to every single email within two minutes with a super-short sentence or nothing but an emoticon, people sense you’re thinking, “I need to process this email as quickly as possible and get it off my plate.” No one wants to be “processed.”
You’ve probably heard some gurus say that to process your email as quickly as possible, you should respond to every email in five sentences or less. Personally, I’d rather have someone wait and get the response they deserve. Sometimes that’s a longer, more thought-out email, and yes, sometimes that’s a simple “Thanks!”
Emails are people. And people are your business.
P.S. Hey, are you a content mill writer, or a writer who is earning way less than you’re worth? You’ll want to come to Carol Tice’s and my FREE webinar on Tuesday, May 19 at 11 am PDT/2 pm EDT: 8 Ways Content Mill Writers Can Earn More — Fast. When you go to this page you’ll also get a copy of our 37-page case study report: Escape the Content Mills: 6 Writers’ True Stories of Breaking Out and Earning More. Here’s where you can go for those goodies!
When I started my Write for Magazines e-course around 10 years ago, I had one student who emailed me to ask if I would take a quick look at a query she had written. I did, and told her, “This part is wrong, and I would change this other part, and no way should you leave that phrase in there. Oh, and your formatting — what??”
The writer emailed me shortly after that and said, “Oh, never mind about the critique…I sent out the query because I was feeling impatient, and someone bought it.”
Wait, what? Someone bought her article idea even though her lede was like one I had never seen, and she used a formatting style I would definitely not recommend?
Oh, and guess what…this student pulled the same stunt the following week: Asked what I thought, sent it out before I could tell her it was all wrong, and immediately landed a sale.
That experience taught me a very valuable lesson: There is more than one way to do this thing.
Is your writing “fill in the blanks”?
Carol Tice and I recently finished up a session of our Pitch Clinic class, where we (and three magazine editors) critiqued hundreds of article ideas and dozens of queries and Letters of Introduction.
We showcase a way of creating LOIs that has worked well for us…and I was dismayed to see that many writers used this as a template of sorts to churn out quick and easy LOIs, minimal thought required.
You could almost hear the writers thinking, “This is where I add some flattery of a recent article…I’ll pull a title from their website archives.” And “This is the space where I fill in my benefit to the client.” And “This is where I ask ‘May I send you some clips?'”
Some writers hewed to the structure so closely that they copied some of the tried-and-true phrases that I use in my own LOIs, such as “I’m easy to work with (no diva here!), professional, and fast.”
You are a key ingredient.
Your writing should be a reflection of you.
Not of a writer you admire. Not of your writing teachers. You.
You’re being paid to not only place words on a page — anyone can do that — but also to tinker, think, and brainstorm the best possible way of saying what you want to say — and to do it with style
If there were only one way to do things, with no room for personality and new ideas, a client wouldn’t need to hire you, because they could open up a handy-dandy fill-in-the-blank template of “the right way to write a blog post” (or article, or case study, or white paper) and do it themselves.
Sure, there are some key things that never change: For example, in an LOI, you want to show you know and understand the market. You want to make it clear who you are and why you’re writing. You want to show (not tell) the benefit you’ll offer the client. You want to make sure to get an “ask” in there somewhere.
But there are infinite ways to do this that reflect your thought process, your personality, and your writing style.
One student of ours just sent out a query that made liberal use of the word “dick.” Another was pitching an organization that researches medical cannabis and this writer, who uses medical cannabis herself, told the prospect that marijuana makes her a more creative writer. And at a writers’ conference I spoke at this weekend, one writer in my audience told me he likes to end his pitches with “What’s the deadline for this article?” — a super-ballsy move that I would never try, but it’s worked for him.
Writers like these are not afraid to put themselves into their writing, and to make everything they send their own. What they’re doing is the opposite of using a template.
Sure, if you get creative with your pitching and writing you may not appeal to every client — but that’s okay. You don’t want to appeal to every client, because by trying to be everything, you become nothing. A commodity. You want clients who want to work with you, not clients who want a robot that stings together words into sentences.
The next time you go to write a pitch, an article, or anything else, stop and think. What’s the very best way to do this? How can you show who you are as a writer? How can you make that personal connection with an editor or a potential client? This sentence you just wrote — could it be even better?
“Art washes away from the soul the dusts of everyday life” – Pablo Picasso
Believe it or not making art for your own enjoyment actually has its benefits to both your mind and body. We often spend our weeks rushing around focusing on our everyday commitments whether its your job, looking after kids, school or ticking off daily errands, that we never really get the chance to relax.
When you’re overwhelmed with the stresses of a busy lifestyle, actually embracing your creativity can actually reduce anxieties and stresses to clear your mind making you feel better. So art itself is extremely theraputic and to fill you in abit more as to why doodling, colouring or painting should become apart of your weekly schedule here’s 3 reasons why art is good for you!
1. Helps you to slow down- During the week we’re all on the go and so being a little creative whether it’s drawing, colouring, painting or snapping a photo with your camera actually helps you to physically and mentally slow down. Rushing around doesn’t do our bodies internally any good and so making time to do something artistic that you enjoy is healthy to both your body and mind.
2. Youembrace a side of yourself you might not usually -Not all of us work a creative job but this doesn’t mean if you’re an accountant for example you can get inky and doodle away! You may even surprise yourself with the things you create and through that feel a sense of achievement in the things you make which builds up your positivity in mind.
3. Self expressionandletting out your emotions – Much like music and drama making art in whichever form, helps you to express a side of yourself you might find hard to do otherwise. Like musicians who infuse emotion into the music they write, you can place emotions into the art pieces you make. In turn this helps you to acknowledge your inner feelings and let out things you might not find the words to say which you are can through a brush or ink for example.
Featured illustration is by Oana Befort and you can find out more about her work here.
I’ve written before about generic words that don’t add much in the way of specific emotions. Now I’m on to generic descriptions that don’t add anything to scene. For example:
The teenagers congregated at the store, listening to music on their devices. They wore various outfits, featuring the most popular brands.
I’d imagine this is the type of sentence that would appear in a textbook for an alien about humans. They’d have a lot of knowledge about us, but because they’re outsiders, they’d speak more in generalities than specifics…getting close to an accurate depiction, but without any of the detail that makes the knowledge realistic or engrossing.
The issue with this type of generic description is that the reader will already have a vague imagine their minds. As soon as you say “shopping mall,” the reader paints a place-holder picture that’s very much like my example sentences.
Your job as a writer, then, is to take that vague image and embellish it with detail that’s specific to your world, your characters, and your story. The purpose of description is to take the generic and sharpen the image. So a reasonable replacement for the example would be:
They headed to the shoe store so Nikki could get another hot pink pair of kicks to match her screaming neon yellow yoga pants. Josh cranked his Shuffle. Whatever song came next would be better than the Taylor Swift blaring from the speakers.
Now, I’ve written about specific references in a manuscript (like the Taylor Swift line), but I decided to do that here just because I’m targeting vagueness. I hope that you can see how painting a more specific scene, with some emotional overtones, clarifies the scene more than simply inserting arbitrary-seeming narration.
It is my absolute pleasure to welcome Anne Bustard today, in celebration of the release of her new Middle Grade book, which comes out today. Anne, a part of Egmont’s Last List, has graciously agreed to indulge my questions about her writing process with her brilliant answers. So without further ado, welcome, Anne!
Set in 1960 Hawaii, Anywhere But Paradise is the story of reluctant seventh-grade newcomer Peggy Sue Bennett, who is baffled by local customs, worried about her quarantined cat and targeted by a school bully because she is haole, white. At first, Peggy Sue would rather be anywhere—anywhere but paradise. But a new friend, hula lessons, the beauty of the islands and more, help Peggy Sue find her way. This is a story about fear and guilt. About hope and home. About aloha, love.
I’ve read that Anywhere But Paradise was inspired by your growing up in Hawaii. Can you tell us more about that? Did you do a lot of research on Hawaii in 1960 or mostly rely on your personal experiences?
I was born in Honolulu, moved away when I was a toddler and returned to paradise after fifth grade. I have wonderful memories of hiking to waterfalls with my cousins, aunt and uncle, eating lilikoi (passion fruit) shave ice on the bench outside the Matsumoto storefront on the North Shore, stringing lei from plumeria flowers from our yard and listening to the ocean.
I did not live in the islands in 1960. But even if I had, research would still have been a gigantic part of my process. I couldn’t have written the story without delving deeper and double-triple checking details. I love research, so this part of the writing process was particularly fun! I needed to verify the animal quarantine requirements, when the night-blooming cereus flowered, stories about Madame Pele and dozens of other facets of the novel. I did a lot on my own, but so, so many generous people helped me along the way. I am exceedingly grateful.
Small moments of my personal experience flavor the narrative. I know what it’s like to hear a tsumani warning siren wail and evacuate to higher ground, to be verbally threatened by a bully (though unlike Peggy Sue, it happened to me only once) and to be enchanted by the beauty and rhythms of the islands.
Writing about a character’s problems can unearth a ton of old ghosts of our own. How did you go about navigating your past and finding the inspiration for the character of Peggy Sue? Did you ever find her problems difficult to confront due to them being too close to home?
All writers draw upon some portion of ourselves, no matter how small. Part of my own journey was to recognize that I was holding back. In a pivotal conversation with the wonderful children’s and YA writer, Janet Fox, it occurred to me that Hawaii was the antagonist of the story. I love Hawaii. It is my home. I told Janet that I did not want it to be the antagonist.
“I know,” she said in a soft voice. “But in the end,” Janet said brightly, “Hawaii isn’t the antagonist.”
True. But. I realized not only had I been protecting Peggy Sue, I’d been protecting Hawaii. In the end, both would have to stand up for themselves.
What advice would you give to a writer who is struggling to separate their reality from their fictional character? How can we protect ourselves emotionally if a character reminds us too much of ourselves?
You are not your character. But there may be parts of her that resonate with you.
So my answer may surprise you—don’t separate. This is where you will find the gold.
It’s way scary.
It took me years to get to the point where I could do this. Years.
What was the most useful lesson you learned while writing this book? If you could go back and talk to the you who is about to begin writing, how would you warn or arm her against the difficulties ahead?
My big takeaway? Go there emotionally.
Breathe. Trust the process. It’s going to take as long as it takes. It’s all about revision, going deeper. About finding the heart of the story. About discovering what your characters really want.
Tim Wynne-Jones says, “The answers are in your writing.” He posits that we give ourselves clues to unlocking the mysteries of our own work. It’s our job to look carefully, to look differently, until we discover them.
Amen to that, Anne. Thank you for your wonderfully insightful answers!
To celebrate the release of Anywhere But Paradise, we are giving away a signed copy to a lucky winner! Enter the draw through the Rafflecopter below for a chance to win this beautifully written book!
Anne Bustard is a beach girl at heart. If she could, she would walk in the sand every day, wear flip-flops, and eat nothing but fresh pineapple, macadamia nuts and chocolate. She is the author of the award-winning picture book Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers). Her debut middle grade historical novel Anywhere But Paradise (Egmont Publishing) is out on March 31, 2015. She lives in Austin, Texas.
…for one reader who thought I was selling writers a false bill of goods by suggesting they could possibly earn that much.
He was so upset that he started trolling the reviews on Diana Burrell’s and my e-books, trying to bait writers who left positive reviews by posting inflammatory comments.
In one of those comments, he wrote something like, “By Linda’s reasoning, you should be able to make six figures working 10 hours per week.” He said this as if it was clearly in the realm of the ridiculous.
Last year I earned six figures working an average of 10 hours per week. (Some weeks I worked more, some less. Some I worked a ton, some I didn’t work at all.) 2014 was a banner year for me. In previous years, I’ve earned anywhere from $70-90,000 working those same hours. (And you have to remember that not all working hours are billable writing hours.)
When I saw this disconnect between the troll’s belief and the reality, I realized this is a HUGE problem for freelance writers (and people in general). Everyone feels as if their own experiences are the rule. If THEY can’t imagine themselves earning super well, then they believe that NO ONE can do it.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
The Two Kinds of Writers
Writers are split into two camps:
On one side, we have the writers who see someone who says they’re doing great, and they become angry. “That can’t be true! They’re scamming us! It’s impossible! No one makes THAT much writing! Prove it!” And at the same time they’re crying foul, they’re a little jealous.
On the other side, we have writers who see people doing well and are INSPIRED. They hear another writer is earning six figures and they become determined to do it themselves.
Not only that, but the writers in this camp are happy for the freelancers who’re out there kicking ass. They know writing is not a zero-sum game and one writer’s success doesn’t take away from THEIR chances. In fact, it makes their chances even greater: A writer who’s doing well proves it can be done, and that’s a good thing.
Guess which writer is going to be more successful — the one who feels it’s impossible to do amazingly well, or the one who’s inspired by other freelancers’ successes to work harder and achieve more?
If you believe it’s impossible to make a good living as a freelance writer, then you almost certainly are not going to earn well. That’s what we call a self-fulfilling prophesy. And it’s also flat-out wrong. For every writer who grouses that it’s impossible to earn well, there are dozens of writers who are making it a reality.
But if you see someone doing what you thought was impossible and use it as motivation, you can do anything.
“Because a thing seems difficult for you, do not think it impossible for anyone to accomplish.”
Write, Don’t Gripe
I have a writer friend who makes three times what I do. Hearing that just makes me want to work harder. Another friend — who had never written anything before — wrote his first novel, pitched it to an agent, and just received an almost-6-figure advance from a major publisher. YES!
Many writers would say these people are lying. They would demand to see the novelist’s contract, or the freelancer’s tax forms. And they would work themselves into a lather trying to prove these feats are impossible — while the writers in question are laughing all the way to the bank.
Which writer do you want to be? The one who believes making a good living writing is impossible? Or the one who shows the world it IS possible?
Anyone who has worked with me knows that I take a pretty hard line when it comes to telling in dialogue tags. Examples are:
“I’m so excited!” she said exuberantly.
“That’s wonderful.” Coldness radiated from his voice.
Nothing bums me out more than reading scenework where the writer has decided to take all the fun out of it on the reader’s behalf. Sometimes I call it “hand-holding,” sometimes I call it “overexplaining,” sometimes I just cross it out.
The reason behind my aversion is that writers who do this are taking something essential away from the reader. The star of dialogue is the dialogue itself. Holding the reader’s hand through each snippet of dialogue says to me that you don’t quite trust yourself to communicate the scene in a way that the reader gets it.
Scene is one of the magic places in a manuscript where characters can be on display, speaking to one another, acting toward one another, and otherwise demonstrating themselves and their relationships. It’s the ultimate voyeur’s paradise (calling the reader a voyeur here). Whenever you tell, instead of show, you take away the reader’s power to interpret and appreciate character.
The first example, above, is there because it’s redundant. You would not believe how many writers do this. If a character says “I’m so excited!” then it can stand alone, with no further explanation. I’d be a wealthy woman if I had $5 for every time I saw:
“I’m sorry,” she apologized.
“Yes,” he agreed.
The second example is more subtle. Your character is saying one thing, but there’s an undercurrent of tension and the suggestion that they mean something else. Delicious! Instead of describing tone of voice (sneaky telling), maybe match up the dialogue with action to color it:
“That’s wonderful.” He crossed his arms.
Or, maybe even better yet, leave it up to reader or POV character interpretation:
“Oh yeah? You think so?” The last time he’d used that descriptor, he was watching a snake choking the life out of a mongoose.
Let the character react, which will help guide reader feelings. Dialogue tags exist to communicate information. The two biggest things they should clarify are:
Who is speaking?
Is there anything going on in narration or action that’s not implied in the dialogue?
But too many tags tell about emotions, tone of voice, and tension when those are better uncovered by the reader for lasting character and relationship understanding. Next time you’re working on a scene and you want to try something hard, take out ALL of your dialogue tags and see how it reads. If it’s totally confusing, layer back 25% of what you had before and see if you can make it work.
If you’re one of those writers addicted to dialogue tags, especially in scenes with only two characters, where you theoretically don’t even need them, I bet this will be a revelatory reminder that you’re explaining too much.
Last Saturday I attended a signing event, and I saw some things that really bothered me as an author. Several of the authors in attendance left early due to poor sales. Now it was a gorgeous Saturday with sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s. Plus we were competing with Comic Con being held in this area for the first time ever. So yes, attendance at the event wasn't great. However, I don't blame that on why these authors weren't selling. I saw some things I want to warn you all against.
Lack of displays You don't have to be Martha Stewart to make your table of books look nice. But I saw authors literally throw copies of books on the uncovered fold-out tables. I'm talking not even in a pile. Just tossed. Others stacked their books and kept nothing but the side of the white pages facing the people walking into the room. The problem with this is it looks like the author just doesn't care. If you don't have a book stand, you can still prop a book up in front of the stack so people have something to look at other than a spine or white edges. And you can purchase a cheap table cloth to cover the ugly folding table. Mine cost me $1.99. I also like to print out the cover of my upcoming or newest release and display it as a poster or in a picture frame. It's simple, inexpensive, and looks nice.
Not being accessible or open to interaction Some authors brought their laptops and worked. Now, I get that people are busy. I definitely am too, but nothing says "Don't bother me" like hiding behind a computer or even your phone. You should want to interact with readers and engage them in conversation. Closing yourself off from them isn't going to make you any sales or potential fans.
Hiding behind a table I'm short, so sitting behind a table means I get lost behind my displays. But even if that wasn't the case, I wouldn't sit behind a table. I stand (unless I'm signing a book—I sit then because I can't write legibly while standing). And I'm either on the side of my table or in front of it. Why? Because I want to talk to people as they pass by. I want to be someone that people see as friendly and approachable. And in a crowded room with other people talking, it's too difficult to talk across a table.
Now I'm not claiming to be an expert by any means, but even with low attendance, I sold well at this event. And even if I didn't, I wouldn't have left early because I believe if you commit to an event, you see it through. Yeah, there will be times when you only sell a few copies or even none. But we are professionals, and professionals don't leave when things don't go their way.
So please, if you are going to an event, go with the right attitude. If you show that you want to be there and engage in conversations with others, you'll have a lot more success as far as reaching potential readers and connecting with other authors.
This concept of trying hard immediately resonated with me as the owner of a business that helps writers. I’m always getting emails from writers who tell me they’re having trouble making it work even though they’re trying really hard, really-really. But when I ask them what they actually did this week towards building their writing business, they draw a blank.
Naomi pointed out that you’re only trying hard in the moment, well, when you are physically trying. You’re not trying hard when you think about doing something, or worry about it, or plan it, or contemplate it. If you were to watch someone on a screen when they’re trying hard, you would know that’s what they’re doing. There would be visual clues that would make you say, “Wow, they’re really working hard.”
For example, if you want to get articles published in magazines or on blogs, “trying hard” means actively, physically being in the act of generating ideas, writing pitches, editing pitches, and sending pitches. It doesn’t mean reading books about writing, or taking courses on writing, or planning your writing schedule for next week, or going to therapy to rid you of your deep-seated fear of rejection. It means doing those activities that will get you published in magazines (or wherever you want to be published), and trying your very best at them.
How many of us really try our very best…at anything? How many of us truly work hard?
Sure, we SAY we’re trying hard, but that’s because we’re expending so much mental effort in doing everything BUT the thing that will get results, that it feels like hard work. It exhausts our brains!
But the only way to get actual results — money, assignments, clips, bylines, fans — is to do actual work.
What Does Working Hard Look Like?
It may be difficult to recognize what trying hard looks like, since we’re so used to creating mental smoke and calling it “work.” So let’s do a thought experiment and imagine what working hard as a writer would look like in each of these areas:
If you’re trying to come up with an idea for an article or blog post, what would it look like if you were working super hard? What would you PHYSICALLY be doing? If someone were watching you on a screen, what would they see that proves to them that you’re really trying? Would you have a stack of magazines nearby, and be scribbling furiously into a notebook? How is this different from the way you usually look when you need to come up with an idea?
If you want to break into your dream publication, how would it look if you worked really hard at it? Where would you be, and what would you PHYSICALLY be doing? (And no, thinking doesn’t count.) Maybe you’d be pre-interviewing sources for a query, or calling editorial offices to get an editor’s contact info, or actually stringing words together to complete a query or letter of introduction. How is this different from the way things usually look when you’re trying to crack a juicy market?
When you have an assignment to write an article or blog post (yay!), what would trying hard look like? Would you be spending more time tweaking your word choices to make sure the cadence of your writing is just right? Would you be on the phone calling source after source until you get the interviews you need? Would you be transcribing interviews? How is this different from the way you usually look when you’re working on an assignment?
If you’re building your writing business, what would THAT look like if you were trying really hard? Not staring off into space planning what you’ll do with your future riches, or telling yourself you really, really need to write a business plan, or beating yourself up because once again didn’t get around to writing — but actively trying hard to build your business. How is this different from the way it usually looks when you’re building your business?
A Mantra and the Screen of Reality
For the last several days, I’ve adopted the mantra “Work hard.” Not just for my business, but in every aspect of my life. When I’m working out I tell myself, “Work hard.” When I pass a kitchen counter that’s piled with dishes destined for the dishwasher, and I’m tempted to just keep walking, I think, “Work hard.” As I’m critiquing ideas and queries in the forums of Pitch Clinic class, and am ready to throw in the towel for the day, I remind myself, “Work hard.”
I find that with this mantra, I can eke out a few more reps, I can keep my house and life in order, I can get a lot of work done.
What if you adopted this mantra for yourself, or one like:
“Always do your best.”
“Could I be doing something better right now?”
“What would it look like if I were trying really hard right now?”
“Am I trying my hardest…really?”
Try it…and let me know how it goes! I’d love to create a post out of the stories I get from writers who push themselves, try really hard, and see what happens. I’m at email@example.com.