Why do we do it? Why do we willingly subject ourselves to an activity that others might consider a form of medieval torture?
Most writers will tell you that they enjoy it, that’s it’s the love of the craft that keeps them writing….but is it?
Perhaps all writers—myself included—are really just prisoners of an insatiable obsession, victims of an unrelenting compulsion. Is it love or addiction that keeps us going?
I must confess…I’ve tried to stop writing. I’ve decided on several occasions that writing will get me nowhere, that I must fill my hours with more productive, practical activities…like working, eating, sleeping, earning a living... I’ve made it for weeks at a time without once opening up MS Word, or scratching a note or two out on paper.
But then the cravings kick in—my mood sours as an itchy, antsy feeling crawls up the spine and works its way into every nerve ending of my body. The fingers click on imaginary keys as the mind wanders into faraway realms. Television shows blur with the images of my characters taking the plots in new and different directions, and my head fills with insistent urgings from unseen shadows wanting their stories to be told.
Sounds like a form of insanity, doesn’t it? It is. I firmly believe that all true writers harbor a kind of sanctioned psychosis, a delusional desire to create what doesn’t exist. Gift or curse, we have the compulsion to split ourselves into many diverse pieces called characters and manipulate them with words on a blank screen until a picture is painted, a world created that didn’t exist before.
The question is, who is manipulating whom? In the wee hours of the morning, when I can’t sleep because of a scene that just has to be written, or when I find myself lost in my car on familiar roads because my mind wandered into another dimension, the question seems quite pertinent.
Many times I wonder where the compulsion to write comes from. Was it inborn? Did I inherit it from some distant relative, or does it arise from a genetic anomaly? Perhaps it developed over time, an odd coping mechanism to deal with life’s rougher moments. I don’t know. It’s a mystery that will probably elude me forever
What I do know is that I’m hopelessly saddled with this obsession, so I must embrace it, accept it as my own, and follow it where it leads. Of course, it's not all bad. Like the pains of child birth, the agony of the writing process is always forgotten with the joy of a finished work—the creation of a portal into another world for all to enjoy. And, like a proud parent, I watch as others are introduced to characters and places that once only existed in my mind. Addiction, compulsion, obsession, or not, I can’t imagine not writing—I can’t imagine my world without my characters, my imaginary friends, my companions in good times and in bad.
That’s why I do it.
What about you?
We live in a culture of suspicion. This is especially true for writers, who are often faced with unscrupulous industry professionals and scam artists. Those of us who enter the profession bright-eyed and bushy-tailed usually have our enthusiasm tempered rather quickly by those anxious to take advantage of our naivety. We soon become so afraid of getting screwed that when someone offers us something invitingly new and different, we back away, immediately looking for the strings that are attached (which are typically hanging in the shape of a noose). Because of that mentality, though, we often miss out on opportunities, and those offering such rare opportunities in turn get discouraged because they are constantly met with suspicion and skepticism.
Which brings me to my case in point: an organization called the “Wolf Pirate Project.” Yes, I know, the name raises the hackles—after all, wolves are frequently portrayed as sly and sneaky while pirates are known to pillage and plunder. Consequently, any business with both those names in its title must be really, really bad, raising all kinds of red flags. But wolves, in reality, are proud and majestic animals....
...and as far as pirates go, sure Captain Hook is out there, but so is Will Turner
Anyway, the point is, if we let go of our stereotypes and inherent dubious nature long enough to explore the possibility of legitimacy, we just might discover something new and exciting that offers a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale publishing industry.
I first submitted my novel (then entitled “Turn of the Sentry”) to Wolf Pirate Project on a whim, hoping to snag a small press publisher in lieu of the big houses. The editor, Catherine Rudy, sent it back with some not-so-flattering comments about its “cheesy” nature. I took umbrage and wouldn’t let it rest. I insisted on knowing why she felt the way she did, and what she would suggest to improve it. She offered me an opportunity to join her workshop. She would help me edit the book, going through it line by line to remove the cheesy factor (among other things), and we would take the book through the steps of a “mock” publication, i.e. after going through several rounds of edits, I would end up with a book in my hand—bound and beautiful, cover and all, so I could see what it would look like in publication.
I thought to myself, here it comes. She’s offering me an intensive workshop that probably carries an equally intensive price-tag. That’s why she trashed my book—to goad me into joining her overpriced workshop. I asked the cost, and held my breath. The answer was “nothing.” Yes, that's right—nada, zero, zilch, naught... The only thing it would cost me was an open mind and a willingness to work hard in order to improve my writing. After several moments of dubious silence, I asked “Why? What’s in it for you?”
Yep. The age old question. There had to be a catch. There had to be a string or two attached.
Her answer befuddled me. She wanted to do it simply for the love of the craft, for the opportunity to help writers better themselves, and for a chance to improve the literary choices available to readers today.
I scoffed and snorted. I didn’t believe her. Someone would do all that work for nothing but personal gratification and selfless community service? No way. Impossible. I joined her workshop, just to see what she was up to. Other writer friends assured me that evil was surely afoot, that there was no way she would put all that work into my book and ask for nothing in return. So I kept my teeth gritted, waiting for the other shoe to drop—the inevitable indication that she would only go so far without monetary remuneration, or at least a claim for exclusive rights in my book. In fact, one day I got so impatient waiting for the punch-line, I wrote a scathing (and totally uncalled-for) e-mail accusing her of being up to something underhanded, scheming behind my back.
But she wasn’t.
That other shoe never came. Instead, what I got was consistent superior editing—and lots of hard work. And in the end, my manuscript morphed into a fine-looking paperback with a cover and everything. More importantly, what was in between the covers was the best writing I’d ever done, an improvement beyond measure. Within three months of completing the workshop, I found a publisher.
Wolf Pirate Project has since evolved into a full-fledged nonprofit organization. Its mission is still the same, but now they take on writers with the hope of finding publishers who are interested in the works. For each book, they send out packages to publishers, explaining the WPP mission and showcasing the individual author’s work in hopes of drawing some interest. They don’t accept any form of payment for any of their services, nor do they hold any rights to the book. They provide their writers with copies of the finished product to do with as they will, whether that means selling them, giving them away, or using them as doorstops. However, they are particular about the writers they accept into their fold, and they don’t take just anybody. The workshop is very intensive and not for the faint of heart, but when finished, the author has a book he/she can be proud of. In a nutshell, for the writer, WPP acts as something of a literary tutoring/management service, but doesn’t take a fee. For the publisher, they act as something of a screening agent, so that publishers can be sure that a book coming from WPP is of the highest quality, error free, and ready for publication.
Still, the discouraging news is that editors apparently have the same suspicious nature that plagues us as writers. They refuse to believe that WPP has no ulterior motives, and most refuse to take a chance on an organization that appears to want nothing in return for providing them with quality literature and talented authors. Despite the clearly-stated nonprofit status, skepticism has closed many an editor’s door. It’s a shame, really. The books carried by WPP are simply excellent and, in my humble opinion, are a far sight better than some of the stuff that’s out on the shelves today. Each one of them has the potential to be a best seller in the hands of the right publisher, but the publishers are missing out because of the prevalent lack of trust and short-sighted suspicion.
Maybe someday that will change. Maybe someday both writers and publishers will realize that sometimes, lunch really is free and what seems too good to be true can be a genuine opportunity through which all can benefit. Until then, I will continue to trust in the Wolf Pirate Project and hope that the flicker of change they are trying to ignite in the industry will eventually catch and grow into a full-fledged bonfire.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Wolf Pirate Project, visit their website
Digging into the mind of Best-Selling Author and
Certified Zombie Enthusiast
Zombies like brains. So do we.
Today, we are lucky enough to have the chance to examine the mind of NY Times Best Selling Author Jonathan Maberry! Let’s dig in and see how tasty it is!
A.M BOYLE: First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to be here today and to answer a few questions. Let me start by asking the obvious. I’m a writer, you’re a writer—lots of us are writers. The question is WHY? What on earth (or perhaps elsewhere) inspired you to pursue the insanity of making a living by playing with words?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I think I was born with a storyteller gene. I’ve always wanted to write. Even before I could actually spell I was telling stories with toys or cartoons. All my life I’ve been a storyteller, even as a teacher. Most of my life, though, writing was a side-gig in terms of providing a living. I’d work a day job (college teacher, bodyguard, graphic artist, martial arts instructor, etc.) and write on the side. Sometimes I actually made more money from writing than from some of the jobs I worked, but the day job provided the health benefits. Then in 2002 I decided to jump ship and try writing full time. That’s a very scary thing to do. My wife kept her job with an agreement that after five years I either needed to be making a good living for us or I’d go back to work full-time. I laid into it with a will, and within four years my wife was able to quit her job.
A.M. BOYLE: Like alcoholics who generally remember their first drink, most writers seem to remember the first thing they ever wrote. Do you? If so, what was it and were you hooked from the get-go or did your addiction develop over time?
JONATHAN MABERRY: The first complete thing I ever wrote was a comic book I did in first grade. It pitted Spider-Man, Ka-Zar and the Fantastic Four against an alien invasion. I wrote and drew the whole thing, about thirty pages. I recently found and re-read it. The dialogue was clunky, the art was terrible, but the story…it wasn’t too bad. And, hey, I was six.
A.M. BOYLE: Anyone who’s read your work or known you for more than a minute is bound to notice that you have a particular fascination with zombies. Why? Where does that come from?
JONATHAN MABERRY: When it comes to monsters, my first love is actually old-school vampires. The scary kind. But a very damn close second are zombies. I love my life-impaired fellow citizens. My first introduction to them was on October 2, 1968, when a buddy of mine and I snuck into the Midway Movie Theater in Philadelphia. It was the world premiere of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and we were ten years old. The movie scared the hell out of both of us. The difference, though, is that my friend left before it was over, ran home, and had nightmares for years. I stayed to see it again, and came back the next day and the next. I spent a lot of time musing over how I would survive a zombie apocalypse. Also, in 1973, I had the chance to meet and get to know Richard Matheson (via my middle school librarian). Richard gave me a signed 1954 copy of I AM LEGEND, which is my favorite novel of all time. It was a blend of horror and science fiction, with a strong element of social commentary. Even though it was a vampire story, I AM LEGEND was the primary inspiration for George Romero to write NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. So…between those two influences, seeing Romero’s landmark movie and meeting Matheson –how could I not write this kind of stuff?
A.M. BOYLE: What about Joe Ledger? He has his own series. How did he come to be born in your mind? What, if anything, spurred you to develop him in particular as the star of the show?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Joe Ledger was born in a diner. I was sitting at the great Red Lion Diner in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, eating eggs, drinking diner coffee and making notes for a nonfiction book I was writing, ZOMBIE CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead. As often happens with novelists, characters suddenly started having a conversation in my head. At first I didn’t know who they were or what they were talking about, but it sounded interesting so I wrote it down. That conversation was a kind of job interview between a smartass Baltimore police detective and a mysterious guy who ran a science-based special ops team. I liked the characters and their potential so much, that when I got home I typed up that conversation, and then let the story flow from there to see where it was going to take me.
Joe Ledger is a functional basket case. As a teen he experienced some truly horrific personal trauma, and as a result his mind his fractured into three distinct personalities: the Modern Man (his idealistic and optimistic self), the Cop (his central personality), and the Warrior (the personification of his rage). Joe has managed to make peace with all three and they more or less work like an internal team.
Joe is hired because he is a unique individual. He is an expert in jujutsu, a former Army Ranger, and he has the rare quality of zero hesitation in a crisis situation. He is hired to lead a SpecOps team against terrorists who have a prion-based bioweapon that approximates a zombie plague. That story, PATIENT ZERO, was the novel that broke me away from straight horror and into the thriller genre. I recently finished the fifth novel in the series (each with a different science-based threat), and just sold the sixth.
A.M. BOYLE: Would you ever like to see Joe Ledger on TV or in the Movies? If so, do you see that happening any time soon and who do you envision playing the role?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Joe Ledger almost made it to TV. The series was optioned by producer Michael DeLuca on behalf of Sony Entertainment, who in turn took it to ABC. They hired a great scriptwriter, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, to write the pilot and it got all the way down to a split decision between that and another show. ABC ultimately opted for the other show –the remake of CHARLIE’S ANGELS, which tanked very quickly and was cancelled. We are now shopping the series elsewhere.
When I created Joe Ledger, I had Chris Evans (Captain America) and Ryan Reynolds (Green Lantern) in mind. But there are a lot of actors who could make Joe come alive on the big or small screen. Jeremy Renner, Channing Tatum, Josh Duhamel…a slew of guys who can handle the balance of serious action and smartass humor.
A.M. BOYLE: Just looking at your website, it’s easy to see how unbelievably prolific you are. On average, how many hours a day/days a week do you spend writing?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’m a full-time writer and I’ve been very fortunate to have a career that went from the slow lane to the fast lane in a short period of time. I actually dig the fast lane. I like juggling lots of projects at once. I typically write ten hours a day, Monday through Friday; and a few hours a day on weekends. I don’t take days off. My daily word-count target is about three thousand words, but that varies. If I’m doing a lot of business (contracts, pitches, conference calls) or appearances (school visits, conferences, conventions, book signings), then my daily output might drop. And I have some days where, for whatever reason, the muse is cranked up and I chunk out eight, ten or even twelve thousand words. Those days are rare, of course.
A.M. BOYLE: What keeps you going?
JONATHAN MABERRY: People always ask me what keeps me going, and the answer is really simple: I love it. I love everything about writing, editing, publishing and doing the necessary promotional work.
A.M. BOYLE: Has there been anyone in your life that has encouraged or inspired your writing, perhaps given you that little boot in the butt when you needed it the most?
JONATHAN MABERRY: My Middle School librarian was the secretary for a few different groups of semi-pro and professional authors, and she dragged me along to a number of meetings and events. As a result I got to meet writers like Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, Rod Serling, L. Sprague de Camp, and others. That was deeply –and perhaps permanently—inspirational.
A.M. BOYLE: You’ve won a host of awards, including the coveted Bram Stoker Award (multiple times!), Cybils Literary Award and Black Glove’s Horrorhead Award. Of course, you’re also officially a NY Times Best Selling author. How does all that affect you as an author? For instance, does it encourage you to do more and reach higher, or does it slow you down a bit, knowing that you’ve already accomplished so much?
JONATHAN MABERRY: A writer shouldn’t sit down to write unless they intend to bring their best game. Sure, we all have slob days where our drafts read like they were written by people with severe brain impairments, but by the time the piece of writing goes out it should have every good quality we can give it. No half measures, nothing sloppy.
Once you hit a certain level of success, there is a fork in the road. One path heads off in a direction where you rest on your laurels because you know your stuff will sell even if you’re just mailing it in. The tendency there is to slacken off and write for the paycheck instead of from the deepest part of your heart. I have great contempt for writers who do that even though I know that sometimes there is tremendous pressure to keep a series going even after the writer has lost interest. The other road is the one where the writer accepts the challenge of always seeking ways to improve his craft. To always get better. You see that with writers like Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, John Connolly…they never take the short cut, they never cheat the reader by handing in pre-packaged pap. I aspire to that ideal, and though I have a fair way to go before anyone will mention my name in the same breath as theirs, they hold a lantern up for guys like me to keep slogging along.
A.M. BOYLE: You’ve written such a huge gamut of stuff, including short stories, novels, nonfiction, comics, novellas, young adult….Do you have a favorite and why?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’m a fickle writer. I’m most in love with whatever project I’m currently writing. That extends to genres as well. At the moment I’m writing my fourth Young Adult post-apocalyptic zombie thriller (FIRE & ASH, due out from Simon & Schuster in August 2013). So…that’s my favorite. A few months ago I wrapped up the fifth Joe Ledger science thriller (EXTINCTION MACHINE, due out from St. Martin’s Griffin in April 2013), and at the time that was my favorite genre. When I’m done that book I have several novellas and short stories lined up, and that means I’ll have a series of new favorites –Steampunk, Adventure Fantasy, Retro-Pulp Action, Children’s Fantasy, and even a Cthulhu Mythos story.
Probably the only true ‘favorite’ thing I have is the element of the ‘thriller’. Most of my stories are thriller-format, which means there is some kind of a race against time to prevent something dreadful from happening. That format is useful in almost any genre.
A.M. BOYLE: What’s your writing process for your novels? For instance, do you outline first or write on the fly? Do you know where your stories are going, or do they take off in their own direction?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’m a structure guy. I do extensive research and then I write a loose plot. A plot is a mathematical equation that essentially says that if this action happens, and then this and then this, then the logical outcome is such-and-such. Stories are logical, even experimental ones. Once I have the plot down and bullet-pointed, I usually jump in and write the first chapter and then the last. However, even though I love plotting things out, I don’t over-plot. Partly because it’s unreasonable to assume that you’re going to have all of your best story ideas on the day you sit down to write out the plot. And partly because stories are organic, they grow in the telling, and you have to allow for that. So the finished version of any given project may look substantially different than it did while it was still a bare-bones plot, but the interior logic is true and it holds up.
As for knowing where stories are going, I need to know because most of my stories have some aspect of a mystery in them. You can’t lay down clues or properly foreshadow if you don’t really know where the hell the story is heading. That’s why I often write the last scene before writing the whole book. I write that final scene and then I back up and aim the whole story at that point. It saves me from writing scenes that –while I may like them- don’t serve the story. It keeps from having to kill too many of my darlings.
A.M. BOYLE: Do you have any particular writing quirks? For instance, one author I know can’t write a thing without a set of earplugs firmly in place. Anything like that for you?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’m not any species of prima donna. I was trained as a journalist (at Temple U.) and even though I never worked as a newspaper reporter, the lessons stuck. Don’t flounce around getting ready to write or waiting for the muse to whisper in your ear. Just write the damn thing. If it’s awkward and clunky and needs repair, then fine, that’s what revisions are for…but get something down so you have an actual product to work with. I have never once met a journalist who suffered from ‘writers block’. Not once in thirty-some years as a writer. I’ve met damn few professional novelists who believe that writers’ block even exists.
Now, as far as comfort zone writing…I like to have music playing. I like noise. That’s why I often write at Starbucks. Good coffee, good background noise, good music. At home, I have an iPod with 13,000 songs on it. I make elaborate playlists, often with a certain upcoming project in mind. But…I can also write on a notepad in a doctor’s office, at an airport, or anywhere.
A.M. BOYLE: If for some bizarre reason you couldn’t write, what career option would be your next choice?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’ve always been a teacher, so that’s a fallback. I love teaching. I still teach writing classes, including my weekly Experimental Writing for Teens class, an ongoing Revise & Sell class, and other programs, including Write Your Novel in 9 Months, The Art of the Book Pitch, Act Like a Writer, Write and Sell Short Stories, Writing Fight and Action Scenes, and others.
And I’m a career martial artist with almost fifty years in jujutsu. I created courses that I taught at Temple University (Personal Defense for Women, History of the Asian Martial Arts, etc.); I developed specialty programs such as self-defense for the vision-impaired (At Close Range), self-defense for the wheelchair-bound (Steel Wheels); and I co-founded a company, COP-Safe, that provided specialty defense and combat programs for all levels of law enforcement including SWAT.
So, if I couldn’t write, I’d teach.
A.M. BOYLE: Okay, desert island scenario. Marooned for at least five years. You can take with you one author’s complete works. Who would it be and why?
JONATHAN MABERRY: My desert-island books would be the complete works of James Lee Burke. He’s my favorite author of all time, and I can read and re-read his novels and short stories over and over again. Runners up would be Ray Bradbury, William Shakespeare, John D. MacDonald and Richard Matheson.
A.M. BOYLE: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies, activities, etc. that you pursue in your spare time (presuming you actually have spare time)?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Free-time is at a premium right now. But I do take nights and weekends off to be with my wife (and the love of my life) Sara Jo. We travel, we’re both interested in various fields of science, we both love the arts, and we’re animal lovers. When I’m alone, I tend to gobble up books, movies and whole-seasons of TV shows (devoured in mini marathons. Most recently I chewed through BREAKING BAD, JUSTIFIED, WILFRED, LUTHER, and MAD ABOUT YOU)
A.M. BOYLE: There are so many aspiring writers out there today, struggling to make it. Given your success what do you think sets you apart from the crowd?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I know exactly what changed the course of my career from ‘trying to make it’ to ‘professional’. I realized that, although writing is an art, publishing is a business. Seems obvious, but to writers it’s often not. We’re too often mired in the belief that creative types are not going to be any damn good with business things, and that to concentrate on business is a pathway to selling out. Which is horse crap. Once I learned everything I could about the publishing industry (an ongoing process with me), I made sure that I made good business decisions that would allow my creative products to have a real chance of reaching an audience. And, a significant side-effect of that is that I now have more time to write, which means that my creative side has much more freedom.
A.M. BOYLE: You’re a fascinating guy. People want to meet you. Where can they find you in the coming months?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’m all over the social media world. Twitter (www.twitter.com/jonathanmaberry), Facebook (www.facebook.com/jonathanmaberry), and on LinkedIn, GoodReads, my website (www.jonathanmaberry.com), and everywhere else.
A.M. BOYLE: Thanks again for being with us, Jonathan! We wish you every success with your work and look forward to even more exciting things to come!
Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and freelancer for Marvel Comics. His novels include ASSASSIN’S CODE, FLESH & BONE, GHOST ROAD BLUES, Rot & Ruin, Dust & Decay, Patient Zero, The Wolfman, and many others. Nonfiction books include ULTIMATE JUJUTSU, THE CRYPTOPEDIA, Zombie CSU, Wanted Undead or Alive, and others. He’s the editor/co-author of V-WARS, a vampire-themed anthology; and was a featured expert on The History Channel special ZOMBIES: A LIVING HISTORY. Since 1978 he’s sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, two plays, greeting cards, song lyrics, and poetry. His comics include CAPTAIN AMERICA: HAIL HYDRA, DOOMWAR, MARVEL ZOMBIES RETURN and MARVEL UNIVERSE VS THE AVENGERS. He teaches the Experimental Writing for Teens class, is the founder of the Writers Coffeehouse, and co-founder of The Liars Club. Jonathan lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife, Sara and their dog, Rosie. www.jonathanmaberry.com.
“Yes, of course I have,” I responded.
“Well,” he screwed up his eyebrows, “What is it, exactly?”
What is it exactly, indeed. I thought about the question. Conventional wisdom has all kinds of responses to that question. Some would define it through tangible acquisitions: a house in middle class suburbia, a nice car, a manicured yard, maybe a swimming pool or swing set next to a patio adorned by a sturdy 4 burner barbeque grill —the proverbial white picket fence scenario. Then again, some might say it correlates to personal and professional status: a prestigious job, a deliriously happy marriage, 2.5 perfect children, a golden retriever named Rover snuggled on the front porch with a kitten called fluffy…and so forth. Still others maintain it’s all about monetary assets: a full bank account, lots of play money, a college fund for the kiddos, a steadily growing retirement account for you and the Mr. or Mrs.
Each definition may seem different, but in essence they overlap. The two things they have most in common are simple, yet complex: Perfection & Security. The American Dream = Perfection and Security. I tried to explain this concept to my son. But as I looked at his puzzled face, those eyebrows scrunched down even further, he asked the inevitable question. “What about us? Are we living the American Dream?”
I looked around at my smudged kitchen cabinets, the faded linoleum in desperate need of a mopping, the bowl of dried out strawberries sitting on the unkempt counter—were we? Was my life the picture of the fabled “American Dream?”
Let’s start with the basics. We own our own home. Well, the bank owns it actually. We definitely owe more than it’s worth. So many people today are in that situation. The term the media has coined is “underwater,” an image of suburban America being collectively drowned by a rock solid mortgage tied around their poor little necks. Bankruptcies and short sales abound. Luckily, and for the time being, we’ve been able to tread water even with that weighty stone around our necks. We’re still breathing, and the house is still ours, so I count ourselves on the “lucky” side of things.
But should I?
Sometimes I wonder if apartment living would be so bad. Life without a mortgage; life without home repairs, without yard work or pool maintenance—some days that sounds like paradise.
I mean, I like the privacy of my own home, but I don’t like the stress. You know what I mean, don’t you? Just when you think you’ve got the budget straightened out with maybe a little extra at the end of the month, something goes awry. The water heater bursts, giving you an instant indoor hot tub that quickly melds with your carpet; the rotting coping falls off the door frame and hits ol’ Rover on the head, sending him to the vet to fetch a $ 500.00 bill; your perky sunny yellow siding has turned the not-so-perky color of cream of chicken soup that is making the neighbors physically ill; the leg of the BBQ grill rusts off, sending your modest dinner of discounted chicken legs on a post-mortem mission in the grass—you get the drift.
Looking around at a house deteriorating faster than a zombie on steroids, it strikes fear into my heart to realize that me and my meager budget are the ones responsible for the repairs. Not the bank (even though it’s technically their house). Not the landlord. Not my father. Not the putz who owned this money pit before us…it’s all on US. Suddenly, this American Dream thing seems a bit more elusive.
The luxury vehicle we lusted for in our youth has morphed into a mud-colored Nissan Sentra with stained carpets, powerless windows, and an untraceable odor that can’t be disguised even by the three cardboard pine trees hanging from the mirror. And our other car is….well, I forget because it’s usually in the repair shop. I think our mechanic gets more use out of it than we do.
That prestigious job? My desk says it all. Empty cartons of Yoplait, dirty dishes, half filled cups of coffee (or is that half empty?), a pile of unpaid bills next to a stack of unpaid invoices, stray wisps of dog hair, scattered notes outlining ebay product reviews, an unused bottle of spray cleaner…it’s so glamorous, I’m at a loss for words.
What about the other aspects? Well, my manicured yard is more “manic” than “cured.” A family of attack ducks have taken over our little round swimming pool. That cute, fluffy kitten of days gone by has metastasized into a rail thin, blind shadow with whiskers that leaves trails of hairballs wherever he goes. Rover # 1 has morphed into a fat farting machine that constantly licks and leaks. Rover # 2 has redecorated my house in a “Wild West” theme, with rolling tumbleweeds of hair lolling across fields of blighted carpet. My two “perfect” children have turned into (*gulp*) teenagers. My loving spouse? Well, he’s still my loving spouse, but the pursuit of the “American Dream” has given him a flock of white hair and as many wrinkles as a an Agatha Christie mystery. We won’t even mention the college funds and retirements accounts. Whoops. I guess I just did. Suffice it to say, then, that they were victims of this nation’s economic slaughterhouse. On the other hand, my bank account is full…of fees, that is...and my “extra money” now comes in various shades of plastic.
So, when all is said and done, can I look at my son with a straight face and tell him that I’m living the “American Dream?” No, I can’t. Not even close. But I am living my dream. For all its glitches, guffaws, and anti-glamorous moments, I wouldn’t trade it for the world—an extended trip to Tahiti maybe…. Still, if you ask me (and even if you didn’t, since this is my blog), perfection is overrated and even a little boring. What would life be without a refrigerator that randomly freezes your milk and a pair of blackbirds living in your stove vent? Dull and predictable. I don’t like predictable. My conclusion? You can keep your “American Dream”—pursue it all you want and by all means enjoy it, if you can—but as for me, I’ll stick with “Ann’s Dream;” it suits me just fine.
This post is late. It should have been done last week. Do you know why it’s late? I was busy with marketing and promotion. Which is exactly what this final post in my four-part series is about: Marketing and Promotion. Everybody say YAY….not.
Honestly, marketing and promotion (or M &P for short—also short for masochism and pain) are my least favorite parts of this author gig. It’s so not me. As is true for many authors, I tend to be a loner. I’m not exactly anti-social—more like “reluctant-social.” I like being by myself, shy away from crowds, and lean to the self-conscious side when put in the spotlight. I’ve tried selling insurance, selling Avon, selling vitamins, and selling my soul, and I failed miserably at all of them. I don’t like the pressure of selling myself of my wares to other people. Yet, if you want your book to be even a mild to moderate success, that’s exactly what you have to do. I’ve learned to tolerate it, but I certainly don’t enjoy it. All I can say is thank God and Bill Gates that we have the internet these days, otherwise I may have given up on the whole idea a long time ago.
So, what’s the best way to tame the two-headed beast of Marketing and Promotion? I actually have no idea. I say that a little facetiously, of course, but it carries a kernel of truth. Let’s face it, if I was a true M & P guru, I’d have already made it to the NY Times bestseller list. M & P is a huge topic, and tomes have been written about it by people smarter and savvier than me (or is it “I”? I forget…). To top it off, everybody has their own ideas as to what works “best.” It’s largely a matter of taste and individual preference. One person may truly enjoy working the cocktail party circuit, shaking hands and cornering unsuspecting guests with details of their latest work. Another person may prefer to sit at the computer and swim in the social network pool all day. All I can tell you is what has worked for me and what hasn’t, and what some of the available avenues are for those of you just embarking on this treacherous quest.
First let me clarify the difference between “marketing” and “promotion” because so many people use them interchangeably. They are different albeit related. Marketing is basically branding yourself as an author (or whatever craft you are self-employed in). You have to get people to know you and recognize your name as it relates to your craft. Promotion, on the other hand, is product specific, i.e. convincing people to buy a specific product from you (or the bookstore). So, I market myself but promote my book. That’s were the relationship comes in. Marketing lays the groundwork for promotion. If people already know who I am, they are more likely (I hope!) to buy my book. If they don’t know me from their Uncle Ernie’s pet monkey, the promotion of my book is undermined before it’s even begun. Given this very sad but very true fact, too many new authors cut themselves off at the knees by waiting until their book is published (or publication is imminent) before they start their M & P campaign. If you get nothing else out of this rambling blog, get this: MARKETING MUST START WAAAAAAYYYY BEFORE YOUR BOOK IS PUBLISHED. Get your face out there while you’re still writing, while publication is still a distant dream! How? Through the same avenues you will continue to use once you’ve got your book in hand and are ready to start promoting. My basic M & P roadmap is as follows:
At the risk of being sued for causing brain aneurisms and eye strain, I’ll explain each one as briefly as possible.
Social media offers the perfect tool for marketing. There are so many sites out there. Of course we have the biggies, like Facebook, LinkedIn, GooglePlus, Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest. But there are also some obscure ones available as well. For instance, you might get on Classmates.com and find old grammar school and high school classmates to connect with. There are also interest-specific sites through which you can find a potential audience. For example, GoodReads and LibraryThing are communities of book lovers who are just waiting for the next great read. Pick two or three (maybe four if you’re really ambitious) social media sites, set up a profile and POST your heart out! Make sure people know who you are and what you do, but don’t just talk about your writing. Let people get to know you as an individual—not too intimately, but don’t be afraid to give a glimpse or two into your everyday life. Talk about the silly things your kids do, or your latest home improvement gaffe…things like that. It will personalize you, make you more than “just another author,” and people will begin to relate to you.
Aside from social media, join some internet communities and forums that are focused on the subject matter you write about. If you write science fiction, join some science fiction groups. If you write about religion and spirituality, search for online communities that talk about such things (you can also find specialized splinter groups on many of the bigger social media sites, like LinkedIn and Facebook). It’s also helpful to join writers’ groups, such as Absolute Write or the Independent Author’s Guild (there’s a ton of them out there…Google it). However, keep in mind that while they are good for sharing information and tips, you’re not likely to find too many potential readers on those sites—most of them are writers just like us, hoping to find an audience, not find a good book to read.
A blog and a website are a must. You can publish a decent blog on sites like LiveJournal, GoDaddy, Weebly, WordPress, etc. There’re a bunch of them out there. Do your research and find one that you like. Also, building a website has gotten a lot easier with do-it-yourself sites like GoDaddy (Website Tonight), iPages, One-and-One, etc. Sites like these basically walk you through the process. You’ve got to devote the time to both your website and your blog, keeping them up to date and hopefully developing an audience well ahead of publication. Use your chosen social media sites to promote both your website and your blog. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your audience builds, especially if you can come up with a clever hook to catch their interest.
Conferences and Conventions
This one is easy. Go to writers’ conferences when you can network. Don’t just sit in a corner and pout over every one else’s success stories. Mingle; get to know other writers. Why? They may or may not read your book when it’s finally published, but it will go a long way toward getting your name known. Before you know it, your new-found writer friends will be talking about you to their fans, or inviting you to give a blog interview, or offering to review your book for you. Writers helping writers. That’s what it’s all about.
If you have the money, try to go to some genre-specific conventions. There are a host of them out there—science fiction and fantasy conventions, horror conventions, romance conventions, and the like. Do a little research and find one that fits what you write. Conventions attract fans of that genre and are great places for writers to connect with those fans. They have opportunities for socializing and networking. They can be fun but are typically a little expensive, so you might have to limit which ones you go to, if any.
If you want to develop a fan base, the best place to start is in your own community. Go to local fairs and events and actually talk to people. Get to know your local librarians. Offer to speak at the local Chamber of Commerce, American Legion and so forth. Get involved in civic activities. Volunteer with your local government. Contact your local newspaper and see if they’d be willing to write a human interest piece about you (presuming that you’ve done something interesting). Use your imagination and get your name and your body out there, thus letting your neighbors know who you are and what you do. This will pave the way for your book and people will actually be waiting for its release.
Business cards and flyers may be old fashioned, but they still work. There are several websites that will do batches of business cards and postcards relatively cheaply. VistaPrint is my personal favorite. Get some business cards made up. Create some postcards announcing that your book is “coming soon.” Make sure your face is on your business cards and postcards. I suggest spending the money to get a professional headshot for use on your print materials and your social media profiles. A flattering picture will go a long way to winning a fan base. Once you have your postcards and business cards in hand, don’t keep them there—give them out! Everywhere. To anyone. Going to a restaurant? Leave a business card on the plate with the tip (a good tip, hopefully). Hitting the drive through? Hand the lady at the window a postcard when she gives you your change. Doctor’s offices, car repair shops, grocery stores, post offices…wherever you find yourself, leave a paper trail. Our house gets a lot of trick-or-treaters on Halloween. One year, right after my book came out, I attached a postcard to each goodie bag I handed out. Be imaginative! You’ll be surprised how those cards get around!
So there you have it—a basic run down of my marketing strategies. Of course this is not a comprehensive list, and I’m sure there are other avenues for marketing that other writers and business professionals use. But these are the ones that work for me and fit my meager budget.
Naturally, the purpose of the aggressive and extensive marketing is to set the groundwork for promotion. Hopefully, by the time your book comes out, people will know you, recognize you and anxiously be awaiting the release of your novel. But don’t stop now! You must let them know it’s out there. Here’s some tips:
With all the wheels turning, in a perfect world, your blog fans will be standing in line waiting to read the book they’ve heard so much about. Your network of colleagues will happily mention your book to their fans and friends. The folks in your community will be anxiously waiting to buy their copy and will gladly spread the word to their family and friends. All those people who’ve been clicking on your website because of the business cards and post cards you’ve been spreading around, will be poised to plunk down cold hard cash for your book. Success is within your reach and your destined to be an overnight sensation….
Unfortunately, we all know this is not a perfect world. After all your hard work taming the M & P beast, you may only sell 10 copies. Success is never guaranteed. Which brings me to my final point. The most important step you can take in your career as a writer is to keep writing. While marketing and promotion are important, you have to set limits. It’s easy to get lost along those many avenues and forget what you’re really supposed to be doing—writing.
Not to be a naysayer, but the truth is, in the majority of cases, no matter what you do, your first book won’t sell up to your expectations (unless your expectations are really, really low). In fact, you may not develop a decent audience until your third, fourth, maybe fifth book. The key is to keep writing, keep putting more books out there because ultimately, there is no better marketing and promotion tool than straight-up good writing, and plenty of it.
Exactly how do you take the next step and actually make money as a freelancer? After all, even if I put on a cape and strike a noble pose, I may look like a super hero (well, a frumpy, middle-aged superhero, anyway), but that doesn’t make me a superhero.
Actions need to follow intent. If you're going to talk the talk, you've got to walk the walk. In addition to all the trappings, to be a freelance writer you actually have to…well, you know…write…and actually get paid for it. Yes, really.
Believe it or not, it is possible.
When I first discovered that there were people out there who wanted to pay me to write stuff, I was floored. I mean, that’s like people wanting to pay me to breathe. After all, I cannot not write—it’s in my blood, part of who I am. Slowly, though, I came to the realization that not everyone can write. Sure, they can pick up a pen and jot down a few things. But not everyone can sit down at a keyboard and tame those wild words, calling them to order and coaxing them into forming recognizable images. And those that can’t work that particular magic are willing to pay those of us that can. The trick is finding them.
In this wonderful age of the Internet, it’s not as hard as you might think. There are tons of forums out there, dedicated to matching writers with projects. Still, before you go charging out into the maze of freelance forums, if you want to have any degree of success, you need to take one very important step. You need to take yourself out of any self-imposed box you may have placed yourself in. You need to convince yourself that, as a talented word magician, you can write anything. You might prefer to write science fiction or historical essays, or whatever it is you’re into. But the truth is, no matter what your preferred interest, there likely isn’t going to a plethora of jobs out there with that particular focus. You may find one or two, but not enough to bring you a steady paycheck. Therefore, if you are a writer at heart, you have to be prepared to write anything. Of course, you’ll have to step out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself, maybe even frighten yourself. After all, as an author, I write eerie science fiction thrillers. It’s my thing. Writing a sappy children’s birthday story designed for 4 to 6 year olds doesn’t come naturally. But I did it. Not because I particularly enjoyed it, but because someone paid me to do it and I can write anything.
So, to make the point once more, unless and until you’ve convinced yourself that you can write anything, you will not make money as a freelance writer.
Once you’ve truly accepted that fact, though, you're ready to go shopping.
There are a host of sites out there where people post writing projects, and freelancers bid on those jobs. The available work runs the whole gamut—blog entries, sales letters, informational articles, resumes, reports, telephone hold scripts, ghostwriting, proofreading—well, you get the drift. Anything goes. Some of these sites charge a small fee to join. Others take a small percentage of your earnings. Some do both. A lot of them give you a free "test drive," i.e. you can set up a basic account for free just to get onto the listing pages and see what's out there. You have to judge which sites fit in your budget and whether they are worth the fees.
Most of the freelance sites require writers to register an account and set up a profile. The profile is not usually a just a name, password, address, and some fluffy information. Rather, it is a detailed summary of who you are—your skills, your experience, your specialties, your platform, and so forth. It’s your place to shine and spell out exactly what it is that sets you apart from the competition (and believe me, there is plenty of competition). This can be time consuming and tedious, especially if you’re signing up for multiple forums, but it is absolutely necessary. Do not short change yourself. Take your time and really build your profile. Some sites offer you a place to upload samples of your writing. Choose your best, error free, grammatically correct writing and put it there for the world to see. Other sites suggest taking certain skills tests in areas such as word usage, grammar and punctuation, spelling, etc. Take the tests. They may cost a few bucks, but if you do well, it will keep you in stride with the competition. If you don’t do well, you don’t have to post the score and you can always take it again after a short period of time.
By the way, open a Paypal account, if you don’t already have one. That’s how most of the job postings will pay. Plus, if you ever have an issue, Paypal offers a service to help mediate any problems. I suggest you link your Paypal account to a bank account you've set up specifically for your freelance earnings. It simplifies things and allows you to keep better track of what your earning and what happens to it after it's in your bank account. Aside from your own edification, these are the little things Uncle Sam takes a keen interest in every April.
Once you set up your account and profile on one of these forums, you'll be able to take a closer look at what kind of jobs are posted. If you find one you want to bid on, you'll typically have to submit a short proposal, which is basically a short statement indicating why you should be the one to get the job as opposed to the 15 or so others who are bidding against you. Use the proposal for all it's worth. Sell yourself. Attach sample documents similar to what they want you to write (if you have any). This is your time to shine; you have to give the poster a reason to hire you above all others.
Make sure you have your freelance rates in mind before you start bidding for projects. Different proposals will require different types of rate quotes. Some may request an hourly rate, while others will request a per word rate. I also have a “range” rate (i.e. any project between 500 and 1000 words costs X amount of dollars while anything between 1001 and 1500 words will cost XX amount of dollars, and so forth). Some
projects request a straight, one time bid for the entire package (i.e.
someone needs a 50 page paper done on a particular topic and will
request a lump sum bid for the completed paper). Once you have your rates in mind, it will be easier to weed out the jobs that are not for you (i.e. too far away from your desired rate), and you can jump right in and bid once you find a job that really floats your boat.
If you’re not sure what to charge, check out some of your competition. Clikc on the profiles of some other writers who are bidding and see what they are charging. Honestly though, I've found that rates are all over the place. You can find a host of information and advice on setting your rates if you Google “freelance writing rates.” Many projects set the bidding parameters for you (i.e. the budge is between $ 250 and $ 500 dollars), and some even tell you exactly what they are willing to pay. Still, what you charge as your rate will often fluctuate, depending on your experience and how labor intensive the project is. For instance, I would charge much less to write a 500 word article on “How to Cook Spaghetti” then I would for a 500 word article on “The Pros and Cons of the Electoral College in the United States;” I know a lot about cooking spaghetti and could write it on the fly, without much research but I know diddly squat about the electoral college and would have to do hours of research to write anything worthwhile.
In the end, you have to charge what you feel comfortable with. Don't sell yourself short, but don't shoot for the moon either, if your serious about landing jobs. If you’re new and just getting established on a forum, I would suggest keeping your rates low initially, just so you can land a couple of projects. This will help you get established on the forum and start racking up some reviews (hopefully positive). Then, once you’re reputation begins to grow, so can your rate. I’ve gone as low as $ 2.00 per 100 words just to beat out the competition and get the job so as to build my reputation. That’s an extreme though, and I don’t recommend going lower than that—ever. Granted, there are many on the forums that do. Some will bid ridiculously low. For instance, I saw one guy take on a 50 page report, single spaced, one inch margins, for a whopping $ 24.00! That sets a bad precedent for the rest of us. Some job posters come to expect ridiculously low bids and will state in their proposals that they will so graciously pay you $ 10.00 for ten 500-word articles. No, I’m not exaggerating. Stay away from those.
When you get on these freelance forums, you’ll likely see a bunch of jobs you want to bid for (keeping in mind that you’ve already convinced yourself that you can write anything). Be careful. You probably won’t get all the jobs you bid for, and sometimes you won’t get any. But, if the stars are aligned just right, and your bid is competitive, you might wind up with ALL of them. This doesn’t happen all that often, but you have to keep in mind that your time is limited, and if you over-commit and can’t keep up with your projects, it’s going to reflect badly on you and affect your ability to get other jobs in the future.
When bidding on projects, read them carefully. Make sure you know exactly what the person is looking for. Most forums allow writers to ask questions, and any poster worth his salt will answer those questions promptly and without complaint. No matter which forum you’re on, you can always view information about the person posting the project. Check them out before you bid. Have they posted other projects? What kind of reviews have they gotten? Do they pay on time? Do they tend to give positive reviews in return? Last thing you want is to write your heart out for someone who will then rip your work apart, get irrational about corrections, or refuse to pay you. If you find a project that no one else has bid on, there may be a reason; the poster may already have a bad reputation in the forum. Make sure you check them out so that you’re not bidding on work posted by a psycho.
Okay, here’re some of the forums that I find fruitful:
No doubt, there are plenty of others, and if you run a search for “freelance writing jobs” you’ll probably come up with a bunch of them. Obviously I haven’t tried them all, so I can’t vouch for them one way or the other. But the ones listed are sites where I’ve gotten good work and made decent money without getting screwed, so I pass them along to you. Most legitimate forums offer some modicum of protection in case a job poster tries to pull one over on a writer.
I’ve also gotten jobs from Craig's List, which has a small section devoted to writing jobs. Some of the posters on Craig's list can be a little dicey, with no way to check their reputation and no real recourse if you don’t get paid for your work so be careful.
If you’re very aggressive and have lots of time on your hands (yeah, right!) you can find other freelance writing jobs that might be a bit more steady and stable with regard to pay. For instance, e-zines, magazines and local/regional newspapers usually will consider hiring freelance writers, although they are hard to break into. I’ve even heard that greeting card companies hire freelancers, although I’ve seen no hard evidence of that. Honestly, the jobs I get from the forums I mentioned (and, of course, writing my novels) has kept my busy enough that I haven’t had the opportunity to look into those other avenues. But they are out there, and I know some authors who have tapped into them and do make decent money through steady work.
Whether you're freelancing on the side (or “moonlancing,” as I like to call it), trying your luck in between novels, or attempting to make it a full-time gig, there are jobs available. Ours is a singular craft and, like tombstones and tax advice, is always in demand. If you can write, you can earn a living. You may not get rich but with time, effort and perseverance, you won’t starve either. And remember, your golden ticket to the "show me the money" moment lies in one simple yet vital understanding—you can write anything.
(This post is the third in a series about finding success as a writer. Stay tuned for the fourth—and final—installment discussing marketing and promotion).
(This post, Part II of my four-part series on succeeding as an author/freelancer, deals with time management.)
When I tell people that I am an author/freelance writer, most tend to think it’s a glamorous, low-stress, fun job…well, one out of three ain’t that bad. When I tell them exactly what I do during an average day and what types of things I write about on the freelance circuit, they usually crinkle their nose and back away. The truth is, the pay sucks, the hours can be brutal, and the work is often times dry and tedious. Don’t get me wrong; I love being a writer. In fact, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It is not, however, glamorous by any means (at least not for me), nor stress-free. It is fun as all get-out though—most days, anyway. When all is said and done, it is still work. Like any job, it comes with its fair share of challenges and obstacles. One of my biggest challenges as a freelancer/author has been time management.
Any author/freelance writer knows that there are many balls to juggle and many plates to spin in this profession and more often then not, you are doing it alone. If you’re an author, the novel itself is probably a huge time hog. For instance, the actual writing of a novel requires hours of focus and discipline. It’s mentally strenuous and not something you can usually do (effectively) with a bunch of other distractions buzzing around. Once the draft is actually written, there’s an endless string of edits to follow, not to mention the drafting of various length synopses. After that, you will likely spend hours researching agents and publishers and sending out countless query letters and submissions. Of course, once the book is finally published, it’s a whole new ball of wax as you are baptized into the world of marketing and promotion.
While all this is going on, if you are also a freelance writer, you have to somehow find the time and energy to invest into those efforts as well. It takes time to join your chosen freelance forums, develop a profile and search their database for available jobs. It also takes time to draft and submit the necessary, well-crafted proposals. And, if you lucky enough to land a project., it takes time to do the job right. If you manage to land more than one project, then the time invested increases exponentially.
On top of all this, you still have your everyday responsibilities. Many authors and freelancers have "day jobs" to worry about—a means to support their writing addiction. Then there's the home, kids, spouse, pets and so forth. You can’t neglect those either—after all those windows aren’t going to wash themselves, nor will the laundry fold and put itself away. Your kids actually need to see their mother/father every so often and, unless you tie Fido's leash to the treadmill (yes, I actually have tried it—it wasn't pretty) he is not going to walk himself. Finally, there is you. Believe it or not, you still need time to take care of your personal needs, like bathing, eating, exercise, bathroom breaks…you get the idea.
The problem is this: although everything I’ve just stated (and it’s not even the full list) adds up to about a 26 hour workday, last I checked there were only 24 hours in a day (some of which are reserved for sleep). There have been times when I had so much on my plate that I simply lost my appetite and couldn’t do a damn thing. Those were the times that I just shut down, threw my hands up in exasperation, and spent hours in a Zuma Blitz stupor, not accomplishing anything worthwhile. With deadlines looming, that’s not usually the best course of action.
So what’s a writer to do?
It all comes down to effective time management. It’s a skill that is typically learned and usually learned the hard way. Believe me, I’m no expert, but I have developed two simple systems that have helped me budget my time and keep me from getting too overwhelmed to function. Of course, neither one is foolproof and should be molded to suit an individual’s preferences and personality, but the principles offer the structure needed to organize your time and get things done.
Time Block Management: This system revolves around organizing your schedule into designated blocks of time. For this to work, aside from patience and discipline, you need to have a daily calendar that divides each day into blocks of time (written, digital, it doesn’t matter—whatever works for you). You also need a timer, preferably with an alarm. You can use the timer on your phone, a kitchen timer, the timer on your stove—whatever floats your boat—but whatever it is you need to use it. The next thing you need to do is set your time parameters for the writing day (i.e. are you working 8:00 to 5:00, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., 1 in the morning until 12 noon, etc.).
Once you’ve determined the length of your workday, it’s important to make a list of things you want to accomplish by the end of the day. Of course, this should all be done before the workday begins or you’ll have to include “making a list of things to do” on your list of things to do. Kind of self-defeating. It is crucial that you keep the list realistic! Don’t overachieve and don’t underestimate how long something will take to complete. This is the surest way to sabotage yourself. What I usually do is make a master list of all the things I need to accomplish and prioritize them by date and comparative importance. Then I choose my daily goals from the master list (it’s particularly satisfying at the end of the week when you get to cross a bunch of stuff of your master list).
Once you’ve chosen your tasks, you need to plug them into your calendar, making sure you allot enough time for each task. Don’t forget to schedule break time and lunch time and make sure you leave enough room for the mental transition from one task to another (it usually takes me about 5 minutes to stretch my legs, grab a cup of coffee, and get my brain ready for the next task). Now you’re ready to go. You have your day all mapped out. Make sure you start on time, and set your timer before each task. Most importantly, when that timer goes off, stop what you’re doing. Resist the temptation to keep on going, (i.e. you’re on an editing roll and hate to stop in order to write a 500 word article about the hand-washing habits of people in Nova Scotia). For the record, this is where I struggle the most. I always want to do “just one more thing” before I move on. If something is left unfinished, make a note of it and add it back onto your master list for another day. By the end of the day, you should have completed a number of tasks and will feel good about your productivity. If you find that you are not completing the tasks in the time allotted, then you have fallen into the overachiever trap. You need to modify your goals to fit more realistically into a given time frame.
Admittedly, I have a really hard time sticking to this type of time management plan because once I get into doing something, timer or no timer, I can’t seem to pull myself away and refocus. Consequently, I developed an alternate plan.
Daily Assignment Plan: For this plan to work, I recommend a monthly calendar (one that has a large block set aside for each day of any given month) and a master list. The master list should be divided into a number categories, one for each of the days during the week you plan on doing your writing thing. For instance, mine has five categories right now: Freelance tasks; Marketing/promotion goals; Writing/editing SENTRY'S RETURN: Veil of Reason; Other Writing (such as short stories and other projects) and Household/Personal tasks (grocery shopping, bill paying, miscellaneous errands, etc.).
Once you've fully developed your list, designate each day of the week as a day to focus on one particular category. For instance, Monday might be your marketing/promotion day, Tuesday might be your novel writing day, Wednesday might be your freelance project day, and so on. Then, on any given day, focus on only those tasks related to the category assigned to it. For example, if Wednesday is my Freelance day, I will focus on finishing my freelance projects due that week. If I have no projects, then I focus on finding them—kind of a job-hunting day. For each day, I still write out a sub-list of things I want to accomplish, but unlike the Time Block method, I don’t set apart a certain block of time to complete each task. I just prioritize and tackle them in order.
If you have more than five categories (as I have at times), then you may need to either work weekends or stagger your days so that one or more of your categories gets done only every other week. Also, I typically reserve some “extra” time at the beginning and end of each day for checking e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. I like to keep my Twitter feed fairly active, and I try to update Facebook at least once a day. I’m a compulsive e-mail checker, so I can’t honestly say I just check it twice a day—usually a lot more than that.
Which brings me to my final point. For this method to work, you need to be flexible. For instance, on any given week, I might have a huge amount of freelance work to do. If that’s the case, then I might take the day I would normally reserve for Marketing and Promotion and devote it freelance work instead. Similarly, doctors’ appointments, school issues, and the like don’t always fall on my designated day for household and personal errands. Therefore, I have to be willing to go with the flow sometimes and modify the rest of the week accordingly. But it helps me immensely to know that, all things being equal, when I get up on Monday, I’m going to spend the majority of my day scouring social media, promoting my book, calling on bookstores, etc. or, if it’s Thursday, I’m going to spend the day locked in my office, watching my latest novel unfold on the computer screen. As I've mentioned, it doesn’t always work out according to plan, but it works out a lot better than if I had no plan at all.
I’m sure there are other time management theories out there and experts who can show you other ways to effectively budget your time. But these are the methods that I find work for me. Not always, but at least I don’t get quite as overwhelmed quite as often and am a lot more productive…although my Zuma Blitz skills have suffered in the process.
Stay tuned for Part III in the series: "Show Me the Money!" a/k/a How to Find Work as a Freelancer.
NOTE: This post is the first in a series covering tips to help you succeed as an author/freelance writer. Granted, I’m not living in a mansion or sipping boat drinks on my private yacht, but I do okay as a writer/freelancer. During the series I’ll offer some suggestions based on what works for me. I intend to cover the following topics:
Taking the Job Seriously (Current Post)
Finding Work as a Freelancer
I was talking to a friend on the phone a short time ago and we were discussing jobs. She is presently out of work and is looking for something—anything—to tide her over until she could land that “dream job.” I asked her what her definition of the dream job was, and she replied, “something like yours, where I can stay at home, make my own hours, sleep in, watch some of the soaps and keep up with the house in the meantime.”
I had to chuckle through gritted teeth. Sleep in. Do stuff around the house. Watch TV. Wow. It does sound like a great job—too bad that’s not the job description for an author/freelance writer!
Let’s face it, if you work from home, and especially if you are a writer, many people don’t take your job seriously (unless, of course, you are on the NY Times Best Seller list). Too many people have the misconception that since I work from home, I have the luxury of sleeping until noon, then watching The Price is Right while I tidy up the house. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Writing is a job. It is often a strenuous, all-consuming job. Not strenuous in the physical sense, like someone who hauls sacks of concrete for a living (is there really such a job?). In fact, most days, I worry about throwing a clot because I have to sit on my butt for so many hours. But it is mentally strenuous. The creative process can be exhausting. If you don’t believe me, try it for eight hours one day, and let me know how fried your brain is afterwards. And for anyone who wants to succeed as a writer, especially if they work from home, they have to take their job seriously, treat it with respect. That means no late morning naps. No mid-day television shows. No afternoon laundry-folding sessions. And no late day wanderings on the internet to find that perfect vacation spot. Instead, it means discipline; finding a routine and sticking to it. It means sitting at your desk and doing your work while ignoring the distractions of everyday life.
So how, exactly, does one do that? It’s not easy, and everybody sees it a little differently. But I can tell you what works for me.
When I first embarked upon this journey of full-time writing from home, I struggled with the temptations hiding at every turn. It was hard to focus on my work and not notice that the dogs needed grooming or that the ceiling fan had a stack of dust on it an inch thick. It was a battle not to check my e-mail “just one more time,” or see who was on Facebook. But I soon learned that if I gave into temptation, at the end of the day, I'd have nothing to show for my efforts except a matt-free dog and a shiny ceiling fan. That wasn’t paying the bills. So I came up with a few tricks to keep me on track. Are they foolproof? No. Do I still get sidetracked? Oh yeah. But they have helped to make me more efficient and more productive. Maybe they’ll work for you.
Have a designated working space
This is key. If you have an extra room and can set up an office, that’s perfect. But if you’re short on space, perhaps you’ll have to carve out a little corner of your dining room, or your bedroom, or even your garage. Wherever it is, make sure it is fairly quiet, comfortable, and set up like a work station in an average office would be: desk, comfy chair (with back support), computer, keyboard, printer, paper, pens, pencils, paper clips, reference books, etc. Then, once it’s set up, dub it as your work space. Not your computer gaming station, not your social media station, not your read-a-book-and-relax station. As far as practical, whenever you are sitting at that work station, you should be doing work. If at all possible, leisure activities, even during non-working hours, should occur elsewhere. This will help set your brain into the routine that, when you’re sitting at the work station, you’re there to work and nothing else.
Whatever tools you use as a writer should be right there at your fingertips so that you don’t need to go searching through the house to find that yellow highlighter, red pen or toner cartridge. Same deal if you’re a snacker. Keep some snacks at your desk so that you don’t get up and go routing through the kitchen cabinets looking for goodies. Why? Not only is it a waste of valuable writing time, but if you need to search the house for stuff, inevitably you will get distracted and find something else to do while you are looking.
Set your hours
You need to have designated working hours. Set a time when you will “arrive” at your work station and a time when you will “leave.” This, of course will depend on your schedule and preferences, but if you are doing this full time, make sure you schedule yourself for at least an eight hour workday. The hours your work don't necessarily have to be in a row. For instance, I start work at 8:00 a.m. and go until 3:00 (that’s when the kids are home and I have to start considering dinner options). Then, in the evening, I’ll return to the office around 8:00 p.m. and work until about 10:00 p.m. Whatever hours you set, make sure you respect them and abide by them.
In addition, set certain break times during the day, including a lunch break. If you’re anything like me, sometimes when you’re writing you lose track of time. I suggest you invest in a timer and set it so that you’ll have an audible reminder to take your breaks when you’re supposed to. Avoid switching things around and skipping breaks unless you absolutely have to (i.e. doctor’s appointments, post-office runs, or the muse just won’t let you stop writing the best chapter of your life). When you take your breaks, get up and walk around—it’s good for both your physical and mental health. Like I said earlier, writing can be strenuous brain-work and sitting too long can be downright dangerous when you reach my age. Eat lunch in the kitchen, outside, or somewhere away from your desk so as to give your eyes and head a break from the computer. Avoid the temptation to stretch your break time or lunch time. Pretend you have a foot-tapping boss waiting back at your desk, just looking for an excuse to dock your pay.
Don’t forget to take days off. Writing can be a 24/7 occupation if you let it. I don’t recommend it. You’ll burn out pretty quickly, even if you love it as much as I do. Take weekends off; or if you schedule doesn’t permit both days, make sure at least one day on the weekend is writing-free. Even the harshest of bosses give their employees vacation time, so don’t forget to take a day off every so often—and when you do, resist the temptation to sit at your work station and do “just a little bit” of work. A true day off should be “writing-free.” Your muse (and your family) will thank you.
Don’t surround yourself with distractions. For instance, unless you absolutely need it, I suggest either keeping your phone away from your desk or turning the ringer off. Even if you don’t pick it up, the sound of the phone ringing will wreak havoc with your focus and concentration. If you were in an office setting outside of your home, you wouldn’t be getting calls on your home line, would you? And you’d probably have your cell phone turned off. Generally, you are not allowed to take personal calls in an office setting, so treat your job with the same respect—don’t pick up personal calls while you’re working! At the very least, if you absolutely must have a phone next to you, make sure you have caller ID. This way, you won’t waste your valuable time talking to telemarketers.
Aside from the phone, consider other distractions. For instance, if you have a disruptive pet (i.e. a pup who keeps placing his favorite toy on your lap, wanting to play, or a cat who insists on sleeping on your keyboard) you need to keep them away while you work, preferably in another room or part of the house. Yes, I know it sounds mean, but it’s also necessary if you’re going to take your job seriously.
Don’t keep un-work related items on your desk. For instance if you have your bills and checkbook sitting on your desk, while your dreaming up a hook for your article, they will inevitably catch your eye and you will consider logging into your online bank account, or maybe take a minute to write that check to the doctor that you keep forgetting about. Similarly, if your favorite book or iPad is lying there, you’ll be tempted to read a quick chapter or perhaps play a short game of Temple Run. It’s best not to even have such enticements so nearby.
Set Ground Rules for Others
Inevitably, when I have the most pressing deadlines, that’s when my kids have a day off from school, or my husband decides to call in “sick.” Regardless, unless necessary (i.e. your kid is off from school because he's ill and need some TLC) you don’t necessarily have the day off. Make sure your kids or significant other knows this and set boundaries for your work time. You may have to readjust your break times to make lunch for the young ‘uns or chauffeur your son or daughter to their friend’s house, but make sure they don’t monopolize your time. Let them know you are working and when you are at your desk, aside from emergencies, interruptions are not advised. Oh, and make sure you define the term “emergency” (i.e. the inability to find a lost sock does not constitute an emergency). These “day off” rules apply to my summer schedule, too. The kids are both home and are feeling fine because they are on summer vacation. I, however, don't get summers off, and in order to afford those excursions to the shore, I must work. It was harder when they were younger but it's a little easier now that they’re in their teens. Generally, I simply get up a little earlier than during the school year and get nearly a full day in before the teenage zombies arise from their tombs.
Give yourself some leeway
I’m a tough boss; always have been. But sometimes you just have to cut yourself some
slack. Occasionally, when working on a
novel, I need to get up and chase the muse a little—take an hour or so and go for
a walk or putter around the garden. The
fresh air clears my head and allows the creative juices to flow more
freely. There are also those days when,
having not slept well the night before, an extra bit of shut eye is needed to
function correctly, so that power-nap becomes a necessary addition to my
agenda. And some days, when no deadlines
are pending, I find that the extra load of laundry just can’t wait. The point is this: yes, have your schedule, but don’t beat
yourself up if once in a while you stray.
Just don’t make a habit of it. Because
you take a catnap on Monday doesn’t mean you have the right to take one on
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Be
forgiving but firm because exceptions and excuses can quickly form a slippery
slope, messing with even the most well-established routine.
No one is perfect and interruptions, variations and
unexpected snafus are inevitable. Still, these
guidelines can help validate your job, and allow you to take it more seriously. If you do, so will others, including freelance
clients, agents and publishers. STAY TUNED FOR PART II:
Juggling Balls and Spinning Plates:
The Time Management Trick.
No one is perfect and interruptions, variations and unexpected snafus are inevitable. Still, these guidelines can help validate your job, and allow you to take it more seriously. If you do, so will others, including freelance clients, agents and publishers.
STAY TUNED FOR PART II: Juggling Balls and Spinning Plates: The Time Management Trick.
I was recently asked to give a keynote speech at the Write it Right conference, sponsored by the Black Diamond Writers’ Network. They requested that I talk about the changing landscape of the publishing industry and what it means for writers.
I spent a good deal of time thinking about the subject before my presentation. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Why? Because it's largely subjective.
There are a lot of negative comments bouncing around about that very topic. The prophets of doom have circled their wagons around the subject, announcing what a terrible time it is to be a writer, predicting the end of traditional publishing, and forecasting how the evil e-book will force the paperback to go the same way as the vinyl record. There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth by industry professionals as they gaze upon a bleak and barren landscape, laid to ruin by the plagues of self publishing, digital publishing and micro-presses. The new author shall surely starve and pass into oblivion in this harsh and sterile wasteland.
You see, in my humble opinion, it really depends on what you’re looking for. What one might see as a scorched desert another might see as an oasis blooming with opportunity. And which one you see probably depends on how you define “opportunity.”
If, for you, opportunity means fame and fortune, your name on billboards, appearances on talk shows, royalty checks and movie deals flooding your mailbox, well, break out the sunscreen because you’re in for a long trek in the desert. On the other hand, if your definition of opportunity means a chance to tell your story, get your book “on the shelves” and reach out to readers, regardless of whether you ever make a dime, then enjoy your oasis!
Let’s take a closer look at the landscape.
Everyone knows that self publishing is in its heyday. Back in “olden times” self-publishing was an unknown concept. The big publishing houses called the shots and no one got a legitimate book into print except through them. But now, self-publishing is all the rage. It doesn’t have a stigma or stink attached to it anymore, and a bunch of sites have sprung up all over the internet determined to help the “indie author” (a/k/a authors who are self-published or published through a micro-press) find their readers. Google turned up 38,700 results on a search for self publishing houses. There are tons of them out there, ready and willing to help you turn your manuscript into a real, honest-to-goodness book. Pretty much all of them will offer you, the writer, a host of publishing packages, ranging from bare-bones printing to full packages that include a stack of author’s copies and some degree of promotion. Here’s the rub: they all cost money. Every one of them. You, the writer, have to pay the costs upfront, before you ever see your book. There are also a fair share of scammers out there, too—companies that will include hidden costs, won’t give you good quality, or will coerce you into buying something that you never intended and probably don’t need. Authors have to be proactive, do their homework, and make sure the companies they are dealing with are legitimate. A little scary, isn’t it? The bottom line is simple. Whatever self-publishing house you choose (and they vary as to the details), you are paying someone to publish your book. You are starting out “in the hole” money-wise, and will have to work hard—very HARD—to make back what you will spend on self-publishing.
For those authors who don’t have the money to invest upfront into self-publishing, e-books and micro-presses offer alternatives. Micro-presses are very small publishers that probably won’t pay you an advance but will help you get your book on the shelf and even help to promote it. Most have a selective submissions policy, don’t ask for money, and will ask for your rights.
Then there are e-books. As most of you, e-books offer writers a chance to present their books to the reading public in digital format for download onto computer or e-reader. Unless you pay for a formatting service, they don’t usually cost money to produce. They are easily accessible to the general public but they do sell for less than traditional paperbacks. The e-book industry has blossomed lately and is going through some growing pains. I won’t even get into the current legal sparring over e-book price fixing. That could constitute a whole other blog post.
But wait! What about traditional publishing? After all, it was the way all the “great authors” rose to fame and fortune in the past. Should we totally discount it?
It’s no secret that, while the uprising of self publishing, digital publishing and micro-presses have not caused the “Big Six,” to roll over and die, they have caused them to adapt. The doors to those houses which were notoriously narrow to begin with, have become even more constricted, especially for the debut author. True, the big-name publishing houses are still taking on new authors, but they have become increasingly more selective. But even if you are one of the select few who gets a book published by one of the big houses, fame and fortune don't necessarily follow and, in fact, are not even visible in the rear-view mirror. You will have an agent (most big named publishers won’t look at un-agented work), who will take at least 15% percent of whatever you make on your book right off the top. You will get an Advance against royalties (don’t forget that latter part; it’s not “free money”) but it probably won’t be as big as you had envisioned. You won’t get the rock star treatment of days gone by, and you will be responsible for the lion’s share of marketing and promotion. You will get the prestige of having a big name imprint on your book and will have greater access to reviewers and bookstores, but not much else. In fact, if your book doesn’t sell up to expectations, you may get that disheartening notification that it is being placed “out of print” by the publishing house a lot sooner than you would like. Sure, you might find a copy or two on ebay, but you won’t get any royalties off of that. Consequently, even placing with a big house does not guarantee a big paycheck.
So, what’s the point of all this?
All in all, the avenues by which an author can get published abound like never before. Writers have more options than they have ever had at any time in history. But will you get rich by pursuing any of these options? Nope. Of course, you might be one of those very rare exceptions, the kind of person who buys one ticket for the Mega Millions and winds up hitting the jackpot. If you are, more power to you, and I hope you’ll buy my book when you're rolling in the dough. However, if you’re like the rest of us, if you’re lucky, you might come out a few bucks ahead. Typically, though, you’ll lose some money in the process. Even if you don't spend a dime for self-publication, the process of promotion and marketing (if you’re serious about it) costs money. Therefore, if you define “opportunity” as a shot at making mucho dinero ….
Welcome to the desert.
On the other hand, if your goal is to get your book out there, get it in the hands of readers and tell your story, the landscape looks much different to your eyes. As a writer, I can’t imagine any greater kick than having your story reach someone, get into their head, incite emotion and leave an indelible impression. We, as authors, are gatekeepers. We have the power to invite readers into a world that would otherwise be inaccessible to them, except through your book. It’s like magic—genuine magic—to be able to create entire worlds that spring to life and become real not only for you, but for those who read your book. Numbers don’t matter. If you reach one person and somehow impact that person’s life by what you have written, you have changed the world. For me, that privilege is worth more than gold; and for many writers, it is all the payment needed. So, if you define “opportunity” as a chance to publish your book and reach readers, no matter how many, for the sake of art and expression itself . . .
Welcome to your oasis!
Like so many things in this life, though, which one you see depends upon your perspective. That choice is, and always has been, yours.
Want to know the secret to success? Quitting. Yes, you heard me correctly. And, if you’re a creative professional, it is in your interest to learn to get really good at quitting. Maybe you’ve felt like a loser or a failure, that your dream to make a living with your art was a fool’s errand.
Maybe, if you are anything like me, just maybe you had friends and family and people around you telling you that you were a dreamer, that you needed to get your head out of the clouds and to let go of your “magic beans” and learn to be something practical that made a good paycheck and came with dental benefits. Maybe, in an effort to counteract all this negativity, you found yourself wandering the inspiration books in Half Price Bookstore (namely because you were too broke to buy books full-price). And maybe, just maybe, you clung to the little dog-eared quote books full of really bad advice.For more visit Kristen Lamb's Blog