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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The First Official Rant Day

Today is my Rant Day. I’ve decided I need to designate at least one day of the month as the day when I get to vent without feeling guilty for doing so. It’s unprofessional, but dang it, sometimes it’s just so necessary. I see my favorite irreverent freelancer, Kathy, take venting to artistic heights and I envy her the ability. So here goes.

Today’s topic is an old one – people who want to be writers who expect you to map out their careers for them. Like I said, I love helping and giving advice when I can, but when someone says, “Okay, give me a list of steps I must to take in order to be successful”, I want to scream. If you cannot figure out for yourself how to build a business, no list from any successful or semi-successful freelancer will help you. I’m sorry. Get off your duff and do some work for yourself. Oh, and while we’re at it, I can give you that list. It’ll cost you, because that’s called Career Coaching, friends, and career coaches get paid big bucks per hour. But even with the list, what are you gonna do for yourself? Huh? Sit there and say, “Gee, staring at this list for the last month hasn’t helped.” Hell no it hasn’t! You gotta put the seat leather into the job for yourself. It’s not going to come to you simply by asking for it! Sheesh. If it were that easy, the world’s wanna-be artists would all be writers.

I had help back in the day. I had marvelous tutors who gave me advice on where to look and what to do. However, the help I received was in the form of answering a specific question about a specific problem. “Where can I find information on writing a good query letter?” or “Where can I find clients who need my specialty?” Beyond that, dear readers, I busted my hump to figure it out for myself. I read. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest for years until I found that I had finally surpassed the content. I bought books on writing written by working writers. I studied them. I learned how to do it. Guess what? I’m no exception. Most of the writers I know started out in the same way. Oh, and my career started long before the Internet, so if I did it, you have no excuses.

Yes, ask questions. Please. But don’t be lazy. If you want to be a writer, do a little research for yourself. I’ll help, but I’m not going to be your mother and do it for you.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

CYA - Survival Among Enemies

On a recent project, it became apparent almost instantly that the parties involved in helping me complete the assignment were warring factions. In one case, there was an email accusation that slashed away mercilessly at the information given to me by the other contributing party. Oy. And vey.

What to do in a situation where your “bosses” can’t agree? In this case, it was an easy decision. There was a third party – a project coordinator who is responsible for getting everyone on the same page and my main go-to person for all questions regarding the project. Amen. I sent off a note asking how I should proceed. I have relaxed momentarily. Since it’s a vacation week for some, I probably won’t get a response this week.

I can honestly say this is a new one for me. While I’ve had my fair share of conflicts with clients not liking me for some reason or another (we cannot be all things to all people), I have never faced a situation where the client parties were so obviously on opposite sides. While I’d love to herd the cats and make everyone happy, I recognize the futility of it. I’m a freelance professional, not a counselor. I have no idea the motivations or the histories of these people. If something needs fixing beyond the project, I’m not the one to do it.

You? How have you/would you handle a similar situation? Feel free to leave your comments. I relish a good discussion!

Friday, December 15, 2006

CYA – Own Your Process

I said something in my last post that maybe we should talk about. Things went wrong with my client mentioned in that post when I allowed him to own my process. Let me explain –

When I met with the client the first time, he started by telling me I should be writing down everything. Not wanting to feel foolish, I complied. As I was listening, he stopped at one point and told me to write down what he'd just said. That’s where I lost control. My first mistake. I became his clerk/typist.

Not that it was so bad adhering to his wishes, but because of that first meeting, my own rhythm was thrown off, and being a mildly passive person, I allowed him to take control. Fine, it’s his book, right? True. However, the control he took was not only over the entire project, but over my work process. He set up the parameters – ones in retrospect I shouldn’t have worked under. He insisted on saving the master document on his computer. I saved a copy, but he said he’d be making changes after I’d sent my changes, so it all turned out to be moot on my end.

He also insisted on the following: I would send him an edited chapter, he would look it over and send it back for revision, I would toss out any previous chapter, revise what he’d sent and he would get it back to save to the master document. See how confusing that is? See how he told me (and frankly, I let him tell me) how I should conduct my work?

Let me stop right here and say that I shoulder some of the blame for this. I allowed this client to tell me how I should do my job. So I’m not saying the client was entirely to blame. In fact, on this point, it was my fault. He barked. I jumped.

Back to our story – I was sending edited chapters out to the client every few weeks. At first, we did okay with his process. But as we started getting into subsequent chapters, things got confusing. I was editing one chapter, he was revising another and tossing it back to me for revisions. It wasn’t long before my edits went to him but never returned for revisions. I was keeping a flow chart, so I thought things were organized. Eventually, maybe a month later, a missing chapter would appear with revisions. At that point, I was to toss the old chapter and replace it with the one he’d sent. I did so, but not before I compared his changes to mine. In most cases, my revisions had disappeared. I questioned him about it. He said he’d revised and put back what he thought was relevant to his style and his story. I dropped it and performed what he’d asked, knowing full well he’d returned bad copy into the text. I told him so and got no response.

We all know how this turned out – badly. Yes, he was difficult, but had I been able to own that process, maybe I could have brought him to a better understanding of why the edits I made were necessary. Toward the end of the project, he had actually exclaimed (just short of shouting) when I had removed numerous ellipses from his copy “But that’s my trademark!” He wasn’t hearing why at that point – that ellipses indicate incomplete thoughts and that dashes would have a stronger, more positive effect. He’d stopped listening. He was convinced I was the devil out to destroy his project. Had I been able to own my work process, I would have indicated to him in the text and in person again and again that the changes I made that he was replacing with bad copy were necessary. If I’d maintained control over my work process, I would have had more credibility with the client, and he might have understood that I wasn’t trying to kill the “sprit” of his book, but I was trying to share my knowledge and expertise with him.

I can’t help but think how differently things could have been if I’d owned my work process. I would have had a more organized workflow system, and I would have insisted on holding on to all copy, as well as explaining and asserting why certain edits needed to remain. Alas, I have no time machine. I can’t go back and fix it. But you can bet that I’ve learned from it, and I won’t ever let anyone own my process again. After all, I can’t give my best if I can’t see the end result.
CYA - Contracts and Payment
Hooray! Four times must be a charm, because the client finally understood that the project I spoke of in the last post will not be finished this month. I guess I got what I wanted for Christmas!

Now comes the fun part – getting payment. Yep, I have a contract. Yep, it spells out the terms. Yep, they’ve paid in the past. Nope, I don’t think any of that guarantees payment.

Let me tell you a story – Once upon a time, there was a writer who was hired to ghostwrite a book. The client and the writer got along well, and the writer was given feedback by the client, but it was sporadic and the writer had to pull it out of him. While the client was a bit scattered and didn’t always respond to the writer’s questions, the writer did not foresee any problems. The client had paid the first invoice on time and in full, so all was right with the world. The client kept insisting on putting his own copy back after the writer painstakingly edited it, but the writer advised him once and let him control his own destiny.

Then one Friday, a week before the project was to go to the publisher, the writer got a phone call from the client. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. The client claimed that the writer had not performed the editing process correctly – the text, the client claimed, was full of mistakes! Not surprisingly, these were the same mistakes the writer had removed and the client had insisted on keeping. The client claimed the writer was ill prepared, untalented and not very smart. Two days later, after the writer spent an entire weekend tearing apart the client’s project, rewriting and polishing, the client fired the writer, claiming her edits killed the “sprit” of his book. The writer, obviously upset, decided to hold her tongue and consult her attorney.

Upon the attorney’s advice, the writer billed the client for payment in full. The client came back with a note saying he owed her nothing and in fact, the writer needed to reimburse him for all he’d paid her to date. Upon reminding him that he’d broken the contract by firing her after she’d performed exactly as he’d requested in the contract, the writer rebilled and suggested he pay to avoid litigation. The client was upset and threatened a countersuit. In the end, the relationship ended horribly, but the writer did receive one-half of the amount due from the client.

You guessed it – the writer was me. That’s why I never rest easy even with a contract. Perhaps the situation I just described could have worked out better had we communicated more, but I have to say that I think the client was trying to get out of paying me. Perhaps it was because he'd recently found out that his publishing house would do the edits for a fraction of the cost and work that into his invoice. Perhaps it was because he'd been embarrassed. He had been brazen enough to pass his manuscript around the office and a few who thought they were editors must have told him his copy needed some work (it did – I’d done the work, but if he’s not accepting it, then the onus would be on him to repair, don’t you think?). Trying to save face perhaps, he came back on me with it. It was something I never expected, given the fact that I’d communicated as much as I could with the client. 'Twas an expensive lesson. To this day, I don’t rest easy until that last check clears. Call me cynical.

Monday, December 11, 2006

CYA - Client Focus

To those of you who believe that if you repeat what you want to happen over and over again it will happen, stop it. You’re annoying the hell out of the rest of us who are trying to make it happen for you.

It occurs in the world of writing and editing a lot – the clients, good and bad, don’t quite hear what you’re saying. Right now I’m working with a very nice client who seems to have some rare form of email blindness, for no matter how many times or ways I say it, he’s not understanding that his project will not be done this month. It would be different if I said it once and I was vague, but folks, I’ve said it four times now and very directly. I started saying it in August, when it was very apparent that the job was bigger than expected. I thought with ample warning, the client would have a chance to make a contingency plan.

Apparently that didn’t happen, for here it is December and once again I’m getting asked the same question I’d answered three times prior. Will the project be ready? No, the project will not be ready. Pretty clear to you, right? What makes it worse is that I really want to have this project completed. I’ve worked my tail off and now I have writer friends helping me, as well. I’m waiting for the next question, which will surely come this week or next. Maybe I should set up my response like a Dr. Seuss rhyme – “It won’t be finished in December, just as it wasn’t in November. It will not happen, no sirree, no matter how often you ask me.”

Clients, please. We love you. We want to do good for you. We want to make your project our priority. However, you are not our only client, nor can we devote all our time to you, as we love all our clients and they deserve some of our time, too. If you want to pay us a ton to be our only client, we’ll devote time accordingly. However, this being the real world, we understand you have a budget. So do we. That’s why we have to take on other client work, too. Otherwise, we’d starve. So please have patience. Please hear us and read our messages – we’re not putting you off or slacking in any way. We’re conducting our businesses in a sensible manner and we’re working on your project as much as we’re working on others.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

CYA – Lesson One

If you’re a writer, you’re working with contracts (and if you’re not working with a contract, shame on you!). I keep some standard ones handy for clients who are without, but when a client sends you one of their contracts, please please PLEASE read it carefully. I mean it. If you skim that sucker, you’re going to miss something important. I speak from experience.

Read it through. Pay attention to specific areas. The description of the work should be exactly as described to you by the client. If not, question it before you sign. After you sign, it’s too late.

Another area of attention – payment terms. If you look at it quickly and say “Oh! A dollar a word; cool!” you may be missing some key terminology that could end up costing you. Case in point – I once worked with a teen magazine, which shall remain nameless but no less loathed by me. I was sent the contract after the editor said she wanted to purchase only the sidebar to the story I’d submitted because she felt the story lacked something. No problem – she was paying me $150 for the sidebar. The entire story was worth a lot more, but I was still free to resell that portion.

The contract came and the payment terms stated I’d be paid $150 for “minimum 250 words” for the “sidebar.” Imagine my surprise when I came across that magazine in a store a few months later and the entire article had been printed. I figured it was an oversight by the editor, so I contacted her by mail. Twice. And called her. Twice. By the fourth communication, I knew she wasn’t calling back. I pulled out that contract and prepared to threaten her with her own signature. Alas, there was that phrase “minimum 250 words.” That word “minimum” was the deal-killer. Because of that one word I’d originally overlooked, I lost a significant amount of cash, for it allowed that editor to take the entire article that was "lacking something" and print it verbatim, which she did (and the jerk didn’t even give me credit on the stupid sidebar). My last communication with her was a note to her superior, copying her, letting them know how displeased I was. I also included copies of our correspondence that showed the editor had indeed said one thing and had done another – to no avail. The superior gave me just as much attention as the editor did.

My bad. Live and learn. And yes, shame on them for being such skunks (and this was a BIG magazine, folks). In the end, I had nothing but my signature to terrible terms and one letter stating other terms. Please – learn from my mistakes. Look for those vague terms, such as “minimum”, “maximum” and any unclear or undefined descriptions or terminology. In a current contract, I saw the project length described as “1500 to 2000” and you can bet I wrote in “words” behind it. No way do I want to get paid a mere $2,000 to write a 2,000-page tome!
Words on the Page