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Monday, August 31, 2009

Monthly Assessment - August

My word, has it been a month already? It seems like I just wrote my monthly assessment for July. Well, the calendar says it's time, so here goes.

It was a short month for me in the earnings department thanks to two weeks in Scotland - has it really been two weeks since I came home? Feels like months. In that two weeks, I managed a ton of new work, some which came in prior to the vacation and a few "Help!" things that showed up right in the middle of the madness. Let's hope it's a trend.

Queries -
This was my main focus my first week back. I had compiled some ideas and outlines for articles while on vacation, which I find happens a lot. The minute the mind is allowed to relax, ideas come rushing in - do you get that, too? Anyway, I sent out five or six queries that week, and a few this past week. Nothing has come of any of it, which is beginning to annoy me. A "no thank you" note would be better than silence. Do all editors these days think common courtesy is a waste of time? But I digress...

Job postings -
Yea, no. I didn't go here. I was busy, and I wasn't in the mood to be depressed. As you've probably heard me complain in the past, online job sections such as Craig's List are something I can take about 10 minutes of before I feel like a career change. In general there's not much out there for professional writers wanting a decent rate for their efforts.

Existing clients -
Here's where I cleaned up this month. I came home to three projects from past/present clients and found two more in my email, as well. That, on top of my ongoing project, will sustain me. Not make me rich, mind you, but sustenance works until the market eases up.

Earnings -
I haven't had five minutes to figure it until now. For half a month of work, I invoiced a little over $2K. To me, that's dismal. But that's not including the current project I haven't invoiced for yet. That should bring my total up to $3K, which sounds better for two weeks of work.

Bottom line -
Once people get back into their "working" mindset, which for some reason happens after Labor Day, I intend to hit the queries hard and really dig to find markets for those vacation-related proposals. My goal for September is to secure contracts from at least two of my uncommitted clients. Perhaps they too are waiting for vacation season to end? I'm also looking to pick up more insurance- or risk management-related clients. It's my specialty, doggone it. I miss writing this stuff and I'm inches from resurrecting my risk blog just to be able to talk shop. Also, I'm back to putting words down on the current fiction book manuscript, so I intend to get at least 10K more words finished on that in September.

How was your August?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Advice for a Fellow Freelancer

Sometimes we run up against an issue that we can't see our way to solving. Such is the case of one writer, who asked for anonymity, and her current client. I promised her I'd ask my blog readers to help her figure out how to deal with this situation. I have my own ideas, which I passed on to her, but maybe you have some wisdom for this writer (whom we shall call Connie). Here's Connie's story:

For quite a few years my husband, who is a graphic designer, and I, a writer, have put together a magazine for a client's property firm. We work with his marketing woman, who ... does the flatplan, gathers the materials and liaises with the local retailers and other organizations who are featured in the mag. It's our job to turn those raw materials into something readable and engaging. For the first year, we did a fantastic job and we were both very proud of the magazine that we created.

And then, the consultant was called in.

This consultant is not a journalist or an expert at all in publishing. She is advising my client on his retail strategy, something my client believes she is "the best in the business" at. We were summoned to a meeting with the consultant and asked to bring examples of our portfolio - in short, to explain ourselves.

The consultant then went away and came up with some ideas for how the magazine could be "improved." Her conclusion? It looked "too professional." (Well, what else could she say?!) Her vision was that the magazine should convey a charming amateurishness, like a parish magazine. It should have a range of voices (i.e. hers and her other
clients' . . .)

Well, it's certainly achieved its goal of amateurishness! The magazine has since turned into a dull, unreadable series of rewritten press releases, mixed in with articles written by people who are verging on illiterate (or their first language isn't English) and commissioned by people who can't commission. My job is to come in at the last minute to make the copy look like less of botch job (for none of the contributors ever delivers their offerings on time or to word count - always two days before we go to press).

Each issue has become increasingly soul-destroying and I'm at a loss as to what to do. Part of me wants to share my views honestly with the client, but since I've never been asked for them, I feel uncomfortable doing so. Part of me wants to just ditch the job, but, hey, what freelancer wants to turn down paid work in this environment? (Though actually, I'm pretty swamped at the moment, but my husband is less so).

Oh, and the whole thing is complicated by the fact that the client is also a personal friend. What would you do, Lori?

So, dear readers, what would you say to help Connie?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What We Can Do

I had a great phone conversation yesterday with another writer, Sally. (Hi Sally!) In the course of the conversation, she and I covered everything from crazy former bosses to the current state of freelancing. One of the biggest topics we talked about was the proliferation of awful job postings on the Internet. As we lamented the $1-an-article job (it's not even 4 bucks anymore), Sally said what we're all thinking, "What can we do to stop it?"

You guys have been fighting the good fight with me for some time now, so you know we've tried just about everything. But what I said to Sally, what I'll say to anyone else who asks, is we have to educate our peers. Moreover, we have to educate - nay, even shame - newcomers and wanna-bes from taking these jobs. What they see as their golden opportunity is for the entire profession a lead balloon weighing us down.

In the articles I write, I see a lot of talk about best practices. Mind you, best practices are a series of steps companies have taken that somehow or other worked, and other companies latch on thinking this is as good as it gets. For us, however, we're going to be a little smarter. We're going to take these as guidelines only and this list is going to evolve and change with us.

Let's get the bones down here.

When you see a lousy job posting, complain to the site owner. Please don't interpret this as attacking another writer or someone giving you these listings for free. These folks don't know your ceiling and some of them have carefully plucked through mountains of garbage to bring you what they think are viable offers. They're trying. I'm talking about the sites that tout themselves as bringing you quality postings - for a fee. Two things wrong with that: they don't bring you quality, and they make you pay. Send them a note telling them you're canceling your membership and why.

When you see other writers bidding or offering ridiculous rates, tell them about it. I'll leave it up to you how you'll do that, but I suggest a cordial, professional approach. Put your virtual arm around them and steer them toward better opportunities, better working habits, or the nearest minimum wage job. Educate these folks on why they're worth more and why these jobs on a resume make them look like hack wanna-bes. Seriously. No one ever got a gig at The Atlantic because they wrote for Associated Content. Nor will they. Ever.

Do your best to ignore the offers. Engaging in verbal warfare with these fools is akin to wasting billable hours for nothing. Don't waste your time or your sanity, for they don't care. They want cheap work so they can gain whatever ad revenue they think is coming their way and make that whopping $5 profit. Leave them to spin their wheels alone.

If you must engage, be professional. Sometimes you find yourself in the unsavory position of having responded to what you thought was a legitimate job posting only to find it's no more than an offer to part you with more time wasted. When the "offer" comes back, if you feel like responding and wasting more time, do so only to tell the poster that your fee is 30 times higher because this is your full-time job, not your hobby, and that your rates are industry standard. Then disengage. If these posters share anything in common, it's their penchant for justifying their behavior and diminishing you as a result. I've been told I need an education in how PR, ad revenue, royalties, and various other key words work. Right. The bottom line is someone wants work and won't pay for it. Screw that. If you don't engage in verbal battle, you keep your professionalism, something these clowns will never have.

Help other writers say no. It's what I do every week here. You can, too. Tell your blog readers, your forum buddies, your Twitter community why they need to say no to lousy offers, what they should be considering as a proper fighting wage, and why writing skills are indeed sought after and worthy of fair pay. We're only as strong as our weakest link, and right now we're put together by paper chains of "I need clips!" mentality. Let's show them all how to gain respectable clips without bringing down our profession.

Anything else we can do?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bringing Down the Velvet Hammer

I had to approach an uncomfortable topic with a client recently - I was ruminating about it with a writer friend, basically revving myself up enough to just get it over with. So when I wrote to the client to assert certain working terms we'd agree on, I copied the writer friend. He wrote back - "Talk about a velvet hammer." I reread it - damn, he's right. That was pretty good.

There are going to be times when you and your client have differing opinions on what the scope of your services includes, what the work is supposed to entail, who your boss is, when the project is due, etc. You may have a contract, but that doesn't make it any easier to approach the conversation. No one likes to be wrong, especially paying clients. What works for me is a sideways approach (naturally - I'm a Cancer). I get to the point, but not without preparing the client to hear it. Some clients are easier to talk with than others, and you may find yourself facing a client who may not take to being wrong or having brakes applied.

Here's how I go about a touchy communication -

-Use email. Sometimes a phone call is essential when the client is irate or not understanding your point. In those cases, it's best to get on the horn and address the anger or frustration instantly. But all other times, I opt for email. It's easier to get an unpleasant thought worded appropriately if you've had time to revise it.

- Start with the positive. I never launch into facts that will embarrass or potentially upset my clients without first showing appreciation or giving positive feedback on the project to date. Don't save this for last - by then your client isn't going to be listening.

- Insert diplomacy. In one case a few years ago, the client's contract clearly stated whom I'd be working with, and it was not the person whose emails were suddenly flooding my in box. I could have said very plainly "According to our contract, I am not required to work with this person." But how's that going to look to the client? Like I'm not someone who plays nice, that's how. But anyone who's ever had to work with a third party out of the blue understands how that can kill a project (and your fee) almost instantly. Instead, I sent a thank-you note, full of appreciation for the trust in my services, and with an additional paragraph stating that as of that moment, we'd fulfilled all terms in the contract. I then said that since this other person was interested in getting involved, I'd be glad to work out a new price for this and draw up a new agreement. Suddenly, that person's feedback was no longer necessary. Amen.

- End with repeated thanks. You want to work for this person (or this person's colleagues) again, don't you? Then remember to end once more on a positive note. I always repeat my thanks and express interest in future projects.

Approaching touchy subjects with your clients without riling them up is do-able. It's not a guarantee they won't view you as impossible, but if you keep it framed professionally, you'll assert your boundaries without them taking offense. And you'll more than likely salvage the relationship and set a more realistic precedent for future projects.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Here's To You

I strongly encourage you to head over to Maria Schneider's blog and nominate your favorite for her Top 25 blogging contest. And thank you to Georganna Hancock and Devon Ellington for nominating me. I appreciate the honor!

The trouble with blog contests is they have to exclude someone. Seriously, how can you include all your favorites when you have one vote? Worse, sometimes your favorite has no category in which to be, well, categorized. Like Carrie Link's daily life revelation on Fully Caffeinated or Devon Ellington's glimpse inside her head at Ink in My Coffee - how do you lump great reading into a category? And the Aquarian side of me wants to know why should we anyway?

So pick your favorites and let me know about them here. Go on - pick more than one. Post the name and the link and tomorrow (or the next day, depending on the number of responses) I'll make our own Top Blogs list. This is your chance to honor those you read religiously (and maybe even your own blog you've worked so hard to create?). Let us know what blog you can't start the day without.

These are top blogs. The blogs don't have to be about writing (though it's cool if they are). Just tell me where you go and why. We get inspiration from so many places, it seems a shame to exclude a blog just because it's not writing-specific.

Where should we look first?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Looking Like a Friggin' Genius in Front of Your Clients

It was a small thing, but I passed it on to my client who now thinks I'm a genius. Why, she may even have an altar up with my Facebook photo on it....

Okay, I exaggerate just a bit, but I did impress the socks off my client and in return got a thank-you note back. How? I told her how to simplify her work with one little click.

We're proofing a large document. It will go first online, then into a print version - still electronic, but it requires formatting. To save her money, I'm saving one file to use in two places. That includes formatting that she doesn't need for the online version. Unfortunately, a few of the documents were littered with formatting changes and the revisions were getting lost. I did a little exploring, and lo and behold! one can indeed hide formatting changes in the Track Changes function. I told her. She was thrilled. I'd just made her job easier. That's always a good thing.

A few times my knowledge of Word functions has helped a client work better. That's why I'm an advocate for learning at least 60 percent of the functionality of the programs you use. I'd say 100 percent, but considering most people work with about 30 percent of a program's functions, 60 percent is enough to make you look like you invented the thing. It makes perfect sense to keep learning your tools, so I'm sure you'll be 100-percent proficient within a few days of this post, right? Uh, me neither.

How much time and money should you invest in learning your applications? I say enough to appear dangerously smart with them. I don't profess to be a genius in any application, but I've played with Word enough to be able to apply special formatting, to adjust spacing and lines, to merge things without the usual accompanying headache, and to understand and modify the most useful tools, such as the Track Changes and even the dictionary. I'm at about 60 percent. I have much more to learn. But for now, I'm still ahead of the curve with clients.

Word and most other applications have tutorials built in. When you find yourself with ten minutes to spare, click on one. Learn something new every week about your most valuable computer feature. Cruise forums to see how others are using Word features. Ask questions. Share revelations.

What Word tricks do you have?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bidding Sites - How They Lure Us

I'm so glad to see so many of you who have turned away from bidding sites. I'm especially thrilled that Cheryl made the decision after the last Writers Worth Day. Cheryl, you'll never regret it!

We're all intelligent people. We know it's unwise to pay to access job listings. But we've done it. Why? Because the bidding sites are good at marketing. When I joined one years ago, I was hoping to locate those out-of-reach jobs they kept dangling like carrots. Let me explain.

When you have a free membership, you have access to a limited number of job ads. And they're usually junk. But when you search, all available projects come up. The catch - you can't view anything beyond the title of the job ad and a very brief synopsis. The job may be a perfect fit, but you haven't paid to see it. After wading through page after page of awful listings, being disappointed each time one that fits appears (and yes, it's usually "locked"), you start to imagine having access. None of us like to be left out. We're not fans of watching a perfect gig land in someone else's lap, either. So we take the bait.

For those of you who haven't joined a bidding site (congratulations - and please, keep it that way!), here's what you'll see. The first few jobs look fantastic! You bid. You think given your experience, your chances are good. Congratulations - you've just joined the company of thousands of other writers who think the same thing. Your chances are no better on a paid bidding site than out in the real market.

In my short time on a bidding site, I did gain some long-term clients. Two to be exact. One has long ago disappeared due to, not shockingly, lack of funds. The other is still somewhere in the periphery, but the pay for that job far underestimated the work involved. In that case, I would have been better off donning the paper hat.

I did work one time for other jobs, but again, none paid a fighting wage. When you put everyone (job posters included) into the mindset of the lowest bid wins, the only winners are the bidding sites. Clients end up with substandard work - deservedly so. You have to pay for quality. Writers and editors end up spinning their wheels on projects with inadequate compensation.

I ended my bidding site relationship midway through a three-month membership. The caliber of jobs transitioned rather quickly from somewhat decent to the $4-an-article variety. When I complained to Guru about the denegration of the jobs, the answer was they didn't discriminate against anyone posting a job and besides, they said, writers are bidding on them. There went my membership. Why pay $74.95 to view garbage?

Back then I tried justifying the paid membership. I actually uttered (and possibly wrote here) that one job pays for the fee. But that's not really a justification that makes sense, especially in the current market, where everyone wants something for nearly nothing. Can you deduct that fee from your taxes? It's likely, but again, why pay it when higher paying jobs are out there for the asking?

The lure of "access to the best jobs!" is powerful, but remember - snake oil never cured anything either, except maybe the financial condition of the seller. You cannot build a viable career on the backs of the one-time-and-done jobs, especially those that pay you shameless wages. It's lazy marketing to rely solely on bidding sites as your source of work. You'll waste valuable career time that could be spent locating a better pool of clientele.

When was your bidding site revelation?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Bid No More

I like the idea of Maria Schneider (formerly of Writer's Digest fame) holding her own top blog awards. Maria's blog, Editor Unleashed, is a true writer's hangout. She dishes out a little bit of industry news, a little bit of Q&A, a dash of how-to, and a lot of personality. It's fitting that Maria is the conduit for a top blog honor - she herself deserves one. Pop over to her blog and put your vote in for your favorite.

On a different note, I'd like to be the one to deliver a rousing shake to any of you out there who still use bidding sites to find work. Read this ad on Screw You! to understand why. Go on, I'll wait.

This poses a threefold issue for me, as it should for you. First, we have the job poster, who doesn't value at all a writer's worth. Second, the bid "winner" who is overjoyed by his first "paying" job (Seriously? Was McDonald's not hiring?). Third and equally unsettling is the fact that some bidding site somewhere took your money and is presenting you with these offers. Okay, maybe this is a fourfold problem - you're still paying to view these super little postings.

If you're one of the gazillions out there lamenting the loss of fair pay and good clients, here's how to help change it. It's going to take all of us, not just one or two (like me) who beat the drum constantly. So here are your marching orders:

Ignore these job postings. That means walk away. Don't respond in any way. Silence rather than any berating of the poster will send a much stronger message. If you don't bid, they don't get the work done. Period. This one's toughest because it won't stop the postings, but it may go a long way toward separating these postings into a well-deserved category - fly-by-nights.

Educate your peers. The person doing the work is enabling the poster's bad behavior. If you know someone who's working for pennies on the dollar (or much, much less), say something. That means say something on forums, in email, on your blog, wherever you see someone taking much less than he or she is worth.

Stop paying bidding sites. It's not an easy way to find work. It's an easy way to part with some of your cash. Bidding sites exist to part you from your money. They offer a pseudo-benefit. You get access to jobs! Wow. What a bargain a dollar an article is, right? But not for you - for the job poster. Bidding sites don't care who pays to post jobs or what those jobs are. They didn't care five years ago when I voiced my concerns (and canceled my own membership). They don't care now. Their job is to make money, not offer you anything of real value. Sure, you may get one or two great clients out of it, but why are you paying for that? Why not find those clients on your own with some old-fashioned marketing? The one client I kept from a bidding site is now long gone and frankly never paid me the proper wage.

Reassess the pay versus real life. I use the McDonald's example a lot. The bottom line is this - is the job you're about to bust your tail to complete paying at least minimum wage? If not, don't. Just. Don't. Oh, and just to clarify my stance on it, you should be making much more than minimum wage. I'll never understand why people think it's beneath them to earn minimum wage at a fast-food place but think nothing of taking on a job that pays 0.002 cents a word. That's the sign of someone who A) doesn't think beyond the job, B) doesn't do math at all, and C) doesn't value his or her own abilities.

So what's your thought on bidding sites? Be honest. I want to hear the justifications and the reasons why spending money to earn money makes sense. From my own experience, it doesn't.

What's your personal experience with bidding sites?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Who Loves You?

It's that time once again for Michael Stelzner's Top 10 Blogs for Writers contest. His is one of the most popular contests on the Internet, and probably a windfall for him, for what better way to get your link circulating than to offer people the chance to win something? Kudos to him for a smart marketing idea.

Yes, I've been nominated (thank you, Devon). While I would appreciate being a top ten, I don't really need the honor. I have you guys, and you honor me every day by reading and commenting and being part of my Internet gang. That includes you lurkers (yes, I see you!).

But even if I don't make the grade (and no, I don't expect to), I would like to share with you my Top 10, those blogs I visit daily or every week. Without them, I'd be a little poorer for it.

Ink in My Coffee
The Urban Muse
Screw You!
Written Expressions
About Freelance Writing
Fully Caffeinated
Avid Writer
All That Is Necessary
Lillie Ammann

Yes, I realize that's eleven. I don't limit my choices to any parameters. In fact, most, if not all, of the links to your left are hand-chosen and ones I visit regularly. These eleven are the main courses - the others, desserts.

What blogs are your favorites? Feel free to list them here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Don't Distract Me!

I pulled off the impossible yesterday - I finished not one, but three projects and took a large chunk out of two others. I was able even to squeeze in one of the SOS requests. It's amazing the amount of work you can accomplish when you avoid distractions.

I've been thinking about the distractions that pull at my time lately. I thank Lisa Gates for that - if you haven't decided to take her Craving Balance workshop, do it. It's a great focusing exercise and honestly, it has been a huge help in a number of ways. But the distractions that I noticed were taking up my time were two of my most essential tools - email and Internet.

I have Outlook set to alert me when new mail comes in. It's also set to download new mail every five minutes. Sometimes, I have to know. If I'm having an email conversation and things are on deadline, it's a must. But how often does that happen? Not much. So I've trained myself to hit "No" when Outlook asks if I'd like to open the new mail. Most times, it's just more sale ads - those are VERY dangerous for me, especially if shoes are involved. That's why I've decided to trim my email subscriptions, too. The fewer distractions, the better.

But the Internet, well, there's another thing. I realized a while ago that my home page - Yahoo! - was a huge distraction and one I was justifying all too easily. There's all that news. There are story ideas in there! And yes, I do need to hear about the dog that found its way home two years later or the campers who were rescued with duct tape (not really, but you'd read that too, wouldn't you?). So I did what anyone searching for sanity would do; I switched home pages. I love Yahoo! but Google gives me a bare page with a search bar. I figure I've saved at least an hour a day by avoiding the distractions.

I have a phone problem, too, but it's not too pronounced. Thanks to telemarketers, I'm already trained in letting everything go directly to voice mail when I'm busy. I let the world know I won't answer if I'm in the middle of a project. My clients get my full attention, and if a prospective client is calling, he or she might appreciate knowing I will give the same attention to their project. If instant access is their hot button, I'm probably not their writer.

One thing that's easy for me, and probably for you, is those low-paying clients. There are projects that, when you're not busy, are nice time fillers. But when you're busy, you reassess the need for such things, especially when they're not paying you much. I have had a few of those in my life. I'm loyal to clients, but I'm not terribly interested in remaining loyal to clients who undervalue my work. In those cases, I push back and ask for a raise. If none is forthcoming, I decide if it's worth my time to put work hours into an area that may be reserved for people who don't mind paying a fighting wage. In general, I say don't take them. But there are times we take that one quick-and-easy job that pays little for minimal effort. In those cases, we should all think twice about A) starting down that road, and B) continuing.

What are your distractions? How can you fix them?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Pace Yourself

I'm back! Anyone miss me?

The trip was wonderful. It was also long enough for me to forget all stresses, worries, projects, and bills owed. How's that for a great vacation? But I would like to thank the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue for welcoming me home with an underpayment of taxes notice. I appreciate the warmth, you bunch of...

We had the best weather imaginable. Naturally, I packed no sunblock, tons of long sleeves, and no shorts. Inverness hit 80 a few times and I was sure I'd lost ten pounds in sweat alone. It rained, but atypical for the western Highlands, the sun was prominent.

Our clan gathering was spectacular. We were greeted like royalty by the Provost of Inverness, and were treated to formal dinners and a ceilidh (pronounced KAY lee - a Scottish dance and music event) unlike any since Edinbane on the Isle of Skye eleven years ago. More formal, but no less fun. The organizers of the entire event did a phenomenal job. We signed the new band of union (read about it here and see photos here) and made history. It was spectacular to be part of. We met clan members from Phoenix, Inverness, and Australia, who are now considered friends. And for me, being surrounded by kilts, brogues, and bagpipes is like being in heaven.

I came home to a full in box and a lot of last-minute requests. In one case, I have to turn the work down. I'm already booked through Friday on large projects and two more requests are just going to have to wait. I hate that, but I'm one person and the other clients who booked early and have waited through my vacation must be priorities.

So now, I play catch-up. I've come up with a system to handle post-vacation work. I determine whose deadline takes precedence (and no, it's not based on payment - it's based on who was here first, whose need is most critical, and how I can accommodate all without killing myself or letting anyone down). I drop any unnecessary communications - phone goes to voice mail, emails are checked at set intervals, and nothing new is discussed until I finish at least one due project.

For new projects, I determine my upcoming availability. In cases like this week where work is already in the pipeline, I can't honor the "can we have it in 48 hours?" requests. I could stay up until midnight on your project, but neither of us would like the results. I'd prefer to give you my full attention and best work later.

It's so tempting to take on everything that comes in, including the rush projects. But I know I can't do it, physically or mentally. I'm writing this on Sunday. I plan to put a few hours in on a project as it's the final pass and will wrap it up for this client. But I'm not spending the entire day at it, for the yard has been neglected, the refrigerator's empty, and I've been two long weeks in a country without iced tea. I'm going to treat myself.

Do you pace yourself after the vacation? If so, how? If not, how fast do you burn out?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Guest Post: Create Your Own Writing Retreat

When I saw Devon Ellington mention a personal writing retreat on her blog, I went a little ga-ga. I begged her to expand on that thought, because who among us can really afford to take time away from clients let alone afford a writing retreat? Devon delivered: here is her advice for carving away time and all the preparations necessary to conduct your own personal retreat.

The Home Writing Retreat
by Devon Ellington

Between the recession (let’s not be squeamish: Depression) and the fact that most of us are booked to the gills most of the time, it’s difficult to put aside the time to do our own work, what I call “Projects of the Heart.” Whether it’s a novel, a non-fiction book proposal, or sorting out a dozen or so article ideas, uninterrupted writing time is vital to continued success as a working writer.

So often, one can’t afford the time or the money involved in traditional retreats. But you can create your own.

First and foremost, you need to have uninterrupted work time. If you’re married, it’s a weekend where your husband is away and the kids are at camp or with the grandparents or anywhere but home.

You do need to have a bit of planning. What you don’t want to do is laze around in your pajamas reading the newspaper, and, suddenly, it’s four in the afternoon and you haven’t put a single word on a page. Since my yoga practice is a huge part of my daily life, I find that rotating yoga with writing with reading generally makes the most productive retreat.

You also need to think about food. If you’re the person primarily in charge of cooking in your household, a retreat is your chance to either eat out or stock up on prepared foods so that you DON’T have to cook. If the thought of a weekend of Lean Cuisines is NOT your idea of “retreat”, check out your local deli, specialty food or gourmet stores. If you like wine, stock away a few bottles of good vintage. Make sure you have plenty of coffee, juice, and healthy but fun snacks, too.

If cooking relaxes you, take the time to plan the meals for your retreat, make a thorough list, and do a complete food shop before your retreat officially starts. That doesn’t mean you can’t suddenly dash out to your favorite coffee bar. But you also don’t HAVE to, if you’d rather stay at home. If your idea of heaven is long, scented bath, make sure that you’re well-stocked with bath salts, oils, and candles.

I like to do a three-day retreat, either a Friday-Sunday or a Saturday-Monday, but any amount of time is fine. Even a single whole day can create the mental and physical space that makes all the difference in your work.

Are you a morning person? An afternoon person? A night person? Write whenever you’re the most energetic, and work the other aspects of the retreat around that.

Once you’ve decided your retreat starts, turn off the phone. Keep the television off. If you need to check in with your family or your kids, set up times ahead of the retreat where you’ll chat. And don’t waver on them, unless there’s an emergency.

For me, a typical retreat day starts with an extra-long yoga session (maybe an hour rather than my usual 40 minutes), and a seated meditation. Then, I’ll have coffee and do my first writing session of the day. After an enjoyable breakfast, I’ll have another writing session of 1-3 hours. I might do another session of yoga, and have a healthy lunch.

After lunch, I might do another writing session for 40 minutes to an hour, then take a walk. If the writing is going well, I’ll keep going; otherwise, I’ll probably read for most of the afternoon. I might take my notebook and go to a favorite cafe -- or maybe a new one I’ve always wanted to try. I keep my journal near by and write in it whenever I feel like it -- sometimes I stop every few pages in my other work and write in the journal. There’s basic structure in the day, but also fluidity.

I’ll make a nice dinner, have a glass of wine, maybe take a bath in the evening. I still don’t turn on the television at night. Most likely, I’ll pop some corn and either catch up on movies, or watch some old favorites. Or I’ll read. I’ll do another yoga session at night, and maybe another seated meditation. Sometimes I play music; sometimes I prefer the silence. Or, if the writing really pulls at me, I’ll write.

The great thing about a retreat is that, should you want to write all night and go to bed at sunrise, and not get up until late afternoon to do it all again -- you’ve got that freedom.

If there’s no place to stash the kids, you can create a retreat WITH them. I once had a retreat planned when I was stuck on a deadlined project, and four of my godchildren were deposited on me unexpectedly for the weekend. Most of them are grown now, and some have kids of their own, but they still talk about how much fun we had. Rules: No cell phones, no television, no video games. You have writing sessions together and reading sessions together. You can also decide if you want to read each other material you’ve written or read aloud to each other (we read some of A CHRISTMAS CAROL out loud, and we also alternated reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and we spent one rainy day reading THE SECRET GARDEN aloud in its entirety). We popped corn and watched old movies together. It was the first time they’d ever seen THE MALTESE FALCON and the kids LOVED it. We also watched CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT and BALL OF FIRE. If you want a great night of movies, rent old Barbara Stanwyck films -- they’re quite something! We also watched Humphrey Bogart’s TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE back to back with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (which the kids had all seen about a half a dozen times) and they got to see the nods to the former in the latter.

Taking a few days for a home-based retreat is a great way to revive and revitalize your writing, and, more importantly, your writing spirit. It’s a fraction of the cost of going away, and you still get an enormous return on the investment. It’s always a good idea to invest in your own growth.

--Devon Ellington publishes under half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction, in addition to running a thriving freelance writing business. To keep up on her work, visit her blog on the writing life, Ink in My Coffee and her website.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Guest Post: Getting What You Pay For

What a treat it's been gathering posts from some of the best writers I know. I feel so much better leaving you for so long given the great content provided by my chums.

Let's end the week with a super post by my favorite CatalystBlogger Jennifer Williamson. Jen's primer to business owners is a must-read for everyone - writers included. New writers, take note - Jen's tips for businesses are great guideposts to use in your own careers and especially in setting your prices.

Getting What You Pay For
by Jennifer Williamson

So, you’re a new business owner looking for someone to write you a website or brochure, blog or series of articles. You research the freelance writing scene, get a few quotes, and notice one thing: some writers charge a lot. And other writers charge a little. Some charge pennies on the word.

The right way to get the most for your money isn't to go back to the expensive writers and try to persuade them to meet pennies-on-the-word prices. These two types of writers are vastly different and serve different business needs. Here's what you're paying for when you hire writers with more realistic pricing structures:

You're paying for a track record. A funny thing happens to writers as they get experience. They see the immense benefits their writing brings to their clients’ bottom line, and they think, I’m worth way more than I’m charging.

So you might ask a writer like this to write you a single sales page, thinking “Well, it’s just a page, so how expensive can it be?” Don’t be surprised if the experienced writer with a great track record comes back at you with a quote in the hundreds—or even the thousands. If they’re charging that much, it’s likely you have a good chance of making back many times more than you paid for that page. Most writers don’t get the confidence to charge that much overnight. With more expensive writers, you don't have a guarantee that you'll make fabulous profits from that new brochure or squeeze page--nobody can make such a promise for sure--but you're more likely to.

You're paying for marketing expertise. Professional commercial writers aren't just writers. They also understand marketing. They know the questions to ask to discern where you are in the market, how you compare to your competitors, and exactly how you should be positioning yourself in your marketing collateral. Many of them will do outside research on your competitors and industry if the scope of the project allows it--to find out how your competitors advertise, what they're not offering, and where you fill the gap in customer expectation.

You're paying for sales expertise. Professional writers with professional rates don't just know marketing. They also know how to write to sell. They know how to express your benefits in the most compelling way possible, create demand and build credibility. That's why effective copy can boost your sales dramatically.

You're paying for time. Cheap writers often brag that they can crank out dozens of articles in an hour. Expensive writers know they have to take their time to get the message right--and with all there is to consider in terms of audience, tone, competitor positioning and product benefits, you can't put a rush on good copy. Professional writers understand that their time is money, and when you hire them, you're paying for them to put in whatever time is needed to get it right. A $5 article writer can't afford to spend a few hours on a single article, even if it's on a complex subject--you're just not paying enough for it, and you can't expect that kind of quality.

Really cheap writers generally write grist for the search engine mills--these are articles designed to throw keywords at Google first, and to inform, persuade or sell second--if at all. More expensive writers are also sales, marketing and research partners, working with you to improve your customer outreach and boost your bottom line--in addition to improving your SEO rankings. So when looking for a writer, know what you need--and expect to get what you pay for.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Guest Post: Writing Etiquette

Many thanks to fellow blogger and like-minded soul Georganna Hancock for this excellent post (is it any coincidence that both she and Anne, two of my favorite people, are from the same city?). Georganna takes on business communications in a way that warms my cynical, skeptical heart. It's why I adore her - her tongue is firmly planted in cheek while she's making a strong statement. Georganna, if you ever decide to start up a cult, send me both the toga and the Kool-Aid - I'm in.

Writing Etiquette
by Georganna Hancock

Business communications etiquette is not unfashionable. I risk sounding like a whiny old lady, but when did common courtesy leave the scene? Just because we have technological communication possibilities, doesn't preclude business messages including formal salutations, last names, and explanations for the contact.

It's not my fault you are trying to do accomplish too much simultaneously (like Twitter, blog, write and query). If the communication is related to work, slow down to shape the message into clarity and coherence. Are you serious about your writing or not?

Yes, I am once again on a tear, complaining about people whom I have never heard of telling LinkedIn that I am their "friend" and wanting me to include them in my network of connections; strangers greeting me in a first contact email message as "Hi Georganna," and asking for a favor. Worst was a message from a professional woman who, I feel certain, knows better considering her high placement in the communications department of a major institution. She emailed no message at all, just forwarded a copy of a release. I wrote back, "Am I guessing correctly that you would like me to review your book, or what?" "Where did you find my email address?" (It was not one that included my name.) "Do we have any sort of connection?"

People, people, put yourself in the place of the receiver.

If someone you don't know asks a favor (in real life or a snail mail letter), don't they explain who they are, why they are contacting you and what is your advantage in accommodating them (if any)?

Why should email or Web 2.0 contacts differ?

Other annoyances are people who want help with writing or publishing, send material for review, require an exchange of several emails and then offer only silence when they receive an estimate of cost. I would appreciate knowing if they are taking time to make up their minds, preparing whole manuscripts to send, or turning down my services. I am using energy to keep them in my attention, keep an active file for their work on my desktop and an email folder in prominence in Outlook Express. When/if they call, I can refer to our messages and work right away. At this point, I've invested quite a bit of time in this process. At least have the consideration to let me know it's been wasted (from my point of view) and I can close the files.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Yea, It Feels Like This

You may have seen this video once or twice, but it makes me smile and gets me teary-eyed every time. This is exactly the joy you feel when you're married to your best friend.

Enjoy, everyone. :)

Wedding Dance

Monday, August 03, 2009

Guest Post: Put Your Own Writing First

Ah, you thought I'd abandoned you completely, didn't you? Thanks to a few of my closest cyber chums, I've left vapor trails and enough incredible content from these fine writers to keep you discussing/debating until I get back. Today's post by Anne Wayman speaks directly to that awesome Craving Balance workshop Lisa Gates has going. For those of you who don't know Anne, she's got an amazing site called About Freelance Writing, one of my haunts. Her blog and her writers' forum are terrific resources, as is her entire site. Please visit her. Regularly.

Putting Your Own Writing First
by Anne Wayman

If you’re like me, the bulk of your freelance writing income comes from clients of one sort or another. If you’re like me you’ve got a book or two you want to write, or a blog you want to develop or some other writing project that’s yours alone. And if you’re like me you have a great deal of trouble getting your own writing done because you tend to focus on your clients first.

Not too long ago I read an article, maybe in Prevention Magazine, that said something like “it takes about 75 minutes a day to do what’s necessary to lose weight and get fit.”

My first thought was “that’s way too much!.” But I’m involved in both and as I thought about what I actually do each day around getting healthier, I realized that’s about the amount of time I’m actually spending on the project. That’s workout time, tracking time, food prep time, etc. What surprised me is that I hadn’t missed that time at all – it’s simply what I do for myself.

If I’m willing and able to spend 75 or so minutes a day on my health, why do I feel guilty when I spend an hour a day on my own writing projects? Why do I think 60 minutes on my own writing is somehow taking time away from my clients?

There’s no reason for my negative feelings. I’ve found I can meet deadlines for clients and carve out that hour for my writing. In fact, I’ve discovered I can schedule that hour early in my work day when I’m fresh and still have time and energy for my clients. I’m learning to ignore the guilty feelings and just get on with it. It’s working for me.

It turns out it’s not the amount of time that’s important. It’s the commitment to self. It’s the recognition that it’s important I find a way to pursue my dreams, my vision.

For example, I have a friend who has a fulltime writing job who is developing the book she’s been putting off for ages two paragraphs at a time. That’s what she’s discovered she can schedule and get done. She told me the other day she’s gotten two chapters written that way.

Another writer I know gets great satisfaction from working with clay two hours a week and has gotten good enough that some of his work sells.

Many people have gotten college degrees they wanted one class at a time.

How much time do you, or will you devote to your personal dream writing projects?

Anne Wayman is a freelance ghostwriter who blogs about writing at
Words on the Page