World building… oh wait, who am I kidding?

August 24, 2008 at 6:53 pm (fiction, motivations, nonfiction, writing) (, , , , , , )

So this past week has not exactly been filled with creativity on my part. I’m headed to PAX this week, and as usual I am nervous about traveling. Figuring out bus routes in a city I’ve never visited just stresses me out, as does trying to get every liquid I might need into some 3oz. container in a Ziploc bag, and remembering to pack enough socks, and what if it’s hotter than I thought it would be, etc.

This means that a majority of my brain cycles are being chewed up by practical details, and it’s really hard for me to get off that train and onto creative thoughts. It’s a great state for doing nonfiction and thinking of article ideas to pitch — every worry is a potential topic. But if I try to work on Asgildir, my brain simply refuses to focus and I’m jolted back to biting my nails and trying to remember where I put my travel toothbrush case. This is seriously annoying but I’ve decided to just let it slide, and take advantage of the seemingly endless fountain of article topics. After the trip, when I can relax again, I can revisit and flesh out the world I’ve been creating. But right now, even my dreams are practical — I always seem to be at the airport, or meeting someone for dinner at an agreed-upon time, or something else equally mundane.

Do any of you ever have this problem, where real-life anxiety prevents you from exploring your imagination?

Permalink 2 Comments

3 Steps towards Becoming a Business

August 21, 2008 at 1:28 pm (assorted miscellany, nonfiction, writing) (, , , , , , , , )

As I get more freelance assignments, it’s important to me to look like a professional (not least because, well, I am). If you consider the entire project of presenting yourself well at one time, it seems kind of like an octopus with too many arms, and you’re the jar. It’s a little terrifying and a lot overwhelming. I decided to focus on three things at a time, and to follow a progression that made sense for me. I’ll be outlining these steps as I go, in the hope that they might be useful for someone else getting started in freelance writing.

1. Get Organized

I admit that in many areas of my life, I just sort of wing it. I’m great at making lists, and not so good at following through on them. One of my resolutions this year was to actually implement a useful task tracking system for myself, and I spent the first half of the year trying them on for size. I’ve settled on a slightly modified version of Getting Things Done, which you’ve probably at least heard of unless you’ve been living under an Internet rock somewhere. The most important aspect for me is that my to-do list is reliable. Every time I think of something that needs to be done, no matter how small, I write it down and add it to my Inbox on Remember the Milk. At this point I no longer have to spend time worrying about the task; if your brain runs a mile a minute, this is no small advantage. I know that my ideas and tasks are recorded, and after getting used to the system and learning to trust it, this means I’m not wasting brain cycles worrying about whether I’ll remember to pick up cat food. I won’t say stray thoughts never intrude anymore, but it has made a huge and noticeable difference for me.

Since I have this system in place, I can also use it to track freelance jobs. I start a new list on RTM for each assignment, since it’s really a project with lots of small tasks. So far each job has been different enough that it takes a little while to tease out the steps I need to take, but once it’s done, it’s done. If I get tripped up, I can always refer to the project to-do list and sometimes that’s all I need to get going again. At the very least I’m not buried in Post-Its that aren’t even color coded or really at all useful for anything but making modular origami, which is definitely fun but maybe not so productive as a system for staying on track.

2. Get business cards.

If you had told me several years ago that not only would I want business cards, but that I’d be willing to spend my own money to get them, I would have laughed. A lot. I’ve never been much for anything I perceived as “too corporate,” which included business cards. Yeah. Then I grew up. Useful for more than just entering contests for free lunch, business cards can be a great way to market yourself and get folks to remember you. I think it’s helpful to add “freelance writer” as a job title, since otherwise the person is likely to forget and will someday clean out their card file and go “Jennifer Durren, who’s that? Round file!”

I know lots of folks recommend Vista Print as a cheap source of cards, but I really didn’t want an advertisement on the back of mine, and I found a lot of their designs to be, hmm, the card equivalent of a web page from 1997. Also, I wanted to have some cards in hand for PAX, so once I decided to have them printed I also needed to have them done quickly. I ended up using Staples; they offer a design service online and send it to your local store to be printed the same day. The design I chose ended up being $35 for 200 cards, which is a little steep but I figured if I get even one useful contact, they’ll pay for themselves. So I spent yesterday in happy anticipation of picking up my new cards, only to be really disappointed when I picked them up. Seems the employee in the copy area didn’t know what she was doing, and didn’t bother to call their technical support, so I have 200 cards that say “PROOF” across them in addition to being splotchy. Way to print the wrong PDF, copy area girl! So yeah, I’ve spent more time than I wanted trying to get this fixed, and the manager I spoke to last night essentially shrugged and said “call back tomorrow and talk to this other manager,” but said other manager’s attitude was that they needed to make this right and that it was, in fact, unacceptable. I still need to make a trip up there, but it sounds like it will actually be resolved, which is good. The fact that I’ve spent so much time on what should’ve been a simple order: Not so good. I’m certainly annoyed, and I hesitate to recommend Staples as a source, hence the lack of link. It might be better to actually visit your local store and see how much confidence they inspire before you trust them with your cards.

Once I have the cards, I plan to enter every free lunch contest I see, and also to hand them out to anybody willing to take one. Writing jobs turn up in the strangest places, and you never know.

3. Get Paid

One of the most intimidating aspects of working for yourself is the financial stuff, at least for me. Different clients use different payment methods, and when I realized I might have to actually send invoices I had a temporary moment of panic. But man, if Web 2.0 didn’t come to the rescue again: Invoice Journal is a free! site that lets you track your clients, your contacts, agreed-upon rates, hours spent or price per project, etc. Then you can generate an invoice for your client, which they can view online as a PDF, or which you can print and mail the old-fashioned way with stamps. Pretty nifty, and while it’s still a beta, it’s worked fairly smoothly for me as well. I also keep the same information in an Open Office spreadsheet, which provides me with a backup as well as a way to generate different kinds of reports for myself; better safe than sorry.

I also have a PayPal account, but really, who doesn’t? It’s an easy way for clients to pay, especially small businesses and individuals who don’t normally cut checks for freelancers. I’m setting up a separate business checking account with my bank, too, so I can keep a clearer picture of what I’m earning and what I’m spending. Untangling my business finances from my personal spending will be a huge step, and also will make it easier to file quarterly taxes. Good thing I like filling out forms.

I hope some of this has been useful for other folks who are just getting started, and welcome any comments or questions you might have.

Permalink 1 Comment

Mondays, Case of the

August 18, 2008 at 3:09 pm (assorted miscellany, motivations, nonfiction) (, , , , , , )

My husband works Monday through Saturday, so traditional weekends aren’t really a thing around here. I do try to keep to a somewhat normal weekday work schedule for myself; there are more freelance job postings on the boards Monday through Friday, and it helps me to set limits. I still write on Saturday and Sunday, but unless there’s a pressing deadline, I just allow myself to work exclusively on fiction.

So that leaves me to come up with a weekday routine. I don’t know about you, but I feel much better about myself if I know I’ve accomplished something each day. I’ve been using Remember the Milk to keep track of tasks, and I recommend it if you’re looking for to-do list software. It uses tags, something that’s familiar to a lot of folks now, and you can create dynamic lists based on a search. For example, I’ve got a Work list, which is great, but I’ve also got a list for high-priority work. This means if I’m having a bad day, I can at least see what absolutely must be done, and focus on that rather than trying to decide where to start.

I read job listings every day, and if I see any that seem like a good fit, I send off an application. I also try to think about articles I could submit to various publications: newspapers, magazines, websites, and the like. Each day I develop one of these ideas more fully, finding an interesting angle for the topic, figuring out who I might interview, and how long the article should be. Sometimes I run with the same topic for a few days in a row, and look at it from different perspectives, which is a lot of fun in and of itself. I love learning new stuff, and researching these ideas is productive play for me.

I also make sure I send at least four queries out per week, and occasionally more. Writers get a lot of rejections; some of them are based on writing skill, but some are just an editor letting you know that your specific idea wasn’t a good fit for their specific readers (or advertisers). If you take each rejection personally, freelance writing might start to feel like a sure path to depression and self-loathing.  Better to be confident of your own voice as a writer, and believe in your work; then you can take the suggestions you find helpful and let the rejection roll off your back.

I actually look forward to Mondays now (believe me, this was not always true). I’ve got a firm routine in place, and I’m proud of the work I get done, even on a bad day. Structure is important to me; it may be important to you, too. It’s a little tricky to figure out where to place priority when you’re just starting out (as I am), but talking to other freelancers and learning about their methods can be a huge help in organizing your schedule.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Writing days are here again

August 12, 2008 at 11:23 am (fiction, Inspiration, motivations, nonfiction, writing)

I’ve always loved writing. There’s just something amazing about playing with language, shaping it into the form you want. The first thing I remember writing was a Christmas poem in first or second grade; I showed it to my teacher, and off it went to the ditto machine to be included with the holiday curriculum for our elementary school. When the first thing you show someone else gets published, it provides a lot of encouragement to continue writing. If the only copy I have weren’t at my parents’ house, I’d include it here so you could laugh a little.

In second grade, one project for art class was to write and illustrate a book. I decided to make a Haunted Mansion (oh no!) and created cutouts of the characters so they could be moved through the illustrated scenes in the story. At the time, I had no doubt that this was the most fascinating story ever told. The teacher loved it. More approval, more motivation to invent stories. I dictated a lot of them to a Sears tape recorder, and usually made my mom listen to them — repeatedly. I was especially proud of a story about hares and hairs, as I recall, though the details now elude me. I was full of ideas, and confident that these ideas would be just as fascinating to everyone else as they were to me.

Of course, then I got older. By the time I hit high school I was writing horribly pretentious stuff, most of it bad, because I started trying to impress other people. There was a lot of bad poetry in there; if the term had been around at the time, I probably would’ve called myself emo. None of my stories had a happy ending, and all of the prose was, well, affected. I was never really happy with any of the fiction I wrote during this phase of indulgence in Oh I’m So Writerly and Depressed. I began to enjoy writing critical essays and research papers, and so my writing focus changed for a while. I cranked out plenty of papers, both for school assignments and for personal enjoyment. And so the world of nonfiction revealed itself to me.

For years, I mostly stuck to writing about things that were real. Then one day I woke up with a story in my head, and a need to get it out on paper. Unfortunately it turned out not to be a very interesting story, and after 60 pages I abandoned it. Still, it made me think again about creating my own worlds, and setting characters in the worlds to see what they might do. Several things happened in my personal life around this time, and much of what I wrote was intensely personal and never meant to see the light of day. I took another break from writing fiction, mainly because I didn’t want to deal with the thoughts that came with probing my brain for ideas. I still wrote a lot of nonfiction; the drive to set things down never left me.

Then, last year, my mom passed away suddenly. It sounds horribly cliched, but this really made me consider the brevity of the time we’re given here. I realized I’d been stomping all over my creativity, trying to box it up so I didn’t have to think uncomfortable things. I decided the time had come to unpack those boxes, and I started writing stories again. I need to write these stories; it’s no longer so much an issue of wanting to or not.

I still love writing articles and essays, but I’m thrilled that I can now write from my imagination again. In many ways, I’m more patient than I ever have been, and that allows me to flesh out stories instead of charging ahead with tissue-thin plots and uninteresting characters. These are my stories, and I’m stickin’ to ’em.

Permalink Leave a Comment