Pay yourself first


When you work for yourself, it is vital to pay yourself first – with money. When the money comes in, it flows to you (to your savings account, your investment account, your retirement account) first. Before the bills claim anything, you must pay yourself first. Freelancers, take note. Pay yourself first even if it means paying minimums on bills.

So how does the “pay yourself” mantra apply to those of us who write and publish for credentials and experience, but no money?

We still have to pay ourselves first – with time.

If you want to be a writer, you must carve out space and claim time for yourself to do the work. I’m not talking about the idea bursts, lightning bolt moments, and brainstorming sessions. I’m talking about revision. You know, the hard work that is required to take a draft from messy impulse to polished gem ready for an editorial review.

One of the most common excuses I hear from students of all ages, whether in my classrooms or in my workshops, is this one: “I don’t have enough time.” Another variation is: “I’m so busy.”

I’ve come to believe that this excuse is made easier to utter by the fact that no one in the writer’s inner circle (except the other writers and artists) has any idea the amount of time, mental exertion, and energy necessary to revise and rework a piece of writing until it shines. All they have ever seen is your finished work – they have no idea about – and no interest in – the revision process, which is the most extensive, time-consuming, and draining aspect of being a writer.

These same people, who may claim to be supportive and may even try to understand what you do as a writer, will also make it damn near impossible to claim space and time without a guilt trip.

“Oh, come on! We’re only in town for the weekend! You can work on that later.”

“Just do it tomorrow. Don’t you WANT to spend time with me? Don’t you value this relationship?”

“It can’t be that hard. You don’t really need all morning for a few spelling fixes.”

Variations on these statements are legion and equally misguided and annoying for the working writer. You must be strong and draw a boundary. If you know it will take you three hours to revise your latest piece and you have family coming in for the weekend, and several social events, but you want to finish that piece? You must look at your calendar and carve out three separate hours at different times for YOU and YOUR WRITING.

Pay yourself first by making your writing process and revisions a priority. And if your family balks? Let them. And if your friends protest? Let them. Smile, cheerfully say, “I’ll be back in an hour!” and leave.

Claim your space. Create the time. Pay yourself first and you WILL make progress on any given piece. Published writers are only published because we set boundaries around our own process, treat it like the work that it is, and claim the time that we know we need. Join us. :)

Midweek Writing Prompt: The Story of a Name (10/22/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: The Story of a Name

This is my version of a prompt that was given at a writing conference I attended last year. Write down your name. Look at your name. Study it. Where did your name come from? What stories has your family told you about how you were named? Think about how your name has defined you over the years. Was your name ever used in a negative way through teasing or mocking? Have you heard admiring compliments? Have you been confused for someone else in your family who has the same name? How have those behaviors from others who encounter your name affect your self-esteem? Your confidence? Your sense of self? Write the story of your name – starting at any point.

See what happens. :)

The moment(s) to celebrate

When you write to publish, the impulse might be to celebrate the moment of publication. That’s certainly the moment your family and friends celebrate because they can SEE your writing in print or online. Tangible evidence that all those months of mysteriousnous when you said you were “working” finally has something to show for it. Hooray!

So why does that celebration feel so anti-climactic? Why, when everyone around you is exuberant about such tangible “proof” of your “success,” do you feel so deflated and unimpressed? What’s wrong with you? Why is the predominant feeling…meh?

Perhaps you have been celebrating the wrong moment(s).

As writers, we work constantly, even when we aren’t sitting in front of our computers or with journals on laps, writing until our fingers cramp. The truth is, the moment of publication is inevitable if you’ve done all of the work necessary to get to that point. In other words, it’s less of a surprise and more like an earned result. You did the work, you got accepted, you waited however many weeks or months, and now you see your words on the page or screen. Certainly there is a sense of satisfaction in that accomplishment, but the celebration moments have actually come much earlier and you may have missed them. Let’s correct that.

Here are some moments worth celebrating during the writing process:

1. The moment the idea clicks. You’ve been mulling an idea over for awhile, but nothing about it seems right. So you keep thinking and dreaming and journaling and mulling. And one day you’re on the treadmill or watching TV or playing with the cat and WHAM! Seemingly out of nowhere (but not really because mulling), your idea gels and you see a clear path – how to start, how to develop, what to include, how to end. It’s all there, laid out in your mind’s eye like a roadmap and all you have to do is follow it. Time to celebrate! Take yourself out to dinner and enjoy a good wine. Or make a date with yourself at the spa or your favorite park or coffee shop. Not to work. Just something you can do to mark the moment and celebrate your success at this stage. It’s a very important step because without the click moment, you will never be published. So take some time to celebrate right now.

2. The moment you offer your work to your writing group for feedback. This is a scary step and requires great faith and courage. You have worked intimately with your story, the characters, the places, and the ideas for days, weeks, months. You have mulled and mentally debated, struggled and made massive changes. You’ve killed your darlings, brought them back from the dead, made them zombies, and finally relegated the words that don’t work to the dustbin. And now you’re taking that first difficult step of letting others see your efforts. And they will criticize it, point out all the problems and inconsistencies, and the elements that work, but could be stronger. Celebrate this moment and your willingness to share your work in order to make it better. Lots of writers never do this – and those writers are not published. This is a worthy moment to celebrate. Do something different from your first celebration, but make sure it’s something that you will really enjoy and that doesn’t involve any work at all.

3. The moment you finish. This is a milestone worth celebrating because it is only made possible by your time, imagination, and mental and emotional effort. Be sure you get to this point. You must revise, but don’t revise the piece to death. Don’t kill the initial passion and energy that your first draft held. Part of the challenge in being a writer is having the ability to recognize the moment that you are done. The moment that the piece is finished and ready to be submitted. When you get here, you should absolutely celebrate it! Do something nice for yourself and pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

4. The moment you submit. This moment quickly follows the moment you finish – or it should. I know too many writers who become stalled between finishing and submitting – they never make it to this stage because of fear, low confidence, whatever terrible things that writers say to themselves. That has to stop. You’ve done the work. You’ve earned the right to submit that work for consideration. If you can gather the nerve to pull the trigger and hit “send” on a submission to an editor, celebrate that moment. You have made it farther than many people who want to be published writers. You’ve made it past the proverbial Black Gate. Celebrate! I suggest a good craft brew. Or some Chilean wine. :)

5. The moment your work is accepted for publication. From the time you first submit your finished piece to a publication (or five) to the time you are accepted may be a long slog. It also may require you to return to the work and revise some more. Especially if you get some good feedback with your rejection letters (that “Golden Ticket” rejection I talk about here). So it may be a year or more until you get that acceptance email. Hence, once your work IS accepted and you know that now it is only a matter of copy-editing, page-proofing, and waiting until the inevitable, celebrate. THIS is the biggest celebratory moment for me. Having your work accepted is the pinnacle. The rest is just details. So make this a good celebration. Have a barbecue with friends. Have a breakfast date with friends. Shout it from the rooftops and Facebook. This is a big deal. This is the moment. Make it a good one. :)

 

 

 

Write a killer job application letter

Job letters – or the cover letters attached to your resume or CV – are your first impression with a potential employer. If it isn’t clear, specific, and well-written (read that – no spelling, punctuation, or other sentence-level mistakes), you won’t get a call. In fact, if the letter doesn’t kill the employer’s doubt, she may not even look at your resume.

Here’s how to write a job application letter that will make you competitive, as long as your credentials and experience fit the position and fit what the employer wants.

1. Customize. Research the organization and try to include some statements that you are not only aware of the job details, but also have some knowledge about the company or department. From a friend who has a background in business and is currently working on her Ph.D.: “Know about the company-it’s mission, values, etc. Demonstrate that knowledge in your letter.” For instance, if you do a Google search for the organization (hey, they’re Googling you, why not turn the tables and use this strategy to your advantage?) and discover that they recently won an award for their creative advertising campaign for robotic widgets, then mention that in your letter. But mention this tidbit in a way that connects YOU to THEM. Such as – “I was so impressed with your robotic widget award because this shows innovation and growth; just the sort of company I’m looking to join. My work in LED-driven widgets would expand the capacity of your robotic widgets and may lower the cost to the consumer.” You get the point. Some sections of your letter will be the same, but try to avoid sending a wholesale form letter. Make an effort to customize each letter as much as possible.

2. Embrace brevity. According to one of my colleagues, who is a technical writer for a corporation, “Keep it to no more than one-page, single-spaced. No one needs the Song of Myself.” Now, as I am an academic and know that other academics may be reading this, here is a reminder from one of my academic colleagues related to brevity: “If it’s academic, the 1 page rule doesn’t apply (especially if they’re not asking for a separate teaching / research statement).” This leads me to number three.

3. Know your audience. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you understand the requirements and expectations for your industry or field. If you do not, or if you are trying to enter a field that is new to you, use your network to find someone who can advise you about the specific expectations for letters in THAT industry. Otherwise, your potential reviewer won’t make it past sentence one. Know who you are writing to and what they expect to see – craft your letter accordingly, but even with longer letters, don’t give them “the Song of Myself.” Stick to the facts – credentials, experience, and only the details that are absolutely necessary and relevant to showcasing your readiness for THIS job.

4. Say why. From my tech writer friend, “You have to say why the job is interesting/the opportunity you want, and you have to explain what you’re bringing to the table. List those key strengths specifically.”

5. No mistakes. Correct spelling, punctuation, grammar (think standard American English, formal, error-free construction). Mistakes of this nature can be fatal. Yes, I know you see typos and spelling errors and misplaced commas all the time in newspapers, magazines, and on the web. Doesn’t matter. Your job letter should be PERFECT. Or damn near. You don’t have to be perfect, but this letter does or it may end up in the shredder, along with your chances.

6. Read the job ad and the requirements listed. From a friend working at a university: “My advice would be to make sure you read the position and requirements and talk about how you meet those requirements. It doesn’t have to be a direct statement, for example if the job requires an MS or PhD, in the letter you can say something like “while in graduate school..” You don’t have to write about all the requirements, but the obvious ones for that job should be addressed. It’s nice to see if someone knows what they are getting into and have the background for it.” And from a different colleague at a library: “Read the job ad and address what they are asking for in your letter. How do you fit what they want in degrees, skills, and experience? Address as many as you can or all of the criteria for a better chance at the next step. OH, and do it a one-page letter if at all possible.”

7. Highlight the best bits. From my Ph.D. -seeking friend: “Take the most important (read: impressive and relevant) points from your resume and discuss them in the cover letter. Connect your skills to the company’s needs. Tell them how you will benefit them!!” Instead of narrating your entire resume, focus on the highlights. I just had to write a bullet-point list executive summary for my tenure and promotion binders. My letter is 13 pages. My resume is five pages. And my executive summary is one single page with bullets of the most impressive bits in brief. When you think about what belongs in a job application letter, think about creating your own bullet point highlight list and focus on those facts in the letter.

8. Be a person. From a friend at a college in Atlanta: “Aside from echoing the advice about doing your research on the job and what your employer is about, I think it’s also important to highlight your own personality specifically IN RELATION TO the job. When I write cover letters, I really try to think about myself as a person – not just my skillset, but also my interests, my passions, and how they would fit into what a particular job environment seems to be offering. I think it’s important to show a prospective employer that you’re not just qualified for the job, but also someone who is excited about the prospect of being hired at a particular company/school/whatever. I suppose going along with that would be the advice to carefully consider which jobs you apply for, and only apply for ones where you feel you could really apply yourself and really put your passion into it, but I know that’s not always possible when you need to put food on the table. Practical advice in that department would be to envision how, even if this isn’t your ideal job, you could bring your energy to the table in productive ways, and tell your prospective employer about it.”

9. Say thank you. The final statement of your letter should thank the person for his/her/hir time and consideration. Politeness and courteousness should not be underestimated. Remember that this is the first impression you make with a potential employer. You want the person or hiring committee to come away from your letter feeling confident that you are not only qualified for the position, but also a decent human being with passion and enthusiasm, who understands the job, the company, and the conventions of civil discourse.

*Thank you to my friends and colleagues who responded to my crowdsource request and provided such excellent insights and advice.*

Midweek Writing Prompt: Forgiving Failures (10/15/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: Forgiving Failures

Previous writing prompts have asked you to create lists of positive action or negative action. This time, your opening words are simple:

I forgive myself for…

Fill out the rest of the statement. Repeat the “I forgive myself” phrase as many times as you need to. The sentences may be short or long and involved. Be honest. Be raw. Be specific. Be relentless and dig deep. Dredge up your silliest mistakes and your most terrible acts and forgive yourself in writing.

You may find yourself feeling forgiveness as a result, or may strike upon an idea to expand into a story. Either way, be brave and give this a try. Trust the process. See what happens.

So you want to be a freelance writer

Some of you may not know this unless you’ve really examined the end of my CV, or know me well in person: I was a freelance writer and journalist for ten years prior to earning my MA and Ph.D. and becoming a professor of writing. I meet people all the time at conferences, in workshops, and in my classes who want to be freelance writers. There is a certain glamour and gravitas to the idea of not only working for yourself, but also making your own schedule, writing only the stories you choose to write about, and meeting all sorts of interesting people, and traveling around the country reporting on all manner of events and activities.

Yes. I know. I had those same thoughts when I decided to take the leap out of ad agency media buying into the full-time freelance life in 1996. As you already know I’m about to burst some bubbles, let’s start with the good news:

I did meet and interview lots of interesting people, from senators and CEOs and artists to city workers and fellow writers and chefs.

I also traveled regionally and wrote reviews of bed and breakfast inns, restaurants, and local bands.

My skills as an interviewer, writer, reporter, editor, researcher, photographer, and idea-generator improved exponentially in the ten years I worked at this career. I was offered no less than three full time positions making a lot more money (and benefits), but rejected them all because I wasn’t ready to leave the freelance life.

There is a great deal of freedom in being a freelance writer. You DO make ALL of your own choices. You also do all of your own billing and must police your own progress, even when you’re feeling tired and unmotivated. You do not have a boss standing over your shoulder, which is a delightfully liberating sensation….but the flip side is that you are now solely responsible for your own productivity and money-making. You only make money when you are writing – there is no slacking. No hours on Facebook chatting with friends. No “killing time at work” before happy hour. If you aren’t pitching ideas to editors, interviewing subjects, and writing those assigned pieces, you won’t get paid. And if you don’t get paid, your rent and electric bill and cable and phone won’t get paid. And those companies don’t care if you were tired and unmotivated last week.

As a freelancer, you are running a business and must treat it that way if you want to be successful. You must schedule things. Plan months in advance the stories that you will produce for different publications. Keep appointments. Show up on time. Learn to navigate innumerable personalities and expectations – from interview subjects to editors to people who actively treat you like a second-class plebeian. Cold call all sorts of people – editors, possible interview subjects, surly senators who challenge your knowledge of a particular piece of legislation. Take it all with that proverbial grain of salt while swallowing your indignation. You will learn patience. You will learn that people who ask you to do work sometimes won’t pay you per the original agreement. You will learn legal parlance and how to write a threatening collection letter without sounding threatening.

You will wonder what happened to the glamour. You will feel no gravitas. You will watch your bank account shrink and grow sporadically, which can be anxiety-inducing.

All this said, I don’t regret spending ten years being a professional freelance writer because of the valuable lessons and skills that I learned. I have taken this knowledge with me into my professorial career and other life events. The knowledge serves me well.

If you decide to leap, I wish you the best of luck. The dividends from freelancing can be monumental, but they will not primarily be financial. Accept this and you will thrive and love it the way I did.

Resurrecting dead stories

If you’re like me, you have a story or two, or a series of poems, or a novel, or even a scholarly article that has been relegated to the dustbin of your productivity. These are the pieces that have been through the publisher or editor rounds at so many places you’ve lost count and received nothing but rejections. After so many disheartening “no” responses, you gave up on it.

You decided that the piece just wasn’t working and wasn’t worth saving, or you couldn’t see or feel a solution, so you shelved it or stuffed it into a folder inside a milk crate at the back of a closet, buried, forgotten.

Remember that piece?

Time to dig it up, resuscitate it, and  breathe new life into its sad, desiccated remains.

Dust off the document and read through it. Find the spark, the moment, the idea, even a few great sentences, phrases, or scenes to save. Using only the best pieces of the former whole, start again. Create a new story with the skeleton of the past failed piece.

Resurrecting the stories that we’ve given up on can be invigorating. Going through this process also allows us to heal that former wound and think our way into a potentially terrific story. After all, we’re all better writers now than we were twenty years ago, ten years ago, one year ago. Chances are good that there is something worth saving in that initial attempt – have faith in your former self.

Revisiting material that we think is dead honors our story as writers. We had something valuable to say at that point in the past – it is still valuable and is still part of our whole writing story…worth revisiting – we wrote it!

So this week, go digging to discover a new beginning. :)

Midweek Writing Prompt: Scent memory (10/8/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: Scent memory

This prompt involves action. Go find a park, a field, a forest, a trail, a path, and spend an hour there. No phone, no music, no other person or pet with you. Just you, the scent of nature, your thoughts, pen and notebook (go old school for this one). Inhale deeply, observe closely, and allow your mind to wander. Focus on the smells of the place – decaying leaves, fresh cut grass, moist earth, fragrant pines or flowers, manure. What do those scents remind you of? Do any feel particularly familiar? If so, why? Where have you encountered that scent before?

Start writing. See what happens. You may be pleasantly surprised. :)

 

 

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