Attention, Attention

Attention, Attention

Marketing Icons
Image by ar130405 from Pixabay

Writers write – it’s what we’re good at. And when we aren’t writing? We’re usually thinking about writing. Maybe it’s a new plot for a story or novel. Or it could be thoughts for a pitch of an article we want to contemplate. Our brains constantly cycle around the written word and how to assemble sentences into new, coherent thoughts. That’s what we’re best at. (At least, one hopes you are. There probably are a few people running around out there using the “writer” label with no rights to the title. And you know who they are, despite the fact they have publishing credits) Whether you focus on the fiction side of things or freelance in the real world, you find vocabulary fascinating.

At least, until you have to apply it to YOURSELF.

Writers are readers. So it doesn’t take much to drive us into a bookstore, over to a magazine rack, or even up to the newsstand. Words – silent, printed words – exude a siren song we can’t resist. This is why we usually have a giant stack of books somewhere in our house we add to with a solemn promise of, “I’m going to read these – eventually.” But for other people, they need something else to guide their feet in the same direction. The sensation of the eyes skimming over text isn’t enough for them. And that’s where marketing campaigns come in. Flashy advertisements (or, I’ll admit it, movies and television adaptations) engage their interest and connect them with a book cover, magazine photo spread, or news headline. And for the biggest publications out there, you’ll find teams of marketing geniuses capable of producing slick campaigns that can catch the general public’s attention. Yes, you knew about a book years ago, but suddenly your family members start talking about it over the dinner table as if it just hit the shelves. All courtesy of some well-placed advertisements.

But the average writer doesn’t have access to those teams. If they want to see the same level of promotion, they need to rely on themselves. And that’s a daunting task. Remember, writers are – by and large – introverts. But marketing requires an extrovert’s talents. You need to reach people out in the public eye, branch out into the social media feeds, and engage in discussions with people you’ve probably never met. Not only are you attempting to write, but you’re also trying to SELL. And the product? YOU.

Which is usually where your words disappear.

Writers shoulder the responsibility of marketing most of the time. Yes, even those bestsellers out there. Publishers might pitch in here and there, but not to the extent you think. And if you’re a freelancer? No one’s going to do the work for you. You’re on your lonesome to get your name out there and attempt to attract attention to yourself. (Good attention, by the way) You can’t sit back and hope the world will happen to stumble onto your phenomenal writing and flock to your door, begging you to solve their writing woes. (I mean, you CAN, but you may need to start that process as an infant because the wait’s going to be a whopper) If you want people to sit up and take notice, you need to break out your soapbox and bullhorn and start performing for the crowd. Ideally, with the same wit and competency you use in your day-to-day work.

Talk about insane pressure! We’re writers – not entertainers! Even with a background in theatre, I don’t feel confident when I grit my teeth and sit down to handle my marketing work. It’s a chore – with all of the attendant negatives we assign to that word. How am I supposed to convince anyone to follow me on social media, subscribe to my blog, believe I’m a confident writer? In the moments when I’m picking out quotes, designing graphics, or deciding on topics to write about, I’m NOT confident. And when I finally send out my little blips of marketing and self-promotion? I get crickets in response. (Unless I happen to slide the Minions into the mix. They always get tons of responses) But this necessary evil? It’s part of being a writer, a freelancer.

And you have to keep pushing through the reality of the work. If you’re committed to the lifestyle of a writer, anyway. (Ha, I said lifestyle. As if we’re doing something more than sitting at a keyboard all day) You need to figure out what to say about YOU, how to set yourself apart from the millions of other writers out there. And you need to remain true to your identity in the process. Not to mention realistic. Are you ever going to garner the same kind of response as a model? Or a cute pet? Nope. Will you spark endless threads of debate the way a political issue might? Probably not (you might, depending on your chosen genre). But does that mean you need to throw in the towel and give up? Of course not!

No one’s going to handle your self-promotion for you. And while it’s frustrating, and your brain turns off when you try to figure out what to say about YOU, it’s a process. One I’m struggling my way through a little more each day. But I’m getting a pattern down that I’m happy with. You can do the same thing. Think of ONE thing you can add to your schedule that fits the concept of marketing. And then work from there. What do you have to lose?

Getting Personal

Getting Personal

Writing a Personal Essay
Photo by picjumbo.com from Pexels

Artists – be they writers, sculptors, painters, glassblowers, etc. – all claim a particular niche. Ask them for their specialty, or their genre, and you’ll get a hefty description. For instance, when someone asks what I write, I follow two paths: I can describe the work I do as a freelancer, OR I can go into what I pen for my speculative fiction. Rarely will you find someone with artistic leanings who will supply you with a quick-and-dirty, monosyllabic reply. (It’s a side effect of all of that imagination, in case you wondered) However, if you ask those same people what they’re looking for out of their work (once you distill down more creative wording), it boils down to a flavor of:

Recognition.

You want someone to see a piece that left your hands and comment, “That’s so-and-so’s work.” Maybe your story won’t bring funds or fame, but knowing that a person out there knew you wrote it? Nothing beats that feeling. You managed to stand out from the sea of other writers. Someone identified your unique voice and tone. And that’s what every artist is trying to do, at the heart. They’re developing a way of viewing and translating the world. Then they’re hoping someone out there will see it, appreciate it, and pick them out as different.

As writers, we have almost endless opportunities to gain that recognition – if you’re willing to look for it. And one of the avenues people overlook is the personal essay. I can’t figure out why, either. Personal essays lend appeal to ANYONE. They combine fictional storytelling to a non-fiction situation. And (with rare exceptions) you only have around 1500 words to complete the tale. It’s an exercise in concise, captivating narratives. Not to mention that you need to dive immediately into the action (1500 words – or less – doesn’t give you room to warm things up). And the best personal essays include dialogue. It has EVERYTHING any detailed story needs – with a bonus of a chance to relate something from your life.

Talk about a two for one!

You have the opportunity to place your tone, your voice, and your style on paper while relating a part of yourself for the world to share. The personal essay is one of the best writing forms available. It doesn’t matter WHAT you write, it exercises that part of your brain to the fullest. And finding markets? Not a problem:

If you have a story, you can find a market willing to listen. Especially if you take the time with your essay. You’re a writer. You KNOW how to put sentences together. And you know how to capture the attention of a reader from those first moments. If you can eliminate glaring grammatical and spelling errors, you’re already going to stand out from plenty of other people that submit to these markets. Editors WANT people that can pass those first hurdles of competent writing. If you’re already successful as a freelancer? You have what it takes.

As for the topic? No one else has lived your life. That makes your experiences, your stories unique. Add in a touch of imagination (only a touch, though – personal essays AREN’T fiction), and you’ve got something people want to share in and engage with. Suddenly, people want to learn more about you. They start looking for your name and finding other things you’ve written. All because you wrote an essay about fishing with your father on Puget Sound, or finding a salamander in your garden, or watching the sun rise over the Grand Canyon, or photographing a soap bubble in subzero temperatures.

Seriously – anything with a fresh perspective that speaks to the human condition is free game!

Look through back issues of the market you’re interested in and read other essays. (Side note: if you aren’t already doing this with your markets, you should start) Then flip through your scrap books, your photo albums, your journals. What material do you have to work with? Meditate and think back over moments that stick in your head. And start jotting down ideas. People have made entire careers out of writing personal essays. Others have found themselves receiving new clients because of a single, well-written essay.

Opportunities exist EVERYWHERE. And if you’re not exploring all of them? You’re missing out. I admit, I thought personal essays sounded silly. And then I started playing around with the format. (For the record, it isn’t as easy as you might assume!) Now I have several I’ve cleaned up and started circulating. The first article I published with Offbeat Bride? That came out of a personal essay on dealing with planning the wedding in the middle of the first COVID-19 lockdown! And when I’m feeling frustrated with my other writing? I start a new one (Evernote is nice enough to keep a record of my ideas for me). It stretches a different part of my writing brain.

You can’t abandon a potential writing tool from your arsenal. Personal essays flex creative muscles. Not in the same way as your typical stories or freelance work, true. But you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by the results. Put yourself out there. Take your writing to the next level of vulnerability. What do you have to lose?

Star Trek Disease

Star Trek Disease

Comma defintion
Image by TungCheung from Adobe Stock

If you’re a writer, what are the most important things you need to think about? Spelling, grammar, and punctuation. (And, you know, imagination and creativity. Those are intangibles that someone can’t get taught, though) Your odds of success go down dramatically if you can’t manage those three things. Of course, in this era where you have Grammarly available, it’s not an excuse to turn in work riddled with such errors. But I digress. Because even electronic grammar machines aren’t flawless, and they’ll fail you from time to time. That means you have to dredge up that elementary and middle school knowledge (or break out your Strunk and White: Elements of Style). Sounds easy enough. So why do I stumble across posts, articles, and even stories that read like scripts from the William Shatner era of Star Trek?

You find, commas, in all, the wrong, places!

Delving into a refresher course on commas would lead to an encyclopedic post. If you recall your lessons, you know there are different situations for them to make an appearance. You have rules for dialogue, structure for various clauses, and the all-important Oxford comma debate. (Don’t worry – there’s plenty of time for me to get into all of those situations down the road) What drives me up the wall, though, is when I’m reading through something and finding myself stuttering through sentences because someone dropped a bag of commas into the sentences. That’s what we’ll confine this post to: the OVERUSE of that tiny little mark of punctuation.

First, though, let’s review the official (basic) definition of a comma:

“A punctuation mark indicating a pause between parts of a sentence. Also used to separate items in a list.”

~Oxford Languages

That word PAUSE is the key to using commas in your writing. You’re providing your reader with a chance to catch their breath. It’s not an excuse to write run-on sentences (that’s a different topic entirely), but it DOES allow you to craft complex thoughts. If you need an example, pick up any of Victor Hugo’s novels. The man’s thoughts can easily cover a couple of pages before you hit the end of the sentence. But because you have appropriate pauses to breathe and collect the concepts he wanted to present, you don’t think anything of it. So you get a thorough history of the Cathedral de Notre-Dame or a lecture about the French Civil War embedded into the plot of the novel, and you never bat an eye. He uses commas appropriately.

Then you come across other works that make you feel like you’re hyperventilating. If they happen to be horror or mysteries? It can work. The author’s creating the same tension and panic in the reader that the character’s feeling. But since I don’t read either of those genres (not often, anyway), those aren’t the pieces I find myself wincing over. Nope, I’m finding blogs, articles, even the occasional short story or novel that look like the Comma Fairy dumped her entire quota out on the page. The marks show up EVERYWHERE! And I have to wonder if the editor fell asleep, missed that chapter, or didn’t comprehend the definition of a comma in the first place. Reading is like trying to watch the Tin Man run (or, you know, imagining that as I’m not sure he ever actually runs in The Wizard of Oz). And trying to read the page aloud? It makes me sound like Captain Kirk.

Which is an easy way to PREVENT the problem.

The best way to edit your work is to read it aloud. Skimming something on a screen? There’s too much risk of your eyes bouncing over an error. And your brain likes to automatically correct things – even if they’re WRONG. (This is why you’re better off letting someone else edit your work, of course, but I recognize that isn’t always an option) When you start reading out loud, though, you find yourself catching more mistakes. And the start and stutter speech of an abundance of commas? That stands out right away. (Incidentally, so will a LACK of commas as you fall out of your chair, running out of breath) Suddenly, you expect to see Spock walk through the door or hear Scotty complain about a lack of power. (Okay, those are major clichés. I’m not a Star Trek fan, so I’m limited on my ability to crack jokes)

And while you’d think Grammarly would pitch in and help you weed out all of the unnecessary marks, the program bails on you. I’ve even watched the window suggest EXTRA commas to me! (As I’ve mentioned before, we have a love-hate relationship where I spend at least half my time arguing with a computer screen) Blindly accepting everything a grammar program tells you is probably where these comma explosions come from. But it makes you look like you’ve never cracked open a book in your life (or that you opened the WRONG books). And, for readers, it makes attempting to get through your work a challenge.

Take the time out to read your work – OUT LOUD. If you have a significant other or children around and don’t want them to know what you’re writing? (I get it, there are uncomfortable topics and weird scenes we write) Close the door. Or print it out and find a quiet corner outside. (No one needs their neighbor calling the police because you’re mumbling about burying a body in the middle of the forest, three miles from the lake) But find a way to speak your sentences where you can hear them so you can make sure you’re not overdoing the commas. You want pauses that make sense. They should allow you to speak in a normal conversational manner. Do you feel like you’re speaking in your usual tone? Or do you think you’re auditioning for a Captain Kirk look-a-like contest?

Is this the tip of the comma iceberg? More like a single snowflake. But it felt like a good place to start. Commas represent a pause within a sentence. And if you can get past that part of the grammar, you’re already ahead of…well, you’re ahead of a lot of the work I’ve been editing recently. And the more we thin out the comma invasion, the better the written world will turn out in the end. (Don’t worry – we’ll chip away at that iceberg eventually)

“Silenzio Bruno!”

“Silenzio Bruno!”

Rock formation in the sea
Image by Antonio Bayardo from Pixabay

Writers spend a good 99% of their lives existing in their minds. (That 1% is reserved for real-world necessities like eating and trips to the bathroom) If you share your home or have a relationship with one of us, you have some idea of this – or you’ll figure it out at some point. We may look like we’re engaged in a family activity, but if you see glazed eyes or note us staring off into nothing? Yup, we’re not present. (For those of us we write speculative fiction, we’re not even on the same planet/dimension) And there isn’t much you can do about it, short of making sure we get nourishment. We’re happy in our imaginations. Because they’re fantastic and SO much better than the outside world.

Until they gang up on us.

While I’ll admit there’s the stray outlier to everything, the vast majority of any artistic group always suffers from some key detractors – all of which happily reside in our brains:

  • Doubt
  • Fear
  • Ridicule

And in your head? They take on monstrous proportions. You’re happily skipping along in your dream worlds, when you slam into one of these behemoths, and their laughter knocks you around like you’re back on a grade school playground. What if your writing isn’t as good as you think? Maybe submitting to that market isn’t as brilliant an idea as you thought? Did you actually write that crap? Before you know it, you’re slinking away to a little dark corner in which to hide – while your work stagnates.

And the crazy thing? It’s YOU controlling those voices. They come from a part of yourself. Oh, sure. you might hear the same things from other people, but you usually manage to discount the nonsense when it’s from another person. They’re jealous, they don’t know what they’re talking about, they couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag, etc. You have plenty of retorts ready. When those words come from YOU, from your inner voices, though, you’re stuck. You can’t use the same arguments. So you watch those three brutes laugh and poke holes in your work, and you say NOTHING.

I’ve done that so many times. I’d start with a story that held such promise, made me excited, and then I pulled it apart with doubts and self-ridicule. I got the better of myself. And then I couldn’t move forward. I was left spinning my wheels, with no plan on what to do. And it didn’t matter that my betas cheered me on and told me everything was fantastic. I couldn’t get my inner voices in sync with my original belief or what better minds than mine believed.

Then I sat down and watched a movie.

Have you see Disney/Pixar’s Luca yet? If not, go watch it (and no complaining that it’s a “kid’s movie”). The scene with the cobbled-together Vespa slammed into my head like an avalanche. All of these years of slinking away from my inner bullies, and the answer was sitting right there the entire time. Two little words: “Silenzio Bruno!” (Okay, so I’m not Italian, but you get the gist – or you will when you watch the movie)

Obviously, changing that inner dialogue hasn’t worked in (many) decades. And while I’d love to say I’ve figured out the secret to THAT technique, you can talk to almost any author out there, and they’ll assure you they feel doubt and question their work all the time. So those bullies are in the back of everyone’s minds (with the exception of some people that NEED them). That doesn’t mean I need to let the doubt and fear control my writing, though. I just need to scream out STOP when they grow too loud.

You can drive yourself CRAZY questioning yourself. I’ve been doing that a lot in the past few weeks. The word “but” has dominated my vocabulary. At least until I watched Luca. Now, when I feel those inner voices regrouping, I stop and mutter, “Silenzio Bruno” under my breath. Maybe it sounds silly. And you’re probably snorting, rolling your eyes, or even laughing. But try it!

Those two words work as a trigger to cut out the negative dialogue and reorient myself to the positive. I swap out the panic and self-recrimination for the original hope I started with. And it’s propelling me forward down paths for better things. Which is MUCH better than hiding in the corner with my hands over my ears. And if you don’t want to use “Silenzio Bruno?” Pick a phrase that works for you. But find SOMETHING that interrupts the flow of negativity in your inner voices.

What do you have to lose?

“No Capes!”

“No Capes!”

Interview Outfit
Photo by Adrienne Andersen from Pexels

For most of my working career, I’ve worn uniforms of one form or another. From lifeguarding at the local pool to my years as a vet tech, each position came with an expected appearance. And, in a lot of ways, that made my life easy. Even when barely coherent, it didn’t take much effort to get ready in the morning. So long as I kept the scrub tops and bottoms on separate shelves, I could manage to clothe myself. (And, yes, that was an early “lesson learned”) Throwing on that red bathing suit and a pair of shorts? It was even easier! While not allowing room for creativity or imagination, it provided structure and simplicity to my morning routine.

But it made interviews weird.

Everyone’s heard the phrase “dress for the job you want.” Frankly, I think it’s a stupid adage. No one walks to the pool in a bathing suit with a whistle around their neck. Mostly because the managers figure that you showed up because you were interested in a lifeguarding position. (Either that, or you were an idiot incapable of realizing the pool was still closed for the winter) You dressed like a responsible individual, exuding confidence that you could – if needed – rescue a drowning individual. No matter how attractive you look in swim wear, that isn’t the image projected.

The same thing goes for the medical field. While they KNOW you’re there for the technician position they’re so desperate to fill (newsflash: the veterinary field is always short-staffed), no one’s impressed by someone walking in the door in scrubs. I don’t care what Hollywood shows you: NO ONE looks good in scrubs. They’re a functional garment, and there’s nothing fashionable about them. The interview is meant to demonstrate (again) responsibility, maturity, and intelligence. And if you want the job, you’re going to dress appropriately.

Or you’re going to end up looking for work elsewhere.

So, yeah, stupid rule. And I’ve always laughed at it. (If I dressed for the job I WANTED, I’d bust out some dramatic successful supervillain creation – whatever that looks like. I’m also not sure it would work well at any of the places I’d apply…) But, for some strange reason, it hit between the eyes when I was staring down the barrel of an interview for a writing job. I panicked. What in the world are you supposed to wear to convey the image of intelligence, creativity, dependability, competence, and everything else someone could want out of a writer? How to portray the essence of WRITER?

I stood in front of my dresser, walked back to my closet, and I fretted. What have I seen successful, professional writers wear? That, it turned out, was a stupid question to ask. My only exposure to those people has been Cons. And what did they wear? Well, some wore costumes. (An interesting idea, but probably not the best) A few DID dress in business attire. But the majority? They looked like average, ordinary, COMFORTABLE individuals. Probably because that’s what writers ARE, when you think about it.

Breakthrough!

Freelance writers? We don’t sit in front of our computers and laptops in business suits. (If some of you do, fantastic. I hope you have a comfy chair) We’re not the corporate type. Everyone has an individual voice they lend to their work. And that’s reflected in what we throw on each day. Our appearance is as unique as the tone of voice we capture in sentences. And our publications? Those are what speak for us LOUDEST. So why was I fretting over something like what to wear – in a Zoom interview, of all things?

It made me stop and reassess. Instead of trying to go out of my way and figure out what a “professional freelance writer” (such an absurd concept) might look like, why didn’t I look like ME? They had my portfolio with my work. They weren’t trying to figure out if I could walk into an office every day with heels and a dress (been there, done that). No, they wanted a writer who could meet deadlines, prepare content, and provide creativity. (The fact my hair’s currently bright pink was probably already a strike against me for the whole corporate thing, anyway) So why not dress like ME? Isn’t that who they were interviewing in the first place? A quirky, creative writer a little outside of the box?

Oh, wait – that WAS the job I wanted!

In the end, I didn’t throw on anything other than my usual clothing. I even forgot to put my contacts in and had my glasses on (not that they’re bad or anything – I quite like them). No makeup, no jewelry, and nothing special beyond my Hocus, Pocus “My Lucky Rat Tail” socks (for luck, of course) – and the interviewer couldn’t see those, anyway. Oh, and Tonks, of course. She participates in EVERY work call I attempt. (How she knows the sound of that camera coming on is beyond me)

Maybe my different, casual look dinged me. Or maybe it didn’t, because the focus was on, oh, I don’t know – the strength of my answers to the questions? I guess I’ll have to wait and see. But I’M in a better place in regards to the whole interview outfit question. I’m a weird, creative person! And that’s the image I want to project. I’m submitting proposals to jobs that look for energy and entertainment and the ability to engage people. I can do that, without scrambling to overhaul my wardrobe. If nothing else, I’ll stand out from the crowd. And THAT’S something you want in the freelance world.

Maybe there’s a little something to dressing for the job you want – provided it’s the right job. And if anyone sees a posting out there for supervillain, let me know! I have the PERFECT outfit!

The Writer’s Best Friend

The Writer’s Best Friend

Stack of Notebooks
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Mid-May means that the school year is starting to wind down. Colleges are celebrating graduations and sending their students out into the workforce. (Or, you know, handing them back into the hands of their parents) Other schools are gearing up for major testing. At least, that’s what happened when I was in school. Now that standardized testing rules, I have no idea what actually goes on. And since my kids don’t attend educational programming (something that’s for the best, because NO ONE wants to see Tonks’s evil mind guided into further intelligence), you’d guess I don’t have much interest in such doings. But you’d be wrong. The end of the school year means one very important thing:

It’s almost time for back-to-school sales!

Yes, I know, it drives the school-age population nuts that they barely set foot in summer vacation before stores start cranking out supplies and clothing to send them back. But I LIVE for those sales. There’s nothing more exciting for a writer than aisles and aisles of pens, pencils, and NOTEBOOKS – all put on sale. It’s literary Christmas! And in Virginia, if you can sit on your hands and restrain yourself, the beginning of August brings Tax-Free weekend. So you can stock up on all of those supplies without needing to pay pesky sales tax. Plus, they don’t make you prove you have a child. ANYONE can go into their store of choice and walk out with a giant stack of notebooks and twenty packs of pens. The cashiers don’t even bat an eye! (Well, they might – it depends)

I admit, I’m the first person to recommend turning to handy programs to help you organize your thoughts when you’re writing. As publishers function in the computer age with the rest of us, odds are pretty high that you’re working in a word processing program on a laptop or desktop. So it makes sense that you’d turn to a form of technology for your notes. And that’s fine. I do the same. But I also have notebooks – TONS of notebooks. And they perform the same organization function.

Because sometimes? You need to set pen to paper.

Call me old-fashioned (don’t call me old), but there’s something inspiring about watching ink flow from beneath your hand. It sparks something in the brain. When everything else is locked up in your mind, sitting down and scribbling out a dozen scenes that go nowhere feels more accomplished than hitting “Delete” over and over again. You can actually SEE what you attempted to do. When you “Undo” something on the computer, all you get for your trouble is a blank screen (and the vague knowledge that you made an attempt at a scene 42 times). Even if I end up with crumpled paper balls on the floor around me and one sentence for my trouble, I have physical proof that I made an effort. It’s more satisfying for me to struggle through writing in a notebook than it is to fight with writer’s block on a computer screen.

But I have notebooks for other reasons, too. One of my oldest is where I have story ideas. Some of them have early starts as novels in my terabyte drive. Others? I’m still letting them ruminate in my mind. But I don’t want to throw out that notebook simply because I have Evernote now. Why would I? The notebook isn’t “broken,” for all that it’s “ancient” technology. It’s covered in multi-colored ink, with tabs dividing the type of work, and Post-Its with potential character names. There’s HISTORY in that notebook. When I flip through it, I remember what was going on in my life each time I sat down and scribbled those notes. Some came from dreams, others phrases in other books, and one or two from something I saw when I was sitting on the train. I can’t transfer those impressions into a computer; it would lose something – the depth of the pen in the paper, the slant of the writing that shows my emotions.

I have notebooks that track the posts I make here, ensuring I don’t repeat myself (at least, not too often). And there’s another for Silentio Sonante. When I write up my white board schedules for work, I take the time to come up with post ideas for both blogs, too. Then I divide the topics up between the notebooks. And while it might be easier to run a “Find” on a program, I like getting to flip through pages and see what I’ve done in the past year. Again, it’s a history thing. I can touch pages and count “steps.” Dragging a mouse down a screen? It doesn’t provide the same feeling.

And, yeah, there’s more.

I have non-writing notebooks, too. One keeps track of all of my weird medical crap. Because trying to remember which doctor needs what report at my appointments? My brain can come up with new worlds and story ideas without a problem. But asking it do that is impossible. So I have a notebook where I write everything down, complete with times (since my atypical migraines do seriously odd shit at times). Then I can take it with me and skim what’s important. The animals have THEIR medical notebook, too. (When you have three cats, trying to remember who threw up a hairball when is impossible)

Don’t get me wrong: technology is great. But (so far as I know), you learn to write for a reason. And a writer NEEDS to remember to connect with that part of their craft. What are you going to do if you’re ever in a situation without a computer or phone? (Don’t laugh – it might happen) Are you going to just REMEMBER your brilliant line? You know that isn’t going to happen. Wouldn’t it be a better idea if you get in the habit of keeping a notebook with you – just in case? (Why, yes, I have a tiny notebook in my purse – it has kittens on it) Even artists don’t stick to one strict medium when they work. Why should we?

So this summer, when you hear about those sales, consider dropping by for a peek. Touch those pages and remember what it felt like to set a pencil or pen to them. Then go look at the pens. (You know you have a favorite) Pick up at least one of each and go home. Write something – ANYTHING. Odds are pretty high you’re going to find yourself going back for more. Because it’s addicting. But it also helps with the writing process. (Besides, you can always type whatever you write with little trouble)

Business Savvy

Business Savvy

Business taxes
Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

You have a few certainties in life: birth, work (you can define that however you want), death, and taxes. You don’t have any say-so over your birth or death. But your work and taxes? You have control there – even if you think you don’t. You still need to find that job that alleviates the tedium of existence (hopefully, you’re working at something that does more than that). However, you’re not assigned a position and locked into it for life. And while everyone will insist you don’t get any freedom in the tax department, that isn’t necessarily true. (And, no, I’m not advocating that you skip out on paying them) Because if you’re a freelancer? You have some wiggle room.

But you need to think through things.

The tricky part of working as a freelance writer (or any freelancer, really) is YOU have to manage all of the business end of things yourself. You’re the employer. While you work for a client, they’re not going to handle taxes for you. That falls into your lap. And how much you have to set aside from every job? That depends on where you live. But, on average, 25-30% is a good place to start. This makes sure you’ll have enough to keep the IRS, your state, and (potentially) your local governments happy. But, depending on your situation, you have some flex in that percentage.

For instance, you may not need to pay for your own health insurance. Or you can elect to not pay into social security. (It’s NOT a requirement) And as a self-employed worker, plenty of local governments cut you some slack if you work from home. It involves a TON of reading come tax time, and you may need to ask questions to understand all of the jargon, but you can find neat little ways to save yourself some taxes, courtesy of functioning as a business. And while an accountant can walk you through all of this (and happily take your money doing so), tax programs will do the same for a fraction of the cost.

Then there’s the REAL fun.

You’re an independent business. (Or, you know, you may work in collaboration with others) But that means you’re entitled to claim business expenses on your taxes. And when you look at it, that includes PLENTY of your day-to-day materials. Everything from paper to printer ink (even pens and pencils, if you want to go that far). You also get to list all of the subscriptions you use for your work – something I like to forget as I stare at the prices and agonize over whether it’s worth using some of my hard-earned funds or not. I can’t survive without Evernote or Grammarly; they’re in use EVERY SINGLE DAY that I work. And the free versions? While functional, they don’t provide the same services. I also use Adobe Stock Photos because (now and then), I need to chase down an image I can’t find in the LONG list of free stock photo search engines I have bookmarked. And all of them are business expenses I list on my taxes!

But I struggle to remind myself of that fact. When I look over my account each week, I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that certain things are worth the expense. (Which is crazy, considering I’ve smashed every financial goal I’ve set) Maybe other freelancers do so without a second thought. I’m someone that’s always watched every cent and needed to justify a purchase that wasn’t strictly necessary for survival. So starting on the freelance writing path? It took a shift in my mental processes. Despite all of my research and reading, I have to coach myself and go through a list of questions before hitting that, “Accept” button:

  • Will I use this often enough to justify the cost?
  • Is this going to benefit my writing?
  • Does the premium version offer more than the free?
  • Did you forget this is a tax-deductible thing?

If you’ve never handled business expenses, financial planning, or taxes on your own, it gets overwhelming. And doing my taxes this year? They were frightening and involved a TON of reading and research. But, between my husband and I, we got them completed without too much trouble. Luckily, I use a financial program to track every cent in and out. Plus, I keep my business receipts so they’re easy to enter into TurboTax. (If you stay organized, it makes the business side of things simpler to deal with) And reading? Yeah, I did as much of that as possible before I ever submitted my first proposal for a job.

You’re not going to get out of paying taxes – even with the freedom being a freelancer grants you. But you WILL find ways to make that particular guarantee easier to manage if you’re smart and do your homework. (And that means knowing you can’t claim the chair you bought for your cat to sit at your desk) And once you understand your way around things, it gives you a breath of fresh air so you CAN start to pick up the things you need to function properly. It’s a careful balancing act. But with a little work, you start to get it down.

AK Turns One

AK Turns One

Celebrating AK's first anniversary
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

This time last year, I went from sending out proposal after proposal every day to receiving my first interview and my first contract as a freelance writer. (Yes, there was much embarrassing dancing) And once the excitement (and relief) settled down, nerves set in. What if my feeble confidence ended up being misplaced? Maybe the client wouldn’t like my writing, after all. I could screw up the two-article assignment completely and land myself in the Pit of Terrible Writers. Then what? (Obviously, the answer’s you try again and keep going, but that’s difficult to come up with when you’re in the middle of an anxiety spiral) Those worries circled through my brain as I watched my deadline tick closer. And I went over every word at least twenty times and questioned my ability about ten times per word (not an exaggeration). Then I handed them over, precisely on time.

My client loved them.

And within a week I had a new client with another assignment. Followed by another. And the work kept coming. I gained confidence and rewrote every proposal I sent out – tweaking the language to polish my voice and allow my talent to shine. Scouring the job postings, I considered plenty of different angles. If I felt certain in my knowledge, the proposal went out. Slowly, I phased out my sample articles and replaced them with the “real deal.” Before long, I built my Library and removed the samples entirely. My rating spiraled up with every successful job completion. (I’ve never received less than five stars)

And suddenly? Clients came to ME! As a freelancer, having someone approach you for work is one of he biggest highs. They’ve reviewed your profile, skimmed through testimonials of previous clients, and looked over your portfolio. And they LIKED what they saw. Over the sometimes HUNDREDS of people clamoring for the job, they set you aside and asked for your talent.

Talk about an insane rush!

My workload went from one or two articles a week to three to four A DAY! At this point, I spend my entire day writing and researching. (When AK started, most of my time went to marketing myself and searching for work) I have a full-time client I work for, with several other long-term clients. These are goals I never THOUGHT to imagine a year ago when I started! Hell, I figured the occasional bone tossed my way was a lofty enough anticipation for someone starting from nothing. (NEVER doubt your abilities; you don’t know what self-sabotage may block you from) And while I feel bad over my lack of maintaining a social media presence, I’m delighted that my work (REAL work) takes up so much of my life.

But this anniversary has another meaning: financial goals. Because freelance writing IS my career. A year ago, I set a modest, reasonable goal for the end of the year. Prior to setting up a profile, I devoured books three books on freelancing. And that included the 2020 Writer’s Market. I knew the expected rates for a fledgling writer. And while I edged myself out from the bottom (I KNOW how to write and write well), I stuck to the bottom of the range. Guessing at the number of clients I might see by the end of the year, I wrote out a goal for myself.

And beat it within two months.

So I set a new goal. And then I crushed that one three months later. When the third goal hit the rearview mirror in under a month, I realized I’d underestimated myself. (Please don’t do that. You KNOW you have talent, and you need to invest in YOURSELF) It was time to knuckle down and set a financial goal with WEIGHT behind it. Something that matched the worth I was seeing. I wanted to pay off my credit card. That bill had bent my shoulders for years, and even the certain, regular paychecks of my previous job failed to make a dent in it. If I could eliminate the credit card, then I’d feel satisfied. It felt like a fair challenge.

This weekend? I did it. That boulder around my neck is GONE. This crazy, insane dream I was so afraid to chase after eliminated a “negative” goal from my list. Tell me how ridiculous that sounds! I exhaled the biggest sigh of relief, but I also cheered. My work, my writing accomplished that – in one year. There’s no better anniversary gift than that! (Although the Dinosaur Deadpool my husband got me for the occasion is pretty awesome)

Am I excited with how far my writing’s taken me? Yes, but this post is more than that. I want to inspire you to follow that “irrational” dream you’ve buried. I wasted SO many years making excuses as to why I couldn’t be a writer (yet). I piled dust on top of everything I wanted, turning away from something that made me insanely happy. And in just one year? I kick myself for doing that. Because the drive, ambition, and ability was THERE the entire time. All I needed to do was stand up and declare, “This is what I’m going to do.”

Your dreams? They’re worth it.

Broadening Your Brain Pool

Broadening Your Brain Pool

Shelf of non-fiction books

You’re never going to find a writer that doesn’t read. It’s completely impossible. Writers come from readers. The desire kicks in when we fall in love with the written word, discover our own inner worlds and characters demanding breath, or find out the book we WANT to read doesn’t exist. Enter a writer’s house, and you’ll find a library somewhere. (And usually see books here and there, as well as the obligatory notebooks needed for when ideas strike out of the blue) We’re the literary squirrels of the world. Which is fine – even encouraged. You need to know what’s current in your genre – WHO’S current in the genre – if you have any chance of surviving the publishing industry.

But there’s another category of reading out there.

If you’re not drifting into the various non-fiction sections in the bookstore, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Those books are research GOLDMINES. You can find ANYTHING. And while some are easier to get through than others, they offer foundations in everything. It’s a necessary exercise for any writer. But freelancers? You should have shelves of non-fiction books (that you’ve read – I hope that’s understood) at your work station. Because over half of your work day is what? Research!

No one knows everything about everything. No one knows everything about anything. You have to tease and pull apart details in order to provide a coherent argument. And that means digging into a topic. There’s so much garbage on the internet it isn’t funny. I spend WAY too much of my time gritting my teeth and shaking my head when I dive into research about animal-related topics. Anyone who’s owned or loved a pet declares themselves an expert and runs off with the bit in their mouth. But the information they share is usually skewed – or 100% wrong. And how do I know?

Research.

I spent a year-and-a-half in school to get my veterinary technician degree. Then I worked in the field for over ten years, where I needed to obtain continuing education to maintain my license. I attended conferences and sat through hours and hours of lectures by doctors and other technicians from around the world. I filled pages and pages with copious notes and tucked away USB drives with the complete presentations. I asked questions when I didn’t understand something. I read the proceedings. I worked every day with doctors with DECADES of experience. I asked them questions every day and added those notes to notebooks. I made my observations and had genuine experiences and cases embedded into my brain. And THAT’S the information I carry forward when I write an article now. Oh, sure, I own and adore my Minions, but my expertise? It comes from SO much more than that.

You have to invest your free time into reading non-fiction. Look up the credentials of the authors. Make sure they know what they’re talking about (because plenty of people land a publishing deal and are idiots), and then settle in to add their brilliance to yours. It’s research you’ll carry forward into your writing career. Because when you freelance, you KNOW the general subjects you tackle. They’re things you ENJOY talking about. That means learning about them WON’T end up as a chore.

You don’t have to pick up books on organic chemistry – unless that’s your thing. (It’s not. Like Skyler from Good Will Hunting, I’m going to call your bluff, “Yeah, it’s SO much fun studying organic chemistry. Are you mad? Have you completely lost your mind? Nobody studies it for fun. It’s not a necessity.”) I read books on animal intelligence, animal emotions, real-life cat stories, and, yes, shark books. They give me new perspectives on how to see the natural world. Have I yet quoted from one of them in an article? No. But have I noticed them influencing my writing on certain topics? Yes. Because I gained new information. They weren’t direct research on an article, but they gave me information.

Open brain – insert knowledge.

Research – and a drive to continue learning – is what sets you apart from the thousands (millions?) of other freelance writers out there. Some people prioritize quantity or quality. They slap an article together in a few minutes and pat themselves on the back. Is the information correct? They don’t care. As long as they fulfilled the minimum requirements of their contract, they’re satisfied. But people on the internet believe ANYTHING. And it’s unfair for incorrect information to start circulating.

Take a stand to be BETTER. Do your research. Improve your knowledge. Expand your mind as much as possible. You’ll start to appreciate things in a new light. And those non-fiction books help in the speculative writing, too. Nothing makes you sound sillier than when you try to describe something mundane and get it wrong. (And you can’t dismiss everything as “magic” and get away with it) There are shelves and shelves and SHELVES of non-fiction books out there. And you have plenty of topics that interest you. Look into the writer’s background, and then bring a few home. Your writing will improve. And your audience will appreciate it. Not to mention your clients.

Just maybe not the organic chemistry.

Rabbit Food

Rabbit Food

Typical healthy meal
Photo by Brodie Vissers from Burst

Before you break out the pitchforks and torches, take a deep breath. I am NOT going to advocate any crazy diet out there with this discussion. I’ve already gone on a rant over the stupidity of meal-planning, remember? (I also went to some lengths on the joys found in cake-tasting, so that should clue you in on the fact that I’m not some diet-Nazi) Every diet fad that’s broken from the surface of hell has peaked and crashed under the burden of scientific evidence. Also, not one works. The best these psychotic crazes manage is to dump any excess water you’re lugging around. You WILL lose weight, but it’s not exactly the fat you were looking to get rid of in the first place.

That said, you DO need to take a look at the food you’re putting into your body. Which is difficult for writers (or any freelancer, really). Why? Because when you get wrapped up in whatever you’re working on, you can’t be bothered to put together something from the…however many food groups the food…I think there’s a pie involved now instead of the pyramid they had when I was a kid. Nope, you grab whatever’s quick. Assuming you grab anything at all. I’ve gone an entire day without food or water because I zoned out completely. My writing brain took over and informed my stomach (and the remainder of my organs, I suppose) that they weren’t vital.

Awesome for the novel I was writing; terrible for my health.

So I graduated to the junk food routine. Mindlessly picking up chips or cookies while I typed? That didn’t require a ton of neurons. The package sat beside me on the desk, and any time I paused, I’d snag something. You know what that diet gets you? Fat. It gets you fat. It also makes your brain feel like crud, which interferes with the creative process. Of the two, when you’re a writer, let me assure you the second is the worse of the two. But it’s so much EASIER than:

  1. Pausing your writing brain
  2. Getting up from the computer
  3. Walking into the kitchen
  4. Putting together even a semi-healthy meal
  5. Attempting to eat and type at the same time

Who wants to go through all of that trouble?! No one. But if you want your body – and brain – to stay healthy and productive, it’s the only answer. (Trust me on this one) Which is why I grumble and fuss and complain EVERY day, but I make myself do it.

But it’s NOT a diet!

Okay, so there’s no junk food in the house in the first place. (There hasn’t been for years) So that eliminates the snacking temptation. I eat breakfast before work starts. That means I can sit down and break out utensils. When I hit the computer, I force myself to watch the clock while I work. When mid-morning comes around, I go back myself a protein shake. It’s a compromise between convenience (I can type with one hand and drink with the other) and health. It also doesn’t take very long to finish, even if I can’t chug the thing. And I’m usually at a place where I’m editing by then, anyway, so the typing’s minimal. It’s a perfect compromise.

A few hours down the road, and I’m ready for lunch. Yes, I have to MAKE lunch. If we don’t have leftovers (a rare occurrence), I have a few easy standbys. My personal favorite is rice cake sandwiches and celery with peanut butter (because I am an adult). Again, I can eat one-handed and type with the other. It’s a balanced diet, complete with protein, carbohydrates, fruit, and vegetables. But it doesn’t slow down my writing process. And my afternoon snack? A granola bar. (Yes, I focus on protein, but I also work out 5-6 times a week, so I’m feeding my muscles) Then my wonderful husband makes us a balanced dinner.

No junk, no AVOIDING meals, and my work doesn’t suffer in the process. I still think it’s annoying, and I complain that I have to GET UP and grab food. But my body likes me better. And I’m eating food I LIKE. Which is probably why I’ve maintained this so-called “diet” and haven’t others I’ve attempted in the past. You better believe I have chocolate now and then. On bad days? When everything falls apart and I want to hide? I have dessert. I refuse to deprive myself. Nothing gets cut from my world. Because as soon as you execute something, you make yourself feel miserable.

There’s a difference between dieting and eating healthy.

And that’s where all of those diet fads miss the message. They pick something out there in the world and condemn it to the depths of hell. And it’s usually something your body NEEDS! You NEED carbohydrates! They fuel your body. Protein rebuilds the muscle you break down every day. Do you need a ton of sugar? No. But is it going to kill you to have a reasonable amount? NO! It’s called a BALANCED diet for a reason. Fruits contain nutrients and vitamins your body needs – and they bring sugar with them. Maybe you need to take it easy if you’re diabetic, but you shouldn’t eliminate them from your life for good!

Diets are stupid. But eating HEALTHY isn’t. And you have to eat healthy when you’re a writer. You have to take the time to pause your brain, get up, and get the food. It’s HARD! You never want to do it. There are a MILLION reasons to avoid those meals (you can eat when you finish – in three months). But your body will HATE you. It devises revenge – trust me on this one. But if you put the proper fuel in the tank, it works happily, and your work improves as a result. It’s kind of a win-win situation.