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?

Hear it “Write”

Hear it “Write”

Cypress in a pond

When you hear a common sound, or something buried in the everyday bustle, you dismiss it without a second thought. Think about it: how often do you stop and listen to the cawing of a raven or crow? And when was the last time you paid attention to the clicking of a stoplight? They fade into the general background of our lives – present but not particularly of interest. If you take a “common” sound and transplant it into a different situation, though, we start to take notice and pay attention. And for anyone with even a spark of imagination?

Yeah, writing catalyst!

Let me give you the perfect example. This weekend, my husband I went kayaking at a pond. Not a well-known state park, and we only saw a couple of other people the entire time. That meant the only sounds we heard (save when we got closer to the road) involved nature. And while I DID major in marine biology, we were miles from the coast. So I didn’t recognize the birds and frogs well enough other than to place the calls into a general, “Birds and Frogs” category. But most people who’ve spent any time in the natural world could do that. What caught my attention, though, was the creaking of the cypress trees.

Have you ever heard one? I could offer a dozen different descriptions. And that’s where my point comes in. At one point, in the middle of pure quiet, the groan circled around us. I glanced over my shoulder, and my first thought was, Where is there a house out here? It put me in mind of a squeaky door, and I had an immediate flash of a dilapidated shack, perched up on the roots of the trees. My rational brain reminded me there was no way a house existed out there, but the sound conjured the immediate image.

Laughing, I mentioned the thought to my husband. And then I really started ruminating on the sound, turning it over and over in my head. Was it a creaky door? Or did it have overtones of a voice? Maybe a moan? Could I layer something more into it, if I really thought about it? As we continued paddling, I tossed out the casual observance that, if you heard something like a cypress out at night, it wouldn’t take much to convince yourself you’d heard something otherworldly or supernatural. And while we started laughing about some of the paranormal shows we’ve watched, the thought stuck.

What other sounds could I warp?

Even knowing the cypress forest around us held responsibility for the snaps and creaks, my imagination took off running. The shapes of the trees were already strange. And with duckweed covering so much of the water – not to mention the tannin load obscuring the rest of your view to the bottom – the quiet pond made for the perfect setting for ANYTHING. And the more I continued to pay attention to those sounds and think of the potential possibilities they represented? I found myself with plenty of stories bubbling away – horror, dark fantasy, fantasy. Play the sound for a generic audience of characters and ask them for their opinion, and the plots wrote themselves.

And you can do the same thing! Whether you decide to venture out into nature to find a sound of your own or simply pay attention to something “germane” in your daily life. ANYTHING has the potential to catch your ear if you keep your mind open. Because no two people catch the same thing. Going back to those paranormal shows (which, I admit, I don’t take seriously – other than the fact they’re the best cure for insomnia I’ve yet found), I never hear anything they claim. And if you ask someone who isn’t reading a script for the show, they probably don’t, either. Everyone’s wired a little differently. So work with that! Cast your characters into various backgrounds, lock them in a room, and hit play on a tape recorder (or, you know, MP3 player – whatever). Then “record” their reactions.

You won’t regret the exercise. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself with at least ONE new story to play with.

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.

To Thine Own Self Be True

To Thine Own Self Be True

Shelf of books
Image by Lubos Houska from Pixabay

Anyone that participates in SOME form of health program has come across the phrase “self-care.” (Actually, it crops up all over social media these days, so you’ll see it there, too) The notion of taking time out for yourself has gained in popularity recently. It’s an interesting proposition – assuming you happen to have time in your schedule. Then again, I think self-care is supposed to encourage you to MAKE time. And those people are right. You can’t bury yourself in work, errands, and family every moment of the day and expect to keep a stable mental state.

But after that? They get it wrong.

Oh, sure: the idea of bubble baths and manicures SOUNDS luxurious. (No idea what men are supposed to do for their self-care; that never seems to come up, even though they’re included in exercise regimes) But those ideas are horribly outdated. I mean, seriously. When did we go back to the 1950s? It’s a subtle dig to set women back in their place, and I, for one, despise the notion. Also, I don’t find ANYTHING relaxing about either activity.

I’m tall. And the average bathtub? It’s designed for short people. This means SOME part of my body is always out of the water and freezing. I’m allergic to scents, so bath bombs? They’re out (standing next to them in the store causes my throat to swell). Plus, I share a house with Tonks. She’s not afraid of water. Any time I attempt to soak in the tub (not as a “self-care” regime, but usually with Epsom salts or an herbal preparation), she perches on the side and plays in the water – or falls in, and then I have to chase her around the house with a towel. There’s NOTHING relaxing about the process. (And before someone suggests closing the door, that results in frantic scratching and attempts to pry underneath. Again, it’s more stress than it’s worth)

And don’t get me started on manicures. My nails don’t do well under the best circumstances. I admit that I add collagen to my daily superfood shake to attempt to strengthen them, but that’s as far as I’m willing to “baby” them. Nail polish? It never turns out well. I lack the necessary chromosome to paint my nails without making a mess. And there isn’t enough bribery in the world to convince me to set foot in a salon. Chemicals? Are you kidding me? How is THAT supposed to get me calm? (Not to mention that it’s an expense – and one I have to REPEAT?!)

Let’s rethink this self-care thing.

At it’s most basic definition, what is self-care? Taking time out to give yourself a break. And that doesn’t have to look like anything specific! YOU decide what the free time becomes. And you don’t have to justify it to ANYONE. My self-care? It looks like this:

  • Curling up with a book and reading
  • Sitting down to write something NOT for work
  • Taking a nap
  • Watching nonsense on TV

It’s time that I’m allowing my mind and body to recharge. And that’s what I feel self-care IS. I’m not working, nor am I running around thinking or engaging in chores. My brain stops fretting about the million and one things I’m supposed to be focusing on. Everything relaxes and switches off. To me, that’s what self-care means. And it doesn’t COST me anything. (Okay, with the exception of my book budget, which we’re not going to discuss)

What you do to shut yourself down and reset is an individual choice. And it doesn’t have to fit in with the “normal” definition. If you LIKE baths and mani-pedis? Fine. I still think they’re a subliminal message to shuffle women into the background, but everyone’s entitled to their preferences. However, if you find yourself longing for something else? Then FIND it. Figure out what makes you feel like YOU and go for it. How you take care of yourself isn’t confined to specific rules. What’s important is that you DO carve out those moments.

Do they happen every day? Maybe not. Should you find them every week? Yes. (I admit, I sometimes lapse) You’ll find yourself functioning better when you set them aside. If you need to, write them down on your calendar – and defend them from everyone else! If someone asks why you have blocks marked out? Tell them you’re doing research. (Writers MUST read to survive) Or, honestly, tell them you’re making sure you remain healthy and survive. Because you DO need to take care of yourself. However that happens to look.

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.

What Do You Meme?

What Do You Meme?

Meme of cat face
Image by DivvyPixel from Pixabay

Following close behind cat images and cat videos, the internet has turned into a meme-generating machine. And you can’t deny that you’ve shared one or two – probably in the past week. People find images that spark the message they want to share, and they add the appropriate text. Often, one image ends up expressing a variety of emotions and conversational topics. Because pictures? Yeah, that whole “thousand words” thing is genuine.

But there’s more to memes than meets the eye.

Have you ever found yourself taking a few extra moments to study a meme? Not because you feel the original author (artist?) did a fantastic job with PhotoShop (or whatever program they happen to use). No, it’s something more. Maybe it’s the picture. You could care less about the words – even if they make you laugh/think/cry/grit your teeth. The image the person chose bores into your brain and sparks a glimmer of imagination. Your writing brain starts churning out a story the longer you stare.

Or maybe it IS the words. The phrase twists and turns inside your mind. Dialogue for a character? The main theme of a tale? An opening line? The description of the world? Whatever it is, the writing starts flowing. Before you know it, you have a short story, a novella, an entire novel. From a meme.

Sound crazy?

Inspiration comes from EVERYWHERE. And you never know what’s going to catch your imagination’s attention. Is that the purpose of a meme? Probably not. I doubt people are sitting around their computer thinking, “I’m going to help a writer out there get a story off the ground.” (I mean, MAYBE they are. You never know) Does that mean you can’t start combing through social media feeds LOOKING for that tiny bit of inspiration? Of course not. Because memes are laid out differently than simple photos. They include someone’s point of view. And it may differ from yours – which is what you need! It gives you a glimpse into a character’s head. It lays out a world you don’t exist in. And it challenges the way you think.

I’ve pulled ideas from funny memes that turned into horror stories. No, that’s not what the original author intended, but that’s where my brain took things. Because turning things on their head is what writers DO. And I’ve looked at serious memes and made comical stories (one was accidental. You know how characters take on minds of their own). Sometimes the words did it, other times the images, and now and then the two together. But it’s made me look at memes in an entirely new light.

Memes are a GOLD MINE for writers.

Okay, yes, some aren’t worth a second glance. And the ones with grammatical and spelling errors make me cringe. But when I get past that (or mentally correct them), I find fresh ideas to add to my list. And writers NEED ideas. When your brain dries up, leaving you without a resource, you feel empty. A writer HAS to leave themselves open to the possibility of finding inspiration anywhere – even in a silly social media tradition.

(And, yes, that means you can look at the cat pictures and videos, too. You can always add more cat-centric literature to the world)