On-The-Go Epiphanies

Last week, I was on the road for about a 2.5-hour trip. Naturally, during such an expanse of time, I thought of the story I’m writing for my MFA thesis. That’s when it hit me–at 70 mph–a connection between my character’s past and present that would offer an opportunity to show his growth!

But at that speed, alone in the car, and with no safe space to pull over, I was worried I would forget about my idea.

Sure, I could have left a voice memo on my phone for myself, but those often end up getting garbled, and I didn’t want to distract myself whilst on the road. It’d have been even more dangerous to take out a pen and physically jot it down.

With the next exit miles away, and with my eagerness to reach my destination, I did the next best thing: I made up a tune. It was a simple tune, just four lines long, but I sang it occasionally throughout the rest of my trip until I could safely stop driving and write it down for later use.

Off the Road

What came next was figuring out how to integrate my idea into my already drafted outline. I ended up deleting most of my outline, but that’s okay. It’s important to stay flexible, to stay fluid, and to accept that the brain is always writing.

I think that’s the thing so many non-writers don’t understand: Writing happens constantly, and the most powerful ideas often occur to a writer at the most inopportune times.

How About You?

Where are you when inspiration strikes? I’ve gotten ideas while out walking, driving, and hiking. Epiphanies have struck while I’ve been in the shower, while I’ve been teaching, and while I’ve been mixing bread dough so I was too messy to write. Only once did a big idea hit while I was actually in a place where I could easily record it.

The Value of Guest Blogging

I’ve had a productive week for guest blogging. On Monday, Sarah Foil and I swapped posts, and I had a post go live on Assignment Online–the publication of my MFA program. Then on Thursday, I had a post go live on Writers Helping Writers, which was voted one of the top 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest in 2016. I set up another guest blog post for February that I have to start work on next week.

So I thought now would be a great opportunity to talk to you about the benefits of guest blogging.

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Some Sites Pay You

I won’t lie; it’s nice when you can be paid for a contribution. Not all sites do, and this isn’t even the biggest benefit, but it’s nice to get some money thrown your way. That said, I’m not in a position where I can pay guest bloggers right now, so I certainly don’t expect it.

I listed this benefit first because I wanted to mention it, and get it out of the way. As I said, it’s really not the biggest benefit out there.

You Get to Know Other Bloggers

Blogging can seem like a lonely endeavor. We sit in our offices, rooms, dens, and kitchens and write, hoping someone will enjoy reading it. It’s a lot like fiction writing. If you don’t find a way to create community, it can be lonesome.

Guest blogging gives you the opportunity to connect with others who like doing what you do. Community is so important, even for those of us with introverted tendencies. (I’m an extroverted introvert, which is fun and confusing, but basically I like community but recharge on my own.)

Writing is also highly reliant on who you know, just like any other industry. Expanding your professional network is a wise move if you plan to make a career of writing.

You Get Clips

Guest blogging is a great way to get your name out there in bios and bylines. I wanted to have more clips about the craft and process of writing, so this year I made it my goal to seek out those opportunities that would allow me to start building that area of my portfolio.

You Build Your Own Blog’s Community

If you have the opportunity to link back to your own site or your own blog, then guest blogging can be a great move because it helps audiences of other sites discover your site. (To everyone who has recently discovered this site, thank you for reading!)

As a blogger, building community is one of my main goals. In order to do that, I need to attract readers. Sure, I can just post blogs and hope people will find them who will find them interesting, but I have a much stronger chance of attracting the right audience by going out and letting readers know I exist. Guest blogging is just one way to do this.

Other Benefits

It’s fun to guest blog. You feel like a bit of a super star for a day because someone else has decided to feature your work. It’s enthralling! There are loads of other benefits too, depending on who you are and what your goals are.

I’d love to know what you get out of guest blogging. And, if you’d like to swap posts, please feel free to contact me.

Writing Goals: 2018

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Happy New Year! Lots of people make resolutions at this time of year; not me. Resolutions are too easy to break. Usually, I go with them for about two weeks and then I skip a day or two–and then it’s over. Instead, I prefer to come up with goals for the year.

I have my own personal goals, but I’m going to share my writing goals, as this is (mostly) a writing blog.

MFA Thesis

As my primary writing endeavor, this will take prime focus. If I write a chapter a week, I can finish a rough draft of my thesis novel by May 27, 2018. That’s my goal.

After residency (which is in less than a week, woohoo!), I’ll be living in New Hampshire for the semester so that I don’t have to drive three hours to campus in potentially inclement weather. I found a sublet situation with a friend from my MFA program, so I’m looking forward to some productive writing sessions.

The good news is this: While I will still be working as a freelancer, I will be able to get by with meeting my required quotas because of student loan disbursements, my tax refund, and the TA stipend.

So I’ve decided I will treat this time like a working writing retreat. It’s a great opportunity to get my rough draft hammered out. I’ll be in New Hampshire through April, which leaves a month to go of drafting when I get home, but I’m confident I’ll be able to keep up with my goal.

Short Stories

I’m still working on my goal of writing one short story each month. I missed last month by a couple of days, but as I was away for a week with family–and it was rather difficult to write over the holiday with much going on–I’m not going to beat myself up over it. I should have December’s short story drafted by the end of today, and out for submission by the end of this week.

This month’s short story is one that’s already written and critiqued; it’s just a matter of addressing its weak points and playing up its strengths before finding it a home by the end of the month.

Writing Contests

I will participate in writing contests this year. Last year, I gave myself a $50 budget for the year; I might bump that up to $100 this year but I haven’t decided.

Either way, I will enter some contests–paid and free–in hopes of getting my writing out there. It’d be cool to place in one of them; I came close a few years ago when I got an honorable mention in the WOW-Women on Writing Flash Fiction contest in winter 2015.

Writing About Writing

I also want to pitch articles about the craft of writing this year. I pitched two last year. The one in November was accepted and I haven’t heard yet about my pitch I sent in December.

These articles can be to magazines, anthologies, or blogs–I’m not picky. Last year I pitched two; this year I want to pitch four articles.

This Blog

Finally, but not least important, is this blog. With school and my TA work, blogging daily just isn’t possible. But I’m aiming for three blog posts per week, with one of those three being a writing prompt.

What are your goals?

I’d love to know what your goals are–writing, reading, or otherwise. Share in the comments for some accountability (not that I’ll hassle you about meeting your goals).

A New Goal: Story Submissions

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I have been sick as a dog this week. I’ve had a head cold that never made it past my throat and it has wiped me out until today. Part of the problem was that I wasn’t getting any sleep…so I wasn’t getting any better. I try not to take things like NyQuil, but I broke down a few nights ago and took it so that I could catch some zzzz. I’m going to take it tonight, too.

Because I was so under the weather, I missed my goal to submit a short story by the end of November by one day. No biggie–I sent out November’s story to two markets tonight electronically, and will submit it to the third via snail mail tomorrow (as they don’t accept electronic submissions). There were other markets I was interested in for this story, but as they’re currently closed for submissions, I’ll keep them in mind as a backup should the story be rejected by the first three markets.

Here’s my new goal–get ready because it’s coming at you in big, bold letters:

Submit one short story for publication each month.

Admittedly, I’d like to submit one every two weeks, or, if I really had my way, submit one every week. But between my MFA program, my TA work, and freelancing, I think it’s far more realistic to submit one a month. That way if I get sick and am out of fiction-commission for a week, I don’t have to feel bad.

Today is an auspicious day to begin this goal because it was seven years ago today that I got my first fiction publishing credit. A King’s Life, a work of fantasy, was published by Fictitious Magazine on December 1, 2010. After that, I stopped submitting stories for awhile. Then I got back into it during and after my MA program, when I had some success with four more publishing credits and an honorable mention in a contest.

My hope is that by setting this goal, I will consistently submit short fiction for publication and continue to build my readership.

I’m aiming for the stars.

Another important shift in my thinking is that I’m starting with the pro markets first. With a few non-pro markets under my belt so to speak, and a lot more understanding of how to produce quality literary fiction, I’m starting with the big publications. The Paris Review. The New Yorker. AGNI. Publications that I used to think I didn’t have a chance of getting into…now is the time to start striving to get in.

If I get rejected, which I probably will, there are plenty of markets I can submit my work to. But I need to stop thinking my work isn’t good enough, because that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Better to aim high and fall than to never jump off the ground to begin with.

What are your writing goals?

If you’re a writer, what do you want to start to accomplish? Where do you see yourself as a writer? Share in the comments section–I’d love to hear from you!

When is it okay to take work below industry rates?

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This is a question every freelancer must ask herself at some point, and I’ve asked myself this numerous times over the last decade of freelancing part-time, and at least three times in the last six months of full-time freelancing.

Usually, I stick with industry rates published by the Editorial Freelancers Association. There are several reasons I like these rates:

  1. They’re not ridiculously unaffordable for most clients.
  2. They’re professional rates so that I can afford to live.
  3. They offer a range, so that if it’s work I have more experience in, I know I can ask at the higher end of the range. If it’s work I’m just breaking into, I’ll quote at the lower end of that range.
  4. This rate card updates with changes in the industry, so I know my rates are current.

But, there are some situations when I consider charging less.

Friends & Family Discount

About half of the gigs I’ve gotten in the last few years have been for friends and family members. I know that initially, their intent to work with me is to show their support for my career, even before they know where my strengths are. That, to me, is worth acknowledgment.

Another important element to consider is that friends and family are usually my best ambassadors. They’re the ones who come to me saying, “I met with a professional last week who mentioned wanting to write a book. I gave her your name.” These unsolicited recommendations are worth something to me.

Finally, even if friends or family members can need more hand-holding as clients, there’s a base element of love there. That makes it easier to be frank with them about issues and questions that crop up during the course of the project.

Ongoing Work

I wrote in a previous blog that I spend 20% of my time looking for new projects and clients. If someone can save me some of that time by offering ongoing work, I’ll often consider a discount.

This is a tricky one though because I always want to know that there will be ongoing work. Sometimes that’s not something the client can promise, and so I’m awarding their intent but not their ability to make good on that intent. It’s a risk I take when working for lower rates for this reason, but I think it’s more important to cultivate good will with clients than not to.

Just like with friends and family, happy clients make good ambassadors.

I’m New at It

I’ve only been freelancing for about ten years. That means I’m approaching a middle level in my career, and while I feel that I have extensive skill in some disciplines, I’ve not yet worked as much with others. If I’m new at the type of work the client needs, I will either quote at the low end of the EFA range or below.

Working For Free

Do I ever give up writing for free? Yes. I try not to do it often, but there are two scenarios when it makes sense to me to write pro bono:

  1. When writing for a charity or non-profit. I’ve written multiple times for JuNoWriMo, and I’ve loved every minute of it.
  2. When guest blogging on a site that will provide good exposure.

Here’s the thing about writing for exposure: I don’t like doing it when someone comes to me with a site or publication I’ve never heard of and promises that writing for them will reward me with a byline.

What I don’t mind is when I pitch a guest post to a blog that I’ve followed for months or years, and they accept but don’t pay guest posters with monetary compensation. In other words, if you want someone to write only for exposure, let them come to you.

Final Thoughts

Look, at the end of the day, I like getting paid competitive rates for my work. However, there are times when writing for less or writing for free makes sense. There are times when doing so makes me feel good.

At the end of the day, I say follow your gut…but it doesn’t hurt to have some policies in place (like the amount you discount to friends and family, for example!).

Feeling Hemmed In

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For the last month, I’ve tried writing with an editorial calendar. I know that it’s what many people recommend for a successful blog, but the more I plan ahead, the more I feel trapped, and the less I blog.

It sounds counter-intuitive, perhaps, but I blogged almost every single day in October. This month, I’ve only written one to two blog entries a week. So, in the spirit of discovering how to make this blog work for me and be valuable to readers, I’m ditching my editorial calendar.

Dear Editorial Calendar:

That’s not to say I won’t still write ideas and keep a list of them in case I need to pull one out…but I’m more productive when I aim to write every day instead of trying to hold to a particular schedule of topics.

Also, podcasting while the undergrad semesters are in session (i.e. while I’m TA-ing) is insane. I will continue my podcast on breaks and over the summer. I do have plans to occasionally–whenever she’s free–have a guest on with me, but there won’t be any more episodes until the semester is over.

While I’ve run blogs before, including blogs about writing, I’ve not done so while in school, so this site is like an experiment right now. Thanks for joining me!

Update: I will be blogging here 3x a week (Tue, Thu, and Sat) because of other blogging projects.

Freelance Life: Where to Find Work

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Last week, I wrote about how often I’m on the hunt for new freelance opportunities. Where do I spend my time looking? This is one of the most frequent questions I’m asked when people learn I’m a freelance writer. I imagine that’s because of a few things:

  • The freelance life can seem glamorous
  • For many, the idea of constantly seeking more work is a foreign notion
  • People are intrigued by how one can make life work without the 9-5

I’m going to talk about each of these and then I’ll share with you some of my best resources for finding freelance work…and some of my worst.

It’s a Glamorous Life

Many people I’ve met see me and think I’m living like Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. They think I work for one to two hours a week and somehow make enough money to afford an apartment, high fashion, and expensive shoes. How they could think this while in the same room is still a mystery (I’m a sweatshirt and leggings/jeans sort of person), but that’s not what I’m here to solve today.

I think for some, freelancing can be a glamorous life, but it’s never that easy. It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and some of that effort results in nothing, so it takes the ability to accept losses and pivot into new opportunities. It takes the ability to pretend you don’t have writer’s block, to write even when you don’t feel like the words are coming out in a smooth stream. It takes a heck of a lot more than writing, “I couldn’t help but wonder…” followed by a string of puns (this is how I think of Carrie Bradshaw’s writing in the show).

Freelancing is hard, sometimes thankless work. Aside from the everyday hurdles, there’re the accounting hurdles. You’re self-employed as a freelancer, which for me, means I pay 30% of my income in taxes. I don’t get company-sponsored health insurance or a pension/retirement plan. No stock options or bonuses either. Every dollar I earn has a certain amount of time and energy attached to it; it’s all traceable. The benefit? I don’t have a boss. I don’t have to set an alarm. I can work in my pajamas if I want, early in the morning, in the middle of the day, or late at night. I can work three 12-hour days and take the rest of the week off. I could potentially travel and work from anywhere.

Flexibility. I think this is what people see as glamorous, and this is what they’re interested in. I get it–that’s what drew me too, and despite the difficulties of being a freelancer, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’ve done the 9-5 and felt like I wanted to just let my brains ooze out of my ears (pretty sure that’s anatomically impossible). So I get it–but it’s not what it’s portrayed as in entertainment. Like any job, it’s hard work.

If you want to be a freelancer, be prepared to work your butt off.

Always on the hunt…

For me, working in a 9-5 job was so stifling that I was always looking for another job anyway. The only exception to that was when I worked a 9-1 job and freelanced on the side. The morning job was a writing position, so really it wasn’t that different except I had to get up, get dressed, and get to the office. And even while I worked at that office, I was looking for gigs because that job was only part-time.

So, I’ve been constantly job hunting since about 2008. After a while, I have gotten used to it, but at first, it was tough to work all day and then on top of that, give time over to job/gig/client hunting. The thing to remember about freelancing is that jobs and clients can come and go. Maybe it’s just a temporary gig, or maybe a start-up company can’t keep it going and folds. Whatever the reason, you don’t want to find yourself without any work to do.

This isn’t a “stay with the same company for 30 years and then get a gold watch” kind of lifestyle, though does anyone have that anymore? I feel like in order to make it in this world professionally, you always have to be willing to jump from one situation to another. At least, with freelancing, that’s expected. No one looks at me like I’m a defective worker because I’ve worked with many clients and agencies. No one asks why I “only” worked with someone for six months. They just presume that’s how long the gig was, which would be my answer if they asked.

Because I’m always on the hunt for more work, my list of places I hunt for said work evolves. The list I’m going to give you soon is my current list, but if you’re reading this a year or more from now, who knows? I might have moved on to something else and chances are I’ve written a new blog post about it.

Balancing a Flexible Life

A flexible working life also means a flexible budget. People are often surprised that I can live on a freelance income. Here’s the key: Budgeting. Every month, I track what I spend on everything in my life. Like constant job hunting, this was exhausting at first. But it’s actually become quite freeing because if I have a week when I need to work less so that I can do more schoolwork, I know from my budget if I can move things around.

This is one such week because I have my last MFA deadline of the semester in a few days (not that other deadlines don’t follow).

The point is that in order to survive without a 9-5, I have to know what’s going on with my finances at all times. There are tons of apps out there to help with this, and that’s a topic for another post (look for it later this month). But without budgeting, I’d be lost. It’s also helped me to cut down on unnecessary costs so that I can fit things in like an annual budget for writing contests.

The other piece of this that goes along with constantly looking for new work is that I’m always seeking ways to be more efficient or earn more per hour. Yes, many freelance gigs pay by the word or piece, but I can time how long it takes me to finish an assignment and then know what my hourly rate is. Right now, for example, I’m hovering between $30 and $40 an hour.

That may sound glitzy to some, and it’s more per hour than I’ve ever made in my life up until this point, but keep in mind that more seasoned freelancers make upwards of $150/hour. Also remember that because of my school and teaching commitments, working a 40-hour workweek isn’t possible at this time and that even if I did, 8 of those 40 hours would be devoted to finding new work.

I don’t have a boss or HR department that allows me the chance to negotiate for a raise every year. The way I get a “raise” is to find new, better-paying work, work faster, or charge more for individual clients.

Where to Find Freelance Work and What I Avoid

I’m not new to writing; I’ve been writing professionally for about ten years now. But I am new to considering freelancing my primary source of income, so many of my sources for job hunting are great if you’re just getting started. Admittedly, when I was brand new at this, I worked for content mills.

I really discourage this because even if you’re new, you deserve to make more than a quarter of a penny per word. The only benefits to content mills are that you typically get a broad range of writing assignments for different clients and that it will help you train yourself to meet deadlines.

But you know what? You can find those benefits elsewhere too. So to reiterate, because I don’t think I can say it enough, don’t bother with content mills.

Don’t bother with content mills.

Don’t bother with content mills.

I also steer clear of sites like ODesk and Elance because, in my opinion and experience, most of the jobs posted on sites that encourage bidding wars pay far too little. Another problem is the potential for the theft of your ideas. Many of these sites ask for samples and test articles that are unpaid, and trying to trace who is illegally using your material can be difficult and time-consuming. I have written samples and tests before, but I’ve noticed that the legitimate companies and clients looking for a freelancer will pay something for those tests and samples.

So here’s something to help you remember: If they don’t pay, walk away.

You’re not doing this for free. You’re doing it to make a living. Your time and effort are worth something.

My Job-Hunting Resources

Now that you’ve made it this far (congrats!), I’m happy to provide you with a list of resources that have led to great opportunities for me in the past.

In addition to these resources, my own network has started to provide some interesting opportunities. I take every opportunity I can to tell people (without badgering them) about my work. When they ask me about freelancing with that dewy look in their eye that says they’re imagining I spend all day shopping and gabbing with my friends like Carrie, I tell them about my life and my work. Sometimes they know someone who needs a wordsmith. Sometimes they are the ones who need a wordsmith.

Some Final Words of Wisdom

Don’t give up. If freelancing is what you want to do, it’s going to take a thick skin and a will to succeed. This is my third attempt to make freelancing my primary source of income. The first time, I had no experience. The second time I had some experience, but the U.S. was deep in the worst recession in almost 100 years. Both times I got scared when money got too scarce and I caved and went for the 9-5 job.

Both times I regretted it.

This time, I’ve stuck with it and even though there have been some lean months, and I’ve had to supplement with part-time work here and there, I’ve made it a year so far relying mostly on a freelance income and I’m starting to see some growth.

That’s my final tip for you. If you get nervous about money, take a part-time job if you can swing it. That will allow you the time it takes to keep freelancing. Now I’ve reached a point where I have enough freelance work that I can get by with working about 20 hours a week, which is allowing me to start pitching to magazines and looking for ghostwriting and editing clients, so that I can add to my repertoire different types of work, and really diversify while also–I hope–specializing in a few topics.

A freelance writing career is always growing, always evolving, and that’s one of the things I love most about it, in addition to being able to work in my PJs. So if you think you want to give it a try, do some soul searching first and then start looking for gigs. Don’t be upset if you’re rejected. One of my favorite jobs started with a rejection, and then they needed another writer so they asked me to join the team, and I love it so much that I look forward to new assignments.

Don’t stop writing and don’t stop hunting for more work.