Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dealing with Criticism

I recently had breakfast with a writer friend, and she told me that she was in a dilemma—she’d read a book by another mutual friend, and had been asked what she thought of it. She didn’t like it, but wasn’t sure how to tell the writer this without hurting her feelings.

She was going to take the honest approach, but soften the blow as much as possible. I agreed, but also added that the writer should be prepared to hear from readers who may not like the book. I know that this book has been a highly personal project for this writer, and she’d been working hard to promote and sell it. Because of this, I think that any negative feedback would be devastating.

But this got me thinking—how should writers (or any other creative individual) handle criticism? And not necessarily “creative feedback” either…the brutally honest “Wow, I thought this was awful” kind of criticism. Obviously, creatives are hard-wired to be a little more sensitive to the opinions of others, mostly because so much of their professional success relies on what their audiences think. As far as writers go, I think fiction writers have to put themselves out there a little bit more, as their work is usually something out of their own imagination. Nonfiction writing is a little “safer”, with the security of facts, figures, and quotes from others to help soften some of the blow.

As writers, we need to develop a thick skin if we plan to put our work in front of the masses. Once it gets past our immediate family and friends (the folks who will love it no matter how good or bad it is, simply because it’s your work and they love you), we have to understand that some folks in the wider reading world might think it’s the worst thing they’ve ever read. Unfortunately, there will be readers who come to an event or book signing and say such things point blank (although if they hated it so much, why take the time to come to a book signing?) It’s up to the writer to be the bigger person and tell the reader that they appreciate their comments and they’re sorry they were unhappy with the book. Luckily, there are a lot of reading choices out there, and if they didn’t like your work, there are thousands of other authors to pick from!

What about you? Have you ever dealt with nasty criticism? How did you handle it?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Phone or Email for Following Up With Editors?

I’ve been taking my own advice and have been in hard-core follow up mode—I haven’t been sending out many queries lately, but most of the ones I’ve sent out have gone unanswered. Next to people not following through on what they commit to, editors who never respond (or need considerable prodding to give you a “no”) would be on my Top 5 list of pet peeves. That’s probably one of the elements of freelancing that I can’t ever see getting used to.

Normally I’ll follow up approximately 2 weeks after I send my original story idea. Then 2 weeks later if the follow-up got me nowhere…then another 2 weeks later, so we’re talking a good 6 weeks before I give up and send the “Do you want this or don’t you?!” (though a bit more professional, of course) email.

Which brings me to today’s question—what’s the best way for communicating with editors? Being the introspective nerd that I am, discovering email way back when was a godsend. My initial reaction to email went something like “No face to face communication?!?! I can rant and rave and confront the other person without having to see them?!?! How do I sign up for this?!?!” And like most people my age who came up through the ranks right at the tail-end of face-to-face communication as the preferred method of interaction, I embraced email and still choose that over picking up the phone. I’ll email an editor until they respond just to get me to leave them alone, but I never call. I don’t know why—I wouldn’t say I’m nervous about it, per se (at my 9-5 job I associate with company presidents, CEO’s, and other high ranking officials without batting an eye), but it just doesn’t feel right to me. I guess I just know that most editors are insanely busy, and I don’t want to be another phone message pushed into the “Later” bin. Thanks, but I’ll wait for the little rush I get when I see an editor’s name in my email inbox.

What about you? Do you prefer phone or email for following up with editors?

Friday, October 22, 2010

"What Are Your Qualifications?"

In my non-freelancing life, I work for a nonprofit and talk a lot about career awareness and job readiness. Professionals from all walks of life set out on a particular career path, but many find themselves doing something completely different—often something they never imagined they’d be doing! If you really sit and think about it (or ask someone), tracing a person’s professional journey is pretty fascinating.

So that got me thinking.

Most of us fall into one of two camps I touched on above—we’re either working at a job or career we’ve always loved and always wanted to pursue, or we’re doing something else “for now” and keeping our true passions as a side project. I’m curious about how many of you reading this set out to be writers (or any creative professional), and who sort of fell into it?

I’ll go first. My road has been long and winding, with plenty of detours and backtracking along the way. I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know enough about the possibilities to feel comfortable enough to pursue it full-time. But I didn’t really know what else I could see myself doing besides writing. (Journalism wasn’t my thing, though oddly enough my first freelance assignments came from newspapers.) I tried to lay the groundwork so “the perfect job” would somehow magically appear. I majored in English with a focus on communications because it seemed the most marketable. I struck out on interview after interview for marketing jobs, so I landed in the nonprofit sector and have been there ever since. But writing and literature remained a huge part of my life and I never lost the desire to work at it in some way. Most of what I’ve learned about freelancing I’ve learned through trial and error and asking other freelancers. I decided to get my Master’s in English so that I have more opportunities for teaching.

Now you. Did anyone earn a degree in writing or communications? Who came up the old-fashioned way—learning as you went along, or branching out into a particular niche after gaining experience in a particular field? Any advanced degrees? Has it helped you? I’d love to know!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Utilizing Social Media

I’ve been using social media for awhile now. While I think it’s a HUGE time suck in many respects, it seems as though many freelancers have really embraced it as a means to network, find job leads, and locate sources.

My question is—how have you utilized social media to grow your business?

I’m sure I’m showing my ignorance here, but I haven’t had tremendous luck with finding more business through these outlets. Twitter will have the occasional “tweet” that stands out or provides a good business lead, but overall, most of my work has come from good old-fashioned querying, and to a lesser extent, word-of-mouth referrals.

So I’m curious—how has social media helped your business? Is there one website that's been especially beneficial for you?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Following Up and Following Through

One of my big pet peeves lately is people that don’t do what they say they’re going to do. It drives me nuts. My thought is—my time is very precious, and if I commit to something, I want to make sure it’s something I can reasonably accomplish. I don’t like making extra work for myself or anyone else if I don’t have to, but if something falls through, others have to pick up the slack. Sure, it’s much easier to do things halfway or blow them off completely, but the lack of effort comes through loud and clear to the wider world.

This is why I was totally shocked to learn how many freelancers simply let work slide. A similar approach is not following up, whether it’s with an editor, a recent business connection (which could be a possible client), or a colleague on a project’s status. How will you know the status of something if you don’t ask? How will you earn that business owner as a client or convince that editor that your story idea is worthwhile if you don’t show some interest in what they think? So many of us expect people to come to us, when in fact (particularly in the freelancing game), we have to find the opportunities for ourselves. Editors are busy people—once I caught on to the fact that it’s actually okay to send a gentle “Hey, are you interested in the story idea I sent you x number of weeks ago?”, I’m relentless with follow-ups. Normally I’ll send the original query with my follow-up email to make less work for the editor.

By the same token, there are plenty of newbie freelancers out there who are networking up a storm, but not following through on contacting some of these contacts about possible projects. People have short memories—most of them appreciate those friendly reminders such as “Great meeting you at the such-and-such mixer on Wednesday night. Hopefully we can collaborate in the future!”, or some other generic (but genuine) message. As writers, we need to keep our names and services out there, so contacts think of us first for upcoming projects. Although there are plenty of freelancers out there, you want to set yourself apart from the rest by trying to establish an actual relationship with your client, whether it’s an editor or a business. You want to set yourself apart from other freelancers by showing your enthusiasm, professionalism, and genuine interest in their publication or business.

What about you? Do you follow up on queries? Do you follow up with contacts? Any ideas for either that you’d care to share?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What's Your "Next Level"?

Taking things “to the next level” is a common phrase being used in all kinds of workplaces these days. Businesses of all types are looking to expand their marketing efforts, increase their bottom lines, or develop new and innovative products or services.

Freelancers often talk about taking their businesses to the next level, as well. This is different for everyone. Perhaps you’re simply looking to take on a more diverse client base, expand your offerings, or take a look at your work schedule to see where you can make some changes.

For me, my “next level” is to land more corporate clients and break into a few more larger markets with my feature writing. My goal is to start small and establish a recognized business presence in the area so I can tap into the local small business community.

What about you? What’s your “next level”?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

No Time? No Excuse!

I’m the first to admit that I’m a busy person. My schedule is pretty unforgiving, but since I mostly bring it on myself, I can’t blame anyone else. I work some downtime into the calendar, sure, but usually at the expense of time I could’ve used to do work.

And not just writing work, either. My projects have taken a backseat to my grad class and the comp class I’m teaching at the community college, so most of my “free” time has been spent reading, writing papers, grading, or prepping for my next few weeks’ worth of classes. In between all of that, I work full-time and am president of my local writers’ group. Besides all of my presidential duties, I write and edit the group’s newsletter and we’re in the thick of planning our spring conference. Any time left over is for writing/interviewing/querying, hanging with the b.f., friends, and family. Oh, and reading. Jam-packed? You betcha! Do I ever think of ditching what I truly love (writing and teaching) for the sake of some extra time? NO! I've just simply learned to make it all work.

I’ve gotten used to buzzing through my weeks at a killer pace, so when I stop to think about everything I accomplish in a week, it’s sometimes mind-boggling. So when I hear people say, “Eh, I don’t have time to sit and write”, it makes me so mad! Okay, so the only missing element of my schedule that many other folks have is kids, but my b.f. has a son and the three of us spend a lot of time together, so in a way, I do have that, too. And I make it work. The assignments get done, the queries get sent, and the payments come in. I feel that if you truly love something, you’ll make the time for it.

Where do you make the time in your day to write?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Guest Post: Keeping Your Morale Up While Waiting for Editors

by Angelita Williams

If you think coming up with fresh story ideas and getting down and dirty into researching and writing for a piece is the toughest part of freelancing, just wait until you receive your very first rejection letter. And then wait until you receive five, six, and seven more, sometimes all consecutively, as if no one out there is interested in any of the brilliant ideas that you have to offer. Rejection letters can be downright discouraging, which is why it is important to keep your morale up while pitching stories. After all, if you become so disheartened that you stop pitching stories, how will you ever get anything published?

Remember that rejection is not personal. Chances are that when you pitch a story to a newspaper, magazine, or publisher, you have never even met the person to whom you are pitching the story. This means that if you receive a rejection letter, it is not a judgment of your character. Instead, it is far more likely that the publication or publishing firm might have already printed another story similar to yours, previously accepted a pitch similar to yours, or that your piece simply may not be the right one for the publication's target audience. Never equate a rejection with a personal failure because this will only lead to your feeling more discouraged and less willing to continue pitching.

One of the best things that you can do is to use your rejections as learning opportunities. If a certain pitch that you have been shopping around has been refused time and time again, consider changing certain aspects of it to see if you can garner interest that way. Your topic may be too broad, so consider narrowing it down, which can also serve to make your piece unique. Also read over your pitch letter again and think about what you can change to better represent why your story pitch is a good one. Tweaking your pitch can be just what you need to finally get a publication to give you the green light for the project.

Another important thing to remember is to keep regularly pitching. Though your self-esteem may have taken a beating from the rejection letters, you will have a far greater chance of landing a freelance assignment if you continue pitching than if you quit and do nothing. After a while, you may even develop a formula for what types of pitches work and what types do not. In addition, the more quality story pitches you send out, the more work you will likely get, thereby building your professional resume and making you seem even more credible to publications.

Finally, keep in mind is that your feelings of sadness and frustration over the rejections are perfectly normal. In fact, the sting of rejection reaches far beyond purely emotional responses. A study conducted by the University of Amsterdam found that social rejection which is any rejection perpetrated by a peer, such as the editor whom you contacted for a story pitch can actually cause your heart rate to rapidly decelerate. In other words, in addition to the aggravation you may feel when receiving refusal after refusal, your heart may also be temporarily stopping each time as it reels from the stress of rejection. This may explain why many give up trying to freelance after receiving a few rejection letters the emotional and physical toll may be too much. However, if you strive to get over your negative feelings of rejection as quickly as possible, you will be able to keep your morale up and keep pitching your stories so that you can increase your chances of finally finding freelance success.

This guest post is contributed by Angelita Williams, who writes on the topics of online college courses. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: angelita.williams7

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fighting the Freelancing Rut

No matter how long you’ve been freelancing, if you stay in the game long enough, there’s bound to be a time when you hit a bit of a rut. Though there’s plenty of work, there seems to be a lot of the same type of projects. Things are getting a bit stale and you could use some new challenges.

This could be a great time to step up your marketing efforts or take a look at those rejected queries. Can any of them be re-slanted, any of those ideas salvaged? Maybe it’s a matter of trying to get into new markets. Most of my assignments have been with regional publications, and although it’s great to share the stories of exciting people and places with the rest of the world, I’m always hoping to break into bigger markets with a larger readership. I’ve been taking the time to really add a “fresh” spin to my queries, with more of my own voice and writing style in them. For years I’ve been following the query-writing formula I learned at the very beginning of my freelancing days—though I’ve had a bit of success with that template, changing up how I approach my pitches is giving me a much-needed jolt of enthusiasm for my ideas, which I hope is coming across to editors.

The feeling of being in a “rut” can come from many things. It can be the type of work you seem to be attracting (“Another business profile? Yawn”) or it can stem from your approach to finding work—it’s not that you’re marketing or pitching, but it’s how.

What about you? What do you do to change things up and keep yourself from falling into a project “rut”?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Visit to the National Book Festival

During a recent day trip to Washington DC, I discovered something wonderful—the National Book Festival! This annual event was founded by First Lady Laura Bush in 2001 and is a joint effort of the Library of Congress and Borders. With tents housing genre-specific speakers and presentations set up right on the Mall in front of the US Capitol building, the best part of this whole event is the cost—FREE! I’m not one to pass up any type of book event, let alone one that’s free, so we dropped the day’s agenda for a few minutes so I could poke around.

The day is a real treat for book lovers, with a jam-packed schedule of authors speaking about their work. I stopped to listen to Julia Glass (Three Junes) in the Fiction tent. I also noticed that Tim Egan (The Worst Hard Time) and Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) were among the other authors on the agenda.

As you can probably imagine, there were hundreds of people doing the same thing we were. Conveniently, the event was set up right across the street from the Smithsonian where the buses drop off and pick up, so that may have had something to do with the steady flow of traffic. And of course, my favorite part was the Book Sale tent, where works by all of the day’s authors/speakers were for sale. This was one of the few literary events that I’ve checked out and left empty-handed! I think the long lines and humid temperatures in the tent had a lot to do with it. It was also hard to get close to many of the tables to check out the selections.

I always love learning about these large-scale literary events. I’m in favor of anything that gets more people reading. Reading is absolutely my favorite pastime (and yes, it might even trump writing—when I pick up a book, the work has already been done for me…if I’m writing something, it’s up to me to make it interesting!) and I love bookstores, libraries, book events, all of it. I hope all of the kids in the Children’s tent keep up their love and excitement for reading as they grow up.

What about you? Any favorite book events that you’d recommend?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Finding Your Writer's Voice

As writers it’s our job to make sure we’re conveying a message in a particular way. Just as actors express the thoughts, feelings, and emotions in the voice of their character, writers are responsible for getting a message across in the “voice” of a certain client or publication. We’re advised to study back issues or past marketing materials to make sure we’re capturing just the right voice for a particular project. Most of the time, except for the byline we’re kept out of it—our personal writerly voice has to be adapted for the work.

Except when it doesn’t.

There are countless writers who make a perfectly respectable (enviable, even) living by just being themselves—so much, in fact, that I often wonder what their friends and families must think! It’s no easy task to just put yourself out there, let alone drag a friend or relative along with you. It’s this “say anything” approach that makes me admire freelancers like Michelle Goodman (The Anti-9-5 Guide, My So-Called Freelance Life) and memoirists like Jen Lancaster (Bitter Is the New Black, My Fair Lazy, among others) and Laurie Notaro (The Idiot Girls’ Action-Adventure Club, Autobiography of a Fat Bride, among others!)—all of whom have the writing style that makes you want to hang out with them…voices with just the right combination of wit and sarcasm but a down-to-earth realness, as well. You get the idea that you could spit soda out of your nose in front of them and they wouldn’t bat an eyelash.

I think most people would agree that one of the best parts about writing is that it lets us dabble in so many areas and learn so many different things, and thus, use so many different voices. It also lets us show different sides of ourselves. Someone may write software textbooks to pay the bills, but their real passion is the racy poetry they scribble whenever they get a free moment. There’s something very freeing and liberating about being able to just say what you think or feel.

As for me, I have a very dry wit and sarcastic sense of humor that comes across quite plainly in person but is hard to work in to many of my assignments. (I don’t know—“the basics of yoga” doesn’t really lend itself to snarkiness). I also have this bold, “here’s what I think and I don’t care what you think” side that I keep in check much more than I should at times (I call it my “inner George Carlin”). But instead, for most of my assignments I return to my usual, “safe” voice that does a good job of getting the message across but doesn’t reveal much of myself, for the most part. A secret goal is to work my edgier, bolder side into more of my fiction. I suppose my writing is like my personality—a constant work in progress.

What about you? What “voice” do you normally use in your writing? Which “voice” or side of your personality do you wish you could share more often?