Friday, March 30, 2012

Discipline Can Be a Good Thing

Discipline is all important to becoming a successful freelance writer—self-discipline, that is. No one will scold you for doing something wrong. You have no boss. You are the boss. So the only way you’ll get anything done is to make yourself tow the line.

To get ahead, you need to control the elements that might play havoc with your work schedule. To do this, you’ll need to anticipate problems and prepare ways to counteract them so your work won't suffer. The way to do this is to recognize patterns.

Keeping a daily or weekly journal for the first year or two of your freelance venture will help you see patterns developing. By writing down your progress—both the good and the bad things—you’ll begin to notice that they form patterns. Once you recognize the patterns, you’ll be able to take measures to break your bad ones and take advantage of your good ones.

Professional writers know all too well the pattern deadlines follow. Like trucks on a superhighway, they seem to travel in packs. It doesn't matter that you've planned them to arrive at intervals. They overtake each other and you if you don't remain vigilant.

Knowing this, professional writers build tricks into their planned writing time to minimize deadline crashes. The first step in this process is to create a Work-in-Progress chart or spreadsheet. For each project, create columns with the following headings (for non-fiction): Job Name, Publication, Query Written, Query Sent, Deadline, Research Completed, First Draft Completed, Revising Completed, Manuscript Sent, Date Sent, Payment Received, Date Received. If you write fiction, just change the headings accordingly. Then check off each item as you complete it for each project.

Let’s say you have three simultaneous deadlines. To avoid wasting time, do something for each job. Perhaps for Job No. 1 you’ll begin searching the Web for information on your topic. For Job No. 2, you’ll concentrate on interviews. And for Job No. 3, a relatively easy article, you’ll begin writing the first draft.

Professional writers follow this simple rule: As soon as you have a firm assignment to produce, take the first step immediately. By doing so, you’re on your way. The other steps follow without requiring anywhere near the effort of the first. In the case of writing a book, try starting with the easiest chapter first, no matter where it is in the book, then work on the others.

Once you've recognized patterns in your own working habits, you, too, will be able to do as the pros do. For example, you might devote your early mornings to the toughest writing chores because you know this is your most creative time. If you’re at your creative peak at some other time during the day, you should adjust your work schedule accordingly. During this time, you shouldn’t allow anything or anyone to interrupt you. With the heavy-duty work out of the way, you can devote your afternoon hours to making necessary phone calls, trips to the library, online research, or bookkeeping.

Another trick to help your self-discipline is to set a timer or alarm clock as you approach your chores. Break the job, whether it's actually writing the text, revising and editing, or diving into a pile of accumulated research, into reasonable segments, then set your timer and work against it. You'll be amazed at how much you you’ll be able to accomplish with the clock ticking away.

Yet another way to keep the work flowing is to create a daily or weekly to-do list. As you complete each chore, cross it off. At the end of the day or week, you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll get done.

Or you could compare your output with that of a more successful writer. Keep track of how often his or her byline appears not just in the markets where you'd expect to find it, but elsewhere, too. Is this writer getting into a new and promising field? Perhaps it’s time for you to consider opening up new horizons for yourself?

Also consider enlisting the help of a close friend. Tell your friend about a particularly ambitious project you're thinking about starting. Explain you're really taking a chance and that you may need reminding, now and then, about how you’re doing. If you’re friend asks “How’s that book idea you told me about coming along,” you’ll have to answer honestly or feel guilty afterwards. Be sure to choose a friend that’s action oriented, otherwise you may find yourself just talking about your plans instead of carrying them out.

All writers have ways of tricking themselves into the proper mental and emotional state for high production. Some people require the wolf to be knocking at their door, others just the opposite.
How you discipline yourself to juggle your time and work load may work fine for a while, then suddenly you find what you had been doing is no longer adequate. Your bank balance will immediately register deficiencies in your methods of discipline. Once that happens you'll have to do some fast shuffling of priorities and techniques to keep from going under. Be flexible, but remember that patterns lead to other patterns. And discipline rules.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Is a Writing Conference in Your Future?

The learning curve to become a writer is a long slow one, so you need all the help you can get. Just because you get a piece or two published doesn’t make you a freelance writer. Learning should continue as long as you continue to write. One of the best ways to learn new skills and make contacts is by attending a writers’ conference.

No matter where you live, unless it’s literally in the wilderness, you’ll most likely find a writers’ conference being held nearby. Some are worth the money and time you spend on them. Others are not. Matching yourself and your own writing and business needs to the right one in the right place takes planning, lots of research, and money—extra amounts of which are often harder to come by for many freelancers. Also, the quality of conferences tends to ebb and flow. What was a great conference one year may not be so great the next, depending on its management, the amount of promotion, the level of faculty expertise, and the state of the economy. And don’t be swayed by celebrity names on the roster. Just because a writer is well known doesn’t mean that they can convey what they know to you.

So what makes a good writers’ conference? You should judge a conference by the seminars it offers, not by how many editors or publishers will be there. Remember, your main objective at any conference, for writers or not, is to learn new skills. Pick a conference that will offer you the most new knowledge for the money.

A good example of a narrow view is the Philadelphia Writers Conference, held annually in June. The management of this conference prides itself in allowing seminar presenters to work at the conference only one time. This bypasses many really good instructors who could share their knowledge with even more writers over the years. It also requires participants to attend all three days of the conference. This is supposed to weed out wannabees. Instead, it makes it harders for professional writers to attend, giving the conference a definite amateur outlook.

If you're considering a conference coming up in your area, ask yourself some questions about it first. Can you tell from the flyer or Web site what type of writers the conference targets? Is this a conference for all writers—nonfiction writers as well as fiction writers and poets? Does it offer too broad a range or too narrow a one? Is it aimed at beginning writers or those already in the business? The American Society of Journalists and Authors runs an annual conference aimed primarily at those not in their ranks. They encourage their membership to volunteer for the conference, but not necessarily to attend it.

If you’re a working freelance writer, there’s nothing like enhancing your skills and knowledge better than attending a writers conference by professionals for professionals. Talking shop with other working writers for several days or a week can add immeasurably to your overall knowledge. The annual Malice Domestic Conference for both writers and fans of “cozy” mysteries, held each Spring in Bethesda, Maryland, is a good example of a conference that offers both seminars in writing skills and the exchange of ideas and the latest in mystery publishing between mystery writers. While not a writers conference as such, this massive mystery meeting draws mystery fans as well as working mystery writers.

Bouchercon, the world mystery convention held in a different location each year, attracts mystery writers from around the globe. All the major mystery writers' organizations have meetings there, and some, such as Sisters in Crime, even offer a writing workshop a day prior to the convention.
Find out about the speakers at the conference you plan to attend? Do research on them beyond what you read in the brochure. Do you recognize the titles of their work? Do you know if they'll be criticizing work at the conference? Time constraints prevent one-day or weekend conferences from offering a critiquing service, unless you send in work ahead of time. However, longer conferences, with higher fees for room, board, and workshops, usually do. 

Will publishers and agents also be present? While it’s always good to mingle with these people, most of the good ones simply don’t have time to attend conferences. Plus, they’re not looking for beginning writers but more for ones who have had some work published. Does the conference have social hours scheduled or a place where you can meet and talk casually to seminar presenters? Try to find someone who has attended the conference in the past and ask them about its good and bad qualities.

The best way to find a conference near you is to search for “writers conferences” on Google. Writers’ Digest Magazine has also published a list of conferences annually in their May issue.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Keeping Your Supply Closet Stocked

A whole lot has changed for me as a freelance writer in the past two decades, at least as far as keeping my supply closet stocked.  It used to be that when I needed office supplies, my only option was a mom and pop office supply store that sold most of their items at relatively high prices. Today, that’s all changed.

When I first started freelancing in the mid-1980s, I did all of my work on a typewriter. Then I had to worry about keeping fresh ribbons and whiteout handy, along with standard copy paper. In those days, I didn’t have print cartridges to deal with or other accessories of the Computer Age.

Besides the standard office supplies—paper clips, rubber bands, stapler, labels, postage stamps, pens, pencils, calculators, index cards, and file folders—the Computer Age has its own set of office supplies—printing paper, printer cartridges, software, CDs, DVDs, thumb drives, etc.  So how do I keep all of these items in supply without going over my budget? The answer is easy, diversify.

The most important supplies, at least at the beginning, was my letterhead and related stationery with my logo or business address on it. Add to this my invoices—I can’t get paid without them. All of these items carry my business image to the larger business community, so it was imperative that they look professional. I designed my first letterhead and business cards myself using a scissors and glue to cut and paste the designs. I had to take these to a local printer who charged me dearly for them. In fact, in those days I also had to go to his place to make copies.

Today, I design, produce, and print my letterhead and stationery, as I need it, using my computer and printer. I get spiffy business cards at a substantial discount from I can get  250 of them for free, plus the cost of shipping, as long as I use one of their designs. I get compliments about them all the time. To make sure everything goes together, I design my letterhead to go with the existing template cards. I can also get the cards custom-made by VistaPrint for a bit more.

I do the same for my invoices. Originally, I purchased a pad of blank ones at the stationery store. Then I designed my own when I began sending them all by E-mail. I create my invoice in my word processor, then copy and paste it below my signature in the E-mail message. I add a note within the invoice for the person receiving it to print it and send it along to their accounts receivable department.

When I began freelancing, it was important to have a business phone and be listed in the Yellow Pages. Do they even have them anymore? (I jest.) Today, my regular phone works just fine, but along with it I have my Internet connection, which just got boosted to “super zippy” speed through Verizon FIOS. Add to these connections to the outside world is my cell phone. No, not the pay-by-the-month, all-inclusive plan, but just the plain pre-pay variety through Tracfone. I find this more than adequately fulfills my needs.

So what about the rest of my office supplies? Sure, I can opt to go to Staples, Office Max, or Office Depot to buy what I need, but I find that at those places, I have to buy in larger quantities. I learned as the years went by that I don’t need 10,000 paper clips, a 1,000 rubber bands, and a box of 10 reams of paper. The little money I might save buying in such quantities is offset by my not using very many of them at one time. I also keep my eye pealed for sales on these items from local drug and discount stores, especially in August and September before the start of school.

The item that costs the most is print cartridges. Instead of paying nearly $30 for one cartridge, I buy refurbished ones for my HP printer from I can buy three cartridges from them for what I have to pay for one at Staples. Before LDProducts, I purchased cartridges from a similar company that I discovered at a local computer show. If I’m in a pinch, I can always take an empty HP cartridge to Walgreens to have it refilled for a few dollars more than the price of one from LD. For this reason, I make sure I have an extra HP cartridge or two lying around my office.

If I do want to purchase office supplies in bulk, there are plenty of places online that offer larger amounts at reasonable prices, often with free shipping for orders of $50 or more.

Postage used to take up a large chunk of my budget. Today, I do just about all my correspondence by E-mail, including sending complete book manuscripts to my publishers. So now I buy a book of 20 stamps at a time, enough to last me for a month or two. Soon I may be paying most of my bills online, saving me even more on postage. When I do purchase postage of any kind, I always ask for a receipt.

When I’m traveling for research or on assignment, I carry some basic supplies with me. I use a larger ZipLoc bag to hold a few sheets of printed letterhead and envelopes, some business cards, stamps, 3x5 cards, paper clips, rubber bands, a couple of extra ballpoint pens (black, red, and blue), a small block of StickyNotes, a roll of Magic tape, a small pair of scissors, and a miniature stapler. I also stick a few empty manila file folders into my computer bag. I used to have to carry tapes and batteries for my tape recorder, but today now I use a digital recorder which requires neither.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Tools of the Trade

Back in the good ole days—were they really as good as everyone thinks—writers used quill pens, then pens of other sorts and paper to put down their thoughts. Eventually, the typewriter appeared. This invention made work for writers like Mark Twain, one of the first to own one, much easier.

The standard typewriter dominated the writer’s tool kit until the mid-20th century. Soon the old hunt and peck model became electrified, enabling writers to work faster because its powered keys required a lighter touch.

Just when the electric typewriter—the IBM Selectric, with its rotating and interchangeable font ball, topped the list—the electronic typewriter, with its computer-like keyboard appeared. Writers wondered how life could get any better.

Well, it did. With the invention of the personal computer, writers’ productivity increased tenfold. Not only were the keyboard keys extremely light to the touch, but also this machine could store documents for future use and reworking. Editing, formerly a long and laborious process of marking up printed papers, soon achieved great speed through copy and paste techniques.

Over the past 25-30 years of my writing career, I’ve seen and tried them all. I entered my career with a big, old, black, clunky Remington typewriter, followed shortly thereafter by a sleek Corona portable. I hated typing. Each character required so much effort. For a while I rented an IBM Selectric and fell in love with it. After my first article sold to Popular Mechanics Magazine, I took the money and bought myself a Brother Electronic typewriter. This was even better than the IBM I had been using.

But in 1989, that all changed for me, for that’s when I entered the Computer Age. My first, a generic IBM compatible XT clone, seemed like something out of the far future. My productivity took a quantum leap. After that, I purchased a new desktop about every three years—my attic is literally a virtual museum of computing. I also purchased a Tandy portable wordprocessor that helped me to tackle notetaking on the go. I added several laptops to the mix, plus a computer just for my photographic work. And that’s only the hardware.

Along with all the various computers came a myriad of software—wordprocessors, spreadsheet programs, photo editing programs, you name it. I felt as if I was on a Tilt-a-Whirl at times. No sooner did I learn a program, then a new version came out, eventually making my work even more productive.

And that’s the key—productivity. As a writer, it’s imperative to keep up with the latest technology, the tools of your trade. While you don’t have to purchase the latest and greatest computers or software, you should have examples of each that make your work easier. If you’re still writing on a legal pad, then it’s time to make the leap.

To give you an idea of what you could be doing, let’s jump to the present. I no longer go to computer stores to buy equipment. Instead, I purchase lease-back, refurbished Dell desktops, complete with a later version of Windows, from I’ve purchased four of these powerful systems from them for about $300 each and love each one. Since I began with computers that used floppy disks and newer computers today don’t have them, I make sure that my systems all have them. In addition, I also have CD and DVD players and writers that make my systems truly multimedia.

My laptops are all the same make and model IBMs. This allows me to use them and their accessories interchangeably. I do lectures and seminars as part of my work and these allow me lots of flexibility.

Software is a big part of my writers tool kit. Corel WordPerfect X-4, the latest version, is the cornerstone. It allows me to work and read files in both WordPerfect and that other nasty program, Microsoft Word. I also use Dragon Naturally Speaking, a speech-to-text program that helps me take notes from books and convert my handwritten notes to digitized text.  Using these programs, I was able to produce two books of over 100,000 words, each in 10 weeks. With my old systems and programs, that would have been impossible.

Other programs, like Iambic’s ExpenseDirector, incorporated into my Palm Pilot, allow me to keep records of all my expenses—a true boon at tax time. A program called Paperport allows me to use my computer and scanner as a copy machine. And either Corel WordPerfect or Adobe Acrobat allow me to convert my manuscripts to PDF files for producing e-books.

As a freelance writer, I’m both a writer and a business person. I’ve set my office and tools up with care so that my productive capacity is as high as it can be. And high productivity using the best tools you can afford equals higher profits.