Friday, May 25, 2012

Planning for the Future

All successful businesses start with a master plan. As a freelance writer, you need to know where you’re going and have a plan in place to take care of contingencies—those times when the markets you’ve been counting on disappear. Perhaps you’ve been putting it off while focusing on getting published. Before you get too far along in your freelance writing career, take some time to compile a more definitive plan.

With a good plan, you’ll be able to review your progress periodically. Doing so will allow you to discover  the need for a change in your direction when your original plan and your checkbook balance are at odds. Plus a clear, concise, well-thought-out business plan gives you a better opportunity to get a loan from your bank or a friend or family member when money is tight or you want to buy some new equipment. Few people, bank loan officers included, ever take freelance businesspeople seriously unless they have a plan in writing.

Your plan should be flexible, but it should keep you pointing—and moving—in the right direction.

A good business plan also keeps your eye on your long-term goals. It will detail priorities in a sequence that will save you valuable time and energy and help eliminate worry, which can be a major distraction to your writing.

When you draft your plan, stick to facts, realities, and valid assumptions. Don't overlook the obvious pluses. Perhaps your spouse has a good, reliable job which won’t disappear overnight. Or you know that you'll be coming into some money in a couple of years.  Or, even better, you’ve been building up your expertise in a particular subject area which will allow you to eventually specialize in it, resulting in reliable assignments.

When compiling a business plan, keep daydreams to a minimum. You’ll only get frustrated if you write a plan based on wishful thinking. Deal in the here and now, not in what you hope will happen. Above all, don't overanalyze, or you'll drown in a sea of data you won't be able to use. Allow a certain amount of time for creating your business plan and then stop. You can always change it later.

If you’re dealing with several different types of markets or other related ventures, such as teaching or photography, you might want to compile some detailed sub-plans. These don’t have to be involved, but should include details for that particular venture to help you expand as you go. Once you have your plan in place, prepare a general To-Do List based on it that you can work into your daily routine.

Now that you know what a good business plan will do for you writing, let’s look at what it should include.

First and foremost, it should include a statement of purpose—what is the purpose of your writing business.

Second, a detailed description of your business, including a list of your specialties, the markets for them, and a paragraph on why you, above others, can give an editor or a client a unique angle.

Third, a discussion of what the market is like for your writing. Included in this section should be a list of opportunities, with specific details about current markets, names of publishers, publications, and editors, as well as other clients. Do the same for each of your specialties or other ventures.

Fourth, a plan for marketing your writing—how do you plan to promote it and yourself? 

Fifth, list your market objectives for one year, eighteen months, two years, and five years. These will help you outline your strategy—specific work you'd like to be able to cover in the year to come, research already available to you, what you'd need to research further, and probable places where you might find  information, plus the time and cost to get it.

And finally, a profit-and-loss statement or budget, including an estimate of your net worth, and a list of your office equipment with a projection of future items that could increase your productivity. This tells you and whoever is reading your plan where you are financially and where you plan to go.

Remember, the more flexible your plan, the more it will allow you to grow your freelance business.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Don’t Put Off Until Tomorrow What You Can Do Today

Everyone suffers from occasional bouts of procrastination. The subject is so popular that over 600 books have been written about it. But for many writers, this happens more often than for others. Why? And what can you do about it?

According to its psychological definition, procrastination refers to the act of replacing high-priority tasks with those of lower priority, especially if the lower priority ones provide enjoyment. Writing can be stressful at times. Deadlines can loom overhead like giant alien spaceships. Generally, those lower priority tasks are things that you can do later or perhaps not at all.

Behind most procrastination problems lies abulia, the abnormal lack of the ability to act or make decisions. And there’s no mistake that it’s a force you need to conquer. Knowing when, how, and why you’re procrastinating is the first step toward improvement.

Just because you procrastinate doesn’t mean that you don’t have the motivation or willpower to complete a writing project. Perhaps the project is too big or maybe your skills aren’t developed enough to handle it. While you may be motivated to write a particular book, for example, you may not have the resources or knowledge to do so. This leads to putting it off as long as possible. Simply trying harder won’t do it. You must understand what triggered you to procrastinate in the first place.

One of the biggest triggers for writers is the fear of rejection. Every writer, from novice to experienced professional harbors this fear at some time or another. Too prevent the fear of rejection from overwhelming you, the best thing to do is have several projects going at once. If one fails, you’ve got the others as backup. And who knows, the rejection of one you had hopes for may cause you to put more effort into another which may go on to be a bestseller. Let’s face it. Not all writing projects are meant to be successful.

Other things that may cause you to procrastinate are distractions from your environment. Is your office cluttered with papers that need to be filed? Does your house need cleaning? Does your garden call out to you to be tended? All of these can keep you away from your work. To make sure you don’t spend all your time on them, schedule each for specific times during the week. By doing a little each day of any of your chores, you’ll not only get them done but get your writing done, too.

Procrastination isn’t a harmless little hang-up. Don't reward it. Sure, you need to take breaks once in a while, but don’t take time to drink too many extra cups of coffee.

To conquer procrastination, define the stumbling blocks in your path. Then tackle them one at a time. Pick one specific area where procrastination plagues you and conquer it. By becoming aware of the problem, you’re half way to solving it.

Learn to set priorities, then focus on one problem at a time (See my blog on priorities from two weeks ago.) If you try to tackle all your problems at once, you won’t get anywhere. Set a goal to take care of the most severe one first.

Give yourself deadlines. Many writers work best when on deadline. The added stress of knowing a project is due by a certain date makes them work harder. But when they don’t have a deadline, they find other more enjoyable things to do.

Don't duck the most difficult projects. Work on them but perhaps not as long as some of your others. By doing a particularly hard writing project a little at a time, it tends to make it seem easier. Another way of tackling this problem is to begin with an easier project, then switch to a hard one, followed by an easier one. Giving yourself a break between difficult projects makes doing them less stressful.

Don't let perfectionism paralyze you. Too many writers are perfectionists. Some continue to do edits and rewrites until they lose sight of the project as a whole. Know when to stop. Perhaps give yourself a limit on rewrites. Continually rewriting can sometimes make what would have been a good project a mediocre one.

To paraphrase an old saying, “If you can't beat procrastination, make use of it.” Perhaps the fact that you’re procrastinating about a project means that your subconscious is holding you back from something you’re not yet ready to do. This "something" may be only a segment of an article or short story for which you’ve written a good beginning, or it may be the approach to a better-paying market.

Don’t neglect that little voice inside you that’s saying "not yet." You just may not be ready.

You make good use of procrastination when—and only when—you’re able to find a better way to accomplish what you avoided by procrastinating. It can be a blessing in disguise, but it won't be unless you make it so.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Avoiding Creative Burnout

Creative burnout can bring your productivity to a halt. You’re most prone to it when you isolate yourself from others, get poor or no feedback, and work long hours with little to show for it.

Creative burnout isn’t writer’s block. In the former, you can’t get ideas. Your brain is stymied. In the latter, you simply can’t write. The words just won’t come. When you’re burned out, you lose your energy and spontaneity and become depressed and detached. Let’s face it, when you run out of ideas, you’ve run out of what drives you as a writer.

You’re not a machine that can be fixed by replacing some worn-out parts—although with transplants these days, that’s even possible. In order to restore your brain, you have to restore your body and your psyche. In this case it pays to adhere to that old proverb, “Know thyself.” Try to remember when this problem hit you last and how you solved it. If it’s any consolation, just about every writer experiences a dry spell every once in a while.

Creative burnout can have multiple causes. The Number One cause is not letting yourself go—forcing yourself to work to fit a preconceived notion of a writer’s life. No two writers work the same way, even though all end up at the same place. Some seem like they’re not working at all while others seem to be always working.

Second only to that is tuning out everyone around you. Listening to others will inspire you to come up with your own ideas—bounce them off of family and friends.

Yes, writing is a skill, but that doesn’t mean to you have be a slave to technique. That has its place in writing, but not at the idea stage. Focusing on technique too early often leads to burnout.

Do you set your expectations too high? Lofty goals are fine but are usually hard to accomplish. Setting unattainable goals leads to failure, and constant failure leads to depression which leads to creative burnout.

Don’t evaluate your work until you’re finished. Too many writers start out with a negative attitude and never give their work a chance. Don’t judge yourself too harshly.

The old saying “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” certainly applies here. Taking too little time for other diversions will create blocks to creativity, as will a prolonged illness or that of a loved one.

Lastly, you may have a hard time coming up with ideas if the ones you’ve already developed are constantly rejected by editors. That can wear any writer down.

Remember, creativity means taking a fresh look and seeing things that aren't obvious. Go back and take a look at some of your old ideas. Reread pieces you did that were successful. Try to remember how you came up with those ideas. As you grow as a writer, your ideas grow. Old ideas which didn’t seem worth developing may just turn out to be your next bestseller.

One of the first things that may get you out of the doldrums is to change your routine. Do things you don’t normally do—take walks, read new books—especially types you’re not used to reading—go to the movies. Expose yourself to other creative endeavors. Plan a new garden. Create some new recipes. Above all, relax your mind. Have fun and don’t worry about deadlines. Put life and work on hold for a short while.

Another way out of the creative abyss is to write. Yes, that’s right—write. But not what you normally do. Some recommend writing about yourself, but you’re already depressed and who needs to get further depressed? Try another type of writing. If you write non-fiction, try writing fiction. Short stories are a good place to start. Take a stab at science fiction or mystery or romance writing. Write a play—start out with a one-act. If you write fiction, why no write an article about writing, for example, how you started out.

By preparing for creative burnout, you've won half the battle. Like everyone else, you’re sure to go through some periods of drought when ideas just aren’t coming. Don’t despair. It happens to the best of us.