Have you ever had a client who talked a lot about doing business with you — but never actually did it?
In a time of rising costs and taxes, I understand why some people are reluctant to commit to laying out cash. I’m hardly a wild spender, but I keep writing checks — albeit small ones — to my assistant, even for ideas we’ve had that just didn’t work out as we’d hoped. If I only spent money on sure things (oooh, sign me up!), I’d be a lot richer.
We all want ROI — return on investment. But how many of us know exactly, beforehand, which business decision is a totally sure thing and which is not?
When someone decides they might want to work with me, there are hundreds of articles on-line they can read to see my product. (But how heavily were they edited?) Do some due diligence and ask around; we all have reputations, for good and ill. Some writers’ copy arrives clean and ready to edit, while others offer what I call Swiss cheese journalism — all holes, little substance. I recently met a writer who felt compelled to tell me how Very Successful he is. Then I had lunch this week with someone who previously worked closely with him and told me a very different tale.
When you work for yourself, cashflow is key, which includes deciding when someone’s just kicking your tires and is never actually going to hire you or pay you for your time and skills.
Last year, I did an event for my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” at Saks, an upscale store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. A woman stopped by my table and bought a copy and I couldn’t believe my luck — she works in HR at another huge retailer. It was, I hoped, a golden opportunity for future consulting, or a speaking engagement or book sales.
And then began a months-long courtship that went exactly….nowhere. She’d read my book, seen my video, had plenty of time to assess my potential value to her company. She would email me to arrange a phone call, with no agenda or plan. Our one in-person meeting, when I was in her city far away from me, got cancelled after she took a horrible fall. The call arranged for 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, (she simply assigned me the time, horribly inconvenient for me), she completely blew off.
I finally emailed her a terse note suggesting that if or when she wished to do business with me, I’d be happy to hear from her.
Another Canadian recently decided they might want me to keynote a major conference, with barely a month’s notice — paying my own way to Toronto from New York for no fee. Really?
Then they simply stopped returning my assistant’s calls and emails. This sort of hand-wringing, passive-aggressive, risk-averse bullshit is crazy. Rude. Cowardly.
The ongoing challenge of working for yourself is determining which potential clients really are, eventually, going to open their wallets and get on with it — and those just dicking you around because:
1) they’re indecisive; 2) they’re cheap; 3) they don’t have the authority to hire or pay you; 4) they’re terrified of any risk; 5) they don’t have the funds 6) and/or don’t want you to know it; 7) it makes them feel powerful to know they can.
I hate wasting time. I hate wasting energy. I really try not to do it to others. It’s disrespectful. It’s a time-suck. And all the time you waste on foreplay, so to speak, you could be enjoying the real deal with someone who actually really does want to do business with you.
Have you run into this?
How do you suss these losers out (more) quickly so they don’t waste your time?
Having visited 37 countries, and a fair bit of Canada and the U.S., I’ve had that moment when you think — Really?
Some spots get breathless copy, (hello, free trips!), from travel writers who might never have gone there if they’d had to pay, and secretly hated the joint.
In June 2012, my husband and I visited the Thompson Hotel in Toronto, lured by the fawning copy we’d read everywhere about how amazing it was. Not so much. The famous rooftop pool was closed the four days we were there, the bathroom door was so poorly designed it didn’t even close fully and they’d forgotten to put a handle on the inside of it. Like that…
Here are 10 spots everyone tells you are so amazing but aren’t:
The Paris flea market. Merde! I’ve lived in Paris and been back many times. An avid flea market and antiques shopper, I’ve been to the markets there and most often have come away weary and annoyed: snotty, rude shopkeepers, overpriced merch, items so precious you’re not allowed to even touch them. I’ve scored a few things, but the emotional wear and tear is so not worth it.
Instead: Go to London’s flea markets and Alfie’s on Church Street. I love them all and have many great things I’ve brought home from there, from Victorian pottery jugs to silk scarves.
Times Square, New York. Puhleeze. If you want to be shoved constantly by throngs of fellow tourists, their backpacks jamming into your face and their five-across-the-sidewalk amble slowing you down, go for it! It’s a noisy, crowded, billboard-filled temple of commerce, with deeply unoriginal offerings like Sephora or The Hard Rock Cafe. They have nothing to do with New York.
Instead: Washington Square. It’s at the very bottom of Fifth Avenue, and leads you onto the New York University Campus. You can sit in the sunshine and watch the world go by, then walk down MacDougal Street to Cafe Reggio, an 85-year-old institution, for a cappuccino.
Austin, Texas. I simply don’t get it. I was bored silly.
Instead: Fredericksburg. A small town in Texas hill country, it has antiques, great food, fun shopping and history.
Miami. Meh. Maybe if you’re crazy for dancing and the beach.
Instead: Key West. I’ve been there twice and would happily return many times more: small, quiet, great food and you can bike everywhere. But don’t go during spring break!
Vancouver. I was born there and have been many times. Its setting is spectacular, no question. But I’ve never found it a very interesting place.
Instead: L.A., baby! One of my favorite cities. Yes, you have to do a lot of driving. Deal with it. Great food, great shopping, beaches and Griffith Park, one of the best parks anywhere. I had one of the happiest afternoons of my entire life there — galloping through the park at sunset on a rented horse then dancing to live blues that night at Harvelle’s in Santa Monica. Abbott-Kinney rules.
Santa Fe, N.M. Heresy, since my husband grew up there. Cute, charming, gorgeous — for very rich people!
Instead: Taos or Truth or Consequences. Both are much smaller, funky as hell.
Quebec City: Beautiful to look at, some nice restaurants and an impressive setting on the St. Lawrence.
Instead: Montreal. You can get the same sense of history in the narrow, cobble-stoned streets of Old Montreal, but still enjoy fantastic meals, great shopping and the legendary Atwater Market. Take a caleche up to the top of Mt. Royal then go for brunch at Beauty’s.
Las Vegas. I’ve been there twice, only for work. If you want to shop or gamble, you’ll love it. If you want to do anything else, forget it.
Instead: Stockholm. If you’re planning to blow a ton of cash anyway, go somewhere truly amazing to do it. The city is beautiful, the light unforgettable, and the Vasa museum one of my favorites anywhere — a ship that sank in the harbor in 1628 on its (!) maiden voyage. I’ve been watching Wallander, a fantastic cop show shot in Ystad, and am now dying to return to this lovely (if spendy) country.
The South of France. I love it and have been several times, but $$$$$!
Instead: Corsica. I wept broken-hearted when I left, after only a week there. People were friendly, food was excellent, the landscape simply spectacular. One of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet; here’s my Wall Street Journal story about it.
Sydney. Call me fussy, but after 20 freaking hours in an airplane that cost a mortgage payment, I expected Heaven On Earth from this Australian city. Yes, it’s attractive. Lots of beaches. The Opera House. But I found the people there bizarrely rough and rude, much more so than anyone I’ve ever faced in New York City. I made a friend on the flight over and we went out for dinner — and were (!?) told to leave the restaurant because we were disturbing the other patrons. This was the oddest and most unpleasant dining experience of my life, especially when all the other diners applauded our exit. I assure you, we were neither drunk nor disorderly.
Instead: Melbourne. Lovelovelovelove this city! The Yarra River. The ocean. Elegant neighborhoods. Flinders Street Station. All of it. I’ve rarely enjoyed a city as much as this one.
On Monday I pitched nine ideas to a new-to-me editor at The New York Times on retirement. Hard to think of anything fresh and new. On Wednesday afternoon he assigned one. (I got that idea after doing a reading of my book, “Malled” at a local nursing home. Ideas do come from everywhere!)
Last week I pitched another new-to-me editor there eight different ideas for a regular column, the Holy Grail for any freelancer; she liked one of them and asked for a sample. I reached out to about 20 people on LinkedIn as possible sources; some freelancers have a bunch of steady gigs, and/or teach. I have none of that and would be thrilled to have something reliable.
After four months of calling and emailing a friend who works with her, I now have an appointment for coffee with another new-to-me editor next week at a design/shelter magazine I’ve long wanted to write for; with my background studying interior design and passion for antiques, this is a (potential) perfect fit. So excited!
I emailed one of my Times’ editors to remind her (nicely) that my payment from her needs a second approval before I actually get my money. It should, as it must, arrive just in time for April 15 when I put away a wad ‘o cash for my retirement savings. Whew.
Like many freelancers, I know, cashflow is an ongoing challenge. I make money, but it often doesn’t arrive exactly when I need it; I use a line of credit (overdraft protection) to cover my costs until it does.
The Times ran a front-page story about a huge donation of art to the Metropolitan Museum — and I recognized the name of a fellow Canadian and fellow alum of my college as a major player in the story. I emailed her immediately to ask if it was indeed the same person (it was), and pitched three editors within half an hour, all in Canada. Two said no and one said she’d consider it. I also pitched it to three different editors at the Toronto Star, where a dear friend gave me the right names and emails.
Then — of course! — after the Star says yes, the NYC PR people say, “Later, maybe.” Good thing it wasn’t much money. This is the second time, (and probably the last), I waste my time trying to get a hot story for a Canadian client offering little money for a lot of hassle.
I’ve been spending more time on the part of my business I tend to neglect — finding and pitching new markets. It’s time-consuming and tiring as you never know who will bite and who’ll simply ignore you, no matter how great your ideas or credentials. Last week a Montreal friend kindly sent me an ad from Entrepreneur magazine seeking writers who know about design; I sent my clips and resume at once, and never heard a word.
Freelancing is a constant juggling act: doing the work in hand, (well enough to get repeat business); revising stories after submission; getting new work; invoicing and tracking payment; coming up with ideas and pitching.
Working on a story for Ladies Home Journal and finally heard back from a source on another LHJ idea. I got this LHJ assignment — unusual for me — just by asking if my editor had anything to assign. We met more than 15 years ago when she was editing a bunch of custom publication magazines for Gruner & Jahr, now long gone.
If you stick around, and keep doing good work, and nurture your relationships, it pays off…
Got back the revised version of my story for the Yale Alumni Magazine. I loved that assignment and really hope for another, both well-paid and interesting. I landed that gig by pitching one idea she didn’t like but catching her eye — she assigned this to me.
Spoke to my editor in Florida about my next design story and got a cheery “We’ve got nothing at the moment” email from a long-time editor in Texas.
Sent paper work to a librarian for a Malled talk there May 15; paperwork to get paid by LHJ and a contract filled with the usual obnoxious language, (some of which I amended), to a chaotic and late-paying website I never plan to write for again.
By Friday afternoon — when it was cold, gray, wet and rainy, I was pooped, took a two-hour nap and settled into an armchair to just read for pure pleasure. It’s a thriller, of all things, and I have no idea where I found it, The Wrong Mother, by Sophie Hannah.
This weekend — like every weekend — I’ll plow through The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, all in their print versions. If I don’t unplug from the computer, I feel like a cow tethered to a milking machine!
The towering, slithery stacks of unread magazines will taunt me for another few weeks…
A dear friend recently told me she’s having headaches and stomachaches as she contemplates a huge, life-changing decision, one that’s increasingly facing people in my industry, journalism — to stay or go. Should she accept a buyout (worth a year or more’s salary), or stay working? (She’s 62, and married.)
We’ve faced the same question a few times here as well, as my husband has also worked decades for a major newspaper shedding staff. But journalism doesn’t pay well. Not to mention, there are very few employers in my industry who’ll take on someone older than 40, so taking a buyout probably means your career is over.
I’ve made a few life-changing decisions, from accepting a fellowship in Paris for eight months, (leaving behind friends, family, career, dog, boyfriend, apartment) to leaving Canada to follow a then-beau to the U.S., a man I hoped I’d marry, (he bailed after two years of marriage.)
The problem with decisions is…every one you make, (and the ones you avoid), have consequences. And we simply can’t know, in advance, what those will be.
So how to make them and not freak out?
Mitigate your risks
If you’re moving “for love” (risky as hell for many people), certainly leaving behind a great job, family, friends and a place you like a lot — what else is there besides your sweetie? What if it doesn’t work out romantically? Can you afford the rent? Can you easily find work? Can you re-locate again, and how soon and where to?
Consult those affected
If you have children old enough to participate in the decision intelligently, include them. But some moves are going to be stressful and disruptive, even if they’re necessary. The times I’ve felt most betrayed, and it’s happened repeatedly, was when my life has been up-ended by others with no notice or discussion of how it would affect me as well.
Do your due diligence
If you’re thinking of working for X, do your homework! Check out glassdoor.com to read others’ opinions of what it’s really like to work there. If you’re considering a college or course, ask others what they think. There is a lot of data out there and ignoring it is silly.
What’s the absolute worst that might happen if you’re wrong?
If you choose the wrong partner/job/city/university, getting out will have a cost, financial, emotional, intellectual. It’s usually better to get out quickly (or not get in) than stick to something not at all what you hoped for or expected.
Strengthen your safety net
Good friends, good health and some cash in the bank are all smart ways to give yourself back-up if something doesn’t work out as planned.
Make a list of pro’s and con’s
If one side is a lot longer than the other, that’s a clue. If you’re still stymied, put every item in order of priority. I wouldn’t ever want to live, for example, in a place with very little racial or economic diversity, or one that is relentlessly religious and/or politically conservative. Nor one with high heat/humidity, tornadoes or hurricanes. (That cuts out entire portions of the U.S.)
Have Plans B-K
Smart people always have a Plan B, just in case. I try to have Plans B-E, at least. Give yourself multiple options or escape routes and you’ll find decision-making less terrifying. How quickly or easily can you put the next plan into action? What obstacles would slow or prevent it?
No decision is perfect or risk-free!
The perfect is the enemy of the good; i.e. at some point, you simply have to get on with it! No decision is perfect and every choice means not choosing something else, whether the style of your wedding dress, your college or grad school or deciding to have children. Don’t make yourself insane asking everyone else for their opinions. You probably really know what makes you happiest, (or most miserable.) Go with that.
If a bunch of other people line up to second-guess your decision, whose life is it anyway?
Here are a few major decisions I’ve made and how they turned out:
Accept eight-month Paris fellowship, age 25.
Upside: best year of my life, great new job when I got back.
Downside: Broke up with boyfriend (secretly relieved.)
Move to Montreal at 28 to work for the Gazette, leaving friends, family, city I know well.
Upside: fantastic, cheap, huge apartment; great new boyfriend who later becomes my husband; some adventures in Quebec reporting, big-ass salary and low cost of living.
Downside: miserable, long, bitter winter; horrible newspaper with nutty management; taxes through the wazoo eat up most of my big raise. High crime rate, crappy public services.
Move to New York suburbs with fiance.
Upside: score a gorgeous apartment, he gets a good job fast.
Downside: don’t know a soul, people hard to meet or make friends with, cost of living is high, he bails on the marriage and finding work in New York journalism is, initially, really hard.
Marry him, despite doubts
Upside: fun wedding, honeymoon in France, decent alimony post-divorce.
Downside: humiliation and stress of brief, miserable marriage. Having to re-invent alone in a place with few friends and no job.
The greatest challenge of decision-making is forgiving yourself when things go south, as they sometimes just will. We can only use our very best intelligence and all the facts at hand. We are who we are!
An amazing account, from Vanity Fair, of Malala, the rural Pakistani girl shot in the head for speaking out in favor of girls’ education there — and the journalists who later deeply regretted having pushed her into the spotlight. Their decisions clearly put her life in danger.
Here’s a sad/funny tale of a man who bought and renovated a house in L.A. — despite the dire warning not to from a tarot card reader. His house is gorgeous, but his wife left him.
I’ve been asked many times why, when faced with challenge, I don’t just give up.
Fortunately, I’ve never faced sexual assault, chronic or terminal illness, war, famine or poverty. Some of the people who read Broadside have faced these very real traumas, so I don’t begin to suggest my First World problems are terribly compelling, but resilience and tenacity do interest me.
Who cracks and crumples, hysterical, and who soldiers on?
While at university studying Spanish and starting my journalism career, I volunteered as an interpreter for Chileans who had suffered, and/or witnessed, the rape, torture or death of their loved ones, neighbors and fellow citizens, who had fled to Canada and who were claiming refugee status. In that role, I listened carefully to stories so soul-searing I’ve never forgotten them, even when I wanted to. I went to the dentist with one man to see if the X-rays could prove, (which they did not) that his jaw had, in fact, been smashed by a rifle butt. Another told me, in the detail he had to to prove his claim, about watching his wife and daughters raped in front of him.
My personal challenges have included:
— being the only child of a divorced bi-polar alcoholic mother who suffered multiple breakdowns and hospitalizations, some overseas
— her multiple cancer surgeries
— the loss of both grandmothers when I was 18
— putting myself through college, living alone for three years of it
— being attacked by an intruder in my apartment, at 19
— selling my work to national publications, starting at 19
— three recessions since moving to New York in 1989
— moving to, and adapting to, life in Mexico, France and the U.S.
— getting divorced
— becoming the victim of a con artist
— four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, including full left hip replacement in 2012; 18 months’ of pain and exhaustion before the operation
When single, I didn’t give up for practical reasons — who would have bought the groceries or made the meals? The laundry and dog-walking? Turning to my family for help was rarely an option, for a variety of reasons.
If you fall to bits, who pays the bills?
I’ve always had health insurance — even paying $500/month for it when I lived alone for six years — and with it, access to medical and mental health help when necessary. I know that’s been a huge advantage for me, as has the freedom from the pressing financial and emotional responsibilities of children or grandkids.
Sent to boarding school and summer camp from the age of eight, I learned young to take care of myself, not to ask for help, not to rely on others for aid or comfort. The hardest part has been learning to ask others for help — and being pleasantly surprised and grateful at how willingly some offer it.
At my absolutely lowest points, I still had my health, some savings, a safe, clean home I could afford. Maybe having lived in Mexico at 14, or having traveled to a number of developing countries, helped me keep a sense of perspective — I was still deeply blessed with what I had, no matter how tough things looked at the time.
And some people still dearly loved me; their faith in me, and their generosity and kindness, helped me keep it together. One woman, after the con man scared the shit out of me and I seriously considered moving back to Toronto, gave me refuge in her home for three weeks there.
The only time I really gave up, and my body made clear I had no choice in the matter, was three days on an IV in March 2007 , hospitalized with pneumonia. I had never just collapsed, (even when I really wanted to), and allowed others to take very good care of me while I rested and recovered.
Finally, I do have a full time job and spent the bulk of my time working on that, so all of this other stuff was the extracurricular activity that filled in the cracks around the 60+ hours a week of VC work I was doing during this time.
I had a lot of time to reflect on this last week after I came out of my Vicodin-induced haze. At 47, I realize, more than ever, my mortality. I believe my kidney stone and depression were linked to the way I treated myself physically over the 90 days after my bike accident. While the kidney stone might not have been directly linked to the accident, the culmination of it, the surgery, and my depression was a clear signal to me that I overdid it this time around.
I get asked this question a lot: How do you make a living full-time freelance?
While this post may answer some of your questions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, hire me at my hourly consultation rate, and you can ask whatever detailed questions you like! Or show me copy, or queries, or whatever you need…
There are five keystones to a successful freelance career:
1) Get really good at what you do
You might be a writer, artist, musician, hair-stylist. No matter how much you hate your current job, desperate to flee cube-world and commuting, until your skills are sufficient to attract and retain repeat clients in a highly competitive marketplace, you’re not ready for prime time. Do whatever’s necessary to get really good at your skill. If you’re a writer, read smart and helpful how-to books by veteran writers, like this one or this one; attend writers’ conferences, like this one on April 26 and 27th in New York City; take classes, like the online ones offered here.
After your skills are developed and you have multiple clips (samples) to prove it, you’re ready for the next step.
2) Find a network of editors or clients who want your copy
This is a lot of work and requires strategic thinking. If you have a specialty — science, kids, medicine, sports, business, food — it’s easier to target specific markets. Be prepared to be ignored, a lot. Your job, like any salesman, is to pre-qualify your leads; i.e. do they pay enough? Is their contract workable? Are they a PITA to work with? Do your re-con before you pitch to avoid disappointment at best, heartbreak and financial nightmares at worst.
3) Produce great stuff so they want more
Seems pretty obvious. If your work is stellar, (100 percent accurate, properly-sourced, attributed, clean, well-written, intelligently-structured), your odds of repeat business increase. Always under-promise and over-deliver. Never even consider missing a deadline. As you gain confidence and skill, take on some assignments whose scope or prestige or pay rate scare you a little. Don’t risk disappointing your client, but you have to grow!
4) Get to know other writers (or fellow freelancers in your field)
If you’ve done steps 1-3, your name and reputation will begin to precede you, locally, regionally or even nationally. Join as many industry groups as possible, like this one, and this one, for writers, and sign up for as many volunteer positions as possible. Then show up with goods ideas and follow through; too many “volunteers” like to add a nice line to their resume — and don’t do jack.
This way people will get to know you personally, not just as some random photo on a website. I’ve learned far more about who’s really worth knowing through my many years serving on boards of writers’ groups than any conference or quick coffee with someone.
If you’re fortunate, some of your competitors will eventually decide to share some of their own contacts; we all occasionally get overwhelmed with too much work and not enough time, or fall ill, have family emergencies or take vacations and need to refer clients to someone we know will do a kick-ass job on our behalf.
The smartest freelancers who reach out to me for help, advice or a contact include several offers of their own contacts in that initial email. Of course I write them back right away. Who wouldn’t? Just because you need a lot of help doesn’t obligate anyone to give it to you!
The fourth step, referrals to good clients, only comes after people know you are consistently ethical, smart, reliable and generous. That means plenty of number three. People talk; make sure what they have to say about you is what you’re hoping for.
The job of marketing never, ever stops. Your clients’ needs change all the time as gatekeepers and decision-makers get hired, fired, promoted or demoted. Their budgets may bloom, or wither or disappear altogether. Be sure to make nice to some smart, ambitious young ‘uns, even if they’re your kids’ age. They’re probably the ones signing the checks, if not now, in a few years.
In just three words, there’s the huge chasm between the trusted, experienced freelancer, the one you’re happy to hear from when she has a new idea, and the newbie or the short-term maximizer. Those guys have to start from scratch, each and every time.
Think about the individual, the entrepreneur or the small organization that has built up trust with a given market, that has permission to talk to that market and that has the expertise to execute on what it promises… Once you have those three, you call the shots. If, on the other hand, you’re merely a hard-working employee, doing what you’re told, you’re never going to get what your effort ought to produce.
When you work freelance, you memorize the phrase “No problem!” when asked to tackle something you’ve never done in your life but pays. If you say no to everything outside your comfort zone, you’ll starve. Nor will you grow your skills and client list.
But, within two hours of starting work on it, I called the editor, (a former colleague in Canada,) and said: “Nope. Not going to happen. Sorry.”
— I called Goldman Sachs, where Heyman works. I emailed and called several PR people there, using sources shared by a Wall Street reporter who’s a friend of a friend, explaining my urgent deadline. I could tell this was not a priority. The PR woman called me back at 5:00 p.m. that day — a mere eight hours after my initial call.
— The one live person I got at Goldman in PR kept saying “I don’t know him. I just got off a plane from Brazil.” Chill, dude.
— I started Googling Heyman. He likes to drink green tea. That was about the extent of it. Not a good sign.
— I started calling the University of Chicago to reach former White House staffer David Axelrod, since Heyman is a big Obama fundraiser. After five mis-directed calls, I was told that the university has no public relations department (!?). I was told they’ve never heard of him or the policy institute there he is supposed to be heading.
— I started looking at the names of his fellow Chicago-area fundraisers. Billionaires, every one. Would they take a call from some Canadian wire service freelancer? As if.
I weighed the stress and bullshit of chasing all these people all day long — for $600 for a story no one I know in the States would read. Not worth it.
The editor was grateful I let her know right away.
Rejection has value. It teaches us when our work or our skillset is not good enough and must be made better…Rejection refines us. Those who fall prey to its enervating soul-sucking tentacles are doomed. Those who persist past it are survivors. Best ask yourself the question: what kind of writer are you? The kind who survives? Or the kind who gets asphyxiated by the tentacles of woe?
3. This, Then, Is The Value Of The Gatekeeper
Hate the autocracy of the kept gates all you like, but the forge of rejection purifies us (provided it doesn’t burn us down to a fluffy pile of cinder). The writer learns so much from rejection about himself, his work, the market, the business. Even authors who choose to self-publish should, from time to time, submit themselves to the scraping talons and biting beaks of the raptors of rejection. Writers who have never experienced rejection are no different than children who get awards for everything they do: they have already found themselves tap-dancing at the top of the “I’m-So-Special” mountain, never having to climb through snow and karate chop leopards to get there.
I’ve added the bold and italics here…
So, my question to all of you is why you are so damn scared of being rejected? A few theories.
Because having your work rejected seems, for some of you, to really mean:
I have no talent
Entirely possible. OMG. Did she just say that! Yes, I did. Because, despite what your friends and sweetie and Mom have told you your whole life, maybe you are really just not very good at the thing you are absolutely determined you must be good at. (Or what? Or what? Then what happens?) Stop being a Special Snowflake, already!
I’m such a loser!
Maybe. Maybe not. If you are ever going to survive being a writer you must do this: find a way to separate you from your work. You are not your work. (Here’s a truly disgusting analogy: we all use the toilet and most of us excrete waste every day. It is a product of our bodies. But we do realize that it is not us.) In other words, being rejected may make you feel like shit. You, however, are not shit!
I just wasted all that $$$$$$$$$ on getting my MFA
Can’t help you with that one. I’ve avoided any formal post-graduate education because I’m too damn cheap. If you want to spend a ton of money developing your skills, great. But if you’re looking for serious financial ROI on an MFA, I’d say you’re a little out of touch with the marketplace.
The competition is way too big/famous/established
Here’s the thing we never say out loud. If you’re a total newbie, you’re not my competition! Nor am I yours. Your ego wants to think we’re equal, but we’re not. You will be paid less than I will. (Probably.) I’ve earned it, over decades of consistently good work. You’re still earning it.
If you write about science or babies or science fiction, you’re not my competitor, nor am I yours! I sometimes think of the writers’ marketplace the way an air traffic controller sees the thousands of planes in the air. They never (thank God!) collide. Because they are all on slightly different trajectories.
Stop freaking out about all the other writers out there. Just go be better than they are. (Maybe that means being better at going to a few select conferences and finding some people to help and advise you. Not just banging away all alone at your keyboard.)
I’m scared my email or phone call will be ignored
Bet on it! Count on it! You are not (just) a writer or artist. You’re are a salesperson, hoping to sell your work to people (agents, editors) who’ve quite possibly never heard of you and couldn’t care less if you ever succeed. Be prepared to be more persistent than you ever thought you might possibly ever have to be to get to the right/powerful people who will get your career going. Then double it. Now triple it.
I hate competing
Waaaaaaah! It’s a crowded marketplace. Go big or go home.
But I’m really scared
Of what? Seriously. Of what? Creative failure does not = terrifying medical diagnosis. CF does not = end of your marriage. CF does not = your dog/cat/guinea pig just died. (A friend of mine in London, a super-successful young photographer, is mourning the loss of her guinea pig.)
It is ultimately both self-defeating and self-indulgent to sit in the corner and be too scared to get into the game. We’re all scared, damn it!
Every freaking time I turn in a story I’m still scared the editor will: hate it, not pay me, never use me again and tell everyone s/he knows that I am an incompetent hack. Hey, it can happen.
Then I hit “send.”
I will never be good enough to sell my work
Maybe not. Or maybe so. Maybe you’re trying to sell to the wrong people, or at the wrong time. (i.e. your skills are not yet good enough to compete with all the other people doing that right now.)
It’s depressing being rejected all the time
Which is why God invented martinis, puppies and very good sex. You need to feel really happy at least 63.6 percent of the time in order to deal with the nasty reality of rejection. It hurts. It really does.
I hate my life and being rejected only makes it worse
This is the real problem. I guarantee it — if you are really happy with other aspects of your life, then the endless frustration of trying to sell your work will be annoying and tiring, but it won’t kill you or make you lie in a corner in the fetal position weeping. If it does, you are placing way too much emphasis on your work. Deal with that instead.
But my blog followers love me!
Of course they do, sweetie. Your work is free. It costs them zero social, political or financial capital to read and adore you. Now go find someone to lay their reputation on the line for you…
No one will ever know my name
Pshaw. Go do some volunteer work for a year or so. Join a faith community and show up. Join a committee. Sit on a board. There’s this narcissistic fantasy that Being A Writer means everyone knows you and cares deeply about you. They don’t! You’ll find much deeper satisfaction and happiness from being a valued member of a community of people who don’t give a shit how much copy you sold this week. Get over it.
No one will ever admire or respect me
I think this is a fundamental, unacknowledged and undiscussed part of why people are SO freaked out by rejection. Since when (really) is rejection 100 percent final? You’re reading the blog of someone who applied eight times to the Globe and Mail before being hired. Who interviewed three times at Newsweek and never got hired.
No one will ever know how great I could have become
This is such self-indulgent bullshit. You either want it more than anything, or you don’t.
I will starve to death and live under a bridge in a cardboard box
I doubt it. Get a day job and keep it as long as you have to. Or make the leap of faith (with six months’ expenses in the bank and no debt. And, ideally, no dependents.) Those of us who have leaped have little patience for the endless hand-wringers.
I have nothing new or fresh to offer
Really? Then why do you want to bother?
No one wants to work with me
EQ (emotional intelligence) is the new black. EQ is the new IQ. If you’ve grown up in the U.S. in an affluent community (and many of you did not), then being really smart is often deemed the most important thing you can be. Wrong! Being someone able to get along really well within seconds with a wide range of people who are very different from you is going to move your career along a lot faster and further than only hanging with people who drive the same car and went to the same college(s.)
No one wants to help me succeed
Really? What sort of person are you? A taker, giver or matcher? Are you a selfish little wretch who rarely, if ever, returns calls or emails? Who has yet to write (yes, really) a hand-written thank-you note on very good paper and sent it through the mail to someone who gave you an interview or mentored you? There’s an inverse relationship between how greedy you are and how much anyone is interested in helping you be even more greedy.
Everyone else is doing great!
As if! The effect of Facebook on millions of fragile egos — mine included — is to make us all feel Utterly Inadequate all the fucking time. Just don’t read all those perky, upbeat, how-great-my-life-is status updates!
Who actually posts: “I hate my agent. S/he never returns my calls. My book isn’t selling. I’m living on credit cards. I owe $10,000 to American Express and everyone is paying me late.” They should. Because that’s all too often the Glamorous Reality of being a writer.
Here’s an interesting post, recently featured on Freshly Pressed, about the importance of luck to a writer’s success:
I don’t mean to sound defeatist or to say it’s all about chance. This isn’t sour grapes (I don’t have a bestseller because I never got lucky, etc.). No, talent and marketing and skill and savvy all help put the writer in a position where the odds are better. But it really does seem to me that, at least in some cases, luck is as much a factor as talent.
And in some cases, more.
No one seems to talk about it, though. Maybe because it’s something that can’t be taught–or sold–on a website.
I’ve been writing for a living — my sole income — since my second year of university. I was an undergrad studying English literature at the University of Toronto and all I wanted to do was become a journalist. I decided not to study journalism because I knew I needed a broader education and wanted that instead. (I’ve never formally studied journalism or writing.)
Here are some of the ways, since 1978, that I have found editors and agents to whom I’ve sold my work, and/or gotten staff writing jobs:
— While at college I worked at the weekly college newspaper. I wrote long, complex features so I would have clips (samples) to show to paying editors of what I could produce. Moral: What’s your goal? Start accumulating the skills you need and the visible proof you have them.
— I cold-called editors at every major magazine and asked for meetings. I got them. Moral: Be bold! No one is going to hand you your success.
— When I had the meeting, I went in with a multi-page list of story ideas and would not leave the office until I had sold one of them and had a firm, paid assignment. Moral: Be prepared. Be way over-prepared.
— After I had amassed a larger pile of clips, I began aiming higher, for more prestigious or better-paying markets. Moral: Never stop moving. What’s your next step and what will get you there?
— I talked myself into a meeting with the editor of a local weekly section of our national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. I got a column to write about shopping, for anything, that paid me, then, $125 a week, $600 a month. (My annual tuition was $660. No, that’s not missing a zero.) Moral: Try for a regular gig.
— I won a journalism fellowship, at 25, for eight months in Europe, based in Paris, traveling on four 10-day reporting trips alone. It changed me, and my work, forever. Moral: Aim high. Start applying for rocket-boosting opportunities once you have the skills and resume to compete for them.
— I got my job at the Globe and Mail six months after returning from the fellowship. Moral: strike while the iron is hot and you have a significant point of difference from your many competitors.
— I got my job there after hearing that the sports editor was soon to become the managing editor; i.e. he was the one to impress, now. I knew nothing about sports! He sent me to cover several huge, high-profile sports stories, knowing that. I rocked it. Moral: Follow your targets closely to know when an opportunity exists. Then impress the hell out of the person with the budget and authority to hire you.
— I got my job at the Montreal Gazette when a Globe colleague who once worked there tipped them off I might be looking for a new opportunity. Moral: Find and make allies.
— I fell in love with an American who was moving to (!) a small, remote town in New Hampshire for the next four years. Because I had been stringing for Time for a few years already, while working in full-time jobs, I asked my Time editor if he knew of any jobs there. I got a well-paid contract job there — which is insanely improbable — through one of his former New York magazine colleagues. Moral: If you don’t ask for help, you never know what might happen.
— I found every agent I’ve had through personal contacts. The first came to me through one of my NYU journalism students, who knew someone at William Morris who knew three new agents hungry for clients. Moral: Put the word out and take the chance.
— I started writing for The New York Times in 1990 after I called someone from my Paris fellowship (eight years earlier), living in New Orleans. I called an editor at the Times Book Review who began giving me 300-word reviews to produce on topics that were really difficult and often boring. I did them, gratefully. It gave me a Times byline. Moral: Start wherever you have to. But be strategic.
— Once you find an editor who likes your work, hang on tight! Repeat business will save you a ton of wasted time and energy. Moral: Remember the 80/20 rule of business; 80 percent of your business likely comes from 20 percent of your clients.
— But, think like Caesar and keep on conquering. Never rest on your laurels, as editors can lose a job with scary speed and you can very quickly lose a nice little sinecure. Moral: ABC, Always Be Closing (i.e. making sales.)
— Last week I got an email from someone I have never met, a man who lives in Beirut, who is married to an NPR correspondent. He and I were both bloggers for True/Slant, in 2009. He asked me for a valuable editorial contact — while offering me one of his. Win-win! Moral: If you’re going to ask for help, offer something of value upfront in return. No one likes a taker.
— Remember that publishing remains a team sport. If you’re selling to print publications, think about the art or photos to go with your story. If you’re working on books, be polite and kind to everyone as no one is likely getting rich and most of them love this work as much as you do. Moral: If you plan to stay in this game, keep your nose clean.
Selling your writing is hard!
It can take a much longer time to “succeed” than you thought possible.
You may have to re-define what “success” looks like: Tons of money? Huge readership? A TV show or movie based on your work? Or…some appreciative readers and some people who will pay for your skills?
Drug-addicted beauty writer Cat Marnell has landed a book deal with Simon & Schuster for her memoir, “How to Murder Your Life.” Marnell, who has been in and out of rehab for her addiction to prescription drugs, famously told us she’d rather “smoke angel dust with her friends” than hold down a full-time job after being fired from Jane Pratt’s Web site, xoJane.com. Now she has chronicled her sexual and narcotic adventures in a book, to include her life as a spoiled rich kid of a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst and her drug-fueled rise through Condé Nast, xoJane.com and Vice magazine…The proposal details her numerous sexual conquests [and] four abortions.
Because, you know, get-up-wash-face-work-hard-sleep-repeat is so…..vanilla. Who cares?
And then there’s the inevitable email I got yesterday, giving me 25 days to buy back several thousand unsold hardcover copies of my second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which was published on April 14, 2011 in hardcover and July 2012 in paperback.
They’re being offered to me very cheaply, but I don’t have a spare few thousand dollars right now, nor the deep desire to fill every square inch of our garage with unsold books.
This is stuff you rarely hear about publicly because who dares admit envy of an advance orders of magnitude bigger than yours? For self-indulgent shite?
And no one will even publicly admit that their book didn’t sell out, because then…OMG….you’re a failure! Facebook is like sticking pins in your eyes every day if any of your friends — and this is common among established writers — have indeed become best-sellers. “Friends” being, you know, a word with some variance.
One of them keeps crowing and crowing and then another and then another and you start to think the only thing that seems obvious: “I’m such a loser!”
My publisher, (bless their enthusiasm!), printed too many. Partly because that’s just when e-books began taking off and we sold many more (cheaper) e-books out of the gate than hardcovers. We’re also still in a recession and my book is about low-wage labor so many of my would-be readers might have balked at shelling out the dough for the hardcover; there was a four-week wait list for it at the Toronto Public Library, a friend there told me.
The publishing industry is a moving target and every single book they choose to publish is a gamble, a guess and some tightly-crossed fingers.
Yes, some authors — Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, et. al. — are safe bets. They’ve become like major league baseball teams, winning franchises. But I know of one best-selling author (I’ve seen the numbers) whose two previous books barely sold more than 1,000 copies before she Hit It Big.
So you never know.
So, this week, feeling foolish and weary and yet, and yet, and yet…working on my book proposal. I will never get $500,000 for any book I propose. To even get $100,000 would be a lovely thing, but also nothing I can expect.
So, as my new agent said, “If you’re really burning to write this one”…