Writing Professionally: Time to Write

Professional writers are lucky – we don’t have to worry about squeezing time to write in the corners left over by our job. Writing is our job. For those who want to become professional writers, developing a portfolio has to take place between your other demands.

The hosts of “Writing Excuses,” a podcast I recommend in an earlier post, have this to say about finding the time to write…

If you say you lack time to write, what you mean is you value other activities more than writing.

In some cases, this valuation is dead on. A contest between my writing and my sons is by no means a fair fight. On the other hand, I’ve sometimes made the wrong choice between re-watching Firefly and working on an impending deadline. To find time to write that breakout novel, or develop your portfolio, it’s likely that you’ll need to set aside another activity – like television, video games or sleep.

I’m currently in the middle of an aggressive productivity cycle, one that requires so much work that I feel like I’m squeezing writing time into the corners left over by my writing job. It reminds me of when I was running a full-time business, and writing in my spare time. Here are a few of the steps I’ve taken to find the time I need to write as much as I want:

  • I get up two hours early. I used to sleep until my toddler son woke me up, but those two baby-free hours in the morning are seriously productive time.
  • When baby Gabe goes down for a nap, I’m writing again rather than relaxing with a video game or Ted Talk on the youtube.
  • Before I pickup my “bedtime book” to read myself to sleep, I take some notes on the assignments I’ll work the next day. This may be pure superstition, but I feel like my conscious mind works on them overnight.
  • I split my daily workload into three segments, then only allow myself to check email, facebook and my favorite forms after I’ve finished a segment.
  • I work out daily, except when I’m sick. A daily 20-minute bit of exercise improves how fast you work, and how you feel about the work you’ve done. Also, I get cranky when I skip a day – and the wife notices.

These steps have found the space I need to literally double my productivity for the past few days – and it feels like they’ll be sustainable until I’ve reached my goals. I also employ some hacks to how I use that time to best advantage…but that’s a subject for another post.

Thanks for listening.

They Said it Couldn’t Be Done

So here’s the deal: my family may need $20,000 by the beginning of June. By that I mean $20,000 more than we’re likely to have.

One of the great things about working as a freelance writer is that your income – once you’ve established yourself – is limited only by how much work you’re willing to do. In general, I prefer to work a little and spend time with my family. Although steering this course will mean less time with them, I plan to schedule most of it while they’re asleep.

Twenty grand in nine weeks. Every goal-setting advisor or other coach I’ve listened to says that making a goal public exponentially increases your chances of achieving it.

I have now drawn my line in the proverbial sand. As of today, I’m on track. I’ll check in from time to time with my progress, and some observations about setting and meeting goals – especially how that affects making a living as a freelance writer or other sort of stay-at-home dad.

Thanks for listening.

A Writer’s Bookshelf

“A writer must read incessantly.”

This is the advice I remember best from the first writing class I ever took – at the local library, when I was in fifth grade. It has stuck with me for the three decades (plus maybe just a little) since I took that class. If you want to write detective fiction, read detective fiction. If you want to be a travel writer, read the travel sites, zines and books. Besides reading what’s going on in your genre, a writer should also read about writing. You need to be careful, though – there’s a lot of drek out there, often somebody trying to cash in on the fact that there are enough hopeful writers to form an industry in and of itself.

I’ve spent bad money on my share of that drek. I’ve also had the good fortune to find a handful of books I recommend to anybody who seriously wants to make a career out of writing.

On Writing, by Stephen King. A “memoir of the craft,” this book consists of both King’s autobiography and a detailed account of King’s tools and tricks for the trade. You may or may not like King’s writing (I pretty much gave up on him in the late 80s) but you can’t deny that he knows a little something about writing for success.

Six-Figure Freelancing, by Kelley James-Enger. Nonfiction is the easiest way to break into writing full-time. James-Enger’s guide gives detailed instructions in the best ways to maximize your income as a freelance writer of nonfiction. It’s light on advice for breaking in to the field, and has little to say about the internet market, but overall a great tool for inspiration and practical advice.

Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, by Lawrence Block. This is a collection of essays Block wrote for the magazine Writer’s Digest. They’re hip, funny and topical – covering everything from research to industry tips to specific techniques for common stumbling points. I still use his advice for making up names every time I introduce a new character. Block has at least three of these collections in print, and this is the best of them. If you love it, get the others. As of 2010, the book is 30 years old – so don’t expect much advice about the “new media.”

Seven Years to Seven Figures by Michael Masterson. Not a writing book, this is a guide to some of the easiest ways to increase your net worth to $1,000,000 or more. Thing is, nearly all of the ways he mentions include writing – especially writing ad copy – and publishing. It’s a good source of ideas for how to make money with your writing, and was instrumental in getting me to make the move to full-time.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. If you don’t have this on your shelf, you have no business calling yourself a writer. Own it. Read it. Reread it. Refer to it often. As my most influential teacher, Ms. Day, used to have to tell me all the time: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” S&W wrote down the rules.

There are others, and today’s list includes websites and podcasts. But above are the resources I find myself returning to year after year.

Thanks for listening.

True Self Defense

Folks who know me are aware of my ideas about “true self-defense” – the fact that we worry about homicide and terrorism while eating in a way that guarantees a shorter life span and reduced health. TED award winner Jamie Oliver has delivered a speech that says it far better than I ever have.

This is the subject of my February article in Black Belt, and a matter of personal interest. I hope it gets you to thinking, as well.

Thanks for listening.

Writing Professionally: Paid Leave

One problem contractors often mention is the lack of paid sick leave or vacation time. When you work for yourself, your boss tends to be a harsh taskmaster. But we all get sick, want time off, have emergencies. There’s no getting around that. A freelancer needs time off without suffering financial hardship.

The trick is to treat your leave just as an employer treats an employee’s leave. Employees don’t get paid for not working – they get paid extra when they do work, and that extra is held back until they take time off.

As a freelancer, you accomplish this by working ahead. Do enough work to amass a savings account from which you can draw your weekly or daily nut while you’re not working. When you return to work, schedule in additional hours until you’ve refilled your bank of leave money.

This can be a problem for the less disciplined among us. With no boss or time clock to make sure we work, it’s easy to take time off when we don’t have any banked time to cover it. The only solution to this is personal discipline: don’t take the time unless you have it. If you have an unavoidable emergency or serious illness with no time, you will need to scramble for extra work until you’re caught up.

Planning, discipline and organization are important traits if you choose to take this approach to scheduling time off as a freelancer. If you don’t have them, you’ll need to practice them until you do – or get an “accountability partner” to bust your chops for you on a daily or weekly basis.

Thanks for listening.

Doing it Right Redux: Freelancing

I’m a professional freelance writer, and have friends who freelance as artists, web designers, coders, financial consultants and bodyguards. Freelancing can seem like a dream: set your own hours, charge more than the daily “wage slaves,” live with your work ethic as the only limiter to your earnings. On the other hand, nobody guarantees you a paycheck. If you do it wrong, you wind up not just broke. You’re broke with an embarrassing gap in your employment history.

Freelancing successfully requires a different formula for different people, but one rule remains true. This rule serves as a warning to many – but for those who do it right, it defines the fastest route for setting yourself apart from the pack. The rule is simple:

People who want to go into business for themselves are often the least suitable people to do so.

Traits that support success for freelancers include attention to detail, sweating the small stuff, working well with multiple bosses, being consistent in communication, and making decisions that help your team over decisions that support you the most. Most people who want to freelance have trouble with one or more of these categories – otherwise, they wouldn’t mind working a 9 to 5 job.

Because this is true, the degree to which you treat your freelance career like a regular job is the degree to which you will rise above the freelance herd. From talking with my freelance friends – both the successful and the struggling, I’ve identified eight habits for remaining professional while working from home in your underwear.

  • Observe a maximum one-day turnaround on emails and phone messages unless you’ve notified a client you’re unavailable.
  • Keep all your deadlines, from turn-in dates to promised communication.
  • Take your lumps with a smile. Some clients will behave in ways you find unreasonable. Working “for the man” means playing nice. Working for yourself means playing nice with more people, more often.
  • Set working hours: time when you’re “at work,” and times when you are not.
  • Remember marketing. In a regular job, you have to work to their specs. While freelancing, you need to spend some time every day finding your next assignment.
  • Observe business communications etiquette. Just because you don’t have an HR inquisitor looking over your shoulder doesn’t mean you don’t need to be polite.
  • Have a professional website, professional business cards and professional letterhead.

The majority of freelancers hit the market with a strong skill set and a bad attitude. Don’t be that guy. It might cost your ego a little from time to time, but it’s the price of admission for success. This isn’t the only key to making it as a freelancer – there are many, many (Many! MANY!) other requirements. But if you can’t see yourself observing these rules, you’re probably better off sticking with your day job.


Doing It Right

Some of you might have heard about UCLA student Alexandra Wallace and her vlog about asian students at her school. In the grand scheme of hate speech and racist behavior, it’s really pretty mild – but it has generated a walloping tide of responses. She has received death threats, been lambasted in the traditional and internet press, and she faces expulsion for her idiotic behavior.

By far the best response to Miss Wallace’s ridiculous rant has got to be this guy with his almost gentle musical tribute to her comments. Fair warning – it’s a bit racy. Work safe, but not kids safe.

As a connoisseur of all things wise-assed, I have to hand it to him. Well done, sir.

Thanks for listening.

More Podcasts

Between the popularity of my last podcast post among readers, and the popularity of podcasts among…well…me, I’ve decided to list a few of my other favorite pieces of ear candy. The folks behind these ‘casts shouldn’t take it personally that you didn’t make the “varsity squad.” I left a few off simply because of space considerations, and two of them are new since that original post.

Freakonomics Radio is the work of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, who wrote a book by the same name. The theme of this ‘cast is applying an economist’s analysis of data to interesting and/or important social goings-on. What I like most about these guys is that they appear to be interested mostly in the numbers themselves, which means they paint a picture as free from bias as any I see these days.

Police on the Scene – officer J.D. Dhein spends a few minutes each ‘cast discussing actionable, often counterintuitive, aspects of crime prevention and personal safety. His scripts aren’t the most refined, but the information matches what I’ve learned over the years enough that I trust what he says when he goes beyond my personal knowledge.  The intro/outro music is also fun.

Quick and Dirty Tips isn’t just one podcast, but an allied group of podcasters on subjects from grammar to nutrition to personal effectiveness. Their gimmick is that each ‘cast lasts only three to five minutes, with simple and actionable advice on a narrow focus. Great for running errands in the car, where your agenda might interrupt the flow of a longer program.

Escape Pod and Pseudopod are the premier fiction podcasts online today. Escape Pod focuses on science fiction, while Pseudopod is a horror fiction cast. Different authors, including many industry greats, contribute some of the best genre stories out there today. Now, if only I could find a crime fiction cast. Maybe I’ll have to build one.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for listening.


Writing Professionally: Pacing

One problem with taking on any profession is that it begins to taint how you look at the world. Cops and social workers probably get the worst end of that stick. On the other hand, spending a decade as a professional martial arts instructor gave me a new level of appreciation for film choreography and fight sports. I find the same thing is now affecting how I read.

I just finished the newest Virgil Flowers thriller by John Sandford: Bad Blood. Sandford’s books – and he’s certainly written his share – can be a mite formulaic, but I love the heck out of them. He’s not saying anything important, nor is he bucking for a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize for literature. He just turns out good stories year after year. Sandford (and, yes I am aware that’s a pen name) uses some very specific techniques to make his pacing tight and engaging even though he’s really telling us the same story over and over again.


Sandford presents the story in chunks: short sections of just a few paragraphs that hop from viewpoint to viewpoint. Readers never get a chance to be bored because we’re moving around as much as the characters are. He does this more often in is Lucas Davenport novels than with Flowers, Kidd and his other protagonists.

Point of View

He examines key points from multiple views. He’ll describe eight seconds of a gunfight from one point of view, then review four of those seconds from an additional point of view. This builds suspense by delaying our gratification while simultaneously giving us further compelling exposition on what’s already happened.


Sandford often shows you the bad guy from early in the first chapter. You know what he’s about, and  – if you know the protagonists – you have a guess as to what’s going to happen when they clash. Anticipating the train wreck is half the fun.


By far the most common plot twist Sandford uses is something going wrong. It might be bottoming out a pursuit car in a ditch, or the weather ruining visibility. A great example was a dead headlight in a surveillance car that tipped off the bad guy to the fact he was being watched, throwing a kink in the progress of the cops and the story. It’s a bit of deus ex machina, but Sandford uses realistic problems and loads them with so much emotion that they feel natural, right and tense.

Characterization, dialog and word choice are other well-used weapons in Sandford’s arsenal, and I’m certain he uses others I’m not good enough to notice yet. But these are the insights I drew tonight.

Thanks for listening.