Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The ULTIMATE way to determine your rates!

There is a huge rate debate among freelancers, and like many others, I don't hesitate to get involved. We all argue about what is too little and what is fair. In my attempts to help newbies determine the best rate to suit their needs (and to demonstrate why $1 per article won't cut it), I wrote a post a long while back on how to determine your writing rates. More recently, I even confessed my own rates.

I am now happy to tell you that I have an even easier way to figure out your rates: the hourly rate calculator for freelancers. (Thanks to Kristen King and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide for turning me on to this one!)

The calculator is pretty handy. It has you input all of your business expenses, all of your personal expeneses, the spending money you want, and the number of hours you work to help you determine what your hourly rate should be. All that remains is for you to convert that into the corresponding per-word or per-project rate. (For that part, you'll need to estimate how many hours it takes you to research and write a certain number of words.)

I am happy to report that my new rates are more than both the "break-even" and "ideal" rates the calculator gave me. In fact, even my old rates were above them. What I can't seem to figure out is how it still manages to feel like I never have any money... ;o)

Writing competition for aspiring romance novelists

I had an email this morning from Gather.com about their First Chapters Writing Competition, and I thought I'd post the information in case any of my readers might be interested. The contest goes from August 1st through the 22nd, and the winner will receive a guaranteed publishing contract (with a $5,000 advance) for their romance novel with Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books.

Be sure to read the full contest guidelines and the FAQs.

As a copyright-conscious writer, my first question to them was where I could link to the contest guidelines -- I wanted to verify what happens to the writers' rights to their submissions, particularly if they don't win. I saw one contest a little while back that took the copyrights to all submissions, whether you won or not, so I am a little wary of these things.

Basically, the only condition concerning copyright that I see is that you are agreeing not to submit the novel elsewhere until you are eliminated from the competition; in other words, until you are eliminated from the competition, Simon & Schuster has first dibs on publishing your book. Seems fair enough -- after all, that's why you're entering the competition anyway!

The other concern is that in order to compete, you have to publish your first chapters in the First Chapters Romance Group. The concern here is that posting your writing to an open forum can hurt your chances of selling first rights to the work, but usually not if it's a membership-only forum (i.e. a way for you to share your work with just a few people, without everyone else online reading it).

No worries with this contest -- submissions are viewable only by other Gather.com members. (Yes, you have to be a member to enter, but it's free.)

Basically, what I'm saying is that I've done the research for you, and I've verified that the First Chapters Writing Competition looks like a valid contest. I suggest reading the guidelines and FAQs for yourself before commiting to anything, but I am satisfied that the two main problems I usually see in writing contests aren't present in this one.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Upcoming website updates: Services and portfolio pages

In my previous post, I discussed the importance of marketing for freelance writers, and listed some easy (and fun!) ways to market. One of the things I mentioned was maintaining a website and online portfolio, which reminded me of my own plans for website changes.

The other day when I was supposed to be working (I get distracted so easily sometimes!), I decided it's time to update my website again. First of all, I haven't updated my portfolio for several months, or whever it was that I implemented my last updates. Also, I decided that I'm going to separate my services and portfolio pages a little better -- instead of "selling" my services on my portfolio, I'm going to make my portfolio into a simple list, and sell the advantages of my services on separate pages.

I am hoping to get to work on these changes in a week or two, whenever my work load lets up a little.

The importance of marketing

I get Suzanne Lieurance's weekday newsletter, The Morning Nudge. Recently I started subscribing to her MySpace blog as well. Just yesterday, she posted about the importance of marketing as a freelance writer.

It amazes me how many writers say to me, "I don't have time to market," or even, "I don't have time to look for higher-paying work." I understand being busy, but still -- why would you condemn yourself to working long hours for low pay, just to make ends meet?

It's true that marketing takes time. However, it's time that pays off in the long run, because you will find more work, better work, and higher-paying work.

Marketing isn't necessarily cold calling, like many writers think it is. Perhaps the distaste or even fear that most people have of marketing is what makes them "too busy." I have to admit, I wouldn't be comfortable cold calling people either. Luckily, there are much easier ways to market.

Here are a few ways that you can market yourself without cold calling:

1) Searching for freelance job ads - A well-written resume and cover letter/email are an important part of searching for jobs. Most people don't think of this as marketing, but I think it is. After all, it means getting the word out about your services. Oftentimes, even if you don't get a job the client will keep your resume on file or pass it on to someone else who is looking for a writer. It also gives you an "in" to contact potential clients directly looking for work, without it feeling like cold calling.

2) Advertising - You don't have to break the bank to do this one. Craigslist ads are free in most cities, and you can repost your ads every 48 hours.

3) Networking - Hey, chatting with other writers can be considered a method of marketing! Several times in the past, I've gotten work through the recommendation of other writers with whom I'm friendly. I try to share the goodwill myself, too -- after all, what goes around comes around. This business should be about helping each other, not competing with each other.

4) Blogging - Yep, this is marketing too! It drives traffic to your website, helps you create a brand name with potential clients, and introduces you to other writers.

5) Article marketing - There are a lot of article distribution sites out there. The one I've written for in the past is EzineArticles.com. Although you are basically providing free copy for other people, they have to reproduce your article in full, which means with links leading back to your site. Outside links to your site can help boost your website's pagerank, not to mention drive more traffic to your site.

6) Cold emailing - Trust me, this is SO much easier than cold calling. Say you see a website that you know you could improve, or a distributed press release that leaves something to be desired -- you just email the contact and attempt to sell them in writing on why they need you. Spend some time putting together a few sales pitches first -- say, what SEO is and why it's important, or why a press release has to be interesting in order to be effective. When you email someone, you can insert the applicable sales pitch, changing it as necessary so that the email reads like a personal note instead of spam.

7) Maintaining a website and online portfolio - Although it's tempting just to post a website and forget about it, try to make updates every few months: Post new clips to your portfolio, fine-tune the copy, and expand the site as needed. Your website is the basis for your online presence, so it needs to be able to impress potential clients.

Although these approaches do take a certain amount of time, as you get more work you won't have to spend as long on marketing. In other words, the effort pays off: after more than a year of spending an hour searching for work every day, I have not had to look for work in several months, as most of my business now comes from repeat clients, referrals, and even from clients who just happened to stumble across my website.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

From feminism to...stroller aerobics?

At a popular local park this morning, Michael and I saw the most astonishing thing we've ever seen on one of our walks: stroller aerobics.

Michael noticed it first, when we were a little ways away. "Look at that," he said. "Push ups."

Sure enough, there were a bunch of brightly-dressed people in the grass up ahead of us, doing push-ups.

As we got closer, they stood up, and each woman walked to a stroller. One woman was directing the group, sounding more like a drill sergeant than an aerobics teacher. As we watched in shock, they each pushed their strollers a few steps; and then, while holding on with one hand, each woman turned sideways, stood with their legs spread and their knees bent, stuck their butts out, and made some jerky, bouncy movements as they shuffled forward.

"It's the [Name] Park baby moms," Michael said.

"What is this, the 1950s?" I responded.

After a few feet they walked facing forward for a short while, and then turned and did the same thing on the other side.

We reached the cluster of park benches where we normally take a break, and continued watching the women as our dogs rested. After doing their Sir Mix-A-Lot shuffles on the other side, they stopped and parked the strollers. A grade-school-age child counted out ten push-ups.

"It's like something you film and post on YouTube," Michael said, sounding slightly shocked.

To put this into context, I guess I should mention that this is park is located in a rather yuppy, urban neighborhood. These are the types of women who, before they got pregnant, were probably seen jogging in designer exercise clothing or sipping lattes on a coffee break while wearing an Armani suit.

When we got home, I Googled "stroller aerobics." And what do you know, this is actually a big deal! Unbelievable. One site I clicked onto talked about how difficult the extra weight is to lose post-pregnancy, yadda yadda.

The extreme focus on image just blows me away. First off, these women were NOT overweight, not even close. And don't tell me it's because of the stroller aerobics, because I have never seen a more useless collection of "exercises" in my life. I mean, seriously, what exactly is sticking your butt out and shuffling along sideways going to do for your figure? Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned jogging, swimming, or cycling? (All of which are popular in this area, I might add.)

Second, the fact that they are holding these sessions at the park -- and that all of the women were dressed in stylish aerobics clothing -- tells me something. They are not doing it for their health. It's all about status and appearance, which I find mildly disgusting but also a little confusing. I'm not sure what exactly their intended message is to the others in the park -- is it, "I'm a mom, I'm rich, and I look good in a leotard"?

Don't get me wrong -- I enjoy eating healthy and dressing attractively as much as the next person, but this seems rather obsessive and superficial to me. It's amazing how we have backslid, going from discussing a woman's right to earn equal wages to exercising (no pun intended) her right to wear spandex.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Please answer my Associated Content poll!

The other day, I posted a poll asking whether people have received their Associated Content performance bonuses. Unfortunately, I haven't received very many responses.

Please, please, please answer my poll! I am still having problems getting Associated Content to pay me my performance bonus, and I am trying to confirm (or disprove) a sneaking suspicion that the performance bonus may be a hoax!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Panama's gelding

I totally forgot to mention it, but Panama was gelded yesterday in preparation for his new home. I also had his vaccinations updated and a Coggins test done (for being transported across state lines). Everything went well, and with any luck Panama will be on his way out here in about three weeks!

Carson weighs in

Do you remember Carson? He used to run Content Done Better, which he passed on to a new owner months ago when he received a job offer he couldn't turn down. Carson generally claimed that you could make money with lower-paying content writing, but he stayed out of the writers' wage debate as much as any writer with a widely-read blog humanly can.

Yesterday I mentioned Deb's discussion on fair content writing prices, and I finally shared my rates with my readers. Anyway, on Deb's discussion page Carson finally weighed in on the content-writing wage debate. Search for "Carson" to see what he has to say. And you know? I more or less agree with him. :o)

Thanks for your input, Carson!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Confessing my rates

Some of you may remember me declining to share my rates a little while back. Well, today Deb started a discussion on her blog about what rates we consider fair for web writing, and I just couldn't resist.

Here's the rundown. I judge my rates by an estimate of how long I think it'll take to write, as I've mentioned before. I find that a lot of web writing is pretty easy to write, compared to more intensive articles such as newspaper interviews and magazine features. That means, in other words, that while I would expect a higher rate from magazines, I'm okay with writing a content article for a little less.

In other words, a newspaper I used to freelance for paid me $50 per article, but what that works out to be per hour is much less than the web articles I write for $50 each. Needless to say, I don't write for that paper anymore.

I started noticing early this year that there was a lot of disparity between my hourly wages. For some jobs, I was having problems hitting $15 an hour, while others paid me $30 or more an hour. During the months since then, I have been trying to decrease the number of jobs paying the lower amounts, while increasing the number of jobs on the higher end of the spectrum. I'm trying to get to a point where I don't have anything that pays below $20 an hour, preferably nothing that pays below $25 either. I'd like the majority of my jobs to pay in the $30-$40 per hour range, and several of my best regular jobs are already there.

Does this mean it's harder to find work? Of course. (Note: I actually haven't had to look hard to find work recently, as I've gotten to a point where most of it is from returning clients or referrals.) However, it also means that I have to find less work to make the same amount of money -- a good thing, because as I've noted before, it can be difficult to get eight hours of billable time in every day. There are too many other things -- monitoring emails, marketing, blogging -- that require my attention as well.

There is one exception, though. (I guess there always is -- the trick is limiting that exception so that all of your clients don't become "exceptions.") I have one client that still pays me $15 per 500-600 word article -- low compared to my other gigs these days. I intend to let this slide for a few reasons:

1) I have been writing for them regularly for a year and a half now, and sometimes that kind of regularity is just as valuable as a higher wage.

2) The articles don't really take that long to do. Some months (they assign monthly batches) I can get my hourly up to my preferred rate, $30 per hour, or at least close to it. That makes up for the months where my hourly hovers around $15 per hour. (It's never less than that, thankfully.)

3) I happen to really, really like the people I work for.

Of course, if my absolute lowest-paying gig pays me $15-$30 an hour, you can probably understand why I rail against gigs that offer $1-$2 per article. Some people claim you have to do things like that to start out, but I don't agree -- I started out making $15 per article, and with the exception of Associated Content (who I stopped submitting exclusive articles to when I realized $4 was the most I'd get), $5 for a short blog post is the lowest I've ever gone.

So now the cat is out of the bag, and you know about what I make -- most days. (Hey, we all have our bad days!) You also know now that I have good reason to be pissed when I am offered $1 per article. I know that there are many writers that make far more than I am -- traditional copywriters typically charge $1 or more per word. However, I also know that I am doing a far sight better than many other writers. I hope that if you are in this latter group, you will be suitably inspired by the "raise" I have successfully given myself to try for one of your own.

Upcoming writing book release information from Amazon.com

This morning I received an email in my inbox from Amazon.com, announcing the release of They Say/I Say: Moves that Matter in Persuasive Writing, by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. Since there is already a book by this title, I'm thinking that the new release is simply a new edition. In any case, it will be released on August 6th, but is now available for pre-order.

You might just see this title reviewed on Reading For Writers in the near future...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Have you received your Associated Content performance bonus?

I have a question for any of you who are Associated Content writers: Have you received your performance bonus recently? I haven't, and I'd like to find out if anyone else is having the same problem.

Basically, although I don't write regularly for Associated Content, my articles have accrued a bonus slightly more than the $15 minimum. For the last two months, my bonus payments have been overlooked, and answers from the AC staff have not been forthcoming. Before I go on a rampage, I want to determine if this problem is widespread, or if it affecting only me.

To help me find out more about the Associated Content performance bonus situation, I hope other AC writers will vote in the following poll. Alternatively, you can comment to this post or contact me directly.

Kate McCulley and the Mystery of the Missing Comma

Yes, I purposely wrote the title of this post like an old Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys novel.

Anyway, this afternoon I ran across a story on NPR about Kate McCulley, the Grammar Vandal. Just the sort of thing a writer would love! I highly recommend listening to the broadcast -- it's hilarious and oh, so true.

The headline caught my attention because of how frequently grammar and spelling issues have been popping up in my life lately. For example, Kathy Kehrli of Screw You! recently wrote a post about comma usage: A Compelling Case for the Comma. Kathy talked about how the comma is starting to fall out of popular usage, and linked to a related article. Several other writers (including Yours Truly) commented to proclaim themselves loyal followers of the comma.

In addition, some of you probably remember my reference to the multiple grammatical errors in the invitation to my high school reunion. For example, the invitation began with the sentence, "It's been 10 year's." After that, there is an incomplete sentence, a word that shouldn't be there at all, an inappropriately capitalized word, a word missing the "ed" ending, a misspelled proper name, and several uses of the wrong form of "their." And that's just the announcement page! There were issues on the RSVP form, too, but I can't remember all of them.

With all this recent history, when I saw the NPR headline "Grammar Vandal Goes on Vigilante Comma Crusade," I just had to click on it. It turns out this Grammar Vandal is a 22-year-old English major living in Boston. Unlike those of us who simply gripe about spelling and grammar errors we encounter in our daily life, Kate McCulley does something about it: She fixes the problems, and to he!l with the consequences!

I think I've found a new hero. McCulley keeps a blog, The Grammar Vandal, of which I am hereafter a regular reader. She has been featured in The Boston Globe as well as on NPR. I guess defacing public signs for the greater good of humanity is an effective marketing technique!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Why writers shouldn't network on MySpace

A while back, I set up a "work" account on MySpace, with the idea that I could use it to network. Let me advise all the rest of you writers not to try to use MySpace to network.

Basically, you get a few different types of writing-related people on MySpace:

1) Editors who are running low-budget, short-lived magazines and want everything for free
2) Wannabe writers who just want to talk big about this or that book they are going to write someday
3) Authors (legit or otherwise) who are marketing their work, and really don't care about anyone else's

If you fall into the third group, that's probably the only way I can think MySpace might be even remotely useful for you. Theoretically, if you had a book you wanted to get the word out about, you could set up an account for it, and then send out mass friend requests, bulletins, etc. In other words, you could be that annoying person who everyone hates.

(As an aside, I got on the friends list of one author's book page. That was how I found out all the bulletins she was sending out were AP articles and other materials reprinted without permission. Talk about lazy and immoral!)

This post, however, is about the first type of person -- the editor who wants writers and other staff members to contribute out of sheer desperation to snag a byline.

Unfortunately, I am on a couple of magazines' friends lists, though not for long. This afternoon I received the following bulletin from one such magazine, looking for a new webmaster:

We need someone (does not matter where you are located) who is experienced and someone who has great references. We also need someone who can make changes to the magazine's site in a very short period of time. We're often called to post up banners, contests or links in a short amount of time. So, we need someone who is reliable and efficient!

After this paragraph, there is a very loooong paragraph describing all the qualifications they are looking for. I edited it out because otherwise no one would finish reading this post. After the long description, the paragraph ends by saying:

Nothing too major or nothing that will require a lot of hours. We just need someone from time to time that is reliable and can put things up right away when needed. We get a lot of people who need us to post up banners and contests within a day or so, that's the kind of work that is most important.

And, of course, the kicker:

Since our magazine is strictly on a volunteer basis, we are not able to pay for services. However, since our magazine revolves around celebs, we offer the opportunity to get your name out there in a wide field! Not only that, there are often many perks such as free DVDs, CDs, MP3 players, etc.!

In other words, this magazine wants you to be not only extremely qualified, but also have a schedule that allows you to be available to do their work at the drop of a hat... And they expect all this with nothing but "exposure" (the value of which is doubtful in a free startup magazine) and free grab bag prizes.

In my opinion, the scum-of-the-earth doesn't get any lower than "employers" who want expertise and your full attention in exchange for a byline and a few goodies. The fact that these publications make it so long (this one has been on my friends list for the past year) can only mean one thing: there is no shortage of writers naive enough to fall for it.

Meeting local writers

Good things happen when you get up early, apparently. Last Thursday on our morning walk, Michael and I stopped briefly to let our dogs greet another woman's dog. We started chatting, and she mentioned she works from home.

"So do I!" I said.

She asked what I do, and when I told her I'm a writer, she said she is too. We chatted for a few more minutes, and I discovered she has been freelancing for seven years. (I've been freelancing full time for almost two years now, but that doesn't sound as impressive. I'm really looking forward to someday being able to tell people that I've been freelancing for 10 or 20 years.) It sounds like she does work similar to my copywriting gigs, except for much larger clients.

We ended up exchanging information, and we're planning to have lunch together as soon as the large project we're working on currently. This is, of course, an awesome networking opportunity for me: there's a chance I can get extra work for her, and since she's higher up on the totem pole than I am, it'll help me move into an all-new income bracket.

Despite the networking possibilities, though, I think the thing I am most excited about is simply knowing another writer in the area. Although blogs serve me quite well as a replacement for co-workers -- and in fact, they are an improvement, because I always hated office politics -- I miss the person-to-person chat. It will be unbelievably nice to get together and trade stories with a local writer from time to time.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

My new desk chair: Comfort is the key

I have the perfect home office setup. Michael's and my desks share the front bedroom of our two-bedroom bungalow -- a room I usually call "the study." My desk faces the large, front-facing window that overlooks one side of the generous porch, allowing me excellent natural light, not to mention a nice view of anything that goes on (or doesn't go on) during the day.

Besides our desks, the room contains two bookcases, my rocker, and a nesting table that houses the printer.

My desk is beautiful: a heavy, antique desk in a dark stain with three leather panels inset in the top. Although it is a heavy, chunky style, it is probably meant to be a lady's desk, because it is low and the footwell is small.

Unfortunately, the chair (a small vintage dining chair) that came with the desk when I bought it isn't very comfortable. I have never been able to sit in it for long periods of time, and I have a difficult time working when I am not completely comfortable. As a result I spend more time in my rocker with my laptop on my lap, than at the desk I am so proud of.

I finally realized last night why I dislike my chair so much: it is too high for my desk. Basically, it puts my forearms at the wrong level for typing. As a result I tend to sit in an odd slump, with one leg tucked up under me, which doesn't stay comfortable for long.

So I decided last night that I needed a new desk chair, one about an inch lower. I found what I was looking for today, at a nearby antique mall. It's a dark spindle-back chair with a beautiful hand-painted banner across the top. The seat is not padded, just a wood seat with a depression for your butt, but the chair is comfortable nonetheless.

Since I'm pretty proud of my find, I'll post a few pictures here.

The flash tends to bleach out the painted banner, so this is the best I could get. The banner is of light pink roses and green leaves. The design is raised, so I think it is carved into the wood.

And here's a picture of my work space, with the new desk chair -- please don't mind the mess.

I'm hoping to spend a little more time at my desk now. Hopefully the new desk chair will do the trick!

Heat wave

I'd forgotten how difficult it was to work when it is 95-100 degrees outside and you don't have air conditioning.

Yesterday was a scorcher -- apparently it topped 100 degrees downtown -- but luckily the storm clouds rolled in during the early evening, and helped to cool things down a little. No such luck today: there was hardly a cloud in the sky all day. It's 7:30 in the evening, and it's still in the mid-nineties out there.

Last summer, we tried cooling the house at night with window fans, but it still became an oven every afternoon. The heat drains me and makes me not want to work, so I had difficulties keeping up with assignments. I worked a lot in the basement, where it was slightly cooler, but that's not much fun because it's not as comfortable (furniture-wise -- it's mostly storage).

This year, we bought a portable swamp cooler early in the summer; it has a wheeled base and sits in front of a window. We have to fill it with pitchers, but it holds six or seven gallons, so it's not a big deal. Unfortunately, on really hot days -- such as today -- the swamp cooler doesn't work as well as I would like. The air it blows seems to only get a certain number of degrees cooler than the outside air, so the hotter it gets the warmer the air.

The end result is, even though our house is fairly small, on days like today only the living room stays anywhere near a comfortable temperature. And sometimes even there it's not truly "comfortable." Unfortunately, this appears to be the beginning of a week-long trend: the forecast is predicting high temperatures (and not predicting many clouds or storms) all week.

I am not looking forward to it.

Morning walks

Michael may have found a way to get me on an earlier schedule: getting me up for a morning walk with the dogs. Both Thursday and Friday of last week, I got up at 7:00 AM (a virtual miracle for me) to walk the dogs with him. Both mornings, we left the house just a few minutes after 7, stopped at Starbucks (coffee for Michael and chai for me), and walked the dogs at our local park. We got back home around 8:00 both times, and Michael finished getting ready and left for work.

The whole thing was a major change for me, but quite a successful change. Basically, it was like adding four hours to my day: because the walk did such a good job of waking me up, I was getting away with sleeping six hours instead of 10 (I've been sleeping through my alarms again lately). I didn't feel very tired during the day, perhaps because of the walk; and when I did, I was able to quickly feel better just by getting up and moving around (also unusual for me).

I'm hoping to keep this schedule up, especially because right now is very busy and I could use the extra hours. Besides that, I feel noticeably better starting off my day with an early morning walk!

Writing topics, lesbian journalists, and clients worth keeping

Just a few days ago, Deb of Freelance Writing Jobs launched a discussion about what writers won't write about. A lot of writers mentioned that they won't write about things they don't know very well. I didn't mention it in my comments or my previous post on the subject, but I found this pretty funny, considering: a little over a year ago, I took myself completely out of my element when I signed up to write for a gay and lesbian parenting website.

If you have looked through my portfolio, you may have already seen that I list several article credits with The Rainbow Babies. In fact, I have written many articles for the site over the past fifteen months, and the founder has become one of my favorite -- and one of my most constant -- clients.

Angela has joked before that as long as I have been writing for the site, I am probably the gayest straight person around. (Her words, almost exactly.) Just the other day, in fact, she sent me the following email:

OK, so get this: apparently there is a "Lesbian Journalist's Association Convention" being held in San Diego in August. I read and started laughing because I thought to myself it's a good thing I'm not rolling in money right now, because I'd actually send you to the conference, and you would be the straightest little lesbian writer there! ROFLMAO!

First of all, I thought this was about the funniest thing I've heard. I could totally see her doing something like this, too -- and snickering about it the entire time I was there, no doubt.

Besides that, though, this email got me thinking... How often do we get lucky enough to have a relationship like this with a client? Most of you can understand me when I say that a client with a good sense of humor is a client worth keeping.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Chatfield Class of '97 Reunion

This weekend I had my 10-year high school reunion. I have been looking forward to going for several years now, as I am quite proud of how much I have accomplished since high school. Being able to tell everyone that I achieved my childhood dream job, and to show off that I'm not so shy anymore, feels like such a "win." I was looking forward to smiling right at the people who bullied me in school and say, "I'm a writer. I work for myself. So what do you do?"

Well, perhaps not quite so belligerent, as I'm not quite that confrontational. But I did want to show off a little.

Of course, nothing ever works quite the way you expect. First of all, not many people showed up at the reunion. Out of a class of about 650, I estimate there were only about 80-100 people at the dinner last night -- and that was counting spouses. Even fewer showed up for "Family Day" at the park this afternoon.

I think a lot of the dismal turnout had to do with a lack of organization. It seemed like the girl in charge of planning had it thrust upon her, but the invitations were basically sent out with four weeks notice (and a host of spelling and grammar errors). A few things about the plans -- such as a last minute address change for the afternoon at the park -- also seemed suspiciously disorganized.

The biggest way that this affected me was that I felt I didn't get to see many people that I remembered from high school. I recognized a few people at the reunion, but many of them I didn't. As a result, I spent most of the night talking to the same few people. Not a bad thing, because they were actually some of the people I most wanted to see... but still.

In any case, I had a great time last night. Today was fun too, albeit rather anti-climactic. There were fewer people, not much to do, and it was very hot. We spent most of the time sitting and chatting, again with more or less the same small group of people.

I think I'm going to try to get more involved with planning the next reunion. Although I don't want to be the primary contact or anything major like that, I would be comfortable being on the committee, and I would love to do the invitations next time. You can rest assured there won't be any spelling errors in my invitations. ;o)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Religion and writers

Yesterday, Deb posted a discussion on her freelance job blog about what writers will write about. With 36 comments currently, the discussion seems to be a pretty hot one.

I've noticed a few patterns in other writers' responses. A common response is that a writer won't lie or write anything immoral, which you'd think would be common sense, but perhaps not. However, the most glaring response that I keep seeing is that a lot of writers won't touch religion.

I am firmly grounded in agnosticism, so I have to agree with the first commenter (and a few that followed suit later on): I won't write anything pro-Christianity. I simply wouldn't feel comfortable promoting a belief that I think is... No, I'll follow Allison's lead, and simply say "that I don't agree with."

However, I don't have a problem writing objective essays or studies on Christianity and other religions. I've often thought that it would be interesting to research religion and write papers about it. I took a class in college called "The English Bible as Literature" and it was fantastic -- I learned things that I never knew, both about the Bible and about its background. For that class, I wrote a paper -- one of my best, in my opinion -- on Biblical symbolism in the Matrix movies. I have no problem at all treating religion as objective research, just like any other topic.

Of course, there were also several commenters after that who commented that they would never write anything anti-religious. Fair enough.

Perhaps it's because the first commenter brought it up, but religion remained a pretty constant theme throughout the thread. I suppose that goes back to the saying that the topics off-limits in small talk are religion and politics: writers just don't want to get into it.

What is your take on writing about religion?

Too busy to blog...

I know that although this will be my third post this morning, I haven't been blogging much for about a week. In particular, Lorelei's Lovers has been rather neglected lately. The reason is that I am incredibly busy, working on finishing up a major project that just doesn't seem to want to end. I'll try to get back to blogging regularly next week. Stay tuned for updates on all my blogs!

Statistics about writers from the U.S. Government

While I was researching an article yesterday, I ran across the U.S. Department of Labor/Bureau of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook. Back when I was graduating from college and taking a technical writing job, I had used this site to research the average entry level salary for a technical writer. (I didn't get anything close to the average, but I'll write about that at a later date -- I've decided to spill the beans about that job, and why I left.)

I made a mental note to go back to the site and blog about it, but of course mental notes aren't as useful as written notes, so I forgot about it until now.

The U.S. Government dedicates an entire page to statistics regarding writing and editing professions. Although the statistics address permanent jobs instead of contract or freelance work, the page still provides interesting and useful information.

For instance, did you know that the median (or middle -- not the average, in other words) income for salaried writers is around $44K? That's hardly the "starving artist" picture our guidance counselors in school tried to impart to us. Even better, the top 10 percent of salaried writers earn more than $90K a year. Granted, freelancing is a different ball game, but these numbers are still encouraging.

This page can also be useful for setting your rates -- or even dealing with cheapskate clients. You can use the page to determine what a reasonable expectation is for an annual income, divided by the 52 (weeks in a year), and then divided again by the number of (billable) hours you will be working each week. And there you have it: the hourly rate you'll want to strive for!

And if you are a smarta$$ like me, you can send this link to each and every client who claims that writers don't (or shouldn't) get paid professional wages. (Or every friend or relative who says to you, "You can't make a living as a writer.")

Have fun with it!


If you notice that some of my previous posts suddenly appear in giant text, bear with me -- I am making some changes to my template.

Back when I first started blogging, Blogger offered an option where you could choose a large font. I liked this because I feel the font on most templates is way too small for the normal person to read on a computer screen without creating eyestrain.

Unfortunately, Blogger has since removed that option. After about 150 posts of manually entering the code, I have decided to change the font size in my template instead. Of course, that means that my previous posts appear giant-sized.

I am going to have to go through all 300 or so of my individualposts and manually remove all of the code changing the font size. Needless to say, this is going to take some time, so bear with me!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Women's work

Earlier I wrote about an article that talked about how moms are beginning to prefer part-time work to full-time. This article also interests me for one other reason: what it suggests about the gains the women's movement worked so hard for. Of course, it is worth noting that the women's movement wanted women to have the right to financial independence. However, I don't think they had in mind women that work 40-50 hours a week, then come home and still have to clean the house and take care of the kids. Faced with the "double shift," as it was called in my women's studies classes, women are starting to wish they could go back to staying home. They probably figure that they have to take care of the home and the kids anyway, so why complicate things with a job?

I think this article shows two unfortunate things: 1) that the women's movement may have succeeded in changing stereotypes that kept women out of work, but it failed to change the stereotypes that made women responsible for cleaning and the kids; and 2) that the few gains the women's movement did make have been deteriorating over the last two decades.

A book I recently read, Are Men Necessary? by Maureen Dowd, talks about this backwards sliding. She talks about how, in many ways, the current condition of women has returned to what it was in the 1950s. She talks about how women are dropping out of politics; she even hypothesizes that the only reason Hillary Clinton has been so successful in politics is because she was first publicly humiliated by her husband's infidelity.

So where do I stand on the work vs. raise your kids debate? Personally, I won't ever put my kids in daycare. I have worked at too many, and I can tell you, I don't believe for a second those studies that say daycare doesn't hurt kids, or that it actually helps kids. The part-timers -- the ones who were there only for the preschool experience, or while Mom worked part-time -- were invariably better adjusted than the kids who were there 10 hours a day.

So, yes, I would say it is very important to me to raise my own children. At the same time, though, my decision is easier than most women's, as my work can be done from home, while I'm raising my kids. So I don't think my personal decisions can be used as a model of motherhood.

What I do think is that the debate is not an equal one for most moms. Regardless of whether she works, Mom is usually responsible for the kids and the home. Only the most modern of Dads clean house, do the grocery shopping, and take the day of when their kids are sick.

Ultimately, though, we have missed the biggest point of the women's movement -- that "women's work" is undervalued. How many times have you heard a stay-at-home mom say something like, "Oh, I don't work. I'm just a homemaker." Newsflash, guys: cleaning the house and taking care of the kids is work. In fact, in many ways it is harder work than a full-time job.

The problem that the women's movement had was that staying home was not being appreciated as work. Instead of recognizing that their wives contributed equally to the household and therefore deserved an equal partnership in the household's finances, men were using their wives' lack of income to control the finances. Meanwhile, society was supporting this by making it difficult for women to get work that paid a living wage.

Which is when the women's movement stepped in. However, I don't believe the women's movement ever intended women to be responsible for half the family's income and all the cleaning and the child-rearing. And I believe this dramatic inequality is overworking women, and probably at least one of the reasons society is reverting to the way it was prior to the women's movement.

Freelance Writer: The perfect job for Mom

There was an article today in the Washington Post stating that more moms prefer part-time work now than they used to. I couldn't help but thinking how being a freelance writer -- part time or full time -- is really ideal, because you get to be home with your kids around the clock. Even if you have other things to do, you're still there.
I know there are a lot of write from home moms who get really irritated when employers' ads say, "Perfect for stay-at-home moms!" Granted, this phrase in an ad usually means, "Since this is so perfect, and you wouldn't be earning any money at all otherwise, I'm actually doing you a favor. Therefore I'm not going to pay you." But the truth is, freelance writing is a good arrangement for moms.

Don't get me wrong -- I think it is incredibly dirty of those employers to use a writer's motherhood to justify lowballing her. I am a big-time champion of living wages for writers -- regardless of whether a writer has a spouse, she needs to be able to pull her own weight at home. In fact, if anything the argument ought to work the other way -- after all, kids are expensive!

However, I've always thought that freelancing is ideal for a mom who wants to be home with her kids. I have never wanted to put my kids in day care -- having seen firsthand what that is like -- so I have always gloried in the fact that my chosen career and my passion would also enable me to stay home when I'm a mom. I'm aware that it'll require some creativity in finding time to work, and that I'll have to get used to the distractions. But to me, it is well worth it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Taking care of a sick dog

Grace has been sick since last night -- and I mean sick! Almost right after I got into bed last night, I heard her throw up. I left a note for Michael, and sure enough, in the morning he found more vomit. This time, however, it was a huge puddle of it.

While I was trying to fall back asleep after getting the unpleasant news that part of the vomit was on my pretty antique loop rug, she threw up again -- another huge puddle. After Michael and I cleaned that one up, too, he left for work and I went back to bed.

More vomit and a lot of cleaning greeted me when I woke up just before 11am. (Hey, my sleep was interrupted. Gimme a break.) I threw two (modern) rugs in the washing machine, scrubbed, and Lysoled. Luckily, it appears the mess came out of the antique rug.

It appears Grace is done making messes for me to come up, so I am going to (finally) go to work. She seems to be okay, which is nothing short of a miracle to me -- I had no idea an animal could produce so much puke.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What does my website look like on your screen?

I have a question for all of you: What does my website look like on your screen?

When I designed my website, I assumed everyone now would have higher resolution screens than the old 800 x 600. It was primarily a selfish assumption, of course, because I happen to have a high resolution screen. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across something that says only 54 percent of web surfers have screens with a resolution of 1024 x 768 -- and that nearly a quarter of them still have the old 800 x 600 deal.

Unfortunately, my website is designed with a width of 880 pixels. Oops. So I'd like to know how many of my readers see what I see:

Unfortunately, my website stats does not report the screen resolution of my visitors, so I have to do this the old fashioned way. Above is what I see on my widescreen laptop. If you have a fullscreen monitor with a resolution of 1024 x 768 or similar, you probably see something pretty similar, just with less blue bordering it. However, if you have a 800 x 600 monitor (or, God forbid, even smaller) you'll most likely have to scroll to see the entire width of the container (the white part).

If a high number of my readers are on low-resolution screens, obviously I need to reconsider my website design. Please comment and let me know what my website (or blog) looks like on your screen!

Friday, July 06, 2007

Panama is coming to town!

A long time ago, I promised some new pictures of Panama. Unfortunately, I got really busy, and completely spaced it. Today, though, I'm finally going to post those pictures... in celebration of the fact that I'm finally bringing Panama out here.

Michael and I found the perfect place to stable Panama. His stall will be good-sized and will have a run attached. The place is quiet and private, which I like. There is also an arena and a round pen where I can work with him as I start training him. It's the next best thing to having horse property ourselves.

Panama still has to be gelded before we can bring him out, so we're going to do that in about a week, I think. He had his hooves trimmed recently, so that's done; all that's remaining is to make sure he is up to date on all of his vaccines.

Anyway, here are the pictures. These are the pictures that Michael's brother took of Panama and Cuervo playing when we were there in March. There are about 150 pictures, so I just chose a few good ones. Unfortunately, they are all of Panama going after Cuervo, so it looks like Panama is the aggressor. In reality, though, Cuervo likes to pick on the horses until he gets them to chase him.

Which reminds me of my biggest concern about bringing Panama out here: separating him from Cuervo and the other horses. Panama has always been pastured, so being in a stall where he is separated from the other horses will no doubt be difficult for him. And being separated from his buddy Cuervo will probably be even more upsetting.

I hope this really is for the best for Panama. He's not getting as much human attention there as he should, and certainly not any training. But here he won't have the same herd-like environment.

Well, anyway, here are those pictures!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Announcing my new blog

I wasn't going to start my new blog just yet, but last night I had some good ideas for initial posts (while I was trying to go to sleep, of course). I jotted them down and wrote them up this morning (even though they aren't all dated today).

So, I'd like to announce my new blog, Lorelei's Lovers, and explain the purpose.

Lorelei's Lovers is a novel idea that I've had for some time. I've outlined, wrote a little bit here and there, immediately scratched everything I wrote, and decided to write it when 1) I have more fiction experience and 2) I have more time.

Well, over the last few months I've come to two realizations: 1) I am stalling and 2) I'll never have time unless I make it.

Specifically, I read a couple of books that all said the same thing: you have to publish your ideas when they are hot. Since Lorelei's Lovers is kind of a twist on a chick lit-style novel, I figured I'd better hurry up and write it. Also, after participating in NaNoWriMo last November and writing a novel in a month, I think I've refreshed my fiction muscles. After all, that's all I wrote in high school, and writing is like riding a bike -- you always come back to it.

So, although I've been planning on starting on Lorelei's Lovers for some time now, I'm hoping that starting (and announcing) the blog will force me to start on the novel. The purpose of the companion blog is to generate interest and, hopefully, to have a solid following by the time I finish the novel. (I got the idea for a book marketing blog from Richard Hoy of BookLocker.com.) I have a big project I'm working on for a client right now, but I'm anticipating to start working on the novel in 3-4 weeks.

The companion blog is entirely fiction, and entirely Lorelei's. In other words, "I," Katharine, am not going to talk at all -- I'm going to let Lorelei do all that. Don't think of it as a preview of the novel, though, but a companion to it. You'll see what I mean when I finish the novel.

I hope you'll check out the Lorelei's Lovers blog and let me know what you think!

Monday, July 02, 2007

The purpose of a pen name

I'm always clicking on headlines that mention writers in the news. A couple of weeks ago, I ran across an article about a writer and her problems with her pen name. Basically, Laura Albert's pen name (JT Leroy) was about more than just anonymity or privacy -- it was an alter ego, a separate identity that she used to give her traumatic childhood a voice in her art.

Unfortunately, Albert didn't respect the usual boundaries of a pen name. She used this false identity as the author's real name, instead of using her legal name. As a result, she is now being sued under the premise that a contract she signed as her alter ego is in fact void, because JT Leroy does not exist.

I found this interesting, not because Albert ignored the rule of pen names -- always correspond with publishers under your legal name -- but because it seems Albert's pen name was for the purpose of hiding. In fact, the article reminded me of an exchange I had with a writer some months ago, regarding her desire to use a pen name.

Basically, this writer -- we'll call her JD, for Jane Doe -- wrote to me because she saw that I had successfully published under a pen name. She has had problems getting published under a pen name, she said, and she wanted to know how I had done it.

At first, the questions were pretty normal. She wanted to know if I introduced myself as Katharine Swan, or with my full legal name. I explained that I always communicated under my real name, so that publishers would have my legal name for contracts and payment purposes. I suggested that she do what I do: just put her pen name in the byline, with a brief note about it in the accompanying email if it's the first time she's published anything with them.

Well, when I got a response back from her, the exchange got even stranger. Besides the fact that she abbreviated everything (supposedly because of an injury -- but you can't be a writer if all you do is abbreviate!), she started sounding rather combative. It was clear she didn't like my approach:

I rec'd a very negative email re this subj from the manag. ed. of a newspaper. I guess I am skittish b/c I don't wish to call up too many editors w/ideas, broach the idea of a pen name, and then have them reject both me and my idea and give the idea to another writer.

In fact, in trying to research this issue before, I had sev'l haughty emails from writers suggesting that by using a pen name I am "hiding" etc. etc. I do have privacy concerns, as I think many single woman w/an ususual names whose work may end up appearing on the I-net may share.

At this point, I started understanding what was going on. JD was including her demands of a pen name in her queries, instead of simply putting it in the byline like it was no big deal. Well, no wonder writers said she was "hiding" -- she obviously was! And there's nothing that makes an editor more nervous than a writer who is militant about not concealing her identity. I'm sure every one of them started wondering what she was hiding from... and whether it would ultimately mean a lawsuit for them!

I'm going to reprint my response to her here. It's rather long (as is this entire post), but I think it is valuable advice for anyone who wants to publish under a pen name, so that they don't end up like JD.

First of all, I can see where the writers you mentioned got the idea that you're trying to "hide," and perhaps even why the editors were negative toward you. The thing is that it seems the pen name is more important to you than the writing.

I personally think that you have been introducing the subject of the pen name way too soon. Get the job first, and then just submit your manuscript with your pen name in the byline, like it's no big deal. Having a website that promotes your writing services using your pen name might also help, as it would reassure the editor that this is the name you are known by (even if it's not true -- yet). Regardless, publishing under a pen name should never be a big deal, but I think the fact that you are demanding an answer on it so soon is coming across as combative to editors, and perhaps giving them the idea that there's some strange reason why you're so anxious about this.

Ultimately, you may need to decide which is more important to you: your writing, or your privacy. Writing IS the act of submitting your words, thoughts, and identity to the public at large. Even though I use my pen name, my real name is out there, and I could easily be found by someone who really wanted to find me. Really, though, this is no different than anyone else, who can be found by searching phone books or even by going through a background search service online. Complete privacy and anonymity is impossible in this day and age. The only difference is that writing (or acting or running for president) is introducing yourself to more people than would know you otherwise.

If you really want to "break in," I suggest getting the jobs first, and just putting your pen name in the byline on your manuscript as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Don't give the editors anything that might make them suspicious as to why you're making such a big deal about it.

JD's response was shorter:

I wd rather broach the issue up front so I don't spend time/energy writing, only to possibly learn that the publication won't accept pen names. Since I'm new @ this, I just believe in laying things out on the table @ the beg.

That was the last communication I had with JD. I gave her my advice and she rejected it, so I washed my hands of her. I don't mind giving newbie writers advice, but I can't stand the ones who then pull an attitude and tell me I'm wrong.

Personally, I don't think JD is going to ever have much success as a writer. She clearly knows nothing about how to sell herself, and approaches editors already on the defensive because she is assuming from the get-go that they will turn her down. By demanding a pen name before she even gets the job, she not only comes across as a little suspicious, but also rather belligerent, which is not going to get you into any editor's good graces.

My advice for writers who want to publish under a pen name: Don't worry about the pen name until you get the job. A reasonable editor won't turn down a pen name request if it's reasonable -- and made at the right time. But don't get so worked up about the pen name that you forget why you are pursuing a career as a writer in the first place. It really isn't the end of the world if your real name appears in the byline by accident, or if an editor balks at the idea of printing a pen name. I mean, when it comes down to it, the reason for writing is get read, right?

Personal identity and privacy are funny things. We can take all the precautions we want, but the simple fact is that there are hundreds of sites online that sell people's personal information. Furthermore, no pen name has the power to render you completely anonymous -- Laura Albert's situation proves that. Writing under a pen name can be a professional decision -- such as not letting your marketing clients know that you write erotica on the side -- or a completely personal decision, such as the reasons why I chose to publish under Katharine Swan. Regardless of what you decide or why, though, don't forget what part of this is most important for you -- whether it be your career, your income, or simply the pleasure of putting words on a page.


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