Retirement: Small Change for a Freelancer

money coins cash currency
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When I retire – very soon now – it will make very little change in my life as a freelancer.

I’ll still be able to write my blogs and articles for support groups, which pay nothing, but allow me to stretch my writing muscles and speak about issues that I care about.

Nor will it be “small change” in the sense of being very little money. I worked enough years in Corporate America (editing, writing, and proofing) with freelance writing as my side gig to have made my 35 years of higher income. Even my first dozen years as a full-time freelancer went well enough to make a contribution to my accumulated earnings. The amount I’ll be receiving will be enough to pay the mortgage. My husband’s income will pay the other bills if we’re careful. (And don’t think he isn’t jealous that I can retire soon and he has to wait a few more years.)

No, the small change will be that I will have a steady income while still pursuing freelance work. And that will be sweet.

For while freelance work has fallen off for me of late, it hasn’t disappeared completely. I still write occasional articles or stories for paying markets and am working on a novel and a memoir. (Who isn’t?) And I’ve recently picked up a gig as a transcriptionist and proofreader.

The point is, I’ll still be able to do freelance work – up to approximately $17,000 a year – without reducing my Social Security benefits. For me at least, that total will be a healthy sum. Not a stunning one, but healthy. (And if my mystery novel takes off, who knows?)

So what is the small change I mentioned in the title? A steady income. We all know the ups and downs of freelance life and lately I’ve come to hate them. It’s not an adventure, I don’t know where the next check is coming from, and at this point in my life I need to. A steady income combined with the ability to keep freelancing will bring some much-needed balance into my life.

It’s kind of like when I worked 9-5 and freelanced as a side-gig. The difference is that the steady income will come not from work that I’m doing, but from work that I’ve already done. That Social Security money is mine. It was merely lent to the government to invest in whatever they wanted and to pay for things I don’t necessarily approve of.

Now they have to give it back. (At least until and unless they gut the fund to do away with Social Security or do something else I won’t like. Then I’ll get to be the boomer version of a Gray Panther and write in protest of their actions.)

And with that steady money coming back to me, I will have a cushion and an opportunity to concentrate more on my freelance writing (transcribing, editing, proofing, blogging, writing my novel, whatever) – the freedom of the freelance life without many of the hassles.

I’ve checked with my accountant and we concur. Even my husband agrees.

I’d be a fool not to do it.

 

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Burn Down the “She Shed”!

photo of bonfire
Photo by Jason Villanueva on Pexels.com

At first it sounded like a good idea: a dedicated space where a woman could pursue her interests. Kind of like a Man Cave, but with curtains and flowers.

You’d think that as a writer, I’d love a She Shed where I could create and recreate to my heart’s content. Maybe have a friend over for a glass of wine or some tea and cookies.  But the more I thought about it, though, the more I kept asking myself: Do I really want a First-World, savings-sucking, sexually segregated hut that smells like mulch and motor oil to pursue my dreams in? I think not. And here’s why.

The She Shed Is Elitist

The only people who can have She Sheds are those who live in suburban or rural areas and own at least a quarter-acre of ground. Just imagine living in a three-room apartment in an urban center and asking the landlord if you can build a She Shed on the roof. It seems to me that the woman in that situation is the one who needs a She Shed the most.

Of course, this is true of the Man Cave as well. Small apartments just don’t have a garage or a spare room to devote to manly pursuits (whatever they may be).

The She Shed Is Expensive

You can certainly build a She Shed from scratch, but even the materials are pricey. The smallest pre-fab DIY shed kit I’ve seen runs over $1000. And that’s without furnishings, paint, amenities, and whatever equipment you need to pursue your hobbies or dreams.

The Man Cave is expensive too, with all those super-sized televisions, kegerators or mini-fridges, billiard tables, recliners, work-out equipment, and possibly power tools.

The She Shed Is Impractical

Many of the articles I’ve seen recommend repurposing an old shed you already have – say, a lawnmower shed – for your dream woman-friendly den. Never mind that most existing sheds either already serve a function (say, lawnmower storage), they are also too small for all the necessities and frills that Pinterest tells us are part of a proper She Shed. A potting shed, maybe – but who has a potting shed that they’re not using for actually potting? Or is that supposed to be the woman’s fun and fulfilling activity? If so, why build another shed for it?

Besides, tool sheds and potting sheds lack many of the necessaries for a properly inviting environment – electricity, say, for the writer’s computer or the reader’s lights, or even running water. Just to go to the bathroom, a woman must leave her She Shed, troop back into the “real” house and avail herself of the plumbing, then reverse the process. Unless, of course, there is another shed-like building outside – the kind with a crescent moon carved on the door.

Man Caves have the advantage here, since they’re usually located in an “unused” room or a garage, which usually have all the modern conveniences built in or within easy reach.

The She Shed Is Sexist

Which bring us to another point. Why should a man get to take over an entire room of a house, while a woman is relegated to an outside structure, which has the feeling of a children’s playhouse (not to say doghouse)? The house is hers too. Doesn’t she have as much right to that den or garage as anyone? A couple could also share that den, spending alternate days in it and leaving it empty one day a week.

Man Caves are sexist too. They imply that women are so awful or annoying that men must have a place where they can be alone or with other men. That a woman, if not forbidden to decorate a room, will fill it up with frou-frou furnishings and paint colors like daquoise and saffron and elderberry. That no woman enjoys sports and beer. That men are such boors that no one but other men can stand to be around them. It insults both sexes, which in its way is quasi-egalitarian, though not desirable.

The She Shed Is Ridiculous

We have a few sheds out by the driveway and around the side of the house. I suppose I could repurpose one of them into a writer’s retreat, except for the no-electricity thing and the trek to the bathroom thing. But these sheds are made by Rubbermaid. They have no windows for darling curtains or even fresh air. A person trapped inside would be overcome by a scent like the sole of a sneaker. Besides, they are full of lawn and gardening supplies, which means that if I took one over, we would need yet another shed. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve reproduced enough.

Besides, “She Shed”? The term is ridiculous. What do you keep in a shed? Gardening supplies. Chainsaws. Lawn tools. Cases of motor oil and washer fluid. Lumber. Chickens. Stuff you don’t know what else to do with.

“Man Cave” isn’t even alliterative like “She Shed.” At least call a woman’s retreat something dignified, like, well, a “Woman’s Retreat.” Personally, I call my study “My Study.” And my husband comes in regularly for conversation or to look up things on the computer. He doesn’t mind my collection of stuffed animals – he bought at least half of them for me. We write his appointments on my whiteboard along with my projects. And there’s a small TV and a sound system, plus iTunes on the computer.

And that’s what we do with our spare room. Make it inviting for both of us.

Why I Wear Plaid Flannel to Work

If you guessed that I’m a lumberjack, you’re wrong.

Photo by Kelly

I am a writer, editor, and proofreader, and I work at home. In my pajamas.

It’s great. My commute to work is from upstairs in the bed to downstairs at my desk. I have a coffee maker in my study and a box of cold cereal under my desk. That takes care of everything from breakfast to my mid-morning break. Lunch is only a kitchen away and the sofa is in the next room for TV watching. Then voilà, I’m all ready for bed again.

Of course, there are other choices than plaid flannel, but I like to stick with the basics. (And, hey, lumberjacks can be beefy and hunky and… stop that, Janet, get back to work! Try to think of Sheldon Cooper instead.)

Personally, I buy men’s flannel pajamas, as women’s have the curse of all women’s clothing – no pockets. At least men’s pajamas have a pocket or two where I can stash my cell phone or a snack for later. And I like my pajamas loose and comfortable. If you can’t be comfortable, there’s no sense in working in your pajamas.

In the summer, I prefer nighties that are basically long t-shirts for comfort and clever sayings and graphics (I ❤ My Bed, It’s Meow or Never, a kitten in an astronaut helmet). Or plain men’s big-n-tall t-shirts, again because of the comfort and the pocket.

It’s true that my study is on the first floor, and has a window that faces the street. Fortunately, there is a strategic shrub in front of it and a set of blinds so that I can keep my pajama-clad work habits to myself. But I live on a little-traveled cul-de-sac and my neighbors already think I’m weird, so it’s really not that much of a problem.

Another problem I don’t have is business meetings. Most are handled by telephone conference calls, so there’s no problem there. But even if I must Skype, all I have to do is keep a respectable top in my study (and not allow the cats to sit on it). No one will ever notice – or even see – my pajama-clad legs. (Or bare legs in the summer.) It gives me a nice rebel feeling too, like I’m getting away with something, which of course I am.

On-site business meetings are something I can well do without. Suit or dress, pantyhose (if anyone still wears those), shoes (instead of fuzzy slippers, part of my usual ensemble), coiffed ‘do (did I mention I can have bedhead or at most a simple ponytail at work?).

To tell the truth, I’ve even worked in my underwear on really hot summer days. You can conduct a phone interview in your delicates (especially if you have plaid panties) with no one the wiser (except maybe the neighbors, see above). Just imagine you have a suit on; people can hear it in your voice. They really can.

Of course, there is one drawback to working at home in your pajamas – cats. Besides sitting on your one respectable blouse, they may try to sit on your lap, keyboard, or papers; or nuzzle your screen; or try to capture your mouse. You can shut the door if you have one, but that will only lead to a lot of meowing, hissing, squabbles, and thumps. (What happens if you have kids, I don’t know. Probably more meowing, hissing, squabbles, and thumps. Plus the kids are likely to want to go to school in their pajamas, citing parental precedent.)

By the way, men can join the work-from-home-in-your-pajamas club too, but since I wear men’s pjs, I think it only fair that they wear women’s.

 

This post was inspired by a comment thread in the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop (EBWW) attendees Facebook page.

 

What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

How to Write When the Muse Takes a Hike

We’ve all had those days when we simply turn away from a blank screen (or a blank piece of paper, if you’re a traditionalist) and say, “I just can’t write today.” And we’ve all had those passionate days when writing draws you to your keyboard and sucks you in and you can’t not write.

But what about those in-between days? Those when you think of writing and simply say, “meh.” How do we find inspiration or motivation or something to get us writing on those days?

There are the traditional motivators: deadlines and schedules. I’ve used both myself. (And most writers cherish the quote from Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”)

In fact, for my blogs I use both. I have a loose schedule in which I start writing on Wednesday and have a hard deadline of Sunday by noon to post them. Those have worked for me. But if I haven’t written anything by Friday, I get nervous, and that motivates me. Or it makes me consider reposting or repurposing an old post or one from the other blog. And repurposing is a form of writing.

But there are also less traditional motivators. Here are a few.

Boredom. This is closely related to avoidance of worse stuff. If there’s nothing happening in your life or in your house (I can hear all you parents laughing), don’t waste your time on tedious household chores. Sit down and write. Unless you’re writing ad copy for funny-looking tables, writing is not boring, or at least not as boring as, say, ironing. The ironing will still be there when you’re done writing. Believe me, no one else will do it. And no one else can do the writing.

Faking it. This has worked well for me when even the writing is boring (see ad copy, above). Pretend to write, just so that anyone walking past your desk will think you are writing. Write just one sentence. I’ve found that if I do that, I pretty much know what the next sentence should be. Before I know it, I’m writing!

If you really want to get some writing done, set out to write the first paragraph. Either you will realize what the next paragraph should be or you will realize that the paragraph you’ve written shouldn’t be the first one. Maybe it needs an intro. Maybe it should come later in the piece. By the time you’ve shoved it down, paragraph by paragraph, you’ll find where it goes, use it as the conclusion, or dispense with it altogether.

Reading. Read with attention and intention. Read something by your favorite writers and try to see the “bones” of their writing. Highlight whatever it is you’re struggling with, be it description, dialogue tags, or first-person narration.

Or read something serious and look for quotes that make you think. Then write about what you’re thinking. Agree or disagree; just write. Read a headline that makes you angry or puzzled or skeptical. Read the article and write a reply to it. Read the newspaper and write an op-ed. If you like, you can call this research, even though it looks to your family or your co-workers like you’re loafing.

Introductions and cover copy. Writing the preface to a book, even one that doesn’t exist yet, will (or should) give you a sense of the theme of the book. So what if you re-write it after you’ve finished the book? It’s a way to get started. Writing the cover copy or inner flap description can make you realize what you need to be writing. Say the cover copy you write says, “A suspenseful thriller that follows in the footsteps of Tom Clancy.” That can make you realize that what your book needs you to write is another suspenseful or thrilling scene. Or that you need to read more Tom Clancy (see reading, above).

Bad writing. You ought to know bad writing when you see it. It’s all around. Say to yourself, “I could write a better short story/blog post/advertisement/headline/sitcom script than that.” Then go do it. Even if that’s not the style or genre you usually write in, do it anyway. You’ll be exercising your brain and writing muscles. And at least you’ll be writing something, not staring at the blank screen or paper.

The future. If you want to be a published writer, you have to write. It’s not enough just to want it. You’ve got to do it. Every time you sit down and write will get you closer to that goal. Remind yourself of that dream and write, dammit! Even if what you write isn’t very good yet, there’s always the next draft, or your writer’s group, or the example of your favorite writers to encourage you.

At first, you may have to trick yourself into writing. But your writing may go more smoothly the next time. And the next time. And the next – until at last you summon the muse or the passion takes over. You know, the way you’ve always heard writing should be.

 

 

 

Is Today a Pants Day?

Believe it or not, there is a holiday on which people walk around with no pants. (This year it’s celebrated on May 4 – the first Friday in May.) There are no official rules, other than not wearing pants and pretending that nothing is out of the ordinary. For the shy men, skirts or kilts may be worn. The traditional way to celebrate No-Pants Day is to ride the subway, but we don’t have one around here, so the idea hasn’t really caught on.

(It is a day, I suppose, to work out those dreams you have when you show up at work with no pants on. My problem is that I dream about showing up naked AND NO ONE NOTICES.)

Having a day to celebrate no pants is all well and wonderful. But what about people who wear no pants year-round? People like me.

As a freelance writer and editor, whose only commute is from upstairs to downstairs, I don’t really have to worry about pants. Other writers I know like to wear pants (or skirts) because it gives them a feeling of being at work officially, even if they’re doing that work in the privacy of their own home.

Not me. I relish the freedom of being a work-from-home person and I almost never wear pants while I work. Oh, in the winter I break out the Sheldon-esque plaid flannel jammies and work wearing those. But when the weather is warmer, I settle for a nightshirt or a t-shirt, sans pants.

Really, I could work in even less, except my study is on the ground floor and there’s a window. There’s a shrub in front of it, but still, I find it best not to encourage the neighbor boys.

I find nightshirts soothing and relaxing and completely conducive to work. They also make it easier for me to take naps in the middle of the day, which is one of the other perks of being a freelancer.

But there’s another aspect of the pants vs. no pants dilemma to be considered. A friend of mine and I refer to days when we actually have the energy to go outside and run errands or be social as “pants days,” because we have to put on pants to do so. He’s a writer too and has as much right to work in his bathrobe as I do.

Plus, both of us are given to spells of depression when we can scarcely get out of bed, much less out-of-doors. So we report, “I’ve had three pants days this week” or “I finally had a pants day yesterday,” and congratulate ourselves and each other for having the stamina to insert legs and zip.

I suppose I could wear a skirt or a dress and call it a pants day, but if I do go out, I almost always wear jeans – unless I’m going to a job interview or a meeting with the IRS. I’d be much more relaxed in pajama pants, but there you are. Society has dumb rules. And please don’t tell me that there are things called pajama jeans. That’s cheating.

And by the way, in case you wondered, for me, no-pants days are also no-bra days – but that’s a subject for another time. (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-c8)

 

 

Editing: How to Cut Your Golden Prose

Sometimes it’s necessary to cut your copy. Say you’re entering a contest, but your piece is over the word limit. Or you’re repurposing an article for a different market, which requires a lower word count. What do you do?

You cut, no matter how painful it is. It will still be quicker than writing entirely new copy. And you’ll actually improve your writing as you do it.

I offer a few examples from pieces I’ve had to rework, one about a cat that went from 936 to 586 words; and one on bipolar disorder which needed to get from 1624 words to under 1000.

Here are two techniques for shortening a piece of writing. (Likely they will lead you to some rearrangement as well.)

The Surgical Method 

Clip and snip unnecessary words. Tighten up the writing, which is always a good thing. Say it succinctly.

Take this sentence:

The cat froze, waiting to see what came next.

Now tighten it up:

The cat froze, waiting.

You’ll never miss those extra words. Or how about this:

If she allowed the human a glimpse of her bright eyes and sleek tri-colored fur, she might also listen to the low, comforting sounds that spoke of invitation.

It becomes:

If she allowed the human a glimpse of her bright eyes and sleek fur, she might also listen to the low, comforting sounds of invitation.

Earlier in the piece it was established that the cat was a calico, so “tri-colored” is unnecessary. “That spoke of” may sound nice, but do you need those words? Out they go.

Here’s one rewritten paragraph that saved 20 words:

“Calicos are almost always female. They need two X chromosomes to get that color pattern.” I knew I was being pedantic, but I wanted to keep the conversation out of emotional realms. Our big gray and white cat Django had died not long before, and I wasn’t ready to give my heart to another feline companion.

became:

“Calicos are almost always female.” She wanted to keep the conversation out of emotional realms. The big gray and white cat had died not long before, and she wasn’t ready to give her heart to another.

Admittedly, surgical cuts gain you only a few words. But enough of them can make a difference, especially when combined with the next technique.

The Samurai Method

This involves cutting whole sentences and even whole paragraphs. Look closely at the first and last paragraphs. Is there a punchier beginning a paragraph in? Did you stop when you should have? In this piece on bipolar disorder, I cut three paragraphs at the end. They represented nothing more than fumbling for a pseudo-profound conclusion.

Or take this monster paragraph:

Then I met Kate, who was bipolar – and not well controlled on medication, to say the least. My envy lasted through her ambitious plans to make identical green velvet Christmas dresses for her three daughters. And vanished when I saw her tear them apart, recut them, start over, change her mind multiple times. You can write the ending to this one. There were no dresses, not by Christmas and not ever. Kate was riding the roller coaster – perhaps the most common metaphor for bipolar disorder – the peaks and troughs, swooping crashes, anticipatory climbs, stomach-clenching vertigo, and, for some, an abrupt stop at the end.

And look how much tidier it became:

Then I met Kate, who was bipolar – and not well controlled on medication. Kate was riding the roller coaster – the peaks and troughs, swooping crashes, anticipatory climbs, stomach-clenching vertigo, and, for some, an abrupt stop at the end. With all that, Kate never got anything done.

Yes, I lost a nice anecdote. But was it essential? Not when I had to lose more than 600 words.

This paragraph disappeared entirely:

I had heard how in the 1950s electroshock was used as a way to punish or control unruly, uncooperative, nonconforming women. And of course everyone knew about the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Snake Pit. As far as I was concerned, electroshock was right up (or down) there with icepick lobotomy, the frighteningly efficient epitome of former psychiatric treatments.

It was off the topic.

Here’s another case of too many details:

Those years are mostly a blur to me now. I remember sleeping a lot. I remember sitting on the sofa watching “reality” shows so I could see people whose lives were train wrecks worse than mine. I recall not having the wherewithal to add water and nuke a cup of macaroni and cheese. Not bathing. Not feeding the pets. Not paying bills. Not reading. Not caring.

This is much tighter and just as effective.

Those years are mostly a blur now and were immobilizing then. I remember sleeping a lot. Not bathing. Not eating. Not paying bills. Not reading. Not caring.

 

Cutting your own prose is seldom fun. But sometimes you just have to – and sometimes you even want to. Even famous books could have stood a little trimming. Just read some Victor Hugo or the first chapters of Ivanhoe if you don’t believe me.

What the Client Wants, the Client Gets

It should be a truism that you always give the client what he or she wants, but sometimes it’s extra-difficult. Not to say that clients are picky, but, well, let’s just say that clients are picky.

Although sometimes vendors can be, too. As a case in point, I remember a magazine that I worked on that needed an illustration of a slice of pizza. Not a difficult thing to draw, and there are reference materials everywhere if one suddenly does not remember what pizza looks like. And we would have taken any kind of pizza – supreme, pepperoni, veggie, ham and pineapple, spinach and feta, double anchovies – whatever.

But the illustrator we often worked with came back a few days later, no illustration in portfolio, and informed us that he couldn’t do the assignment because he was a vegan, or some brand of vegetarian that would have nothing to do with milk products, and couldn’t bring himself to draw cheese.

We were miffed. First, that he hadn’t told us sooner about his cheese-drawing aversion. There were any number of professional illustrators in the area who had no such qualms. Second, because we weren’t asking him to eat pizza or buy pizza or something else that might reasonably have caused him qualms by supporting the pizza industry. Just a simple black-line drawing of a slice of pizza. You couldn’t even see the cheese, really. You just knew it was there. But apparently even that was too much for him. But we knew what we wanted. We wanted cheese on our pizza.

Sometimes you do have to wrestle with your conscience to fulfill certain jobs. I edited for a religious client for many years, whose religion I did not espouse. I came to terms with it. As far as I could see, I didn’t have to believe the beliefs I was writing about; I just had to respect them, understand them, and make them intelligible and appealing to the readers. Whatever else I believe, I believe that religious publishing companies should not restrict themselves to only like-minded believers in their hiring. And yes, I wrote for them too, on non-doctrinal topics like charity and more official ones like prayer services.

Many freelance writers and editors and even the occasional illustrator must make these decisions – whether what the client wants is something you feel comfortable giving. In general, my advice is to suck it up and do what the client wants.

To use a trivial example, I stand firmly behind the Oxford comma, but if my client’s style guide doesn’t, out it goes, no matter how much it pains me. In those cases, the style guide wins. And the client.

Writing for children can be the most difficult assignment of all. Clients who assign writing that will go into textbooks are the worst. They specify not just story length, but also reading levels (there are programs that calculate this in any number of systems – use whichever your client likes),  grammatical forms (e.g., dental preterites), and even phonics examples (two words per paragraph with diphthongs, for example). Then try to make the writing creative and engaging.

One set of children’s stories I worked on was a doozy. Instead of word count, the client wanted 15,000 characters-plus-spaces (a measure I had never heard of, but fortunately Microsoft Word has). Then there were nine separate characters, each of whom had to play a role in every story. There were other requirements, too. An abstract. Pull-out quotes. Illustration descriptions. Not to mention specific topics. And a schedule that required a story every five days. And I did it all, thankful for the work.

I have blogged about writing children’s stories before (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-cD). One of the things I said was:

I believe that requiring writers to abide by rigid rules makes it less likely that the story will be appealing. And if the story isn’t appealing, I believe it is less likely that the children who read it (or are supposed to read it) will get anything from it.

But that’s not my call. It’s the client’s.

You and Your Manuscript: Struggle and Success

Suppose you are a freelance writer or want to become one (and I suppose you are or do because you’re reading this).  Here are a few tips and tricks on how to make your manuscript more publishable.

First, as anyone will tell you, read the publication. And that means more than just the How to Submit page and the rates they pay. If you have a touching story about how your darling Muffin passed away, don’t send it to every magazine with the word “cat” in the title. Cat Fancy, for example, is about registered breeds of show cats. You’d be better off sending it someplace like I Love Cats, which pays very little but will give you a byline to wave in the next editor’s face. Likewise, if you have an article on how to select a vet or home remedies for ear mites, don’t send it to a publication that already has a monthly column that is written by a vet.

Write down any ideas. Despite what you think now or how good it is, you will not remember it later. Keep the bad ideas too. Later they may turn into good ideas – for a different market, say, or a different novel. Make a file called “Works in Progress.” Write ideas on sticky notes. Whatever. Then, when you hit a dry spell (which you will), look them over. Maybe they won’t look quite as stupid as they did at first.

Have a schedule. I don’t mean a Stephen King-10,000-words-a-day schedule. Or even 1000 words, necessarily. The idea is to establish a rhythm. I post my blogs on Sundays, for example, so I like to start on Wednesday by choosing a topic; Thursday and Friday to write; Saturday to proof, tag, and illustrate; and Sunday to proof and post. Yes, proof twice, at least.

Don’t be a slave to a schedule. I’m writing this on a Friday, which isn’t ideal according to my wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey schedule. Just leave enough leeway in it that if something important comes up, you can shuffle a bit. For example, I often choose my illustration on Thursday or Friday, instead of Saturday. If you think you’ll have your novel done by Labor Day, figure Christmas, or maybe even Easter. Unless a publisher has given you a deadline.

Illustrations aren’t absolutely necessary – except when they are. Some publishers like The Mighty and Medium want you to submit a photo with your story. Others don’t. And when they say photo, they mean a professional one, not one of your Aunt Sally at a family picnic (unless yours is a true crime book and your Aunt Sally is a serial killer). So cough up a few bucks and get a royalty-free image from Fotolia or Adobe or a free one from Creative Commons. And know the difference between landscape (horizontal) and portrait (vertical).

A title is part of your writing too. Even when the editors change it (and they probably will). A title should make your readers want to read. “A Dreary Day”  is not a good title. “How to Survive a Dreary Day” is better.

Have more than one project. If you just can’t face your blog, start a mystery novel. If you can’t even look at your mystery novel one more day, write a children’s story. Then come back to your old project with a fresh brain.

Pick a point to move on. Even though people will tell you how many times some famous novel was rejected, you don’t have to keep on with something that’s not working. Pick a certain amount of time that feels reasonable to you – the end of the year, two years, whatever – and then move on to something else. Or rewrite the piece entirely – first person instead of third person, or vice versa, for instance.

These bits of advice will stand you in good stead whether you are writing a novel, a magazine article, a poem, an autobiography. Maybe not a play or a movie script. I don’t have any experience with those. But for prose and fiction. most of these rules (well, more like guidelines, really) will apply. Unless you’re Stephen King. But I doubt that he reads my blog.

 

Looking for Work Is a Job Itself

It’s not that I’m unemployed. It is, rather, that I’m underemployed, as the saying goes.

It’s not like I haven’t been here before. When my husband and I first married, we paid for our wedding reception food with food stamps (think of that what you will). A peaceful Saturday morning was standing in line together at the unemployment office. (This was way back when you had to show up in person.)

Since then I have lost the ability to work full time, or in an office. Or even in a burger joint where I’d be required to stand all day. My skill set is solidly in the field of writing and editing, and those I can do from home, on my own computer and schedule. In my pajamas.

A freelancer’s life is iffy at best, though, and recently I’ve experienced a downturn in clients. The economy is to blame, I suppose. Or the recent eclipse. Or Mercury being in retrograde, for all I know. I am looking for new clients and more work from my old ones. I am looking for other sorts of telecommuting jobs, and even part-time outside work that seems to be within my modest-at-this-point physical and mental capabilities.

I pursue these avenues every day.

(This process is hindered by the fact that all the job search engines are lousy. When I say I am a writer, I get leads for technical aerospace writing and service writers for car repair shops. When I say I’m an editor, I get invitations to become a driver for Uber. True story.)

I did get a small gig writing a children’s story, with the possibility of writing four more if I’m picked out of the pack. That would be good, and would at least pay the cable and the electric so I can keep writing.

And while I’m searching for more possibilities? When the days stretch out with nothing happening and the sofa calls my name?

I blog. I work on my mystery novel. I house-sit. And I take surveys.

Admittedly, none of these pursuits brings in mortgage-payment-sized money. The surveys bring in a couple of dollars a day, which is pitiful, but helped with a getaway my husband and I booked before the finances went belly-up.

(My husband is still working, but his wages alone aren’t enough to pay all the bills. We need both of us, a situation familiar to millions of people in the U.S.)

And we’ve instituted cutbacks. We typically spend way too much on food and now must revisit our newly married days, when we subsisted on mac-n-cheese and tomato sandwiches. It’ll be good for us, I tell myself. We could both stand to lose some weight.

I’ve applied for some of the most unlikely jobs as well as the more likely ones. I’ve even applied to write for Cosmo, for God’s sake! And writing greeting cards, which I once swore I would never do.

Security is nowhere in sight.

Working at home is great. Looking for work from home is not. But at least I don’t have to go buy a suit for interviews. It would take months of surveys to raise enough money for that.