Last month I had made up my mind to not accept any new projects for a while. I wanted a break. It had been a rough summer and I was burnt out. I had a few obligations I was wrapping up and then I just wanted to step back and read a book. Then, as happens, I got an offer I could not refuse, so I’m actually now busier than ever. It’s a good thing—a great thing, really, but I realize I still need to re-evaluate stuff. It has me thinking a lot about how to do this creative life thing long term, how to take on a good amount of work while keeping my balance.

There is this romanticised image of the dedicated artist that I’ve held up as my ideal: the creative individual sacrificing everything for their art. Times past when I got a huge ASAP project I put everything else in my life on hold while I dove in and swam up stream to the finish. But I think if I’m going to make this be a long term thing in my life, I have to make the time to take the dog for a walk to the park. To help my kid with his homework. To be present for my partner (who takes a good deal of the load at home when I have a heavy project bearing down). I need to make sure I’m getting enough sleep. Plus, I signed up for another marathon, so I need to make sure I am getting the necessary exercise to prepare for that. I have wondered if things like training for a marathon are luxuries (ha ha) I can no longer afford, but I’ve learned how much I need those physical outlets for my mental health, so I’m keeping them on the table.

If it’s not obvious by now, I am a work-a-holic, more comfortable with a task than with socializing. So I need to pay special attention to taking care of my friendships and my loved ones. The other night, we went to dinner and a movie with friends and it was hard for me to turn off the radio station in the back of my head, telling me I shouldn’t be there, that I should be at home working. My online life is reduced to retweeting an occasional thing of interest and liking a few status updates. I miss my online life. It’s a balancing act I’m still figuring out.

Something else I’m working on: letting go of my fear of failure, the horror that I won’t be good enough. Here’s an interview with comic writer Kelly Sue Deconnick that’s worth listening to for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that right in the middle of it (at 33:24 minutes in to be precise), she says this about deadlines: “the month is going to come regardless of if you are ready, and sometimes you will not get it as all-together as you hoped, but you move on and do better next time.” That really gave me pause. It reminded me of something that artist Donato Giancola told us at the Illustrations Masters Class this past spring, something I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: “Occasionally, I have turned in less than top quality work. I am not proud of that. But it happens. You then keep working so that next time is better.” Those two comments made an impression on me, not as an excuse to do less than stellar work, but as a reminder that sometimes you are on your game, sometimes you are not, and you don’t let that keep you from moving forward.

So that’s what I’m trying to do. Work hard. Keep breathing. Find the right balance. Take care of my loved ones. Be a bit more gentle with myself. Stuff like that. I hope this all makes sense—I am writing it on my lunch break before I dive back into that offer I could not refuse.

So here, if you’re interested, a few people who have said it a bit more eloquently:  Lillian Cohen-Moore discusses how to deal with burn out. Then, Damian Walters-Grintalis talks about writing when you are broken and John Nakamura Remy talk about how he learned to stop worrying and love his goals. Finally, Amy Sundburg discusses priorities and social media.

Okay, that’s all. Time to get back to work.

You Can Earn a Living as a Writer

I’m a writer. I’ve been at it for as long as I can remember. Although you probably don’t know me, I’ll bet that you’ve read some of my stuff.

Growing up in the suburban wastes of Kansas City in the 1970s, most kids I knew spent their free time playing softball on the schoolyard lot off Mission Road. Others went fishing down at the lakes between Manor Road and Meadow Lane. Me? That wasn’t my thing. On a hot summer day, I loved nothing more than to stretch out on the carpet of my living room floor near the air conditioning vent and scribble all over the pages of a Big Chief tablet with a Flair pen until my fingers went stiff. I wrote all kinds of junk. The earliest piece I can remember writing was a fake brochure for some kind of rocket ship / Chevy van hybrid. I was eight years old at the time. It was a bi-fold brochure with color illustrations. I was pretty proud of myself then. Still am.

Although much has changed over the decades – my writing skills have improved, I think – I still write commercial copy. During the daylight hours, I write about lawn mowers and deburring machines and satellite TV. As I said before, you’ve probably read some of my stuff. Planned a trip to Louisiana for Mardi Gras recently? You’ve read my work. Frequent a popular dating website? That’s me too. Spend any amount of time online researching orthodontists, equestrian supplies, building materials, self-storage facilities, or high fashion? I wrote some of that stuff.  I run my own little “content development” company. We’re writers and bloggers for hire. After hours, I write supernatural horror and science fiction. The commercial copy pays the bills, and that’s what this article is really all about.

Since I subscribe to a number of writer’s magazines, I get a lot of junk e-mail about books, DVDs, and seminars where you can quickly learn “how to make a six-figure income writing advertising copy.” Let me say – right here and now – that some of you can. Most cannot. Sure, if you can string together words and phrases and clauses with a fair grasp of sentence structure, punctuation, and grammar, you have a talent that can command a fair income – if you know what you’re doing.

In this age where text-speak has spread like Ebola from cell phones to term papers to casual conversation, many under the age of twenty-five appear to be incapable of putting a convincing argument for one thing over another to pen and paper (my personal opinion, not that of anyone else here at BookLifeNow). And since most marketing – whether in print or online – is driven by written content, there’s a great need for those who can write well. But you have to know the rules – those rules above words and phrases and clauses. Marketing copy is not written like fiction or journalistic articles. I won’t go into deep detail here, simply because there isn’t enough room to spell it all out in a single blog article.

But I’ll give you a peek. Here we go.

1. If you’re writing copy that sells window treatments, roofing supplies, invisible braces, air handling units, bug and tar remover, party supplies, liquid face lifts, or financial products, you have to first identify your audience. Ask yourself: WHO would want this? If you can come up with an answer, you’re well on your way to some compelling copy.

2. Always write to the business purposes at hand. Your client wants to convince the market that they need to pick up the phone or fill out a form or set up an appointment. What you write must gently nudge the readers toward acting on this suggestion.

3. Keep it interesting, engaging, and brief. Most people can read about 350 words (a single page from a paperback novel) in about a minute. They read whole pages because they’re invested in the characters and story. As a writer of commercial copy, you have none of that to your advantage. The average time a reader will spend on any page of content on a website is a whopping 33 seconds. Interesting, engaging, and brief, yeah?

4. Sell! If you’ve never sold anything in your life (cars, computer software, shoes, whatever) you may not have the experience needed to craft compelling sales copy. Selling is more than listing features, advantages, and benefits. It’s about creating an emotional connection between your reader and the product. In sales, we talk a lot about building commonalities, discovering needs, leveraging pain points, and overcoming objections. And it all works beautifully – with practice. Lots of practice.

5. And you must sell without selling. If this sounds like some twisted Kung Fu technique, you’re right. You must strike without being seen. Truly compelling copy leads the reader to believe that their needs are in direct alignment with product features, advantages, and benefits. You can almost see them nodding their heads in agreement as they ponder the words on the page.

6. Learn to write for robots. Pick up a book on the basics of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Online, everything is driven by search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo!). Every piece you write for a website is going to be seeded with keywords and phrases and links. Why? Every search engine employs search bot software to scan every web page for its content and then adds that data to a searchable index. This is how the web works. If you’re writing a page about chocolate chip cookies, you’d better mention “chocolate chip cookies” a few times in the copy.

You can earn a living as a writer. Like many, I’ve had a number of cube farm jobs. Long ago, I decided that I was unsatisfied with corporate life and made a decision to bail. I spent years building a book of business for my content development company. I’m a full-time writer now. It’s a sweet gig but it has its drawbacks. When 5pm rolls around and you’ve been killing yourself to crank out 10,000 words for a plastic surgeon, it isn’t easy to switch gears and be creative. Somebody once said that the worst day job for a writer is as a writer. Some days, I fully agree.


When Publishers Do Bad Things

It doesn’t happen that often, thankfully, but sometimes publishers do bad things, things that go beyond issues of incompetence or lack of organization. Usually these “bad things” have to do with non-payment of royalties or advances, the cancellation of books for specious reasons, and/or poor or abusive treatment of the author during the editorial or publishing process. (Granted, repeated cancellation of books may just indicate poor initial decision-making on the part of a publisher, but is still an important factor when considering what publisher to go with–assuming you have a choice.)

What are usually not valid excuses for bad behavior?

—Blaming sudden growth for non-payment of monies because of supposed ma-and-pop corner store accounting practices. Most all publishers, large and small, deal with distributors and wholesalers who keep records of books sold. It would be unlikely that any publisher would not have a fairly good idea of book sales for an individual title, no matter how busy they are. Publishers have to communicate with the entities that help them sell their books in order to keep publishing. This requires them to stay in the loop.

—Suggesting communication issues as a generic catch-all reason that absolves particular individuals of responsibility, especially in cases where it is quite clear that those who have been ill-served have been attempting to communicate and simply have been ignored. In this case, the excuse is simply an effort to stave off negative publicity.

—Putting the onus on the individual writers published by the publisher to come to them with any issues or problems related to non-payment.
This suggests a less than proactive approach on the publisher’s part and may simply be a delaying tactic.

Always remember that by the time individual writers are willing to say bad things about a particular publisher, this is usually just the tip of the iceberg, to use a cliche. Very few writers feel comfortable bad-mouthing their publisher, for fear of being seen as difficult. In cases where several writers have spoken out, you can almost always guarantee that many of those who haven’t spoken out also have issues with the publisher.

When considering a publisher, be sure to check with a sampling of writers published by that publisher, to get a sense of how consistent, honest, and fair the publisher is in dealing with writers. From a writer’s point of view, a publisher is only as good as the average experience that can be expected in dealing with them. Every publisher will have highs and lows depending on personalities and issues beyond anyone’s control.

Also remember that indie presses in particular have their eccentricities, and that each press has its strengths and its weaknesses. This is not the same thing as “bad behavior”–these are simply the quirks writers have to deal with, just as the publisher and acquiring editor are agreeing to put up with your quirks, in a sense, and you will have to decide which quirks you don’t mind and which make a publisher unattractive to you.

Everything I’ve learned about writing this year I’ve relearned by watching the Olympics [series Part Two]

On Monday, I brought up some thoughts inspired by 10 days spent watching the recent winter Olympics in Vancouver on TV. Here are two more lessons I culled which offer relevance and perspective for writers:

Expect to earn your medals every time.

Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis kinda blew it in Torino. She hotdogged her way to a second place in women’s snowboard cross when she had the gold medal practically around her neck on that last slope.

Jacobellis has had to live that down for the last 4 years and went to Vancouver hoping to redeem herself. It didn’t quite happen: this year, Continue reading