It’s Most Difficult at the Beginning

I am back to square one, maybe even square negative five, regarding my fitness level. Similarly, but much less drastically, I’m at a low point in client numbers. Fitness and business have always swung along the same pendulum in my life, likely because they both depend solely on my own motivation and willingness to do the work. At this particular moment in time, I’m working on the basics for good health and for a prosperous business. You know, paying attention to what and how much I eat, making a point of doing some form of exercise everyday, making marketing calls, sending out queries, referring back to my business plan.

And it’s freaking hard.

Easing myself into things, as I do, I started counting calories two weeks ago, and have kept it up. Now it’s time to add in exercise, and that is tougher. I’m trying to follow a fun, slightly silly workout plan, that uses the language of RPG (roll playing games). It’s called The Hero’s Journey, and it looks pretty simple. Except, on the first day, I am supposed to do 100 reps of four bodyweight exercises. I’m going to try, but don’t have much faith that I’ll be able to do it. The first set of 25 almost killed me.

Similarly, I started sending out marketing emails a week or two ago, but I know that to see real results, I’m going to have to do much more. Like make 10 calls a day, every day, for a month or two, and continue to send out several emails per day. That’s just how it works. For someone like me, who feels weird and awkward on the phone, and who struggles with any kind of social interaction, this stuff is hard. Probably not as hard as getting back in shape, but still not exactly as easy as writing a blog post.

The important thing to remember at times like this is that it’s only hard for a little while. It won’t take long before I’m looking forward to working out, or before the marketing has done what it always does and I only need to send out 2-3 queries each week to stay busy. Everything in life is that way. When I first built my flower garden, it took a lot of work to break up the grass and fluff up the dirt. But the next spring was easier, and every one after has been too. Any BIG THING is that way. You have to approach it a bit at a time and know that it will get easier.

A friend learned to play guitar as a teenager. Then she got a job, raised some children, and didn’t play. Recently she picked it back up and says the same thing about her practice sessions. They are tough, but she knows they will get easier.

Have you ever started over with something? How did it go for you?

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Walking the Freelancer Tightrope

The fourth quarter of 2014 was my most lucrative quarter as a business owner to date. It was the kind of quarter that makes you reevaluate and scale up your goals, and spurs you to begin dropping your lower-tier clients. It felt good.

(You know what happened next, don’t you? It’s so sadly predictable!)

The first two months of 2015 have been less than stellar. They haven’t been my worst months ever — not by a long shot — but my earnings did drop to about 30% of what they were in the two previous months. There are many reasons for the drastic drop, and most of them are related to the delicate balance business owners much strike between feeling good and feeling a little worried.

When I’m a little worried, I pay more attention to marketing — it’s just naturally on my mind more. Since it’s on my mind, I see opportunities while reading for pleasure, browsing online, having conversations with colleagues, as well as randomly in the middle of the night. I’m just more open to finding new work.

On the other hand, when I have lots of work, I’m thinking about getting that work done all of the time. I’m making connections to whatever it is I’m writing — and that is good. It gives my work more depth, and sometimes shines a new light on a topic.

When things are tighter, I tend to hoard my pennies, and my time. I don’t invest much in things like software, or in taking time off from writing to go to lunch or to events. Of course those things can, and do, generate new business.

You might imagine that less work = more time for other projects, but that hasn’t been the case in my experience. For example, when I had more deadlines than usual, I got up between 30 minutes and one hour early everyday to work on my fiction projects. Scheduling becomes more important when you are busy, and sticking to the schedule is critical.

When I have fewer deadlines I tend to let things slide, thinking, “Eh. I don’t have anything scheduled for the afternoon. There’s no harm in sleeping in this morning.” Or watching a movie, or baking some bread, or whatever other purple squirrel I can come up with that day.

Luckily, I’ve been working on my own for long enough that I have some safeguards in place to deal with the current situation. I have a long list of publications to contact, and another list of businesses and organizations that might need my services. I have a plan that I can pull up and follow the moment I realize things are off-track.

Recognizing the downward turn and taking the steps necessary to correct it are two different things, of course, but that’s where experience comes into play. It may take me a month or two to see what’s going on, but once I do, it’s easier to take action.

Here are a few of the specific steps I’m taking now:

1. Sending out a set number of letters of introduction or pitches each week. My number is 10. I do a fair amount of research before contacting a prospect so more than 10 becomes overwhelming.

2. Contacting all former clients with whom I enjoyed working. This one is self-explanatory, and just common sense. It also tends to yield the fastest results.

3. Closely evaluating how my time is spent. If there is “spare” time, I try to fill it with either planning, research, or working on my fiction projects. It feels terrible to realize I’ve wasted time on social media or playing games when a glance at my bookkeeping software clearly says I should have been doing something to support my income!

4. Getting back to my plan. In November and December, I put together a detailed plan for the next year. It has some good stuff in it, and pulling it out and following the steps is helping me stay on track.

5. Making sure the basics are covered. A couple of weeks ago, this site went down because I forgot to pay my hosting bill. That is just a bad way to run a business!

Have you ever corrected a downturn in your business? What are your best tips for avoiding a slump? 

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Review & Reflect, Set & Implement

For about the last three or four weeks, and maybe even a little longer, I’ve been thinking about what I want. From little things like some new socks (why do I wait until every pair has holes before I buy new ones?) to bigger-picture things like

You have to start somewhere.

You have to start somewhere.

what I’d like my life to look like in a year, or five, or even ten. Thinking about what I want inevitably leads to thinking about how I spend my time because, as we all know, minutes make hours and hours make days and days make years. What you do with your minutes matters.

Review & Reflect

So what have I been doing? Not writing posts for this blog! The last post was in AUGUST. This blog, and in fact, my business, enjoyed an unnoticed, uncelebrated anniversary in July. Smiling Tree Writing began (both the blog and the business) in 2009. The last two months have been the most profitable for the business to date (which is one reason there haven’t been any posts since July — I’ve been working!). Both of those facts make me feel a sense of pride, as well as a drive to push harder.

Although the last two months were the best to-date, I have a confession: November was the first time I met my original, set-in-2009 income goal. It took more than five years to reach that first (quite modest) income goal.

I have conflicted feelings about that. One the one hand, I feel overwhelmed and exhausted. I had to work that hard for

Then you can grow from where you are.

Then you can grow from where you are.

that long to make that (quite modest) amount of money? Geez. Do I really want to keep on doing this? On the other hand, it can be done. I’ve learned an awful lot about it in the last five years, and it feels like that work is paying off.

Of course, reaching that original goal means I must increase it rather drastically — by about 75%. In order to increase your income by 75% you need goals, short term, long term, measurable, specific, and all of the other things that good goals are.

Set & Implement

Once I knew what I want for the next year and beyond — insofar as anyone can know since the universe always holds surprises — I needed a map. How do I get from here to there? Here’s a glimpse of what my goal setting looks like:

  1. professional
    1. make $XXXX a month, from varied sources (this will require an increase in both number of assignments and amount paid per assignment)
      1. create a list of publications to pitch
      2. continue looking for regular, steady, paid gigs like XXXX and XXXX — it would be great to have 2 more of those
      3. set a regular schedule for marketing, whether it’s a couple hours a week or 15 minutes per day. Just do the work.
    2. finish the rough draft of my story, send it to some people to read, get it to XXXX for editing in August, get it
      ...and growing...

      …and growing…

      published in October.

      1. complete the draft in Scrivener
      2. get the whole thing printed for draft 3
      3. make corrections in Scrivener
      4. send to people to read
    3. finish the tips for XXXX book, pay to have it formatted and pay mark for a cover and get it published by February.
      1. inquire about cost for formatting.
      2. if it’s not all already in Scrivener, get it there.
    4. start writing on smilingtreewrites again, at least every other week.
    5. update everything in my portfolio, add new work
  2. health
    1. Nutrition
      1. shop every

As detailed as that list may seem (and it goes on for several pages, and covers a variety of categories besides professional and health) it is missing at least one crucial element. Dates. Although it mentions some months, there are no specific milestone-type dates. For example, this list doesn’t say how many letters of introduction or queries I will send each week in pursuit of new work. It doesn’t say by what specific date I will have completed the rather painful second draft of my manuscript, or what date I will have “the whole thing printed.” As it stands, this list of goals is only a partially useful.

After I wrote this list, I made another for how long I’d spend on various activities each week or month. Doing that led me to add a few things. Next, I’ll put things on my calendar, so that I see them everyday. I may even make some kind of visual aid to hang next to my desk to help me stay focused as I’m working.

The hardest part is implementation. I can write workout plans all day long, but that won’t help me become a runner again. To do that, I’ll have to put on my running shoes and hit log in some miles. Reaching your goals isn’t magic, no matter how magical it may feel when you do.

When do you review and set new goals? Do you have a process? Can you share any sage advice about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to reaching goals? 

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What To Do When You Mess Up

Throughout the majority of my writing career, I’ve worked with long-term clients. Usually, my clients are business owners who need regular content for their blogs or their newsletters. We get to know each other fairly well. Lately, I’ve been diversifying a bit and adding in a few publications.

A few weeks ago, I pitched an article to an editor I’d never worked with. She liked my idea and gave me a rather short deadline. It was exciting because it was a topic that I love, and the pay was higher than

Perfection is over-rated.

Perfection is over-rated.

I’d expected it to be. I put the deadline on my calendar on the right date, but got it mixed up in my mind.

In case you are wondering how that is possible: The article was due on Monday, August 4. As I planned my schedule, I somehow thought the 4th was on a Friday. I scheduled time to interview, write, edit, and proofread on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Duh!

My subconscious, though, had a better grasp of dates than my conscious mind. I woke up in the middle of the night Sunday night — suddenly — and realized that Monday was the 4th, and that the article wasn’t started. Cue the panic.

I got up early Monday morning and went to work, cobbling something together. It wasn’t great. I wasn’t proud of it. In the email submitting it, I told the editor that since it was my first article for her, it would probably need revision. She responded that it was totally inappropriate, and asked if I could write something that included original interviews and was more suitable by Wednesday. I owned up to the mistake, agreed that the first draft wasn’t good, and said that I absolutely could send something better.

Feeling pretty good about getting a second chance, I went to work, contacting people who might be willing to interview, writing questions, and generally doing my job. I wanted the second attempt to be outstanding. And, at the risk of being a braggart, it was. The editor published it within 10 minutes of receiving it, and send another assignment the next day.

That is just one example of my many, many stories about messing up. Through years of stumbling along, screwing things up, and carrying on with life, I’ve come up with a list of things that help when you know you’ve messed up:

1. Own it. Confess. Admit that you screwed up. Honesty is the best policy, and you will really put some bad juju out in the universe if you try to blame someone else.

2. Apologize. Say you are sorry. You don’t have grovel, but once you confess the next thing to do is apologize.

3. Come up with a plan to make it better. Make some suggestion that may help remedy the situation.

4. Deliver superior results. If you get a second chance, as I did in with the new client, make sure you come through.

5. Remember: everyone messes up. Don’t spend time beating yourself up. Just do what you can to make it better and move on with your life.

Have you messed up in a big way? Did you recover? How? What are your best tips for getting past a screw up? 

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“I’ll Take a Look at It on Spec”

The majority of my writing clients are regular clients, and most of them are people I’ve met. I work with several local business owners, and a few folks I met or found online. In any case, my invoices go to pretty much the same group of people month after month. Sometimes there will be additions, and sometimes clients will drop off. Now and then, I like to look for new work — either because I’m ready to boost my income, or I want to learn about a new industry, or I have a good story idea.

Recently, I decided to look for publications within a particular industry. I had some ideas for stories and wanted to see what the market was like. I identified a couple, called

It's nice to look at pretty flowers while pondering a difficult business dilemma.

It’s nice to look at pretty flowers while pondering a difficult business dilemma.

one, and learned they preferred to receive queries. I read several past publications then pitched three articles. The editor liked one of them and emailed me to say that she would “take a look at it on spec.”

If we were talking about a publication I’d dreamed of seeing my name in for years, maybe I’d feel differently, but my first reaction (in my mind only) was “I don’t work on spec.” But then I thought about the fact that this editor doesn’t know me. She would be taking a risk by assigning an article to an unknown. I offered to send clips in my introductory letter, but maybe she doesn’t have time for that. Even if she does have time to look at my clips, she has no assurances that I will turn in clean copy; there’s always the chance that my clips were cleaned up by some other editor.

However, I would be taking a risk by spending the time to write a good article on spec. It would, of course, be tailored to fit the tone and voice of this particular publication. There would be several interviews involved. It would take time and effort to do it right — time and effort that I could be spending on doing work for clients who know (and regularly pay) me, or looking for clients willing to take the risk of getting to know me. There are definitely two sides to this spec coin!

Ideally, I could offer this editor some kind of compromise, but I’m having trouble coming up with one. The publication is lovely, and one of the best in this particular niche. The pay is what I’d call average to low in the wider lens of magazine writing, but high for the industry. I’m opposed to working on spec — on principal, and because this is what I do for a living. It’s not a hobby. Getting paid matters. There’s the possibility of pitching the same story to several publications in case the editor doesn’t want it, but that doesn’t feel quite right either.

Have you dealt with this situation? What was your response? 

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Diversify & Other Lessons from the Freelance Writing World

There are some pieces of advice that turn up ubiquitously in articles and blog posts directed at freelance writers:

One wide, deep income stream might be attractive, but can be dangerous!

One wide, deep income stream might be attractive, but can be dangerous!

  • Learn to say no.
  • Always have a contract.
  • Never stop marketing.
  • Diversify your income.

Smiling Tree Writing has existed as a business for about six years now (I think. It might actually be 7. I’m losing track!). I’ve had the opportunity to learn why certain bits of advice show up over and over again.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about having a diverse income and what that means for me. Summer before last (the summer of 2012) was the lowest point my business has encountered to date (and hopefully ever will). My income was down to about $800 a month — a fraction of what my family needed. At that time, most of my income came from 2-3 regular clients and a couple of one-off projects each month.

At that time, I was reading “diversify” to mean that I should earn money from writing articles for publications, selling my own books, working with clients, and then create a few “passive streams” from things like ads or affiliations. My idea about what a diversified income looks like now is drastically different.

Back then, I was trying to diversify my income by adding more article writing to the mix. The majority of my work was with small business owners, creating site content, blog posts, and newsletters. I began sending out letters of introduction and writing for print publications, even if the pay was lower than it should have been. It wasn’t working.

It’s hard to pull out of that kind of downward spiral, and the thing that helped me was to take a job. It ended up being a short term thing, but it was exactly what I needed in order to mentally reset. In the year since, I’ve taken definitive steps to diversify my work activities, and have finally hit a comfortable mix.

I have two part time jobs, one of which is completely outside my realm of expertise and gets me out of the house for about 15 hours each week – I work at a restaurant 2 evenings a week. The other is a marketing job that I do from home for 10 hours each week. Then, there is client work, which creates the bulk of my income and takes up the majority of my time. I also sell a few books, and am working on writing more with the goal of that portion of my income gaining significance.

Although working in a restaurant or as an hourly employee may not be the typical freelancer’s dream, it means that my income won’t suffer too much should any one client decide not to use my services. It also means that I have more flexibility to follow one of those other often-repeated bits of advice: I can turn projects down if they aren’t a good fit, without being terrified I’m making a financial mistake.

Now and then, I play with the idea of dropping a couple of clients in order to have more time to work on my own projects, or quitting the restaurant job to find more clients or to look for another part-time marketing job. This mix of work gives me options.

During that terrible summer of the downward spiral, it didn’t feel like I had many choices. I think that is why the advice to diversify is repeated so frequently — it gives you more room to wiggle. My particular working situation is also highly flexible. I can do client work in the middle of the night, we have been able to take several short trips this year, and I can make time to pursue personal projects (like writing fiction).

What piece of tried and true advice have you found to be of vital importance when interpreted correctly for your personal situation? Have you ever discovered any conventional wisdom that needs a bit of twisting to work well for you? 

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