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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Doing the Right Thing at the Wrong Time

There are so many ways to procrastinate that look like work, it’s a wonder anything ever gets done. For instance, I have a friend who loves to market her writing, to talk to editors, interview, and put together outlines. But she detests turning those outlines into articles. She will send out an extra five letters of introduction, reconcile her finances for last year, make

I also take photos of flowers when I'm avoiding writing fiction.

I also take photos of flowers when I’m avoiding writing fiction.

budget predictions for next year, and scrub the toilet in order to avoid the actual writing part of her job. All of her procrastination activities are useful and helpful, but they are a good example of doing the right thing at the wrong time.

I’m writing a novel. I have a gap-ridden first draft, and am about a quarter of the way through first revisions. It has taken me about ten times longer to get this far than I ever imagined it would. There are lots of reasons it’s taking so long — from the fact I have to earn a living writing other things to being fearful. If you’ve been a reader your whole life, and you have a good idea of what good writing is, it can be terrifying to put your own work out there.

In any case, I find myself doing the right things at the wrong time constantly. Yesterday, during my scheduled writing time, I found myself wondering what categories I would use on Amazon when the book is completed. If you know much about self-publishing, you know that categories and keywords are critical because they are how people find your work, so choosing the best ones is the right thing to do. Choosing them when the book is only a fraction of the way to being finished is the wrong time to do it. I have also chosen an editor (who I will not be able to afford, barring a winning lottery ticket or other unforeseen windfall), and have discussed cover art with an artist whose work I admire. Right things, wrong time.

What productive things do you find yourself doing to avoid the hard stuff? Do you go with it, or do you exercise some discipline get yourself on track?

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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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On Being a Beta Reader

Recently, a Twitter connection was complaining about how none of the people he asked to be beta readers had time to read his new novel. Since I love to read, and especially love to read free stuff, I offered. He enthusiastically accepted. And, I realized something:

I love the idea that my comments might help make a book better.

That may seem like bragging, but isn’t that what beta readers do? Offer feedback that will help the author publish their best possible work?

As it turned out, the writer seemed to sincerely appreciate my comments. It was a good experience for both of us. I’m even going to read the book again, after revisions. And the author has asked if I would be willing to read his future work and make similar comments – for money! That’s right. He Too Dark To See Coveroffered to pay me to do something I love doing.

(It was a really good book, and since I now feel connected to it’s production in some vague way, I’m going to recommend that anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers, stream of consciousness, or books about people on the verge of psychological breakdowns look for Too Dark to See by Jay Chastain in the next couple of weeks. It’s good stuff.)

Given that reviews can sometimes hurt a book’s ratings and/or sales it’s much nicer to think that my “review” as a beta reader is solely for the author rather than for public consumption. Using Google docs makes is a super simple process, too. The author can respond to my comments or ask questions.

What about you? Have you ever been a beta reader? How did you feel about the experience? Would you do it again?

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An Embarrassing Lesson About Leaving Negative Reviews

When I had the pleasure of interviewing Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt, we talked about how it’s possible for authors and readers to develop

Sometimes a direct connection can be painful. (image from Creative Commons on flickr.com)

Sometimes a direct connection can be painful. (image from Creative Commons on flickr.com)

relationships and the immediacy of contact. Before the internet, most people “reviewed” books with friends or in book clubs. Your thoughts about a particular story probably never reached the person who wrote that story.

Now, of course,there is a direct connection between writers and readers. And, despite the fact that there are some nasty trolls out there, I think that, overall, that connection is a good thing. It is certainly changing the way I think about stories, especially stories I don’t really like. Well, okay, itshould change the way I think about stories I don’t like.

An admission: I can be terribly harsh. It’s one of those things I don’t like about myself and have been working on changing for most of my adult life. Just as there are some lessons we must learn over and over, there are some personality flaws we must constantly fight against. Sometimes this harshness comes across in my book reviews. Harsh doesn’t equate with cruel though. I’m not one of those raving lunatics who leaves death threats or goes on one star review rampages. But, I could state why I don’t like certain books more clearly and succinctly and leave out words like “annoyed” or “grrrrr.”

The important part of this post is I left a bad review for a book. It was a two star review, and maybe I was in a bad mood that day, or maybe the story really bugged me, but either way, the review stated that I didn’t like the book, listed three specific, negative points, then groused because I paid for the book.

Clearly, I was not thinking about the human who had spent hours writing, editing, and publishing this story. If he had been a friend of mine, asking for my opinion about the book he’d worked so hard on, my thoughts would have been phrased far differently.  The  basic  criticisms would have been the same, but the delivery would have been considerably  toned down. Why shouldn’t I offer the same consideration to a stranger?

The answer is, of course, that I should.

The author contacted me. If he hadn’t, my review would have sat there in cyberspace forever, and I wouldn’t have learned this important lesson. But he did contact me. With an APOLOGY.

Here is part of the email he sent me:

I’m sorry you didn’t like the book….If you are interested, I can send you something you might like better. I just finished publishing Theme-Thology: Invasion, which contains stories by fifteen authors in a wide array of genres and styles. While you probably won’t love all of it, I suspect you’ll like a lot of it. Just let me know format (Kindle/Nook/Kobo) and which address to gift it to …I do want to thank you, by the way. Positive or negative, I appreciate any review by someone who took the time to read the entire book.

In the spaces where the ellipses are, he referenced my review. I had to go back and read my review because though I remembered not liking the story, I couldn’t remember why or what I’d said about it. It was not nice, and I felt bad about it upon reading his VERY nice email to me.

Part of being a writer today involves dealing with negative reviews, even if “dealing with” means “completely ignoring.” Since Smiling Tree Writing is running the series on independent writing, and I admired this author’s courage in contacting someone who left a negative review (he had no way of knowing I’m generally a nice person) I invited him to write a guest post for the series.

I am happy to tell you that Mr. Charles Barouch, author of Adjacent Fields, and more recently contributor and editor of Theme-Thology: Invasion, has written a guest post for the independent writing series. It will be published this Wednesday.

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