Procrastination and the Freelance Writer

Procrastination is not the freelance writer’s friend. 

Of all the suggestions I’ve heard over the years regarding being an efficient freelance writer, one of the best has been to start on an assignment as soon as you get it.

I try to do this and it really works. Sometimes it’s just getting started that’s the hardest part of writing something. So even if I just jot down some notes regarding how I plan to approach the story, gather up background research and set it aside in a folder, or make a list of possible interview subjects and find their contact information, it means I’ve already plowed in. When I’m ready to devote my attention to that assignment, it’s all downhill.

In related news, I was amused when I came across this Procrastinator’s Clock.

If your procrastination problems mean you have difficulty getting out the door, or to appointments on time, check it out. It’s guaranteed to be up to 15 minutes fast. However, it also speeds up and slows down in an unpredictable manner so you can’t be sure how fast it really is

Good grief. It would drive me nuts. But it is amusing.

And it makes me glad I work at home, in my comfortable office, where I work hard and put in a lot of hours, but where 15 minutes one way or the other usually just isn’t that critical.

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Books on Writing

I guess it’s no surprise there are so many books about writing. We writers need something to write about, and some of us write about writing. And then the rest of us read about it.

Writing is a craft that I continually work at. In college I majored in journalism, and since then I have continued to take writing classes (both in person and online), participate in professional writers’ groups and online forums, and sometimes in local writers groups.

And I also read how other people have succeeded as writers. How they do it. Their tips.

They’re just like us, most of those other writers. We’re all just people sitting in front of a yellow pad of paper or a laptop, starting with a blank screen and a head full of ideas. Reading about how some people have accomplished what they’ve done has, over the years, helped me set goals for my own writing, and reach high.

I could read about writing, instead of sitting down and actually writing, until the cows come home. (“What cows?” asked my four-year-old with a puzzled look when I used that expression the other day.) It’s a terrific means of procrastination.

Here are just some of the books on my shelves, which I’ve loosely grouped into categories. Some of these books are better than others. Many I’ve reread, and learned from or been inspired by.

BUSINESS

You are only a hobbyist, and will get nowhere as a freelance writer, until you accept that it’s a business and you need to be businesslike (in setting goals, where you focus your efforts, calculating your overhead and knowing how much to charge, protecting your copyrights, handling accounting, paying taxes and much more). Some creative sorts have to really force themselves to buckle down and learn the business aspect of being a self-employed writer. Here are some books that can help: 

  • The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing, ed. by Timothy Harper
  • This Business of Writing, by Gregg Levoy
  • Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer, by Jenna Glazer
  • Six-Figure Freelancing, by Kelly James-Enger

 

BY WRITERS ABOUT WRITING

I don’t know how to group these books, some of which inspired and convinced me I could quit the day job and live happily as a writer.

  • Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
  • The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard
  • If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland
  • Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande
  • Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Thunder and Lightning, Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
  • Making a Literary Life, by Carolyn See
  • On Writing, by Stephen King
  • No Mentor But Myself: Jack London on Writing and Writers, ed. by Dale L. Walker and Jeanne Campbell Reesman

 

FICTION/NOVEL WRITING

What pondering these titles from my bookshelf tells me is that I have long wanted to delve more into fiction and novel-writing. But I knew that already. Maybe I’ll reread some of these and get started soon.

  • On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner
  • On Teaching and Writing Fiction, by Wallace Stegner
  • The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
  • Writing the Novel, by Lawrence Block
  • Writing Fiction, by Janet Burroway
  • How to Write a Book Proposal, by Michael Larsen
  • The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, ed. by Meg Leder, Jack Heffron and the editors of Writer’s Digest

 

MAGAZINE/NEWSPAPER WRITING

I have done an awful lot of this. I started out writing an occasional freelance piece for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and then got a regular freelance gig working for Hilo’s Hawaii Tribune-Herald, where I wrote features and entertainment articles every week. Like most newspapers it paid poorly but, in retrospect, it was terrific in teaching me how to just sit down and do it. I also got over my reluctance to call people when I had several articles due each week. That was worth it all right there. 

After that I started writing for magazines. More interesting, more in-depth, more time for craft. Yet it still doesn’t pay enough to pay the bills. I know there are a few people who only write for national magazines and make a good living, but that’s not the norm. If magazine freelancing is your plan, you’d better have some other income, too.

  • The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, by William E. Blundell
  • Writing for Story, by Jon Franklin
  • Creative Nonfiction, by Philip Gerard
  • Story, by Robert McKee
  • Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, ed. by Jean Fredette
  • You Can Write a Column, by Monica McCabe Cordoza
  • The Renegade Writer, by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell
  • Travel Writing, See the World, Sell the Story, by L. Peat O’Neil
  • Literary Journalism, ed. by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer

 

MEMOIR

  • Living to Tell the Tale, A Guide to Writing Memoir, by Jane Taylor McDonnell
  • Inventing the Truth, the Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. by William Zinsser

 

ON WRITERS

It’s aways fun to read how other writers do it. Computer? Typewriter? Pencil and pen? These books are much more than just that, though.

  • Writers on Writing, Collected Essays from the New York Times
  • The Writer on Her Work, by Janet Sternberg
  • The New New Journalism, ed. by Robert S. Boynton

 

COPYWRITING 

A lot of my work these days falls under the category of copywriting. These books were somewhat interesting as I started out writing for businesses, but I’ve found that I figured out a lot of it by myself, along the way. The Well-Fed Writer is currently a bible to some copywriters.

  • The $100,000 Writer, by Nancy Flynn
  • The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman
  • Secrets of a Freelance Writer, by Bob Bly
  • The Copywriter’s Handbook, by Bob Bly

 

RADIO

This is one of the few books from my long-ago college journalism days that I’ve kept. I have worked in public (and commercial) radio a little bit, and really enjoyed it. I keep the book in case I get back into it one day. Cool book.

  • Telling the Story, the National Public Radio Guide to Radio Journalism

 

LASTLY

And, my favorite title of all though (to be honest) I don’t remember a thing about the book itself:

  • Too Lazy To Work, Too Nervous to Steal, How to have a great life as a freelance writer, by John Clausen
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The Orwell Blog

I love that someone who’s been dead since 1950 is posting daily to a WordPress blog. 

George Orwell (1903-1950) is not doing the posting himself, of course. It’s his diary entries that are being posted, one day at a time, exactly 70 years after they were written. What a neat idea.

From the blog‘When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page’, wrote George Orwell, in his 1939 essay on Charles Dickens.

From 9th August 2008, you will be able to gather your own impression of Orwell’s face from reading his most strongly individual piece of writing: his diaries. The Orwell Prize is delighted to announce that, to mark the 70th anniversary of the diaries, each diary entry will be published on this blog exactly seventy years after it was written, allowing you to follow Orwell’s recuperation in Morocco, his return to the UK, and his opinions on the descent of Europe into war in real time. The diaries end in 1942, three years into the conflict.

Must go reread some Orwell now while I follow along.

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Advanced Freelance Writer Organizational System

How do you keep papers organized when you’re working on 10 or 15 freelance jobs at the same time, or more, all at various stages?

I do it with file folders. That title above is tongue-in-cheek, of course. My system is pretty basic, but it truly helps me keep my head well above water.

Whether it’s a client I’ve just met with once, and the file merely holds some handwritten notes and a fee quote, or it’s someone I’ve worked for years and a specific folder holds their October newsletter notes and copy, or a specific press release, it’s all about the file folders.

I have a big box of 100 of them sitting on the bookshelf near my desk. I make myself take the time to write the name of a project on the front and on the tab, even when I’m busy and overwhelmed with papers — especially then — and then stash all papers relating to a certain web copy job/ad/newsletter issue/blog series/business profile in its appropriate file. Otherwise I am always hunting for things instead of working.

Making myself slow down and store papers in their folder keeps my sanity. 

I have a standing, upright file box on my desk, where I keep active folders. When I finish a project it gets filed away.

Sometimes it feels wasteful to go through as many file folders as I do. I label them in pencil, so I can reuse them later, but first most get filed under the company’s name and year in my file cabinet for awhile. Every so often, I go through and purge folders I’ll probably never need to find again. Old jobs I might need to look at again get purged from my active file cabinet and moved into a reserve file (box) for awhile, and then eventually that too is moved on.

Some people do the same thing but they keep their “folders” on the computer. They have paperless offices. Are they truly paper-free? I imagine their desks must look tidy and lovely, but I can’t imagine it.

Going without paper is not a goal of mine. I need to hold things in my hands when I’m working on them — move them around, mark on them, consider them while standing them on end and neatening them into a tidy pile.

We writers, we like paper and I can’t imagine working without it. I’ll just continue on, making my little stacks of tidy file folders, watching the papers escape and comingle and try to hide under other papers, and then putting them back in place — which keeps my head in order, too.

It sounds like such a simple thing, but having a simple file folder system makes all the difference to my productivity.

How do YOU do it?

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Isabella Bird & Other Historical Non-Fiction to Read While Traveling

I have a good friend coming to visit here on the Big Island next week, a history buff like me, and I’ll have to find out if she’s ever read Isabella Bird.

isabellabird

I love reading an interesting book about a place while exploring it, and I highly recommend Isabella Bird’s book if you’re planning to visit (or if you live in) Hawai‘i.

I can remember reading Sarum when visiting Salisbury Cathedral, and Jane Austen in, of course, Bath. And Michener’s Iberia (or parts of it anyway; I remember a great section on gazpacho that sent me seeking the stuff at every turn) while in Portugal. And, oh, The Agony and the Ecstacy while in Rome — that was a wonderful decision.

Isabella Bird was born in England in 1831, and (from Wikipedia), “was a sickly child and spent her entire life struggling with various ailments. Much of her illness may have been psychogenic, for when she was doing exactly what she wanted she was almost never ill. Her real desire was to travel.”

Gotta love that. 

She sure did travel. Among many other adventures (and writings), she was in Hawai‘i in the 1870s, and later wrote the book The Hawaiian Archipelago: Six months among the palm groves, coral reefs, and volcanoes of The Sandwich Islands. She was a thorough, descriptive and upbeat writer and I enjoy reading her accounts. I also admire her for traveling alone as a woman in the 19th century and having so many great adventures.

Here’s a description of Hilo from her book:

What Honolulu attempts to be, Hilo is without effort. Its crescent-shaped bay, said to be the most beautiful in the Pacific, is a semi-circle of about two miles, with its farther extremity formed by Cocoanut Island, a black lava islet on which this palm obtains great perfection, and beyond it again a fringe of cocoanuts marks the deep indentation of the shore. From this island to the north part of the bay, there is a band of golden sand on which the roar of the surf sounded thunderous and drowsy as it mingled with the music of living waters, the Waiakea and the Wailuku, which after lashing the sides of the mountains which give them birth, glide deep and fern-fringed into the ocean. Native houses, half hidden by greenery, line the bay, and stud the heights above the Wailuku, and near the landing some white frame houses and three church spires above the wood denote the foreign element. Hilo is unique.

Hilo still looks pretty much like that! I can picture it. It’s a great book if you’re interested in reading more, and it’s easily available in paperback.

What books have enriched your travels? I’d love to hear.

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I Married The Photographer

I have an essay on the last page of Hawaii magazine’s August issue. It’s about living here in this beautiful place.

My husband Macario is a professional photographer who, among other jobs, shoots a lot of Big Island photos for the PacificBasin Communications magazines. So they called him to photograph me for the article. (How convenient is that?!)

And so we went down to a nearby river and we both stood in it, pretty much. And here’s the side of the photo shoot you don’t usually see — because the set-up for a photo shoot takes awhile, and I get restless. And then I start taking photos of the photographer.

Here’s another article Macario and I both worked on. That one, for Honolulu magazine, is about the 6.7 earthquake that hit the Big Island a couple years back, and how clean-up was looking one year later. 

People often say something along the lines of, “Wow, a photographer and a writer. Perfect!” It is fun when we occasionally get to work together. We didn’t meet on a job, surprisingly, but rather at a baby lu‘au where he was friends with the baby’s dad and I was friends with the mom.

It was just a tidy coincidence that our work interests were so compatible. It’s a fun partnership all the way around.

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Freelancing in a Poor Economy

Someone told me recently about her son, a graphic designer who works full time for an agency and does freelance jobs on the side. She said he has considered leaving his full time job to freelance full-time, but worries about doing that in this poor economy.

Here’s my response to that:

Especially in this poor economy, I feel much more secure working for myself — my pay flowing in from many different clients — than being at the whim of only one employer. 

In these uncertain economic times, a full-time job can disappear at any moment. But if you’re good at what you do, work hard, and especially if you already have a stable of jobs going on, leaving the uncertainty of a full-time job for the freelance life seems like a no-brainer to me.

Spreading your work (and income) around to many clients is the smartest kind of diversification. You’re not relying on one employer, one company, one industry. Not putting all your eggs in one basket and all that.

I’m not suggesting anyone quit a steady job with some vague dreams about freelancing. It’s serious business. Learn what you’re doing first, and work up to it. Make sure you have what it takes.

But if you know what you’re doing, have clients lined up, and work hard, it’s very doable. Even in this economy. Especially in this economy.

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Hawaiian Style: Eating Poi

My husband Macario harvested some kalo (taro) and made some fresh, delicious poi today. Our 4-year-old couldn’t get enough. And then we had some more.

poi

In the old days, poi was pounded with stone pounders, and Macario, who comes from a long line of kalo farmers, can do it that way, too. But nowadays, we use a Champion commercial juicer. So easy. I think some of our ancestors would have used a Champion juicer if they’d had one. 

It got me thinking about an article I once wrote for the Hawaiian Airlines in-flight magazine Hana Hou! It’s all about poi — history and culture, taste, making, eating.

I dug out the article and reread it, and then I thought maybe you’d like to read it, too.

Poi is such a staple food to Hawaiians. And it’s so delicious. If you read the article you’ll see how important poi is to us.

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Freelance Writing & Kukui Nut Trees

For lunch today, I had a picnic with my husband and little girl in the shade of our big old kukui nut tree. We brought along my daughter’s Bob (learning to read) books, and decided we will call it “The Reading Tree” and sit there sometimes to practice reading. She loved that.

After we ate and read and played some little kid horseshoes, I lay back on the green- and blue-striped picnic blanket and watched a white, cottony cloud barrel across the perfect blue sky. After awhile, my daughter and husband wandered off and I actually napped briefly. When I woke up, it was to the feeling of warm sun on my face when the kukui leaves momentarily parted. It was excellent.

It was a work day.

Oh, the freelance life is definitely not all sitting around in pajamas and watching Oprah, let me tell you. 

If you’re good at what you do, and busy, it’s really an awful lot of work. I can remember, years ago when I started freelancing, being surprised at how hard I was working. (Maybe I had been expecting pajamas and Oprah.)

It is, of course, a real business with real work that needs to get done, well and on time. In addition to the interviewing, writing and revising, there’s always marketing that needs to be done, to keep the work coming in, and then invoicing and estimated taxes and lot of other paperwork, and keeping up with supplies, because nobody’s filling the supply cabinet but you. And a whole lot more.

Generally I keep regular work hours, which is what works best for me. I don’t sleep in on a work day (unless I’m sick, and then the flexibility is lovely), and I don’t chat on the phone during work hours. There is work to be done.

Once in awhile my regular work hours just aren’t enough, and there have certainly been times when I’ve worked into the wee hours, or pried myself out of bed much, much earlier than my body appreciates to squeeze in a couple extra hours.

But then again. Then again — occasionally I take the time to do something like have a lovely, relaxing picnic with my family in the middle of the day.

And then I am reminded of how much I appreciate the freelance lifestyle. The work is interesting, I have total control over how my career progresses, and I can sometimes take a little time off to do what’s important to me and my family — like picnicking and then napping under a kukui nut tree. I can’t imagine living any other way.

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Hamakua Springs: The Blog

One of my jobs these days is to blog for Hamakua Springs Country Farms, a 600-acre, progressive hydroponic farm here on the Big Island.

We started that blog more than two years ago. That’s when the farm’s owner, Richard Ha, hired me to create a website, and then a blog, for Hamakua Springs. My husband Macario, a photographer, did all that website’s photography, and that’s how he and I got to know Richard and June.

The blog is called “Ha Ha Ha!,” which is meant to represent the three generations of the Ha family who farm there. We have some fun with the blog while also tackling some big topics.

Richard and I have posted to his blog three times a week for more than two years now, and it is one of my absolute favorite gigs. He is a gem to work with. He is an amazing person who is using his very successful business not merely to make as much money as possible, but to do good for his community. That sentence may sound trite, but know that I don’t at all write it lightly.

Here is just one recent example. There are many, many others.

It is such a rare pleasure to work with Richard Ha. He is truly a man of character and he radiates ethics in everything he does. I know he doesn’t realize how much I’ve learned from him — about business, about community and relationships, about life. He is one of the best people I have ever met and I am honored to be a part of his trusted team.

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