Is Good Enough Good Enough? “Settling” in Your Writing Career

Do you reach a point in your writing work where you think, “OK, I’ve had some stuff published, I’ve been read with appreciation by some people. Sure, maybe I haven’t set the writing world on fire, but my work is what it is, and I’m OK with it.”

Those were among my flitting thoughts after I got a rejection from the NY Times for a “Modern Love” column. I’d been trying to write—i.e., avoiding writing—a piece for Modern Love for a couple of years, because the Times is one of my aspirational publications, a mountain I’d looked at longingly, but always turned away, sighing, “Too high, too high.”

In one of my refreshingly non-paranoid moments, I realized that was bull, so I did write the piece, thought it was pretty good, and sent it off. But if you’ve read many of the Modern Love articles, you know that they are consistently better than pretty good. I was among the literal thousands of writers who write what they consider pretty good pieces and send them off to the Times, our timorous rabbits of hope thinking maybe, just maybe.

One and Done?

If you spend a fair amount of time writing for publication, whether fiction or non, rejection will be a side dish at your table. Whether you eat it cold or not is your choice. Many years ago, I took rejection of my work more seriously, as though it were a personal affront. But it’s always just business, unless you embezzled from the editor or something along those lines. Now, I basically shrug and move on; I’ve already sent the Modern Love essay out to another publication that prints those kinds of accounts. And I’ll send it to another if they don’t like it; as I said, it’s pretty good.

I just checked my freelance publications list for 2017: there are at least 50 articles there, a number of them in national publications, almost all of them pieces for which I was paid. A number are content marketing pieces for different clients. Most of them are pretty good.

But great? Perhaps, maybe a few.

Good Enough Ain’t

I also recently put one of my unpublished novels, Aftershock, in the Kindle Scout program. The book did OK in the voting, but not well enough for Amazon—after their review of the work—to pick it up for publication. But I think it’s—you guessed it—pretty good. It’s a book I’ve worked on (well, on and off) for years, and I think it has depth and feeling enough to earn some readers. I have another unpublished novel, a collaboration between me and a writer friend, that has merit as well.

But that brings me back to the initial question: is good enough good enough? Is my apparent pattern of releasing solid-but-not-world-shaking works a plateau? Have I settled to being a writer who writes pretty good stuff, gets published, and looks forward to weekend cocktails?

No. (Except for the weekend cocktails stuff.)

I always think my best work is yet to come. I’ve outlined a memoir of my high school shoplifting years that could be hilarious. My collaborator and I are talking about a sequel to our novel. I’ve got a bunch of queries to send out to various publications—and yes, that damnable New York Times will be among them—and I’ll try to make any and every of those assignments shine.

I’m far along in my writing life, but there’s still daylight, so I’ll keep typing. How about you?

Tips for Supercharging Your Small Business

Since I can’t be the smart person ALL day long (it’s bad for my complexion), I like to let others step in and counsel us freelancers, solopreneurs and small business types. But I did get my licks in: below is an infographic (click to enlarge) that has a bounty of advice for small—but strong!—businesspeople on matters integral to small businesses, and I even get to throw in my penny’s worth too. The good folks at Invoice2go put this together, so give them a look.

Also, I know that you are desperate to fill your electronic stockings with electronic stocking stuffers, so I’ve reduced my Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See to $3.99 until January 15. Stuff those stockings with abandon (and ebooks).

Your Writing Niche: Does it Mix Well with Whiskey (and Chocolate)?

I made sure to close the drapes so the neighbors couldn’t see

Update: here’s the published piece: Whiskey and Chocolate: Collaborators, Colleagues,Comrades

Many freelance writers have written compellingly of how finding a writing niche—SEO, senior health care, inbound lead-generation for hiking sock companies—can provoke a steady stream of assignments and income. There are some persuasions: you understand your clients—and their audience—more clearly, your facility with the language and arguments of the narrow discipline becomes sharper and sharper, and as a specialist, you can often charge specialty fees.

I’ve mentioned this before, that because my brain has lobes that tingle over the oddest variety of subjects, I’ve never been inclined towards a niche or a specialty. In the past couple of months, I’ve written pieces about viral marketing techniques, Hawaii, rock and roll, house-sitting, the vulnerability of fictional characters, and issues facing independent contractors.

Thus, niche-less I am. But, that’s not to say I don’t have some distinct interests. One of them is spirits, meaning booze, hootch, firewater, grog—you know, the sauce. I enjoy looking at it in bottles, and out of bottles. I perk up to its piquant aromas. I like the mad-scientist aspect of mixing it with today’s wealth of natural infusions, bitters and botanicals that supply tang and lift to cocktails.

I even like to drink the stuff.

High-proof Publications

It took me a while (probably because of that drinking) to realize that there’s an audience for those interests, even for those subhumans that think Jaegermeister is something to drink, rather than a wood refinisher. So, in the last couple of years, I’ve sent out my share of queries to various publications on various intoxicant ideas, and I’ve published pieces in magazines like Whisky Life and Spirits (now defunct), Draft, and Wine Enthusiast.

One of the most recent tippling magazines I’ve worked with is Whiskey Wash, which is bathed in all things whiskey. After I wrote a few country-specific whiskey histories for them, they invited me to work up my own queries, one of which resulted in a fascinating interview with a professional “nose,” who works with distillers to refine their products in very exacting ways.

But my latest assignment was sweet. Literally. They accepted my pitch for what high-end chocolates might pair best with three kinds of whiskey (straight whiskey, bourbon and rye). So this past Friday night my pal-so-gal Alice and I nibbled, sipped, and nibbled and sipped again. My, was it fun. For hours, I forgot that our president-elect is a misognynist, racist, First-Amendment-mocking orange gasbag.

Pitch Until They Itch

Useless political commentary aside, my point in this is that some freelancers aren’t comfortable, or not interested in establishing a niche for their work. Some might take years of generalized commercial writing to find a niche, which they then lovingly settle into. And some, like me, might write about a whirling world of things, but might also find a way to take their special interests into their writing.

Oh, not to make it sound TOO easy: I’ve sent lots and lots of queries to lots of magazines on a crazy range of spirits pitches. The bulk have been turned down, but that’s freelancing. Enough have been accepted to keep me pitching anew, as any freelancer should do as a matter of course.

Oh, and I’ve tasted some interesting booze too. I’m not sure when the chocolate & sauce article will run, because I haven’t written it yet. That’s for the next day or so. But it will be up on Whiskey Wash soon, and there’s even some chocolate and whiskey left over.

And they pay me for this. Goodness.

[Oh, and a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Kraazy Kwanzaa and Freaky Festivus to all!]

A Song of Gratitude to the Freelancing Life

We biked to where Kilauea is spitting hot lava into the sea—Hawaii is reborn!

We biked to where Kilauea is spitting hot lava into the sea—Hawaii is reborn!

Well, my typing sounds better than my singing, so let’s go with this: This past Saturday, I returned from a month in Hawaii, having spent most of the time on Oahu and some on the Big Island. I don’t sleep on golden pillows, so how could Alice and I take off for (and more tellingly, pay for) a month on a tropical island? (And yes, there were mai tais.)

For the same reason we previously stayed for long periods in the Bahamas, Panama, Mexico and Hawaii once before: freelancing.

The freelancing life can often be a scramble, particularly if you do a fruit salad of contract work like I do. I do B2B and B2C copywriting, edit books (both fiction and non), write essays and journalistic pieces, and travel articles too. I’ve never been able to narrow my work to a niche—something that’s undoubtedly affected my income—because my interests are broad. My writing palette has too many colors, and I find that pleasing. More pleasing yet is that, with the glories of the Internet, my office travels with me. As does Alice’s with her.

Thus, when we read of a house-sitting opportunity on some golden isle, and the setting and the situation fits, we go for it. Most of the time we still work close to our regular schedules, using that Franklinesque early to bed, early to rise admonition. But we get to rise in places like Hawaii! And there’s plenty of time to play, in such places where the play is often plentiful.

Sometimes the Freelancing Life Offers No Gravy At All

But I don’t want to downplay the occasional downers of being a contract worker. You do have to deal with social isolation—if you have a water cooler, you’re usually the only person to lurk around it. Some freelancers I know like to go to coffee shops or other public places to work, but that’s never appealed to me. I like the silence, which gives me plenty of head space in which to fret. And I can always go from my Airstream office in the yard to pester Alice in the house when I need some companionship.

You also have to be comfortable with marketing yourself, and with rejection. I send out a lot of article pitches, and often don’t get a response. A long while back I used to steam about that, but really, what’s the point? I just send more pitches. I still don’t hear back from many, but I’d guess I’ve had at least 40 and maybe 50 paid articles published this year. Here’s one that was in the latest Writer’s Market on one of the themes of this piece, Writing From the Road.

You also have to be comfortable with fluctuating income. As I said, no golden pillows, but I do have socks. I’m not breaking any banks (or breaking into banks), but I’ve been doing this, with a short corporate-writing break, for 25 years, and I’m still here.

But Sometimes the Gravy Is Very Good

I first sketched out above some real benefits of a freelancing life, but here are a few more:

Control: for the most part, you get to choose for whom you work, and what you work on. Sure, freelancers sometimes take on projects that are dull or tedious, but you really do have the choice to say no. And to say yes!

Choice: speaking of choices, they are vast in the freelancing realm. You can work for large businesses and small, you can sell products from your website or a place like Etsy, you can work at 3am if you are a night creature, you can use your expertise to design an online course, you can write books in your downtime, you can take online courses to spruce up your old skills or learn new ones. Choice and control are kissing cousins, but having lots of each is positively positive.

Exercise: one of the choices I make is to exercise every work day. Might be a hike, might be a bike, might be a stroll on one of the many picturesque slough trails in our area. Or if the weather is lousy, a ride on the recumbent bike inside. Many people think that exercise is a tedious chore, but for me, so much the opposite: you get to move the legs, move the blood, see some sights, change your perspective. And maybe eat a larger lunch because you did all those things. I always look forward to the mid-day exercise break, and it’s something that most office workers don’t get a chance to easily do.

Naps: what’s better than a short nap after exercise and lunch? And better yet, on the orange plaid of our ’66 Airstream? I rarely actually go to sleep, but the 20–25 minutes of hazy glow make for a more focused afternoon.

So, freelancing: there might be a pimple or two, and some days the clouds race in, but most of the time, the face and the weather are fine.

Vin Scully and the Voice in Your Head

I must mention a delightful coincidence that came from the Hawaii trip: I got to hear Vin Scully, the legendary voice of the Dodgers, announce his last six games. In the 60s, growing up in Southern California, I was a baseball maniac. It’s not that I simply played baseball a lot (in the streets at home, in Little League, in public parks), but I read bunches of baseball biographies, memorized statistics—even the heights and weights of players. My brother and I would spend hours pitching a tennis ball to each other in our driveway against the back gate. (We used a tennis ball because I’d broken so many neighborhood windows with hardballs.)

I loved baseball, and more so because I heard a voice in my head while I played, declaring my glory on the field. The voice I heard was Vin Scully, the announcer for the Dodgers for SIXTY-SEVEN YEARS. Sixty-seven. Because I’d grown up with Vin, I thought all baseball announcers were like him: sunny, smooth, always ready with a story that no one had ever heard or told before. A great, boundless lover of the game, but never a “homer” for the Dodgers. It’s almost impossible to express what warmth and human connection came through the radio from this modest guy—he was baseball’s easy-spoken orator, an open-hearted genius behind the mic.

There’s a quote from the writer William Dean Howells about Mark Twain that says, “Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes—I knew them all and all the rest of our sages, poets, seers, critics, humorists; they were like one another, and like other literary men; but Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature.” Vin Scully was the Lincoln of baseball announcing. It was a profound pleasure that I happened to be in Hawaii to listen to the last of his games, when since moving from Southern California forty years ago, I’d hardly heard him at all.

Vin, you lazy guy, you’re only 88, why not go a few more?

That was a gift from the freelancing life as well—Vinnie, wishing us all a pleasant evening, wherever we are, forever.

[Note: the gracious folks at Invoice2Go, who make simple-to-use invoicing applications for freelancers and the like, are going to excerpt some of this post on their site for a helpful infographic on freelancing tips. Check out their stuff if you have invoicing needs.]

The Rhythm Method (Or, Why Self-Employment is Better Than, Um, Chocolate)

Today’s guest post is from the bubbling cauldron of Joel D Canfield’s mind, and he provides us with an unbridled rant—er, measured assessment—of the painful yoke of conventional employment vs the fresh, cool air of entrepreneurship’s open road. Joel is the author of many books, including a new one on this very topic, as you’ll see when you round the corner on this post. He is also a pal, a fellow who makes fine pancakes and a general smarty-pants.

I’ve never been good with schedules.

I eat whenever I’m hungry. (In Mexico they tell the joke about the gringo who has to look at his watch to see if he’s hungry.)

I sleep when I’m tired. (I went through a phase where I worked 3 hours and then napped, ’round the clock. Longest sleep period was the 3 hours from 2am to 5am.)

I work when it makes sense.

And that requires far more than a parenthetical phrase.

Jobs are Unnatural

I’ve had jobs. Not only was I miserable, I wasn’t good company for those around me, at home or at work. Not that I didn’t deliver. I take my work seriously and do it right.

But when you need a 90-minute nap at 10:30am, most employers get miffed. When you nibble constantly all day, whenever you’re hungry, the HR department wonders why you won’t take your lunch break. And asking to leave an hour early because you didn’t take it is about as simple as negotiating peace in the Middle East.

No, my biology tells me I’m not cut out to be an employee.

Neither are you.

Maybe your biology is suited to the rhythms of employment.

Your psychology isn’t.

Psychology Says No to Jobs

Over and over again, psychologists of every stripe tell us that happiness is more important than money (and, by they way, totally unrelated to money, once you’re above the poverty line.)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity. He is best known as the architect of the concept of flow, the altered state of consciousness we sometimes find ourselves in when totally engaged with a challenging task.

Csikszentmihalyi on why it matters what we do for a living, and whose job it is:

“Because for most of us a job is such a central part of life, it is essential that this activity be as enjoyable and rewarding as possible. Yet many people feel that as long as they get decent pay and some security, it does not matter how boring or alienating their job is. Such an attitude, however, amounts to throwing away almost 40 percent of one’s waking life. And since no one else is going to take the trouble of making sure that we enjoy our work, it makes sense for each of us to take on this responsibility.” — Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, p. 101-2.

Dredge up Maslow’s Hierarchy from the muck at the back of your mind. Certainly, sleeping indoors and eating occasionally are needs which must be filled.

Frederic Herzberg’s Motivation/Hygiene Theory points out that at some point, Maslow’s levels flip from removing dissatisfaction to adding satisfaction. It’s important to note that they’re not on the same continuum. The things which remove pain, eliminate dissatisfaction, can’t just be increased to create satisfaction, a joyful life.

Herzberg, Maslow, and Csikszentmihalyi, among others, point out that we need purpose, we need autonomy, we need something grander than a full belly and a dry bed to sleep in if we’re going to be happy.

The Pursuit Of

I discovered long ago that writing juices my synapses. Occasionally, whether it’s a song, a business book, or more often of late, a mystery, when I string together the right handful of words, it makes even my short hairs tingle.

You have a gift. Somewhere inside you is that thing you do that brings you joy, every single time. That thing others identify with you. That thing that you’d pay to do, if you had to.

If only you could make a living doing that.

Maybe you can.

Dreamtime is a Big Place

Remember all the jokes about hoping our kids could get jobs playing video games, since that’s the only skill they had?

Guess what. It’s happened.

Of course, it’s not the breezy glamourous gig they were all hoping for, but it exists.

Did you ever imagine anyone would pay to have their shopping done? How about a private chef?

It’s not just the wealthy who pay for these services. Folks who are just plain busy at their full-time-plus-overtime job pay to have all the tasks done they just don’t have time for.

Maybe shopping or cooking or beating the Leaping Hammer Brothers level isn’t your thing.

You know what is. Stop, right now, and think about what you’d be doing right now if you weren’t at work, reading blogs to avoid working.

Parallels

Get creative. Stretch it out. Don’t be afraid to be ridiculous. (Remember pet rocks?)

Don’t quit your day job yet, if you don’t have to. Read Seth Godin’s Bootstrapper’s Bible for practical guidance on launching your rocket without spending much (or any) money.

Find something parallel to your joy. I love writing fiction. Non-fiction sells better.

Mark McGuinness is a poet. He makes his living, though, teaching business savvy to artists.

You Will Leap, Or You Will Be Pushed

Here’s my concern: that you’ll think you can wait. That your job is secure.

The age of the job is over. Like a dinosaur, the heart has stopped beating and the head just doesn’t know it yet.

We’re all hanging over a precipice.

Would you rather be hanging from someone else’s hand, or hanging on tight with your own?

About the Author


He may have taken a knock to the noggin in his leap off the hedonic treadmill, but Joel D Canfield still manages to string sentences together most days. Though he pays the bills as a web developer (self-employed, of course) he’s managed to write and self-publish his 10th book, released this month. Its cheeky title is You Don’t Want a Job and he believes every word of it.

How to Edit Friends and Influence Punctuation—FREE!

A while back, I wrote The Write Word Easy Editing and Spiffy Style Guide, the charming creature just a bit below and off to your right in the sidebar. Thousands of energetic, elvish electrons rushed out to peddle my modestly priced guide, feverish in their quest to lop off dangling participles (dang them) and comma splices (much worse than comatose spices) and make the world safe for the semicolon.

But this being Christmas Eve and all, it’s a time for giving. Since I don’t want to give away my only other prized possession, a basketball signed by Elgin Baylor, I’m making the easy, spiffy guide a gift to the world. Just click on that beaming baby in the sidebar, give me your email address (no Sir Spamalot am I), and it’s yours. Find a typo in there and I will make you a perfect Manhattan the next time you venture to my doorstep. (We can drink them inside, though.)

Don’t Pick These People Up If You See Them Hitchhiking
The other item with which I want to scorch your eyeballs is my novel, All Roads Are Circles, pictured above. I recently released it as an ebook on Amazon. Of course it is the Great American Novel, which is why I set it in Canada in the 1970s. Picture two post—high school best friends on a lunatic hitchhiking trip, picked up by the crazed, the cuckoo and the calamitous. It’s kind of like On the Road meets Huck Finn, but I don’t have those guys’ press agents. Oh, the two leads fall in love with the same gal on their odyssey, and they get a bit testy. And messy.

If you don’t feel you can risk the .99, think of it this way: you can download the free editing guide, use its pointed prescriptives to detect any places in my novel where the plot’s socks get soggy, and we can rewrite the thing together, and with the second edition’s proceeds, I will have enough money to make you another Manhattan. Your call.

PS I will make you three Manhattans (with brandied cherries, not those crappy Maraschinos) if you review the durn thing on Amazon.

The Clarion Call for Freelancers

They like us, they really LIKE us (with apologies to Sally Fields). When’s the last time you saw a notice that it was Hug a Freelancer Day? OK, OK, it’s not quite that, but it is an event for freelancers of every stripe to gain networking insights, gig-getting tips and savvy stuff about the freelancing biz from some of the heavyweights in marketing, social media, copywriting and more. And it’s free, you dig?

Just go to the International Freelancers Day signup page and you’re good to go—you’ll get 24 video presentations from the likes of Brian Clark, Jonathan Fields, Pam Slim and maybe even Krusty the Clown. The thing is, it starts tomorrow and goes through the 25th, but the presentations will be “live” in the sense that you have to watch them at the scheduled time. Check all that info out here.

So, good stuff, for free—not bad. And the next time you see any quivering, lonely freelancers wondering when they will next be asked to write a zingy tagline, give them a hug. And maybe $1,000 on retainer.

Bonus Punctuation Alert!
Just when you thought the world was safe from apostrophe apoplexy and the punctuation police out to expunge those cute but unnecessary quotation marks, comes National Punctuation Day! Take a semicolon out to lunch…