19 Ways to Fuck Up Your Conference

wipSo I’ve been out of rotation for a few weeks, owing to my presence on the conference circuit. It’s ironic. I go out there and tell people all about the importance of blogging regularly and not missing a day of your social media presence…and while I’m doing that, what I’m not doing is any blogging or social media.

I’m not perfect. Just ask my ex wife.

While I’m busy not following my own advice about conferences, here are pieces of advice I’m (mostly) following. These are the biggest things you should never do at a writing conference, no matter what.

  1. Forget Your Business Cards. In both directions. Make and bring your business cards (Zazzle.com will give you hundreds for under 20 bucks), and ask for cards from everybody. Also ask everybody you meet for theirs. Scribble a line about how you met, and a cool thing about them. More on why later.
  2. Be Rude. Even a Little Bit. Seriously. Your job is to meet people and make them want to see you again. Snark isn’t sexy. It’s just rude. Bad manners aren’t rakish and attractive. They’re just rude. Ignoring somebody who “isn’t important enough” is just tomfoolery. Be polite to everybody, as often as you can.
  3. Skip a Session. You don’t know it all. Every session of classes will have something you can learn from, so go to every class you can. While you’re in there, talk with everybody nearby. Half the reason you shouldn’t skip sessions is who you’ll meet while you’re out and about.
  4. Forget to Ask Questions. When in conversation with others (at conferences, but really in the rest of your life, too), ask at least one question for every statement you make about yourself. It helps everybody else feel important. You’ll learn things. And when talking to presenters, it’s a welcome change of pace.
  5. Sleep at Home. Seventy percent of the best stuff at conferences happens after hours. That means at the bar, and in the lounges, and at dinner. If you sleep at home instead of on site, you have to go home early. You miss out on some of the best networking. My two most important contacts in publishing, I made at the bar.
  6. Get Too Drunk. Yes, you should hoist a few pints with your colleagues. Yes, you should buy a round for the agent you really want to get close to. No, you should not get more than “two-beer drunk” (which takes more or less than two beers depending on how much of a drinker you are). People remember that guy. And not fondly. Some folks remember me being that guy once or twice during a particularly rough year of my life, so I am speaking truth here.
  7. Follow Agents. We all know you’re there to talk with agents. We all know you’re really excited about speaking with them. But if one’s going to the bathroom, or heading up to her room…leave her alone. The same basic conversation etiquette that applies everywhere else also applies here.
  8. Skip Reading Bios. Some folks take a shotgun blast approach to approaching agents, editors and presenters. Don’t do that. Take the time to read their bios. First off, it’s polite to know a little about somebody before asking them to spend time talking to you. Second, it helps you identify which people are most interested in what you’re writing. Third, it gives you ideas for opening up conversation. The bios will be among the most useful things you read in the conference brochure.
  9. Dress For the Weather. This is counterintuitive, but important. Conferences happen indoors. If you wear a sweater on a cold day, or a sun dress on a hot one, you’re going to be uncomfortable inside. Dress like you would for a day in the office, and wear layers if you’re sensitive to cold or heat.
  10. Forget Your Gum. You’ll be talking with people up close and personal all day, in between bad snacks and hotel meals. Bring some gum or mints and use them liberally. Seriously. I cannot overstate how important this is. Similarly, offering gum to folks while you’re taking some out for yourself is the 21st century version of sharing cigarettes. It makes friends.
  11. Fail to Follow Up with contacts or ideas you got in the presentations. Sit down in the week after the conference and make a list of all the people you want to contact and all the things you want to try. Then make a schedule for doing all of it. This can take months (or years), but get on top of that fast and start working the plan. Otherwise, why did you go to the conference in the first place?
  12. Show Up Without Goals. It’s great to show up and see where things take you, and flexibility will definitely help you make the most out of the conference. But do come with three to five concrete goals. These can be “Make real contact with X” or “Understand how to write a good query letter” or anything like that. Whatever will most immediately advance your career as a writer. Review them every morning, and at lunch, each day of the conference.
  13. Sit in the Back Row. The back row is for the druggies and slackers. It’s not for the cool kids. Sit in the front row so you’ll be more noticeable and engaged. Presenters remember front-row faces. (Don’t mimic me here. I’ve been told by enough presenters that having peers in their class sometimes freaks them out. So I sit closer to the back to avoid that).
  14. Bring Friends. The point of a conference is to meet new people. Coming without friends forces you to find new friends. It’s that simple. If you do come with buddies, make a deal to only eat one meal together each day. It’s a good way to split that particular difference.
  15. Get Burned Out. Conferences take a lot of energy and focus. If you don’t believe me, just look at the attendees come Sunday morning. Give yourself permission to grab a nap, take a walk around the building, whatever it takes for you to go back into the fray completely refreshed. Even if that means breaking some of the other rules on this list.
  16. Expect Spoon Feeding. This isn’t grade school. It’s a conference for adult professionals. I’ve noticed sometimes that some folks show up expecting all they need to know and do to be spelled out in simple sentences with a pencil diagram. Ain’t so. Sorry. You’ll be responsible for your own success (even though lots of friendly people will help you if you remember to ask).
  17. Ignore Your Peers. You’re there to meet agents and get advice from successful writers, but don’t blow off fellow writers operating at your level. You have information to give them, and get from them — and it’s great to talk shop with people who are feeling exactly your pain.
  18. Get Star Struck. On the flip side of #17, don’t forget that the conference presenters and organizers are human. Just humans like you. Don’t be afraid to talk with them. They’re on site to talk with people and give back. Help them do that.

Number Nineteen has a very special place in my heart, and in the hearts of every agent, editor and other presenter I’ve ever spoken to. Number nineteen: never, ever, ever be a dickhead when you’re asking questions. When you get called on, ask a brief question that can benefit everybody in the room. This is not the time to show off how much you know, or to get specific, personal advice on your specific, personal project. Plenty of time to do that when you follow up after the conference. Seriously. I hate this behavior, and so does everybody good in the world. Every time you do this, Odin kills a kitten.

 

 

A Would-Be Writer’s Story

Larry Paz of Soar Without Limits when he contributed to my first flash fictionanthology Baby Shoes. We’ve since become friends and take turns giving one another advice about writing and life. This is a guest blog post he sent my way.

I want to tell you a story about a man who, four years ago, dreamed of becoming an author. I knew what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I’m a semi-retired (semi because I can’t make myself stop working) businessman, educator, and consultant.

Then I found Jason’s book The 9 Habits of Highly Profitable Writing on Amazon. I read several other books like his, but for some reason I still wasn’t motivated. I know that nobody can motivate me except myself, but Jason’s book was encouraging. When I brazenly asked him to mentor me, he agreed! He encouraged me to try, so I did.

But still I stalled.

Then, still the mentor, Jason sent me a copy of his book Mastering the Business of Writing. Of course I read it. This one steered me in a different direction. It spoke in a language this businessman understood. Following this roadmap, I decided that my skills and temperament were best suited to editing. My wife is a superb proofreader. I love to read other peoples’ work and see if I can help them tell their story in their own voice. Therefore, I set up the Soar Without Limits Media and Learning Center. It’s a dream in progress. The mainstay is my editorial business. Currently I’m up on Thumbtack, Writers’ Works, and Upwork looking for further opportunities.

I haven’t given up on writing. I’m fortunate to have Michael Piazza as a faithful and talented writing partner. He creates moving dialog from my narrative.

In addition to my editorial services, I am using my book Soar Without Limits as a foundation for associated blogs and webinar courses. Now I can add Author and Editor to my resume. I’m having fun, and isn’t that what really counts?

Are you ready to have fun?

Start writing.

Writing Professionally: Rates and Negotiating Rats

In a recent conversation with somebody I’m mentoring about freelance writing, my friend asked the following question:

“How do you negotiate your rates?”

It’s an important question for freelancers — and for those who hire us. It’s also the worst kind of question: too complex for a short answer, but so “squishy” that it’s hard to put together a long answer that’s meaningful or useful. Here’s my attempt.

Part One: What the Market Pays

First things first. You can’t ask for $1,000 a day to write blog posts for a small business. Our skill doesn’t demand that rate, and the customer base can’t afford it. Although a lot of wiggle room exists from assignment to assignment, here’s a breakdown of approximately average earnings:

  • Insulting. Some publishers want to pay 1c or less per word. Do not accept offers for this price point. You’ll make less than minimum wage. Worse, accepting those offers perpetuates the idea that this is a reasonable amount to pay for what we do.
  • Barter. Never work for free. But if your first assignment is in exchange for a gift certificate at the restaurant you wrote the menu for, or for free lessons at a karate school, there’s no shame in that. Big Exception: never write “for exposure.” Get exposure by seeing people post things they paid (or traded) for you to write.
  • Breaking In. There’s a wealth of writing opportunities out there that pay between $15 and $50 for about 500 words. A lot of it is with content mills, but some smaller “legitimate” publishers will pay about this amount. It’s not what you deserve, but can still add up to a decent living — if you take 30 minutes to write one, that’s $30 to $60 an hour.
  • Professional. A portfolio of strong copy coupled with good references will land you jobs where you get $60 to $100 for a single blog or online article. You’ll also start to get assignments with some of the mid-range national print publications, for about the same amount per word. At this rate, it’s possible to clear six figures if you’re willing to make it a real job. I used to work mostly at this tier, and made a solid middle-class living while working about three to four hours on weekdays.
  • High-Tier. You’re looking at 25-50c per word here. Leading magazines and websites pay about this much, as do lot of freshly capitalled startups. Somewhere between 5 and 10 years into your career, you should be getting most of your assignments in this range. This is my sweet spot these days.
  • Elite. I’ve completed exactly two assignments in this tier, and would love to do more. Rates of $1 per word for articles of several hundred or thousands of words are the norm here. Major national magazines, ghostwriting for major clients, and a few top online publishers pay these rates.

Keep in mind, these numbers are for nonfiction work. Fiction pays less because the market is more saturated, so it’s okay to write in exchange for contributor copies as you break in to that market.

Part Two: Negotiating Price

When dealing with publications, you’re usually stuck accepting whatever their standard rate is. At least at first. But with business clients, everything is negotiable. Sadly, not a lot of the writers I work with have a lot of experience or comfort with negotiating pay rates.

Though this skill takes a long time to learn and could fill a book on its own, here’s the short version of how to do it.

  • Step One: Know Your Price. I like to make between $100 and $150 per hour, which I do by bidding on work produced as opposed to dollars per hour whenever I can. I work quickly, despite my high-quality output, so I can usually make more per hour if I negotiate on that basis. Whether you go for an hourly or production base, start any negotiation by knowing what you’re willing to work for — and what offers you’ll walk away from.
  • Step Two: Know Their Price. In my experience, about 1/3 to 1/2 of the job listings will give you a ballpark idea of what they’re willing to pay. Of those who don’t, it’s about a 50/50 split between those who’ll tell you what they think and those who’ll ask you to answer first. It’s good to go into negotiations with this information, but I won’t risk a client by refusing to answer the question if it’s asked.
  • Step Three: Give a Range. If I have to answer first, I’ll give a range of about $50, for example “I usually get between $100 and $150 per item for the work you describe.” I say that the rates vary according to how much work is offered, and how interesting I find the project.
  • Step Four: Is That Your Final Answer? Your client will reply with a yes, a no, or a counter offer. From here, it’s just like haggling for everything else. Just remember that it’s not a competition — getting another dollar an hour out of a client isn’t as important as everybody feeling like they got a good deal. Just never go below your minimum price.

One last thing on this: I don’t believe good negotiation is when I seek to hammer the client into paying more than they’re happy with. That just leaves hard feelings. Instead, negotiate to a point where both parties are happy, but not entirely thrilled. That’s how you form the beginnings of a good long-term relationship.

Part Three: The Magic Words

I’m giving away a trade secret here, and it’s possible I’ll do worse on some negotiations moving forward, but I have a paragraph I always say when I’m asked how much I cost. It goes like this:

I know how much I like to charge, but this sounds like a fun project so let’s make it work. Between you and me, what’s your budget?”

It’s a little cheesy, but it really works. One person recently asked my advice about rates, and our conversation led to the conclusion she’d be happy doing a job for $500. I advised her to use that line, and her client opened with $2,000 for the same amount of work.

 

8 Ways Not to Screw Up Your Query Letter

angry-computer-guySo I’m hanging out this morning with several professionals in the publishing and writing industries, after almost two weeks of doing the same. We’re all raging against the obvious mistakes people make before sending a query letter to an agent or editor.

For publishers, agents and editors it’s just a part of the job. They’re inundated with unprofessional queries by people who obviously didn’t bother to Google either how to query or even the most basic facts about their publication. The only good news in this situation is the letters do mean they can ignore the query quickly and spend less time in the slush pile on that particular day.

Professional writers, we rail against how that misrepresents us. For every terrible, terrible query letter an agent receives, that agent becomes a little more hardened against queries from good writers who do the proper research. The only good news in this situation is it does mean we stand out against the crowd if the editor gives us a chance to prove ourselves.

Over the course of many conversations in various states of inebriation and sobriety, I found common threads for the nine best ways to avoid screwing this essential task up.

1. Don’t miss basic facts. 

Don’t query a science fiction magazine with a detective story. Don’t email a nonfiction agent with your epic fantasy novel. Don’t get the name wrong in your greeting, or misspell the name of the magazine. Don’t lie and say you’ve loved somebody’s work for 20 years when he started editing last month. Get your facts straight. If you’re not sure of your facts, get sure of your facts. If you can’t find the information, find a way to avoid bringing it up.

2. Keep it simple, stupid.

The average time an agent or editor gives an unsolicited query is under a minute. One agent I talked to burns through 100-120 book queries an hour when buckling down and getting to work. A long, complex description of your work, and process, and emotional state ain’t gonna fly here. Aim for terse sentences in short paragraphs in a letter nobody has to scroll down on to get all the important details.

Rachel: 

3. Remember who’s doing who a favor here. 

Yes, you and your agent or editor are in a symbiotic relationship. Yes, you are peers and equals in most senses. But you’re the one sending somebody else unsolicited sales material. Be polite. Several of the folks I talked with ranted at some length about how frequently the initial queries (and especially follow up communication) read like a missive from a spoiled preteen who wrote Santa a flamer over not getting everything on his Christmas list. Seriously. Be nice. Just. Be. Nice.

4. Spellcheck.

If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills without proofreading your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this.

5. Grammar check.

If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills without proofreading your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this, either.

6. Follow the damn rules.

Almost every publication or agency has a page on their website telling you exactly how they want to be queries. Almost every publication or agency has a method that’s slightly different from all the other publications and agencies. That’s just life. When you query, read and follow those instructions to the letter. Some places use it as a test to see who’s going to be reasonably easy to work with. Others might let it slide if you miss a trick or two, but why be rude about it? It’s their house. Follow their rules.

7. Understand the process.

Failing to understand the basic process of publication mystifies me. If you want to go flip burgers at McDonald’s, you’ll know the basics of what hamburgers are and how they’re made before walking in. If you want to be a neurosurgeon, you won’t apply for work until you’ve mastered the skill. I was shown some query letters from people who obviously didn’t understand what agents or editors actually do, or how long things take, or what reasonable payment for a book or article even looks like. On one hand, I feel a little bad for folks who make this mistake. Everybody has one or two things where they’re so clueless they don’t realize how clueless they are. But if you want to get published, don’t make this one of those things.

8. Now is not the time to show off.

Even if your work is an avant garde piece of noneuclidean sentence structure held together with multiple, colorful fonts in a truly cohesive whole, never apply that to your query. Do not play with fun tense structures or flowery language. Save that for your book or article. Agents, publishers and editors are exhausted, overworked and undercoffeed. Make your query easy to understand. Always.

QUERY_Op

 

Do you have any embarrassing stories about how you fucked up a query letter? Or a screwed up query letter you received? Share your tales in the comments and tell us all where the bad words touched you.

Goal Setting 101

Business Writing CoachIn my career as a business writing coach and a coach about the business of writing, I’ve come across some interesting statistics about setting goals:

  • 78% of Americans wish they were more productive
  • People who set goals are 13% more productive than those who don’t
  • People who write down their goals are 1000% as productive as those who don’t

And perhaps most interesting…

  • Only 4% of Americans explicitly define and write down their goals. 

Short version? Setting goals is important. Writing them down is even more important. Writing them down in a way that helps you meet them is even more important than that. Here are three key rules to doing just that.

Have Perspective

Dave Kovar, a mentor and hero of mine, once told me that most people set their short-term goals to large and their long-term goals too small.

In the short term, we fall into a cycle of excitement. When we set goals, we’re excited and motivated. We feel full of energy and we’re usually in a space where we have a little extra time (otherwise we wouldn’t be taking time to examine our goals, we’d be working on other projects). The end result is overcommitting on our short-term goals. We promise ourselves we’ll write ten new books in three months, lose 10 pounds a week, build a whole second story onto the house, and other impossible tasks.

The result of promising ourselves the impossible is failing to keep those promises. We only write two books, only lose 1 pound a week, only buy the lumber for the home improvement project. Because the realities of our time, attention, and energy mean our excited and inspired goals were unrealistic.

After a couple of repetitions, we become discouraged about our ability to meet goals at all.  After all, we failed to accomplish the goals we set. That leads to the second half of this problem.

In the long term, we lose sight of the power of doing small things every day over time. Remember: if you write a page a day, you’ll have a complete novel in one year. Another mentor of mine, Tom Callos, has made me do 55,000 pushups and run 1,000 miles per year for a total of three years. That’s possible because I don’t try to do it all in the first month. I spread the load out over an entire year, making the task manageable.

You can still write ten books, lose 50 pounds, build a whole new wing on your house. You just have to make realistic space for it in your timeline.

When you set goals for your writing, keep both of these common mistakes in mind and review your plan to make sure you avoid them. With my business writing coaching clients, it’s part of the process.

Use SMART Goalsetting

smart goal setting for business writing coach You’ll find different definitions of the SMART acronym for goal-setting, but this is my favorite for the small businesses that most writing operations are.

SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound.

This rule helps you to form and express your goals in a way that makes them more likely to actually turn them into reality.

 

  • Specific goals clearly define what success looks like using unambiguous language and exact detail. If you can’t attach a number to it somewhere, your goal probably isn’t specific enough.
  • Measurable goals attach definitions, and metrics whenever possible, to make it clear when progress is being made. If you can’t track your progress on a spreadsheet, it isn’t sufficiently measurable.
  • Achievable goals are possible to complete with the time and resources available. This pings back to the issue I mentioned above. If you find you’re stressing out about getting it done week after week, you might want to retool and make it more achievable.
  • Relevant goals are checked to make sure that the success condition actually brings you closer to your definition of success. They’re also relevant to your emotional motivation. If the end result doesn’t get you excited, it’s likely not relevant enough.
  • Time-Bound goals set a finish date, with large goals setting benchmarks for defined points of partial completion. If you lack a deadline, your goal is not time-bound.

Bad Example: “Be more active on social media”

Good Example: “Post ten times each week on Google+ for the next three months.”

One point about how the good example is achievable. Note how it says “post ten times each week” instead of “post twice every day.” The reason for that is you’re going to have a bad day at least once in the next quarter. If you promise yourself you’ll post every day, you have failed in your goal when that bad day happens and you don’t post. Promising ten posts a week means you can double up your posts the day after something goes wrong.

Outsource Accountability

You can set all the goals in the world, but if you don’t actually do the work on them you won’t achieve anything. A (very) few of us are put-together enough to actually hold ourselves accountable to our progress toward goals every day.

I’m not one of those people. If you’re not, what I recommend is finding out outside source to hold you accountable in the grind. A few I’ve tried, or heard worked for others:

  • Find peer to meet with once a week, and to harass and be harassed by daily via text or social media. If you run a small business, find another small business owner. If you’re a stay-at-home parent working on a novel, find a buddy in a similar situation.
  • A few apps exist that are basically role-playing games that give you experience and items for completing your daily goals. Assuming you don’t lie to the program, these are surprisingly motivating for many people.
  • Create — or join — a Facebook group where people share and hold one another accountable to their goals. I have one right here, and you’re welcome to join us. You can also just post your goals on your general feed and use the pressure of potential embarrassment to push you forward.
  • You can also hire a coach to keep you moving toward your goals. It’s more expensive than these other options, but can also be well worth the investment.

What are your experiences with, advice about, best successes, and cautionary tales about goalsetting?