On Cooters and Snowflakes

The last time I got political on my blog, I talked about how Vanilla Ice ruined it for everybody. That was in response to conversations over Facebook way.

With the recent tragedies and the general further entrenchment of political partisanship, I wanted to come to everybody with an important request:

Please stop being so mean to one another.

No. For serious. Knock that shit off. It’s bad for you. It’s bad for our country. It’s bad for the world. Hell, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that it’s bad for kids who like not dying during an otherwise normal school day.

There’s a lot of good in the US of A. And there’s a lot of bad. We can waste time arguing about how much bad we have as opposed to other nations of the world, and we can waste time pointing fingers at people and things over which we have no control. Or we can roll up our sleeves and get to work on fixing it.

And to do that, we need to stop othering people who disagree with us a little. To do that, we need to talk about cooters and snowflakes.

The Great American Bell Curve

You know bell curves, right? They’re diagrams of statistical probability that look like a bell — thusly:

Writing advice

The idea here is that most of the results of a study will fall in those middle two sections around the center (within one standard deviation). As you go further out, the number of people/objects/results drops sharply. The bell curve doesn’t map exactly to every set of results every time, but it shows up a lot. It’s about as common as the golden ratio, and about as important in statistics as the ratio is in art and biology.

And Thus it Is With Politics

In the good ol’ US of A (and in other countries, I imagine) political opinions fall on a bell curve, too:

In the middle, more than 70% of us fall just a little to the left or right of center. We agree on most things and want the same results. We differ a bit on how to achieve those results, and different things make us a little uncomfortable, but by and large we can have dinner together without anybody getting angry at anybody else.

On the far ends — out past three standard deviations — we have extremists. These are the people shooting cops because they’re mad about their treatment of minorities, and the people running over protesters. They’re blowing up abortion clinics and spiking trees. We all agree those people are dangerous and wrong, and that law enforcement should deal with them directly. Even the ones where we can kind of empathize with why they’re doing the stuff we can’t allow them to do.

The technical term for the grouping between two and three standard deviations is assholes. Here you have your MRA activists, your anarchists.  The Westboro Baptist Church and Earth First!ers. Nazis. That woman at the office who’s gotten three people fired for telling jokes that weren’t actually offensive. That conservative who calls people cucks on the internet, and that liberal who cries “mansplaining” when she’s actually just wrong. They’re not violent. You can’t actually just slap them, no matter how much you want to. But lordy, do you want to slap the ones on the opposite side of the center from you…and you want the ones on your side to please stop helping because they embarrass us all.

Which Brings Us to the Cooters and the Snowflakes

Out between one and two standard deviations from the center, we encounter interesting territory. I’m using slightly derogatory terms for each, but you’ll notice they’re also terms each side has sort of adopted as badges of honor, too. That’s both beautiful and part of the problem.

On the right, you have your cooters. They’re not just conservative. They’re reactionary in their conservatism. They voted for Trump and aren’t regretting it. They’re deeply concerned about gay marriage ruining relationships, and whether or not that one dude in the men’s room actually has a penis. They share memes on FB that start with “Liberal Logic…” A lot of them are just racist enough to not get certain things, but still realize racism is wrong enough to get really annoyed when you call them out.

On the left, you have your snowflakes. They’re not just liberal. They’re reactionary in their liberalism. A lot of them voted for Bernie even in the national election, and they all think you’re a sexist if you didn’t vote for Hillary. They find nothing ironic in demanding free speech while simultaneously telling you to shut up because your opinions hurt their feelings. They share memes on FB that set up straw man conservative arguments just so they can feel smarter than people they don’t understand. A lot of them are just self-righteous enough to advocate violence against people they disagree with, but still realize violence is wrong enough to get really annoyed when you call them out.

I think we can all agree that these folks aren’t exactly a crisis, but they are really, really obnoxious. And they can be dangerous.

How Cooters and Snowflakes Are Killing Children

Here’s the thing about cooters and snowflakes. They aren’t assholes, and they sure aren’t extremists, so we tend to let them slide. Besides, they’re on our team so we should support them, right?

Right?

Nope. But then again sort of.

If you are conservative, the trouble with cooters is that they share some of your common values — they just take it a little too far. And research shows that if you spend enough time listening to them, they’ll start dragging you into cooter territory with them. The same goes for snowflakes if you’re a liberal. Spend enough time with them and you’ll start taking your Rage Against the Machine lyrics a little too seriously, too.

But wait! That’s not all!

If you’re liberal, the trouble with cooters is they’re so loud and irritating that they start making you think all those centrists just a bit to the right of you are all cooters, too. Their loud, insistent inanities color your opinion of all conservatives and all conservative ideas. At the same time the snowflakes are gradually pulling you into their camp, the cooters are pushing you there with every “Make America Great Again,” every #AllLivesMatter, every confederate license plate, every quote from Jordan Peterson or Amiri King.

If you’re conservative, those snowflakes are whining and condescending their way right toward making you a cooter for life. Their entitled bullshit colors every left-of-center opinion you read, makes you dismissive  of all liberals and liberal ideas. While the cooters are tempting you toward the dark side, the snowflakes are driving you further right with every smug hashtag, every snide Trump bash, every poorly researched meme, every quote from Jesse Jackson or Al Franken.

In short, they make us forget that nearly three-quarters of us more or less agree on how we want to live, how we want our nation to work, and how people should treat other people.

Okay. So What Do We Do About It?

Well, really, you should do whatever you want to do. It’s a free country. But if you agree with my basic thesis:

  • Most of us agree on most things, most of the times
  • The extremists and assholes on both ends are a problem
  • We spend too much time paying attention to the loudest and most irritating on both sides

Then here’s what some experts suggest we all do. It’s a two-part plan.

Part One: read with compassion and openness the cooters (if you’re liberal) and the snowflakes (if you’re conservative). Ask questions. Find not just what they’re thinking, but why they’re thinking it. Most times, you’ll find a core of agreement in principle — it’s just the application where you have trouble. This not only helps you stay close to center, it can influence them and bring them closer to productive conversation.

Part Two: police the hell out of your side. If you’re conservative, stop being so nice to the cooters. Call them out. Fact-check their memes. Force them to defend their more backward notions. If you’re liberal, stop tolerating the snowflakes. Point out their hypocrisies and their arrogance.  Remind them that lack of compassion is no solution to lack of compassion in others.

In my opinion, the biggest problem with the United States is that the table for open, meaningful, and productive debate is getting emptier by the month. People are leaving it in favor of little sitting rooms where they gossip amongst each other about how terrible the people over in that other room are.

If there’s nobody at the table, we will never find a solution for school shootings, nor for health care, nor for fair but sustainable immigration, nor for the environment, the income gap, the vestiges of racism and sexism. We will never solve anything, because nobody’s there to create solutions.

It’s not the extremists and the assholes who are keeping us away. It’s the cooters and the snowflakes. So let’s stop putting up with them.

Who’s with me?

On Sex and Violence

Sex and violence.

These are a few of my favorite things.

In movies. In books. In life (though my violence is consensual these days, limited to martial arts sparring and competition).

Sex and violence are core parts of the human experience, two of the things that drive us the hardest because of how evolution and survival work. On one hand, we have the drive to make more of us. On the other, we have the drive to defend what’s ours and who we love (or to make more things ours, though society frowns on that).

They seem so different. One is a way for two (or more) people to express fondness, love, affection, attraction, or simple naked lust. The other is a way for two (or more) people to express derision, contempt, hatred, anger, or simple naked aggression.

But they’re not different.

Both come from basic drives that have been with us since before homo sapiens was a thing. Both are intensely physical and emotional acts. Both carry with them real risk of pain — physical, mental and/or emotional.

What’s more, both are tests.

As our species was growing up, life was full of tests: opportunities to see how strong, how fast, how smart, how empathic, how (fill in the blank) we were. If we passed the test, we lived. If we failed, we died — or at least we missed an opportunity to make surviving the next test easier.

Our intelligence and technology have insulated us from tests. Most of what we do in a day is just a matter between different gradients of pretty all right.

We no longer have to strive.

But with sex and violence, we’re back in that test. In both cases, we put our best foot forward. We use skills and attributes we’ve developed over years and we see what happens next. With violence, walking away means we passed the test. With sex, I don’t need to go into detail.

Either way, we do our utmost, what happens next happens, and we succeed or fail in real and unmitigated terms.

I believe strongly that’s why sex and violence are such powerful forces in our fiction. They dominate the news, the movies, our literature, our mythology. They dominate our history.

And Yet…

There’s a whole lot of bad sex and violence in our fiction.

Here I don’t mean sex and violence happening for the wrong reasons on-screen. That’s a whole different puddle of fluids, related but not core to the problem.

I mean sex and violence executed poorly. And that’s what I want to talk about with everybody today.

Bad Sex

Writing Sex and Violence WellBad sex is like the worst porn. It’s all about tab A inserted into slot B, along with all kinds of overreactions to the tabbing and the slotting.  It’s mechanical. In actual porn, it’s totally meaningless. In sex scenes within a legitimate manuscript, it’s a few uncomfortable pages that don’t fulfill any narrative function.

Actually, come to think of it, that’s true of bad sex in real life. A meaningless one-night stand can be entertaining, but unless it has a real place in the narrative of your life, it’s not as good as something that matters fundamentally to you.

The Worst Violence

Bad violence is much the same. It’s described in terms of what each combatant does, in an almost clinical and detached way. It exists for its own sake, even though at least one of the characters involved could have avoided the whole things by exercising an ounce of good sense.

I blame tabletop roleplaying for the blow-by-blow description problem. A lot of writers got their narrative starts playing D&D and similar games (myself among them). The structure of combat in those games is a blow-by-blow series of turns, and not all writers have graduated out of that framework.

As for the violence divorced of sense and context, it’s just like the sex. Because our society (and the audience) glorifies violence, it gets put in where it doesn’t need to be, or expanded into 20 minutes on-screen when 5 would have done it.

The Good Stuff

We’ve all seen porn and combat porn — movies and books where the sex and fight scenes are long, drawn out, luxurious, and without meaningful context. Those are pretty experiences sometimes, but they’re never the experience you get when sex and violence are executed well.

Thing is, when we write sex and violence, we need to focus less on the physical goings on and instead focus on what makes that particular act of sex or violence meaningful.

It’s not the shagging or the smacking that’s important here. It’s the emotional impact and consequences of both. Those things should be absolutely clear during the f-word you’re describing (whichever word beginning with f that applies).

For Example

Remember in Terminator when Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese get together in that hotel room? Remember how it was slightly too long to comfortably watch with your parents? But remember how it was touching because we’d seen it coming, and it came after Kyle confessing he’d loved her from the future for much of his life? And how it gave us the twist ending that made the movie so good?

That’s good sex. It wasn’t particularly graphic or acrobatic or interesting (the sex itself), but the context and consequences were real, and immediate, and important.

You don’t even need to have sex to make a sex or love scene have power and importance. In my YA book Wrestling Demons, the protagonist and his girlfriend have a make-out session in her car, parked outside an apartment they both know is empty. Sex doesn’t even happen, but the kissing (around a painful broken nose) and the potential is there. And the context and consequences are (I think) plain on the page.

And that makes it far more interesting than watching a housewife shag a pizza boy, or reading about James Bond’s latest conquest.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Enjoying Porn

Whether that’s actual sex porn, or the kind of fight porn you see in the some genres of martial arts and action movies. I love The Raid and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for instance. And you have your favorites, too.

But when we’re writing, we should aim for more than a graphic depiction of physical acts between two human beings.

We should aim for scenes of action (either kind, or both at once), with power, importance, consequences, and context. Because that’s what makes sex and violence great.

Query Letters Made Easy

Be a working freelance writer for a decade, and you end up writing a lot of query letters. Do a lot of anything, and you get pretty good at doing them.

I’ve also had a lot of people ask me how to write one. I’ve put the info in one of my books, done entire classes on the topic, and sent countless friends and acquaintances an email detailing my Best Ever Query Letter.

This query letter isn’t perfect, but it’s worked for me over the years. My lovely and talented literary agent wife has fine-tuned it based on her experience and that of her colleagues. My buddy David Paul Williams, another pro writer expert in querying, put it in his book as an example of how to do it right.

So here, for chrishannukwanzalsticeyule for you all, is the concept and template for a pretty darn good query letter.

Three Paragraphs, Plus One

The first thing to remember about query letters is editors, agents, and publishers are really, really, really tired of reading query letters. Anything long or hard to read will be greeted with deep suspicion, or deleted without any meaningful attention.

Make it short. Make it tight. Three paragraphs, plus one.

The second thing to remember about query letters is nobody cares about your book or article. Nobody. Not me. Not your friends. Not your mom. A few people care about you, but that’s not the same thing. You know who else doesn’t care about your book? Everyone you query.

So we lead with talking about something they do care about: themselves. Details on that in a minute.

Our three paragraphs are:

  1. You people are awesome
  2. I have this awesome idea
  3. I am also awesome.

Got that? Good.

Paragraph One: You People are Awesome

Remember how I said the person reading your query doesn’t care about your book, article, story, whatever? It’s a sad truth of the industry. They might even be mildly hostile toward your work on account of being so sick of reading queries.

That’s why we open with a paragraph describing why the publication or agency you’re querying is simply awesome. Talk about things they’ve published that you read and loved (especially if they dovetail with your project). Talk about what’s happened in the news, or something recent they’ve done. Make a personal connection if you have things in common with the person who’ll be reading the email.

For example:

I’ve been reading DRAFT magazine since I first saw it at a brew supply shop in 2011. I especially love your how-to articles, but my favorite was your coverage of the beer culture at Astoria’s Fisher Poet’s Gathering in your February 2016 issue. 

Another Example:

The Leonidas Agency represents several of my favorite authors, including Dave Robicheaux, Matthew Scudder, and Andrew Wiggin. As all three have inspired and influenced my own work, I would be honored for you to consider my humble efforts for representation. 

Note that these paragraphs are each two sentences long. Two. You might be able to get away with three, or four if you write short sentences. This paragraph has two purposes.

  1. Get the reader’s attention by talking about them, which is something they care about more than they care about you.
  2. Demonstrate that you’ve had the courtesy to research them, instead of just spamming your query out to everybody with an email address.

That second point is super important. You’re asking for free labor (in the form of reading your query) and potentially buying your work. Never do that in any industry without first learning a bit about who you’re asking the favor of.

Once you’ve written it, reread for every word that doesn’t serve both of those purposes. Delete them where you find them.

Paragraph Two: I Have This Awesome Idea

Now that you’ve finished the foreplay, it’s time to get on to the action. In this (super-brief) paragraph, you tell them about the work you want to see published.

This is not where you give a long synopsis or loving treatment of your manuscript. Give just enough information to inspire curiosity and enable an informed decision. If they want to know more, they will ask.

Example:

I already have a press pass for the Central Valley Brew Festival next month. I would love to cover the event for DRAFT magazine, specifically interviewing brewmasters about the challenges, tools, and tricks for handling/brewing/serving beer in an outdoor venue. 

Another Example:

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a 70,000-word, comedic adult adventure novel starring Max Farkas and Luis Grant. The two ne’er-do-wells are called in by a cop who used to harass them, to help solve the murder of a prostitute all three cared about. This explosive mixture of humor and violence has been described as Tarantino directs The Hangover.

See how both give enough information for the reader to make a decision, but don’t waste their time? That’s what you’re aiming for in the second paragraph. Cut everything extraneous ruthlessly.

Sometimes for article queries, I’ll include a bullet-point list of the structure I imagine I will use. This breaks up the email and pulls the eyes to the most important part. It’s fine if you do that, but only if you’re doing it for clarity and convenience. Not as a sneaky way of making the paragraph longer.

Paragraph Three: I Am Also Awesome

The purpose of this third paragraph is to convince your target that you are highly qualified to execute the idea you sold them in paragraph two. In the best possible situation, you will set yourself up as uniquely qualified.

Using no more than four sentences, describe your experience with the topic and your writing credentials. Be quick and snappy. Do not list your whole CV: just the highlights will do fine. Use numbers if you have them.

Example:

As a local beer writer, I have personal contacts and friendships with many of the brewers in attendance. You can find my beer work in The Portland Growler, Northwest Travel, and online at cheapflights.com. I have over 3,000 journalistic credits to my name on other topics as well, including a feature article in Conde Nast Traveller.

Another Example:

Other Max and Luie adventures have sold over 5,000 copies in novella form, and have a mailing list of 12,000 subscribers. I’ve been traditionally published with Not a Pipe in the YA genre, and have five self-published books on Amazon bestseller lists. I also do freelance journalism and ghostwriting to help support my fiction habit. 

One error I see a lot here is authors waffling about how awesome they are. I get it. You don’t want to come off as cocky, and you don’t want to stretch the truth. Those are good impulses, but ignore them here. If your publication history includes one chapbook and your blog, it’s cool to say “I have professional print credit plus multiple online gigs to my name.”

Don’t lie. Never lie. But give enough information to inspire interest without volunteering things that mitigate your awesomeness.

The Plus One Paragraph: Goin’ Fishing

This paragraph has made me more than $10,000 over the course of my career. It’s not frequently recommended, which helps your query stand out. It works like this.

After the letter. After your closing. Add a PS that lists briefly something else you might want to work on with the reader.

Example:

PS: If that specific idea doesn’t fit DRAFT’s needs for covering the Festival, I’d be happy to chat with you about what might fit. DRAFT obviously needs to at least give the gig a nod, and I’ll be on site. 

Another Example:

PS: If you find you like my voice, but WTF isn’t a perfect fit, I’m putting the finishing touches on a romantic comedy set on a cruise ship during a diamond heist. Please don’t hesitate to ping me if that sounds like it’s more your speed. 

Connective Tissue

You will naturally also include an opening, a contact line, and a polite closing. That puts everything together with an appropriate bow.

  • For the opening get the name right. Don’t cheat and just use a generic opening, either. This goes to what I said earlier about having the courtesy to do a little research.
  • The contact line is one sentence after the third paragraph that says “if you want more, contact me thusly.”
  • Don’t overthink the closing. Say thank you. Hit Enter twice. Write your name.

Okay. Ready to see all of that in action?

Putting it All Together

Here’s one final example for you, with all the pieces and parts in a row. Check it for the things I said earlier, and if you want use it later as a template for your own query letters.

Dear John Q. Agent,

Running With the Devil inspired me so much when it came out five years ago that I took up ultramarathoning. I rapidly became addicted. As you represent John Daniels, I wanted to query you first about my own memoir on the topic.

The 7 Up Challenge is a 75,000 word memoir of my experiences training for and participating in the highest-altitude ultramarathons on each continent in the world. It’s part sports story, part travel memoir, and part fitness guide, all wrapped in the humor and strangeness of the international adventure sport community. Advance readers have described it as a cross between Into Thin Air and The Oatmeal’s series on distance running. 

Since you work with John, you probably already know several ultramarathoners, but it’s possible I’m the only one you’ve met who wrote scripts for National Geographic Television. My experience as a documentary writer makes me one of the best possible people to tackle this project, and my contacts in entertainment will help us promote the work once you find its perfect publishing home. 

Please don’t hesitate to contact me to move forward, or if you have any questions. Use the email address here, or call me at 503-334-9058. 

Thank you,

Jason Brick

PS: If you like the idea of working together, but 7-Up isn’t quite your pint of beer, I have a collection of travel dining essays on my to-do list. It collates blog posts I’ve made while travelling to run, some of which have gathered 10,000 unique total hits. 

And There You Have It

Put your information in that format and send it out. I can’t guarantee instant (or any) success. My rate on those is about 5%. But I can guarantee it will get your query more attention and better returns than many other formats out there.

Most importantly, having a template fights one cause of procrastination. You don’t have an excuse for not submitting your manuscript any longer.

You’re welcome. Now, get to work.

Austerities and Celebrations

Once upon a time I had an idea. 

When I say “I had an idea,” what I mean is a lot of people had ideas that got into my head and moshed around like the front quarter of the floor crowd at an Anthrax concert. After they’d bumped into each other long enough, those ideas formed a thing that was a little bit original, a lotta bit derivative, but inspiring to me.

maxresdefault (2)I called the idea “austerities and celebrations.”  It owes a lot to Dan Millman, Thich Nhat Hanh, Tom Callos and Ray Bradbury, plus NaNoWriMo and Movember. This will be the fourth year I’ve been doing them. By coincidence, the VOLT planner (called the SPARK planner last year) has a similar idea baked right into its structure and presentation. I want to challenge each of you to try these in the coming year. It works like this

Austerities

Choose a month. This month. Next month. Stop doing something for the whole month. What you stop doing really depends on your goals. You can do it to quit a habit you’ve meant to. Or to experiment with quitting a habit you’re not sure is good or bad for your life. Or to simplify your social calendar. Or anything else. A few of the things I’ve cut out during austerity months includes:

  • Drinking soda
  • Swearing
  • Answering phone calls in real time
  • Using, um, “adult” websites for recreation
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Screen time without somebody else participating with me
  • Arguing on Facebook
  • Eating fast food
  • Spending money on new durable objects

My first austerity in 2017 was to say “no” to commitments I’m not truly excited about. I get offers literally every day, and I’ve found my family connections and work have been suffering from having too many hands on my time. I’ll be practicing “Hell yeah or no thanks.”

Some of these things I never picked back up. Others I took on because I liked my life better with them in. Others I recommenced just because the habit was stronger than the practice. The point isn’t really successfully eliminating something from your life forever. It’s getting enough distance from that thing to make an intentional, mindful decision about whether or not to welcome it back inside.

300px-Phra_Ajan_Jerapunyo-Abbot_of_Watkungtaphao.

Celebrations

This is the opposite of the austerities. Take a month and every day, do something. This can be a habit you wish you had, or something you really like but don’t usually make happen. It could be daily progress toward a goal that’s really important, or that you just keep putting off. Aim for things that make your life better, or you think might make your life better. Here are a few of the celebrations I’ve commenced over the past years:

  • Repair one small item in my house
  • Play chess with my oldest son every night
  • Write 500 words on a book project
  • Meditate for 10 minutes in the morning
  • Do the physical therapy exercises for a borked up knee
  • Run a kata from kenpo or goju shori
  • Wake up without hitting the snooze button
  • Make an unsolicited FB contact with a distant friend
  • Read a blog article about a topic I wish I knew more about

This month, my celebration is to make one step daily to get my finances in order. I’m not broke by a long stretch, but a combination of things has made my money a tangled rat’s nest. By taking one positive step forward each day, I’ll end the month with things clean and automated and simple like I like them.

As with the austerities, some celebrations became parts of my daily life. Others turned out to be less fun than I thought they would be, and are back to being just a thing I do once in a while. Others still let me cross something off my lifetime to-do list, never to enter my mind again. The point is building discipline with daily reminders to do stuff while improving the quality of my life for a month at a time.

Serenity

We Are the Sum of Our Habits

Tony Robbins says we are the average of our five closest friends. I don’t know if that’s true — the influence of parents, siblings, mentors and personal heroes has a tidal effect even if our peers are the water we swim in. But I do believe that we are the sum of our daily habits.

3f675e5e9a54b2c8846e9dbb84fc7fd7Austerities and Celebrations are a way of looking hard at habits and deciding what to do about them. As Bruce Lee famously said of Jeet Kun Do, keep what serves you and ruthlessly eradicate everything that doesn’t.

Austerities and Celebrations are a way I’ve found to really up my game in carving myself into the person I want to become. I alternate between them: celebration in January, austerity in February, celebration in March, etc.

Maybe they’ll work for you. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll inspire you to do something similar to (or wildly different from) what I do and make your life a whole bunch better. But if you’re looking for something to try, why not give them a shot?

Comment here or hit me up on the Facebooks and let me know how it goes.

Scope Creep: The Enemy Within and Without

scope-creep1

Once upon a time, I made my life a living hell because of a contract that was eating up 60 to 70 hours of my weeks. This left no time for personal projects like this blog, or my fiction, or even my usual schedule of workouts and general family time.

Long-time readers who are familiar with the reasons I enjoy writing for a living will notice how that situation is in direct opposition to my goals as a writer, as a parent and as a husband.

Which begs a simple question:

How did I let this happen?

The simple answer: Scope Creep.

Scope creep is when an assignment or job starts at level of effort and swells to A+X level of effort. In my case, a ghostwriting job that started as writing a book grew into writing, project management, staff training, interviewing sources and in some cases basic transcription and dictation. The client is a demanding dude, but mostly I have only myself to blame. It was me who said “yes” when asked to take on the extra duties.

Whoever’s fault it was (mine), the end result truly sucked. This blog post is my attempt to help you avoid such massive scope creep. As with most of what I do, my hope is for you to learn in five minutes of reading a lesson that took me months to learn.

1. Set Clear Definitions

I ended up in this situation in part because I didn’t define my job clearly enough. The contract named my deliverables, but didn’t deal well with process — which my client took to mean any task that could be even tangentially tied to the deliverable was my job. Why wouldn’t he? That was free labor.

Clearly defining not only my deliverables, but also my specific contributions to those deliverables, would have prevented or at least restricted the creep that happened with this assignment.

2. Itemize Fees

I didn’t do this at all during the assignment we’re talking about, but I’ve read it as a strong solution in my subsequent research. In many ways, this is a process for Set Clear Definitions. 

When you draft your proposal and contract, list specific prices for specific stages, tasks and products. This clearly defines your roles and responsibilities. If there are other tasks you think the client might ask you for, you can include prices for those in an appendix or addendum so your client knows exactly how much the scope creep is going to cost.

3. Set a Change Process

For the last three months, the change process in my contract has consisted of my client asking for more and me saying “yes.” The end result is a gig that should have paid $7,000 a month paying closer to $2,500 a month. 

Instead, have your proposal and contract include a specific process for changing the scope of the project and your involvement in it. That way, when the client says “how about adding this or changing that?” you have an answer that ensures you get extra pay for extra work.

the-scope-creep

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Say “Yes And”

“Yes And” is a concept from improvisational theater that says you should never say “no” when an acting partner gives you a cue. If you don’t love the cue, use “Yes and” to change the scene to something you like better.

Because we’ve bought into the idea of the customer is always right and often want to keep our clients happy, we often stop at “Yes.”  But “Yes, and that’s going to push the deadline back by a week” or “Yes, at my usual hourly rate” lets you say yes while retaining your bottom line.

5. Get Paid Early

My situation got worse when the client then chose to withhold payment because we were behind schedule — a situation owed entirely to the scope creep he demanded. This put me in a position where, because I had done work for which I hadn’t been paid, I had to do more work essentially for free before I could collect the money I was owed.

This is why all contracts should include a sizable payment up front, so that you’re always working a little bit behind what you’ve earned. Without this, you are always negotiating from a position of weakness. Sure, it’s better to only take on clients with whom this won’t be an issue…but that’s not a realistic expectation.

6. Create a Phase 2

This is another idea from research I’ve done since falling into the situation I just got out of, and one I wished I’d known about back in January. The idea is to answer all requests for change with “That’s a great idea. We’ll slate that for phase 2, when what we’re working on now is finished.”

Phase two is like having a fictional supervisor you have to check in with. It ends the current conversation and lets you get to work and get paid…without having to outright refuse a client.

7. Know When to Say “No”

At the end of the day, this is what I had to do. Sometimes, you have to eat the cost of work unpaid and be willing to tell a client “this far, no further.” It’s hard to want to do, since there’s money uncollected and that client might try to torpedo you with potential clients. 

But sometimes it’s necessary. In my case, it was “No. You don’t get more work done until we renegotiate the contract.” This no came after five requests to do so, which he ignored. We’re scheduled to have that renegotiation in a couple of days — so we could end up with a happy ending after all.  Or not. We’ll see.

 

Ultimately, most of this advice falls into two categories:

  1. Communicate clearly at the beginning
  2. Communicate effectively during the process

That’s not exactly new advice, but it bears repeating and we can all use a reminder about where we can apply it. I hope this helps you avoid the problematic kind of relationship I just had to end.

Thanks for listening.