Spill It: Is All Your Work Created Equal?

I have to be honest with you guys. I haven’t made that much money this year. I know. I suck. When I first realized how horrifyingly, dismally low my income was for the first half of 2012, I immediately announced to my husband that I had failed at life, and that — from now on [...]

Spill It: Are You a Terrible Self-Starter?

Last week, I headed over to my local library to sit in on a meeting of the Toastmasters Club. When we went around the room to introduce ourselves, I admitted that I was on a panel at a major conference that coming weekend, that public speaking terrified me, and that I was hoping to pick up some pointers.

So when it came time for impromptu, two-minute presentations, the master of ceremonies (the Toast Master?) asked me to take the first shot and talk about the presentation I was preparing for.


I got up there and babbled incoherently for just under two minutes about ASJA, sex writing, the book I was working on, and promotional plans. It wasn’t terrible. But it was definitely unfocused, and I was obviously nervous.

(A few presentations later, a guy with fantastic biceps opened up his presentation by saying that my presentation was his favorite. But I’m pretty sure it’s because no one expects to come to the public library, attend a Toastmasters Club meeting, and hear somebody talk about sex.)

ANYway. At the end of the meeting, I received some more constructive feedback from the person tasked with analyzing each mini-speech, and one thing he said stuck out to me. “People tend to use filler words (stuff like uh and um) in the same way they clear their throat,” he said. “You feel unprepared, so you fill in those words while you gather your thoughts.”

It struck me then that my tendency toward extreme procrastination is much the same thing.

When I receive a new assignment or get the go-ahead on a new project, I don’t immediately start drawing up outlines and tracking down resources (as I probably should). Instead, I put the deadline into my Google Calendar and set up an email alert, so that I’ll be sure to start soon enough to meet my deadline.

Then, when that email shows up in my inbox, I hem and haw even further.

I do some spring cleaning of my Chrome bookmarks.

I decide the coffee table needs dusting.

The prospect of cleaning out the kitchen sink is suddenly attractive.

I draw up to-do lists, which make my already-existing to-do lists even more impossible to manage.

And I do all of this not because I’m a terrible freelancer who can’t be trusted to complete her work. (I always meet my deadlines.) I do this because… well…  just don’t know how to start! I still need to gather my thoughts!

Some people recommend writing what Anne Lamott refers to as a “shitty first draft.” This is excruciating for me.

Other people (including me) advocate breaking a larger project down into smaller, more manageable tasks, so as to make it less overwhelming. I do this a lot of the time.

One of the things that helps me most is drawing up an outline. Once I have an outline down on paper, the rest of the assignment seems easy as pie.

What about you? Do you procrastinate? Do you suck at the self-starting?

How do you trick yourself into getting down to business?

Related: How to Break Through Your Work Block, Getting It Done

Spill It: Are You an Emotional Mess After a Major Success?

When my literary agent first offered me representation the other week, I tried to play it cool. I told her I was thrilled she was so into my book idea. I told her I’d have to touch base with another agent who also had my full proposal. Then I hung up the phone, my hands shaking, and started to cry.

My husband’s response: “You have weird reactions to things.”

Thanks, Michael. Thanks a lot.

I swear, you guys. They were happy tears. I’d wanted to be an author since the age of 5, and this was huge leap forward for me.

Only a week or two later, though, I was depressed.

I’ve been focusing a lot of my energy lately on personal projects. Over the summer, I ghostwrote and edited an ebook in only two months. In November, I did a shit-ton of content creation for an advertising client. I also did a slew of freelance articles and blog posts. But after that, feeling I finally had time to breathe, I spent a lot of time developing my starter kit and then promoting it. I also developed a book proposal and started querying agents. I did all this at the general exclusion of actual paying work (despite totally knowing better) and, by late February, my bank account was dangerously low. I felt like a failure, and I suggested to Michael that I just be his trophy wife going forward.

When I mentioned this to my fabulous writing partner, whom I am completely and neurotically dependent upon, she sighed. “You do this every time, Steph,” she said. “Every time you accomplish something big, you get into a slump only a week or two later.”

She reminded me that I’d managed to pay off my credit card debt in January, a feat that had taken me about three or four years to accomplish. She mentioned that I’d just written and launched my starter kit, which had led to over 100 percent growth in my mailing list. Then she mentioned that I’d just landed a literary agent. “This is something you’ve dreamed of your entire life,” she said, “and now you feel like a failure!?”

She had a point.

It made me think of an essay I’d just read in the March/April 2012 issue of Poets & Writers*, on the post-publication blues. In it, author Kim Wright writes about an affliction common among debut novelists: the tendency to fall into a paralyzing depression after their book’s publication date. ”…getting what you’ve always said you wanted, finally reaching that single enormous goal. It can all be a little… depressing,” she writes. She’s talking about becoming an author (and you should check out the essay in full yourself; it’s fantastic), but I feel it can apply to any large, personal success.

Lyz (the aforementioned writing partner) said she thinks it’s because, upon accomplishing something, we immediately ask ourselves: What’s next?

I’d take that a step further and say that, in addition to wondering what’s next, I also often feel as if the stakes are raised. I worry about making the wrong next move, not living up to others’ expectations, not moving forward, falling flat on my face.

I warned you I was neurotic.

But I can’t be the only one. That P&W article wouldn’t exist if I was. So tell me:

Have you experienced the post-success slump? If so, what did you do to get back in the saddle?

*I totally just typo’d P&W to read Pets & Writers… a magazine I would definitely subscribe to if it existed. Get on it, people.

Related: How to Find the Literary Agent of Your Dreams

Spill It: What’s Your Next Move?

I’ve never been one to make a fuss out of New Year’s Eve, or to saddle myself with once-a-year resolutions. I reevaluate my goals almost every month, allowing each day to be a new beginning.

Still, after the overeating and undersleeping that is the holidays, I admit I feel especially compelled to ask myself: What’s next?

Otherwise, gravity and lack of inertia might keep me from ever resuming work again.

I feel especially dazed and bloated today. Last week, I baked seven pound cakes and six varieties of Christmas cookies. I chopped and pureed six cauliflowers and trimmed and roasted six pounds of Brussels sprouts to bring to Christmas dinner (an affair that lasted 8.5, long hours). Then, the day after Christmas, I hosted a dinner party at my condo. Because — apparently — I wasn’t yet tired of cooking and stuffing my face.

For the love of god, I need something new and exciting to pull me back into my work. So what’ll it be?

1. I received Sambuchino’s 2012 Guide to Literary Agents for Christmas, so I’m going to read through it and start my third wave of queries for my book proposal.

2. I’ve finished putting together a freebie I think you’ll really enjoy. I just need to find someone to make it pretty for me before it makes its grand debut. Anyone want to talk design and layout rates with me?

3. 2011 was filled with big projects from regular clients and, as a result, querying fell by the wayside. I’d like to make a big return to querying new markets, just to keep my mix of projects and assignments interesting.

4. This year, I’m going to push myself in new ways, even if it makes me want to projectile vomit. To that end, I’m going to start pulling together my panelist presentation for April’s ASJA conference, and also put together a proposal for another conference I’d like in on in May.

5. I know. I should be thinking about Word Nerd Networking. And I have chatted with several people about organizing a digital publishing panel, and a yoga + journaling workshop. But what I’ve really been daydreaming about is putting together a yoga and writing retreat. The place I went to the other month is open to proposals for new retreats. So I’m going to start chatting with other retreat organizers and taking a close look at other retreat agenda’s in an effort to design The Most Perfect Retreat Ever. Suggestions are welcome.

So what’s next for you?

Related: Career Stalled? What You’re Doing Wrong, Pinpointing Dream Job #328, Making Goals Manageable in the New Year

Spill It: How Do You Handle Rejection as a Writer?

I learned early on that — when it came to freelance writing — it was important to bounce back quickly from rejection, keep up the momentum, and flip that pitch.

Because of that early lesson, I’ve never felt too much anxiety when pressing “send” on my query letters and, upon receiving rejections, I’ve typically only felt the barest twinge of disappointment before turning to the next publication on my pitch list. After all, rejection is a reality of the freelance writing life, and not everyone is going to fall all over themselves to publish my work. In fact, despite my being a total genius (obvs), I’m pretty sure at least some of my ideas have been pretty weak.

So my mental reaction when I received my first-ever rejections from my first-ever literary agent queries sort of caught me by surprise.

I spent two hours sending out my first four query letters on the Monday before Thanksgiving. By that point, I had already imagined my book as a done deal. I’d envisioned the book party / speed networking event that would take place at my favorite local cafe. I’d mentally run through the readings that would take place at Babeland and Happy Ending and KGB Bar. I’d considered the other things I would do to promote my book. The local library I’d do a Q&A at. The excerpt I’d send along to Real Simple. The blog tour I’d singlehandedly mastermind (and which my publicist would love me for).

This is all very embarrassing to admit. But I figured that imagining my book as a done deal would help it become a reality… would in fact help it manifest, à la The Secret.

One of the agents I emailed (my first choice, actually) responded within 15 minutes. He wanted to see my full proposal. I nearly had a heart attack, but I forced myself to chill the eff out and then sent along what I had, feeling cautiously hopeful. Somehow, I managed to make it through the week (including Thanksgiving) without going completely crazy from anticipation.

The following Monday, I received his rejection and, later that day, another one.

They were lovely rejections. They included words like “talented” and “engaging.” I felt that familiar twinge of disappointment, but I still felt hopeful. Their letters had been rejections, but they had also been personal, complimentary, and constructive. I filed their critiques in the back of  my mind for use in future revisions, and set about waiting for responses from the other agents.

I spent the next three days being completely unproductive. I wasn’t sure why. It finally occurred to me that I was depressed. What the what!? But then I realized what was bothering me. Those two rejections had forced me to consider the difficult possibility that my book might not happen.


I gave up on work and retreated to the sweet, sweet comfort of my pillow-top mattress, plus five layers of blankets and cats. I tried not to think about the readings and book parties that would never happen. I slept for two hours. I allowed myself to mourn.

This morning, I found myself eating Cheetos at 8:30 a.m. and decided it was time to snap the hell out of it. I started putting together the December edition of Word Nerd News. I started writing this blog post. I looked at my agent spreadsheet and made plans for sending out my next wave of query letters. I brainstormed my next steps for drumming up new work.

Clients often ask about my success rate with query letters and LOIs. I tell them my success rate is much better than it was when I started. Which makes sense. After all, my portfolio is stronger these days, my network is larger, and my writing has only improved. But I also tell them that rejection is still a reality of the freelance writing life, and that it always will be. One can’t succeed without accepting that, and working through it.

After all, rejection is not the same as failure.

How do you react to rejection? Do you, too, have weird daydreams about your unpublished book? And have you ever sunk so low as to eat Cheetos at 8:30 a.m.? Spill it.

Related: Flip That Pitch, How To Increase Your Chances of Landing That Book Deal

Spill It: Do You Unknowingly Waste Your Best Stories?

Tomorrow morning, I’m heading up to Good Commons in Plymouth, VT, for a Revitalize Retreat organized by healthy travel organization Pravassa. I don’t travel (or unplug) often, and I’ve never taken a vacation alone. But I’m looking forward to daily yoga classes, and cooking classes during which we’ll prepare farm fresh meals. I’m looking forward to field trips to nearby sustainable farms. I’m looking forward to soaking in the hot tub, and stuffing my face with s’mores at the fire pit. I’m looking forward to spending quiet hours with my stack of books (Michael Ellsberg’s The Education of Millionaires, Elizabeth George’s I, Richard, and Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves), and to meeting other blissed-out, beginner yogis.

When I told my yoga instructor about the trip, he was all, “Cool! Are you writing about it!?” And then I hemmed and hawed and finally admitted to him that it hadn’t occurred to me.

But this is only half true. Another part of me had thought about it in passing, and had then decided that I wouldn’t be able to come up with a compelling story angle. Or that it would be too much of a long shot to sell a story that wasn’t about sex. And was it worth the effort? Wasn’t I supposed to be having fun? Unplugging?

I do this all the damn time. Not that my life is a non-stop party, but what about that casserole competition I enter every year? What about the traveling potluck I partake in? What about my very first trip to a fertility center, or my very first trip to a biker bar? Aren’t these story-worthy? Am I surrounding myself with wasted opportunities? Or should I feel okay about not mining every aspect of my life for my writing?

I guess I’m allowed to slack sometimes, but I feel as if it happens way too often. And considering how burnt out I can get on sex writing, I should probably branch out into other content areas. So what holds us back from writing about our outside-the-niche experiences, and how can we push back?

1. It doesn’t occur to us to write about that awesome, fantastic, one-of-a-kind experience, because it’s not work-related. 

Our minds should always be open to new story ideas, and this means analyzing every experience and interaction with a writer’s eye. Show interest in others’ stories. And show interest in your own, too. Look through your calendar and ask yourself: What can others gain from this super-cool thing I just experienced?

2. We have trouble coming up with a unique story angle.

So I’m going on a yoga retreat. Big deal. Almost every other writer out there has come to make yoga a big part of their lives, and stories about the transformation they’ve experienced through yoga are a dime a dozen. There are even hybrid yoga/writing retreats! No one cares about my experience!

This kind of mindset is poop. Self-defeating poop. Examine your experience from every angle. What sets this one apart from others of its kind? Is there an interesting back story? Did you learn some counterintuitive lesson? Is there a how-to or Q&A that can grow out of this experience? Get creative. I mean, isn’t that your job?

3. We worry about venturing outside our niche.

This is also poop. Plus, I recently wrote about it! Revisit that post to learn more about starting from scratch in a new niche.

Am  the only one who does this? Or do you regularly use new experiences to break into new niches?

Related: Freelance Dilemma: Brainstorming New Ideas

Spill It: Are You Working Through the Long Weekend?

Michael and I were supposed to travel up to Vermont this weekend for an incredible Labor Day Food, Wine, & Rejuvenation retreat. There were going to be daily fitness classes. Kayaking. A field trip to the Green Mountain Sugar Shack. Hot tubbing. A fire pit. A folk and blues festival. Food and wine pairings. Lots of other things. OH MY GOD IT WAS GOING TO BE INCREDIBLE.

Then, Hurricane Irene happened, and Vermont was hit pretty damn hard. The retreat, understandably, was canceled.

My yoga instructor told me I have to find a fun replacement for those canceled plans.

But here’s the thing.

Most of the time, I’d rather be working than doing anything else.

I don’t do relaxing. I don’t do vacations. I don’t do downtime (though I’ve been getting a little bit better at this). This was honestly the first trip I’ve been excited for since I went to Austria at the age of 20 (and that was 11 years ago, yo). I don’t know that I can make this weekend live up to what it was supposed to be. And that makes me seriously bummed.

So I’m sorry about this, but I’m going to have to live vicariously through you. I know it’s a lot of pressure, but I’m going to have to insist that you step away from the computer this weekend and really live it up. And then tell me about it.

In the meantime, I’m going to a potluck tonight (I made mini quiches with leeks and maple bacon!). I’m going to attend yoga class every damn morning.

And I’m going to think wistfully of the maple wonderland that is VT, and what could have been…

Related: Need New Material? Try Living Your Life, Spill It: Do You Work When On Vacation?, Coffee Break: Working on the Weekend

Spill It: Did You Choose Freelancing, or Did It Choose You?

About four years ago, I walked into my publisher’s office and handed him a resignation letter.

I didn’t do it as a negotiation tactic. I wasn’t trying to force his hand. All I wanted was to give this freelancing thing a shot: to be my own boss, pick and choose my own projects, and have the time and energy to write more of my own stuff.

No salary range… no full-time dream job… could have lured me back to the corporate workforce.

The thing is, many people in my life just assumed I was looking for something better. They didn’t see freelancing as a viable career option. One well-meaning friend even offered to treat me on all future meals: “… just until you find a new job,” she said.

“This is my new job!” I replied.

Now more than ever, it’s easy for the traditionally employed to make this mistake. According to a recent survey, 24 percent of freelancers only went the self-employed route after being downsized.

And while I think that entrepreneurship is a great option for those who have lost their jobs and want to have greater control over their careers, I’m sick of people assuming that the work I do was a last-ditch move made out of desperation.

I feel as if I’m constantly seeking out legitimacy in the eyes of those who just don’t get it: You’ve been published in BLANK? I’ve never read it. You’ve earned your certification for WHAT!? Why would someone pay you for that? You wrote a book? Is it a REAL book? (Um… I earn royalties on it. Does that make it “real”?)

I’m curious: How many of you chose freelancing, and how many of you came to freelancing as a means of surviving unemployment? For those for whom it was a Plan B… are you dying to find a new full-time job, or are you sorta digging this? For those who went full-time freelancedom of their own volition, is there anything that would tempt you back to Corporate America? And how in heck do y’all describe your career to other people in your life?

Related: Crowdsourcing: Does the Corporate Ladder Still Beckon?, Pinpointing Dream Job #328, When I’m Not Home…

Spill It: What Does Networking Mean To You?

Earlier this week, J. Maureen Henderson wrote a post for Forbes on what networking isn’t… and what it could be. I cheered as I read her post, because she got it. She got that networking wasn’t about desperation-fueled schmoozing. (Well. It shouldn’t be.) It wasn’t about working a room or handing out business cards willy-nilly. It was about conversation. It was about connection. It was about all the ways we connect with others on a daily basis, in a thousand different ways.

“Blogging is networking,” she wrote. “Being on Twitter is networking. Sending your BFF a job posting that you think would be perfect for her roommate is networking. Asking Jim in Marketing if he knows someone who is aces at web design is networking. When your new hair stylist asks what you do for a living and you answer her? That’s networking.”

Last year, J.M. did a video interview with me about my career coaching business. That was networking, too. One of J.M.’s blog readers saw that video and became my very first e-course student.

What else is networking?

  • Maintaining a presence on LinkedIn.
  • Interviewing someone for a magazine article.
  • Schmoozing at the latest blogging meetup.
  • Being friendly with those outside partners and publicists you collaborate with while at your day job.
  • Sharing contacts with other writers.
  • Making the most of your internship.
  • Taking continuing education classes.
  • Creating a writing group once the semester ends.
  • Letting your husband talk you up to his colleagues.
  • Proving your worth as a freelance writer.
  • Telling your friends you’re looking.
  • Chatting up your classmates at your weekly callanetics class.
  • Yukking it up at the latest media party at that bar downtown.
  • Keeping in touch with the young woman who taught Sword Swallowing 101 at your very first sex party.
  • Spinning a crappy job offer into a more beneficial freelance relationship.
  • Milking that mentor for all she’s worth.
  • Approaching people for informational interviews, and accepting lunch invitations from editors at all levels.

All of the items on this list have led directly to paying work: Permalance gigs. Regular clients. Columns and regular blogging gigs. The ability to finally break into those publications I’d been eyeing. My first few full-time jobs. Freelance projects.

In fact, in some cases, the ones that — in my mind — were the furthest from networking were the ones that ended up being the most lucrative, or leading to the most interesting work.

So what does networking mean to you?

Related: Today’s Definition of Networking? Not So New