Contemplating the Life of a Recluse

Photo: Kittikun Atsawintarangkul, freeditigalphotos.net

Photo: Kittikun Atsawintarangkul, freeditigalphotos.net

This morning, I ran across this article in Psychology Today about the deliberate reclusive life. In it, the author discusses the merits of such an extreme choice. It’s not satire, but I had to read it twice to make sure. I couldn’t help but notice how many similarities such a life has to the freelance life and what that implies about the life of a writer.

In the piece, the author discusses some of the merits of working for yourself (a hallmark, according to the author, of an authentically reclusive existence). These include waking when you want to, working and breaking when you choose to, not having to answer to pesky bosses or co-workers, etc. These merits are also things that many freelancers put in the positives column when contemplating their chosen profession. I do.

Some of the most famous writers in history were recluses. Emilies Dickinson and Bronte come to mind. I  like this list, which names several writers among other artist / entertainer types like Dave Chappelle (Who knew?!) for their hermit-like tendencies.

I’m especially interested in this connection right now because I’ve been living the life of a shut-in for the last five days. It seems as if a nasty virus has made me into an experimental recluse, relying on my dogs, the amusement of way too many BBC / PBS miniseries, and the steady gurgle of my Vicks Vapo Steam for company. I actually lost my voice last Saturday, which means I’ve not only put off leaving the house (I left once a couple of days ago — I think it was Tuesday? — to buy dog food) but I’ve also been unable to talk to anyone; a fact that has made me avoid eye contact so as to not invite conversations of any kind.

As another famous recluse, Art Garfunkel, once said, “I am a rock. I am an island.” At least for right now.

The experience hasn’t been so bad for me, or my work. Here are a few of the more subtle reasons why:

I’ve traded my speaking voice for my writing voice.

Because I haven’t been able to utter words, I haven’t been able to just say whatever came to mind right away. Also, I haven’t felt up to much, so communicating has taken effort. Therefore, I’m saving my energy for words and thoughts that seem most important and writing and editing those, and those only. Like this post I’m writing for you. Hope you like it.

I’ve been thinking and listing more.

Listing is one of the ways I make sense of my life, and because I’ve been more prone to introspection this week, I’ve been doing more list-writing, too. I’ve been addressing life-quaking decisions that have characterized this past year (husband’s new job, our move West, my impending jump to academia, the decision to start looking for a house and more) and those that will continue to change the course of my writing life in the next few years. I’ve collected books I want to read on the topic of career and life change but haven’t cracked any of them yet. So I’ve listed all of that stuff in an attempt to make it real and hold myself to making the changes and reading the books. It’s a writerly response to upheaval, I suppose. We’ll see how it all goes.

I’ve refined my own identity as a writer, just a little bit.

There are merits to this lifestyle, sure, but at the end of the day, I’m a social animal. Having to cancel an important work trip this week as well as social and volunteer engagements have made me realize how much I miss being around people, and how much energy and inspiration I draw on for writing by interacting with others. Sure, the freelance life often looks a lot like the reclusive life. But for me, the best thing about freelancing choice. I can go underground when I want to, taking a full day to write without interruption and planning conference calls, meetings and interviews only when it’s most convenient for me. Yet, I can also resurface for networking events and social opportunities when I feel it’s time to get back into the business of being in the world. I can straddle the line.

I’ve done squat to my hair.

Because nobody cares about your hair when you’re a recluse. (See: Art Garfunkel.)

Want a healthier, more beautiful office space? Just do this one thing!

Photo: foto76, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: foto76, freedigitalphotos.net

There are hundreds of things you can do to create a more ecofriendly, healthy workspace. Some are easy (replacing your desktop incandescent bulb with a CFL, for example). Some are more involved (repainting your desk with low- or no-VOC paint comes to mind).

If you don’t have much cash or time to invest and are looking for a quick-and-dirty way to clean up the air you breathe and enhance the beauty of your surroundings right away, I suggest investing in one or two humble houseplants.

Before you head to the nearest nursery, however, it’s important to decide on a plant that’s scientifically proven to purify the air. Believe it or not, NASA did a study on houseplants back in the 1980s in order to discern which green machines would best purify the air of a space station. Find a list of the most popular and effective ones here.

Many of the hardest workers can rid the air of gross offenders like benzene, trichlorethylene and formaldehyde.

(Spoiler alert: the Spider Plant and Golden Pothos, both of which never seem to die, even for black thumbs like yours truly, make the list. So does the pretty and powerful Gerbera Daisy.)

The bottom line: If these plants are good enough for a space station, they’re good enough for an at-home workstation.

Get growing!

Why you should stop apologizing for your work. Yesterday.

ID-100261180

Photo: freedigitalphotos.net

I want to share something very personal with you.

In addition to the YouTube videos I watch about how to rid my computer of malware or how to set up a portable air conditioner, I also watch videos on health and beauty stuff, like how to bump out my hair (yep, that’s a thing) or to create a natural-looking full eyebrow.

I’ve noticed a particular theme in the beauty videos. Many of the narrators serve as effective demonstrators and some have developed a cult following. People watch them, trust them and do what they say. Judging from the high number of views these videos get, I’d guess that their content is useful to hundreds, if not thousands.

Yet, so many of these narrators feel the need to begin their videos with, or interject with, and apology.

As in, “I’m sorry the video quality is so poor today” or, “I’m sorry I look so tired today” or, “Sorry my voice sounds so ______ (choose one: raspy, quiet, loud) today” followed by an explanation.

I’ve been guilty of the exact same thing.

In the past, when handing in an assignment, I’ve caught myself beginning the accompanying email with something that goes like this:

Dear ________,

Here’s the latest draft of the _________ story. As you can see, it’s a bit long, and the tone might be a bit too heavy …

We must do ourselves, our readers / watchers / listeners and our clients a favor and stop apologizing for our work. Yesterday.

Here are two ways to kick this nasty habit:

1. Revise, don’t apologize.

It has taken me a long time to realize that, if my work warrants an apology or disclaimer of some sort, it means it wasn’t ready to be packaged and sent off to begin with. The word count may indeed still be too high or the tone might very well be missing the mark. Whatever it is, it’s not my client’s job to fix, it’s mine. After all, they’re paying me to do the work as specified. So, my advice to you is, if you ever find yourself apologizing for your work on submission, hold back. Re-work it until it no longer needs an apology. Then, it will be worth your asking fee.

2. Ask yourself: What if this work were food?

I’m serious! Say you’re at a restaurant and you’re about to shell out for an expensive meal. Hey, any meal. You order, the food comes to you, and as the server hands it over, she says, “Sorry, this smoothie may not taste like it should. I used way too much agave.” Or, “I know you wanted that steak medium, but mid-well is the best I could do. Let me know how it tastes though, ok? [smile] I’ll remake it if you want me to.” It would be a total career killer for a chef or restaurant proprietor to deliver her creations with a smile and an “I’m sorry.” No one would take the time to taste the supposedly subpar stuff and wait (and then pay!) for the better stuff to appear. Don’t diminish your own work’s value before others have the chance to draw their own conclusions.

You must first create quality work worthy of no apologies. Then, be confident enough in its effectiveness to serve it straight up.

Crushing On: Aromatherapy

Photo: Lemonade, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: Lemonade, freedigitalphotos.net

I’m studying for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) right now and part of my preparation involves looking up the meaning of a lot of vocabulary words. That got me thinking about the definition of “aromatherapy,” a term that gets bantered about a lot. The word “therapy,” as defined by Merriam-Webster, means “treatment of physical or mental illnesses.” Add the word “aroma,” and I guess we’re talking about treatment of physical or mental illness through smell.

I’m not sure if scent can actually treat illness. But I do know that scent has a profound effect on how I feel.

Some fragrances (interestingly the smell of most fabric softeners as well as most commercial cleaning products, for example) really rub my ‘ole olfactory system the wrong way. Others, such as the crisp, naturally derived scents of lemon, eucalyptus, or lavender have the ability to make me feel relaxed, rejuvenated and just … well, happy in my space.

In the past few years, I’ve developed a little collection of can’t-live-without scented items, a few of which have proven awesome for quick at-work pick-me-ups. I’ve already written about my favorite all-purpose scented wipe. Here are the other two smell-good things I swear by at work:

 Essential Oils

Photo: Courtesy of Aura Cacia

Photo: Courtesy of Aura Cacia

I love the aromas essential oils provide. They’re called essential oils, by the way, not because they’re essential to life (how melodramatic!), but because they contain the true essence, the real scent, of the plant from which they’re derived and nothing artificial.

A tiny drop of any essential oil goes a long way, which is good news since most of these highly concentrated potions come in itty-bitty bottles. Essential oils can be used to scent natural cleaning products or personal care items. But my favorite way to use them is to dab a drop or two of lavender, lemon, orange or eucalyptus on my wrists when I’m feeling tired or stressed. The oils lift my mood or relax me, depending on which scent I reach for. Best of all, they’re 100-percent natural, so no icky chemicals on my skin, thankyouverymuch.

 P.S.: There are several trustworthy brands of essential oils out there (I buy the Aura Cacia brand at Whole Foods), but if the price is too good to be true, the oil probably is, too. If you’ve ever picked up a tiny bottle of essential oil and wondered why they’re so expensive, this article provides a great explanation / justification.

 A Naturally Scented Candle

photo

One of the many perks that come with working from home is the fact that I can burn a scented candle on my desktop. But as I mentioned earlier, I find most artificially derived scents pretty aggravating. As an alternative, I buy Izola’s lavender scented candle, which is made from 100 percent vegetable wax and relies on natural fragrance, and fire it up when I get that 2:30 feeling. I’ve already (forgive it) burned through two. I’m now on my third, and I absolutely adore the way it fills my office with subtle, feel-good scent, just when my motivation begins to flag. I doubt I’ll depart from my favorite fragrance any time soon, but I’m encouraged to know there’s a variety of non-cloying scents available (Elderflower and Sandalwood come to mind) should I ever change my mind. Again, here, I have to acknowledge the price ($35 a pop), which is pretty steep for a candle, I admit. But each one burns for 60 hours and the fragrances are all-natural, so it’s worth it for me. (And it’s cheaper than perking up with a 2:30 latte.)

What picks you up when you’re feeling low or slow at work? Does scent help?

Tell me your tricks in the comments.

Grow Your Business: The Three Elements of a Great Query Letter

Photo: bulldogza, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: bulldogza, freedigitalphotos.net

So, you’ve built a solid prospect list and maybe you’ve even made a few cold calls. Perhaps you’ve promised a prospective editor that you’d have a few great story ideas in her inbox very soon. Good for you!

This week, we continue our Grow Your Business series with some helpful hints on how to write a great query (pitch) letter.

Here’s why you should write formal query letters.

I firmly believe that formal query letters get more attention and garner more business than one or two-sentence story idea descriptions embedded in the body of an email. The problem with firing off a short list of topics in an email message is that, just like lots of other content, your ideas are likely to get lost in the barrage of emails editors receive each day.

Instead, I prefer writing my queries in a separate word document and sending them as an attachment. I figure, if the editor or content manager is invested enough to open my document, she’s likely to sit with it for a while and read it all the way through.

When I first started writing, I had no idea how to structure query letters. But after doing a little research, I was able to begin writing them with success. My single, most beneficial, source was a little ebook by writer Linda Formichelli called “Query Letters that Rock,” which features examples of actual query letters that resulted in the writer of the letter getting the assignment. If you’re not sure where to start with regard to querying, you must get this book. I’ve modeled my query letters after the ones featured in Formichelli’s dynamo piece for the past three years and they’ve worked wonders for me.

“Query Letters that Rock,” or another book like it, will likely be your most important tool. However, to get you going, I want to list a few elements every successful query letter should have. Here goes:

1. A great query letter reads like a mini-story.

Begin with a catchy introduction or lede. Draw the reader in with a sentence or two explaining a recent experience you had or a problem you encountered that your story is likely to solve for readers. For example, if you want to write a story about the trend toward soda-fountain craft beverages, tell a story about how you came upon the trend. Were you walking through town and happened to spot signs advertising soda drinks everywhere? If you want to cover a vintage store that regularly supplies to big-name movies and TV shows, consider beginning with an anecdote about the proprietor helping to outfit one of the show’s main stars. Be interesting from the start, and your story idea will pique the editor’s interest, too.

2. A great query letter proves the story’s relevance.

If possible, provide links to other research, books or consumer media outlets, especially authorities on the subject or in the industry, that support your assertion that your idea is, indeed, worthy of a story. For example, in the aforementioned vintage clothing piece, track down pieces national affiliates or industry publications have written that feature similar businesses. The editor needs to know that your writing will either announce a current trend to a larger audience or introduce the reader to a new piece of research or product. Make sure you prove your idea is relevant and timely by showcasing other coverage in the area.

Note: If you find more than three pieces that have already been written on the subject matter you wish to cover (especially if all three of those pieces are in publications that cover a broad audience), it’s likely the trend has tipped, and is no longer worth announcing. When pitching stories, you’re looking for little-known but corroborated issues or story ideas, not stuff that people have been talking about for a while. As Sandra Rinomato of HGTV’s “Property Virgins” once said, “Think, up and coming, not been and gone.” It’s hard to strike this subtle balance, but do enough research and you’ll get the hang of it.

3. A great query letter marries the publication to the idea.

You may have the best story idea in the world up your sleeve, but if it’s not right for the outlet you’re pitching to, it won’t matter. At the end of your pitch, you’ll want to briefly explain exactly why your story belongs in your target publication. In our vintage-clothing store case, something as simple as, “I think your readers would be surprised and delighted to know that one of HBO’s most exciting and popular shows is being outfitted right here in our little town of Mayberry” is a great way to marry publication to idea. If you’re pitching to a local media outlet, your story must have a sense of place and local relevance, and a unique local spin, even if it describes a nationally-relevant idea. If the publication or Web site is national, or even worldwide, in scope, you must be able to show how your story is different from the other stories the publication has written in the past, or how it is a continuation of ideas the publication regularly covers. No matter what, you must be able to tell the editor why the story is the right fit for her publication.

Tell me about your querying process. What querying techniques have you used successfully? What didn’t work for you? Drop me a comment.

Grow Your Business: How to Approach a Potential Client

ponsulak

Photo: ponsulak, freedigitaphotos.net

Hi, there, writing pals. I hope you’re getting ready to release those overworked digits from the keyboard soon and embark on a truly fantastic Labor Day weekend. I know I am. But before I do, I promised you another post in my “Grow Your Business” series. So here it is!

Last week, we explored how to create a prospective client list. This week, we’re going to look  at how to actually approach those newly minted prospects.

I think most of us can agree that approaching anyone out of the blue is nerve-racking. After all, the person on the other end of the phone line is busy and absolutely not expecting your call. They’re not seeking you out (or at least they don’t think they are) and have no idea what services you have to offer or how those services will benefit them. And they don’t have that much time (if any time at all) to hear about it.

Thus, when you pick up the phone for a cold call, it may seem as if the odds are stacked against you from the start. However, I maintain that an introductory phone call, not an introductory email, is the best way to start a relationship with a potential editor. That’s because emails come fast and furious all day long, and your all-important “Hi, my name is _____ and I’d like to write for you” message is likely to get lost in the inbox shuffle. Another bonus: In the age of digital technology, introductory phone calls are becoming all the more rare; all the reason why yours is likely to be more memorable.

So, I say, make the call. But when you do, be sure to keep these rules in mind:

 

1. Keep it short and sweet.

When your prospect picks up the phone, introduce yourself right away. In one sentence, state your name, your company name (if you have one) and your specialty. In sentence two, explain why you’re calling. (Ex: “I found your company online and I’ve been researching your work and I think my services might be a great fit for you.”) In sentence three, ask if the company is currently accepting pitches / queries / story ideas from freelance writers. If the reply is “no,” followed by a reason, politely let your prospect go. If the “no” answer has to do with current budget constraints or something else that might change, make a note on your spreadsheet of this fact and plan to follow up again in an appropriate amount of time (several months, perhaps). If the reply is “no, never,” go ahead and cross the prospect off of the list.

2. If the editor is currently accepting queries, say [almost] no more.

Many editors have a revolving door policy for queries, meaning they’re always taking (and rejecting) them. Other editors only take queries during specific times of the year. Usually, the editor will specify this. Once you receive an answer to this question, end the call. Tell your prospect you’d be happy to work on some queries for them, and in the meantime, let them know that you’ll send them a few links to your online work samples or portfolio. Note: If your samples are still entirely on paper, consider finding a way to get them up online, possibly by creating an online portfolio. Most editorial prospects expect to be able to find you on the Web. Then, thank the editor for his or her time and say goodbye.

3. Send an email after, and only after, you’ve made your initial phone call.

After hanging up, send a follow-up email, briefly reiterating your specialty and how / why you believe that specialty fits with your target media outlet’s communications goals. You might want to mention a few other media outlets, similar to the one you’re prospecting, that you’ve already written for. Then, include your portfolio or work sample links, links to any social media you maintain, blogs you write (if applicable) and anything else you feel will help your prospect get to know you and your work better. Close your email by reminding them that you’ll be in touch within a short amount of time (I recommend 5 business days) with a list of queries for the outlet.

4. Start pitching!

Media outlets rarely hire new writers after visiting porftolio sites. In fact, your prospect may not even visit your portfolio site or look at your work samples until you’ve created and sent at least one query. Most don’t have time to investigate a new writer unless given a reason to do so. And that reason is often your compelling story idea. So don’t expect your prospect to think much about you until you follow up that phone call and email with the queries you promised to send. Instead, get to work on some fantastic story ideas for the publication and get ready to send them off.

Next week, I’ll tackle the querying process. (Don’t worry: When I started my freelance business, I had absolutely no idea how it worked.) In the meantime, I want to recommend that you visit Linda Formichelli’s Renegade Writer blog for more info on pitching. She’s the maven!

Have a wonderful, safe and memorable holiday weekend. I’ll be back with more in a few days.