Semper Paratus

From Molly:

Q: I’m going to ASJA next weekend in New York. It’s my first big writing/journalism conference and I’m going alone. Totally alone. What do I bring? Should I have copies of my clips?

A:  I’m guessing there will be 100 writers for every editor (buyer) at the conference. But bring your clips anyway.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist and freelancer Andy Ihnatko says he landed his first major gigs because he ‘happened’ to have clips on hand when he ‘happened’ to bump into a tech editor.

Have some clips on paper and in pdf. (“If you give me a business card, I’ll email some clips to you this evening.”)

Dream up some cleverly memorable answers to “So what do you do?”  One sentence each. Practice saying them aloud (when no one’s around) so you won’t flub under pressure. Which I tend to do.

Then practice asking “And what do you do?” That will get other writers to divulge their secrets, give you their editorial contacts. Ask their advice. Most will go on, and on. Sort of like I’m doing here.

Every time you talk to someone, hand them one of those custom buttons you had made up. The ones that say “I met Molly Blake.” On the last day of the conference you wear a big button that says  “I am Molly Blake.”

Burnout? Fatigue? Something else?


Q: Once you’ve finished a big project, how do you shift gears?


Q: Do you ever experience burnout, and if so, how do you handle it?  I’ve been a full-time freelancer for 15+ years, and this is comes up several times a year, minimum.

A:  A grey-bearded veteran once told me, “When the work turns to crap, take a break for a day or two. If you’re then ready to work again, you were just tired. If the time off makes it worse, you’re burned out.”

Fatigue is easily fixed. You have simply emptied the tanks and drained the batteries in worthy labor.

To me, it’s a pleasant, satisfied feeling. I’m covered in wood chips and sawdust. The firewood is all cut, split and neatly stacked. The work is done and out the door. Clients are happy. I pour a beverage and tally up the week’s wages. It’s a good kind of tired.

Now, you can spend three days doing blissfully nothing. Let the well fill up again on its own.

Or, you could blow out the pipes by launching into something utterly different for a few days. Do a 180-degree spin on what you normally do. Write jokes. Draw with a sharpie. After finishing The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway wrote the goofy and stupid Torrents of Spring in ten days just to “cool out,” as he said.

If you must move into a new project right away, try changing things up. Trick your brain into rebooting the circuits. Make your desk face the other way. Or try working standing up. Or at Starbucks. Or with pen and ink like Charles Dickens. Start listening to music when you work. Or stop listening to music.

While writing Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton ate nothing by egg salad sandwiches for lunch. When he started the next book, he switched sandwiches. New lunch, fresh start, new adventure.

But burnout is a whole different beast. Burnout is misery.

Burnout is an ugly kind of tired. It’s fatigue laced with frustration, futility, discouragement. You end the day a dried husk, but still feeling you should have done more. You don’t want to go back tomorrow. You hate the work, hate the client, hate yourself. You hate the keyboard, hate the mouse.

I’ve been through five or six burnouts. You can still see the soot stains on the rafters above my desk. My freelance friends have been through them, too.

Burnout, as I’ve felt it, comes from working on a project you can’t stand, for clients you can’t please, involving stuff you really don’t care about. For a long time, under pressure of time and money. With no recognition, no appreciation. There is no satisfaction anywhere in what you’re doing. That is the recipe for burnout.

Here’s an embarrassing story. (This is just between you and me, of course. Don’t let this get around.)

A big client wanted to put together this huge book, this compendium of happy customer stories. (I thought it a stupid idea, but didn’t say so.) I had to write dozens of these mini stories, scores of them. All in the same format, same word count, same structure. So many lines, so many subheads. They all had to sound the same, but different. I hated the idea, but the money was good. So I shut up and did it.

I did ten of them, then twenty. The client started to complain. Too this, too that. I did them over again. I cranked them out. Many came back. I tried to fix them. They got worse. Client got mad. Every day was hell, cranking out these stupid things that came back for fixes.

Finally, I couldn’t take it. I told the client, “I can’t do these. I don’t know what you want. Each one is worse than the last.” My stomach was in knots. I wanted them to find another guy. I wanted out from this Hindenburg of a project.

The client called me, all scared.  “Whoa, wait. Let’s talk. You’re doing great on these things. We don’t have anyone else. What can we do?”

All of a sudden, my ‘burnout’ was over. All of a sudden, I could do this again. Holy crap. I realized I wasn’t looking to get out of the project. I was just looking for some reason to hang on. Some half-baked, half-assed appreciation was enough to keep me going.

Don’t let this get around, though.

Here’s the rule. To avoid burnout:

There are only three possible reasons for saying ‘yes’ to a freelance assignment.

  • You’re making a good pile of money.
  • You’ll have a lot of fun doing it.
  • People really love what you do.

None of the above?


Grin and bear it. For now.

Sally, Writer/Editor:

Q:  I need to fire a client. She’s rude, makes unreasonable demands (ten thousand words by dawn without a rush fee?  Really?), fails to convey crucial project information. She’s a drain on my energy.  But she owes me a decent chunk of money. What’s the best way to go about getting my money and getting this person out of my life without burning bridges or coming off as unprofessional?  I want to take the high road.

A: Yeah, her owning you money changes everything.

It would be sweetly satisfying to simply cut loose from this she-devil. (Which is what the nine-year-old in me always wants to do.)

Trouble is, you would end up as just another bill collector yelling from outside the gates, with zero leverage. And if she’s insulted by your resigning her — which happens —  you may wait forever to get paid.

Try this first. Work from inside the gates for now.

Ms. Harridan:

I’m a bit puzzled about some back invoices that haven’t been taken care of. The company is usually so good about such things.  (Yeah, even if they aren’t. We are finessing here.)

Is there a glitch somewhere? 

Or perhaps things are bit tight right now?  Would it be helpful if we held off new work for the time being? I wouldn’t want to saddle you with additional bills at a bad time.

Please let me know what you’d like to do.

If that doesn’t loosen up some cash, wait until she brings up some new work.

Ms. Harridan:

I’d be happy to get this done for you, but I’m still concerned about the previous invoices. I would hate to get too behind here.

Perhaps we can take care of this in the next few days?

Or, if you’re feeling sparky:

Ms. Harridan:

The article you asked for is ready to go. I’ll gladly send it over once the previous invoices are paid.

Let me know.

The trick is to be firm, while still giving her an ‘out’, a modest way to pretend it’s not her fault. “Yeah, those pinheads in accounting botched it. I’ll straighten them out.” 

The day the check clears, tip her out of the boat.

Ms. Harridan:

Thanks for asking, but I think you’d be better off with another writer/editor sap.