Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the month “December, 2011”

THREE Things I Like About Freelancing

The Number One Tip for more blog traffic, according to 1,293 (or more) blogsperts:  Include More Numbers in your blog titles.

Number Two:  Make a lot of lists.  People like lists.

Actually this isn’t news.  It’s a tried-and-true technique for magazine articles as well.  Check out any Cosmo cover.  Or Men’s Health for that matter — the magazine which has infamously been recycling exactly the same cover teasers for years on end.  

And it’s an easy, easy way to crank out an article.   I actually feel a bit guilty doing it.  Feels like cheating.

But hey, if it keeps editors happy and generates a cheque …

The whole list thing has only become more prevalent since all of us have had to learn to write for the web.  “Humans have the attention span of a horny wombat,” we’ve been told.  “They can’t read whole sentences anymore.  Give ’em the sound bite.  Give ’em point form.”

People like point form.

I don’t really buy the idea that people are incapable of reading more than 350 words in a row anymore.  If people can slog through 2500 of my words on how to buy a compact tractor (and they assure me they have, all the way to the very end) in a magazine, then I have at least 85% confidence (see, Google?  Numbers!  You have chills, don’t you.) that they can do so on the Interwebz too.

But it really doesn’t matter whether I can convince you, gentle reader.  Got to cater to the folks handing out the meagre cheques …

So both in the spirit of practising the art of the Numerical List, giving Google naughty little tremors of pleasure … and writing something a smidge less bitter and negative, here are my Top Three Things I Like About Freelancing (with apologies to Pitching the World, one of my fave bloggers, whose concept I have blatantly stolen here under the guise of imitation being the sincerest form, yadda yadda yadda).

Number One:  I Don’t Do Office Well.

Oh, believe me, I’ve tried.  Either I’m allergic to fluorescent lights, or just claustrophobic when I’m trapped in a fabric cube, but either way, nine-to-five jobs make me feel like I’ve got fire ants crawling all over my extremities and nibbling on my bits.

There are a couple of reasons for this, I think.  First, I have screwed-up circadian rhythms (or maybe mine are the ones which are normal, and everyone else is just play-acting because they want to conform and keep their jobs and their benefits more than I do).  NOT a morning person, and often at my most productive in the wee hours of the night when all those conformist drones are tucked away in their warm, soft, cozy, ever-so-inviting (mmmm) beds.  I found out long ago that I do not thrive on nine-to-five.

Second, I have absolute contempt for office weasels, a species which seems to breed indiscriminately and proliferates in cube farm habitats.  I can’t STAND that fishbowl feeling of always having a disapproving pair of eyes on the back of my neck (or on my computer screen), trying to work out what sort of subversive activities I’m up to instead of What I’m Supposed To Be Working On.

I briefly took on a gig this past summer, doing social media for a veterinary clinic with ambitions of World Domination (hey, that’s always a benign and noble goal, right?), and whence I encountered an office weasel with a whole lotta passive-aggressive going on.   To say she enjoyed making me squirm is to understate considerably.  Clearly feeling her territory as the reigning (ahem) SM goddess was being threatened, she did her best to make my life a living hell from the moment I arrived, and it didn’t take me long to decide I wasn’t being paid nearly well enough for that crap.  I left after two months, to our evident mutual satisfaction.  Ugh.

Number Two:  I Can Go To the Dentist Without Begging for Permission

As a freelancer, I don’t need to justify my time usage to anyone but myself.  I get paid by the project, not by the hour, so whether I take  10 minutes to bloody well move cards around in a game of solitaire, while my gray matter tries to generate the particular word or phrase I’m looking for, is nobody’s business.  And I can schedule the rest of the minutiae of my life without having to count my remaining sick days, invent another funeral for my grandmother (both long dead), or grovel so I can get to the damn feed store before it closes.

Now, there’s a downside to this, which is that when you work from home, everyone thinks you’re completely free to help them move, dog-sit (I have at least made it clear that I do not human-sit), or wait for their cable guy, because really you’re just sitting around with your proverbial thumbs up your ass all day, aren’t you?

The truth is that I probably work at least twice as many hours per week as most of you lucky bastards with Real Jobs.  Probably three times as many.  Seriously, I put in some crazy-ass hours.  I work until I’ve got a product I can send out the door.  I have deadlines, so it’s not like that undergrad job I had at the university library, re-filing the card catalogue (yes, a card catalogue with actual cards — we’re talking Bayeux Tapestry era, folks) and re-shelving books, where basically anything that needed to be done today, could just as easily be done tomorrow with nary a complaint from the universe or the student body.  The whole self-motivated meet-the-deadline-or-you’re-fucked thing is not something that everyone can do.  Some people apparently need those office weasels breathing down their necks.  But I’m so much happier self-motivating, I can’t even tell you.

Number Three:  It’s Compatible with My Horsey Lifestyle, Mostly

I have horses, and they live in my backyard.  This requires that I live on a farm, which makes commuting to a Real Job something of a challenge (though by no means impossible if the right opportunity were to come along, hint hint).  They require rather more care than, say, a guinea pig or a tank of tropical fish.  (Not just blowing smoke, here — I worked in a pet shop when I was a high-school brat, and cared for everything from crickets to sulphur-crested cockatoos, which are evil, nasty creatures, and saltwater lionfish with uber-poisonous pointy spines.)  As a freelancer, I can be here to change the bandages on a gimpy beast on stall rest, and I can rescue the lot of them from rotten weather that they’re standing out in, even though they’ve got a perfectly good run-in shed that they’re too stupid to use.  I can be here to hold them for the farrier or the vet I can’t afford, too.

What I do precious little of, of course, is ride.  What with working 190 hours a week, I’m lucky to carve out enough time to muck the stalls, never mind perks like riding.  But c’est la guerre … the inclination to loathe office weasels also makes me pretty intolerant of boarding stables, where sniping and snarking often are elevated to art forms and the care is rarely up to my exacting standards.  I’ve actually had some unbelievable stuff go down at boarding stables, which will no doubt become the subject of a future rant.  With my horses at home, little control-freak me is in charge of every aspect of their day-to-day management, and everyone is a whole lot happier, especially me.

There, that’s three.  That’s all I can come up with.  The Things I Rather Dislike About Freelancing List is likely to be a little bit longer.  Fair warning.

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Say It Ain’t So, LA Times …

Just when I think I’ve gotten the rant out of my system …  

Read this blog today, addressed to the LA Times.

Synopsis:  A Finnish photographer, Matti Matikainen, who was one of several at a big charity ball, took a photo which was pirated by dozens of media outlets, including, inexcusably, the Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood Reporter.

No attempts to contact the photographer for permission.  No offer of payment.  Not even photo credit (though that, if it’s all that’s offered, is hardly compensation).

The title of the blog should give you an indication of how pissed off the Finnish media, and photographers in general, are.  And rightly so.  (Please note I am very deliberately NOT running the photo here!)

In the comments section, Matikainen replies to a belated mea culpa from the LA Times.  He’s more forgiving than I would have been.  He knows — as we all do — that the decision to purloin his work didn’t come from some senior editor in a corner office, but from some overworked, underpaid, afraid-to-lose-his-job intern who made a snap decision to meet some graveyard-shift deadline.  It’s no excuse.  And that the LA Times probably WILL let that pimply-faced intern go for his/her error, instead of addressing the systemic attitude that piracy is okay until you get caught, is all the sadder.

I keep thinking I should just throw in the towel and become an ultrasound technician.  The hours are civilized, you get to work indoors, it’s not invasive or painful to the patients (well, not compared to most other procedures), and I bet the pay is pretty good.

I hope Matikainen gets an obscenely large cheque for his work, but it’s really not about the money at this point.  No wonder people think there are no ethics in journalism anymore.

I Don’t Work for Free. Please Don’t Ask Me.

I really didn’t want my next entry to be a rant.  I fear I might be coming off as negative.  😉

But this subject just keeps rearing its ugly, venomous little head, and if I don’t do it now, it’s just going to sink its nasty needle-sharp teeth into my cranium and gnaw away until I’m gray-matter hamburger.  So forgive me. 

It’s the whole “we don’t really have a budget for content/photos but we’d like you to donate your work to us anyway” thing.

Drives me fucking nuts.

I’ve never been able to fathom why anyone and everyone thinks they can get into publishing in the first place.  It seems to be one of those things where skills and experience have no bearing on the decision.  I have no background in plumbing, so to date I have never woken up with an uncontrollable impulse to plunge my head under the sink and rip out a few pipes, because really, how hard could it be?

But publishing a magazine or a website?  It’s Mickey Rooney territory.  “Hey, we’re show folks … we can put on a show in the barn!  Sally can dance, and I can tell jokes, and Mom can sew all the costumes.  It’ll be swell!”

And then they proceed to launch a magazine (or website, or whatever) with absolutely no editing skills, only the most rudimentary grasp of the language, and zero emphasis on quality content.  There are three typos on the cover alone?  No matter, it still looks SPIFFY, doesn’t it!  We’re so proud.  Advertise with us.

This total lack of journalistic training results in a complete disregard for people who produce content, and almost invariably, nothing allocated in the budget for said content.

Photographs are free, after all. You can get ’em all over the Interwebz.  The photographers won’t mind, because we’re giving them (wait for it) … Valuable.  Exposure. In Our Fine Publication.

(More on this in a moment.)

And editorial ….?  Well, we’d like you to write for us of course, because you are well-respected and clever and we have read your articles and we looooooove them.  Look how honourable we are being, asking you to write something original instead of stealing your content from said Interwebz and running it sans permission.  (Oh, wait, we did that too.  Oops.)

We would like you to write for us for free because (choose one or more):

a) we’re a struggling little start-up and if you’re nice to us, maybe we’ll be able to pay you something sometime in the dim, dark future if we don’t fold first

b) we’ll give you a byline and what fantastic (wait for it) EXPOSURE it will be for you

c) we’ll barter you some ad space or give you a free subscription or something else equally worthless.

d) we’re a non-profit (but we’re paying our editor, our production team, our printer, our marketing agency, and a host of other people, including the plumber who had to rip out the pipes under the sink in our office because we wouldn’t touch that stuff with a 10-foot pole).

Ohhhh, who hasn’t sung this refrain to me?  Most recently, I was approached by a start-up which is going to cover all the sparkliest and most luxurious elements of the horse industry.  It plans to attract ads from Ferrari and Rolex and cover high-goal polo and multi-million-Euro warmblood auctions and such … and it isn’t paying its writers.

So, um, I’m supposed to somehow sneak into the sponsor’s tent at Aachen in my ripped Walmart jeans and my beaten-up Blunnies with the soles peeling off (only because the Prada is at the cleaner’s, you understand) in order to interview the latest royalty who has purchased six showjumpers for the Beerbaums?

Cuz hey, I was gonna be there anyway …

I’ve had requests that are even more insulting than that, actually.  A few years ago, a local lawyer who was enamoured of Canadiens (the horse breed, not the Habs) decided to launch a slick, glossy magazine celebrating Canadiens at work, at play, and in provocative poses (or something).  I encountered her at a trade show and she was positively ecstatic to meet me, gushing that she had read my books and my articles and how WONDERFUL it would be if I were to write for her fantastic magazine.

I gave her my card.

Two days later, she e-mailed me, gushed a little more, and then offered me what she clearly considered an unparalleled opportunity.  If I would like to sell a few full-page ads for her new effort, then I would be welcome to write about the advertisers.

For free.

Was there some satisfaction in seeing her magazine last two issues, then fold?  You betcha.

Once a writer, now re-classified as a “content provider” (sometimes with gratis ad sales, apparently) with all the appeal and value of an intestinal parasite.

(My friends say I suffer from low self-esteem.  Hmmm.)

This has been the evolution of the publishing business.  I dabble in photography, but I have many, many friends who are Real Photographers, and I know the world of hurt that has resulted from the digital revolution.  Where once, a photographer’s skill was valued, now anyone can plunk down for a professional-quality camera body and some decent glass, and get publishable images — if one isn’t too fussy about composition and such.  Photoshop is your friend …

And likewise, where journalism was once a respected profession, now everyone’s a bloody blogger.  (Gawd, including me.)  “Citizen journalism” is free, and it amazes me how many people apparently have time on their hands and are tickled enough to see their names in print, to contribute it, no matter how inaccurate, badly written, or flogging-an-agenda it might be.  It’s free, so by gum we’re a-gonna run it!

All of which makes we professional content providers, I guess, look rather cheeky to be expecting to get paid for what we do.

On the photography side, here are a couple of blogs which tackle the subject even more frankly than I’m doing right now.  Please have a look — they’re well worth reading.

Tony Wu’s “Reasons Why Professional Photographers Cannot Work for Free”

Tony Sleep’s “We Have No Budget For Photos” 

and Mike Spinak’s “When Publishers Request Freebies”

Though photogs have been particularly outspoken on this issue, you could pretty much insert the word “writer” wherever you see “photographer” in any of these articles.  Or “graphic designer”, “illustrator”, or just about any creative content provider.  The issues are essentially identical.

So please, launch a magazine.  Sew the costumes, hang the curtains, pass out the playbills.  But have the sense to hire a director who knows what he/she is doing, and create a budget which allows you to fairly purchase the content you’re doing to need to earn you that Tony … er, Pulitzer.  Otherwise, don’t bother.

And please, pretty please, don’t plead poverty to me when you come, cap in hand, to my doorstep, all obsequious and ingratiating.  I could teach you a couple things about poverty.  Sheesh.

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