Tag Archives: freelancing

March Sadness

That’s what it is for me.  Except for hoping KU wins it all, I just go to a happy place.  It’s something that screws up my favorite TV shows.  Give me a holler when it’s over, or if KU gets to the final four.

Why not UW? Well, it’s okay with me if UW does well, but I’ve got a long memory.  When I was at UW, no football player ever tried to get me to write his paper for him.  Basketball players did.  Also, when I was at UW, I was never hassled by a football player.  I got some from basketball players.  So in addition to not liking the sport at all to begin with (everything I was ever good at in sports is a foul in basketball), I didn’t find any passion to care if we won or not.   I wouldn’t root against UW, just didn’t much care.

The women are another story.  They never asked me to write their papers and they certainly never tried to bully me (and some of them could have…those are some big gals).  Go Dawgs!

Embarrassment

So this afternoon, I went to my nephew’s opening collegiate ballgame.  (Double drag for him:  he didn’t get to play, and his team lost.)  It was good baseball, but I was embarrassed on behalf of Columbia Basin College, the Tri-Cities, and on behalf of my country.

Now, I’m not a flag waver, but I do stand up for the national anthem (of any country).  And when a team visits from another country, as did the Prairie Baseball Academy of Lethbridge, AB, Canada, I believe strongly that we should show them the courtesy of playing the visiting anthem as well–thus demonstrating friendship and respect.  It’s done at hockey games all the time.  What is wrong with Americans, that they so often don’t know how to be good hosts and make a gesture of courtesy to international visitors?

Shame, CBC.  You embarrassed our entire area.  PBA Prairie Dawgs, well played, and my apologies for the boorish thoughtlessness.

Microsoft = IBM

Today John Dvorak wrote a pretty good article on why Microsoft’s stock is, in his words, dead money.  Yeah, I know it’s on Murdoch’s news service, but Dvorak’s old school and knows his stuff.

It is so odd how things cycle.  When I was hustling machines about five miles from the Redmond campus, I hated the IBM reps.  Every one of them.  They were not merely arrogant (though nothing like the Apple reps, the very snottiest of all), they were stupid (which the Apple reps were not).  We were making 5% margin on IBM machines.  We made 20% on others.  Also, no one wanted IBM.  Why should we sell it? Well, because it’s IBM.  In reality, we were selling them at cost to keep our dealership.  We couldn’t get to a profitable discount level with IBM unless we sold more.  However, when we had a line on a big account and were willing to go out at cost just to advance our business with IBM, IBM would go direct and undercut us (and we were to understand and accept this, that ‘business was business’).

Their attitude was that everyone should want IBM and we should push everyone to IBM, even when a retarded goblin could see that IBM was the very worst deal going.  Even when they came out with a good product, people didn’t want IBM’s MCA (‘MicroChannel’) architecture.  They had a great portable and I had a client interested in two.  He asked about the architecture, and I said ‘MCA’.  His words, quoted exactly as I recall:  “Not that f***ing MicroChannel.”

Microsoft, by contrast, was swift and slick and witty and inventive.  It was eating Lotus’s lunch, WordPerfect’s lunch and just about everyone else’s.  It was the smartest kids in the room.  Some of its stuff was dumb (remember ‘Bob’?) but a lot of it took hold.  Even IBM used Microsoft’s DOS (which M$ didn’t actually invent, but bought in desperation early on).  And when IBM tried to make everyone buy OS/2, the market said ‘meh.’  You could tell the Microserfs when they came into the store.  They looked like hippies gone full geek, total slobs.  You didn’t make judgments.  They were often FYIFV (‘f*** you, I’m fully vested’) tycoons and they might well write you a check for two brand new laser printers.

Now M$ is the dinosaur rather than the juggernaut.  It invents nothing.  It follows and tries to appropriate the market, and the market increasingly sneers.  In the process of its rise, its ruthlessness made it many, many enemies who yearned for the day M$ would become irrelevant.  I was one, as I labored on supporting M$ products in the workplace as an IT jock, basically forced to deal with them as the world was once forced to deal with IBM whether it liked IBM or not.

Dvorak’s right.  MSFT is a lousy buy, even though its price has been flat for years while the market has risen.  They’re not going to invent anything.  If they weren’t sitting on so much cash, and if they didn’t have so much inertia due to the past with regard to installed base, they’d collapse.  They are in much the same situation as IBM once was.  They can say what they want, but people no longer care.

Addendum: As an editor, I find it fun to look back in hindsight at my past commentary, especially where it missed something. This is how we learn. My views held up for two years on this one, and then MSFT began a climb. Writing in 2020, it’s up over 200–about a 9x gain in seven years. What I learn from this is why I no longer buy separate issue stocks at all.

Researching on the phone

One perk you get as a ‘lancer is that when you are researching a subject, not only can you pick up the phone and call people, many will talk to you. I’ve learned the hard way not to bother leaving a message. By the time I hear back, for the most part, I’ve already turned in my work and can no longer benefit from the conversation.

Why would they talk to me? Most are curious to know what I’m working on, with an eye toward how it will portray their museum/city/project/company. I have to be fairly vague for contractual reasons, but I can at least explain why I’m bothering them. If a real person answers, most are helpful, especially historical society/museum curators. They like this. Someone wants to know the things they know! (I can relate, having a mind full of information people rarely want to know.)

Of course, if the matter you’re researching is controversial, expect a full spin cycle and attempt to rinse away anything sordid. I had that with a major toy company, back when I was trying to learn more about the debate over who invented a very popular toy. They handed me over to their PR flacks, who did their job: try to kill me with helpful kindness, sending me numerous PDFs relating the official history–which is good to know, but is by no means the last word. I give them credit, though, because their job is to get me to write the party line, and if they make my life difficult, they know it will perk up my nostrils. They hope to make it easy for me so that I’ll just use their source material.

Unfortunately for some, I’m not the sort of ‘lancer who takes the easy path. A major MLM company got a taste of that. The firm (one I loathe enough that I had to discipline myself to careful objectivity) claims two prominent founders, but reports all over the place refer to a third and very obscure co-founder. Even allowing for the Internet copycat factor, it was suspicious enough to wonder: was there really a third co-founder, and if so, what became of this person? Dispute? Bought out? Dead? I called the company, whose flacks asked some older fellow who has evidently been around since the reign of Tiberius. They flatly denied this third founder. Then I asked (by e-mail, now) the question that ticked them off: “Sir, if that’s accurate, then people are spreading false information far and wide about the company’s origin. You haven’t even asked me where I heard about it. Aren’t you at least concerned about rooting out such possible misinformation?” I never heard from them again. I interpreted that to mean that I’d lit up their ‘hostile’ display indicator and would get nothing further from them on the subject.

That set me to shoveling twice as hard. Unfortunately, I didn’t turn up anything useful, so the most I could do with the third individual was to mention the name and stress that it was an unsubstantiated rumor. What that meant, of course, was that it went into print. Did I learn the reality behind the rumor (if any)? No. Is it possible someone with more time on his or hands than me might see this in the book, and dig long and hard enough to penetrate the wall of corporate sanitization surrounding the subject? It wouldn’t break my heart…

I do know this. As an editor, people ask me often about copyright matters, legal liabilities, and so on. I tell them the same thing every time: I do not know. I’m not a lawyer. Ask one. Pay them. That, or do what I did above, which is not to mention their name.

Working while sick

It’s one of the hardest parts of freelancing.  Suppose you feel like hell.  Are you going to do your work? Well, let’s put it this way.  If you have a tight deadline, if you are conscious and can function, yeah, you’re going to do your work.  Now, the editors I work with are generally very understanding and kind folks, but it isn’t that way everywhere.  Plus, understanding and kindness would surely wear thin if you played the card all the time, or even often.

So the bottom line is that yeah, I’m going to do my work.  I have a number of entries that must be rewritten by Wednesday, and a timeliness track record to protect.  What is more, it must be up to the standards my editors expect from me.  Never mind that I’m not physically or mentally up to the standards I expect from myself; an editor reviewing my ms will see only whether it’s okay or not okay.

This is one of the hardest things to convey to prospective writers.  There is a writing mentality that I call the “Oh, for a muse…” perspective.  It savors la vie litteraire, a world of bons mots and clever epigrams.  It yearns to sprinkle random French terms with deep savoir faire.  It imagines an ivory tower of eloquence, insight and not having to explain what ‘onomatopoeia’ means.  It is pensive people in berets sipping sophisticated coffees in proper coffee shops, as opposed to realtors sipping extra large super-skinny caramel lattes with four shots of mandarin syrup.  It hankers after a sense of intellectual superiority, the mojo of being able to say “I’m a writer” and have people coo over you.

Well, I’m a writer, and what it means right now is gluing myself to my machine and getting my work hammered out fueled by Ricolas, coffee, tea, a pizza most would consider toxic waste.  The upsides are that I don’t have to talk (I barely can; I sound like Darth Vader) or socialize (always a battle for me to begin with).  But I do have to write.  I don’t get to plead ‘writer’s block,’ a concept in which I don’t fundamentally believe anyway.  If I write, I will get paid and preserve my rep for producing (thus probably getting to write more later).  If I don’t, I won’t.

It’s as simple as that.

Writing: my hardest day

I’ll tell you a story of my most difficult writing day.  I’ve never told anyone every detail, nor have I experienced the like as an editor–only as a freelance writer.  Maybe doing so will help me, and maybe it’ll interest you.

About four years back, I was working on Armchair Reader: World War II.  It was at once challenging and invigorating:  about thirty articles in forty days, with respectable research.  For some I had to blaze through three books.  As fate had it, my topic listing hewed to two general concentrations:  conspiracy theory/controversy topics (Rudolf Hess, the Rosenbergs) and atrocity-related subjects.

Now, I am not easily shocked.  I can be disgusted, or angered, but not shocked.  A side effect of the research I did for the articles on this book was the cumulative impact of the images one sees in the course of intensive research.  Had you asked me in advance, I’d have worried I would become desensitized.  I was pulling 12-14 hours days seven days a week during the holidays, I was anxious to please my editors…you might say I was pretty strung out.

It happened about 7 PM one December evening.  I was digging for details on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (“Juden Haben Waffen!”, pp. 151-53), specifically wrestling with the unending debate over the degree to which the Armia Krajowa (Polish Home Army) assisted the Jewish fighters in the Ghetto.  To this day, that one gets ugly, and my best assessment is that both sides have fair points.  I suspect the AK gets less credit than it deserves for the help it did give; I also suspect that there were many in Poland who didn’t really see Polish Jews as Poles, or even as people.

As I read through yet another account of the way Nazi soldiers laughed at the ‘paratroopers’ (Jews leaping from burning buildings to their deaths), I came across a photo I would wipe from my mind if I could.  I hope you never locate it, and I’ve at least forgotten where I did.  Bear in mind, I had seen many very sorrowful images this day already.  The photo was of three captured ghetto fighters under the submachineguns of the SS.  All almost surely died within the hour, or were shipped somewhere to die.  One was a young woman or teenage girl, nude, attempting to cover up but at the same time standing in a certain degree of proud defiance.

I flipped the page in haste, but I couldn’t unsee it.  As I kept on with my work, I felt a growing sense of a deep melancholy I’ve only experienced twice.  Once was at Andersonville, Georgia (Civil War POW camp), as I washed my hands in Providence Spring.  The other was at the Famine Graveyard in Skibbereen, Cork, Ireland.  About half an hour later, my research ground to a meandering halt in a mire of melancholia.  It came to me that I was nearing emotional collapse.  Professionally and personally, I didn’t have time for an emotional collapse.  And I realized:  I must finish this article tonight, while I yet can.  However I do it, I mustn’t go to sleep until it’s fully drafted and I’ve resolved my questions.  Tomorrow it will be too late, and I will fail in this assignment, almost surely damaging my future prospects.

While it’s not the ideal way to get through pain, there’s a reason people sometimes decide to have a drink.  I went to the liquor cabinet and got something; don’t remember what.  I drank some of it (not sure how much), sipping steadily through the evening.  I don’t remember when I turned in or how hammered I was, but I did get the research and draft done sometime after midnight.  What I edited the next day was surprisingly all right considering the circumstances, and I moved on to the next topic, something far tamer.

Unfortunately, to this day I still see the image too clearly.  Am I proud of the way I dealt with it? Yes and no.  Yes, that I did my job anyway.  No, that I wasn’t strong enough to do so without ethyl assistance.  But either way, I am reminded by it of a quote and a song.  The quote is Kurt Vonnegut’s from Slaughterhouse Five:  “So it goes.”  The song is Voodoo (Godsmack), and I can’t tell you exactly why this Goth tune associates with the experience in my mind.  Just that it does.

© J.K. Kelley, 2011

Why ‘lancers fail

There’s a lot of work out there for freelance writers.  While my editors don’t slather me with details about my competition, I’ve divined some reasons why people who think they could do it, really can’t:

1) Some just do not have the writing chops.  Editors can edit but they don’t want to have to clean up all your work.  You must be able to write in the way they want.

2) Some don’t comprehend deadlines.  You have to have your work in by the deadline.  No one cares why if you fail.  Business is business.  Do your work on time.  Do not have crises.  Do it anyway.

3) Some can’t deal with being edited.  Sorry, but you will be, and it’s probably for the best.  Sometimes not; I have had ‘fact checkers’ insert errors into my work.  But as Kurtis Blow teaches us, ‘that’s the breaks.’

4) Some do sloppy research.  Editors don’t want ugly surprises.  If you don’t have the research skills, and especially if you rely on Wikipedia or other fragile sourcing, they will get letters.  Back it up.

5) Some bitch.  It’s that simple.  Just don’t bitch.  People prefer to assign work to people who want it.  Be a pro, cheerfully confident and eager for assignments.  If you don’t like to write, you picked the wrong line of work.  Plus, if you always produce, eventually your editors will do what is easiest for them.  “Let’s see.  I could try and send this to Joe and Susan, and deal with their excuses and crap.  Or I could send this to my trusty Julian, who never fails, is eager for the work and obviously likes it.  What is to my best advantage?”

The distilled essence of ‘lancing is simple.  Be the easiest option.  If you are not the easiest and most attractive option for editors, you are doing it wrong.  You should adjust your attitude and habits as necessary until you are the preferred writer.  Be easy to deal with, be professional, be reliable.  You think it’s overrated? I ended up writing about 70% of a whole book just because I was the only one who could cut the mustard, and kept yelling for more work.  I did pretty well that year, owed a lot of taxes.  Keep on message:  “Or you could just assign it all to me, and just have it done and off your plate.”  Say so often enough, and you’ll get your wish.  And if you produce, it’ll come back to help you.  Because thereafter, when you say “I can,” they’ll believe you.

(11/11/2020 update: I find that this applies to many fields of endeavor. On time, capable, and uncomplaining is a good overall look. It went over well with acquisitions editors and it goes over well at the 7-11, or in an engineering office, or teaching geometry.)