I bought a tablet a couple of weeks ago.   I’d dithered for quite awhile because it was hard for me to justify the expense when I had a perfectly good laptop.

Tell ya what, though…

I love this thing.  I broke down and bought a Kindle Fire HD because I felt like tablets were really consumption devices and I am already rather far into the Amazon ecosphere. I’ve read three or four books on it since I got it, and that’s cool.  I watch Blackadder in the morning on Netflix when I get ready for work.  Yes, I use it to shop just like I used my computer, and when I’m screwing around on the Internet, I am more likely to use the tablet because it’s convenient.

What surprised me was that I actually use mine at work. I’m an independent consultant and I go to a lot of meetings.  I take a lot of meeting notes with my tablet.   I use it for spreadsheets to analyze data at these meetings.   I did not expect this to be a productivity machine.

I wouldn’t want it as my main computer by any means, even if I could limp through my job using it.  But my goodness do I love it on the go.

And yes, of course I am writing this article on my tablet.

Passion, Payment and Profit

I am psycho busy with work and clients.

This is a good thing, mind you.  It means money, the projects I have are interesting and they’re practice in things that make more money than SEO, but I’ve felt intimidated in trying to do.  I’ve made a note that I need to write up an “intake” type questionaire for press releases and money raising pitches.  This client seems to be tolerant, but I think I’d do better, and get work done faster if I have a standard questionaire for this sort of thing.  I think it’d make the client more comfortable to have more structure when it comes to giving direction as well.

Even with being so busy, I’m making a commitment that if I do no other housework at all, I will tidy up the clutter that accumulates through the day for a few minutes each evening.  It’ll keep me from feeling out of control from visual clutter.  Now, I have been able to keep up on routines, but to be frank, unless clutter and mess starts interfering with my thinking and mood, work is far more important.

I was talking to The Bird the other day while in Borders.  (If I have a lot of work to do, I often take the kids to Borders so that we can sit down and have a snack, then I can work and they can read and hang out in a place they like).  She asked me how I felt about writing in a bookstore and being a writer.  I told her that while I really do love to read, and I enjoy books, it’s very hard not to point to the shelves and go, “Yep, that’s product. Product over there…”

I’ve stopped seeing the printed word as something elevated or holy.  I know what this really means is that I’ve become a hack.

Know what?  In a lot of ways I’m proud of that.  Hack writers do make a living doing it and that’s a cool thing.  (As long as you’re making that living.  When you’re not, it can be stressy as hell!)   Even after three years of taking the leap, I get up in the morning and bid on projects or answer client email or sit down to work, but I bounce up and down in the chair a little thinking “This is really cool.”  I saw someone from my old job and when she asked how I was doing since I left, I could say in all honesty, “I’m doing really well.  I love what I do.”

So, while I don’t see books as quite as holy, I find the process and day to day job of being a “real” writer1 even more amazing than ever.  There’s a sense of wonder about it for me.  I really do this.  I write, I get money, I buy groceries with that money.   But in spite of the mundaneness of what I do, it feels like the end of Beauty and the Beast or something, with the majestic music playing and the thorns turning to roses and the light flooding the entire castle.  I have to remind myself that it’s real.

The funny part is that it wasn’t luck or someone waving a magic wand or anything like that.  I just decided one day, “I will do this” and then did.  I got scared and felt insecure, bit my nails wondering if I’m good enough, all of that.  Hell, I still do.  But it’s one hell of an adventure.

That adventure isn’t specific to being a writer, though.  I mean, that’s what resonnates with me, but people’s tastes are different.  I think the adventure part comes in when you love to do something so much that you just dive into it with no idea in the world whether or not you’ll succeed or fail, but with the total abandon.  Sometimes you fail at this.  I’ve dived into things and hit rocks.  Don’t think I haven’t.

But oh, when you find clear water and depths, it’s so very, very good.

1Please understand that I’m not saying people who don’t write professionally can’t be “real” writers. This is a phenominally subjective thing. For me, it meant making a living at it. It was my goal from the time I was in my late teens. If what makes you feel like a real writer is sitting down and, well, writing, then yes, you get to call yourself a real writer.

Good Days

Ordinarily, I either swim right when I get up, then have breakfast, or have breakfast, then go for a swim. What I don’t ordinarily do is get up, work for a couple of hours, swim on an empty stomach, then eat.  But if you want very ordinary food to taste delicious, try it.  Makes oatmeal taste like filet mignon.

I really had to push in the pool today.  I swam after my shift, which means I have about 50 minutes to get my mile in before I get kicked out of the pool for the aquafitness class.

Now by swimmer’s standards, taking 50 minutes to put in an 1800 is sllooowww.   If you can’t do a mile in less than 40 minutes, many triathlons will discourage you from competing[1].

However, since my only real goal is to challenge myself a bit and get my body moving, that doesn’t matter so much.  However, I’m sure to get faster by the end of the summer just because my body will get used to it, and I’ll have to push a bit to get my heart rate up.

I treated myself to a short soak in the hot tub afterwards as well as a long, hot shower.   So, I’m feeling pretty mellow at the moment.

And now, to write.  Working on finishing up one book, starting an outline for another, and writing a few articles.  Swimming and writing makes the day good.

[1] This is usually a water safety issue.  Swimming against the tide is no damn joke, and if you can’t do a 40 minute mile, there’s no way in hell you’re strong enough to be in serious open water.

Lectures and Classes

I gave a talk on Search Engine Optimization and Content Management Systems at Lebanon College yesterday.   Yeah, I know, the topic was a little too broad for an hour’s lecture.   But it was a decent overview.  greendalekgreendalek said that it got his students excited and engaged for the rest of the class, so I think I did okay.  I’m glad I brought my computer, though.  I’d brought the Powerpoint presentation on a memory stick, and I found that the software on the drive interfered with the computer at the school seeing the files on the drive, confound it.  So we just plugged my netbook into the projector and I did the lecture from that.

If anyone was wondering about Powerpoint presentations and netbooks, I can say that mine (minimal animation, no animated media and no sound) did just fine for the talk.  I think I want a wireless slide advance thingie (how’s that for a technical term?) for the next time I do a lecture.  I prefer to stand in the front of the class.

It makes me more comfortable for the social networking class.   Most of the teach I’ve done has been exercise-based.  While I’ll have several exercises in the class, it’s going to be mostly lecture-based, and I was wondering how I’d do for lecturing without talking people through physical exercises.

It’s funny how perspective can change. I used to marvel at people who could speak “spontaneously” and fluidly on topics.   I ran across a comment once in Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein that sounding spontaneous is often a matter of careful preparation.  That’s so true.  I kept track of how long I spent prepping for that talk.   I spent just shy of eight hours for a one hour talk — and that was on a subject I knew pretty well.  Now, if I give the talk again, it’s unlikely that I’ll spend more than an hour and a half or so reviewing and tweaking.

Still, it was fun.  I find that I almost always learn more about a subject just from researching for lectures.   *chuckles* and looking at this pile of books on various elements of social networking and online interaction at my elbow, I expect I’ll experience the same thing in my class come January.

Traveling with a Netbook

I’m on a bus traveling down to the airport to catch a plane home.  I have a lot on my mind about the trip, and to distract myself, I’ve been working.

I often joke my office is my purse.   Okay, that’s not really a joke.   I’ve been reading a book to get ideas for a course I’m developing, checking my email (the bus has wi-fi) and generally just doing a lot of the things I ordinarily do as part of my morning’s work.

I’d gotten a netbook with an eye to the fact I travel a few times a year and wanted something not too expensive and easily portable. So far, I’m liking travelling with a netbook.  The good battery and the compact machine make it nice for crowded travel.  The fact that it’s light to carry and fits in a purse doesn’t hurt, either.

I think my next “big” computer is going to be a desktop I’ll sync with my netbook.  The desktop will deliver lots of computing power cheap, for when I need that.  Then I can do 90% of my work on my portable machine.   As a writer whose work is often web-based, I just don’t need the computing power you’d require for video editing or high-end gaming.

The Real Vampire in Fiction

A certain very popular publishing company of women’s romance novels has decided to offer a new line of vanity publishing.   This link goes to Writers Beware, which might give you a clue to my opinion on the matter.  You pay to get your novel published and possibly edited if you’re paying at the higher tier.  No, you don’t have the full force of the marketing department behind the book.  Neither are you going to be able to count on the big chains stocking the book.

Vanity publishing has been around a long time.   As a business model, it’s great for the publisher.  The author almost never breaks even.

I’m fine with a business turning a profit, what with being a small business owner and a greedy capitalist meeself, and all. What I’m against is an unethical product that preys on emotional weakness, which this vanity publishing scam does.

I had an interesting epiphany in a Border’s a couple of weeks ago. I’m a very small-time writer. I do technical writing, SEO-type stuff… Any fiction writer who manages to make a living at it would probably call me a bottom feeder, and fair enough. But, this perspective does give me a “marketing mind” in a way that the stereotype of the writer from the coffee shop might not have. It got me to thinking in the YA section of that store. There was a Twilight display with books and merchandise and another dedicated to Harry Potter. I started looking at the newer titles in the section. Right now the trend in YA is dark fantasy and stuff with a Goth feel.

“This is all just product,” I thought, as I was looking around.  Product follows trend in the entertainment world, and fiction is most certainly the entertainment business.

I think we’re trained that there’s something holy or elevated about books. In a way that’s true. The printing press spread ideas in a way that had been impossible before. The fact that a book is an expression of a human mind is pretty damn awesome. But not every thought we think is necessarily a priceless diamond. Often it’s just a drop of water. It’s when it’s taken in a wave that the water becomes an impressive force.

We’re also trained to think there’s something holy or elevated about art for art’s sake.  Does art have value?  Yes.  Again, art is an expression of what is not only uniquely human about us, but is often a deep expression of the times in which we live, the joys we celebrate and the pain we mourn.  But just because it is an expression of our mind doesn’t mean that art always expresses well.

We have always had to look for gems amongst the garbage when it comes to actual art. That’s not new. Dickens was a hack to the Victorians, remember. So was Shakespeare. Do we remember all the playwrights from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries? Of course not. Have you ever read some random fiction from Victorian times? Some of it was pretty awful. Most of it was “mix as before” that the publishers hoped would make them a pile of money.

The problem is that this vanity publishing scheme is not going to give writers who otherwise had no chance a real chance at publishing a novel.     Unless you’re really great at selling, you’ll never recoup your production costs, much less your time costs of writing the damn thing in the first place!   If you’re really great at selling, you have a better chance at the traditional method of publication, where you’ll be paid more anyway.  This, like all vanity publishing, preys on people with a handful of dreams and a hatful of ignorance.

Addendum: L’esprit d’escalier gives an excellent analysis of why this business model sucks.   As Ms. Brown so eloquently puts it, “Writers sign the back of the check!”

The Coffee Shop Office

Since my local Border’s has free wi-fi, I do go in to get a cup of coffee and do some work pretty frequently.  I’ve noticed that when I go, I’m seeing a lot of business meetings, job interviews, people writing, students working for a class, you name it.

I really enjoy going to a coffee shop to work every now and then.  I almost always get a lot done.  I would hate to have to work in any one specific place, but it’s nice that this is an option when I get tired of being in one place.

If you find yourself working in a non-office (be it your home office or a classical “real job”) why do you venture out to work?  Do you do it often?  Where do you go?

What I've Been Waiting For

I have wanted a truly portable  computer since I was about 12.  When laptops got lighter than ten pounds, I used to fantasize about getting one, but didn’t for a long time until the price on a mid-grade laptop dropped to what I was spending on a desktop.

I was in my late thirties before I finally sucked it up and bought a laptop.  Now the one I bought was okay, really, for its time.  But it weighs about six and a half pounds, has a crappy battery (an hour if I am very lucky) and it runs hot enough that I really can’t use it without an external notebook cooler.  I can use it on an airplane, but I don’t like to.  I do use it on the train, but I’m lugging at least ten pounds worth of material and taking it out to use is a bit of a production.

That laptop is starting to show the Blue Screen of Death at about weekly intervals, which means it’s about to go to that Great Computer in the Sky in the next few months.  I want to hold off on getting a new laptop for several reasons, and have been in Serious Gadget Lust for a netbook since I first saw one.  Because of the gadget lust, I didn’t trust my justification for getting a cheap machine that is not a true replacement for a full-powered laptop.

When I got accused by the World’s Worst Overthinker of overthinking the matter (I think I bored him to tears analyzing it out loud), I just went ahead and bought the damn thing — an Acer AspireOne.  It’s the cheapest netbook on the market.

This is what I have been waiting for all my life.  I can put the freaking thing in my purse.  I get more than three hours on a battery.  How much more I don’t know.  It’s 3:35 and counting right now and I still have half power left.  I can reasonably take this to the park and write.  I wouldn’t have to be a contortionist to get it out of an overstuffed bag on an airplane.   I don’t have to lug around the heavy notebook cooler.  I don’t need something that can run World of Warcraft.  I need something that can handle writing a book.  I need something that can read a financial spreadsheet.  I need something that I can use on the Internet to get email and bid on jobs.

Oh, and I’m writing this piece right now on it

Wild Times

Okay, taking a break before diving back in to work.

I didn’t make myself a bento for today and was regretting it, but disciplined myself to make a nice, veggie-stuffed wrap for lunch rather than grab something — not that I have much in the way of bags of easy-to-grab food in the house but fruit, anyway.  (Confession:  Bento are at least in part laziness.  I prefer to make it easy to eat properly).

It’s warmed up nicely outside, and it feels like summer.  But it does make me want to be lazy and take a nap.  Unfortunately, I have way the devil too much work to do and really shouldn’t even be writing this entry.  I’m doing it to reboot my brain.   All I can say is that I’m happy that my projects are on relatively interesting subjects.

My cat is trying to inform me that I’m deficient in my petting duties by sitting on the arm of my chair and looking pitiful.  I suppose I should not whine too much about work.  I’m not in a cube farm, fergossake, and I doubt many offices would permit me that most necessary of writing materials, a cat to paw at your hand when it wants love or curl up at your feet while working.

Ahh, the exciting times of the self-employed writer.

Managing Your Self: Set Office Hours

This installment is late.  Mea culpa, I bow in the dust.  But I had someone paying me for a lot of my time, and that has to come first.  Welcome to my world.

I’m going to tell on myself.  I did not have office hours for the first eighteen months that I was self-employed.  Oh, I made a living, sure.   But it was inconsistent, insecure, feast or famine nonsense with little in the way of a cushion.  I decided that what I really needed to do was set office hours.  It worked so consistently and dramatically that I had not only to have specific hours to work, but strict guidelines about when to stop because of all the paying work.  This is more important than you think.  A couple of twelve hour days taught me that real quick, let me tell you what!  No matter how you love your work, getting brain-fried and ignoring your friends and family is not a good idea.  Yes, yes, work hard!  But let work time be work time and make sure that there is specific time that is not work time!  Corral it, set good boundaries around it, or I promise it will take over your life.

Why Office Hours Work.

I really did think that office hours were kind of missing the point of being self-employed!  Ahh, the freedom!  Oh, how nifty to be able to go work out in the middle of the morning and take as long as I wanted for a swim instead of cramming it into my lunch hour.  Ahh, what bliss to realize that I could spend a Sunday afternoon writing for money rather than dreading coming into the office on Monday morning.   What fun to be able to take your laptop on travel with you and still work!

You know what?  There’s some truth to it.  There’s nothing in the world wrong with setting your schedule to suit yourself.  My office hours are not a standard 8-5.  I do sometimes work when the Spirit moves me outside of office hours, and I really do work while traveling.  I’ll take the train rather than drive somewhere just because it’s easier for me to work while traveling rather than waste the time driving.

The problem comes in not because the freedom is bad.  It’s because it’s really easy to fool yourself.  “Oh, I’ll finish that up tonight!” you’ll say to yourself, or, “I’ve got all day to finish that!”

Anyone who has ever been a homemaker knows the dangers of, “I’ve got all day.”   In fact, the Sidetracked Home Executives use the IGAD! acronym as a telling point about how dangerous this really is.  “I’ve got all day to deal with that,” translates very quickly into “IGAD! A Deadline I might miss!”

I do know of people who don’t have office hours and make it work.  Most of them are far more self-disciplined than I am about deadlines and less prone to procrastination.  They also usually have other controls in place about work – a target income level they have to meet before they’ll permit themselves to slack, or a set of tasks they must complete before they allow themselves to call it a day.  If it works for you, great, but be ruthless with yourself when assessing this.  If you’re not putting in six hours a day of honest work, you’re really slacking.

I caution against slacking, but you know, if you find yourself slacking that much, either you’ve got someone supporting you or you’ll be looking for a Real Job pretty fast.  I consider myself something of a slacker, and I willingly pull down some hours that have astonished me.

Rule of thumb for the self-employed: it’s illegal for anyone to ask you to work as long or as hard as you’ll be working for yourself. — Holly Lisle

When I read the referenced article[1], I’m gonna have to admit I figured her to have an overdeveloped sense of Calvinist martyrdom and inverted pride.  Well, she was right, I was wrong.  Chances are good that you’re going to have to guard against overwork rather than otherwise.  I was cranking out 1,000 words a day on a terrible and unpublishable novel and holding down a Real Job.  It was no strain.  Boy, did I get fooled when I really did take the leap from the lion’s mouth!

If you think you’re putting in ten hours a day of work, I highly recommend you get some  tracking software for yourself and assessing that honestly.   I can recommend ClockingIT and RescueTime.  ClockingIT is more for billable hours and RescueTime is for an honest assessment about what sites you visit and how much time you spend in what applications.  I would have been indignant to have RescueTime on my machine with an employer, but my present employer is a real slave driver.  <grin>

You can fool yourself that screwing around is work. That’s a very short road to both poverty and burnout.  Just because you’re at a computer or in your office doesn’t mean you’re working.  Be sure all that work you’re doing is genuinely productive work.  I have guidelines stricter than most commercial places of business about websites I can visit or what I can be doing during office hours.  I’ll talk about this later in the What’s Work section, but it’s an important concept.

When I face this in all honesty, I know that for me, being strict about office hours is what brings in the cash.   I encourage you to try office hours first.  The important thing is that you create some workday structure and control for self-management.

How Many Hours should you work?

Oh my, if that isn’t a “that depends”.  If you’re not putting in 35-60 hours on your business, you’re not going to make it.   Yes, I’ve read the 4-Hour Work Week.   Mr. Ferris is being incredibly misleading about how he lives.  He’s only counting the time spent on stuff that is directly-paying.  He works more than four hours a week just doing interviews and networking.  That image of the rock star lifestyle is part of his product. He has to document what he does (and I promise that takes a few hours, even if he is hiring some schmuck like me to pound out the words), come up with stuff he thinks will be interesting to his readers, harass people to meet up with him and blog about how cool he is, and so on.  If you think self-promotion isn’t work, you don’t understand how the gig works.   By his rubber ruler, my very busiest week was about 20 hours and I’ve plenty of weeks where I spend less than that on directly-paying stuff.  I promise you I work more than 20 hours a week even on weeks I spend at the beach!

I’ll deal more with this when we talk about setting prices.  But you’re not going to have every hour of your work day be for directly-paying clients.

What About Breaks?

Yes, for heaven’s sake, take breaks.  I know of one freelancer who tries to get up at least once an hour, so that she doesn’t feel chained to her work.  I, personally, take a whole hour for lunch.  That’s my time to eat, screw around with social networking sites, whatever I want to do that’s not work.

On the subject of lunch, one of my hobbies is making Bento — cute little Japanese lunches in small boxes that are healthy and aesthetically-pleasing.  I generally make myself one, ensuring that I’ll eat at least one healthy meal a day, and take a break.  They’re so cute and pretty, it’s hard not to make an event of it.    Snacking all day at first is the bane of the new freelancer.  This makes me not want to.

You do want some sort of break in your work day to have a little something to eat, reorient yourself and relax before you dive back in to your work.  This is the time to have a meal with friends, take a walk, or otherwise refresh yourself for the rest of your work day.

Where is Your Office?

Where should your office be?

Because my office is really my laptop, I don’t bother with a specific “work only” space.  I have four places I usually work.   On the left is my writin’ chair.  This is far and away the most common place for me to work.  It’s in the living room, and is considered a “classic” no-no.   I would agree a living room would be bad if it’s a public place where you can’t get any privacy.  I’m usually alone all day, so it works for me.  Note the privacy bit. We’ll be getting back to that.

I work there frequently because it gets plenty of sun, it’s comfortable and my office hours are over when the kids get home from school, anyway.  This isn’t to say I don’t work after school.  I do.  But I save administrative tasks and other things that do not require intense concentration for those times.

Experts also recommend against having an office in your bedroom.  My writing desk is in my bedroom and that’s where I’m presently writing this.  I work there sometimes, but I tend not to work there every day, as I’ll start to feel as if I am trapped in a single place after awhile.  I mean, I already spend at least seven hours a day there sleeping!

I mentioned earlier that I sometimes work from bed if I’m trying to give myself a reward or motivate myself.   I don’t do this often.  Yeah, I know that looks comfy. But it would be terrible on my back to do it, and since I make a habit of watching Doctor Who and streaming Netflix movies just in that position, it’s just not got the “serious work” feel to it.   Hence using it as a carrot when I really need to motivate myself.  It’s kind of my version of “casual Friday.”  It’s also where I work if I was stupid (as I was recently) and managed my time so badly that an all-nighter was necessary.  I try very hard not to do that.

The fourth place I work is my “Jungle Room”.  It’s a room in my house that’s sunny, filled with plants and has the wood stove.  In the wintertime, this is great for chasing away that cold, dead feeling of winter and being warm.  I live in Northern New England, so warmth, sun and living things can be a nice feeling.  However, things are not set up in there to be an easy-to-manage workspace, so I usually only do it when I’ve shivvered too much for one week and want to be by a warm fire.

I discuss all these things not because I’m going to discourage you from having an office.  Honestly?  If I had a specific room in my house with a door that closed that I could use for one, I would in a heartbeat.  But in terms of productivity, you need to decide for yourself what’s going to work.  Being able to give myself a change of scene frequently is what works for me. If a certain workspace starts feeling a little stale, I move.  I have a laptop.  I can do that.  Some people find that having an office puts them into “work” mode better than office hours and dressing for work put together!   The principle here is to find what gets your mind into “serious work” mode and do that.  Yes, it seems like there are a lot of externals that “shouldn’t” matter.  All I can say is that some millenia of civilization has taught us that ritual drives mindset, and it’s not bad to make it work for you.  For me, it seems to be the ritual of “setting up shop” somewhere.

Don’t underestimate the “carrot” of being able to work in a special place.  For you, it might be a coffee shop with an Internet connection – always a popular choice and a great one if you’re sick of being alone!

Whatever you do for an office, be comfortable. I am unusually careful to create an ambiance that reminds me that I’m doing this to savor life, not spend my life in a working grind.  If scented candles or incense turns your crank, there aren’t any office regulations forbidding it any more.  Have your coffee or tea in the good china if you have it, play music that focuses your brain, and don’t lock yourself away in a forgotten, cluttered afterthought of a room.  Don’t tell yourself that you’ll do these things “when you can afford it”.  Putting away clutter costs nothing, and few of the things I’ve mentioned are an extra expense.

The Bad News About Office Hours

A lot of people want to work from home so that they can take care of small children while they’re working.   Thing is, at the end of the day, it’s still a job and to get paid, you have to put out product.

I’m not saying it can’t work. There are things you can do while you’re looking after a small child that can make money.  I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that anything that requires concentration for a long period of time isn’t it!  Programming, writing, graphic art… If you need to think uninterrupted, don’t fool yourself that you’ll get anywhere near enough done – either from responding to RFPs or actual paying work while attending to the children. I speak from the experience of a failed attempt to do so.

I can’t even begin to count the number of people who get into writing because they think they can do it when their kids are small and avoid the cost of daycare.  The ones that make this happen are usually people who don’t need much sleep, are night owls and work when the children are asleep.  Even with older children, you might have the habit of keeping an ear out.  My first summer as a freelancer was a real eye opener about this, and I have a teenaged reclusive introvert as my main parenting responsibility!

The take-away here is that unless you’re doing work a child can help you with, such as many sorts of farming, you really do need time alone to be able to concentrate and work.  I’ve created websites while the children played, and while it can be done, you’re not focused and efficient enough to make it a business.

[1] And by the way, I find her writing advice good, even if I’ve no talent at fiction.