Monday, August 24, 2015

The Problem of Timing

Wow, I've done a terrible job at keeping this blog updated. Blame the pile of work I've been getting through!

Speaking of which...

I had few illusions when I became self-employed. I have been lucky enough to know enough entrepreneurs and freelancers that I never expected a cakewalk, watching hours of soap operas or eating cookies all day. I always knew it was going to be tough.

But of course, it's tough in ways I hadn't predicted, and in some ways that are the very opposite of some of my main reasons for striking out on my own in the first place.

When and how much to work is chief among these. When you're self-employed, there's no such thing as sick leave or vacation. You can take time off, sure, but you don't get paid.

I knew this, and I was prepared for it. "I'll work more around the times I want to take time off," I thought.

Ha! Hahahahahahahahaha, what a naive little creature I was.

The thing is (especially in the first year of your full-time business), your clients don't care one whit for your schedule. They want what they want when they want it, which is often on Sunday, or by midnight tonight, or in three hours. And when they don't have any wants, you don't have any work. They can go for weeks at a time (even months or years?) without wanting anything from you, and without giving you warning.

So I can't bring myself to turn down that weekend/late night/right away work, even though it causes me a lot of stress, because I know that I'll go for days sometime without working any billable hours. When work is available, I snatch it up, because I never know when the next drought will be. And I'm still recovering from some seriously lean periods from the past few months.

The constant fear of running out of money permeates a lot of my decisions. I suspect it's this way for many freelancers, especially those of us just starting out.

So, sound off! Do you take work you don't really want to do because you're worried work won't be there when you want it? Do you let fear make your decisions for you? Have you somehow put this behind you, and if so, how? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Making It!

Wow, can you believe I've been too busy to post?!

It's been three months since I started this freelance thing full-time. It's been a crazy ride. I'd like to share some of it with you.

The first month was bad. I spent all day, every day, sending out résumés and inquiries, and getting back rejection after rejection. It was terribly disheartening. In fact, it made me so upset I decided not to do it every day. I switched to looking for work only every other day, spending the rest of my time blogging, writing, and taking care of chores and errands. I also applied for and began receiving unemployment benefits. Although the money didn't amount to much, it was better than nothing.

The second month was worse. Still I sent out letter after letter, and still I got back, "Thanks, but no thanks." I started to doubt myself. Did I not have the skills to be a writer and editor? Was my work not good enough? Did I not have the gumption to work for myself? Was I going to fail?

I finally reached my breaking point. "Maybe I'll go back to biotech," I thought. "I have a ton of marketable skills. I could get a job easily."

Ha! The employers in that market consist of the company that laid me off, their big, ugly competitor (who's more ruthless when it comes to layoffs, I hear), and a startup that I know regularly lays off scores of people, only to hire them back as soon as the books are back in the black. Not appealing.

"So," I told myself, "it looks like you're stuck with editing. Better make it work." I'm so thankful I reached that point and realized there was no turning back. Knowing my fallback plan had fallen through gave me no choice but to succeed.

So the second month ended, and I was getting desperate. I felt I had used every resource at my disposal to find clients. Where was I supposed to look now? And then, suddenly, work happened. I got one, then two, then three clients. The work rolled in, and so did the pay. I was making it!

Now, at the end of the third month, I realize this is pretty unusual, and amazingly good. I have enough work to fill my time, and I'm making enough money to pay my bills. I've actually turned down work that wasn't a good fit. Having spoken with other freelancers, I now understand that my timeline is nearly unheard of. Some people spend months or even years working toward the goal I've already reached.

The nagging worry in my brain will probably never truly go away. What if I lose my best clients? What if I can't keep bringing in money? What if I run through all my savings? But those worries  push me to succeed. They ensure I make good use of my time, and develop positive and mutually beneficial relationships with my clients. They keep me looking for work even when I have enough work to fill my time and bank account. They drive me to network and improve my skills.

Some days I'm still startled to wake up and realize that my business is successful. I constantly have to battle the suspicion that I have no idea what I'm doing.

But I'm learning, and I'm improving. And, finally, I'm doing what I want to do. Thanks for following me on this tremendous journey. You've all been amazing, and given me such support!

Monday, March 30, 2015


Commander Shepard and me at Aggiecon 46
I spent the past weekend at Aggiecon, a three-day event in College Station, Texas filled with sci-fi, fantasy, comics, art, cosplay, and general awesomeness.

I've been to Aggiecon in the past as a guest of Martin Whitmore, who runs a booth there for his company Ideaschema. In previous years I just helped out at the booth and occasionally wandered around the dealers' room, checking out what other vendors had for sale.

But this! I stopped and chatted with so many vendors and had the most amazing conversations. Aggiecon is well known for being very serious about its sci-fi and fantasy, hosting panels like "Rules Based Magic vs. Science Fantasy" and "Young Adults in Speculative Fiction." It thus attracts lots of genre authors, and this year was certainly no exception.

I talked with so many talented authors, like Christopher Dunbar (Morrigan's Brood series), Kathryn Friesen (the Power of Legends series, can you believe she's only fifteen?), Kimberly Hix Trant (#hashtagged), and Kathleen White (Lost and Found). And I had the most wonderful conversation with Monique Happy, owner of Winlock Press. Monique and I discussed the future of publishing and how self-publishing is changing the way books are made.

The cosplay this year was truly stellar, and I was thrilled to run into Commander Shepard of the Mass Effect game series (by far my favorite video game). The photo on this page is me with the Commander!

I was also able to attend more panels this year, which was really wonderful. As I mentioned previously, Aggiecon is superb for getting very deep into the nitty-gritty of great storytelling, and this year's panels were no exception. I especially enjoyed "Rules Based Magic vs. Science Fantasy," mentioned above. Not that all panels were serious: "Cosplay Bachelor/Bachelorette" was tremendous fun (and the Shaggy/Elsa matchup inspired Marty's creative spirit!).

Aggiecon this year really felt like my community, like a place where I belong. I had such a blast, and I can't wait to go back next year!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Following my Ethical Compass

Last week I turned down a job. I feel certain that act will stand out in my memory for a long, long time.

Let me explain. I am still getting my business running. I don't yet have enough work to fill my time, so I'm seeking clients fairly aggressively. Because income has been thin the past couple of months, every dollar a client pays me really counts.

So turning down work is a big, bold step. Why would I do that?

I had learned of the job via Craigslist, where the company posted an ad without a lot of details about the company itself. I met the qualifications so I emailed my résumé to the contact listed in the ad. I got a response within a few days asking for a writing sample, which I provided. At that time, I learned the company name and began some investigation into them.

A it turns out, the company engages in a practice I find unethical. What they do falls in a legal gray area, and some people have sound reasons for supporting the type of work they provide. I, however, feel their service is harmful. Their mission clashes with my personal ethics.

I spoke on the phone briefly with the man I had been in email contact with, and he was very excited to have me join their team. He had work for me right away, and the pay would not have been bad.

It was a real challenge to decline to take that work. It wouldn't have filled the gaps in my time completely, but it would have gone a long way toward doing so.

But I know that eventually I will have enough work to fill my time and enough income to pay my bills. And then I will look back on this decision and be proud of myself.

I began freelancing so I could have the professional freedom to take only projects I felt had merit. I have always disliked doing work someone else deemed important, especially when the product clashed with my sense of ethics. If I sell out when times are tough, I've gained nothing by freelancing except a great deal of stress.

An ethical compass is useless if it points toward money. I am glad mine points true, even if it's difficult right now. I am setting myself up for a better road ahead by doing the right thing even when it's the hard thing.

I know this decision was the right one, and I know I will always feel good about having made it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What Science Says

Something I've seen more and more in the age of social media are phrases like "Science Says..." and "According to Science...." Headlines like these can include everything from how much coffee you should drink to why you should believe in God to which Pokemon can kill you. If it's not obvious yet, these phrases are complete bunk, and are used to sensationalize and legitimize clickbait, scams, and reactionary drivel.

Now that I'm working in science communication, this sort of misleading hyperbole is even more bothersome. Take it from me, as a scientist and a writer: science never says anything. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to make you fall for something.

Science is a way of investigating the world. It's an action, not an entity. You don't have to have a degree, a lab, or even an education to conduct science. You need only an idea and a way of testing it. Anytime you answer a question by trying different things, you're performing science. Have you ever modified a recipe? That was science. Taught yourself a new bike trick? Also science. Tried out a few different shampoos until you found the right one for you? Yup, science.

It can be tempting to think of Science as an institution, an enormous, inaccessible compound filled with old men in white lab coats dictating to the rest of the world the way everyone should behave. In reality, professional scientists are just people, as flawed as any other people. Some are true geniuses in pursuit of the advancement of knowledge, like Ellen Stofan and Fabiola Gianotti. Some are charlatans advancing their own gain, like Andrew Wakefield. Most are somewhere in between—normal people working hard to gain some knowledge for the world while paying their mortgages and saving for retirement.

What they are not is a unified body. There is no one institution called Science conducting research into the appeal of Indian food and the ideal length of eyelashes. There are, however, hundreds, maybe thousands, of public and private research institutions, each with their own goals and ideals. There are more journals than anyone can keep track of, and pay-for-publication journals are becoming a serious area of concern for those in research.

What does this mean for you?

First, never believe any claim that "science says" something. It doesn't. Science is an activity, not an entity. That would be like saying "sports says" or "gardening says" something. Scientists may say something, but they don't necessarily speak for the entire field, just as one athlete doesn't speak for all of sports.

Second, recognize that anything a scientist says (or anyone else, for that matter) must have the weight of expertise behind it in order for it to be meaningful. It can be tremendously difficult to suss meaningful credentials from shady ones. Some questions can help you determine whether a journal is credible, and you can also check neutral third-party recommendations.

Finally, keep in mind that anything titled "Science Says" or "According to Science" is a journalist's (or worse, a blogger's) interpretation of someone else's research. Reporters with greater integrity use titles like "Researchers Find" or, even better "According to NASA" or the name of another institution. If you want to know the truth, go to the source. Read the paper cited in the article. It can be tough to understand academic papers, but it's even tougher to figure out who to trust to do your understanding for you.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Dreams Come True

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer. Not when I grew up, but right then. I wrote constantly. I had a blue binder filled with lined, 3-hole-punched paper on which I outlined my stories and wrote them. Longhand. In cursive.

I finished my first novel when I was eleven. The story was about a young girl surviving the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. It wasn't very long—about 15,000 words, if I have to guess. It also wasn't very good. I cringe now to even think of it. But it was a rather big achievement for me.

As I got older, my dreams of being a published author began to fade. I became interested instead in biochemistry and genetics. Influenced largely by Dana Scully and Clarice Starling, I embarked on a career in biotechnology, which I pursued doggedly for well over a decade.

Yet I kept writing. I journaled about my life and thoughts. I made up myriad stories and wrote them down. I enjoyed brief fame as a live romance writer, creating stories in chat rooms with real-time feedback. I blogged about issues I felt were important. I even started another novel or six.

I decided, finally, to switch careers and enter the literary world. And yet, I shied away from writing. I became an editor, focused on making other people's writing shine. I was never confident in my own voice. The words that came out were never quite right, never exactly what I had meant to say or how I had meant to say it. Honestly, I still feel this way, about everything I publish, including this blog.

So I was quite surprised to be offered a job as a writer. It was a small contract position, writing short pieces for educational purposes. Yet it was writing, and someone was paying me to do it.

The thought settled on me when I sent in my first piece: I am a professional writer. Wow!

It was as if my eleven-year-old self had skipped up to me and given me a big hug. My current self is uncertain, unconfident, and downright confused as to why anyone would pay me to put words on paper. But that girl who wrote stories in a blue binder between classes? She's absolutely thrilled. She's always known we'd end up here. She knows we'll do even greater things.

That girl was asked, in sixth grade, to write a goal on a star to be hung in her classroom. She wrote, "Get a book published." Well, young Elizabeth, we're well on our way. Good job!

Friday, February 27, 2015

You are Your Business

For most people, the line between their professional life and their personal life is clear: what happens at the office is professional, and everything else is not.

For entrepreneurs, and especially solopreneurs (people whose business employs only themselves), those lines can be much more fuzzy. When you are both your brand and your product, when do you stop being on the clock? Are you ever really not working?

Everything we as solopreneurs put into the public sphere is a representation of ourselves as both people and companies. Every blog post I write, every call I make, every event I attend reflects my business, even if the blog post is about my family, the call is setting up a doctor's appointment, and the event is a gardening class. I'm still my business, everywhere I go, and in everything I do.

This blending of the personal and professional has its benefits. When we represent ourselves authentically, we draw to us the kinds of people we work best with. The vulnerability we create by inviting our customers and clients to share in our story enriches those relationships and helps people relate to us. Our natural energy attracts those with similar interests, whether we're salsa dancing, sitting on the beach, hosting a murder mystery party, or riding horses on a wooded trail.

Yet we must also ensure we are being careful and responsible. Am I taking proper care to consider the people in my life when I interact with the public? Am I looking out for those I do business with? My friends and family? What is comfortable for me may not be comfortable for others, and in business, mismatched comfort levels can have devastating effects.

We must equally always be as open and honest as possible with our partners, clients, and customers. Concealing from those we do business with what we're really like can result in their feeling misled and taken advantage of. No one likes a bait-and-switch.

Thus, we as entrepreneurs must find a balance. We must walk the line between being openly expressive in showing our true natures to the world, and being carefully conscious that our true natures may reflect on those we work with and for. This balance isn't always easy to find. Sometimes, we will learn only too late that our careless actions caused harm: a lost opportunity, a disgruntled client, an angry collaborator. Sometimes, we can see the consequences of our decisions before we make them, and choose the action that is best for ourselves and our business.

Readers: how do you ensure you are both authentic and careful in your interactions with the world?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Joys I've Found Lately

I realize this blog has been all doom and gloom and panic lately, so today I want to share with you some of the good things that have been happening in my life and career lately.

Ling in her natural habitat.
First, I am getting to spend lots of quality time with my cat Ling. Not to be all crazy cat lady, but this actually is very important to me. Ling has been with me for more than twelve years, making our cat-owner partnership the longest non-familial relationship of my life. She's normally active and vibrant, but over the past few years she's battled a chronic illness, which nearly cost her her life last September. Thanks to the fact that I now work from my couch, I am superbly kitty-snuggled, and it does wonderful things for my heart and mind.

Another great aspect of freelancing full-time has been the fantastic people I am meeting as a result of what I do. I spent an hour on the phone this afternoon with Roxanne Hanna of Sunscribe Publishers. I felt a real connection with this woman who is building a brand around the principles I already believe in. She values partnership among those working together to create something worthwhile, immediacy of action when an idea is coalescing into a reality, and fostering a community of creative professionals supporting each other in their business endeavors. We clicked on many levels, and our conversation turned my dull, gray day into something shining and lovely.

I've also been able to spend an unprecedented amount of time outdoors (for me anyway) during Texas's best season: winter. What northern states call summer quite resembles the weather we're currently experiencing—temperatures in the 60s and 70s, lots of sun, cool evenings—and I couldn't be happier to be drinking it in. When I worked in a lab I was lucky to glimpse the sun through a window sometimes. Now I'm a veritable vitamin D factory, I'm outside so much.

I am so glad to have treasures like these in my life. Now, please excuse me. I have a kitty to cuddle.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Terror of Money

I'm going to talk about something today that nobody likes to talk about: money.

Not how to make a bunch of it, or how to spend it wisely, or any of the kind of trite advice you can get from a zillion sources.

I'm going to talk about the fear money (and its lack) creates, and the way this affects everything we (read: I) do.

I'm having a snack today of fresh strawberries. This feels so indulgent, so ridiculously extravagant, that I feel ashamed.

That, folks, is pretty fucked up. I know it, but I can't stop feeling that way.

Why do I feel ashamed about snacking on strawberries? It starts with money. I currently have little to no income, having just lost my full-time job and not yet having picked up the difference in freelance gigs. It doesn't matter to my lizard brain that I left that job with a huge severance and that before that I had amassed a big chunk of savings. All my emotion-led self knows is that I have no more paychecks.

So there I was, at the grocery store last week, with a fistful of coupons and an eye on every generic and sale. Strawberries, as it happened, were on sale. But only if I bought two pounds of them. 'Sure,' I thought to myself, 'I can eat two pounds of strawberries before they go bad. I'll get some yogurt and granola and have that for breakfast. It'll be a nice treat.'

Before I was even to the checkout lane I was already feeling guilty. Yogurt, berries, and granola is a far more expensive breakfast than my usual bagel and cream cheese. How could I justify spending so much on something just because I wanted it?

And now, a week later, I still have more than half of those berries, and they're reaching the end of their shelf life. And my lizard brain has gone into panicked overdrive. If I don't eat them now, before they spoil, I will have wasted all that money (and food!). So I need to eat them anytime it makes sense.

I don't make a habit of snacking. Yet here I am, midafternoon, snacking on strawberries like royalty and feeling like a complete financial failure.

This is the sort of irrational, unjustifiable fear we let ourselves build up around money. My issue is strawberries. Other people have other fears that they let rule even the smallest decisions in their lives.

Right now, it feels like hedonism to do even one thing because I want to rather than because it will help me make money. Like eating strawberries in the afternoon.

Why do we keep making our decisions out of fear? Why do we spend our whole lives doing things we hate just to keep that fear at bay?

I wish I knew how to change this. Do you?

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Scary Reality of Self-Employment

Today is the first day of my full-time self employment.

Although I had been building my business and working toward a goal of full-time freelancing, the final decision was actually someone else's. On Friday I was laid off from my manufacturing job, along with dozens of others. I'm now totally on my own.

It's a difficult transition. I've been employed full-time for my entire adult life. Before my manufacturing job, I worked in academic research, a job I had obtained as a student and continued after graduation. I've spent the past twelve years answering to bosses, counting vacation days and sick leave, taking home regular paychecks.

All of that is no more. From now on I will be answering to clients, working when I need money and taking nothing but unpaid time off. My pay will be sporadic, coming as I finish projects rather than every two weeks.

And that's when I have work to do and money to be made. The harsh reality of freelancing is that jobs are incredibly difficult to get. The few clients I've had were all obtained through friends and family. What I'm making now is nowhere near enough to support myself. I spent all morning today sending out inquiries to people I've worked with, people I'd like to work with, and people who know writers, editors, and publishers.

I may have to learn to cold-call businesses to gain their interest. Although I realize it may be necessary, I really loathe the idea. I hate talking on the phone under the best of circumstances, and interrupting someone to peddle yourself to them is far from the best of circumstances. While I recognize the potential value in it, I haven't been able to bring myself to do it yet.

For now, I'm just trying not to panic at the thought of not having enough income. I know it will improve. I know countless people have done this before me. I know I can do it too.

But damn, is this hard.