More stuff to help you kick butt and do remarkable stuff as a freelancer.
More stuff to help you kick butt and do remarkable stuff as a freelancer.
If there's a book that should be wedged into every freelancer's toolbox, it's this one: The War of Art.
It's by Steven Pressfield, novelist and screenwriter. He wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, The Last of the Amazons, The Afghan Campaign, The Virtues of War, and most recently Killing Rommel. This guy produces.
In the War of Art he has much to say to us creatives and freelancers and entrepreneurial types who have stacks of unrealized daydream projects and works laying around undone. Or even untouched.
Why we don't do
How come we don't 'get around' to writing that symphony, or building that web venture? We're spending our days designing user manuals, which we detest, yet we still don't sit down to do the scary hard work that could break us into the big time. Why the hell not?
Or maybe we've lucked into the all-time juicy dream assignment from the best client ever. And it's laying there undone because we're so freaking scared of blowing it, we don't even start. (Where I am this very day.)
How to get off your ass
Mr. Pressfield names the demon 'Resistance', that anti-force that keeps us from sitting down and doing our work. And by 'work' he means that thing we were born to do, that calling that tugs at our soul. The thing we should be doing.
In the War of Art, he exposes the tricks and subterfuges that Resistance employs to make sure we keep dicking around and not doing.
And then he shows us the miraculous things will happen when we shut up, buck up and get to work.
The best part: Mr. Pressfield writes as a guy who's been personally slapped around by Resistance. (See his story about the night in a cheap New York apartment on page 49.)
He's doesn't scold from a lofty perch like some overachiever gurus out there. Mr. Pressfield has done hand-to-hand battle with Resistance. (And still does, apparently.) He comes back with muddy boots and a gashed chin to give us the intel. It rings true. I believe him.
I first read this book three years ago, and go through it afresh every few months for much-needed 'starch and inspiration' as he calls it. I have bought at least seven of these to give away. Above is a picture of my tattered and sweat-stained copy. Buy your own here.
Anyway. By dumb luck, I recently had the chance to do a quick Q&A with Steven Pressfield on the War of Art, particularly as it applies to us freelancers.
Talk about stage fright. I re-wrote my questions nine times, afraid of sounding like a boob.
Mr. Pressfield was gracious and complete pro. Here's the exchange.
Q: One passage from WoA that often echoes in my head is The Definition of a Hack. I agree with the thought entirely. Enduring and powerful work doesn't come from trying to outguess the market, reviewers, the public. That's not why you did Gates of Fire.
But the question that nags at me (and every other artist/designer/photographer freelancer I commiserate with) is 'how do we remain authentic while still trying to satisfy clients?'
Some say "Work the way you want, and let the right people find you or not." Others say "As a pro, you should be skillful and disciplined enough to show up and solve any problem, whether the solution delights your soul, or not."
Where do you land here?
PRESSFIELD: Walt, I come down for #2. But that’s assuming that the artist/designer/photographer/freelancer we’re talking about is in business as a commercial enterprise and not doing “pure art.”
If you’re in business, you’re there to serve your client. On the other hand, #1 has a lot of validity too. A photographer, say, has his own style – and that’s why clients come to him and not to other photographers. They want his look, his emotion, what he and only he brings to the table.
So now that I think about it, I would say it’s a combo of #1 and #2. Do you remember the actress Tina Louise, who was on Gilligan’s Island? A real sexpot. I had a boss once who hired her to do a commercial. When the camera rolled, she kept giving him her sexy Tina Louise takes, which he kept trying to tone down. Finally she just snapped. “If you wanted Florence Henderson, you should have cast Florence Henderson!”
PRESSFIELD: You’re right on there, Walt. I didn’t think WOA applied to entrepreneurs either when I wrote it. But to my amazement, that group has written in the most and been the most enthusiastic.
I never knew Resistance applied to business but it sure does! Donald Trump put WOA as #2 on his “summer reading list” for his business seminars; Robert Kiyosaki recommends it; and I’ve bunches of copies for David Allen (“Getting Things Done.”)
Maybe I should do a business version. Thanks!
Q: Where does blogging fit into your overall work day now? (StevenPressfield.com) Is it a warm-up before the day's hard slog? A little cool-out jam session after the tough pages are done? Maybe a distraction? What has your experience been so far?
PRESSFIELD: Blogging has really devoured my time. I’ve got to stop it. It’s fun and I’m enthusiastic about the cause, but it’s real work, it’s full time stuff. I intend to keep it up for a while, as the issues are “hot,” but by early next year I’ll have to really scale it back. It requires too much time and effort. It’s just as hard, I find, to write a good blog piece as to do real work.
As far as how it fits into the day, I’ll do a blog piece first, as you sussed out, as a warm-up. It takes about two hours. Then two hours of real writing. Then I’m pooped. But I’ve lost two hours of serious writing time, so that’s not so good.
Unfortunately these days, a writer if he wants to survive has to have some way of “getting the word out.” You can’t count on your publisher at all and there are no more book reviews. It’s like everything else in this tough economy. The old days are over. It’s tough out there!
-I was heartened to see that it took Steven Pressfield -- world-class productive writer-- two full hours to write a blog post. Makes me feel better for pecking at this one for 90 minutes, even with 60% of it already written by Steve.
- It's interesting to see that even established, pure-pro guys with a built-in audience still have to be out there pitching and networking and handshaking. Your work can do some of the talking for you. But not all of it. Steve does it well, and with class.
- Steven didn't single me out for this Q&A just because I'm an A-list mover and shaker. He does this as a matter of course, I think, to offer a leg up to other creatives out there struggling in the trenches every day. Even Z-listers like me.
Here's a stack of other Q&As Steve offered to freelancers and creatives. (Many of whom had way better questions than mine.) This guy is generous, tireless.
Oh, and if you ever need a savvy and refreshingly human advocate for your book project, I would recommend Callie Oettinger. She gets it.
I'm a bit embarrassed to relate this. And I do not advocate treating clients this way. It is childish and unprofessional. (But it felt good.) In general I adore my clients.
I offer this only because the statute of limitations has expired.
I was writing a white paper for a corporate VP. A one-time project.
She was driving me bats by larding up the text with all sorts of pompous and flatulent companyspeak.
When I wrote the word 'use' and she would change it to 'utilize'. She'd cross out the word 'after' and insert 'subsequent to'. Most of her comments were so tangled I couldn't decipher them at all. She spoke in buzzwords. It was a bad fit from the start, and I should have realized it.
By the fourth round of revisions, the piece was a mess and we were both frustrated. She called my writing 'too simplistic and downmarket.' She wanted 'a reset.'
Ordinarily, in unflappable pro mode, I would have simply shut up, written what she wanted and left town with the cash.
Instead, I threw a tantrum.
"So I'm too simplistic, eh?"
At a quarter to midnight, in a fit of pique, I rewrote the entire piece.
I set the thing ablaze with blather and bombast. I stuffed it chockablock with cliches and random combinations of every pre-fab nonsense phrase I had ever heard.
I packed in twenty-nine words where only nine were needed, and rendered every third paragraph as a one sixty-foot sentence. I played mix and match with the techno-jargon: I wrote next-edge and cutting-generation. I concocted ugly terms like 'scalable unassailability.'
It was a tour de force of impenetrable corporatespeak, so laughable it could have been a Monty Python bit.
At that point, of course, I should have put the thing away, let the steam subside, and taken up the job again the next day, calmly, and without ego.
But that's not what I did.
I was still smarting and figured I was as good as fired anyway. Like a dope, I wanted the satisfaction of a parting shot.
So at 1:30 am, with evil glee, I emailed this snide parody to the client.
I was invoking the freelancer's option to bail, that freedom (which must be used sparingly) to disengage from any client, project, or situation that is intolerable, unprofitable, irritating as hell, or harmful to the soul. It is the ultimate stress-relief valve, unavailable to salaried folk.
And I hit 'Send' and slept contented, glad to be free of this root canal of a paper.
Next morning, there's an email from her.
She says: "Yes! Great reboot and retake. This is definitely on point now. I've attached some minor changes . . . And thanks for midnight oiling this."
Sometimes you can act like an ass and still come out okay.
A designer friend reminds me of his similar antics with a client who always wanted his logo bigger.
"Whenever we showed layouts with the logo at the proper size, the client would insist on enlarging it until it bulged like a tumor at the bottom of the page. We hated that."
"The next time around, we decided go in with grotesquely huge logos. We figured he'd gasp at these cantaloupe-sized monstrosities and tell us to pare them back and back. And we'd end up at a reasonable size for once.
"Nope. The client loved the overbloated logos. Called us geniuses. Asked us to build a campaign based on an ultra-magnified, hyper-sized logos that barely fit on the page."
"Around the idea of 'Objects in mirror are closer than they appear."
I'm beginning to suspect that it's smart, at least sometimes, to turn down and beg off assignments from time to time (even if you really want them.)
It seems to be, paradoxically, good for business.
And no, this is not about hauteur. This is not about being a diva or a prima donna. It's about some reverse zen contrarian anti-matter dynamic that I can't figure out.
A client -- a bootstrap start-up -- comes to me with a project. They want me to write their web site. They seem like bright and eager guys. I like them instantly, but the subject is well outside my skill zone. And the project is a logistical hairball. No way I can hit a home run with this thing. Worst of all, the budget is below slave wages. A non-starter.
So I politely decline, and point them to another writer.
But, of course, they're having none of that.
They call back. 'No, we want you.' They raise the fee, extend the deadline, sweeten the pot. The more I decline, the harder they push. They are trying to sell me on the project. And oddly, the more they sell, the less I want it. (Did too many other writers turn them down? Am I the last sucker on the list?Are they crooks? What's the catch, here?)
Meanwhile, of course, I'm courting the hell out of another client.
This one with budget spilling over the dikes. The company is huge. With them, one pipsqueak document would cover two mortgage payments. Talk about heavy users. They have sixteen hundred pounds, at least nine page-miles of content on their web site.
And all of it is unintelligible crap. The sort of crap that makes a writer just itch to get at it.
I could re-write it all to brilliance with one hand on my Mac and the other juggling a Corona and my FIOS remote. This is what I am born to do. I lie awake re-writing their intros in my head.
I've even sent them samples of my miraculous makeovers and transformations. Half the bandwidth, double the impact, six times the clarity. It's as good as has been done in their industry. (Even if I do say so myself.)
"Very interesting," is all they say. "We'll let you know."
But they ain't calling.
The harder I sell, the less they want me.
This is a lesson I have to re-learn every once in a while:
If you're working at the lower limit of your fee range, which happens to be the upper limits of the client's budget, step away. Better yet, run.When it's small potatoes for you, but a major deal for them, it will go south fast. You will lose money. They will be pissed off. It will be a 360-degree stinker.
The dynamic is easy to understand. If you're working for bare bones fee on a relatively small project, your goal is to get it done. Be swift, be efficient, be a pro. Then move on.
But their goal, of course, is to get every nickel's worth of the astronomical fee they're paying. They want project briefs, target dates, ironclad agreements. More tweaks, more choices. They will want to re-think and over-discuss everything. They will never be sure if it's good enough.
You will do twice the work for half the fee. And they will still feel gypped. Bad juju all around.
Best work zone: Top of your fee scale (where you're delighted to be working, and eager to bust one over the fence). . . and the mid-range of the client's usual budget. (Gee, he does really good stuff. And reasonable, too.)
I'm not sure why, but clients seem to be more comfortable with odd numbers and specific amounts.
A project fee of $1730 sounds like it's based on some calculations or considerations.
A project fee of $1600 sounds like a number you just made up.
A day rate of $1150 is somehow easier to swallow than a day rate of $1000. Which sounds like a nice round figure that you feel like making.
When my auto mechanic charges me exactly $600 for my front brakes, I feel suspicious. But I'll gladly write the check for $731.45.
The rule is: Get paid sooner rather than later. Get money up front if you can. Get paid as you go. The least desirable is to bill when you're done, and wait 45 to 60 days to get paid.
How to say it? Keep the focus on what they get, not what you want and when you want it. Make it sound like the most natural and routine and expected thing. And stay away from "I require," "You have to pay", "I need".
"Half the project fee will be invoiced when your design gets underway, with the remaining amount invoiced when the final design is turned over to you."
"As soon as the initial $1,300 is taken care of, you'll have your shoot day booked. The remaining amount can be settled on the shoot day itself. "
"The paperwork is pretty simple. There's an invoice for one-third of the budget when we start. The second third won't be invoiced until the modules are turned over for review. The rest is invoiced when you have all the finals on your desk and ready to go."
"The invoices will be submitted with the usual net, 10 days terms. I assume that's pretty easy for your accounting to handle."
Deciding how much to charge is one thing. Figuring out how to say it is another.
Never, ever say "This will cost $500" or "This will cost you $900 per month." No, no, no. You don't want to be a cost factor. (Even if you are.)
Never, ever say "I charge $50 per hour" or "I charge $500 per page/photo/day/logo." Or worse (and I actually heard a photographer say this once) "For a half-day shoot, I like to get at least $500." No, no, no. That brands you as an amateur-moonlighter-tinkerer.
And never, ever let the dollar figure hang by itself at the end of the sentence. That makes it echo in the silence. Better to end with what they get.
"The budget for the new web content would involve thirty-five hundred, which would cover all the product content we spoke about, as well as the application stories you're looking for."
"You could handle the logo re-design and new stationery for about 4K, and have it all buttoned up within 30 days or so."
"It would involve between fifteen hundred and eighteen hundred for the on-site shoot, or even less if the conference doesn't run as long as you're anticipating."
"For about 750 each, you could have a complete template for every type of page or .pdf."
"As a rule of thumb, the more complex versions run about nine hundred. But the pieces you're talking about are more in the 600 range."
"Figure on eleven hundred per day, per team, for the six-hour sessions you were thinking of, and the leave-behind summaries."
"It's all based on a 750 day rate for the six to eight days we're estimating for the chapter illustrations in the style we had talked about. And you'd always get to approve rough before we go to final"
"Most of my clients invest anywhere from twelve to eighteen hundred for a concept to show around. Yours would be entail only a thousand, since you're working with only a few elements."
Always talk money with confidence, as if the amounts are all routine and perfectly normal and nothing to bat an eye over. You never want to sound unsure. Never flinch, waffle, or apologize.
Think carefully about how you make clients feel.
Do they like to call you? Do they feel better after talking to you?
This may sound like touchy-feely silliness, but it's critical to your bottom line. Because clients will tend to business with you (or not) based on how you make them feel. It counts as much, or more, than your skill or expertise. Even if your clients are hard-boiled engineers or no-nonsense numbers guys.
I worked with a guy who was a master at this. Clients looked forward to calling Brian. He always sounded delighted to hear from them. They got his full attention and felt like the center of the universe for that moment. And it never sounded like glad-handing back-slapping.
If they wanted to bitch about their boss, or complain about knee pain or chat about the game, Brian would let them. Whatever they needed, he could accommodate. Or he proposed an alternate that they liked just as much. He listened way more than he talked. He always sounded enthusiastic about the project, even if it was really a hairball.
And when the client hung up, she felt good. Smarter. Or relieved. Or confident. She knew everything would be alright. She had made the right decision. She would look good to her boss. She didn't feel schmoozed or handled. She genuinely felt good about the contact.
Brian wasn't necessarily the best at his particular trade, but he was a four-star pro at making clients like to work with him. He had a lot of clients.
It's surprising how often we forget this simple thing. I have to re-learn his lesson myself a few times a year. I cringe when I realize how often I grouse in front of clients, whine about impossible deadlines, or somehow make their ideas sound stupid. Or worse, ramble on about how much I know about everything. Yipe.
Don't do that.
Make the client feel better after talking to you.
When you're not actively doing work for a client, be working on something of your own. Something you want to build just because you want to. Write some software, amass a collection, do a book, build some design templates, take pictures of ice crystals. Whatever you're passionate about.
As a day job, freelancer Bill Milbrodt writes music and designs soundtracks for TV commercials and videos. Does very well at it. He even won an Emmy along the way.
But some time back, just for the heck of it, he took apart his battered old Honda, made musical instruments out of the pieces, wrote a suite of music for them, and gathered some adventurous musicians to play it all. Whenever he got the chance, took his Car Music Project on the road, performing at every festival and venue that invited him, including a gig this August at Lincoln Center Outdoors in New York City.
That's were he caught the attention of a big London film production company that is creating commercials for an auto company. Bill landed a very juicy contract to build an ensemble of instruments out their client's car for a big-budget, high-profile commercial.
Good money, invaluable exposure, a world of new contacts, and a dazzling new item on the resume. Just for doing something he felt like doing. (He also worked his ass off, mind you.)
Apply your skill or craft to a project of your own. Work it. Finish it. It will pay off, but very likely in a way you never expect. And it's good for the soul, too.