Tuesday, September 23, 2008

How Not to Become a Client

or, Strange and Tangential News of the Weird

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from someone who had read one of my articles on writing online. He had appreciated the information in the article and sent me the following e-mail:

Do you give consultations? I need help with a few questions now but I also have big writing needs. I am available either now (my preference) or soon or later.

I was catching up on my e-mail late on Saturday night. I responded: "Yes, I do provide consultations. I also edit, ghostwrite, and co-author on occasion. I would be happy to learn more about what you need, to see if what I offer would be a good fit for you."

Then I asked him to tell me a bit about his writing project, and let me know what sort of help he wanted from me. (I noted that he had a well-received book in print, and had been featured in the front matter of another, so he was no newbie to the publishing industry. I was intrigued as to what questions he had for me...)

Almost immediately, I received a reply: Do you want to talk now? A phone number was included.

Now, I don't know about you, but this struck me as odd. I generally do not accept new clients on the spur of the moment, at 11:30 p.m. on a weekend, without knowing the nature of the problem I'm going to be asked to tackle.

(Regular clients, because they live in so many different time zones, know that they can contact me any time, day or night. Some have been known to dial the phone first and do the math required to figure out the time difference later, but without malice aforethought. Still, they generally get in touch via e-mail and we schedule a mutually agreeable time for a phone consult.)

So, I wrote back that I tried very hard, with varying degrees of success, not to work on the weekends. I suggested times I was available on Monday morning, and left the ball in his court.

The next day I received an electronic manuscript -- a lengthy one -- of a fairly polished book. This book dealt in great detail with a subject that is SO not my area of expertise: finances. My would-be client had indicated that he'd like me to look at two specific pages and a complete chapter. I took a look at them, but, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what he needed my help with.

For one thing, the text in question dealt with detailed investment information for people in their 50's and older, so the subject matter was completely foreign to me.

For another, the writing style, syntax, punctuation, and grammar were all passably fine. Hardly riveting, given the content, but literate and readable, nonetheless.

Still, I was willing to listen to his questions and help, if I could.

I asked him to let me know a good time to contact him (within the parameters of my schedule availability), and I would be happy to chat with him. But first, I reiterated, please tell me how I could be of use. I reminded him that he must be aware that finances are not my field of expertise. I stressed that any assistance I would be able to offer would be primarily in terms of editing for structure and clarity.

I thought that was pretty open-minded and inviting.

Evidently, I was mistaken.

The response I received said that he already had an editor. He thought I was an expert in helping people write forewords (I am), and he needed my help RIGHT NOW. It couldn't wait -- nope, nope, nope. So, since I didn't drop everything and consult with him immediately, he'd referred to my article online. He'd gotten along just fine without me, and had no further use for me.

As for the pages he'd referred me to, he thought those "gems" would be most applicable to me in my current financial position.

To which I audibly responded: "Bwuuuh?"

I wasn't sure which confounded me more: his assumption that I was a good decade or so older than I actually am (yesterday's birthday notwithstanding), or his expectation of becoming an instant client -- with me at his beck and call.

Perhaps I'm being overly harsh. Perhaps I genuinely let the guy down by not immediately picking up the phone and doing a Saturday-night consult. But I doubt it. I also doubt that in HIS professional life, he would have responded differently if our roles were reversed.

There are certain Rules of Thumb that govern How Not to Become a Client. These include:

1.) If the person with whom you wish to consult is a woman, overestimate her age.

2.) Be intentionally vague about what you would like the consultant to help you with -- even after repeated requests for specific information.

3.) Cut into the professional's personal time.

4.) Disregard the scheduling boundaries the professional gives.

5.) Expect to take precedence over the consultant's family AND current clientele.

I have to say, the experience caught me off-guard. I'm very picky about who I work with, because I want to make sure that we will both make the best use of each other's time and fields of expertise. I honestly believe that my clients are the best in the world. I consider most of them as friends rather than business acquaintances. We tend to have lengthy business relationships that grow over the years.

Perhaps that's why the entire experience struck me as weird. Ah well, into each life, a little strange must fall...

And Speaking of Strange

"Strange" isn't always "bad," you understand. Today, the mailman brought me a very strange, wonderful, and completely out-of-the-blue unexpected package. One of my film industry friends (who, incidentally, is one of those who phones first and calculates time difference later) sent me some way cool screenwriting software as a birthday gift. I suspect that he may want me to provide some writing services using the gift, but so what?

I was FLOORED, FLUMMOXED, and at a LOSS FOR WORDS. Which doesn't happen very often, but is an altogether pleasant experience.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me!

Yes, the sands of time continue to trickle through the hourglass of my life, and yet another grain has dropped. Today is my birthday, and though a good friend's husband told her that I have to still be in my 30's, this, alas is not the case.

However, the good news is that I've spent all year thinking that I was as old as I am today. Whether this bodes well (this birthday is a breeze -- I've spent the past 11 months already there, in my mind...) or ill (how bad is it when a person doesn't know her own age, for crying out loud?) remains to be seen.

Years ago, when Robert and I were still puppies, in our early twenties, we had a friend at university who was celebrating his 30th birthday. We took "The Old Geezer" out for a birthday dinner and, over dessert, I got smart and asked, "So, what year were you born?"

He told us.

Now, I'm no math genius, but I know how to subtract. It didn't take Robert and me long to figure out that with our friend's birthdate, he could only be... 29.

We told him he'd have to pay for his own meal, for trying to pull one over on us. It struck us as flat-out hilarious that a person could not know how old he was.

Ah -- one should never laugh at another's shortcomings. It will all come back to haunt you in the end.

I've come to believe that the more birthdays you have, the less your actual age means.

This has been a great birthday.

We had friends over Saturday night for a rousing game of Monopoly (the Grand Rapids edition). It was the most fun I've ever had playing the game -- and not just because I won.

Yesterday, we had some friends who are considering taking one of the horses in my pasture off my hands over for a vegetarian / organic / good-for-you sampler meal and engaging conversation. A good time was had by all -- including the horse, who seemed to really connect with them.

This morning, after letting Sera puppy out, I crawled back to bed and slept in until the frivolously indecent hour of 9:00. Robert had gotten me a wonderful gift selection. (He's great. He listens when I say things like, "if you're wondering what to get me for my birthday..." Then he acts on what he hears.) It's a gorgeous Michigan end-of-summer day. And I'm caught up on work, so I didn't feel at all guilty for wasting time just surfing around online for a while this afternoon.

So: happy birthday to me. I couldn't have asked for a better one.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Goals vs. Needs

I'm going to jump back into my screenwriting project that I took to Jim Mercurio's Advanced Screenwriting Workshop in July. I've tackled the first 20 pages. But they still require another rewrite before I continue with the rest of the script.
My goal is to craft this script into something salable that actually gets made into something that bears a fundamental resemblance to my original vision for the movie. But my need is to write something that I desperately want to see -- that will merit my going to bat for it until it becomes reality.

Fundamental Motivators

The difference between GOALS and NEEDS was something that Jim went into in detail during his workshop. Though it may seem like splitting hairs, understanding these two fundamental motivators is important in crafting a solid story. Too much emphasis on one leads to a weakness or deficiency in the other -- which either opens up gaping plot holes (never good) or causes a disconnect between your audience and your main characters (even worse).

For the record, a goal is something physical. It's an external force. A goal is something the character wants, something the character will take steps to acquire. It's the Brass Ring your character dreams about.

A need on the other hand, is something emotional. Fulfilling the need will, of necessity, result in the character's psychological, spiritual, and / or emotional growth. With good story craftsmanship, the need is the Thing that Must Be Overcome in order for the character to achieve his or her ultimate Goal.

Ready, Maestro?

Goals and needs drive each other, to a point. A character's needs can be used to illustrate the depths he or she is willing to plumb in efforts to reach a goal. Also, the larger goals can make turning points within the story more clear and more significant.

In any case, the need must inform and drive the goal.

This leads to the character's epiphany, when he thinks he is ready to gain his prize.

Not until the climax, however, does the character prove he is ready and worthy of reaching what he seeks.

The point is to use the character's needs to "Orchestrate the Goal." The character can't reach his goal until he's had the necessary growth.

...If it's true that "Theatre is Life, Film is Art, and Television is Furniture,"

and that "Life Imitates Art,"

then evidently there is some fundamental growth that I need in order to orchestrate and achieve my goal of Successful Screenplay Sale & Subsequent Filming Occurring. Like many screenwriters out there, I've already had the epiphany. Now I'm just pushing forward to prove it.

Here's wishing every writer out there everything you Need in order to achieve your Goals!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Puppy Love

Sera, our lovely little English Mastiff, continues to charm her way into our lives. She's 13 weeks old now, and the most Perfect Puppy I've ever known.

In the short time she's been with us, she has learned:

* Humans do not comprehend the inherent Toy Value of shoes.
* Cats and chickens are almost, but not quite, as much fun to play with as footwear.
* "Business" is to be done outdoors. Even when it's raining.
* No one in the family enjoys having their toes chewed.
* If Mom calls, run around the cat. Cats don't move. They hate getting run over, and they make for nasty speed bumps.
* Everything tastes better in the kitchen.
* When in doubt, go to the crate.
* It's hard to stand up when you're stepping on your ears.
* No one in the family ever runs out of "scritches" and hugs.
* Life is goooooood.

"Dribble Work"

Work has slowly been trickling in from various clients. I honestly thought my Very Important Project would be so hot right now that I'd be unable to accept new clients or new projects until the end of the year. However, it is currently stalled in Committee.

This development has given me time to start on Ryan Gingerich's book. But I'm caught up on that, too, pending Ryan's commentary and approval on the preliminary chapters.

This has allowed me to work with my friend Paula, who I'm helping put together a proposal for a book about her very interesting life. And that, too, is caught up.

Which means that -- barring a load of files being dumped in my In-Box tonight -- I have a window of opportunity to work on my own stuff! I'm practically giddy with anticipation.

I want to continue working on the screenplay I workshopped with Jim Mercurio in July. I want to finish the text and illustrations of a coloring book for Mini Miracles a friend's not-for-profit ministry that uses miniature horses, dogs, and other therapy animals to brighten the days of the sick and elderly. And I have an idea for another screenplay that I'd like to be able to play around with in the near future.

Though there is no shortage of work to be done for my clients, as of now, the balls are all in their courts. Which leaves my court free for playing on my own.

Let the games begin!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Forewords vs. Testimonials

I have been corresponding via e-mail with an author who read the article on forewords on my writer's website. He liked the article, but had this question:

Would you say people offering testimonials enjoy some of the same benefits of people writing forewords?

To which I responded:

I'd answer with a qualified "yes." The operative words are "some of the same benefits." To my mind, writing a foreword can benefit both the foreword-writer and the book's author, whereas giving a testimonial primarily benefits the person receiving it. (I'm not negating the goodwill fostered from saying nice things about people who have helped you. I'm merely saying that I consider giving testimonials more as networking, while a good case could be made for considering a foreword as marketing.)

In my opinion, the best personal result one can hope for from offering a testimonial is keeping one's name and reason for fame in front of the public without actually producing something new. In the world of fiction, for instance, Stephen King is brilliant at giving testimonials. He puts his seal of approval on an emerging author while simultaneously reminding the world who the true writing master is.

I believe that forewords hold more value than testimonials, however. I would argue that forewords hold more innate credibility than a testimonial. Anyone can write a few lines of glowing review. Not everyone is asked to pen a foreword. If done correctly, providing a foreword can bring the writer's work to the attention of a whole new audience while still introducing the larger work.

That's my two cents' worth, at any rate.

I spent most of the afternoon working with a writer friend and helping her polish a sample chapter for her non-fiction book proposal. The project she's working on involves telling part of her very remarkable life story. I find it utterly fascinating. I'm honored to be included in some small way to help make this project happen.

Tonight, I'll finish up a rough draft of a chapter for Ryan Gingerich's book. Then, tomorrow begins with a phone consult with a potential client and concludes with a drafting of a section for my Very Important Major Client.

It's good to be busy. And I must say that it's interesting work keeping all these projects afloat at once.

I generally like to work on only one Major Project at a time, but events have conspired against me. Due to reasons beyond my control (and the fact that I have difficulty saying "No" to valued long-term clients who come perilously close to begging for my help...), I've got several irons in the fire. Right now, all is copacetic. I just pray that I don't get burned...

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Secession of St. Paul

or, Words Fail Me

It appears that St. Paul, MN, is no longer a part of these United States. It has seceded (or succeeded) and become something entirely separate.

Surely, something like what happened there earlier this week -- when three exemplary college journalism students and two producers and Amy Goodman a well-known on-air personality, were arrested for alleged rioting, when police arrested people and took personal property on the suspicion of a political protest and vegetarian groups were raided at gunpoint and labeled as dangerous anarchists -- could never happen in the rest of the country that I know and love.

Because this country was built on words. Powerful words: the Declaration of Independence ("all men are created equal"), the Constitution ("We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility , provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America"), the amendments, and generations of journalists free from governmental muzzling.

We believe in our words. People have fought and died for what those words stand for. It occurs to me that if owning words, dispersing words (according to reports, political pamphlets criticizing various current events were among the contraband seized by the St. Paul police), saying, or shouting words becomes regulated, then the area in which that is allowed to happen is no longer a functioning part of what keeps these States united.

It also occurs to me that if the trend continues, my freedom to write words such as this may soon be a thing of the past.

"Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear."

Harry S Truman, August 8, 1950
33rd president of US (1884 - 1972)

In that case, it could truly be said that words -- utterly -- failed me. Failed us all.