Friday, April 29, 2011

The check is in the mail, honest...

Yesterday I received an email from Catalyst Game Labs' controller (Publishers of BattleTech, which I do freelance writing and game development for). She was just dropping me a line to tell me a check for one of my published projects was in the mail.

After the obligatory happy dance it did get me thinking about the whole making money part, of what can still only be fairly called a hobby.

Hobby… Yes, it is still certainly a hobby. I made a respectable amount of money last year, but in the grand scheme of my monthly expenses and day job paycheck it isn't enough to alter my basic lifestyle. Last year I used the money mostly to pay off bills and cover unexpected expenses of the tight economy.  So I'm not getting rich off this, but I am getting paid. And with paychecks come certain things you don't tend to think about.

So knowing I'm getting another check in the mail, also made me flash back to my recent, yearly, brush with Uncle Sam and my taxes. When you are making money in a few hundred here and a hundred there (I've had checks as small as $20) the total impact of what you make doesn't really sink in. So when I got my 1099 from Catalyst this year I had the sudden realization that this was going to make an impact on the taxes I might owe the government. Fortunately I'm married to a pretty awesome woman, who has run her own small business for years. She had raised this issue before and I'd pretty much brushed it off not thinking it would be that big an impact. She then went and saved my bacon by making sure we covered our anticipated taxes. At the end of our tax process we didn't owe Uncle Sam any money, but I darn well owed her flowers, dinner and years more adoration.

50%- When you get a check, divide it by 50%. No matter what it is, just divide it by 50%. Take half that money and send it straight to the IRS, do not pass go, do not collect $200. You can find the form and information for this at this link on the IRS website.

"Why 50%? I'm in the 30% tax bracket." - A couple of reasons. First off  any of the money you over paid you'll get back in your tax return. Instead of risking having to pay more, set yourself up to get back. Also, prepaying state taxes is much harder and may not even be an option in some states. The extra money you sent to the IRS you can use to pay your State taxes. (I don't have a clue on how taxes work in other countries, but this would probably be a safe bet in most places.)

You are your own book keeper and your own lawyer:
You may not be making a lot of money, but you are making money and you are "in business." If you are getting paid, you should have some kind of contract or purchase order.

Track your projects: It's up to you to make sure you track this. If you don't have good records, then you are relying on the other party to have good records. This isn't always the case. I had a couple of old Catalyst projects that were delayed several times before seeing publication. The projects were so old, they were on the companies previous system, which had issues. Because I had a copy of my contract, I was able to send it to their controller and she was able to use that to pay me.

Read the fine print: It is a legal document. Read the whole thing and understand it. For example, a standard clause in the contracts I have is X% if I'm late. So if my work is late, then Catalyst can dock my pay. If you don't read it, and you sign it then you are stuck with it.

Say Thank you:
When they pay you, take the time to send a thank you email (or if you have regular phone conversations, pick up the phone). Yeah you earned that money, but in an industry like writing politeness goes a long way.

The flip side of this is to not be pushy or demanding. Even if the company you are writing for is late, not responsive or dropping the ball, politeness still goes a hell of a long way. It's a small industry and not to be to cliché, cream does rise to the top. Stay professional through any interactions and you'll be in a much better position in the future. I know I'm not Catalyst's best freelancer, but I also know that my politeness and professionalism has been one of the reasons I keep getting assignments.

Have some fun: Last year the economy really sucked for me. It was a belt tightening year all around and I had a lot of bills to pay. But despite all that I made a point to set aside a small part of each check I got for something fun (For me this usually meant a Sushi dinner for the family). You are working hard to get that paycheck and if all you ever do is pay bills, you don't get as much joy from the experience of being paid.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Oh my G… it's full of blank!

The blank page… No greater dread have I.

Oh certainly there are things far more frightening than a blank page. I'm just unable to think of them right now. The sheer expanse of blank white screen is threatening to swallow me up. If I don't get some words on the screen it will suck me down and I'll never get anything done. Oh, look, is that a new game on Facebook?

No! Focus, blank page, must fill it.

I'm currently sitting on two deadlined writing assignments from Catalyst Game Labs. I also have another one that doesn't have a deadline yet, but that's a matter of time. Oh and I've got a Steampunk short story pounding on my skull to get out and an alternate earth story. The last two are purely because I want to write them, heavens knows what I'll do with them if I do.

So what am I doing on my lunch hour? When I could be cranking out a thousand or so words of productive, what am I doing?

Staring at the damned bloody blank page and trying to find the motivation to start.

Oh, look, squirrel…


So while I avoid the blank page syndrome, I decided to write about how I have dealt with blank page syndrome in the past. I know, I know, the irony. At least I'm writing.

Don't Start with a blank page: I learned this trick in my project management career. After nearly two decades working in High Tech, I've developed a large storehouse of templates. I have templates for charters, templates for plan of record, templates for status reports (in doc, ppt and xls format), templates for one on ones, even a template for my PMP application.

The template gives you a framework to start with. Something on the screen (page) so it's not so damndably white.

Throw some spaghetti at the wall: You don't have to start at the beginning, you don't even need to start in the middle or the end. You can just not start. I know, makes no sense, that's why it will fool your brain.

Instead of forming a complete sentence, jot down half formed ideas. For one story I have a disjointed page that includes things like the characters name, a note saying "artifact wraps around right arm", a half formed snippet of dialogue ("What is it about me that attracts trouble? Why can't I just have a normal day?") and some other odds and ends.

When I started, I didn't have a single fully formed thought. I just dropped ideas down and worked from there. Before I knew it, I was driving off on a line of dialogue and descriptions that gave me nearly an entire scene.

Right tool for the job: I've discovered that Word (insert your preferred document program of choice) isn't always what I need for a particular writing task. When it comes to the finished product, I'll always move to Word. Until then I make use of many other tools.

Mk I Notebook: Don't knock the good old paper and pencil. Writing by hand uses a different part of your brain than typing does. I use a notebook to jot down ideas sometimes. The free form nature allows me to explore concepts with greater ease

OneNote/ EverNote: I've been using OneNote for a while now. All my blogs are written in OneNote and I store future blog ideas and notes in the same Notebook in my OneNote. I've given EverNote a twirl, but I it's linear data entry doesn't offer the same free form that OneNote does. (I do use EverNote for notes I want easy access too. EverNote's syncing from PC, to iPhone to iPad is currently much better than OneNote.)

OneNote is a great place to capture ideas and concepts, to paste research and the like. I have taken to starting a project in OneNote and migrating to Word as it gets more gelled.

Excel: Does your story have a lot of moving pieces? If you're writing for an established universe or a game system, there are a ton of moving pieces. I'm working on one project that is pulling from close to twenty sourcebooks. I've been laying out data in a spreadsheet, to better organize it. When I was writing (as a player) for an online multiplayer game I kept a spreadsheet for the cast of characters for my faction in the game. I started with this list early on, before I started writing stories.

Change the subject: If I'm unable to break the blank page barrier on a project, I will change to another project. If I'm writing, then I'm at least exercising my art. I may not be creating paid for words, but I'm being creative and that's the most important thing. Which is why I'm here, writing a blog, instead of writing one of my Catalyst contracts.

Do: Don't let the horror of a blank page slow you down. Harness the fear and Iet it be your ally. Or at the very least beat it into submission and lock it in the closet with the rest of your fears.

Just write.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Don't quit your day job (too soon)

"I'm a full time writer…"

Every aspiring writer hopes to say this one day. The day they can write their resignation letter and say goodbye to the 9 to 5 job. It's a dream goal, and a sign you've made it. There is certainly a tipping point to being able to do this. From what I've read, it almost always comes with no small amount of trepidation. Pip Balantine mentioned this in her blogs and podcasts, when she took the leap and left her Librarian job behind for full time writing. Her writing partner, Tee Morris, still holds a day job, writing when he's not working and squeezing in life around all that. I don't know Tee's reasons, but as a father I can hazard a guess that this factors into his decision.

But what do you do before that tipping point? There is the obvious question of "At what point do you go from full time librarian and part time writer to full time writer?" But there is the less obvious question of "What's my first priority, Librarian or writer?"

I follow a number of writing related blogs (see the sidebar). In Quick Writing Tips, Daniel argues hard that there shouldn't be any doubt in a writers mind. I do recommend his blog for many things, but on this subject he's sided on the side of "having a productive writing morning? Blow off the day job and keep writing." Now I don't know where Daniel is in his writing career, so I'm not going to judge him. And I don't know what his home life is, so again I won't judge him. If this advice works for him, then I support him in it. I do worry about giving blanket advice out of context and I personally can't agree with him.

 I've faced this very same question more than once. Just this morning I started jotting some notes down before heading off to my day job. The ideas just started gushing and honestly if one of my boys hadn't asked me a question I might not have noticed the time. What did I do? I got up and rushed out the door.

You see at the end of the day, I'm not a project manager, I'm not a writer.

 At the end of the day I'm a father and husband.

And because of that, my first responsibility is to them. Someday I might make enough money to be a full time writer but until then, the day job wins out because the day job is what keeps my family safe and cared for.

Again, going back to Daniel, it's all very subjective. If I were single I might approach this very differently. One other, important factor is your writing speed. Kathryn Rusch points out there are fast writers and slow writers. She offers different advice based on that. I fall into the slow writer camp, so I'm going to be more conservative in my jumping to the full time writing camp.

So what is my advice for holding a full time day job and a part time writing "job"?

Don't do too much…

Seriously, this has to be the biggest thing I learned during my work developing TRO:3085, for Catalyst Game Labs (which was just nominated for an Origins award). I was working roughly sixty hours a week, I was writing and developing 3085, I was writing big chunks of another Catalyst game book, and I was trying to fit time for my family in around all that. I got a personal thank you from my boss, TRO3085 was a well received success and my family started wondering who that funny guy with the beard was.

I was close to burn out. I was trying to do too much and do it all at once. I nearly crashed and burned.

Don't do too much…

I rebalanced what I was doing. It's not perfect and I still feel like I don't have enough time for everything. But I learned I didn't have to take every writing assignment that came my way. I learned I could ask for help. I learned I could say no.

In my work for Catalyst, I work with a great team of volunteers. Folks who help out on Catalyst products for little more than a thank you and free PDF copies of the books. I've lost track of the number of times one of them has come to me and said something like "I'm really sorry but such and such is happening and I won't be able to do much for the next X amount of time." Know what I say?

"Take your time. Family/Life comes first."

Am I going to be the next Amanda Hawking, in the next year? No, I won't be. But that's okay. I'm content to start slow. Slow and steady wins the race.

Family/ Life First-
Don't try and do everything-
Don't be afraid to say no (even to yourself)-
Build inertia slowly, you'll be moving fast before you know it-

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Book Review: Digital Magic

An engaging read (listen) from the first page to the last page.

I recently finished listening to the, free, podcast version of Digital Magic by Phillipa Ballantine. I was turned on to this novel by a professional colleague, in my day job career, and for this kind  act I am very grateful.

In the last five years I've led a very sheltered reading life. With the exception of re-reading the Honor Harrington series, my sole fiction intake has been BattleTech with a side of Shadowrun sourcebooks. You might say I was taking a busman's holiday. While I love BattleTech, you can get burned out on a single universe when you are reading, writing, playing, fact checking in just that universe.

So when my neo-luddite self discovered that people had put complete books out on podcast, for free, I had to check it out (Okay in my own defense, I was once a tech geek. But it has been so long since I've been a geek that when Twitter first came out I was one of those who said "What's the point?" I am no longer an early adopter and look to others for good trends).

Digital Magic will appeal to anyone who loves the Cyberpunk genre and especially to those who enjoy the magic/technology sub genre that games like Shadowrun specialize in.

Given I listened to this as an audio book, I have to start with saying that Miss Ballantine's reading was superb. She has a very engaging voice and very seamlessly handles the majority of the characters leaving you no doubt who is speaking. The other voice actors were for the most part very good. The Daniel character had some audio issue in his later appearances that really jarred you out of the story, but this was an exception.

The story snags you from the beginning, putting you right into the mind of one of the lead characters from page one. And when the character happens to be a shape changing thief who has a startling reaction to an ancient mask, you know you are in for an interesting story. Miss Ballantine then proceeds to throw you into a quick series of turns as she introduces the rest of the cast and sets up two completely separate story lines, one set in a war torn New Zealand and one in a sleepy (or not so) English village.

Several times I thought I had the story figured out. Several times I was proven completely wrong and guessing anew at just where things would end up. And then only two chapters from the end, you get a complete right turn that leaves you marveling at where you've ended up. She keeps you guessing, interested and thinking through the whole book. A mark of a good novel (or podcast).

The only other negative mark I have to give is for the podcast production schedule. I was lucky to not discover the book until it was already up to chapter twenty of twenty-two. Still, when I reached chapter eighteen and there was no sign of the last two chapters, I stopped listening and waited. It was close to three months before the final two chapters came out and I could finish the book. I can't imagine what it had to be like for those that had been listening from chapter one. To Miss Ballatine's credit, she was moving half way around the globe during this time, but still it was a painful wait for her listeners. Having more of the book in the can, before posting it might be better in the future.

Where would I place Digital Magic and Miss Balantine in my repeat appearances list? I rarely re-read a novel, so its no slight that I don't put this on my must keep around list, but I Pip Ballantine has been added to my must read/listen to her work again. I've just started listening to Chasing the Bard and will probably buy (spend real money) her new print novel, Phoenix Rising (co-written with Tee Morris).

Digital Magic is available as a free podcast and also as a digital eBook, so you can choose your medium for experiencing this great story.
Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner